Dreams, books and weird experiences

Do you believe in psychic phenomena?

I was at a reunion of old school friends yesterday and I mentioned how, years ago, I went to India with my mum and sister, and stayed in a hotel in Agra near the Taj Mahal. One of the services promoted there was a reading with a psychic, and my sister and I promptly booked into a session. At breakfast, just before our appointment, I told my sister about a friend whose boyfriend was “jealous and possessive”. Minutes later, the psychic used those same words. “You’re going to marry someone who is jealous and possessive.”

I went away after listening to all he had to say, impressed but sceptical. The man had a gift. How else could he have lifted that phrase from my mind? But his predictions couldn’t be trusted. He’d mentioned nothing about me being a writer, for instance, which everyone knew was my burning goal. He’d thought I was a doctor or a teacher. With a little prompting, he mentioned that writing would figure in my life, in some capacity. But I was hoping for more than that.

Years later, having obtained my PhD (the doctor part) and having derived most of my paid work as a teacher (despite never wanting to teach), I look back at that exchange and wonder. Have I unconsciously fulfilled the destiny that was predicted for me, despite not wanting to? I remember Oedipus.

In drafting several novels, I’ve often had what I can call minor psychic experiences. A lot of novelists have them, apparently. I’ll choose a character’s name and invent a place, only to discover such persons and places really exist. Once, when I was in London, I had the sudden urge to go to an exhibition at the British Library, only to discover a sign on the first exhibit included the name of my character.

Weird, but rather pointless coincidences.

Now I’m drafting a novel in which dreams figure prominently. I also have trouble sleeping. Last night, I woke up in the early hours and downloaded a podcast from Radio National, a repeat of the Law Report. It’s about children in the US who get mandatory sentences of life in prison, and not just for homicide, but also burglary. (Source)

After finally getting back to sleep, my partner woke me up this morning by bringing me a coffee. The kind gesture interrupted a library caper dream. In it, I was an investigator, looking into the disappearances of rare and valuable books from a library collection. I was just about to let a sweet old couple drive off, when I noticed they had a stack of rare books on the floor of their car. I realised they were stealing the books because the library couldn’t be trusted to look after them.

Instead of dobbing the couple in, I asked if they had taken a particular title. They had. I said, if they’d give me that book, I’d let them go. (I’d become complicit in their conspiracy.)

In came my partner with the coffee, and I woke up from the dream. I tried to remember the details, particularly which book the old couple had given me, and all I could think of was the name “Thomas More” and the word “justice”. That was enough for me to Google and this is what I found:

I must say, extreme justice is an extreme injury: For we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital, nor of that opinion of the Stoics that makes all crimes equal; as if there were no difference to be made between the killing a man and the taking his purse, between which, if we examine things impartially, there is no likeness nor proportion. (Source)
Thomas More

Thomas More

The above quote is from Thomas More’s Utopia, a book I’ve never read. I don’t know whether the podcast mentioned it. Possibly. But I fell asleep. What interests me is not just the applicability of More’s thinking to the situation faced by so many (mostly underprivileged) juveniles in the US (although it’s life imprisonment, not the death penalty they face). I’m also interested in how dreams can tell us things we don’t know we know, make connections that our waking minds struggle to make. Maybe dreams draw on things we’ve heard or read; maybe we draw on a collective unconscious. I don’t know. But when I dream about books, about justice, and make connections such as those described above, I tell myself, it doesn’t matter if I ever get published as a writer. I’m playing my part in something wonderful and mysterious, human consciousness, and that’s enough for me.

If you’re interested, Bryan Stevenson was the person interviewed for that podcast. He is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative @eji_org.

Are teenaged girls just like that? Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl and Lolita: a response

just-a-girl-krauthThis book should come with a warning.

Anyone who cares for – or has been – a sexually precocious adolescent girl, be prepared for an emotionally harrowing read.

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam. It’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast Or never get the chance to grow up at all. (Source: back cover copy)

I haven’t read Puberty Blues, but I did read Lolita in my early twenties and hated it. I think anyone who, like me, experienced the trauma of being repeatedly ‘interfered with’ by a sexual predator from a very early age, and subsequently became sexually precocious, would cringe with painful identification at how vulnerable young girls can be when first exploring their sexuality.

Maybe you wouldn’t need to have a history of childhood sexual assault (CSA) to have that reaction to Nabokov’s classic; I don’t know. But the author’s ‘beautiful’ writing did nothing to compensate me for the trauma of reliving the horror, the reminder of how easily seduced one can be by an older man, if you have such a history; how needy, how lonely and lost; how at the mercy of others’ violence, sexual perversity and power plays. It was a confronting and, for me, very distressing read.

Apart from my own visceral reaction, another reason why I hated Lolita – and why I’ve never been able to bring myself to reread it or to explore Nabokov’s other books – was that, while I recognized Lolita’s behaviour, I didn’t think Nabokov had her motivation right. I didn’t believe in the child-woman ‘tease’, the girl who is attracted to and exercises her sexual power over much older men; I didn’t think she could spring out of nowhere. My unconscious assumption, I realize now, was shaped by my own history. I thought such behaviour had to stem from CSA; I couldn’t see how it could be a ‘dance’ played between the adult man-who-should-know-better and an adolescent girl who simply doesn’t realize the dangers of exercising her sexual power. (If I’m mis-remembering Lolita, forgive me. Maybe I’ve blanked out Lolita’s back story.) For me Nabokov’s way of viewing the interplay seemed to elide the experience of the girl, denying her victimhood: it was a story a man might have written out of ignorance, I thought, a man who couldn’t know the full story.

However, reading Kristin Krauth’s just_a_girl, I find myself questioning my assumptions. Here’s Layla, a teenaged character self-consciously acting like a 21st-century Lolita, written by a woman. A 14-year-old girl with no apparent history of early childhood CSA, Layla is right out there sexually with men twice her age and more, and getting herself into potentially life-threatening trouble as a result.

The risks Layla takes are, for me, horrifying.

The most horrifying aspect is, as Krauth suggests very convincingly, that any teenaged girl might find herself acting like a Lolita; girls who – like Layla – have suffered the trauma of a father’s abandonment or absence, a mother’s post-natal depression, personal feelings of isolation and social dislocation, the pain of ‘growing up’ – ordinary, if distressing, life circumstances and events. If Krauth is right, then so perhaps was Nabokov, something I’ve resisted believing for years. Maybe adolescent girls – especially in the internet age – face a much greater danger than I realized. The danger, it would appear, is in themselves, not because of what someone has done to them. That is the truly frightening premise of just-a-girl. It could be your daughter, niece or granddaughter. It might have been you at that age.

So have I had it wrong? Are some ordinary teenaged girls ‘just like that’?

Maybe I’m not giving Krauth enough credit for subtlety.

Krauth does, in fact, lay the seeds of a different understanding of Layla’s behaviour, one that fits better with my own intuition. It’s not just the girl’s history we need to take into account, Krauth suggests, but also that of the generations that have gone before her: her parents and what shaped their relationship, her mother’s childhood experience, and the abuses and suffering of previous family members. In this systemic context Layla’s vulnerability makes sense. Layla’s god-fearing mother is a reformed addict, whose first marriage was to a closeted gay man; she comes from a history of family abuse and, like Layla, is vulnerable to a sexual predator. Layla’s seeming obliviousness to her own trauma isn’t because it doesn’t exist; it’s because she is in denial and ‘acting out’, indulging in risk-taking behaviour as a defence mechanism. All this, to me, is psychologically convincing. In this reading (which I find more saddening than alarming), Krauth suggests that such dangerous precocity doesn’t, after all, spring out of nowhere, and the girl – however sexualised her behaviour – isn’t to blame for what happens to her, even though, on first reading, her recklessness would appear to be a contributing factor.

If you’re prepared to be confronted by a talented new voice in Australian fiction, read just_a_girl and let me know what you think.

For less personal accounts of Krauth’s debut novel see:


Title: just_a_girl
Author: Kirsten Krauth
UWA Publishing 2013
ISBN: 9781742584959

This response to the novel counts towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. Copy kindly supplied by the publisher. 

On not writing reviews

Twice in the past month I’ve heard writers criticise reviewers for not writing proper reviews. “Some reviewers take a book and use it as a launching pad to write whatever they want,” one complained over lunch.

I kept my mouth shut.

A day or so later, someone emailed me with a list of questions about the current state of on- and off-line reviewing. As I thought about what to answer, I realised one of the aspects I enjoy most about writing reviews online is the freedom to write what I want about a book. I like to write reflections, discussions, musings – and I like to read them, too. I like it when a reviewer gets personal, when s/he admits to feeling provoked, challenged, crushed and remade by a book. Or awed. Or speechless. Or bored.

But are such pieces reviews?

This question has been bugging me, and might account for why I’ve been reading far more than I’ve been posting reviews lately (or writing). The truth is, I’m not sure I want to write “reviews”. Instead, I want to share my experience. I want to give you a glimpse of how I’ve allowed some books to nest inside me, to brood until something cracks, until I feel a stab that tells me: yes, this book has life; this book will take flight in words, inspired-by-this-author musings – or fall, silent.

Whether others catch a glimpse of those words once they’re out and away, whether my impressions flash bright and beautiful, flicker in the shadows or hide invisible, doesn’t matter. The book lives on because it’s helped make me who I am.

So forgive my silence while words brood.

In the meantime, here are some of the books nesting inside me (a few have been there a while):

Do you have books with wings?

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

In bed with the Catholic Church: recovering from Childhood Sexual Assault

I’ve been weeping a lot over the past few days. I’m not alone.*

This morning I read a piece by Jennifer Wilson about Cardinal Pell’s response to calls for a Royal Commission into the cover-up of paedophilia in the Catholic Church. In it, Wilson wrote:

There is another group of survivors, of whom I am one, who are the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by family, friends and acquaintances. For many of us there is no hope of justice, and we have had to learn to live with this reality. I am deeply relieved that institutional sexual abuse is finally receiving the scrutiny it deserves, because my life experience is also validated by this acknowledgement, even though my story can’t be told within a commission’s terms of reference, and the perpetrator and his enablers can’t be held accountable. I want to see a profound cultural change in attitudes towards the sexual abuse of children, and I believe we are on the way at last. This is grounds enough for rejoicing.

She put into words things I’d been contemplating writing about. Thanks, Jennifer.

I, too, am a member of that other group of survivors. But in my case, the abuse is related to the Church. I was brought up a Catholic, as was my perpetrator. We were both educated by members of religious orders. The Church’s archaic attitudes towards sex helped to create the environment in which my trauma happened. It also helped to keep the truth of its impact on my life suppressed until many years later. Suppressed; but never forgotten.

When I was about seven years old, my father found me curled up in bed with a man – a well-respected teacher who was a regular visitor to our home. I didn’t understand the furore then. The man and I were both fully clothed, on top of the bedclothes; he was turned away from me; I was curled up behind his back. I wanted to be there. This man was the gentlest, kindest man I knew. He had taught me to swim at the age of three. He’d been there to cheer me on for my first day at school. Of the very few photos I have of myself as a little one, he’s in two and took another, one of only two portraits of me as a child. He was closer to me than my father. He was also a Brother of the Marist order. And he was innocent.

My father ordered him to pack his bags and bodily threw him out of the house.

It’s difficult to try to know what my father, a very intuitive but mostly silent man, was thinking back then, but he must have sensed I was being abused sexually, and wanted to protect me. From a cheerful, happy child, I’d become clingy and needy, over-sexualised, a bed-wetter. I suffered nightmares, was afraid to be left alone. My distress wasn’t seen as anything out of the ordinary; I was the eighth of 12 kids, so there was always some drama. Once I learned to read, I withdrew into a make-believe world of books, of fairy tales and goblins, of troupes of clean-cut kids solving mysteries. As I grew older, I peppered my escapist reading which true-to-life books, trying to find out why I felt so bad, why when “photo day” came at school I’d try to hide my face behind my long hair, or not turn up at all.

At the age of 12, I went to say Confession at my local church, prepared to unburden myself, to admit to the kindly local parish priest that I was filled with shame, guilt and disgust for my sexualised behaviour. Before I’d finished “Bless me, Father”, he reached through the confessional grill, took my hand and asked, “Tell me, how is your dear mother?” I stopped believing in God that day. Instead, I found relief in drugs and alcohol, a quicker way to escape than books and study. For a time they made me feel connected to the universe, and safe.

It was years before I saw that Brother again. When I turned 18, I wrote to him hoping to make sense of what had happened, wondering who he was that I had held so dear in my heart all this time. By then, I was estranged from my father, virtually homeless, going from share house to share house, living for a time in a squat with drug dealers; I was in the grip of a drug- and alcohol-dependency that alternated with an eating disorder, while somehow managing to keep up a punishing and perfectionistic high standard at university. My life, I was to discover years later, was text-book Childhood Sexual Assault survivor. Self-hatred, shame, guilt and remorse consumed me. I wanted to die, but didn’t know how. It felt like there was a great, thick glass wall between me and the rest of the world; inside it rained; outside was sunny and blue skies; but I couldn’t connect, and no one seemed to see or hear me.

The Brother, when I wrote to him, was thrilled to receive my letter. He’d retired and was celebrating the Golden Jubilee of being a member of his order, and invited me to a special dinner. Very sick and weighing less than 48 kilos, I dragged myself along and was mortified when he read out parts of my letter in his after dinner speech, including my private confession about how important he had been to me. After, when we talked, he was a stranger, nothing like the man I’d dreamed of; the one adult I’d been able to count on to hold me and keep me safe. His main concern was that I reconcile with my father. He didn’t hold a grudge for the way he’d been treated; he knew he was innocent. What he didn’t realise, and what my father hadn’t realised, is that someone else was guilty.

I was a survivor of “molestation”, which is what they called digital penetration back then, but which for a child that age legally is considered rape. It happened intermittently mostly from around the ages of five to seven, but the last episode of “interference” I remember was when I was 12, when I was alone with the same perpetrator, an adult, and he placed my hand on his erect penis. By then, I was old enough to stand up for myself and tell him to stop, but I was shaken. I felt unsafe. I felt violated. It brought back the memories of all the earlier violations. I couldn’t sleep, I was suicidal. Only alcohol and drugs gave me relief. It was the first of many attacks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that wouldn’t be diagnosed for years.

And I didn’t tell anybody.

When, decades later, I did finally find the courage to speak up, I was horrified to discover this same perpetrator was a serial molester. I’ve had to live with the guilt and sadness of knowing that, if I’d said something earlier, I might have saved others the fate I’d suffered. But I’d assumed I was the only one. He has made amends, of sorts, and claims to have repented and to be living a celibate life; but even this, to me, feels warped. His attitude towards his own and others’ sexuality has been permanently twisted by the Church we both grew up in. After I confronted him, he asked me what he could do to make reparation, and I told him to read some research on the effects of childhood sexual assault on survivors, just so he’d know and take responsibility for the harm he’d caused. He refused. He asked me what right I had to judge him as I was an adulterer: I’d married a man who had been previously married and therefore I was “living in sin”. God would be our judge, he said. Meanwhile, another male, one who also grew up in this same religious system, accused me of ruining my perpetrator’s life by speaking out and exposing him, and warning the next generation.

Long ago, I stopped being sad and self-destructive, and I learned ways to channel my anger productively by becoming a contributing member of my community. Through my work as a counsellor and mentor, I’ve been able to console and acknowledge the suffering of other women and men. Over the past year, I’ve also supported Australian women’s writing through the AWW Reading and Reviewing Challenge, inspired, in part, because I know what it means to be dismissed, to set myself up for dismissal, and to stop myself from speaking. I have learned that we have more power than we realise, especially collectively: none of us has to remain a victim.

One of the few things I’ve had published is a poem called “Silencing”; in it, I describe a tongue on a plate. As a sign and symptom of sexual abuse, cutting out the tongue dates back at least to the ancient Greeks and the story of Philomela: after she was raped by her brother-in-law, he cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anybody. Perpetrators don’t literally have to cut out our tongues to silence us; we do it ourselves. Some of us do it by escaping into reading, often into fairy tale and myth, fantasy, romance and horror. In these, we tell ourselves stories of suffering as well as hope, love and forgiveness; the tales we choose are often deliberately oblique as we try both to find and give relief. We create happy, safe worlds, as well as confront dark threatening ones, rarely asking ourselves, or our readers – or our perpetrators – to confront the unembellished realities of our distress. Such escapes are valid; for some of us, they have helped us to survive. But there’s a time when we need to speak out.

Like now.

The problem of childhood sexual assault (CSA) is more extensive than institutionalised sexual violence. If we look to add reasons why women and girl children in particular underperform, lack confidence in their abilities and lack self-esteem ­– even become narcissistic and self-obsessed – we don’t have to look far. It’s likely that the incidence of intra-familial and community sexual violence against girl and boy children has been hugely under-reported and its ramifications are probably more far-reaching than the incidence of clergy-based CSA rightly decried this week. Today’s Nature magazine has an article on the effect of early trauma on girls’ brains, and their weakened ability to cope with stress and anxiety in teen years (boys tend to “act out” more in conduct disorder). The effects of CSA are long term and can be seen everywhere. But things can change.

Jennifer Wilson writes: “I want to see a profound cultural change in attitudes towards the sexual abuse of children, and I believe we are on the way at last. This is grounds enough for rejoicing.”

Amen to that.

One step toward that goal may be for survivors to speak up and expose the archaic beliefs and attitudes, the hypocrisy, denial and shaming behaviour of members of the Catholic Church. There are millions of men and women who were sexually assaulted as children, who have lived silently with the consequences of that abuse, not wanting to bring shame to their families, friends and communities, and silenced by those they have tried to confide in. We have been told to forgive and forget; turn the other cheek; let he who is without sin cast the first stone. We have learned, by example, to feel sorry for our abusers and we are reluctant, in our humanity, to subject them to the shame, guilt, remorse, humiliation and degradation that have been our daily bedfellows since our abuse. We have more compassion and empathy for them than they showed to us. We are doubly their victims.

But our silence serves nobody well. It doesn’t help those many male and female perpetrators whose minds have been twisted by the Catholic Church’s teachings about sin, about their own bodies and desires, about the threat of being judged and going to hell. By pointing to the deep indoctrination of such beliefs and attitudes I don’t mean to offer an excuse for sexual predation; but I do see it as part of an explanation. It’s also something we, as ex-Catholics and as a community, can help to change. These archaic beliefs have to be exposed for what they are: self-serving attitudes which have helped to foster hypocrisy, self-justification and denial in the perpetrators and to silence the abused.

Speaking out won’t stop the assaults – the problem is too widespread and complex for that. But it may help.

*If you are distressed by the contents of this post or recent media coverage of childhood sexual assault, there is 24-hour crisis support available through Lifeline.

P.S. The following is a video of a song written by two performers I met in the UK a few years ago. Their song is called Jenny’s Mermaid – another survivor’s story couched in folktale.


While we were in the mountains on the weekend, my neighbour rang to say we had a visitor hanging around our entrance – literally: an 8-foot python was draped around the pergola. She thought we might be away so, just in case, she roped off our path with a sign saying, “Warning: snake ahead.”

Later she saw it climb up a palm tree and onto our roof.

Last night, when we returned home, we had a nervous few minutes making our way to the door, imagining every wind-rustled branch and vine to be the python swinging down to greet us. With still no sign of it this morning, I’m wondering if it might have slithered into the roof cavity and scared off the pesky possum who keeps peeing through the ceiling.

I’m not sure which lodger I’d prefer: at least the snake would make less noise and keep the native rats and bandicoots away.

Here’s a photo our neighbour sent us – taken on Saturday from her balcony, looking down at our roof.

Where did it go from here?

Dream of being a writer? Try the Power of Positive Acting

A friend posted a link today to an article on the paradoxes of positive thinking.

“…when we focus solely on imagining the future of our dreams, our minds enjoy and indulge in those images as if they are real.  They might be reachable, realistic dreams or impossible, unrealistic ones, but none of that matters because we don’t bother to think about the odds of getting there or the hurdles that will have to be overcome.  We’re too busy enjoying the fantasy.” (Source)

It got me thinking, as usual. I’m a fantasist. Always have been.

In primary school, our class went on a holiday to a farm at Bullaburra in the Blue Mountains (just down the road from where I live now). I was in the naughty group who stayed up late listening to each other tell ghosts stories round the campfire. You know the stories. Like the one about the girl who hears stomping on the roof when her boyfriend disappears at a gas station (gas, not petrol, note) and then a voice telling her to run and not look back…

When my turn came I told the one about the headless motorbike rider, the guy who was decapitated when a sheet of metal slid off a truck trailer and caught him in the neck. I loved that story. One of my older brothers had told it to me one time when we were camping at Scotland Island and it had seemed so real, so vivid in my imagination, I knew it had to be true. Trouble was, as I told it, I also visualised it. Visualised so hard, I could see it. See it as clearly as if that headless guy was riding across the misty, dark paddock. Stumped neck bleeding, fists frozen to the handlebars, bike engine rumbling. Out there, coming towards us…

The problem was, I spooked myself. My words stuck in my throat; I went white as a sheet. Without telling anyone what was wrong, I was suddenly running across that paddock in the dew-damp grass, and crashing into the house, an eleven-year-old blubbering mess. Virginia Point’s poor dad who’d invited us to the farm freaked, called out to the helper mothers who looked on helplessly. I never recovered. I had to go back home early. For years, passing through Bullaburra gave me chills. Seriously. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll back me up: the place is creepy.

So, what am I getting at?

I can imagine things. Vividly. And for 20 years, I’ve imagined myself being a writer. Oh, I’ve done more than imagine. I’ve sat down at the computer and tapped out a million words. I’ve even submitted to competitions, imagining all my effort one day would lead to publication. One day.

Meanwhile, writing buddies started getting agents, contracts, release dates, invitations to speak at conferences, mega-buck advances, galley proofs (whatever they are), and review copies, and I let that all wash over me. I’m patient, right? And I was busy visualising my success, so it had to come to me. Problem was, I rarely, almost never submitted anything.

But this year, my strategy changed. My New Year’s resolution was to stop writing and start publishing. It was a good resolution, as resolution goes. Except for one, tiny thing. Yep, you guessed it. I still had to do something.

Let me paint a picture for you. All those stories I’d written over the years, the ones that had bravely travelled from my brain to the computer, had got stuck there. Stuck in a traffic jam bigger than that made by ants in the kitchen when they find Rodney’s homemade marmelade. Stuck in that delicious sweetness of possibility, of imagining, an ambrosia untainted by failure because none of them had ever been out there, never had the slightest chance of getting rejected. Always, there’s that sweet, sweet dream. One day they’d be published, right?

The problem was, it wasn’t up to them to do it. They weren’t about to leap out of the computer and make it happen. That tedious job was for someone else. Someone like – surely not? – their creator, the imaginer, the fantasist…(gulp)… me.

So, what exactly was needed? A good cold dose of pessimism. At some point, the cold shock finally hit me that nobody was going to publish my stories if I didn’t get them out there. I. Had. To. Act.

Easy, huh? So why has it taken me 20 years?

Then, yesterday, a week after I finally got off my imagination and jettisoned a bunch of stories into cyberspace, I received this in my Inbox:

“Just a note to let you know that your submission has passed its initial reading, and we are now considering it for inclusion in Andromeda Spaceways.”

Whoo-hoo! What a thrill. I updated my status on Facebook and my writing buddies cheered. I’d finally received an acknowledgement. Not a sale. Not even a Better Quality Rejection Letter (one of my previous year’s aims). A consideration. My story was through to a second round. It has a *chance* of publication.

Yet, when the fuss died down (and there was a fuss, thank you, buddies) I was left feeling just a little bit foolish.

Somehow the rest of that saying about positive thinking had escaped me. The part that said it has to be followed up by positive acting. How come I never heard before?

So, little story, as you venture out into the second round, if those editors don’t like you, I won’t forget and let you languish. I’ll send you off on another journey into publication land. Again and again, if necessary, till you find a home.


Here’s a photo of my writers group a few years ago. From left to right are Isolde Martyn (multi-award winner, including Rita award), Anna Campbell (multi-award winner), Caroll Casey (published in short fiction), multi-published Cathleen Ross, Kandy Shepherd (multi-award winner), Simone (helped edit best seller Marching Powder), Leisa O’Connor and me. Missing are Pan Macmillan author Christine Stinson (probably holding the camera) and Ned Kelly award nominated thriller author Jaye Ford and former members, children’s author Felicity Pulman and award-winner Susan Parisi. Okay so I’m not the only one still unpublished, but almost. But you just watch. That’s all about to change.

Song for Maggie or Why there’s a pen in my mouth

The instructions sound easy:

Put a pen between your teeth in far enough so that it’s stretching the edges of your mouth back without feeling uncomfortable. This will force a smile. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. Then try walking with long strides and looking straight ahead. You will amaze yourself at how fast your facial expressions can change your emotions.

Hey, presto! You’re happy. It’ based on the latest research. Seriously. Just ask the CIA.

I have to admit, it did make me feel better when I tried it out yesterday. My partner and I laughed so hard. Who knew happiness could be that easy? .

That was before my friend Denise rang to say that a friend had died last night. Maggie. I guess I knew already sticking a pen in your mouth can’t solve everything.

I’d known Maggie for years, though not as well as Denise. I’d heard she was diagnosed with cancer some months ago, that the doctors had given up on chemo, that they’d put her on morphine. It’s still a shock though.

What sticks in my mind about Maggie is she’d once tried to kill herself by pouring boiling water over her head.

My friend Ron once described Maggie as one of the most beautiful women he’d ever met. She was beautiful, even in middle age. But she was also difficult. Apparently she was asked to leave two Buddhist centres where she’d taken up residence. That must take some doing to piss off a bunch of Buddhists. But Maggie tended to rub people up the wrong way. She rubbed me up the wrong way.

When she attempted suicide, I wasn’t one of the people who went to the hospital to visit her. I found such evidence of raw despair threatening. I still do. But there are those who stuck by her, who saw her beautiful side, who shared her laughter, who sat with her in her pain. Who didn’t judge. Friends like Denise, and my partner Rodney. What gets to me is how in the end, she didn’t want to die. Not really. Who does?

The Buddhists believe there’s a time after death called the Bardo, when the soul hovers between this life and the next incarnation. It’s a time of reflection, I suppose, time for gathering courage for the next adventure. Maggie had courage. She had to, choosing a life filled with suffering.

I wish I could have liked her more. I wish I could have treasured her laughter, those times when we were bushwalking in the Blue Mountains when she seemed so self-consciously free, like she liked being regarded as a gypsey. I did love her handmade jewellery. I loved her occasional dirty humour, too. And I loved her smile. But she was always a bit too much like me for comfort. Self-absorbed, with a huge sense of entitlement, and always, always that bone-deep unease.

Vale Maggie. Rest easy. Hope you stick a pen in your mouth next time, mate. It’s working for me.

PS The pic’s for you, from Rodney.

Photograph by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

How deep is this thing?

Today I spoke to a lovely friend, Eden Riley, who blogs at Edenland. When I first read her blog, I was blown over. Eden writes just as she talks. Funny, irreverent, quirky, smart. With shit-loads (as she would say) of heart and soul. No wonder she was invited to speak at the BlogHer convention last week in San Diego.

Then I read some of the (many) comments by her followers and discovered how deeply her honesty touches people. How humbling!

It made me think about “voice” in writing. And courage, honesty, integrity. As an aspiring writer, I’ve often heard about editors and publishers looking for the next new “voice”. For me, hearing and reading Eden, it’s suddenly no mystery. It’s like Somerset Maugham said (paraphrasing): If you want to be an amazing writer, try being an amazing person first. The rest will follow.

Eden’s an amazing person and her writing reflects that. Way to go, Eden! You’re a fantastic example of having the courage to be true to yourself. And thanks for being the inspiration for my first blog. Finally.

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

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