Writing helps

According to Anne Lamott, broken-ness has benefits.  I learnt this from a book my friend lent me on Sunday, after she read my last entry and invited me over for salad, tea and ‘the best biscuits in the world, ever!’  (Thanks, my love).  Here’s what Anne says.

Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter, or insane or broken.  (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray).  Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen and do not have to get together before we show up.[1]

I like this book a lot.  She talks about how awful it is seeing her cat die,which reminded me that it will shortly be the anniversary of losing Miss G.  Her agonising descent was accompanied by reading Julia Cameron’s Letters from a non believer.  I started my own letters for a while then, beginning with some pretty wild and angry accusations at IT for letting my faithful and loving feline companion die so ignominously. Anne suggests this is ok because it was truthful and real, and her version of IT prefers truthfulness.

I don’t recall much about those letters now beyond what I’ve just said about my cat.  Except, that writing them helped.  The same as writing my last entry helped.  It was my depressed, mucked up, pathetic, whining truth and I felt better for saying so.  Writing helps.

I’m still not in sparkling shape.  I have this project to finish this week, along with four rather bitter anniversaries.  Dad’s birthday (today!  Happy Birthday Dad, where ever you are), Mum’s death day, the last day I saw my best friend alive and losing Miss G.  So I think its time to take Anne seriously and pray.

Help me to loosen up, to remember to breathe.  Help me to clear away the debris of my bad memories.  Let the pain wast through me.  Give me perspective on my past, and help me to cultivate compassion for myself, my families and my friends, living and dead.  For everyone who is bitter, insane or broken, may they experience kindness and peace.  May we all be at peace. 

Namaste.


[1] Anne Lamott, Help, thanks, wow: The three essential prayers, Riverhead Books, NY, 2012, p5-6.

Changing the sky

Some Buddhist writers I have read like to use an image of the sky and the clouds as a teaching metaphor.  The clouds are our moods, ceaselessly coming and going.  It doesn’t matter how dark and stormy or how light and fluffy the clouds are, the sky remains constant and blue behind it.  It is a teaching which is supposed to give comfort in times of turmoil.

I get the idea and I think its nice.  I just feel it’s the reverse for me.  For me it’s the sky that’s the problem.  My sky is black, and the clouds give me relief.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately in the effort to find a therapist.  Someone who can actually help me reverse the order of nature.  It is, in fact, the research that is the cause of current lack of cloudiness.  Having had no income since April and with the current government’s policies, little prospects, I was compelled to take the only thing that’s come my way.  Unfortunately it happened to be about adoption.  I thought I’d be alright.  Really, I did.  But I’m not, and I don’t know what to do anymore.  On the positive side I can afford to replace my dangerously bald tyres and keep the Iron Paw in the style to which she has become accustomed.  On the other hand, it’s all come back.

I’m having terrible dreams again.  Self mutilation, exposure till death experiments.  Fun stuff like that.  I’m experiencing a kind of dissociation.  I can watch TV, listen to people, do the work, run errands, all the while watching from other kind of vantage point.  My body is here.  I can feel it on the chair, the points of contact.  My skin prickling and sweaty from the unending heat.  But it’s like it’s also happening to someone else.  Am I here?  Am I real?  Does anyone care?  I scream at other drivers, I’m rude to waiters.  I just want the entire world to get out of my way.  I feel anxious in crowds.

I can count at least ten properly qualified therapists and quite a few other ones that I have seen since my undergraduate days.  In short, I’ve been bouncing in and out of therapist’s offices all my adult life.  All were good hearted, well intentioned people who did their best to help me.  But not one has ever truly been able to get to the core.  Here’s a clue why.  If you type the word ‘adoption’ into the Australian Psychological Society’s website, you get zero hits.  Despite three parliamentary enquiries and multiple apologies since 1997, the APS doesn’t appear to consider the experience of adoption as a problem.  It’s a common phenomenon, the myth of the happy adoptive child.  I think the profession owes me a refund, given the number of therapists I’ve educated…

The Australian Institute of Family Studies disagrees.  Their study is the most recent, largest and most rigorous study undertaken yet in Australia.  It found that more than two thirds of adoptees, regardless of how they perceived the quality of their relationship with their adoptive family, reported mental health problems.  At least I know I am not alone in being unable to get the kind of properly trained, professional help that I need.

At the core, I believe, of the black sky problem is the fact that the first trauma happened at the very beginning.  Adoptees have no pre trauma self.  There is no before and after the event.  There just is.  All my well meaning therapists never got that.  Some even attempted to run the chosen/lucky line on me.  Don’t ever tell me I’m lucky.  I could be unable to control my urge to punch you.

You see, now that I’ve met my biological mother, I rapidly came to understand that the government took me away from someone who was actually psychologically capable of being a good enough mother.  But she wasn’t married.  They gave me to a married couple who both came from less than well adjusted backgrounds.  It was an unhappy and at times violent house.  I have the broken bones and the scars to prove it.  This is what they call complex trauma.  If I’d been left with my biological mother, the first trauma of abandonment at birth would have been averted.  Secondly, while you can never predict or control the future, it’s unlikely that under my biological mother’s care I would have felt so scared or lonely or flawed.  She’s not perfect, of course.  But most of her problems came from the experience of having no other options except to hand me over the government.  She was, as she herself says, fine before that.

As I understand it, therapy for trauma victims in part relies on utilising memories of the pre trauma self.  The soldier before he went to war.  The rape victim before the attack.  My mother, before the adoption.  My adoptive mother, perhaps before the first baby died.  They have somewhere memories of a self who is happier, freer, something-er.  I don’t have those.  Black sky is all I know, relieved by cloudiness.  It doesn’t seem to matter how positive I can feel at times, it all comes back to black.  The older I get, the less hope I have of it ever changing.  I’ve invested thousands and thousands of dollars in trying to heal myself.  I have no more ideas left.  I’m tired and I feel broken beyond repair. 

 

Imagining the future (well, trying to)

Many writers these days, from the most woo woo to the highly respectable, advocate the power of the imaginal.  In short, if you can’t first imagine something in exacting detail, how do you think you can make it happen or encourage it into being?

Having clarity around a desirable future seems like a reasonable course to me.  Yet, it’s something I have rarely, if at all, tried.  I’m not short on imaginative skills.  There are two novels awaiting their first revision in my virtual bottom drawer.  In my usual struggle to get to sleep, my imaginative can go into overdrive (although not often helpfully as I lie awake).  Rarely do I use my imagination in any kind of sustained campaign on my own behalf.

Having realised this, I’m sobered.  I’ve spent the best part of twenty years of professional life working in planning.  I’ve lost count of the number of vision statements I’ve drafted.  Perhaps it’s because of those endless meetings where stakeholders (yes, that offensive word) debate word choice and order as acrimoniously as any democratic parliament. 

Being a planner is like swimming in spit.  If that seems harsh, please let me assure you that I have been physically spat on and threatened.  My image has a basis in reality.  While most people don’t stoop to the physical expression of their feelings, you know they want to spit on you by their disdainful tone, condescending manner, and dismissive body language.  The notion of visioning, however theoretically noble, has thus been tainted for me.

I’ve been mixing up in my head my exposure to a highly politicised take on imaging the future with how it could be at a personal level.  So I decided to try it.  As my year off is coming to a close, I need to make some decisions.  I need a vision for the second half of my life.

No pressure then…

My result is best described as chocolate coated pickled onions.  It looks presentable, but it’s so wrong.  So unpalateable.  My years in planning make me default to a question of context.  Every plan I have ever written has a section which outlines this plan sits in the hierarchy from global to local.  Partly this is to do with defining what the plan can do, and partly it’s about expectation management. 

In my case, it’s the question: what can I actually control?  Everyone can dream big but it’s the translation process where we all tend to foul up or trip up.  What can I do?  Very little really.  What a tiny cog I am, caught up in political tides of austerity and downsizing, and public discourses of hatred and insufficiency.  Let alone my own internal discourses of negativity, such as the dream of the PhD ring crumbling into dust, which did not help elevate my mood…

All this process has done is make me feel smaller and more vulnerable that I felt before.  At heart, maybe I’m not deserving of what’s on that dribbled out attempt at an imaginal future.  I can write the words but they ring hollow, beset by doubts and fears.  It’s so sad.  I’m halfway through my life, and it appears I have neither vision nor belief.

Goldilocks and her emotional calendar

How back flippingly relieved I am to find that hating summer is more just than me hating summer  According to John R Sharp, there’s a summer version of Seasonal Affective Disorder.[1]  I hereby propose myself as the founding member of Summer Sucks.  Is that a bit direct?  A bit narky?  Disgruntled even?  Oh yes.  All that and more.

One of the better known poems about Australia was by Dorothea MacKellar who declared her undying affection for a sunburnt country.  There are many, many good things about Australia, but I do not agree that its climatic extremes are among them.  I’m all for seasonality, just not for extremes.  I am on record amongst friends for saying that, for the purposes of balance, and I want to do a winter somewhere snow is normal.  Just to say that I know what it’s like.  But I am 99.9999etc percent certain that I’m not moving to Murmansk, or Anchorage, on a permanent basis.

But back to Dr Sharp.  He cites research undertaken in Townsville which had participants keep a diary of mood, food and bodily function during the hottest part of the year.  More, rather than less, reported that they were affected negatively by the weather.  What amazed me as an environmental historian is that proof is needed of this.  We’ve travelled so far intellectually from our ecological roots that we need evidence of how the natural world affects us.  Here’s a news flash.  We’re organic.  We are the natural world, just as much as the tree outside your window, the sunlight making it easy for you to see your screen and the water in your glass. 

Some people did report that they were not bothered by the heat and humidity in Townsville, demonstrating a spectrum of sensitivity.  Regrettably I am the other end.  Combine our natural sensitivities with the lived experience of sunburn, drought, heatwave and fire, and toss in our cultural expectations around summer, and I could wonder why anyone in Australia likes it.  As Sharp says, summer comes with the expectations of holidays, that you should be having a life worthy of an advertising campaign or a no holds barred summer fling.  Speaking for myself, I’m wondering how to avoid getting burnt and thanking the powers that be that I’m not trying to soothe toddlers in a heatwave.

In Australia, we also get to toss in the potentially psychosis inducing Christmas ritual into our summer plans.  Memories of my mother unwilling cooking roasts while sweltering intrude.  Plus, like me, you might have your own particular anniversary dates of hell falling in summer.  Like the failure of my marriage…As if all that wasn’t enough, its forty one degrees outside and you can rent your car out as a mobile torture chamber.  (There’s another week of this heatwave to go.  Oh, and daylight savings, but I’ll stay my rant on that and stick to my topic.)

If I were either less sensitive or some more spiritually evolved kind of person, I’d be able to say (and mean it) that the weather shouldn’t make a difference to me.  But it does.  When there’s a dessicating westerly howling, I feel miserable.  I’m less inclined to be cheerful, to be positive, to be kind.  I feel trapped.  I am like Goldilocks, seeking the balance between too hot and too cold.  Although if I really, really had to choose a pole of the extreme, it’s cold.  Looks like I’m living in the wrong country. 

The fierceness of summer is what makes me soooooo in love with autumn. It’s mild and kind and gentle. The roses get an autumn flush and don’t get fried as soon as they open their petals.  The wind drops, picnics seem attractive again.  You can go outside without instantly breaking into a sweat, and it’s possible to leave the house without a head to toe marinating in titanium dioxide. What’s not to like about autumn in Australia?  I suspect I long for turning leaves the way northern winter SAD sufferers feel about daffodils.  It’s no accident I’m living in a city with some of the most magnificent autumn foliage in the country.  The bliss of a yellowing oak leaf.  Bring it on.


[1] Sharp, John R, The Emotional Calendar, Times Books (Harry Holt and Co), New York, 2011.

Anniversaries, and my first year of blogging

It is January 16th.  Anniversary of my father’s funeral, my parents’ wedding day and one year since I started this blog.  Hence, a little reflection, but before that, a little gratitude.  My gratitude is directed towards the people who have elected to follow me.  I want to tell you how much I appreciate that, and perhaps I can best tell you why this feels so important by sharing a little story. 

It’s from when I was in early high school, a particularly horrid age for anyone and I was as gawky, unsure and downright daggy as you could possibly be.  I didn’t fit in.  I was also at that awkward crush stage, and I had a bit of a crush going for Michael Hutchence, lead singer of INXS.  I had a sizeable poster of him from a teen magazine on the inside of my cupboard. I recall writing a letter to said magazine which was the classic introvert statement, something along the lines of ‘Hey, not everyone enjoys parties/loud music etc’.  Told you I didn’t fit in…The magazine printed this letter and the Editor made fun of me in their comment.  Worse than that, some girls at my school figured out it was me.  Any chance I’d ever had of being accepted evaporated.  The magazine sent me a cheque but I was so humiliated I never banked it.  This was my first foray into public writing.

It’s only recently, as I’ve been trying to work through my feelings about this blog, that this memory has resurfaced.  I twigged.  Publication = public rejection.  And yet, there you are, followers.  I know it’s only the work of a moment to hit that little button, but before you did that, all of you thought I had something to offer.  And that is the greatest gift I can think of right now.  So, thank you, thank you and thank you again.

It’s been a very interesting year, filled with difference which I had been longing for after many, many years of slogging away at a PhD.  That was part of the reason for my subtitle, blogging for a kinder, gentler and more creative world.  Academia has value, but the process of it feels light years away from kind, gentle and creative.  In reading over my entries I realise I have hardly spent time talking about creativity, compared to the qualities of kindness and gentleness.  I also realise it’s also been very much about the experience of being an adoptee.  That certainly wasn’t my intent, but realising it was also valuable.  I’ll explore that more a bit later, but I thought I’d conclude by telling you that while I haven’t written here about creativity, I’ve actually been doing a lot of it elsewhere.

Namely, a new garden and I wrote two novels.

Ta-da!!!!!!

Until this year, I was the kind of person who always started novels but never finished them.  Now suddenly, I’ve managed to finish first drafts of two.  One was written slowly between March and October, and the other was written during Nanowrimo.  In case you’ve never heard of that, National Novel Writing Month.  The aim is to get 50 000 words written during the month of November.  I managed 55 000, a fact which still brings an inanely large grin to my face.

Nano was an amazing experience.  A bit fishbowly, a bit boot campy, a bit woo-hoo, and given the subject matter of my novel, a bit woo-woo.  Loved it.  Being a writer is cool.  I want more of it.  I’d even like to get paid for it!  Goes to show that if you risk something for what you love, good things can come of it.  The taking risks bit is at times more than you think you can handle.  However, if you do it in a way that is sensitive to both where you’ve been, and where you want to be, you’ll move yourself along. 

I’m not sure what Mum and Dad would say to me now, as I make tiny steps towards a life I am happy to inhabit.  I’m not sure what they’d say about this blog.  They’d find what I have written about adoption hard to stomach, although that assertion is made with an assumption that wherever they are, they still have their earthly mindset.  I hope that’s not true.  I hope they can see me trying to live the life that they didn’t get the opportunity for.  I don’t mean in terms of material things.  I was born in an era where it is so much easier to get information and help to be as whole as you can be.  I grew up with less limits in my head.  Children of the depression, they grew up thinking security was everything, and dreams were to be subordinate to that. They grew up in the era where ONE DID NOT SPEAK OF CERTAIN THINGS and they both paid the price for that.    So here I am, taking a year out from ‘life’, courtesy of their hard work for all those years.  Taking risks, looking inside and out, realising I want to make my living around language and creativity, and seeing what more I can do to make that real. 

The Market in Babies

Today I’m giving my impressions and initial thoughts on a history book on a topic thoroughly ingrained in me: adoption.  The book is called The Market In Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption by Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert (Monash University Publishing, 2013).  The book is the result of an Australia Research Council grant project to investigate the history of adoption in Australia.  It’s a slender volume, but nevertheless it is a very good book and I would recommend it to anyone.

Why do I like it?  Firstly, and I never thought I’d say this, I found the scholarly and thoughtful tone a great relief.  Having done a PhD in history myself and struggled with the ‘scholarly voice’, I often find academic writing to be frustrating.  In this case, I was very grateful for the measured nature of the words.  The subject of adoption incites a wide range of emotions, and that can be exhausting.  I fully expected to be on the proverbial emotional roller coaster with reading this, and it was wonderful to be able to read something and be engaged and not overwhelmed.

Secondly, just because they strike an excellent balance with their choice of language doesn’t mean that the authors have shied away from the issues.  Their main title is evidence of that.  Adoption has usually been a flow of babies from poorer, disadvantaged or discriminated against unmarried women towards wealthier, more socially advantaged married women.  This book clearly deals with the assumptions about gender, class and wealth that have been main drivers of the practice of adoption. 

It covers the main phases of change in adoption practice, which is usually marked by changes in legislation.  Nineteenth century adoptions were usually privately arranged and informal, until the state moved to make regulations in the latter part of that century.  Since then, a successive wave of legislation appeared every few decades, each time giving favour to the rights of the adopting parents.  This began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The introduction of financial support by the Whitlam government in 1973 (three years after I was born) is perhaps the strongest marker of this change.  The ‘supply’ of babies for the market dropped dramatically, proving that the main barrier to women keeping their babies was economic, not moral.  From this point, the discussion turns to practices of intercountry adoptions and the emerging practice of intercountry surrogacy, again highlighting issues of class and wealth.

As I said, it’s a slim volume.  This means there’s not that much attention on the children.  It’s mostly about the competing sets of parents.  Its always been about the parents.  The rhetoric of adoption has been ‘in the best interests of the child’, but in my view that’s largely all its been: rhetoric.  The authors finish with a question.  Does it matter where a baby comes from?  Speaking from the point of view of a baby who is living the answer of ‘no, it doesn’t matter’ I’d like to say that yes, it absolutely matters, and the person it matters the most to is the baby.  The voiceless baby, subject of all those competing projections of adults. 

 

Holiday blues

I’ve been in the kind of nasty ‘holiday blues’ headspace where I need to re-read Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist writer and practitioner, to keep a grip on things.  I won’t go into the details of the holiday blues except to say that between just before Christmas and around now is full of dates that suck, and I don’t just mean the big ones of 25 December and 31 Dec. 

I got home today and flopped on the bed.  I picked up Jack and opened randomly (I love bibliomancy) to this:

          What is truly a part of our spiritual path is that which brings us alive.  If gardening brings us alive, that is part of our path, if it is music, if it is conversations…we must follow what brings us alive. (The Wise Heart, p203)  (Yes I know that’s supposed to be indented but stupid wordpress wont play…)

Backtrack a little and read that bit about flopping on the bed.  That’s my clear sign of not feeling alive. I’d spent my day doing intellectual, officey things in an office that is by far and away the nicest I’ve ever worked in.  The people are pleasant and very dedicated, and its doing something directly related to my field of academic expertise.  By any standard, I should be doing backflips of joy.  I’m not.  I’m coming home and flopping on the bed, snogging the cat if she’ll let me and actively resisting the desire for several glasses of wine.  On the positive side it’s not taking me as long to recover as in my previous job, but the pattern is still there.

I’ve written previously about work and careers, and I’m none the wiser these days.  I wished, hoped that having kissed the old job goodbye I would see a new path for myself.  That the universe would throw opportunities and people in my path, and that out of that combination of newly freed me and chance, there’d be some alchemy.  I’m after nothing less than fundamental transformation.  ‘At last’, I’d cry, ‘I know what I’m here for’.  Today, therefore, is a bitter and depressing experience.

In the old job I was heard to compare office workers to factory workers from the early Industrial Revolution.  Tied to a machine for hours on end, with no control.  My inability to switch myself off and be a worker, dedicated to one corporate task, sitting rigidly all day in front of a screen is a strong characteristic in me.  Nothing about what I did today, or have ever really done at work, has brought me alive.  Which is not to say that some of it hasn’t been useful and good.  A lot of it has been crap too.  But it’s never made me feel alive either. 

So when I went to bed last night I bibliomanced again and found an answer of sorts.  Society doesn’t want us to be alive.

‘Being requires accepting oneself and staying within oneself and not doing to prove oneself.  It is a discipline that is accorded no applause from the outside world; it questions production for production’s sake.  Politically and economically it has little value, but its simple message has wisdom.  If I can accept myself as I am, and if I am harmony with my surroundings, I have no need to produce, promote or pollute to be happy.’ (Murdock, Maureen, The Heroine’s Journey, p128, italics in original) (ditto on indenting!)

The only creature I know who’s got that mastered is the Iron Paw.  I feel I have a long, long way to go on this journey.