A sudden appearance and being a writer.

About a thousand years ago, I used to catch the bus to work. It was an hour bus ride, from Melbourne’s inner western suburbs into the outer north, and it was fairly spectacularly tedious, until I developed the bright idea of taking my laptop with me, and spending the daily two hours of enforced inactivity doing some writing.

I started writing without much idea of where I was going with it: only that there was some unformed character in my head, nothing more than a vague outline of a person and a hazy understanding of where she had come from, what she had experienced. It took weeks of writing before I even learned her name: Sophie. Weeks more before the outline of a plot concreted itself in my mind, became firm enough to be drawn out on paper. Crisp black ink on white printer paper, and a list entitled “things to research” which covered more pages than the plot outline…but it was there, it was something, and the more of myself I poured into it, the more real it became. The more real Sophie became.

Until we moved to Newcastle – and suddenly I wasn’t spending two hours of each day on a bus, and writing at home had always been discouraged – there was only one writer in the marriage, apparently, and it wasn’t me – and impossible: have you ever tried to write narrative over the constant din Foxtel sports channel? To say nothing of trying to hold onto the tenuous whisps of creativity in a war-zone of domestic violence. And so writing was something that was – along with almost everything else in my life – compromised to the point of non-existence, and I ceased to be a writer, and Sophie slowly faded until one day she was simply a part of my past – somebody I once knew, and had been fond of, but from whom I had drifted apart.

Even in my freedom, in the re-birth of my creativity and of my writer self, I’ve missed Sophie. I’ve wondered, absently, whatever happened to her – the way you wonder about the fate of someone you went to high school with, whom you’ve not seen since. I’ve been a bit sad about that – her story had potential, and to me she was real – but I put it down as just one of the many, many things I’ve lost and had to let go of in the last years.

Until, suddenly, in the middle of my weekly meditation group, there she was, in my imagining. Running through rain around the streets I created for her, wearing the red shoes I once imagined on her feet, the small cross pendant I wrote for her bouncing with her steps, her hair just slightly too long and needing a trim a few weeks ago. Suddenly, from thinking of her in the past tense, I was thinking about her here and now, and suddenly she existed in my mind once more.

I didn’t get a chance to write that image until now and I may choose not to pursue it, not to try to pin her down – to see what happens, whether she continues to solidify in my writer’s mind, whether she comes back to me. But she’s been there, all along, somewhere in the dark places of my mind, just waiting.

And weird though it is to have a whole person fully formed suddenly making a guest appearance in my mind, it’s kind of nice too. I’m a writer again.

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Hearts, footprints, friends and a bad metaphor.

I can’t remember where I was recently, but I was passing one of those over-priced homeware stores selling those shabby-chic country-style furnishings and decor. One of the signs in the window (I think you’re supposed to hang them on your wall) made some psuedo-profound comment about the people who move through your life, and how friends are the only ones who leave footprints on your heart.

I’m in a pretty crappy mood at the moment so my default is to be cynical, and I have to admit that the cutesey little sign annoyed me, even without the poor metaphor and slightly disturbing imagery. We all, I reflected, have the capacity to leave footprints on the hearts of those whose lives we touch, even if that touch is only fleeting. We all have the capacity to do damage, to tread on the hopes and joys and reactivities and nobilities of the people we come into contact with, and usually it’s not deliberate: it’s insensitivity, or absent-mindedness, or grumpy-mood snappiness, or simply not noticing the shared humanity of the person selling us coffee, or passing us in the street.

What struck me, though, is that friends are the ones who don’t leave their muddy footprints all over your heart (does anyone else find this image disturbing, or is it just me?). Friends are the ones who treat lightly, who leave things better than they found them. Friends are the ones who are careful, and patient, and who are mindful of their touch and the impact that it has. Friends are the ones who know, without asking, those bruised points of tenderness, and who handle them gently. Friends know what pains they can ask about and what pains it’s best to leave alone.

I’m lucky to have friends – utterly blessed, I know that. I have far too much evidence of friendship in my life to doubt it, but I cannot take for granted the fact that my friends are there: a text message away, or in a shared glance across the choir, or at the end of an email. A Sunday afternoon spent in peace over coffee or ice cream. A stupid joke which makes me laugh aloud, adolescent giggles when we should be serious. A greater blessing than I deserve, or that I can comprehend.

My heart is marked not so much with footprints as with kick-marks, scuffs and scars. My friends don’t add to those with footprints – its my friends who are teaching me to heal, and who are patient and loving and hopeful and fun while I do it.

My heart is safe in the hands of my friends. But I really, really need a new metaphor.

Bleakness and a well-snuggled cat.

It’s being a bit of a bleak week. It’s funny – I was feeling stronger, more confident, better about the world and my place in it. Singing was getting easier: my hands weren’t shaking, and the panic attacks seemed to be a thing of the past. I was getting through whole rehearsals and services without the screaming interruption of memories and feelings and fears and that ever-present anxiety. I was feeling ok.

Until, suddenly, I wasn’t. Maybe there was one trigger, too small for me to notice. Maybe there were a number. Maybe it was some unacknowledged anniversary, perceived only in that powerful space below consciousness; maybe it was simply simply the vicissitudes of the chemicals in my brain, or life with post-traumatic stress disorder. Or any or all of the above – who knows.

The upshot though was a panic attack during my rehearsal on Friday night – the first time since Easter Day I’ve had to bail while I was singing (the intervals between panic attacks are getting less frequent – I have to hold onto this), and now the upshot is that I’m feeling shit. Bleak, and lethargic; completely apathetic, wanting only to sleep or tranquilise my mind with banality.

So I have been. As an experiment, I’m treating myself as though I’m recovering from a physical, rather than a mental, manifestation of unwell-ness. I haven’t been to the gym; I’ve read Harry Potter rather than the book on neurology and spirituality (borrowed from a friend and saved as a treat) which is currently sitting on my dining table; I’ve cuddled with the cat rather than doing those jobs I really actually need to do. For the last few days, I haven’t really been a singer – no practise, no preparation, and I’ve struggled to remain connected to what I’ve been singing. I haven’t really been a writer – I’ve barely put pen to paper and there have been a few days where I haven’t even done my self-imposed minimum word count. I’ve spent time with friends, but I’ve been on the outskirts of conversation, grateful to have friends who understand and who allow me to tune out when things get too much. They know I’m not ok, but they’re not pressing me – I’m just getting more hugs than usual.

And maybe that’s ok. This will pass, and I’ll still be a chorister, and I’ll still be a writer, and I’ll still have friends. I’ll still have a floor that needs hoovering, and I’ll still have a job to show up for, and the neurology book will wait. I’ll still be the person I always have been – I’ll just have been in a slight hiatus.

But the cat will be happy.

The perils of reverse parking, and what was nice about it.

I read a long time ago – too long ago to remember any sense of where I found this information, or even in what context – that the majority of Australians who hold a driver’s license consider themselves to be an above-average driver. Given the inherent limitations of the bell-shaped curve, this is a literal impossibility: we can’t all be above-average, or statistically, there would be no average to be above. It’s just that “average” is a higher standard than we automatically assume.

Partly for that reason, I have no qualms about saying that I’m an average driver. I’m not a bad driver – I’ve had a few tickets (ahem) but I’m a safe driver, I’m not a lead-foot, and I’ve even got all my demerit points.

I can’t claim to be of average ability when it comes to parking, however. I can’t even claim to be slightly below average. The truth is that I’m an atrocious parker. My spacial awareness is terrible, and my confidence is worse, especially when I have to reverse park. Especially when I have to reverse park my tiny bright blue car in front of a pub, and there is a table full of drinkers watching me, beers in hand.

I’d put my ratio of success:failure at about 70:30 when it comes to reverse parking (I’m quite proud that I’ve increased this ratio from about 50:50 since I first moved to Newcastle – there’s a lot of reverse parking around here), but this one I completely fumbled. My back wheels gently bumped against the curb, my nose was stuck out like an ill-placed elbow, and the table full of drinkers was watching me. Oops.

I’d just decided to cut my losses and try to find another park when the driver of the car parked in front of me turned on her engine and started to move forward. Brilliant – this would allow me to have another go at straightening up, with a bit more space to play with, once she drove out. But she didn’t drive out. She simpy moved foward, gave me enough space to fix my disasterous attempt to park, and turned her engine off again. She moved her car for no other reason than to make life a little easier for me.

I often feel that I’m separated from other people – by what I’ve been through, by what I’ve survived, by the fact that I’ve taken a beating in public and no one intervened, by the fact that been humiliated in front of people by the vitriolic lash of verbal abuse, by the fact that I have panic attacks and flashbacks and people don’t always have the capacity to help, and real people don’t necessarily understand. But today, a complete stranger inconvenienced herself on my account. She did something simply to give a stranger a small break, an action commenced and concluded entirely to help another person. Because that other person is worth something. Because we’re human souls together and we can do things, little things, to make life just a bit easier for each other. Because she was kind.

It’s a small deal, really, but it’s a pretty huge deal. Plus it was a good parking spot.

Cold feet, no socks and a bit of a shock.

I went, as I usually do, to my meditation group this morning. I didn’t have a great start to the day: I woke abruptly at the height of nightmare, sweating and gasping for breath and unable to shake that sense of malise drawn from a nocturnal narrative I could not remember in those first seconds after waking, but which lingered for much of the morning. But I wanted to go to meditation group, and I’m sick of basing my valued actions on the limitations sometimes placed upon me by PTSD, so off I went to meditation group.

It was hard – today was harder than most days are, to be honest. And the small, vibrant Catholic sister who runs the group said something, right at the very beginning, which completely threw me. It probably would have thrown me even if I’d been riding an even keel today. To begin the group, to call our attention downwards and inwards and outwards to the God in which we dwell, she said, “Let us do what we do best: sit and be: be ourselves”.

My immediate and slightly misunderstanding reaction: No, that’s not what I do best! I can’t meditate, I’m useless at meditating, I keep going off topic and thinking about how my feet are cold and I really should have brought socks, and I’m sure I’m doing it wrong and I just can’t get myself together and now it’s supposed to be the thing I do best at, what does that say about everything else I do when I’m so utterly shit at the thing I’m supposed to be best at…etc, etc, etc. Panic, panic, panic. Stupid brain.

My second thought was only slightly more reassuring: Actually, she doesn’t mean that meditation is the thing I do best. She means that being is the thing I do best. Being myself. Being my self. Being me. What? No! I’m not good at being, I’m rubbish at being! I’m good at doing, that’s what I do, I do things, I’m competent, I’m not good at being! 

Again with: stupid brain.

I rarely stop, so I haven’t had much practise at being rather than doing, and I haven’t had much experience in feeling that just being is enough. The idea that my value comes simply from who and what I am, as opposed to what I do, is slightly foreign to me. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Somehow, my value to the Sacred Creator is not based on my job, or how well I sing, or whether my flat is tidy, or how neat my handwriting is or even if I write my self-allocated minimum word-count for the day. Somehow, my value to the Sacred Creator, the Source of my whole life, is simply that I am.

It’s kind of a big thing to get my head around. And my feet really were cold. I really should have brought socks.

The Lord moves in…

I actually took my break today – towards the tail end of a busy day, I took my half-hour and walked to the park and sat with my rosary. It’s a strange phenomenon, and I remember writing the words “I’m teaching my fingers to pray”. It turns out that the teaching is a work in progress – in all the busyness of Lent, and then Easter, and then the crazy-bustle after Easter, I’ve (somewhat ironically) lost the habit of slipping easily into the deeper quiet of prayer, of dwelling gently and resting for a moment in the peace of that. Of reminding myself that I am a creature of the Creator, that I am held, always, in the love of the Source of love.

I’m trying to get back to that sense, to that spiritual discipline which was becoming such a part of my daily life – admittedly a part of my daily life that was first to fall off the radar when things got difficult. I miss it, and I feel a greater sense of completion when I do spend that time doing what I was created to do: connecting the deepest part of my being back to its own Source.

So today I took myself off to the park and sat with my back to the river (no that no one can sneak up on me, and I can hear the crunch of any approaching feet on the gravel pathway lining the river – some habits die hard) and quietly said the rosary.

It’s hard, coming back to it after so long away. Prayer has rubbed smooth the roughness of my mind, but that softness has hardened again with absence, and I struggled to find the words. Until the breeze gently touched the side of my face, and I decided that it was an apt metaphor, and found myself whispering in my mind: Creator God, sweep the winds of your Spirit through all my life, and may I dwell always in you. 

Which is funny, because while it was a convenient metaphor to turn into a quick prayer, it was so much more than that. It was reflective of what I so deeply need: a stirring breeze to sweep through my life – all of my life, work and home and writing and sleep and time with friends and time on the treadmill and gym equipment and time playing the string game with the cat – and scour away the stagnation there. To cleanse my life of those things I don’t need, that aren’t nourishing: those silly distractions which drain me of life but which somehow become first on my to-do list, foremost in my mind. To remind me of the simplicity of life: a winding river and friends with whom I share the love of God, and the vibrancy of life and the touch of a cool breeze which, without my knowing it, somehow contains the hand of God.

Mysterious ways, indeed.

An oddly overwhelming message.

I wrote yesterday about the wonderful plan I have to eat lunch at my desk, and then spend my half-hour lunch break outside, under the beauty of a tree or allowing my mind to be lulled by the music of the river which wends through the park near my work. To spend that time in prayer, in reflection, in meditation. In solitude, and in peace.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that my plan didn’t work – the day got busy, a meeting got scheduled, and before I knew it, it was four o’clock. Then suddenly, five to five. Then five past five, at which point I was stupid enough to pick up the insistently ringing phone (I finish work at five o’clock). Then gone half-past five by the time I got out – with not one heartbeat spent in peace, or prayer, or reflection.

And I chafe against it, and I resent it a little bit (really, day? You can’t give me a break for half an hour?), but I’m also kind of ok with it. Because increasingly I’m aware of the fact that I rely on the busyness of my mind. I rely on the demands of my life, on my lack of leisure time, on my lack of mental stillness, on the constant movement of my mind. Because stillness is scary. Because stillness – I think I might have said this before – gives emotion a chance. Because stillness forces me to face the fact that I’m tired, fairly constantly. That sometimes I’m frustrated. That sometimes I’m angry. That often I’m sad. That sometimes I’m happy – which is actually, perhaps counter-intuitively, more frightening than simple sadness.

In my meditation group yesterday, I found myself swept towards the sense of overwhelmedness. The ticking of the clock was urgent and thunderous in the room’s silence; the quiet sweep of morning traffic outside was clamourous, chaotic. The silence itself became just as overwhelming as the din of a crowded room. It was tempting simply to stand up, gather my keys from the floor under my chair, and walk out.

I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe because I was tired – it’s a before-sunrise start to get to the morning meditation group. Maybe because it’s been a number of weeks since I’ve done any sort of meditation at all, and my mind is no longer used to being devoid of demands. Maybe because I was apprehensively facing my frist day back at work after a fortnight’s leave. Maybe because I have post-traumatic stress disorder and my limbic system is an over-reactive drama queen. Who knows.

My hunch though, was that it was all of the above. And that somehow, there’s probably a lesson in that: slow the hell down. Thank you. Love, God.