You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Sunday, 22 December 2013

on the Longest Day

It's a long, hot day.

There's been a lot of these lately; it's that time of year. I've had a certain song stuck in my head lately, just because it's called 'One Long Day.'



The Summer. Sometimes that word sounds like a prison sentence to me.

This is a hard time for me, every year. I don't cope well with the heat. I can't stand the bright sunshine. On days like these, I just have to stay indoors, and stay still as much as possible. If I move around too much on a hot day, that's enough to get overheated and feel terribly sick. So I spend most of these long hot days lying on my bed with the fan on, napping or reading or doing puzzles. I've certainly been getting through a lot of reading lately. Several excellent books have helped make the days fun and exciting, as long as I stay in the book.

Then the sun goes down, and it gets cool, and I am reprieved of my sentence once more, until dawn. I can breathe again, I can move again. I have to do all the things I need to do during the evening and night hours. I can't bear to go to sleep during the night sometimes, just because I can't bear the thought of missing out on those precious cool hours while I'm asleep. Better to sleep in the day when it's too hot to move. So I get all upside down with my sleeping. It's too hot to turn on a stove to cook anything. The heat affects my stomach. I had a horrible 48-hour gastro recently.

Aargh. Every year, when the summer comes on, I think, I'm not going to survive another summer. But so far, I have.

Today is the longest day. The point of Solstice passed at 4:11 am, local time. As I'm typing this, it's close enough to midday. This is the moment when the sun is as high in the sky as it gets. The Sun King is at the height of His powers. I've gotten to the half-way point of my house arrest sentence, and I've survived so far. As of tomorrow, the days will begin getting shorter. In a month or so, I will notice that the sun is setting earlier and lower. Honestly, this is what the Solstice means to me more than anything. It means that I have survived the Summer to the point where the Sun is highest, and this shows me that I can survive the rest of it. I start to feel less afraid of the sunshine.

Many people are celebrating today, or performing rites of some kind to mark the passing of the Solstice. I'm so glad that someone is out there doing it, because it can't be me. It's too hot for me be to carrying on like that. I am reminded of my decision to stop marking the points of the Wheel of the Year, and I am so relieved that I don't feel that obligation any more. I'm also aware of how even if I don't do anything outwardly manifest in this regard, I still feel the points of the Wheel of the Year. I could never not know them.

I do remember to be thankful for the gifts of Summer. I think of how the green plants and other living things are loving the sunshine, even if I'm not. I love seed heads on grasses. I don't know why, I'm just so often struck by the astounding beauty in a growing seed head when the grass gets long. That's something that only happens in summer. My favourite thing about the summer up here is the thunderstorms. Oh my, they are glorious. I live for the thunderstorms, each one an oasis in the desert of the hot weather.

But mostly, I stay still and quiet as possible, waiting for the Wheel to turn. 

Friday, 13 December 2013

of the Black Dog, the Idiot Box and the MASH Unit

Like most of my generation, I grew up watching an awful lot of television. An awful lot of crappy, often American television with all the brainwashing advertising in between. I certainly developed addictive behaviours toward televsion viewing as a child. Once I was grown up, I decided that that was bad. When I had my own place, I lived without television, and had no doubt that I was better off. When I thought of people who use television to deal with their moods, I had nightmarish visions of overweight women in pink, Tim-Tam-crumb-infested nighties watching Ricki Lake and home shopping infomercials. As long as I didn't have a television set, that could never be me. I sure as hell wasn't giving up the Tim Tams.

However, I did go out of my house sometimes. Sometimes I was in other people's houses. So I still got to see plenty of television here and there over the years. And I came to understand that there's a lot of really good stuff on television, too, and to appreciate the benefits of the television age. I came to understand that watching television to manage depression doesn't have to be so destructive to the soul - that there are programmes that can heal, and inspire, and teach, and bring joy and compassion. I also came to learn that just 'zoning out' on something trashy is not such a spiritually dangerous practise, if used in moderation. Sometimes, it's just what you need to get through the night. I came to learn that that's okay.

Most people have some kind of favourite show or movie they like to watch when they're overwhelmed by the blues, whether it's a tearjerker that will help them to release their emotions, or a comedy to get them laughing, or the kind of trash that just turns off their brain for a while when it's all too much. All these approaches have their benefits at times. Over the years, I've found one TV series in particular to be the best companion for me and my Black Dog, and that is M*A*S*H.

Most people I know remember watching MASH when they were kids. I seemed to have missed it during my childhood years - maybe it was on the other channel when I was watching Murder, She Wrote, who knows. It wasn't until I in my late 20's, when I was living in a hotel room in Sydney, that it came to my attention. Hotel rooms come with televisions, it was as simple as that. Of course, I started turning it on now and then. And then more frequently. MASH was screening in the late afternoons. The weeks went on, and I was falling in love with this motley collection of characters in their mad, constant juxtapostition of hilarity and tragedy. But the more I watched it, the more I noticed that it certainly had an improving effect on my spirits. I often found myself reeling from the emotion in a given episode, but mostly I noticed that I found myself inspired. I don't mean inspired to go and do some great thing, but inspired just to keep going. Just to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going on and meeting what needs to be done. It's enough of a great thing, just to keep going on, when the Black Dog has you by the scruff of the neck. Soon it had become my favourite show to watch when Things Get Rough. Now I have all the episodes on mp4 here in my computer, and it's what I turn to whenever my brain is not being functional enough to do anything useful.

MASH is special because it brilliantly realises the oxymoron inherent in a story that is a comedy, but also a war story. It succeeds because it is not a comedy about war; that would be tasteless. It is a comedy about humanity in the face of the horror of war, and therefore, about survival.

I've found a lot of shows set during times of war to be inspiring in this harsh, fight-for-survival sense of the word, and helpful for me to find an attitude with which to approach the impossible realities of life. But many war-themed series and movies can also be confronting or traumatic, depressing in themselves for their bleak outlook. On the other hand, frivolous comedies that can raise an easy laugh can seem insultingly trivial in the face of real suffering. MASH is a gift in that it strikes just the right note, pays equal and handsome homage both to the reality of suffering and the irrepressible audacity of human nature that laughs and sings wherever it can, and that makes survival in these circumstances possible. I think the stroke of genius here was the setting in a medical unit. This setting eases a lot of the conflict and confrontation that a lot of people feel about characters who are participating in a war. It may be easier to have sympathy for a military man who spends his career as a doctor than as a soldier. It may even be easier to find empathy for a man who has been drafted into military service in a hospital than for another man who is similarly drafted against his will, but required to kill people as part of his service. The main characters in MASH operate in a context of providing care rather than an aggressive force, stranded in a tiny oasis of a healing centre in the midst of a greater, sprawling conflict. Within this more neutral context, the narrative, however, continually redirects the characters' and the viewers' attention to the ultimate purpose and reason for being of the MASH unit - the blood, the cries and the pain of young men who have been to war, and the consequences they will live with forever.

Hawkeye Pierce is absolutely my hero. I am so in love with him.

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He's my hero because he's not really a hero, and he certainly has no desire to be a hero. He's just a regular person dealing with stuff that happens. Well, maybe he's not so very regular. He's basically a good, caring, compassionate person, which I guess makes him somewhat above-average to start with, and he's really very clever, which means he can be a doctor, and be so side-splittingly funny. He's sensitive and intelligent enough to be fully aware of the absurdity and inhumanity of his situation. But he can also be foolish, petty, or vain. He makes mistakes, and he has regrets. He's my hero because he lives with all this, and he gets up each morning, and puts one foot in front of the other, and does his best in the face of endless carnage and pain. He's also my hero because he still manages to find the energy to rail and rage at the outrageous injustice of what he has to face. He accepts it, but he will never find it acceptable.

Colonel Sherman Potter, the commanding officer, is the man that I would wish to have for a father or a grandfather. He's the man you would want to have in charge, if there were a war going on out there. Intelligent, perceptive, kind, utterly dependable and absolutely the salt of the earth, he is level-headed and hard-headed enough to maintain an effective, competent command when the proverbial hits the fan. I love him because he is so very practical, refusing to stand on ceremony when there just isn't time for 'all that bull-hockey', and yet so very morally upright - a genuine old-fashioned gentleman.

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Radar O'Reilly is so adorable I just wish I could adopt him and keep him at home like a pet. He's so sweet and innocent I wonder if there even could be such a person left in the world anymore. He appears, and seems to feel, so insignificant, but it's clear to almost everyone that the whole place depends on him to hold together.

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Even Dr Charles Winchester, who is such an incredible pain in the arse, displays great depth of character throughout his tour of duty. I love him because he actually is good enough to be that arrogant - he really is a brilliant surgeon, and he bears his duties as bravely as all the others when it comes to the crunch. For all he might whinge and whine, he does the right thing, because his morals hold him to do so, and he holds to his morals. I love him because he sticks to his values so consistently, even when it causes him pain, or to be completely ridiculous, to do so.

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These are fictional characters, but they represent real people. Every war has had its medical units, its doctors and nurses. Real people lived like this. Every war has also seen profound and radical acts of kindness as well as those of aggression and violence. The human race has gotten to where it is as a result of both kinds of extraordinary behaviour. Throughout history, people have lived like this, doing the best they can to keep going, to keep doing their best according to what they know to be right. It's as terrible as it is marvellous, the capacity of humanity to keep surviving in the face of extraordinary hardship. I am reminded of all the lives, all the hours and years of toil, all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the story of human history, and I am awed, and humbled, and inspired to keep going with my little part of the story. Father Mulcahy sums it up one episode when he's been having a bit of a hard time, and has to get some perspective. He says, "It doesn't matter whether you feel useful or not when you're moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving."

Obviously, I'm not living in a war zone, here in the lucky country. I go into town, and there are no soldiers with uniforms and guns. There are tourists with shorts and singlets and cafe lattes. But we all, if we open our eyes, must see that we live with the seeds of hostility, the examples of injustice, prejudice and alienation, still, even, the outright senseless violence, in our society. You only have to listen to the news, even if it's not actually happening to you. I don't have to live with violence directly in my life, but as a carer, I am called to bear witness to what seems to be unbearable pain just about every bloody day. In this sense, the war can come to any one of us at any time. I pray that I can live my wars as well as these people.

And, of course, in between the blood and the shellfire, MASH is bloody funny. We know now the benefits of simply laughing out loud. For Hawkeye, laughter was much more than entertainment, it was a survival technique. 

I would have liked to put together a little clip of my favourite bits for you, but alas, I am lacking the technological equipment and knowledge to achieve such a feat, so we'll make do with a little clip of someone else's favourite bits, courtesy of YouTube.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Diary of Opal by Opal Whiteley

I want to tell you about a most extraordinary book.

There are a lot of books that I love so intensely and profoundly and I wish I could share the wonder of them with others. But in most cases I'm aware that though I loved the book that much, it wouldn't really be for everyone. Very rarely a book comes along that is so deeply universal that I really feel that I need to tell everyone "You have to read this book before you die. Preferably as soon as possible."

I'm currently reading Opal by Opal Whiteley again. I've still got the same copy, the Jane Boulton adaption, subtitled the journal of an understanding heart, I found on a clearance table in Fuller's Bookstore in Hobart. And I guess I was really meant to have it, because I lost it once, and it came back to me. I had lent this book to a friend when she went on a holiday and never came back. But some months later I found it in the op shop down the street from my flat. It's the same copy - I'd written my name in it.

It's a diary written by a five-year-old girl living in an Oregon lumber camp in the very early 20th century. And it's one of the most astounding and profound pieces of writing I've ever encountered in my life. The only literary experience I can think of that is anything like it is Mister God, This is Anna by Flynn (again, you have to read it before you die). What makes its achievement more staggering is the fact that it was written by a five year old girl, and one in underpriveleged circumstances at that. Yes, there has been a lot of debate about whether the diary, or indeed, Opal's life story was genuine - you can look all that up and make a decision for yourself, or you could just read it regardless of where it came from.

Opal's diary describes the pure state, in constant communion with the Divine, that children naturally have until they are educated out of it, so blatantly that it's just heart-stopping to encounter. Opal, like Anna, is well acquainted with God, and with all the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, and all its creatures, and she loves all of it dearly and fiercely. She feels everything, absolutely everything, to a degree that cannot be maintained in a modern functional adult. It drives us mad, feeling everything like that. Ultimate reality is too enormous to be held in the human psyche. Biographical information tells us that Opal did not grow up to be a mentally healthy, functional adult by modern standards. But she has left us this precious legacy, this letter to the world from a being who touched the Divine and knew it as being the true nature of the world.

Potatoes are very interesting folks.
I think they must see a lot
of what is going on in the earth.
They have so many eyes.
Too, I did have thinks
of all their growing days
there in the ground,
and all the things they did hear.

And after, I did count the eyes
that every potato did have,
and their numbers were in blessings.

I did have thinks these potatoes growing here
did have knowings of star songs.
I have kept watch in the field at night
and I have seen the stars
look kindness down upon them.
And I have walked between the rows of potatoes
and I have watched
the star gleams on their leaves. 

It's extraordinarily beautiful, and also heart-breakingly tragic. I've read this book several times now and I still cry through a lot of it, either for one of those reasons or the other. I can't read it aloud without having to stop to breathe back the tears enough to keep speaking quite often. It's not easy to face the depth of Opal's reality, but oh, people, it's worth it. Please, read Opal's words, let the constructs you've learned to live be torn apart, and let her voice into your heart. Be someone who is willing to let in the Divine, and to feel deeply, even when it hurts terribly. Be this, as much as you can, just because the world needs it.

Now I have thinks about trampers.
How they do differ.
A week ago one did come to the door.
He gave a gentle rap.
He had a clean sad face
and a kind look in his eyes.
The man said he was on his way
to the camp to get work.
The roll on his back was heavy.
I straightaway did go 
and get my bowl of bread and milk
and gave it to him.
He ate it in a hungry way
like Brave Horatius when we are back
from a long explore trip.
Then, when the man did eat all the bread and milk,
he did split some wood in the woodshed
and pile it in a nice way.

When he did go he said,
"The Lord's blessing be with you, child."
I said, "It is."

Thursday, 31 October 2013

on why I wouldn't trust a psychiatrist as far as I could throw it

I've noticed that there's a bit of a theme that, when I encounter when reading blogs, fires my anger right up, and I fire off comments in the heat of the moment. And I figure, if there's all that energy there that is going into other people's comments spaces, I should take that energy and focus it on my own blog.

The theme is around psychiatrists and the mental health system and how they treat their patients.

I don't like it. I don't like it a bit.

When making generalisations, I think it's important to be clear about the nature of generalisations, and that is, of course, that they don't fit every situation or individual. There are always abundant exceptions to a generalisation. And so I would expect, even though as a generalisation, I don't like psychiatrists, that I would meet one along the way who was actually quite unobjectionable, or at least that I would know of someone who could tell me, 'Hey, I know this bloke who's a psychiatrist, but he's actually a decent person.' Only, it actually hasn't happened to me yet. I don't personally know of anyone who has found an experience with a psychiatrist to be helpful. If anyone does know of one, please let me know. It might help to ease my despair.

So, why have I come to form this opinion? From the beginning...

I told the first psychiatrist I saw that I was feeling really overwhelmed and angry at the level of sexual violence and violence against women in our society. She told me that they kill baby girls in China. That's all she said, and then she asked me to make another appointment. That first appointment cost me a week and half worth of my income at the time.

The second psychiatrist I saw made lots of appointments for me that he just didn't bother to turn up to. This was devastating, after all the effort and struggle it took just to get to those appointments. When he did turn up, he wouldn't say much. Then one day he seemed quite excited as he told me about a special computer test that he wanted me to do. He told me I would be 'hooked up to a computer' which would run tests on my brain function and he expected to get great insights about my condition with its use. I was imagining something pretty fancy, the way he was so excited. I made another appointment, and I managed, with huge effort, to get there. I had hope.

I got to my appointment and I was put in front of a regular computer terminal . The screen displayed inanely basic questions about how I felt and I just had to answer them with a click - yes, no, a little, a lot. They were the same questions I 'd answered over and over again in every interview with every doctor or therapist along the way. I couldn't believe this was the 'amazing new computer test' he had raved on about. It was a total waste of time and energy. At my next appointment, he told me that 'the computer indicates that you're depressed.' He held this out like it was great piece of news, and then was so happy with his efforts that he didn't make any more appointments for me. He considered that he had done his job by me. All he'd done was take six weeks to make a diagnosis that my GP had correctly made in one consultation, and he was done with me.

The next psychiatrist I saw told me that my epilepsy was all in my imagination, and that if I just stopped thinking about my epileptic symptoms, they would go away. He also told me that my belief in my religion was proof that I was psychotic. He said it wasn't a real religion. When I explained that my religion is legally recognised in Australia, he said he was 'surprised' and 'interested' to hear that but it seemed like he didn't believe me. I even cited court rulings. He wasn't convinced. I do wonder what on earth Roman Catholics do when they're in this situation. Do you believe in the miracle of transubstantiation? The intercession of saints? If you do, the psychiatrist will say you're psychotic. If you don't, the priest says you're a sinner. Maybe you're even going to hell.

So, despite the very real legal acknowledgement of my religion in this country, and the EEG results that said I have temporal lobe epilepsy, I was given anti-psychotic medication which had the side effect of causing me to gain 24kg in weight. I've still never actually had a psychotic episode.

Next I met a psychiatrist who had an interest in what he called the 'funny epilepsies.' He had a lot of insight into the range of symptoms I was experiencing with complex partial seizures, and I learned a lot. Then at my next appointment I started crying. He lost his bedside manner, and indeed any manners, immediately, and suddenly started speaking to me very rudely as if I were a small child behaving badly. He turned mean, just because I started crying. And then he handed me back to my GP. I never saw him again.

Then there was the one who decided that I should have electric shock therapy. There's always one like that. Fortunately the next day I saw a different doctor who didn't go ahead with it. If the roster at the hospital had been different, I could have been subjected to ECT.

Then there was the one who was extraordinarily preoccupied with my entire sexual history and the way my body smelled. If I mentioned male friends or past relationships within earshot of one of the nurses, the nurse would relay this snippet to the doctor, and then he would grill me like he was a cop in a movie as to whether or not I was sleeping with this person. If I happened to take some exercise and return to the ward all sweaty, I would be similarly grilled about my hygiene habits and how I behave when I'm in the shower. For fuck's sake.

There was the time I didn't even get as far as seeing a psychiatrist, because when I turned up at the mental health service offices and asked for help, the intake worker told me that as I was neatly dressed and wearing make-up, I was clearly not unwell enough to qualify for receiving any help. 

Even stranger than that was the time I turned up to visit a friend and found her having a major psychotic episode. I called mental health services. They came out to visit and told me that my friend was clearly psychotic, and that she was too sick for a hospital to take her in, and therefore I would have to look after her. I still can't work out how that makes any sense. They didn't ask if I was willing to care for my friend, they just told me that I shouldn't tell her about any of my own experiences with mental health services, and left us alone. I had meant to visit for a few days, but I had to stay for six weeks and watch her every minute and restrain her when she tried to kill flies by smashing ceramic plates into glass windows, or when she put her hand in the blender to clean it while it was still on.

Then there was the one who objected to me having an epileptic episode in his hospital. I tried to reassure them that it's not a problem, I just need the right medication and a day to sleep it off, but they didn't like it. I was transferred to another hospital without my consent, where I did not receive any mental health care at all.

That was the last straw for me. But there was still the psychiatrist that Mr CJ was given an appointment with through the Pain Clinic. I went with him to the appointment. This is a story that is not mine to tell, so I won't relate the kind of rubbish that this arsehole put onto poor Mr CJ, but I was there, and I know it was nasty. 

This has just been my story. I know that I am very lucky, because plenty of other people I know have been treated much worse by the mental health system and really suffered terribly. I've know so many people whose lives have been destroyed by drugs whose side effects make you much sicker than you ever were in the first place. My best friend from high school died while she was an inpatient in psychiatric hospital, aged 17. I've known one woman who had fallen pregnant when a condom broke, and was denied access to abortion by her psychiatrist. I've known another woman who was forcibly restrained had an abortion performed on her against her will. I've heard these stories of abuse in care over and over again.

But never once in my life have I ever heard anyone say 'I spoke with a psychiatrist, and I found it helpful.' Not once.

And I was thrilled to read just the other day how Lou Reed took the chance to give them some of their own medicine when he had the opportunity. Oh, that was just lovely.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My New Home is in Sugar Cane Country

They grow sugar cane in Queensland. Lots of it. There's even a bit in the Grasshopper song about it.

Oh, they grow sugar cane in Queensland
They grow sugar cane in Queensland
They grow sugar cane 
And they load it on a train
'Til it's syrup in a tin in Queensland.

I loved that song when I was a kid. I've only just discovered right now, as I looked for a link to give to readers who may be unfamiliar with such obscure Australiana, that the version I learnt at primary school had been abridged and altered a little for the benefit of our tender young ears. Turns out, the giant grasshopper wasn't drinking pineapple juice all over Queensland after all. He was spitting tobacco juice. Well, learn something new and all that.

I'm from down south, and I'd never been to Queensland, or seen a sugar cane field, until I was 22 years old. I was on a bus from Darwin to Brisbane - that's three days straight on a bus. On the third day we started driving through fields of some plants that looked distinctly sinister, somehow ominous, and really quite ugly to me. I thought about what these strange beastly things could be, and soon realised, ah, this is sugar cane country now. This must be sugar cane.

Maybe it's something to do with my deeply passionate love-hate relationship with sugar. I've been terribly addicted to sugar all my life, and yes, I know, it's really bad for me. Looking at the plant it comes from, it's easy to believe it's a bad thing. I mean, they look exactly like bloody Triffids, or just like how I imagined them when I read the book. Now just look at them. Don't they look like they're just about to sprout venomous mouths out their tops and go forth and destroy the world? Or is it just me?

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I don't actually live in Queensland, but close enough that the climate and agricultural conditions don't notice the difference. This land is in sugar cane country. A lot of the view on the way to town looks something like this.

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We drive past a sugar refinery on the highway, and some days, the smell of burning molasses hangs so thick in the air it seems to stick to your clothes. Now, when I open a jar of raw sugar, I recognise that smell.

And, of course, where you have sugar cane, you sure as hell have cane toads.

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I'd never seen a cane toad in real life until a couple of years ago, when I was visiting up around this area. Yes, we have cane toads round here. Wander round in the evening and you're very likely to come across a couple. They seemed to go away over the brief winter, and now they're back with the spring. I'm always surprised by how skinny and scrawny they are, the ones I've seen. I'd seen dozens of pictures of cane toads in my life, of course, and they all looked nice and round and plump, like this one pictured above. The ones I see around here manage to look more pathetic and less impressive than I imagined they would be. They also seem to me to be strangely apathetic toward human presence for a wild creature. Every other creature around here, the birds, the lizards, the bush turkeys, wallabies, goannas, everything, will move away quickly when they sense humans approaching. The bloody cane toads just waddle along as if they couldn't even be bothered to get out of the way of your footsteps. I sometimes think I should be a responsible citizen and kill as many of them as I can, but then I'd be left with cane toad blood and guts all over my walkway paths. You'd think there couldn't be anything uglier than a cane toad, but I reckon that the inside of a cane toad just might qualify.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

of New Ink, and its Practical Function

I got a new tattoo a little while ago, inside my left forearm. It was pretty damn exciting. It's been fifteen years since I last got a new tattoo.

This tattoo is a little different to most, in that it has a very practical function. It's a medical alert tattoo.


People have been telling me for years that I really should get one of those medical ID bracelets, but I was not at all attracted to the idea. I don't like to wear much jewellery at all except for dress-ups. I find it so annoying and fiddly to have bits of metal or whatever dangling off my person. And they only end up broken or lost and have to be replaced. No, I couldn't put up with it. But then I happened to hear about the relatively recent phenomenon of medical alert tattoos. And I do love tattoos. 

So I looked into it. When I started to come across more and more anecdotal evidence that suggested that the people most likely to get a medical alert tattoo are paramedics and ER workers, I was convinced. I have a lot of respect for those people. If they think it's a good idea, then I'm sure it is. 

I found a lot of images online - most of them really kind of ugly. Or just completely ugly. I was feeling discouraged when I found that a lady named Amy had come up with this design and I was inspired anew. She didn't say on her post where she had found the image or who designed it, so I don't know. I took the picture to Nimbin Tattoo Studio where a lovely, smart lady named Beki copied the design and worked out the font I wanted and the spacing and so on. I had already 'seen' the typewriter font for this tattoo before I had a chance to think about it. I would have liked a pretty font, but it was like my brain had already made the decision - that was just how I saw it, and how it had to be.

I absolutely love it and I'm so thrilled that I can have this and that it is also beautiful. The caduceus of Hermes is a powerful and wonderful spiritual symbol and tool in its own right, and I'm so glad that the medical profession has such a beautiful symbol.

And, if I ever find myself in a bad way and not able to communicate, the paramedics will know that I'm having a seizure, and not just on some bad drugs. Plenty of people have made that assumption before, believe me.

Friday, 4 October 2013

My New Home is Tiny

I'll measure it for you.

Just one room, 3.7m by 4.9m, and 3.9m by 2.4m of verandah space, for the two of us. And miles and miles of bushland outside and beyond.

It's a considerable downsize from my previous home, a two-storey, two-bedroom townhouse. It's been a long journey to my new tiny home, which began, rather bizarrely, with getting hooked on an American reality TV program.

It was Hoarders, and it was really horrible television, on a really ugly subject, but I was fascinated with this tragic side effect of our culture of consumption - a disorder caused by affluence. I was a bit surprised with myself for getting into a reality TV show, but even more surprised to realise, as I watched more episodes, just how closely I identified with these people on the show, these people who had a hoarding disorder. How much I understood exactly what they were talking about. How very closely they were describing the way I felt about possessions. How very easily I could become one of these people, if I had the space and didn't have to pack it all up and move pretty damn regularly, as I have most of my life. Say, if I owned my own house, like the people on the TV show did. That was the only difference between them and me, it sometimes seemed. I looked around my home and saw the warning signs.

So I decided to clean up my act and my clutter a bit. I googled subjects like 'simplify' and 'de-clutter', I read all the advice and I followed it. I had serious words with myself about my op-shopping obsession, and cut back on my purchases dramatically. More often, I visited the op shop to drop stuff off. Each time I tidied the house, I found stuff that I could de-clutter, and it went in a box by the door. When the box was full, I carried it around to the op shop. I followed the rules. Slowly, slowly, bit by bit, I was becoming more aware of my relationship with my possessions. I cleared out a few corners.

It was during this time that I came upon the 'tiny home' movement that is so popular in many places now. I realised that my full family-sized home was ridiculously oversized. I knew I need to physically limit the amount of stuff I could collect and store. I felt desperately overwhelmed about keeping up with housework among all my clutter, and the idea of an very low-maintenance home was just intoxicating. I googled some more and read some books. I decided. My next home had to be a Tiny Home.

One fine, otherwise ordinary day, I was going through my 'fabric collection', which was the word I used to describe the archival layers of jumbled textiles and fragments and alleged mending jobs that took up a whole ragged corner of the room I would refer to as my 'studio' in a similarly euphemistic fashion. I was choosing pieces that could be given away if they were good enough, or, more likely, torn up for cleaning rags, or, in absolutely drastic cases, just put in the rubbish bin. By now I was looking at the pieces with a new, discerning eye that I had trained to look past the sentimentality and see the reality of the physical object. I was sorting quite ruthlessly, and I was coping really well with it, until I came across a handbag.

I bought this handbag when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. It was my Bag through all my glorious travels when I was young and free and the world was my oyster. It was the best handbag ever, it fit in exactly the right spot on my hips when slung over my shoulder, it was the perfect size and shape, it had the perfect pockets for all the things I needed to carry. I wore it to death. It was dying for a long time, and I kept it together with long hours of patient stitching and reinforcing long after it would have gone gracefully to its grave. I did some of the best damn darning of my life on that bag. And when it finally just didn't hold things any more, I kept it to use as a pattern for making other handbags from. I did use that basic shape and pattern to make a couple of bags, but they were never anywhere near as good as the original.

And even that was years ago now. But still every time I packed up all my stuff and moved house over those years, I packed that bag into my fabric pile and carried it to the next place.

And in that moment, I saw for the first time what that bag had become. It was a piece of old rubbish, and it was useless. This bag was going in the rubbish bin. But I really, really, loved that bag so much. So I did something that I hadn't done before in all my de-cluttering. I took a picture of it, just to remember it, just like the psychologists told the people on the TV show to do when they found it hard to let go of something they loved, even though it was a piece of rubbish. Here it is, here's the old bag that I loved so much that I had to take a  picture of it.


And this is the darning that I did, that I put so much time and effort into, it seemed so terrible to throw it away.


And so, having a digital record securely stored, I took the bag out the back to the rubbish bin. I got all the way to the rubbish bin and even put my hand on its lid to lift it up. And then I couldn't do it and I turned around and went back to the house, the old bag still in my hands. By the time I got back to the house - all of a dozen steps - I knew I had a problem.

And I cried, and I had a cup of tea, and I got on with my de-cluttering. I decided that my handbag could do very well as an organic mulch, and gave it to the apple tree like an offering, where it very successfully kept some rather aggressive weeds down. When I read Confessions of a Hoarder by Corinne Grant, and I came to the bit where she had an eerily similar experience with a handbag from her teenage years, I thought how very superior my cotton handbag was to her nylon one, in that I could still use mine for mulch. It was a solution that left me very aware that I still had a problem.

One night soon after this I sat at my computer and googled through to a deeper level of information - medical journals, neurology and psychology papers, details of CBT programs specific for hoarding disorder. I ended up staying up all night, crying over the computer screen. I found other people who had words to describe my feelings. I found words that described me and my home more clearly than I would have been able to articulate myself. I saw, so clearly, that if I didn't change things, I could easily find myself on one of those reality TV shows by the time I'm 50.

And I cried some more, and I drank more tea, and I got on with my de-cluttering, more ruthlessly and aggressively than before. I sweated every little decision. I worked hard. I developed a kind of alter-ego who functioned as a substitute for a real psychologist. I programmed her to say all the things that the psychologists and professional organisers on TV would say to the people who were behaving like I was. I knew the scripts off by heart. I had agonising conversations with myself all day. And each evening, I carried another load of stuff around to the op shop.

All in all, it took the greater part of a year to de-clutter myself enough to pack up into a trailer and move to this tiny home. The last week before the move was absolute hell; the last 24 hours, I don't know how I survived. As it was, I wouldn't have managed at all without an angel of mercy appearing in the form of my wonderful next-door neighbour, who took care of the two trailer loads of rubbish and half a room full of stuff that was to go to the op shop that I found myself left with at the end. (She also took my 'mulch' to the tip.)

I am never going to put myself through that again. I am never going to that place again. I am staying in a tiny house forever, where I just can't get myself in that kind of trouble.

I'm not ready to show you pictures of my tiny home set-up yet because honestly it's still not really set up. It's not easy and I'm sometimes discouraged. But I believe in this; I believe it's for the best. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

a detour through Lake Como

Dear lovely readers, I am so sorry I haven't gotten back on the blogging horse. And I don't just mean that I'm sorry out of an obligation to the blog or anyone - I'm really, honestly, just sorry for myself.

Truth is, I've been pretty bloody depressed lately. Yep, it's possible to get depressed even living in a tropical paradise. Various people whom I care about are going through hard things like illness and outrageous family problems, and one died recently. And the bloody federal election didn't help any, let me tell you. Like life is worth living under a Tony Abbott government. Pfft. At least my late friend didn't live quite long enough to see that come to pass.

And I've really been missing the blogs so much, mine and all the beautiful ones I love to follow. But you know how things seem harder to catch up on when you're already depressed. But this morning, as part of my ok-I-really-have-to-pull-myself-together mission, I made a deliberate point of turning on the computer, waiting patiently for the slow connection, and reading through my blog list. I forced myself to keep reading until something happened, some spark, some inspiration, some clue or sign. I knew it would come if I let myself be taken up in the stories.

And it was there. It was Lucy at Lulastic and the Hippyshake who got to me. Oh Lucy, have I told you how much I adore you? She went to Lake Como in her travels, according to this lovely post here. And I remembered, oh, I've been to Lake Como. And I remembered that I have a story. So even though I was planning a 'My New House' series, because this place is at least as lovely as most of the wonders of the world I have seen, we will take a little detour through Italy, just because inspiration has struck.

It was February 2000, I'd been staying in Switzerland and I decided I wanted to go to Greece. My Swiss friend Ms A decided she would come with me, as she had never been to Greece. We had very little money, and our plan was basically to hitch and camp our way through Italy and then get a boat to Greece from the south of Italy. We had a tiny tent, a tiny gas cooker, and two big backpacks. We started at the train station in Luzern (Lucerne). Ms A had been given a gift of railway vouchers, and we took them to the counter and asked how far south the two of us could get for the value of the vouchers. The ticket seller consulted his charts and told us that we could get to Lake Como. And so, several hours later, we got off the train at Lake Como.

We didn't have much time to wander around, but it was so obvious that this was a stunningly beautiful place. I remember an unusual feeling of envy for the owners of the luxurious home on the crystal waterfront. But it passed. I knew my gypsy lifestyle bore stranger, more wonderful fruit, and it certainly would - as we shall see. It was already well into the afternoon and we needed to get out of the city and into the country where we could find a place to camp. We didn't have enough money to pay for accommodation. So we just found our way to the bus terminal, and to a cafe for hot chocolates. Here I got the shock of my life. Nobody had warned me about Italian hot chocolates. Oh My Goddess. I've seen plenty of very pricey, fancy cafes lately in Australia advertising allegedly genuine Italian hot chocolate, but it's not even a shadow on what even a midnight roadside truck stop would come up with in Italy. Real Italian hot chocolate is as dark and thick as mud, a little piece of viscous heaven in a cup. But I digress.

We found our bearings and consulted maps and timetables. Remember, all this was before smartphones and google maps. We found which road would take us out in the direction we wanted to go, and also that no buses would take us up there this afternoon. We shouldered our packs and hiked up the road. Up being the operative word - it was a distinctly uphill road. We climbed a long way, looking for a good spot to stop on the side of the road to thumb a lift. But there just weren't any. The road was narrow and without shoulders, there was no room for a driver to slow down and pull over. We kept climbing up that hill all afternoon. It was near dark when we found a strip that looked possible, and stood in position with our thumbs out. No one pulled over. Soon it was dark and the streetlights came on. All of them, that is, except the one that would have illuminated us standing on the side of the road. That one was out, apparently. This was clearly Not Working Out. We shouldered our packs and wandered off again, this time away from the road, looking for a spot perhaps under a tree where we could camp. We had come so far out of the centre of town that the buildings were not so close together up here, there was quite a lot of space. And by the glow of the light pollution we found a spot of grassy land, a reasonable distance away from the nearest building. We pitched our camp in the dark, made some tea and something to eat, and went to sleep in our tiny tent.

I woke up at daybreak and went outside to answer the call of nature. The nearby building looked a lot closer in the daylight. It wasn't a home, but a big block of offices or a college or something like that. I could see a small group of young men near the buildings. They were obviously looking at us, our tent. I woke Ms A. "There are men outside!" She sleepily poked her head out the tent flap, and then back in. "They're only young men," she said - and lay down and went back to sleep. I always wondered exactly what she meant by that. It's only now, typing this out, that I realise that she meant that they were too young to be any kind of authority figure, and therefore she wasn't fussed about what they thought. I had a bit more of a nap, too.

A bit later, one of the young men approached our tent. He was using extremely polite, formal, non-threatening body language and intonation as he spoke to us. He was also astoundingly handsome. Not just movie star handsome, but bloody Greek God image of absolute perfection. I was later to come to realise that the Italians are generally more attractive than people elsewhere, but still, this young man was incredibly exquisite. We roused ourselves from our sleeping bags and looked at him in response. He talked on a bit more. Our faces remained blank. Then he seemed to realise something and change tack. "(blah blah) parlo Italiano?" We knew what that meant. We shook our heads. "Ah." It took about four seconds for he and Ms A to establish Spanish as the common language that they could both understand. And the whole spiel was repeated. Ms A then explained to me that we had apparently found ourselves in the backyard of a rehabilitation facility for drug addicts. The young men were the inpatients.

They were thrilled to find themselves with unexpected visitors, and took their roles as hosts very seriously. They snuck us into the kitchen, explaining that they couldn't let the staff see us here, and made fresh espresso coffee and squeezed juice fresh from blood oranges for us. They raided the kitchen and put together a bag of food for us to take on the road, such a big bag that its weight was a serious hindrance until we could eat it up. One of the young men asked us if we would take his boots. He explained, through another who interpreted, that he could not go anywhere because he had to stay here in this facility. He would like to think that his boots could travel, even if he couldn't. We were really sad to say no to his request, but the boots didn't fit us and we couldn't take on that kind of useless weight in our packs. Still, whatever that place was doing for those young men, I was sure it was something good. They all looked extremely healthy. I never would have guessed them for heavy drug addicts. They were obviously all doing very well in there. The handsome one told me in very slow, thoughtful, broken English how he couldn't believe his eyes when he had seen a tent in the yard when he had woken up this morning. He thought he was seeing things. Those dear young men were so incredibly thrilled with the whole adventure of having these exotic, foreign young women turn up in a little tent in the middle of the night. I'll never forget that man's face as he tried to find English words to describe his experience. They hurried us on our way before the main shift of staff arrived for the day, but I daresay there's a good chance those young men will never forget us, either.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

My New Home is Hot and Sticky

...which is not at all surprising, seeing as we are officially living in a sub-tropical rainforest, but, my goodness, it's a bit of shock to the system for this winter-loving lady.

I'm aware that most people from other countries have an impression of Australia as a generally very hot place, and for the most part of this nation's landmass, it's quite true. But I have lived most of my life in the southern states of Victoria and Tasmania, enjoying a proper cycle of the four seasons in a fairly regular European fashion - cold winters requiring woollens, firewood and raincoats, and hot summers with ice cream, sunglasses and broad-rimmed hats. I've always adored the colours of the autumns and the thrill of the icy winters, and barely tolerated the hot summers, hiding indoors as much as possible in the daylight hours.

And now I am here, where it's summer nine months of the year, and winter is something that only happens in the night hours, and retreats each day at dawn, leaving me dressed in the summeriest frocks throughout even July and August. This is a great sadness for me, and the sacrifice against which I measure all the advantages I have gained with this move.

I am glad for the humidity, for I have always tolerated a damp heat much better than a dry heat, which gives me the feeling that I am dying of dessication. Still, I got quite a shock to realise just how saturated the very air and land is here. All the bedding and clothing seems to be slightly damp, all the time. Many of my personal possessions made of wood or leather have had to be thrown out because all they do here is breed mould. Wooden frames are swollen and warped. I'm collecting air-tight tins as fast as I can with every trip to the op shops, and the question I ask myself when buying anything new is "Is this going to get mouldy at home?". I'm using a tumble dryer regularly for the first time in my life, because the clothes just won't get dry, even hanging in the sun all day. And apparently this is still the dry season. I'm yet to experience the wet of the summer months, when we can expect to be flooded in as a matter of course. It reminds me of the two visits to Bali I've had more than anything I'm familiar with. I might still be in Australia, but this land is so very foreign to me.

As you can imagine, there are quite a few changes to my lifestyle involved in adjusting to this new climate. The most significant of these, for me, is to my spiritual practise. The short story is that I have abandoned the Wheel of the Year as a part of my practise, or at least shelved it until such time as I can return to more conducive climes. The long story is as follows.

I remember one day, a couple of years ago, I was idly pondering certain thoughts when it suddenly occurred to me that it would be impossible to recognise or practise the Witches' Wheel of the Year if you lived on or close to the Equator. This apparently trivial detail really got me thinking very deeply - how valid is the Wheel of the Year as a doctrine, if isn't even portable to another part of the Earth?

So I thought, and I pondered, and I realised that it is still as valid as it was when I thought of it as an absolute truth. But I needed to add a new dimension of my understanding of spirituality, that it is a response to the immediate environment as much as to our human consciousness. I asked myself what Witchcraft would be without the Wheel of the Year, and I envisaged an animistic, shamanistic kind of practise of folk magic. And I realised I was closer to the truth of the nature of my religion than I had ever been before.

Like most people of a witchy nature, I read a lot of witchy books, especially when I was younger. Many of those books were strongly influenced by Wiccan and BTW memes, including the concept of an eight-fold Wheel of the Year. And, like most people, I swallowed it all whole at first. It didn't take long for niggling doubts to arise. If I really put the effort into celebrating a Sabbat with a full-scale feast and ritual, it would take a considerable amount of time and energy, and usually some expense, to pull it off, and then a little while longer to recover and integrate the experience. By then, the next Sabbat would only be a few weeks away. If my modern, affluent self could feel overwhelmed by the resources required by the 'proper' celebration of the Sabbats, then how the hell did our primitive, subsistence-living ancestors handle it? Something didn't add up. The doubts niggled away, though I love the story of the Wheel of the Year as a creation myth. I found that my favourite Sabbats were Samhain and Yule, and with these I found I could focus on developing a continuing and cyclic system of marking the passage of the seasons. I sometimes wondered if I were not 'doing it right'.

The light-bulb 'aha!' explanation came to me about a year and half ago, when I 'just happened' to read in three different texts over a period of two months that the Solstices and Equinoxes, or 'Lesser Sabbats' in the Wiccan tradition, were marked and celebrated by Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, while the Celts practised the celebration of the cross-quarter days or 'Greater Sabbats' - Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc. Both these traditions had become conflated into one modern, eight-fold system in more recent times - and I'm guessing, though I haven't actually done the research, that Gardner & co. had something to do with that. Somehow, learning this helped me to give up the pressure I put on myself to find the 'right way' to mark the Sabbats, and just concentrate on my actual experience and reality.

And my reality is now sub-tropical. I'm going to have to learn the signs for the passing of time all anew.

And, as for the fact that a power line to my new home went down, cutting off the power, exactly on the evening of May 1, exactly at the first moment of my non-observance of Samhain, shortly after our arrival here - well, if that was gods or spirits commenting on such, or whether it was just the fact that the power poles had been left long neglected of maintenance, we'll never know.

Monday, 5 August 2013

of the Return of the Prodigal Blogger, and What She Learnt in the Wilderness

Aye, and I've been a terrible bad, bad blogger again.

Not only that. It's worse this time. Not only did I stop blogging again, but this time I stopped following the blogs I love, as well.

And now I know. Life is less without blogging. I miss it terribly.

So, what the hell happened, Lady Demelza, to get yourself into such a state?

Ah, well, that's where the exciting news comes in. I left off blogging when I got too busy with the mission of moving house. This is where I live now.



It's so beautiful I could just burst.

I started out with the best of intentions, and a long list of half-finished draft posts that I intended to keep me going through the busy move. But the process of packing, sorting, cleaning and moving proved more than I could handle as it was. The digital world seemed less relevant as the physical world became so very full and demanding. Then I arrived, and as fate would have it, there were some 'issues' with the Internet connection at first. I fell further and further behind in the worlds of my beloved bloggers. It was too easy to think it was just too hard to catch up again, and there were so many new things to enthrall my attention.

Eventually the buzz subsided, and I came to notice their absence. I came to realise what I had lost.

Not lost, though, of course. It's all right here at my fingertips.

I love you and I missed you all, dear blog friends. I have so much to tell you. And I will, because now I know what it costs me when I don't.

Monday, 25 March 2013

One Less Fat-Shaming Ad in the World Tonight

How many times a day do you see some advertising in all our varied forms of media that is really stupid at best, or horribly offensive at worst? Probably really quite often, unless you live in a cave in Outer Mongolia. How often do you speak out and try to do something about it? Probably not very often. You might have tried once or twice and become discouraged at how hard it is to find someone responsible for the ad to listen to you. Or maybe you're just so overwhelmed by the enormity of this issue and don't know where to start.

I want to give a HUGE congratulations and thank-you-for-fighting-the-good fight to Lucy from the wonderful blog Lulastic and the Hippyshake for her her fantastic response to an incredibly stupid AND horribly offensive ad for Weetabix in the UK. Bonus points for sending Barbie through the mail. Really, have a look, it's gorgeous.

I must admit, only twice have I ever bothered to actually put my outrage into a formal complaint. The first time was about six years ago, when I noticed a sign in the front window of a shop saying 'No Fat Chicks.' Yes, really, it's true. I complained to the shop manager, and the manager of the shopping plaza which hosted this shop. I was told it's just a joke, get over it, and actually, the people I spoke to seemed to be angry with me for complaining. I rang the local council, the police, and Equal Opportunity. The response I got from these agencies was, basically, well yes I agree that's terrible, but we can't do anything about it. Equal Opportunity explained to me that unless I am actually refused service in the shop on the grounds of being overweight, they can put any sign they like in their front window. The sign stayed up, and I altered my path when walking through town to avoid going past that shop ever again. Eventually, it packed up and moved to another suburb. I got the message from that experience that there's really not much point complaining about injustice, it's just a waste of energy.

Well I found a renewed wave of energy today when I was walking past a Michael Hill jewellery store, actually in the same shopping plaza as the No Fat Chicks shop had been. Now I have never seen an ad that manages to combine fat-shaming with Easter-merchandise-promotion before, but someone had managed it. The sign said 'Put it on her hand instead of on her hips this Easter.'

 Cough choke splutter.

Let's look at what this message is implying. Firstly, that all women are concerned about the size of their hips. Secondly, that all the husbands, partners and assorted loved ones have some kind of vested interest in keeping their women's hips smaller. And also, that it's a bad thing to eat chocolate at Easter, because it will make your hips too big. There a lot of individuals who happen to have large hips and will be choosing to eat some chocolate this Easter weekend. This message at the jeweller's was just piling the shame onto these individuals.

How is it any business at all of a jewellery store to comment or have an opinion on the size of their clientele's hips?

I was still feeling pretty annoyed about it when I got home. Maybe I was inspired by Lucy and her campaign to educate the Weetabix company. So I looked up the store's phone number, and gave them a call. The woman who answered the phone wasn't at all sympathetic. She told me that it was just put up as a bit of humour. She really didn't see what my problem was, but she told me rather grudgingly that she would pass my feedback on to the manager, and hung up.

So next I called the management of the plaza that the store is in. At last, I spoke to someone who listened to me and didn't treat me like a lunatic for complaining about a silly little sign. She was sympathetic, and assured that management would talk to Michael Hill about it, but pointed out that they had no power to force any shop in their plaza to take down any signs. All they could do was pass on my concerns.

The next step was to find the Michael Hill website and send them an email expressing my feelings about this cruel attempt to use people's concerns about obesity to sell them jewellery. I really wasn't expecting to get any further than that, so next I sat down to write this blog post and share my outrage with you all. I'd only gotten three sentences down when my phone rang. It was a regional manager from Michael Hill. He'd just read my email and rang me straight away. Yay, an intelligent, competent person! We discussed the issues involved here and he said he completely agreed with me. And he wasn't just saying that to shut me up - he made it clear that he really did have an awareness of the issues I was concerned about. He agreed that that was not the sort of environment they wanted at Michael Hill, and assured me that the sign would be coming down very soon, certainly before the day was out. He also said that they would take care to edcuate the staff who had put up that sign as to why this was inappropriate.

How many kinds of awesome is that? Wow, I actually changed the world today, just a tiny little bit. Thanks heaps, Mr. Regional Manager. Michael Hill is no longer on my List of Mortal Enemies. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

on 'The End of Mr. Y' by Scarlett Thomas, and Related Thoughts

I read a fabulous book recently, as I often do, and I want to tell you about it, which is something that I also often want to do, but often don't. I had a little epiphany about why I don't get those thoughts out and onto a blog post. I've been using the term 'literary review' in the titles of posts about books. This is because I like literary reviews, and they're definitely a good thing to do. But now I realise I need to stop using this expression. I have too many constrictive ideas about what a literary review actually is, and many of the thoughts I have about books don't seem to be part of my definition of a literary review. So I'll just write about books. If you would like to read a more conventional kind of proper literary review of this book, there's this one here on Goodreads and this one on Novel Niche, both of which I quite liked.

To begin with, my story about a book begins quite a bit earlier than when I actually read it. First, there is the story of how I came to read the book, where I found it, the way in which I came into my life, who told me about it, and what I've heard other people say about the book before I read it. All those experiences are somehow, in a way I can't explain, so fundamentally bound up with my relationship to the book that I always feel that the story begins there, sometimes long before I ever open the cover.

So this story begins with a horror heatwave, where it's too hot to eat, sleep or even read a book. By the last couple of days I was so desperate I resorted to spending the afternoons hanging out in the big Westfield plaza, which is usually something like my idea of Hell on Earth - only I doubt that Hell has air conditioning.

This is how I came to be wandering around a Westfield plaza looking for a way to kill time until the sun started to go down, and this is how I came to spend some time in a bookshop that wasn't a secondhand shop. It was one of those big discount warehouse kind of bookshops, with aisles to lose yourself in, and a lady on the checkout who seemed to have absolutely no interest whatsoever in anything that wasn't happening directly in front of her face. This gave me a lovely feeling of freedom, not worrying about what she thinks of me spending a whole hour in here, or the fact that every now and then I would take out a notebook and pen and make a note of a title or author that sounded interesting. You'd be surprised how many people seem to find 'note-taking behaviour' something of a concern.

One of the books that attracted me was Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. And so I duly noted such in my notebook, which I must admit was actually a sudoku puzzle book, and I just used the spacious margins to make notes. Then I went home and looked up all the titles and authors I had noted on the online catalogue of my local library, which is always my first step when I hear of an interesting book. Only if the library doesn't have it, will I look at buying a (secondhand!) copy. It's really very rare now that I will actually buy a brand new book. My library did indeed have Our Tragic Universe, but it also had a couple of other books by the same author, which is how I discovered the existance of The End of Mr. Y, which sounded even more attractive than the first book I'd looked for, and so that was the one I put on hold, along with several other discoveries. A couple of days later I get a text from my library telling me my books are waiting for me. It's all a free service. How awesome is that? Sometimes I reckon public libraries must be the best thing about the modern world.

On the other hand, my Pile of Books to Read increases by about two feet. Sigh.

Of all the novels that I read, or consider reading, only a few will really grab me suddenly, fiercely and passionately. The End of Mr. Y is one of them. I read the first few chapters one day, and then was so sucked in that the next day I read the rest of the book straight through.

The main character, Ariel Manto, is a Ph.D student with some intriguing academic obsessions in the history of (actual, non-fictional) thought experiments in general, and the works of a (fictional) Thomas Lumas in particular. Thomas Lumas had written a book called The End of Mr. Y, which was considered to be cursed, as all the very few people who had ever been known to have read the book had disappeared, including Ariel's supervisor. Only one copy of the book is known to exist, and it's securely locked up in a German bank vault. So it seems impossible when she happens to find a copy in a second-hand bookshop, but it's real. And yes, it's going to completely change her life. I so know that feeling.

If I'm going to really get into a novel, I need to be able to identify with the protagonist in some way, to be able to understand their motives. If I don't, I can still appreciate the literary merits of a book, and what I can learn from it, but it just won't get into my heart. But I could slip into Ariel's world like slipping my door key into my own front door. I belonged in her space. And I liked her.

I asked myself why I liked her, what I thought of her. The first thing that came to mind is "She's more depressed than she thinks she is." She's so busy focussing on survival day by day that she doesn't stop to think about how she feels about things. She never feels sorry for herself, though the lifestyle she's describing in the beginning of the story is pretty bleak. She never indulges herself, she just gets on with it, making the best choice she can in any given situation. Still, there is a melancholy air behind her voice that made me feel that she was someone who knew The Black Dog intimately, that perhaps her denial was her defense. Later in the book she reveals that she used to cut herself to deal with her emotions, but now she smokes cigarettes instead, which is of course much more socially acceptable. Details like this confirm my image of her, and make me feel closer to her. I feel like she and I would be able to understand each other without talking about things much, like you can with some people. That is, if she weren't a fictional character.

Then I had to ask myself why that was the first thing that I picked up on about her, the primary way I related to her. Am I more depressed than I think I am? Is my denial my defense? Umm, yes, probably, and yeah, I reckon, respectively. Depression is a constant force in my life; sometimes it's stronger than other times, but it's always there somewhere. Sometimes I do need to just get on with things, keep going day to day, not in spite of it, but because it has to be irrelevant. The only other alternative is to watch everything fall apart.

Okay, so I admit, I'm having some depression lately. Having admitted that, I'll just get on with things, and back to all the other reasons why The End of Mr. Y is a fabulous book. And fabulous books are in themselves, of course, a wonderful way to combat or deal with depression.

It often seems to me that novels tend to fall into one of two categories - either it's 'light' and entertaining and enjoyable and assumes that the reader is probably not very bright, and doesn't place any undue demands on such, or it's 'heavy' and dense or just so bloody high-falutin' in showing us how very clever this book is, and so must we be if we're reading it. Hmmph. Well this book is a rarity - it's a down-to-earth, grounded narrative without a hint of that rarified dialect I refer to as 'academic wank,' but it also assumes that the reader is an intelligent person and able to deal with some abstract thought.

I must admit I took Jonathan Coe's quote on the front cover - "Not only will you have a great time reading this book, but you will finish it a cleverer person than when you started" - as something of a challenge, given that I consider myself a pretty clever person on a good day. I had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps Mr. Coe just wasn't as clever as me to begin with. And yes, I did have a fabulous time reading this book, and I appreciating being treated as an intelligent reader, but no, I didn't actually learn anything new as such, or end up any cleverer. I don't know if I would be someone who could be described as being 'well-versed in quantum physics' as the Novel Niche review suggests, but it has been something of a hobby of mine ever since I had my first experience of spiritual enlightenment in a chemistry classroom in high school, and as for being 'formidably read across the sciences' - well, yes, I am a bit formidable when it comes to reading. I'll cop to that one.

But even though I wasn't learning anything new as such, damn I enjoyed reading about these subjects being discussed by regular human beings who are interested in life, rather than professional scientists. If you are interested in brushing up on your quantum physics or your existentialist philosophies, I would much sooner recommend an excellent story like this one over a non-fiction, academic text.

I do love books that are about books, stories about stories. In this case, The End of Mr.Y is a book, written by a real person and presented as fictional, about a book called The End of Mr. Y, by the fictional author Thomas Lumas, which asks to be considered as fictional, though of course we know it's not. I love the double reality this creates - when we're thinking about The End of Mr. Y, do we mean Thomas' book, or Lumas'? Are they actually the same thing? Is Thomas Lumas really a part of Scarlett Thomas, anyway? Is the name a clue? Where does one story cause another to happen, or is it all one story? You can go round in circles thinking like this. What delicious fun. As the main character Ariel reads Lumas' book, she shares it with us, sometimes in direct quotes, and sometimes in a synopsis in Ariel's own voice, filling in the bits in between. I really enjoyed this split experience of Mr. Y's story. It didn't feel so split, though, maybe because Ariel relates to Mr. Y, and I relate to Ariel, and all our perceptions of the one story sift out into a beautiful cohesion.

So now I really have to find everything else that Scarlett Thomas has published, and keep an eye out for anything new she might publish in the future, because I've got a feeling that this woman is gold and I'm going to love at least most of what she writes. And my To-Read Pile increases by ... oh big sigh.

Friday, 22 March 2013

on the Unbearable Pain of Being Alive

My family and I have had at least our fair share of health problems and hospital stays, but I never really understood how much pain there is in the world until I became Mr CJ's carer.

When he first became unwell, I knew that it would take a long time and a gazillion tests before they worked out what was wrong with him. But I was still naive enough to imagine that once they worked out what the problem was, they would be able to treat him, and he might not get cured, but at least be able to manage and learn to live with it.

That was four years ago. It turns out that even with all our whizz-bang medical technology, there's not much they can do with him other than prescribe addictive painkillers that just dull the pain, just a little. He's still in almost constant, intense pain. Whenever I look up from what I am doing, whether it's the dishes or a puzzle or blogging, the first thing I see is Mr CJ heroically bearing up under incredible pain. The first thing that happens every morning is that I have to get him to get up and take his morning meds, and my god is he in terrible pain when he first wakes up. In a way it's a constant reminder of how lucky I am, and I certainly don't complain about much any more. Priorities become crystal clear in the face of chronic pain. But it's also true that I'm living with his pain 24-7 and it's just fucking heart-breaking, to watch helplessly day after day while there's just so much pain everywhere I look.

And it's not just Mr CJ. There are actually thousands and millions of people around the world suffering chronic pain of one kind or another, and there's really nothing much that can help them. I see all these people whenever I go to the Pain Clinic for an appointment with Mr CJ, or to Outpatients to pick up his meds. The waiting rooms are full of them. I can't help but imagine all the waiting rooms in all the world, and all the people suffering and desperately hoping for an end to the pain. I was one of them for about a year, when I had a bad back, but I was lucky enough to be one of the few success stories, and I got pretty much all better. I feel the weight of all this suffering throughout my whole life now. Sometimes I just despair at the hopelessness of it all.

Today is a day we've been waiting for for a long time. He's been on a waiting list for almost a year to have this procedure that helped him a lot last time he had it - and that's pretty lucky. A lot of people are waiting much longer. The doctors may want to do this treatment again if it's successful - but then it will be another year or more on another waiting list. In the meantime, there's just all this miserable fucking pain.

There was a girl in the waiting room today. She was a young one to be in there, only about 21 at a guess. She was there with her boyfriend, both of them seeming pretty white-trashy with their tacky tattoos and loud complaints about not being able to go out for a cigarette. Now I did not mean to eavesdrop on her pre-treatment interview with the nurse, but it's a bit hard not to when you're all jammed in elbow to elbow in a tiny waiting room. She was here for an epidural - I got the impression she was having the same kind of treatment I had on my back. She asked the nurse if she'd be having a general anaesthetic. The nurse said no, "It's just a little needle." And this point the poor girl just absolutely panicked and lost it. She said that she'd had this procedure twice before, and once it had gone wrong. The needle had hit a nerve in a bad way, causing her excruciating pain. She didn't want to go through it, she wanted to just go home. Her boyfriend was being pretty wonderful. He dropped all his tough-boy attitude and became all cuddles, comfort and reassurance. He talked her out of going home. He said "They won't do the surgery on you if you don't get this done." Ouch - surgery. This girl has a long way to go, and right now, she's panicking in a waiting room.

So I made my apologies about the unintentional eavesdropping, and I said to this girl, "I had this procedure done, and I was a success story. I used to use a walking frame, and now I'm totally fine. And your doctor (whose name I had also overheard) is a really good doctor. I've known a lot of doctors, and really, he's very good." This was totally true - I wasn't just falsely reassuring her. I told her how I understood that if you've had a bad experience in the past, it can be really scary to go there again. I wished I could have said "Nothing like that will happen again" but of course that's bullshit - there's always a risk. So I said "That probably won't happen again." That's going to have to be good enough for her, just like for everyone else.

And she started to breathe and wrap her head around the concept of going into that theatre to face an epidural conscious. Her boyfriend started to tell her about how they would have such a nice relaxing evening tonight, watching DVDs, and he's going to cook dinner. Would you like a carbonara, he asked. She sniffled and nodded. He got her talking about ingredients - will I get some mushrooms for it? And I was thinking, this bloke is doing a really good job dealing with her distress. He picked up a Gourmet magazine from the coffee table, and starting going through it, showing things that looked yummy to his girl, getting her thinking about something else to distract her. Then he got a bit annoyed with that magazine and plonked it back down on the coffe table, picking up another one instead. He said - really, I swear he said this out loud - "The recipes are so much better in Woman's Day, anyway."

By the time Mr CJ was called in she was pretty much calmed down, and the recipe for tonight's carbonara had grown into something astoundingly gourmet. I thought about making a joke about how I would kidnap her boyfriend while she was in there and take him home to cook for me, but you don't want to joke around in that state. So I just reminded her that a lot of the other people in this room would be having their treatments today and then going home to cook their own dinners. She got my point.

I'll be nipping back up to the hospital to pick him up soon. We are all praying for one simple thing - that he will wake up in the morning and not have a headache. Please pray with me. We need all the help we can get.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

of the Neverending Stories

I had to have a little chuckle when I came across this post this morning, where Stan Carey describes his 'to-read' stack of books as a mountain. Then he corrects himself and points out that the mountain is actually more of a range. Now there's a man who's honest with himself, I thought to myself. I am still in total denial, obviously. I'm still just calling mine a 'pile' - though now I'm suddenly aware that this is a terribly inadequate word.

Since as long as I can remember, there has always been, somewhere, in some form, a pile of books that I intend to read.

This is what my Pile looked like a fortnight ago when I started writing this post.


Then I procrastinated, which of course is something I'm very good at... though now I'm kind of glad for it, because I got to find that gem about the Pile becoming a mountain range. In the meantime there was another trip to the library. And now my Pile looks like this.


These pictures, however, only show the portion of the Pile that is visible to me and on hand at the time. The Pile in these pictures really are just the tip of an enormous literary iceberg. Beyond the immediacy of the physical presence of the Pile, there are great shadowy heaps of titles and authors swimming around in the part of my mind that is devoted to remembering the things I want to get around to at some point. There are so many titles and writers in my internal memo database that even I can't access the whole list all at once. I can't even imagine it. Really, I've tried, and I just can't wrap my head around the concept of all the books that would potentially exist in the Pile if I could see it all at once.

I remember having a revelation about the infinite nature of the Pile about two years ago. I really wanted to re-read one of my favourite books. It was probably Anne of Green Gables, because the forty-seven times I read that book through my childhood were just not enough. I never want to forget how awesome Anne is. And at the time, I thought to myself, okay, well I'll just finish reading the books I've got here in my Pile now, and then I'll get to it. But, of course, by the time I reached the last book in that particular incarnation of the Pile, it had already grown again. Suddenly I realised that the Pile would always be there. No matter how much  I actually read in my life, the Pile is still going to be as big as ever was, if not bigger. There are always going to be new books popping up into my awareness that I will want to read, and even if everybody stopped publishing anything new right now, I would still need several lifetimes just to get through all the books that are already out there that I want to read. Every now and then, I get a little bee in my bonnet about some particular topic or historical personage, and I'll go to the library catalogue online and look up everything I can find on the subject. A lot of the books I find I won't bother reading through, but a lot of them, I will. I remember realising, all of a sudden, that the Pile would always be there, no matter how much or how little I read. One day, I'm going to die, and I'm going to leave behind a Pile of books that I didn't get time to read. That's just life.

A few good insights came out of my revelation. The most important one for me, I think, is to always remember that life is just too short to read crappy books. Or even just mediocre books. I resolved then not to waste any more time reading anything that isn't just an absolutely amazing, fabulous, life-changing book. I'm a lot harsher now in culling my reading Pile. If I start reading a book, and a little way in it hasn't changed my life yet, I give up on it and look for a more important book. You'd think I'd start running out of books to read with such incredibly high standards. I was kind of hoping I would. But no. Every week of my life I just find out about more books and writers that really are that brilliant. Even if I'm not looking for them.

That was two years ago, and I still haven't re-read any of my favourites. I sometimes despair that I ever will again, with the Pile towering over my shoulder, calling out to me with the irresistible temptation of the potential of the unknown.

But, if I could, would I have it any other way? Um, no, actually. Now excuse me, I really have to wrap this up and get back to my reading.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

how to make Surprise Experimental Blueberry Frozen Yoghurt in approximately 17 Sontaneous Steps

1. Suffer miserably through another record-breaking heatwave. Climate change? - well isn't is obvious?

2. Wake up after the cool change has come through and have a meltdown, because it's so much easier to have a breakdown about something after the fact, rather than while you're busy coping with it.

3. Try to take it easy but end up feeling sick with over-exhaustion by evening. Become driven to distraction by a powerful craving for something, only you don't know what it is. Something to do with nutrients that the heat sucks out of you.

4. Go through every item in the kitchen, looking for whatever it is that you don't know what it is yet. Find a bag of frozen blueberries in the freezer. Oh, that's it. Or close enough.

5. Wonder what goes with blueberries while they are defrosting. Go through the kitchen again and come up with yoghurt, honey and linseed-sunflower-almond meal. Mix them together in a bowl.

6. Hmm. We're getting there, but it's not quite fabulous, and it's such a bugger to distribute honey in a really cold liquid.

7. Hit on the idea of freezing it - possibly influenced by a recent heatwave-induced ice-cream binge. Remember some recipes you read once about how to make ice-cream, and figure you're onto something. Stick the bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes just to get it firming up a little.

8. Get chatting on the phone and come back to the kitchen 50 minutes later. Discover that it's only just really cold, and still soft. Realise that this process is going to take a lot longer than you thought.

9. Put it back in the freezer.

10. Occupy yourself in the meantime by dusting, cleaning out and re-laying the main altar for the first time in aaayy-ges. (I don't know how this affects the yoghurt, but it's a good thing to do anyway.)



11. Pop back down to the kitchen after 20-30 minutes to discover that the blueberry mixture is now nicely firm but not quite frozen solid.

12. Chop the mixture in a criss-cross fashion with a sharp knife, like so.


13. Let it defrost a few minutes, then mash it up with a fork.

14. Repeat steps 9, 12 and 13 two or three more times.

15. Transfer mixture to freezer container. Lick the bowl because now you've decided that it's totally awesome.

16. Realise that it's after midnight, which means it's your birthday. Figure that you really should stick a candle on top of something. (Note - this step won't work most of the time. Consider it optional.)

17. Get creatively liberal with the concept of 'ice-cream cake' and take great artistic license in interpreting the prepositional phrase 'on top of' - it's all a matter of persepective.