Category Archives: Writing

3 Ways Meditation Will Make You a Better Writer

 

Sex, Drugs and Meditation

I walk to my spot and sit down, a mat beneath me and two cushions under my bottom. I’m comfortable now but I know it won’t last. Within ten minutes the aches will begin. Dull and annoying to start and then as time drags on they will intensify. Ten days of silence, meditating eleven hours a day. Why do I do it? You’d think once would be enough. And yet I have returned time and time again to sit for ten days in silence and in pain.

Must of us live a life of fear and reaction. We do too much in order to impress, or hide so no one will expect anything of us. Tossed on the vagaries of emotion, it’s an exhausting and wasteful way to live. When I sit in silence I experience all emotions, all feelings, all states. I experience them knowing they will change. Everything always does. Even the pain. And during this time, when I’m supposed to be meditating where does my mind go? Everywhere. It dives into the past, raking over the embers. It plunges into the future, inventing scenarios. And when it’s done regretting and worrying it makes up possibilities of increasing drama and intensity. After a while I tire of all of this. But am I ready to do the work? Am I ready to meditate properly? Not quite yet.

1. Meditation clears the mind clutter and allows your creativity to blossom.

When all the whys, wherefores, he said, she said, he did, she did, blame, reaction and catastrophising is done, creativity is free to roam with characters, stories and adventures that are pure imagination, often not of this world. It’s fascinating and freeing to allow yourself to follow where creativity leads. Meditation breaks down that very thin membrane between the conscious and the subconscious. And let’s face it, the subconscious is where all the interesting stuff happens.

I’m not a very good meditator it’s true, but there comes a time when the meditation takes over, when my mind finally stills, when I get the essence of what I’m here to do. Come out of all  suffering, be liberated from all misery. Stop reacting and resenting. Stop being so afraid. I’m not perfect, not even close, which is why I keep meditating. I meditate because it helps in my day to day life, literally. I saved my job and found a husband through meditation. I also meditate because it helps my writing.

2. Meditation gives you the kind of detachment a writer needs.

Meditation is creative, not only because my restless mind supplies me with endless plots and characters. It’s creative because it helps me to write, no matter what mood I’m in, no matter what’s happening around me. It’s not selfishness, it’s just knowing that what ever the problem or drama is, it will pass without you meddling or trying to fix it. And if it doesn’t? Then it’s time for a different approach but an approach that’s tempered by thoughtfulness not desperation.

3. Meditation allows you to write with courage and honesty. To stop judging.

With the loving detachment that meditation brings you’re better able to step aside and let the story glow and burn without the temptation of modifying it to make yourself look better. Judgement is a hinderance to life and to creativity. It carries the weight of expectation. Impossible to meet. The more I meditate the less I judge myself and my work. Other people may judge. They will think what they like. It’s none of my business. Besides, what they think will change. Everything does.

I have returned to the meditation centre seven times. Seven times I have spent ten days sitting in silence and in pain. Seven times I have reaped the benefits. Am I suffering for my art? Some say life is suffering and the art is to overcome that suffering. For me meditation is the art of living. And writing. It is the art of creation.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post and then was picked Up by The Brazil Post. Yes, I’ve been translated into Portuguese. How cool.

My TED Talk

Here’s the script for the talk I hoped to deliver at TEDxNoosa. I did the talk but not exactly as is written here. No one would have known though. It was almost the same. Perfection doesn’t exist in nature I am told

little hands and little feetI think we all know what a toddler is. A small version of a human usually found wearing a nappy. Have you ever seen what toddlers do when life bumps up against them unexpectedly? They might have just fallen over on their padded bottoms or experienced some other small event that didn’t entirely delight them? They haven’t hurt themselves, they’ve just been given a bit of a surprise.

What happens next is very interesting – and every parent, grandparent, aunty or uncle, or anyone who’s had anything to do with toddlers will recognise this – they don’t do anything. Just for a second they pause. It’s as if their minds are doing a little damage report – “What just happened? Am I hurt? Is it bad? Should I cry? Should I scream the house down?”

And what we do next can make all the difference. If we react, run to them, start fussing over them then you can guarantee that yes, they will start crying and yes they will probably scream the house down. But if we don’t react, if we stay calm, if we go on with whatever we’re doing they will almost always pick themselves up, keep wobbling along and within moments be exploring and laughing again.

We can learn a lot from toddlers. What happens when life bumps up against us? Something we want hasn’t happened. Something we didn’t want has happened. A friend lets us down. Our boss berates us. Someone we don’t even know is rude to us. We get cut off in traffic. We have to wait way too long in a queue. We don’t win the prize, the girl, the accolades, the contract. What do we do?

We react. We defend, justify, complain. We go on the attack. We try to make the other person feel as bad as we do. We plot our revenge. Or we pretend to shrug it off. “Nothing to see hear folks,” while inside we’re seething in anger and resentment.

And so here we are. Something bad has happened. We’ve reacted. And now we feel even worse. We are that toddler screaming and crying. We are not having fun. We are not free to explore. We’ve turned that little bump into a major catastrophe.

So what’s the alternative. We can pause – like that toddler. There is a small space between experiencing something in our lives and reacting to it. For most of us that space hardly exists. Something happens to us and we instantly go into reaction. Once there we are left with no choice. But if we pause, if we give ourselves that space, we have choice and that is a powerful thing.

I will make one exception  to the “taking a pause” thing- and that is if the attack is physical. Many years ago I signed up for a self-defence class. I thought I would become a kung fu master. Instead the first thing they taught us was “If they want your money – give it to them.” And the next thing they taught was – whenever possible the best thing to do is run away. If in physical danger, don’t pause, don’t stop and think about your next word or action, just run. Good advice.

But in all other circumstances….when we pause, when we leave that space, we give ourselves options, we have choice. We don’t have to react. We don’t have to paint ourselves into a corner. We don’t have to be left shaking our heads thinking “Why did I do that – again?!” Instead we can choose how we respond and what we do – if anything. We have the choice.

How do we learn to do this? How do we give ourselves that pause, that space? How do we even become aware of that space? And how do we learn to expand that space?

By doing nothing. Yes, by doing nothing. And just by practising doing nothing.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was head hunted to start up a new radio station. The program director of the network advised me, as he advised all the staff he was recruiting, to read Thick Face Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu – an expert in business psyche and success tactics. I dutifully bought a copy but never got around to reading it.

Almost a year later, completely overwhelmed by the workload, I was at breaking point.  After each frantic and exhausting day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t coping was because I hadn’t read the book. Could Thick Face Black Heart be the key to managing the sixteen hour days I was regularly putting in? I had a mentor who would often say to me, “You can only do what you can do.” His voice was soothing but his advice was not helpful. I told him that I was finally going to read Thick Face Black Heart.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Read her next book instead, The Secrets of the Rainmaker. I think you’ll find it more beneficial.”

I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read.

The Secrets of the Rainmaker is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything, brought in many experts but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it. The villagers are a bit non-plussed. They were expecting some chanting, a dance, some shaking of a rain stick, something. But no. After a couple of days they start to get worried. Is he a charlatan? Have they been idiots to bring him all the way to their village for this? All he does is sit in his tent all day. After four days The Rainmaker still hasn’t emerged from his tent and it still isn’t raining. The villagers are considering burning down his tent with him in it. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything.

He didn’t do anything. When he’d arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with nature, with the Divine, with God, with whatever you want to call it. He spent four days inside his tent bringing himself in harmony with nature, the Divine, with God, with whatever you want to call it. Then the rain came.

Chin-Ning Chiu’s book wasn’t what I was expecting – which was an instruction manual on getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead it talked about trading what you have for what you want, being willing not to survive, and how to respond rather than react through surrender, ease and meditation.

I was already getting up at 4 am but I set my alarm forty minutes earlier to sit in front of a candle on a small table draped in purple silk and meditate. My desperate thoughts would make meditation all but impossible yet I persisted. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest. I did nothing.

The months passed, the workload remained unmanageable, but I kept meditating. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was slowing down enough to allow, as Chin-Ning Chiu says, the angel of good fortune catch up.

And catch up it did. I landed my dream job and moved to the stunningly beautiful Sunshine Coast. Good fortune indeed. But within a year….my dream job  turned into a nightmare Now I’d spent a lot of time in Twelve Step programs in the past, recovering from a gaggle of addictions. There I had learnt, thanks to the Serenity Prayer, that I was powerless over other people, places and things. So I knew I couldn’t change my boss or the company I worked for. If I was to keep the job I loved there was only one thing I could change. Myself. I took some annual leave and instead of having a relaxing holiday I went to a ten day silent meditation retreat where I meditated for 12 hours a day often in excruciating pain.

It was at this meditation retreat that I learnt something that toddlers already know – sitting on their padded bottoms, running through those damage reports. And that is everything we experience, we experience as a sensation. Every sight, taste, smell, sound, touch, every emotion, every thought creates a sensation on or in the body. Some we label as good – beauty, love, chocolate. Others we label as bad – anger, weeds, chocolate.

But all sensations have a common denominator. They’re ephemeral. They don’t last. They will pass, some slower than others, but they will change and they will end. So why cause  a fuss? Why make things worse? Why scream the house down? In those hours of meditation I leant to observe those sensations and realise I didn’t have to react to them. And there’s that space. That space of choice. That space of freedom.  I also learnt to expand that space, to slow down that process enough to allow the angel of fortune catch up.

An angel needs two wings to fly. The two wings of meditation are awareness and equanimity. Thoughts happen, emotions arise. Our job is to be aware of them, use that space to observe them and not to react to them. The power of choice. It’s liberating – and it can be annoying. Sometimes, I must admit, I pause in that space of awareness and choose to be miserable, choose to wallow. Sometimes having a darned good wallow can be fun – the trick is to aware of it, not to take it seriously, and not annoy anyone else if you decide to scream the house down.

So meditation. Sitting and breathing and observing the thoughts, the emotions, the sensations. Through meditation we learn that we don’t have to be driven by automatic reactions. We come out of the habit pattern of our minds, the endless treadmill of cause and effect, and get enough space to look around and go “What do I really want to choose here?” Meditation works because it gives us more space, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath. Space to be and space to choose. Just like that toddler, with a world of infinite possibilities to explore and enjoy.

My hope for you is that you become more like a toddler. Not in all respects of course. Being toilet trained and the ability to cook are two great attributes. But in taking that pause. In being in that space that is yours and yours alone. That small pause gives you power. The power to be anything and to be anyway you choose. And may you slow down enough, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath, to allow the angel of good fortune to catch up.

Guest Post: Lisa Venables author of Saving Zali

I’m thrilled to introduce Lisa Venables whose memoir Saving Zali has just been released.  You might feel as though you already know her – the publicity for her memoir has been amazing.

So now over to Lisa and her writing process.

Who I was tagged in by. 

So, I was tagged in by the outgoing Mary-Lou Stevens whose book Sex, Drugs and Meditation felt like she was sharing a cup of tea with me and telling me about her life. There were no holds barred. Her book was interesting reading about a lifestyle I have never experienced but still relatable.

How does my work differ from others in its genre

saving zaliMy book Saving Zali is about the medical miracles that happened to my daughter, then 18 months old when she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer LCH. She had a complicated and extensive version, and the only treatment available didn’t work. We undertook experimental chemotherapy that caused her to be put into a coma in Intensive Care with less than 1% chance of recovery. The experimental treatment worked and cured the LCH but she developed side effects that were fatal and had no cure. Literally, during the last few hours of her life a mild-mannered genius Dr Munns found an answer. One week later she was out of Intensive Care, three weeks later she was out of hospital and three months later she was back at swimming lessons.

My book is different because it talks about childhood cancer, which is taboo, but very common. My book opens up those dirty two words; childhood cancer, and talks about it frankly. I talk about our experience, and most importantly how we held on, and how Zali recovered in spectacular form.

What am I working on now?

Well, at heart I am a nerd. I love research and especially ancient history. I love that the stories that we tell each other today of family complications, love, war, greed, betrayal are all the same stories we have been engaged in since first man walked out of Africa. I have just submitted a historical fiction to my agent about an incredible ancient history heroine.

I’m doing a course at the moment to work on my third manuscript which is a light-hearted crime fiction, using my previous experience as an Intelligence Officer in Organized Crime Drug Squad. Nothing too serious, just a bit of organized crime, lots of drinking and sex. You know. Police stuff.

Why do I write about what I do.

I am fascinated by all aspects of ancient history. I love seeing pictures on Pinterest of the statues at Petra, talisman from the Sahara, basket weaving done in the same style today as it was thousands of years ago. I can’t help marvel at how we are all still so connected, across time, culture and distance. Something in my very cells tingles in recognition when I see these things. It inspires me.

How does my writing process work.

I have a sunny corner on our enormous deck where I set up underneath a loaded passion fruit vine on a comfy couch with a pot of peppermint tea and allow myself to get carried away from 9.30-12.30. I have some lunch, tidy the house, pick up the kids and do some regular, boring but well paid work. In the evenings I research and allow my mind to wander. I pick up phrases that my characters might say, look at tattoos they would have worn and freestyle imagine.

Before bed I like to meditate to calm my mind. If I don’t, I go to bed buzzing with excitement for my story and the characters talk to me all night. This usually results in me sleepwalking, leaving me tired in the morning. I write because it’s my favorite way to express myself.

I now tag Geena Leigh, and Patti Miller, memoir extraordinaires.

Writing Process? What Writing Process?

I’ve been amazed by the generosity of other writers during this journey to becoming a published author. At every stage there has been a helping hand, an understanding voice and a lift, or in some cases a shove, to the next level. And after publication there has been the same generosity of spirit; other writers willing to spruik my book, to sing its praises and to let the world know. Thank you

Why am I amazed? When I was a musician I helped other songwriters and musos. We were a family. In my life in radio I’ve given advice when asked to those who wanted to work in this form of media. I’m always happy to give what I have in the way of knowledge, connections and practical experience.

Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2I’ve been a member of a writing group for years and the support of those women has been immeasurable. But when I stepped into the world of publishing I was in unknown territory. That’s why the generosity has amazed me. I’m an old hand at being a singer/songwriter and experienced in the realm of radio but I felt newborn and vulnerable in the world of publishing.

That’s why I’m delighted to take part in this writer’s blog chain. Passing on this generosity of spirit and highlighting other authors in a world that needs to know about great writing.

SusannahI have been tagged by the wonderful and effusive Susanna Freymark whose debut novel Losing February has been described with the same adjective as my memoir. “Brave.” We met at the yearly soiree that our agent throws in Sydney. I was new and shy. Susanna was a beacon of joy and laughter. I was drawn like the proverbial moth. Since then I’ve interviewed her for the ABC and shared a couple of panels with her at The Byron Bay Writers Festival. She continues to be a joy. Susanna is in the process of editing her second novel and you can read about her ongoing writing adventure here.

And now to the questions I must answer about my writing.

So . . .  what am I working on now?

I’m not. There, that was a surprise wasn’t it. I refuse to work. I’m in a mind to relax. To read. To reinvigorate. My memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was released last April. My next manuscript is with my publisher after getting the thumbs up from my agent. Right now I’m tired. I need to rest. I’m inspired by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt and his holy minimalism. Arvo spends time in reflection and meditation to gain inspiration for his next composition. I’m not comparing myself to his beatific brilliance but I resonate with his need to retreat, to be still, to be, before moving on to the next project. This year for me is a year of slow transformation. I know what my next project is and I have a notebook of scribbled lines and ideas which I add to on an ad hoc basis but to tell you the truth I’ve never written anything like this before. My publisher has expressed interest in what really is little more than a title at this stage. I will write it but it needs to evolve. I need to evolve to meet it. For the first time I’m not in a hurry. I’m not anxious. It will come. I will be ready. In some ways I’m already there. (You’ll have an “aha moment” when the title is revealed.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

My work is inspired, like Arvo Pärt’s, by meditation. My first memoir is about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. It might sound a bit woo-woo but it’s real and it’s funny and it’s “brave.” My second memoir is about the truth of the happy ending. Meditation helped me survive some of the toughest years of my life – the early years of my marriage. We’re still married and our marriage gets stronger all the time. This second book is about relationships. Big stuff, sometimes heavy stuff, but also funny stuff  and very, very, “brave” stuff.

I’ve also written a novel that my agent tells me doesn’t work but I haven’t given up on it. It too was inspired by meditation. The story and the protagonist came to me at one of the silent ten-day meditation retreats I insist on doing. Meditation is a creative process. You can’t stop your mind that’s for sure. But when you slow it down some very interesting things pop up.

Why do I write about what I do?

When I used to read self-help books I would skip over the theory and never do the exercises at the end of each chapter. Instead I would head straight to the case studies. These are the stories of transformation that we all love so much; the Hero’s Journey, the overcoming of obstacles, the realisations that lead to change. When it became apparent that my life had changed through meditation I thought perhaps someone might like to read my story. Turns out they would.

I also love fiction because I get to play. I get to make stuff up. I have plans for a lot more fiction after the next book and more resting. Watch this space.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea. Honestly. It’s always different. It always changes. I’m not methodical. I’m not a plotter. There are times when I write every night after work and every weekend. I’ve gone years without holidays because every scrap of leave has been spent writing or going on those silent ten-day meditation retreats. I saved up my money and took six months leave without pay, worked with a manuscript assessor and a mentor – all for a novel that doesn’t work, allegedly. But boy, oh boy, did I learn a lot about writing. The one constant has been meditation. Meditation breaks down the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious. It gets to the juice, the real driving force. We think our minds are in charge. They’re not. Meditation allows us to access the real deal, the source of all the action, love, fear and truth. As I mentioned at the moment I’m having a rest from writing. Vital for rejuvenation. Some say you must write every day. I say not so. Forget the musts. Find out what works for you. Everyday is creative whether you write or not. I’d rather have some time to stretch and rest and play and then return to writing with love than to feel duty bound to chain myself to a desk everyday. Besides I have a very exacting day job. Sometimes I need some space.

Now it’s my turn to spread the love by introducing you to two writers.

walter masonWalter Mason writes a whole different kind of travel book. Spiritual, humorous, honest and intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Destination Saigon or Destination Cambodia you will fall in love with him too when you do. Walter is tireless in his promotion of other writers. He is an inspiration. I’ve interviewed him for my program on the ABC, I’ve written a blog for his Universal Heart Book Club and he’s featured my book in his own blog. He is a generous and loving soul. Irresistible. Follow his adventures here and check out The Universal Heart Book Club as well.

blue mileKim Swivel writes as Kim Kelly and her latest novel The Blue Mile will be released in May. She tells a great story and weaves so much history into her novels that I find them fascinating. I’ve learnt things about Australia that I never knew and I’ve learnt them the best way – by being entertained. It’s a great mix. I’ve also interviewed her and found her delightful, humble and quietly determined. You can find out more about Kim here.

Check out their blogs for more about them and their writing process. Read their books and keep reading. It’s fun, inspiring and sometimes even life changing.

 

How I Became a Huffington Post Blogger

huffpostHere I am, a woman from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a long, long way from New York City where The Huffington Post is based. So how did I become a blogger for HuffPost?

To tell you the truth it was totally unexpected.

I knew Arianna Huffington was a huge fan of meditation and I just happen to have written a book about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. I thought perhaps she might like to read my book,  and if she enjoyed it she might tell her friends about it.

I tracked down her email address, it wasn’t hard, and after she had finished her holiday digital detox I sent her an email. This is what it said:

Hi Arianna

Welcome back to the plugged-in world.
 
I’d love to send you a copy of my meditation memoir. I think you might enjoy it. It’s about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. Plus I’m told it’s very funny.  It’s published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.
 
“Bracingly honest, funny and rewarding, this is a book you can’t put down.” Sydney Morning Herald.
 
It is available as an e-book but I’d like to give you a book made out of paper – it is recycled paper 🙂
 
What’s the best address to send it to?
 
Thanks for your time, I appreciate it.
 
Warm regards
Mary-Lou Stephens
Did I expect to hear back from her? Not really. She’s a very busy woman with way too many emails to read I’m sure. But I hoped someone might get back to me with an address.
To my great surprise and delight, less than 2 weeks later this email appeared in my Inbox.
Mary-Lou, many thanks for thinking of us. We would love to feature your voice on HuffPost about your meditation memoir. I’m ccing our Third Metric editor Carolyn Gregoire as well as our Books editor Zoe to follow up. All the best, Arianna
Very quickly afterwards this email chimed in:
Thanks so much for reaching out, Mary-Lou. We’d be thrilled to feature your voice on the page. All we need to get started is a first blog (typically 500-1,000 words), along with a headshot and a bio, all in one email. Please let me know if you have any questions, and feel free to send a copy of the book to the below address. Best, Carolyn

So I did as requested, emailed my bio, headshot and a sample blog.  Within a day I was accepted into the fold at The Huffington Post, set up with my blogger’s toolkit, and my first blog was up on their site shortly afterwards.
The whole experience was miraculous, unexpected, joyful and welcoming. I was amazed at the warmth and promptness of their responses. But I guess when you have the boss suggesting that something should happen, it happens.
So there you have it, I wasn’t looking to become a blogger for The Huffington Post but here I am. And I’m thrilled. Thank you Arianna, thank you Caroline, thank you everyone at HuffPost for making miracles happen.

 

Book Review – Sex, Drugs and Meditation

“For a first book, it’s exquisite.”

Sex, Drugs and Meditation Front coverWe all know the rules. Stories, whether fiction or memoir, need to contain conflict. So when I heard that Mary-Lou Stephens had written a book about ten days of silence at a meditation retreat, my inner cynic snorted. Where’s the conflict in a bunch of people sitting silent and cross legged all day? Maybe Mary-Lou’s peppered the narrative with interesting flashbacks, but even so, the book is 270-pages long. What’s going to move the story forward?  When I finally meet Mary-Lou Stephens, I admit that Sex, Drugs and Meditation is an interesting title, but what I really want to know is how she made a book about silence so interesting that the world’s fifth largest publisher wanted it. 

The answers are in the text, but they’re not easy to explain. I’ve read the Macmillan-published book twice now, and to get your head around how she accomplished this feat, you have to imagine the book as three narratives, each with its own antagonist. In the first narrative we meet  Mary Lou in her afternoon drive-time ABC radio presenter persona, competent to the core, clearly loving her job. But then along comes nasty Mr Purvis, with his sharp suit, his pointy shoes and his perfect teeth. He tells everyone there’s been a restructure and even the old hands must reapply for their jobs. The Hideous Mr Purvis, as Mary-Lou calls him, is her new-found capricious enemy, and is the literary equivalent of Chekov’s gun. We know he’s coming back in the final scenes to take a swipe at Mary-Lou’s composure; he’ll turn up again after her meditation retreat, no doubt. In the meantime, though, it’s the Christmas break and she’s off to the Vipassana retreat.

Those familiar with meditation centres will recognise the subtle interplay of powers and hierarchies that Mary Lou flags. This is Mary-Lou’s first time; returnees get special tea, a tailored meditation routine, and possess an enviable straight-backed purity. Soon it’s obvious to readers that the antagonist in this second narrative is Mary-Lou’s inner critic. Readers familiar with Bridget Jones will recognise the negative self talk. Regarding Bernadette, a fellow meditator she’s only just met: I’m hoping we’ll be friends and I like my friends to be as flawed as I am. Because no one’s able to talk, Mary-Lou tells herself all kinds of stories about the people here: that the straight-backed meditator feels no pain, that her roommate suffers lung cancer, and that the cool yoga chicks want Mary Lou out. In Mary-Lou’s Sittings of Strong Determination, she must learn to remain composed against the demanding pain of an old knee injury. Quiet on the outside, her inner self is all noisy turmoil. At one point during her meditation, she takes up her imaginary machine gun, and mentally opens fire on all the perfect people that annoy her and then all the imperfect people who annoy her. As the heavy artillery rains down, she declares to her inner triumphant self, Take that you fucking serene shits. 

Dealing with ‘serene shits’ is only one of Mary Lou’s myriad challenges. In the third narrative, presented through flashbacks, we meet the younger Mary-Lou: needy child, isolated adolescent, young adult junkie, talented musician. The antagonist in this narrative is Mary-Lou’s mother. From age eight, Mary-Lou felt that her mother, already burdened with raising five other children, simply stopped loving her. Mary-Lou’s never been able to reclaim that love, and always feels as if she doesn’t come up to her mother’s expectations. The dramatic climax to this narrative is the day Mary Lou’s mother condescends to tell her daughter she mustn’t have a social drink today because she’s a recovering alcoholic. [My mother] said it with meanness and spite. Sitting on the couch opposite me, glass of sherry in her hand. I felt wounded beyond measure. I’d been honest with her about my work in Twelve Step programs and she threw it back at me, as an insult. I could let it slide but I knew I would resent it. ‘Mum, it makes it really hard for me to tell you things that are important to me when you say things like that.’ ….She said nothing. The silence stretched between us. I began to panic. I had just stood up to my mother and it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel safe. I wanted to suck those words right back in….Instead, Mary Lou rallies against a retraction and holds her ground in silence. It is a pivotal moment in the book, and an astonishing tribute to the power of silence in the context of conversation. It marks a nice contrast with the studied, contrived silence of the meditators, a much harder silence to admire.

Beyond the book’s clever structural conceits, you’ll find a narrator with a taste for humour: be it ironic, bathetic, or self deprecating. At times her voice turns lyrical, particularly in passages that coalesce around grief: the Port Arthur massacre, her mother’s two miscarriages, and the loss of her father. For a first book, it’s exquisite. She says there’s a sequel on the way. Whether it’s about silence or not, it’s sure to get the tongues wagging.

Ali Quigley, SCLA secretary

 www.scliterary.org

Going Home

Mum & kids beach 2The past is pulling me back. Sometimes as slow and sweet as honey flowing from a jar. Sometimes as sharp as cold metal. I’m going home, back to the land that raised me, back to the town where I was born. It’s the time of year when people gather, with friends, with family, to celebrate the old and light a candle for the future.

 You make a move in life, a decision no matter how small, and that move or decision ripples out, bumping up against other decisions, other lives.

Long before I board the plane the past is nibbling at my ankles. A long neglected friend calls from the south. He sounds as though he’s at the bottom of a well. His life has fallen to pieces, he needs a friend. I tell him I’m coming down for a the holidays. I feel the weight of his need. He clings to me in the hope that I will patch him up, help him through, make him feel like the person he was all those years ago when we were friends. I’m his portal to the past, to happier days.

The past is enticing me back. I receive an email from a school friend. He wants to plan a reunion for later in the year. It’s been an embarrassing amount of time since we were at school together and he wants to celebrate that fact. He’s sent this email to others from our year and soon I’m connecting with people I haven’t seen for decades. The annoying boy that I used to avoid in the school hallways is now a successful lawyer. His email gives away the fact that everything he does in life is considered from every angle. I admire the way his mind works and I’m amazed that I can now relate to some one I had nothing in common with when we were kids. I suggest we meet up for a cup of tea when I‘m in town. I’m sure he drinks espresso.

The past is calling me back. My gaze falls on a photo of my family at the beach when we were young. A friend had mentioned that we all look as though we’re in pain. I explain that even though the photo was taken in the middle of summer the water was freezing and out toes were probably turning blue. I smile and pack my bathers anyway.

The past is calling me back. I embrace it as the jet engines thrust me into the wide blue open. I’m going home to acknowledge the past, to honour all we’ve achieved over the days and months of the year that’s been. And I’m going home strong in the knowledge that the year to come will grant us many more smiles and sighs, will bring laughter and tears, and will give us many more reasons to celebrate.

Kill Your Darlings – Part 2

I’ve finished the latest draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

cider bottles

My brother never thought he would die. When his doctor, and friend of many years, told him that if he kept drinking he only had two years to live, my brother said “Tosh” and promptly found himself another doctor. I took him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting once. I was back in my home town on holiday and thought I should do my family duty. I was the one experienced in Twelve Step programs. He had tried AA but said it didn’t work for him. He had a number of justifications as to why but I thought we could hold them up to the light, to discover whether we could see through them to the truth on the other side. The meeting was full of people, mainly men, sitting in a close circle. They shared in sequence. When it was my brother’s turn he declined. It didn’t matter. Another man told my brother’s story, even though the experiences were his own.

As I listened it was as though a small miracle occurred. My brother’s excuse, that he couldn’t relate and didn’t belong in AA because he’d never been to jail, ceased to hold water when compared to the words of that man.

He had been a successful professional, like my brother, he had enjoyed drinking his entire adult life, his friends liked to drink, they enjoyed getting drunk together. It was a social thing, a professional thing, but for this man it was more, it became a must do thing, a compulsive thing, an out of control thing, a desperate thing, a rehab thing, an AA thing. My brother’s story. Oh, the injustice of it that his friends could still enjoy a drink whereas he was labelled a drunk, an alcoholic. But this man, with the help of AA, had stopped drinking, had found a way to live and love his life again, without the alcohol, one day at a time. I sat and listened and said a little prayer that my brother’s ears would be opened. And for a flicker, a glimmer, I thought they were. He spoke with the man afterwards and as we walked back to my brother’s little flat he said that he’d never heard a story in AA before that he’d related to as much. Hope. Such a fragile thing.

The next day I took his youngest daughter to the annual agricultural show. My brother wanted to come too. I don’t know why. He was weak and shabby from the drink, dithering and feeble, unable to walk the rounds of the exhibits and judging areas, incapable of surviving a wild ride at side-show alley. But he came and within minutes was exhausted. He told us he’d meet us on the grandstand at the grand arena. He would sit and watch the show jumping and other events happily until we were ready to go home. I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? He’d heard his story the night before. He knew he could recover now, as long as he didn’t drink.

Later my niece and I, laden with show bags, went to join her father. We couldn’t find him on the grandstand. “He’s probably inside,” she said. There was a glassed in area with seats and screens, where punters could watch proceedings in a more comfortable surroundings. We walked through the glass doors and I spotted him immediately, propping up the bar, glass in hand, chatting with an equally sozzled gent.

My heart cracked. I had convinced myself that he had seen the light. I was wrong.

There was not a trace of guilt or remorse in him. He was content. Dumb, alcohol-fucked, but content. His brain, beyond knowing what he was doing, had fallen into the crevasse of habit. I glared at his drinking companion. The whole town knew the perilous state of his health, knew he had a problem with the demon drink. Yet here was this man, a supposed friend, inviting my brother to partake of yet another round. And my brother sheep-like and woolly-minded trotted along the well-worn trail to the slaughter house.

 

Until We Live in a World of Foam and Feathers

window latchThe mug slipped from my hands and crashed into the sink, cracking itself open on the tap as it fell. Gravity, there’s no escaping it – unless you have twenty million dollars to spend on a space flight. The mug was beyond repair. It was a gift from a friend who knew I was low on mugs. Why? Because they break. Entropy conspires with gravity and things crash, crack, shatter and smash. I would have to live in a world of foam and feathers to avoid that.

Some may say I’m clumsy but it’s beyond my control. Entropy sees everything crumble to dust eventually.

I’ve heard a theory espoused by a particularly happy chap. He believes that entropy began with the Big Bang. Therefore when the universe reaches its final boundary, and its expansion reverses to rush back in on itself, so entropy will reverse also. When that happens all the things we’ve broken will fuse back together, all erosion will reform, everything will magically fix itself and all will be whole and pristine. Unfortunately at about the same time as everything gets better, the enormous gravity of a Black Hole will render us all dust again.  But the thought of reverse entropy keeps him amused, anything to help him through the damage and loss that every day brings.

I picked the broken pieces out of the sink and realised that my favourite bowl had been chipped by a flying shard of porcelain. I loved this bowl, it reminded me of careless summer days, strawberries and laughter. I looked at the small scar it now bore on the rim and my first thought was to throw it away. It was damaged, sullied, no longer perfect. Why would I want something that was no longer beautiful, that was disfigured? Instead of summer and laughter it reminded me that we are all victims of forces beyond our control.

But, as I went to toss the offending object, a little smidgen of compassion entered the equation. It wasn’t the bowl’s fault it was no longer perfect.  A small chip adds character and another chapter to its story. As well as good times it’s seen adversity and come through only slightly scathed. It was still useful and still beautiful. And as I realised I was going to keep the bowl I also realised a little smidgen of compassion for myself and those around me. How harsh it is to expect all things to be perfect and beautiful. Life gives us gravity and entropy, chips and scars. It’s inescapable. We choose how we respond.

A Book That Changed My Life

I was asked to write a guest blog for The Universal Heart Book Club and this was the result

Mary-Lou Stephens on a book that changed her life

Walter Mason writes: One of my favourite books  this year has been Mary-Lou Stephens‘ totally unique and beautifully written memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation – you can read my review of it here. I have been asking the very busy Mary-Lou (she is also a much-loved radio host on ABC Sunshine Coast) to write something for us for some time, and she has finally told us about a book that taught her that less is more:

It was my second job in radio. I was head-hunted to start up a new radio station in a major regional market. The program director of the network advised me, as he advised all the staff he was recruiting, to read Thick Face Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu, an expert in business psyche and success tactics. I dutifully bought a copy but never got around to reading it.

Chin-Ning Chu, inspirational author of Do Less, Achieve More (Secrets of the Rainmaker)

Six months later, completely overwhelmed by the workload I was at breaking point.  After each frantic and exhausting day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t coping was because I hadn’t read the book. Could Thick Face Black Heart be the key to managing the sixteen-hour days I was regularly putting in? I had a mentor who would often say to me, “You can only do what you can do.” His voice was soothing but his advice was not helpful. I told him that I was finally going to read Thick Face Black Heart.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Read her next book instead, The Secrets of the Rainmaker. I think you’ll find it more beneficial.”

I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read. What I found within its pages changed my life.

The Secrets of the Rainmaker, subtitled ‘Success without Stress’, is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything, brought in many experts but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it for four days. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything. When he arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with heaven. He spent four days inside his tent putting himself in harmony with the Divine. Then the rain came.

Chin-Ning Chu extrapolates the Rainmaker’s success into four secrets; creating a harmonious inner environment, putting your mind at ease, finding the resting point within, and letting spirituality energize business. Within these secrets are many more insights including trading what you have for what you want, being willing not to survive, making peace with time and how to respond rather than react.

To say I was surprised by what I read is an understatement. I was expecting a book about getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead I devoured a book about surrender, ease and meditation. It spoke to my weary soul with words like, “When one is excessively busy, his heart is dead.” I set about reviving my heart and replenishing my soul. I was already getting up at 4 am but I set my alarm forty minutes earlier to sit in front of a candle on a small table draped in purple silk and meditate. My desperate thoughts would make meditation all but impossible yet I persisted. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest.

The months passed, the workload remained unmanageable, but I kept meditating. I had tried many guided meditations before, in my time, in Twelve Step programs recovering from a gaggle of addictions, but this was the first time I let my mind just be. I didn’t realise it then, but by spending this time in meditation and reflection I was slowing down enough to allow, as Chin-Ning Chu says, the angel of good fortune catch up. It took a lot longer than the Rainmaker’s four days.

The first time I saw the ad I couldn’t believe it. The job I had always wished for at the station I had said should exist, but never thought did, in one of the most beautiful places in Australia. It was my dream job. I put in the effort and then let go. Another secret of the Rainmaker, the balance between energy and ease. Three months later the job was mine. Miracles happen much more often than we are willing to acknowledge, says Chin-Ning.

I had learned in the rooms of AA and NA that I couldn’t change other people, places or things. The only thing I can change is myself. The Secrets of the Rainmaker brought that fact into focus for me. Less than two years later I was to use that insight again when my dream job became a nightmare. I didn’t pitch a tent and disappear into it for four days, instead I went to a meditation retreat and spent ten days meditating in silence. Once again miracles happened, unexpected miracles that remain and continue to unfold to this day. And to this day I continue to meditate. I enjoy allowing the angel of good fortune to catch up as often as possible.

(NB. In the USA Secrets of the Rainmaker is called Do Less, Achieve More. The book is a lot easier to find under the second title.)

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