All posts by Mary-Lou Stephens

About Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou Stephens was born in Tasmania, studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. She has worked and played all over Australia and now lives on the Sunshine Coast with her husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees. Her meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation has recently been released by Pan Macmillan.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

It’s the time of year to retrieve the Christmas carol albums from the bottom furthermost Christmasrung of the CD stand where they’ve been waiting their moment of glory for almost 12 months. After dusting the cobwebs off mine I’d put them on one of the stereo speakers ready for the big day. It’s a shame that I’ve got such a great collection of Christmas tunes and they only get played once a year. Clearly The Hubby thought so too and very early this morning blasted me with The Huddersfield Choral Society doing a jolly medley of Joy to the World and Ding Dong Merrily on High. I felt like donging him merrily on high, that would have brought great joy to my world. Needless to say The Huddersfield Choral Society had an abbreviated airing. Bah humbug! They’ll have to wait their turn on Tuesday along with The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Christmas album “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and my personal favourite “Christmas Cocktails“. This album has a wonderful selection of festive faves including Julie London singing “I’d Like You for Christmas”, “Jingle Bells Bossa Nova” by Eddie Dunstedter and Kay Starr’s rendition of “Everybody’s Waiting for the Man With the Bag”. Hand me an eggnog I feel like hanging out under the mistletoe!

I’m an old-fashioned girl and I like to keep the Christmas tunes to the day itself, well maybe a few on Christmas Eve but that’s about it. So I decided to visit a few ghosts of Christmas past as I’ve been wrapping presents, writing Christmas cards and doing a bit of fattening festive baking (why does everything to do with Christmas have to contain quite so much butter!).

Sometimes it takes a bit of courage to revisit the soundtrack of your life, knowing that songs and music have a powerful way of bringing back the memories and the emotions of that time. Dare I play Radiohead’s album ‘The Bends” and go back to a summer in Sydney and the boy who’s heart I broke, seriously damaging mine in the process? Much easier to choose The Leisuremasters, the precursor to Karma County. Every morning I’d swim at the Boy Charlton pool in Woolloomooloo, walk back home and eat a mango for breakfast while listening to their E.P. Sweetness, heat and satisfaction.

The one Christmas I spent in Tamworth you’d think I would have Slim Dusty’s Greatest Christmas Truckin’ Greats glued to the stereo. Instead I almost wore out my copy of Shawn Colvin’s “A Few Small Repairs”. I had the CD in the house and the cassette in the car. Luckily I got a job in Townsville otherwise my friends would have run me and Shawn out of town I’m sure.

And what did I listen to while gazing out over the Coral Sea towards Magnetic Island?  I revisited Moby’s “Play” and was amazed and how slow and melodic a lot of it is. My memory was of a grooving’, jumpin’ album that gave me the energy I needed to go and work the 16 hour days I was putting in. Seems I never had time back then to listen to the whole thing.

My time living on the Sunshine Coast has been dominated by The Woodford Folk Festival at this time of year. It starts on the 27th of December and wraps up on the 2nd of January. Last festival The Hubby and I by happy accident found ourselves sitting almost front and centre at a Nick and Liesl gig. We were both entranced and have been all year. Their album and EP have been on high rotation all year. It’s always wonderful to find music that we both enjoy. And who knows I maybe I’ll learn to enjoy The Huddersfield Choral Society doing a jolly medley first thing in the morning. Maybe…

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a series of blog posts where authors talk about their work using the IMG_0783same ten questions. At the end of the blog we tag other authors who will do the same thing a week later. So not only do you get to find out more about my book but you also will discover some other interesting writers. The wonderful Ian Irvine tagged me and here are my answers:

1. What is the working title of your next book?

My title is sex, drugs & meditation. Due to my publisher’s concerns this may change. Remember to Breathe is an option.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I used to read self-help and personal growth books. They were full of jargon and exercises I was supposed to do – which I never did.  The bits I really liked were the case studies, the stories. When my life was transformed by meditation, and by one ten-day, silent mediation retreat in particular, I decided to write a case study, the story of what happened.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Non-fiction. It’s my meditation memoir.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This book would be hard, but not impossible, to turn into a movie. It’s based within the frame of a ten-day silent meditation retreat – tough to write a screenplay for that! However there are a lot of flashbacks involving sex, drugs and my life playing in bands and working in radio. Charlize Theron would be great to play me especially as she doesn’t mind not looking too pretty if the role demands it. Ben Kingsley could reprise his Gandhi role and play the teacher.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Mary-Lou does not have it all. Never has. And now the one thing she does have is under threat. (Okay it’s three sentences but they’re very short.)

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My publisher is Pan Macmillan. Selwa Anthony is my agent. The book is due to be released in April 2013

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Oh Lordy, that’s a tough question. I had so many false starts. I had written 50,000 words most of which didn’t work. I started again after I was given some great advice by a literary agent. “If you’re going to write this book you need to be totally honest.” I freaked out, put the project aside and wrote ten drafts of a novel instead (unpublished). When I was ready to be totally honest I started writing again. This process took about six years.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Teach Us to Sit Still – Tim Parks

Oh and yes, that book, Eat, Pray, Love. I stated writing my memoir way before Elizabeth Gilbert’s book was released, I promise.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It is an amazing story and it’s all true. When I read my final draft (before the publishing deal) I said to The Hubby, “This is such a great story. I can’t believe everything in it happened to me. I can’t fathom how I went through so much change and transformation and I’m still completely fucked up.”

He was kind enough to agree that it was an amazing story and not agree with the last bit.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

If you’ve ever been in a situation that you’ve found unbearable – with your work, relationship, health, weight, friends, etc – this book is for you.

If you’ve ever been in a state that you wanted to change but didn’t know how – this is the book for you.

If you’ve ever wanted to clear emotional baggage and be free – this book is perfect.

If you’ve ever wondered what being a radio presenter is really like – you’ll love this book.

If you’re wondering how someone who gets paid to talk could stay silent for ten days – this book will interest you.

If you have any curiosity about, or interest in, meditation – this book is a must.

 

So that’s it for me. If you want to discover some other great writers check these out:

Nikki Stern – her memoir Not Your Ordinary Housewife was released this week.

Paul Fogarty – not only a writer of prose but a writer of songs

Taylor Fulks – her book My Prison Without Bars was released this week.

Sean Tretheway  – two novels released so far and many more to come.

 

 

I’m just an animal

Is it something innate? Something in all of us? This longing for home, this wanting to belong? Or is it just in those of us who never felt as though they had a home, never felt as Cowsthough they belonged?

The times I’ve felt a sense of belonging are few and far, scattered through this life, these many lives it feels like. A friend and I made a home in a small flat in Coogee. I loved her and I trusted her. Still do, though years and distance have passed between us. I asked her, as we sat together in our kitchen, our playground for cockroaches, if she ever felt as though she belonged. Her reply surprised me.

“All the time,” she said.”

“How?”

“Because home is in here.” She tapped her heart.

I loved her all the more, and admired her, but I didn’t feel the same. Instead I had a vague wavery sensation inside my chest, as if I could dissolve at any moment. My home was less substantial even than straw.

I played in bands. Bands can be like family. A substitute perhaps. We worked, rehearsed, toured and played together. We shared secrets and disappointments, dreams and realities, and grew a history that was ours alone. Like a family.  But bands break up. My sense of belonging shattered each time.

I spent many years in Twelve Step programs. A big sprawling dysfunctional family. I found like-minded souls, soul sisters if you like. I wedged my way into belonging by doing lots of meetings and hours of service. I was admired by some, befriended by others, and the true friendships endured beyond the realm of those rooms. But eventually I discovered that this adopted Twelve Step family was much like the family I’d left behind. I didn’t like it any better the second time around.

I see people attracted to movements and modalities, causes and committees, and I see them as craving the connection that a sense of belonging gives. Like family. I understand it. But I’m no longer a joiner.

I still have a vague wavery sensation in my chest but perhaps this is the way I am. Movement and energy, floating and free. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe my sense of home is beyond the realms of this body, this reality. A place I cannot yet understand even though it’s here with me, always.

My dog comes up for a pat. My husband is on his way home. A tray of mangoes on the dining table fill the room with their scent. Two magpie larks build a nest in the tree outside my window. The native bees return to their hive.

Guess that this must be the place.

Is there such a thing as bad meditation?

I’ve always thought that any meditation is a good meditation. Sure, some may be better than others – positive and uplifting, rather than ho-hum, or should that be ho-om…

I love my mediation time. It’s time to myself, to be with myself. I watch those thoughts flit by until they calm down and diminish, until I’m left with space and a blue-sky mind. Other times it’s enough just to be able to sit down for a while and have the excuse of “I’m meditating” to keep all those bothersome tasks at bay.

But apparently not all meditation is good meditation. I’ve interviewed two people recently who have said that meditation can keep us in a negative loop. That if it’s done incorrectly it can ingrain harmful thought patterns and behaviors into our psyches.

Gary Little calls himself a wellness navigator and has spent twenty years researching the causes of pain. According to his findings pain is mostly in the mind and yes meditation is a great source of relief but he’s known people who have maintained their negativity with bad meditation practices.

Peter Hoddle is a metaphysical healer. He has spent a lot of time meditating. Although looking back he believes he wasn’t actually meditating at all when he was in his early twenties. He was either asleep or being run ragged by his mad and damaging thoughts.

In meditation our consciousness is heightened, our awareness expands and our thoughts slow down. It doesn’t matter what kind of meditation you do, as long as it works for you. Observe those mad and negative thoughts and let them go, as opposed to getting hooked in by them and letting them run the meditation and be the boss of you.

But I’m a fine one to talk. So many of my mediations have consisted of fighting with my mad monkey mind. It’s exhausting. But it’s also great fodder. The descriptions of just how mad my mind can get are part of my meditation memoir being released in April 2013 by Pan Macmillan. Oh, hang on a sec. Maybe I need to get the release date pushed forward. Isn’t the world ending in a couple of weeks? Now that’s something to meditate on.

Breath. Breath in,observe. Breathe out, observe. Repeat. I’m feeling better already.

 

 

The Rocking Chair

Every family has iconic photographs that tell a far greater story than the dots imprinted on paper or the pixels on the screen. One of my family’s photos is of me, at not much over a year old, wearing a pair of faded red overalls, dirty feet and a cheeky smile. For support I’m clutching the arm of an old rocking chair on the veranda of our shack. The composition of the photograph is perfect; the colours, the lighting and the moment, all captured with the deft hand of a very experienced photographer. Which he was. My grandfather. He left us a legacy of our childhood years in photographs and slides that adorn our walls, mantelpieces and bookshelves and still get shown at the special slide nights my sister arranges so beautifully.

The Rocking Chair, as we call this photo, was amongst the last he ever took.  He and my grandmother were driving back from the shack. There was an accident. He died almost immediately. My grandmother died in hospital not long after. Two more holiday statistics. The photos were developed later, after funerals and wakes and many tears. Over the festive season I wonder how many sons and daughters, or mothers and fathers, will be left with holiday snaps taken by someone they love who has just become a statistic.

Often when I pull onto the Bruce Highway, especially at this time of year, I find myself doing a quick calculation of the odds. I like to think of it as awareness. A momentary lapse in concentration, an unexpected occurrence, that’s all it takes. Some years ago a fellow driver decided they’d merge from a slip road across both lanes of traffic, forcing me onto the meridian strip and straight towards a concrete bridge. I’m still not sure how I managed to safely manoeuvre the car back onto the highway while the idiot sped off in front of me. I was shaking and crying from the near miss but determined not to show the shock and fear to my young niece who was happily strapped into her booster seat in the back. She was not going to be a statistic that day.

Statistics. We hear a lot about them during the holiday season. And those statistics don’t reveal the heartache experienced by those left behind at this time of year, every year, for many years to come. Or the trauma of the survivors who may be left with permanent physical and emotional injuries.

As you strap on your seat belt spare a thought for your friends, your family and the families of those you don’t know and ensure you have a Happy New Year.

*You’ll also find this post in the December issue of Holistic Bliss Magazine.

 

 

 

 

What’s in a Name?

I’m supposed to be doing NaNoWriMo. I was already falling behind when my copy edits came through. It was a simple decision and one that had to be made thanks to the full-time job. New writing, that may or may not be published, or old writing that has already scored itself a deal? As I said – a simple decision.

Once more into the depths of the as-yet-still-to-be-named meditation memoir. Yes, two rounds of edits and still no title. This is starting to remind me of being in bands. Writing the songs, playing the instruments, booking the gigs are the easy part. Well, straight forward at least. But naming a band? That’s tough. The name has to be just right. First impressions and all that. I like my title, sex, drugs & meditation but I understand if it needs to change. After all, it started out as Ten Days to Enlightenment & A Really Sore Bottom and then turned into The Vipassana Diaries. Anything is possible.

I’ve never had to name a child but I’ve heard how fraught it can be. Mind you I did change my name by deed poll when I was about twenty years old proving you don’t have to be stuck with the name your parents have agonised over.* Can a book change its name once it’s been christened? Books do have different titles in different markets. I guess that comes down to the publisher’s choice. When the overseas deals start coming in, will I go through this process all over again? And how does the digital world of ebooks deal with different titles in different markets? This is all ahead of me.

I do wonder about the power of names. We called our second-hand six-year-old dog Maddie, and that is what she has proved to be. Her RSPCA name was Magic. We thought it was a bit naff. We couldn’t see ourselves calling out “Magic, Magic” on the beach. Which is possibly why we can no longer take her there. We called “Maddie, Maddie” and instead of coming to us, she bit a dog. Mad indeed.

But Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What’s in a name indeed? I wonder if he had trouble naming all those plays. That’s just given me some ideas for the title of my meditation memoir. How about Much Ado about Sitting Still and Doing Nothing. Or Taming of the Mary-Lou? Or As You Don’t Like It? Ah the possibilities are endless.

It is just like naming a band. But in the end you need something to put on the CD cover. I wonder what it will be. Has anyone done the self-titled album thing with books? The eponymous approach? Mary-Lou Stephens by Mary-Lou Stephens. You know what, I like it. Now all I need to do is to convince the publisher, the sales team and the book buyers. Wish me luck.

*I changed it back again.

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Joys of Detoxing

“Why do I always do this to myself ?” I found myself thinking three days into a detox retreat. When other people take time off work, most of them have a holiday. Instead I spend seven days without food, taking lots of herbs to clean out my entire system, which before it gets clean feels like…well you get the idea. Other so-called holidays I’ve had involved meditating in silence for ten days and only having lemon water for dinner.  I seem to think that holidays are meant to fortify the body and soul rather than relax them. Perhaps I feel a certain amount of guilt living in a permanent holiday destination, where driving to work means a beautiful meander along the Maroochy River and I get to go to the beach everyday.

Friends and family laughed when I told them I was going on a detox retreat. “You’re the cleanest living person we know,” they said. “What have you got to detox from?” And that was a very good question, a question I didn’t find the complete answer to until almost the end of the retreat.

The answer I found was that I was detoxing from the media, from the news, from the gossip, from the latest round of tragedy and betrayal. I was detoxing from the internet, and boy did I go through withdrawals. Not being able to google myself up an answer or some information at the touch of a keyboard was almost as tough as going without three meals a day plus snacks.

I was detoxing from a certain mindset that pushes us all to achieve in the external world, to acquire and grasp and cut ourselves off from each other with our possessions and positions in life.

I was detoxing from fear, from the need to constantly prove myself in the eyes of others.

And strangely enough of all, I was detoxing from music. I fill my ears constantly with sounds from all over the world, the latest hit single from the multinational multi-labels to obscure bouzouki playing duos recorded on the last two-track reel-to-reel in existence. Sometimes your ears need a good cleaning out as well as the rest of your system so that you can appreciate a simple melody or a beautiful lyric.

The joy of detoxing is that you get to begin again all squeaky clean and when you do you can really enjoy that brand new song, the latest factoid on the internet and the taste of, well let’s face it, just about anything tastes good after a week of not eating!

**This post also appeared as a column in Holistic Bliss Magazine November 2012

The thing about a broken heart..

The thing about a broken heart is you never know when it’s going to strike. You may get an inkling; storms cloud gather, the sky turns a strange shade of green, birds fall silent and retreat, but still you think that the lightning will pass you by. You’ve weathered storms before and emerged unscathed. You reason to yourself that you’ll just lay low for a while and wait for it to blow over. But it doesn’t. It hovers directly above and you’re frozen with fear. In that split second you know it’s coming and you know there’s no escape. Time stretches to draw out the arrival of that certain agony. Why is that? Is fate so cruel that it has to underline its arrival by slowing time to a trickle in order that we feel every nuance of impending doom?

But that is nothing compared to what’s about to follow. The lightning, that you swore would leave you be, cracks your world apart. Things you thought you’d hold forever are gone. Precious, cherished moments of joy turn to ashes and worse. Jagged, broken, bitter bits of dreams catch your clothing and tear your skin. Everyday there are reminders that render you unable to think or reason, let alone speak.

We are all capable of great love and that is in itself the danger. There is so much to lose; a marriage betrayed, a job annihilated, a child lost, a home destroyed, a friendship defeated, a belief shattered, a sense of belonging destroyed. Everything from your football team losing the Grand Final to a massacre in your homeland.

Helen Keller said that security is a superstition. It does not exist in nature. And when lightning strikes, as it always will, there may be some comfort in those words.

Buddhism says when the lightning strikes we are forced to look at the places where we are most stuck, our suffering shows us what we are most attached to. Therefore we should welcome such experiences, because it’s only by facing the sadness, the loss, the sense of betrayal and the grief that we can be free of these things ruling our lives.

Although I understand that to be true and have experienced the change it brings, sometimes I am made of softer stuff and need something more. So I turn to what sustained me as a child singing myself to sleep, as an adolescent suffering the usual humiliations, as an adult struck by the lightning of betrayal and bereavement. Music. And if I ever I lose that precious sense of hearing, I’ll lay my head on my pillow until I hear the music of the spheres.

A Sick Joke

I’m going to tell you a joke. I’ve only got a couple of them that I reluctantly trot out in public.

The Hubby encourages me to. Not because I’m a particularly good teller of jokes, I think he just likes to see me being silly. Usually I’m such a serious young hedgehog, bustling around being rather prickly. So telling jokes is a good way to be a galah, chattering away and having a play. There is a reason for telling you this joke, which will become apparent very soon.

So, there’s this lion walking through the jungle, actually strutting more like. He sees a monkey and he roars, “I’m the King of the Jungle! I’m big and strong and brave. You’re just a silly, banana-eating primate.”

The monkey, scared out of his wits, or what little wits he has, nods his head and scuttles off.

The lion struts along some more and he sees a warthog. “I’m the King of the Jungle! I’m big and strong and brave. You’re just a pig with big teeth.”

The warthog isn’t all that happy with this turn of events but knows better than to take on a lion, so he snorts and trots off.

The lion, feeling very pleased with himself, continues to strut through the jungle and spies a mouse. “Ha!” he roars. “I’m the King of the Jungle! I’m big and strong and brave. You’re just a puny, scrawny, pathetic little rodent.”

The mouse looks up at the lion through squinty little eyes, wrinkles his little pink nose and

“I’ve been sick.”

says in a very squeaky little voice. “I know, but I’ve been sick.”

And the reason for telling you that joke. “I’ve been sick!” Still am. I’m feeling very small, squinty and mouse-like. And when you’re sick the world feels like a roaring lion, big, strutting and noisy. It’s all a bit too much. Best to concede to the puny, pathetic mouse-like state and find a dark corner to hide in. Tomorrow I might be a lion but today I’m a scrawny squeaker. And as long as the dog doesn’t consider me a snack, I should survive.

The Unexpected Adventure of Writing

It was explained to me, by a more experienced writer than myself, that saying, “I felt sick,” when asked how I felt when I landed a publishing deal, was best avoided, even if it was the truth. She said most people, who haven’t been published, expect you to say, “It was fabulous, I was so excited, over the moon,” and if that wasn’t the case then I should practise saying it until it sounded natural.

Trouble is I did feel sick, and she understood why. She’d been through it herself and talked to many other first time authors who felt the same. It’s about letting go. Letting go can be tough, especially when you’ve nurtured your manuscript for six years. The realisation that my brutally and beautifully honest meditation memoir was going out into the world to have a life of its own was a tough jump to make, even though I’d wanted it to happen for years. Dreams and reality are two very different beasts.

I took a deep breath, jumped, and signed the much desired contract. Reality rushed to meet me head on with a touch of dreaminess to soften the blow.

My publisher told me it was one of the most complete manuscripts she’d ever read. There wouldn’t need to be many changes, she said. I met my editor and my publisher – and how good does it feel to say that when you’re a first-time published author – and we talked about time-frames and covers. Bliss. They told me they were both going to read the manuscript again and send me their suggestions, but that there wouldn’t be much to do in that regard.

When the manuscript was emailed back to me with comments and suggestions my reaction was extraordinary. And I say reaction in every sense of the word. It was chemical, physical,emotional and totally illogical. I was angry, defensive, hurt and full of fear. I started scrolling through the suggestions and my chest clamped up. How dare they? How dare they challenge my work, my bravery, my art? How dare they want me to change any bit of it? I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I was not capable of doing it. I swung between fear and fury. I decided, within half an hour of receiving the email, that I wasn’t going to go through with the deal. I was going to email them and tell it was all off. I’d had enough. It was too hard.

Crazy woman. I watched myself go through this agony. I watched my insane, terrified mind writhe and twist. Two things became apparent. I’ve always hated being told what to do. I’ve resented every boss I’ve ever had. My publisher was just another boss at that point, telling me what to do. The other realisation was that I was just plain scared because I’d never done this before. I’d never had to revise a manuscript for a publisher. I’ve done plenty of writing courses and been given feedback. I’ve been in a writing group for years and accepted suggestions from my fellow members. But this was on a whole new level. I’m a professional now, a soon-to-be published author by a major publishing house. This was totally different. I was out of my comfort zone and in outer space somewhere, spinning and lost.

So I did what I always do. I emailed my editor and my publisher and said, “Sure, that’s fine. And yes I can make the changes by the dead line.” And then I didn’t do a thing. I would slide through the manuscript and drift over their notes from time to time, like a tongue seeking out the aching tooth, but that was it. As the deadline grew closer I read the notes more carefully. They weren’t as bad as I’d first thought, in fact some of them were complimentary. My confidence returned just enough to read some more. The suggestions made sense, ah yes why hadn’t I noticed that, and oh, that would make it easier for the reader to follow. By the time the last weekend before my deadline arrived I was feeling as if I could possibly, maybe do this and not stuff it up too badly.

I allotted myself four days. The Hubby was away for two and a half of those. I’d have the place to myself, except for the dog. The first day and a half I did everything else but work on my manuscript. There were too many distractions. Everything was more important than my book. Finally, when The Hubby was gone, the dog was walked and everybody else was taken care of, I got down to work. I didn’t leave the house, except to walk the dog, I survived on what ever food was in the fridge. Slowly the pages, changes and suggestions started melting away. In the midst of it I had major realisations about the core message of my memoir. I made subtle changes that made the story sing and sob. I felt a whole new energy vibrating through the words. I cried and laughed, and howled with the dog. By the afternoon of day three I knew I was home. Right in the middle of my own life. Doing what I was destined to do. Doing what I loved. And it was working.

And I knew something else. I had conquered my fear, I had done something I’d never done before and my book was so much better for it. Clever publisher, clever editor, clever me.