The Loving Art of Loneliness

 

photo of man standing on rock

Loneliness is an aspect of the human condition that has long shadowed consciousness. The duality, or multiplicity inherent in the thinking mind has created a divide and for many, building a bridge across this divide is a life’s work to which they are happy to dedicate themselves. How to meet the needs of both the deep self, or ‘I’ of consciousness and the activated self, or rather selves, needed for use within the caper of  human life? Can that bridge ever be stable?

For others, it may be a clear case of choosing a side and forget the bridge. Social world or solitary world? Once decided, best to stay there, for venturing out and trying to live in both will only create discord. Doubt. Inexplicable sadness. And the complete lack of a map with which to go forward.

Solitary types it would seem are happy with their choices as long as they are not interrupted, and those who choose a life connected needn’t face aloneness in a busy connected, modern world.

Of course, this is all a lie.

The sage .. an image of a lonely person and the ideal of ancient philosophy manifests itself in two forms. Firstly, he feels loneliness as a defect of himself, as a flaw that does not allow him to be inside the life of a police or have friendly ties keeping from falling into solitude or isolation. Secondly, a lonely sage, striving to achieve identity with the Truth, conversing with the divine level of “I”.

LONELINESS IN THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHICAL CULTURE

There is no need to chart the entire history of loneliness here, the condition is suitably recurrent, allowing us to skip a few thousand years without much fuss.

Nor do we need to spend too much time considering the zeitgeist phrase; ” Has technology meant that we are more.. or less connected?”

I am interested though in what people are doing with their loneliness. When we have reached a point where we are staring at the Netflix menu from within a bubble of mindbending alienation and utter emptiness unable to stomach another moment of it , what are people doing next?

Is a dusty favourite book being dragged from a packing box, and if not read, (because loneliness can be quite draining and jumping into Dosteovsky may not actually be psychologically possible.)..but holding it, and turning it over, and flicking to a page in the middle and reading that.. maybe.

Are old records played? If not records, tapes? Cd’s perhaps… anything other than Spotify?

Is the telephone used as a talking device to have a long conversation, where communication filters down around tone of voice and pauses, revisiting the need to articulate clearly, maybe more than once, and even recap, after the accidental plummeting of the phone to the floor, or the need to pee.

Are diaries scribbled in, the same childhood doodles scratched out, night skies simply gazed at, guitars tuned too slowly and strummed with lacklustre, lines of poetry  awkwardly obliged …

I’m not a loneliness expert. I’ve been in and out of it in my life. And I’m aware it is a defining experience in our world now. Google it and some kind of unsubstantiated source will tell you..

“Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships. ”

Be alert but not alarmed.

Ultimately loneliness so very personal, and means different things to different people. For some loneliness threatens status. Reputation. Self-esteem. For others it is a sign of failure. Let’s face it, when someone asks us how we are, we are hardly going to say..”.Uhh, really fucking gut wrenchingly lonely actually. ” No. Loneliness is desperate, needy and.. very old fashioned.

I admit I am at times an introverted, over-thinking, hypersensitive, melancholic type.  I counter this with love. I thrive on loving interactions with the world and have always surrounded myself with them. The cooking, the dancing, the singing, the art making, the colourful clothes, the humour, the clumsy attempts at courage, the utter devotion to things I value, all is for love.
fullsizeoutput_237eLoneliness then for me, is a place where I can’t give love. Where doors to that natural instinct have been closed or remain unsafe to open. Not giving love is like trying to hold the tide back. Its exhausting. A lot of us feel this way. Sometimes, loving the way you wish to is not possible. It can’t be helped.

But I do believe, that for the agnostic amongst us, in the absence of elders and oracles, wise woman and sages, this impulse can be better understood, and perhaps more lovingly embraced. In the spaces between the busy love making activities of life, the cooking, the singing, the dancing and thus… on the tired, defeated, broken days, can loneliness be part of that love?

To answer this question, perhaps we best consult the dusty old books …

Faeries in the Paddock, Merrows in the Creek.

Write what you know.

Despite the simplicity of this suggestion, the idea has quite profound connotations. Time spent considering them would lead us to a lengthy philosophical discussion regarding what we can ever really know. At this moment I am interested generally in a simple division between what we know personally and what we know collectively as a result of the social and cultural stories with which we align ourselves. And specifically how that has impacted on writers of metaphysical fiction in  Australia.

I am writing a children’s historical fiction novel which unfolds beneath the canopy of mythological motifs common to the Irish/Scots Selkie mythos and the water deities of  Indigenous Australian cultures, in particular those of the Palawa Aborigines in Tasmania.

Part of the process involves looking at the ways in which writers have approached the metaphysical quality of the Australian landscape since the late 19th Century, and the ways in which they have been ‘successful’ in doing so as writers, and as humans.

The success might be measured by the impact and readership of their creative works, or it may be measured by the degree to which the non-idigenous of those writers were able to include Aboriginal perspectives on the spirit of the land, and resist an appropriation of Aboriginal folklore and mythology.

The issue has a long history of debate , which is ever changing as our views on cultural appropriation become, at last,  more sophisticated and respectful.

As a writer creating an historical fiction story set in Tasmania at this moment in time, the preservation of space for Palawa people to tell their own stories touches every aspect of my creative process. And at the same time I am humbled, humoured even, by the realisation, that I, three generations from my Irish grandparents, am yet enamoured by a landscape of folklore that can never exist here in Australia. And being so possessed by such a pixie spell as this, I see it everywhere.

Write what you know.

I don’t ‘know’ Ireland, I’ve never even been there. And yet I do, as so many in the Irish Diaspora experience, feel such an overwhelming familiarity with its pieces all.

As a child I would leaf through Brian Froud’s Faerie book , rather gruesome at times and quite wild in parts. But there I found faces I felt I might know. And as I child, living in the bush, I saw them when I walked, through bracken and ferns and heavy soil, or along the rocky creek edge peering into dark pools of water that smelt like earth and moss, the spray from the water falls secret and timeless.

Images from Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s Faeries

Equally beloved was Dick Roughsey’s  The Rainbow Serpent. What a powerful book. Every part of it rang out bold and uncompromising from the pages. It was strange, and unfamiliar, almost intimidating, but maybe it was only that the dry lands of central Australia seemed foreboding to a child.

The wet cool waterways could more easily house the creatures I  thought knew, and thus they were there. But now, writing as an educated adult, in an academic context…it cannot just be faeries anymore.

What I have tried to create is something in between, neither fantasy, nor realism, nor even magic realism. A place where the mythos meet, beyond our socio-political wounds and complications. A place where things I know can live. Because , if as they say, all you can really do is write what you know.. . therein some authenticity lies.

As part of the writing process, I am observing interpretations of the natural environment from both children’s and former children ( otherwise known as adults) perspectives, and how the stories we know shape the faces we see. And the doorways still to be opened.

…. IMG_5603

Image from Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s Faeries

Mythical Creatures in The Waterways of Australia   — Antipodean Odyssey

“Battling with incredulity isn’t easy. It’s not a battle Poseidon had to fight.” Bunyip and Selkie, creatures of the waterways. One from Australian Aboriginal mythology, one from Celtic lore. One made up of scraps and patches of stories, and images. The other a seal or a woman. Mysterious, gentle sometimes, predatory others. Or so […]

via Mythical Creatures in The Waterways of Australia   — Antipodean Odyssey

Writing for children? Seriously?

woman wearing white dress reading book

I started writing for children because I had children. It wasn’t a burning aspiration. It wasn’t planned. I had no training in writing fiction, or poetry, only reading it.  But writing to better understand the world unfolding in my loungeroom felt right.

It wasn’t long before concerned family and friends let me know how they felt about this development.

‘Writing for children, it’s a bit of a cop-out’.

‘I think you could do better. Why not write the next great Australian novel instead?’

Complete silence on the matter, followed by a change of subject was also made available.

Disappointment was interspersed with the quiet resignation of those who concluded I probably couldn’t manage to write a real novel anyway. Presumably, the children’s literature genre was the place real writers went to practice, until they had the skills to write for real readers, readers who could discern between decent technique and sentimental simplistic pap.

Eventually, I learned that telling people what you’re writing, whatever you’re writing, is really just asking for it. Especially friends and family.

DBC Pierre observes this ‘telling friends and family’ phenomena in his book Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It.  We tell people about what we are writing in order to lay prickles for ourselves down the track, he says. I get this. The idea that on some level we both, know what we’re doing and know it’s going to end badly, when we share our craft with people in our lives. This we do, intuitively, to improve our writing. To motivate us to keep going, not because of the people in our lives,  rather in spite of them.

 

battle black blur board game

 

Certainly, the commonly held view of children’s literature as an inferior craft has a solid historical foundation. Until relatively recently, it wasn’t considered a genre worth, well.. writing about. But things have changed. We have worked out that kids reading books helps in their development as law abiding, tax paying citizens. Australian education systems are preoccupied with literacy and convinced that reading and writing skills must begin to be developed in early childhood. Before school. Before pre-school. Shortly after birth.

To be literate of course extends beyond reading and writing and includes comprehension of concepts and symbols, which can be delivered and received in a range of mediums outside of text, such as art and music, role play and so on.  But soon enough picture books  and games give way to comprehension cards, handwriting templates, exercise books, and eventually Microsoft Word.

So, when kids do get a chance to steal away from the now heavily regulated National literacy guidelines, for their allocated reading time, what do they read?

More often than not my students pick up the funny stuff. Graphic novels. Andy Griffiths. Jeff Kinney. And I get why. It’s a nice break from the comprehension cards.

And self-deprecating humour is so good. There’s also a strong following in unicorns, foxes and people who look like foxes.  And for the nearly-teens, a shift towards the street-savvy understated protagonist under twelve who somehow manages to infiltrate the seedy underbelly of adult crime worlds and solve adult sized mysteries. Children are maturing much earlier, I get this. But there is something about scanning the words psychopath or serial killer on the back cover of books in the primary school library that I find jarring. The motifs of a triumph of the underdog, caring, ethics and self-belief are all strong.  But I consider all of these genres to be fantasy, of a kind.

 Fantasy worlds and real-life scapes

tree tunnel at daytime

Mention the word ‘history’ to young folk then, and they don’t tend to register it as entertaining. I wonder about the capacity of junior fiction novels to still offer instructional guidance and a bit of mental strain. In the busy lives of children, can useful adult world messages be delivered through literature at a level which is capable of building the critical analysis skills required to be adult in a unicorn-less modern world? A world whose changing climate is threatening most of the species who currently live here, and making unicorns of us all.

Literary theory written on the children’s literature genre charts the trajectory of authors across Australia’s brief post-colonial literary history, and it becomes clear this is a genre that has long concerned itself with issues of national identity, ethical decision making, and the natural environment.

From the first Australian children’s books written in the late 1800’s, right through the 20thcentury, up until the digital age at least, cultural identity and the natural environment have been a primary focus.

Most readers over 35 will have been raised on these stories. Or at least remember them. The Magic Pudding.  Storm Boy. Picnic at Hanging Rock. Quirky 70’s picture books such as The Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek. Lengthy bedtimes tales like The Rainbow Serpent. Patricia Wrightson’s detailed mythological experiment, The Nargun and the Stars.

It is unlikely that these texts could compete for reading-corner attention with the physical and mental ease of a  21stCentury graphic novel, and perhaps the experience of giggling in a bean bag in the corner of the library is just as valid as anything. But what does it say about where we are?

cute cuddly toy cartoon costume

 Children’s literature has been called a barometer to its age. For all its literary and cultural quality and diversity, it also reflects the changes and preoccupations of the time.

Stuart Hannabuss

Tough Love

When I revisit Australian books from my childhood I am struck by their seriousness. These were books that made my mind work at least moderately hard, and in truth, were at times mildly depressing, leading to spontaneous moments of ten-year-old existential angst. Entertaining in ways I suppose, but not exactly laden with irreverent, witty pop-culture references that made one feel like they were part of a fun, ‘grown up’ mindscape.

Even May Gibbs’ worlds seemed laboured to me. Roald Dahl’s worlds of the ‘mother country’, were by far an easier place. The giggling and the irreverence. His satirical worlds were still children’s worlds. The absurdity of the Twits, the heroism of Matilda, the cabbage soup days and nights of Charlie Bucket. I remained in a child’s world when I read these.

Classical Worlds

Classical mythology in contemporary settings still works well. Fortifying. Mind stretching. There is much of this written these days that is wonderful, offering guidance befitting a changing world. Australian writers seem to have permission to access ancient mythological tropes as global citizens in a way that seems acceptable and comfortably non-didactic.

Didacticism in Fiction

‘Can’t a writer just write about a boy’s love of sailing. Why does it have to be issues-based?’

Historical fiction has long been unpopular with kids. I recall reading an abridged version of For the Term of His Natural Life at a young age, and it was pretty gory in parts. The flogging and so on. And yet the weightiness of historical content was such that I didn’t come away feeling like the adult world I was moving into was going to be an easy or glamorous place in which I  would possess magic powers sufficient to bust a drug ring. I felt the seriousness of my cultural inheritance before I really understood what this meant.

Bleeding Hearts

No matter which way you turn it, Australian history is not an easy setting for staging entertaining children’s fiction. For all our attempts to be the sporty, laid-back, logo-wearing, compliant, good-humoured Nation, our past is bleeding and messy. Australian issues are heavy issues.

And like obsolete rituals at a dysfunctional family gathering, our cultural productions frequently collude in their attempts to cheerily disappear our past, ( and thus our future). For all the cynical dismissal of the paltry nature of literature for children, we are a society that relies on cultural productions for this age group. Having our children engaged, or at least entertained, is a primary focus for those caring for children in this day and age.

This, in my view, renders the creation of meaningful entertainment a serious business.

 

 

 

 

Prophetic Loss

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The Gathering

 

When the time came for something to be done,

A dove was sent,

This was not a time for donkeys.

The prophets were beckoned to the town square,

And with that the dove took rest.

 

No problem too big, no fate too heavy,

They would work together,

Like they always had,

And they would come upon answers,

Like they always had.

And so,

They left.

 

Crept from the tower on silent feet

Left shadows in the woods on guard

Sailed from the cove

Single fleet

Packed myrrh in the crook of a cart

 

Embers still from fires willed

Put themselves to sleep

Light fell fortune’s way lest time

Be siphoned in the deep

 

A gentle brow on Prophet One

The skies of intellect

Blue and calm, eternal balm

Logic resurrect

 

Leather footed, feathered, padding

Strong is Prophet next

Beaded, painted, holy, sainted

Gather now the rest

 

In the circle centre stands the leader of the Clan

Ten thousand beads strung onto reeds

The years since time began

 

A pool of blue-black water

In a cradle on a stand

The Prophets wait to see the Fates

Etched out across the land

 

One by one  they take their place

They’ve already accepted

The human race, future’s face

It’s all to be expected

 

There are no shrieks, no beating drums

No fainting and no rising

No striking swords or fervent words

Debating or surmising

 

For when they look into the pool

Each soul is struck with yearning

Their own reflection heralds now

Narcissus Returning

 

 

 

Environmental Caretakers in Children’s Literature

Eco concept. Half-burned planet in form of candle on the space b

As a teacher and mother, I am often called upon by children for big world advice, and sane moral guidance. I take this role to heart and honour it. And yet, as with every older generation, I am a student of the 21st-century child.  Their joys, fears, and insights. The ways in which they dream in a modern world. The thought process and sensory experience of imbibing digital media as though it has always existed.

But what about as a writer? Should writers really be telling kids what to do?

Writing a book in Australia is an act fraught with politics. If you let it be. And perhaps this is true of most places. And it’s not an uncommon dilemma. But if I had a cup of tea with Roald Dahl or E.E Cummings or Kenneth Graeme would they share my view? Empathise?

I want kids to like my book. I want them to find it funny. Turn the page. Feel the hand of their favourite character upon their shoulder. I want the writing to be good. Gentle. And not didactic. And yet, try as I do to relax into storytelling for the pure joy of it, I am drawn even more strongly to the role of the story as instructive. Somewhere in the deeper parts of my being a patient elder has her hand on my shoulder. And her grip is firm.

Children do not need more entertainment. Children need to know the truth.

So. What can I offer? I  know a little about a little but I am no elder. Should I become one? How much should I know before I try to impart? When is it enough?

Everyone knows that to try to cram every vision, ideal, and existential reflection into one piece of work is a mistake. And something writers need to be aware of particularly with the first novel. Writing wants to be an encyclopaedic broadcast of experiential insight closely mirroring personal biography, but It can’t be. It must be patient. It must serve. It must do the work.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that entertaining stories, (regardless of the originality of ideas,) make by far the most commercially successful children books, I am convinced that important contemporary messages can be woven into engaging widely read (and let’s face it, marketable) stories.  But texts which showcase social values can often feel contrived and risk alienating a young reader even further. So how have others managed it?

I take pause and remember. Issues of social and ethical and environmental concern have long made it into the pages of books. The Ents were angry with good reason, one relevant in the material world, both then and now. And yet most would not consider Tolkien an environmentalist at first glance.

Hearing writers like Ursula Le Guin, and Patricia Wrightson speak about environment, philosophical standpoint, the ways in which they have navigated social commentary and taken an elder stance in their writing inspires me. And also makes me wish I was writing in the fantasy genre. For it is in those worlds where things are actually possible. Not the blunt edges and rigid silences of history books. Still, perhaps the genres can meet through the framework of mythology.

Following Tolkien’s lead is as always, a good place to start. As a devoted folklore scholar Tolkien drew from the source when crafting stories. Mythic frameworks are a beautiful means for weaving issues of importance into story, while still being able to locate these stories in the material world. Care for the environment is a basic human concern across all traditional cultures. When we find these stories in myth, they don’t feel didactic. The Druids, Australian Aborigines, Shamans, indeed all nature religions from Asia to Eastern Europe, to the tribal rites of Africa. It’s the first rule of myth. Look after your world and she will look after you.

So how do we entertain like Griffiths, enchant like Rowling, and still tell a story of Australian history with an environmental motif? Others have managed it. I don’t find it easy material. But it is appropriate for kitchen spoon wavers.

 

 

Mythical Creatures in The Waterways of Australia   — Antipodean Odyssey

“Battling with incredulity isn’t easy. It’s not a battle Poseidon had to fight.” Bunyip and Selkie, creatures of the waterways. One from Australian Aboriginal mythology, one from Celtic lore. One made up of scraps and patches of stories, and images. The other a seal or a woman. Mysterious, gentle sometimes, predatory others. Or so […]

via Mythical Creatures in The Waterways of Australia   — Antipodean Odyssey