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

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Literary Review - The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr

At first, I wasn't planning on including book reviews in my blog. So, when I first found myself composing blog posts in my head about the books I was reading, I discarded them and thought about something else. Last night, I finally finished reading The Emperor of Scent - A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses by Chandler Burr. It was a heavy one to get through, so it was with some sense of satisfaction and achievement that I closed it on the last page. My mind was just thronging with thoughts and interpretations which wouldn't be discarded. They just kept typing themselves out on my mental screen, until I was starting to wonder whether book reviews might actually be the right thing for my blog.

Then today I had a visit from a friend who has a dodgy internet connection at home, and hadn't seen my blog yet. I loaded it up on the screen and we scrolled through the pages together. She said ooh, ah, wow, and all such appropriate interjections, and the first proper sentence she said to me was - Is there a section for book reviews? I'd like to see that.

Hmm. I'll take that as a sign. Here we go.

The Emperor of Scent is the story of Luca Turin, a European biologist, general eccentric scientist character, and something of a savant of smells. It's his incredible sense of and memory for smells, his uncanny ability to crack that mysterious code between language and smell and actually describe a scent in writing, that brings him to the attention of the top smell scientists and perfumers after the publication of his book, Parfums: Le Guide. He then goes on to develop a new theory of the sense of smell, but fails to secure a Nobel Prize for his efforts, or very much in the way of accolades at all.

The story is great, unfolding like a whodunnit. The author presents the science in a beautiful armchair-conversational style with only a minimum of diagrams or visual representations, and I found that my memories of high school chemistry classes were quite sufficient to get me through the technical bits. This  made the reading very pleasant and not the top-heavy academia that I was expecting when I first realised that this was, ultimately, a book about science. Still, I found myself alternating between exciting page-turning frenzy and that dragging feeling of forcing yourself to concentrate on something quite boring, just in case you miss out an interesting bit in the middle of it. My issue with the author's style is that too many irrelevant descriptions and inconsequential anecdotes were included. The book came to just over 300 pages. If I were the editor I would have wanted to get it down to about 220 or so. Perhaps Burr was trying to convey a sense of Turin's personality, which devours and hoards every scrap he comes across, a kind of mental magpie with eclectic interests. Turin himself believes that it is often the most insignificant moments that lead to a piece of a puzzle with universal implications. Often this was true, but there were too many such insignificances for which I could find no apparent relevance. It dragged.

I got to around halfway through the book when I had a crisis of faith, triggered by these frustrations. I wondered whether to just skip to the last pages to see how it ends, or possibly even just put it away altogether and not bother to finish reading it. I don't have a problem with 'giving up' on a book if it's just not doing it for me. Life is too short for books that are a chore rather than a joy. At that moment however, I noticed a wee tiny little spider crawling across the cover of the book. I don't have a problem with spiders either. In fact I quite like and admire them if I know they're not a threat to my health. So I took this as a sign, and continued on, pacing myself and slightly skimming over the flowery or bitchy bits. I'm so glad I did, because a little further in, I came across something extraordinary.

In 1995, a woman named Janet Rippard, a retired nurse living in rural Scotland, came to the attention of Dr Glenis Scadding, three years after the onset of cacosmia - a disorder by which just about all smells become vile, putrid and intolerably awful, and, I assume, after absurd waiting lists to see a succession of expensive doctors who just passed her on to another specialist. The top doctors couldn't see any other way to help her than to perform surgery to sever the olfactory nerve in an attempt to relieve the patient's suffering. This was risky and experimental, so I guess they were pretty much willing to give anything a go when Dr Scadding contacted Turin to ask him if he had any ideas about the condition. After a few weeks of telephone conversations, during which Turin asked many very specific and detailed questions about her experiences of smell, and sent her on a few missions to experiment with certain smells, and thought about things in between, Turin contacted Scadding and informed her that her patient had epilepsy of the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that interprets smell. She was given a prescription for sodium valproate, a common treatment for epilepsy, and some weeks later, the drug kicked in and she was suddenly completely cured.

During the course of narrating these events, Burr has given one of the best 'layperson' - that is, understandable by people who aren't medical professionals - definitions I have ever heard, neatly and clearly explaining what I often struggle to express - that the term 'epilepsy' refers to a wide range of neurological experiences, not just the convulsive seizures that most people seem to think is the definitive epilepsy. On page 156, this -

'Epilepsy, is, essentially, uncontrollable reverb in the neural system. Normal neural systems absorb a stimulus and respond to it and then (crucially) damp the neural response down so that it doesn't simply go on forever . They wash the signal out of the brain and wait for the next one. The neural systems of epileptics, on the other hand, fail to damp things down. The brain receives the signal, and instead of processing it and then letting it drop, the brain lets it go on and on, even ratchets it up into a hysterical pitch... What most people think of when they think "epilepsy," the bodily convulsions, are [epilepsy of] the part of the brain that controls motor function.'
- parentheses, author's, square brackets mine.

This gem made all the dragging worth it. I went on. Still, something about the author's style and attitude was irritating me, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was, until I came across the Author's Note, inserted somewhat incongruously in the middle of the narrative, in which Burr told me exactly what his problem was.

In the course of his research for The Emperor of Scent, Burr was very surprised, naively in my opinion, that Turin was met with opposition, suppression, misrepresentation, prejudice, corruption, and general stuffing around during his attempts to develop and communicate his 'new theory of smell.' Burr seemed to have expected that such exciting, original science would be met with at least respect, if not admiration. I don't know where he got this idea from. Things have been going on like this since Socrates and the hemlock, Galileo Galilei and the Pope. Still, Burr writes -

'I began this book as a simple story of the creation of a scientific theory. But I continued it with the growing awareness that it was, in fact, a larger, more complex story of scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic and virulent and sadly human sense of jealousy and calcified minds and vested interests. That it was a scientific morality tale.'

- and presents this as his summary -

'"Most laypeople," says Luca Turin, "subscribe devoutly to this lovely little fiction that science is a perfect intellectual market." And indeed, most of us do. We want to believe that science is dispassionate, objective, and (for those who don't have use for a theological god), omniscient. We want to believe that every idea that merits attention will be given it. That the good ideas are kept, the bad ones discarded, the industrious rise, the lazy sink, and that hard work and honest data are rewarded.'
-p. 302

I am dismayed by Burr's naivete. If I were telling this story, I would focus on the biography and not so much on the morality tale. Turin is interesting enough to deserve it.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

the Maroonification of the Lady's Wardrobe

Remember this sweet tie-dyed summer dress I found on Friday? I'll put the picture in here again for a more effective before-and-after presentation.

It went for a swim in the dyepot yesterday.

This excellent pot used to be my Nana's, but she doesn't make individual steamed fruit puddings for Christmas anymore. Good on you Nan. I never thought much of that peculiar Australian custom of making a hot lunch with all the trappings in the middle of summer.

Then, this morning, it was a quick spin through the washing machine (where, I must say, my homemade laundry powder is performing admirably), and straight into service as my new summer dress. I actually didn't even wait for it to dry. It's 34 degrees C here - nasty! Damp clothes are a bonus on a day like today.

It's interesting how the maroon dye all but completely covered up the tie-dye pattern. Usually, if I dye something printed or patterned, the pattern will still be visible, but the colours all shifted to a shade of maroon. Dyepots are good at providing surprises.

While I had the dyepot going, I created this little trio of wardrobe basics.

Shirt - pure linen, Westco label, was biege-cream coloured.
Singlet - cotton, sussan label, was medium brown.
Skirt - cotton, Brown Sugar label, was neutral grey/taupe/mushroom coloured.
I paid $1 each for these pieces at the op shop.

This is how I manage to wear maroon all the time.

Friday, 24 February 2012

this week at the Op Shops

girl's skirt, $1

vintage rose notepaper set, still in the original packaging, $1

2-piece men's suit, pure Australian wool, fancy-pants Studio Italia label, minor repair needed (one trouser leg hem), $2

pure linen, pure classic kitsch Tasmania tablecloth, $1. This is the gem that made it worth getting dressed and out the door this morning. I think it deserves full-scale wall-hanging glory.

tie-dye summer dress, $1. This one actually fits me - it's going straight into the maroon dyepot.

bird print black t-shirt, $1

Capture sundress, $1

random piece of gorgeous chiffon, $1

japanese-style small bowl, embroidered doily, woven cane platter, $2 each

stunning yellow floral woven single-bed bedspread, $3

*Linked in with Flea Market Finds at Her Library Adventures.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

a successful Experiment in DIY Cleaning Products

In the interests of living naturally, sustainably, saving the earth, etc., I know it's a good thing to make your own cleaning products rather than buying pre-packaged substances of questionable origin and consequence. I have made and used homemade cleaning products before, and I knew all the amazing things you could do with vinegar and bicarb soda, but I'd somehow fallen back into the habit of using supermarket preparations for convenience. It happens when you're travelling, and it's not really very practical to buy all the ingredients and make up a whole batch of a product, when you can just buy a little packet of something all ready to go.

Enter blog inspiration. I saw a post about a lady making her own spray cleaning product out of basic ingredients. The one I wasn't familiar with was borax. I had a little google around and read many different homemade recipes for spray cleaners, laundry soaps, dishwashing products, etc. They all varied around a basic theme and I really had to check out this borax stuff. Turns out, it's the extra kick that the vinegar-and-bicarb never quite had.  I didn't measure ingredients or follow a recipe specifically, so much as just intuitively mix together the ingredients, keeping in mind everything I had read about all the different varieties. I hit the jackpot first try. This stuff is the best spray cleaner I have ever used, seriously. My battled-scarred old wooden kitchen bench looks cleaner that it ever has. The cleaning cloths dry out and stay clean rather than going festy and smelly overnight. I gave some to my mum to try and she agreed that this is better than anything you can buy at the supermarket. The Spray'n'Wipe lady ain't got nothing on me.

Buoyed somewhat by this promising success, I turned my hand to a laundry powder. I finally located the washing soda that was, according to all those green/DIY blogs, the kick I was looking for to improve on my old pure-soap-and-bicarb mix. The first test wash is now drying on the line and I am totally impressed with the results.

I can't give specifics on the quantities, but these are my recipes -

Spray cleaner - water, vinegar, lemon juice, bicarb soda, borax, essential oils of lemon, lavender and eucalyptus.

Laundry powder - finely grated pure soap, bicarb soda, borax, washing soda, all in approximately equal proportions, essential oils of lemon, lavender and eucalyptus.

Next on the production line will be dishwashing liquid. To that end, I have secured a bottle of glycerin. Apparently that's the stuff that will turn your soap into liquid.

The next logical step, it seems, would be to make your own soaps. I got a few books on the subject of soapmaking, but I don't think I'm ready to tackle a process that requires protective equipment and two different thermometers at this stage. I was thrilled, however, to come across the origin of the word 'soap.' It goes back to Roman times when women would wash their clothes in the Tiber River under Mount Sapo. (You can see this word, a place-name, at the root of many Romance words for 'soap,' such as savon and sapon. It's also part of the word for the chemical process of turning fat and lye into soap - saponification.) Animal sacrifices took place regularly on Mount Sapo. The fat from the animals washed down the hill along the river, as did the ashes from the burnt offerings, which produced the lye necessary to create soap. A white lathery substance was produced along the banks of the river in this area, and women found that if they took their clothes to those places, their clothes came out cleaner.

I think I will just look around for a place to buy Castile soap at this stage.

Monday, 20 February 2012

of a Day with the Black Dog, and Literary Respite

It's like sinking in quicksand. It only makes it worse, and exhausting, to kick and struggle against it. Better to yield, and sink, and just keep breathing. Eventually, I'll go to sleep, and I'll wake up, and it will be another day. It doesn't feel like this can be true, but I know it from experience, and I cling to that.

The air is heavy as molten lead, movement is like through treacle. Movement hurts. Stillness hurts. Light hurts. Thought hurts. The world is unbearable, both its beauty and its tragedy are utterly heartbreaking. I want to die, I want it so much, more than I have ever wanted anything in life. Or that's what it feels like. I have realised, after many years of such thoughts, that there is actually one thing I want even more, and that is not to disappoint or hurt the people I care about. So I'm still here.

Curled up in the foetal position, whimpering. Tears running down my face. Hungry, but powerless to do anything about it. I just can't deal with the kitchen like this.

There is another way out, albeit a very temporary one. There is a magic window, that I can look out of into another world, a world where my depression doesn't exist. That magic window is a book. A book is so much more than its physical existence, so much more even than the words printed on the pages. There's a whole living, breathing world in there, and I can enter into this world and stay there. In this other world, not only does my depression not exist, but I don't exist. The me that is suffering stays behind while my consciousness is transported to a world of someone else's creation. Books are hugely important in my mental health management. It's a terrible thing when the depression is so chronic that cognitive abilities are impaired, and it's difficult to concentrate, to lift the words off the page and into life. That is a lonely place to be. But I'm not there today. If only I can stay still and quiet, the darkness won't find me, hidden in the pages of a book. This is often how I get through the bad days.

The book I am reading at the moment, and therefore my magic window for today, is The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr, published in 2002 by Random House. It's a biography of Luca Turin, a European scientist whose uncanny sense and knowledge of smell and perfumes took him on a journey that led to a radical discovery - an entirely new understanding of how we smell, how our noses turn a molecule into a smell in our brains. It's very scientifically technical in parts - I wondered if it might not be a bit top-heavy to be a Magic Window book, but actually the author has managed to present even the most hardcore technical details in the same conversational, armchair style of narrative that follows the other aspects of Turin's life. Reading this book feels just like you're sitting with the people involved having an animated conversation. I really understand the way he gets so excited about things he notices, learns or smells. I can be like that myself when I get a bee in my bonnet leading me on some new train of research. Turin himself comes across as quite a dysfunctional, disordered kind of fellow generally - an authentic mad scientist. I find this reassuring in my current state.

Quote of the day - "Remind me to tell you why only manic-depressives can do science properly." - Luca Turin.

I believe there is a purpose to mental illness - the method that Shakespeare noticed in the madness. I might not understand it. It might seem more like a cruel joke on humanity to me. But it's there. The world as we know it, including all the fun and fabulous stuff, wouldn't exist, couldn't exist without the ravings of mad scientists, hatters, moon-addled loons and maroon ladies.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

of Popping Poppies and Stout Sprouts

One of the things I love about my overgrown jungle of a backyard is that so often there is something new to discover. Maybe the results of my own efforts in the garden, maybe a wild surprise, maybe the work of the assorted wildlife with whom we share our little patch called home.

This morning I wrote in my journal, along with notes to self to buy vinegar and other such mundane musings, the following sentence -
There are self-seeded poppy seedlings popping up.
Wow. Isn't that just such a cute little sentence. I had to stop and marvel a little at the spontaneous alliteration. Try saying it five times, fast.

So let's have a look at the events which led to its creation.

I planted some California Poppy seeds, just a cheap packet from the $2 shops, in August last year. They performed most impressively, though I was a little disappointed that all the flowers it produced were yellow. The seed packet had promised me 'a variety of colours.' See now, if I'd only planted the seeds and watched them grow, without reading their packet, I would have loved them with a marvel untainted by unmet expectations. Here they are, leaning forward to compete with the mint for the front of the garden bed. The thyme at the back is clearly of a much more reserved nature.

They grew vigorously, and I wondered if they would self-seed. That question was answered on this morning's nature walk (which is all of 10 metres or so long... not exactly a hike but, oh my, so rich in surprises and nature's wonders) when I noticed a couple of dozen of these little babies just short distances from the parent plants.

I have visions of dynasties of yellow California poppies, residing proudly in this garden bed for generations to come.

Greetings and salutations are also due to the sprouting potatoes, which I just put into the ground last week, during the third quarter of the moon (for root vegetables). This patch of earth was bare since being cleared of onion weed. The potatoes were just from a randomly chosen bag in the shops - but oh they were such lovely potatoes, perfectly firm and round and cooking up to the perfect fluffiness. Blessings on your growing, dear sprouting potatoes!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

on my desk today

I made a dreamcatcher today. It's something that I've never done before.  I've never used a dreamcatcher myself before, either, but I wanted to make one for a friend who is troubled by nightmares. I find it hard to do something that I'm not already sure I know I can do well. I put it off for quite a while, and had it in my mind to focus on starting it today. I started by writing in my journal about it, and once I identified and named the 'Not Good Enough' fear-thoughts, resistance melted and I was off with needle and thread.

Technique was another matter. Someone did show me how to make dreamcatchers once - about 13 years ago. But it was enough to start playing around with it. I started off much too loose and loopy but worked it out somewhere in the middle. I believe a messy dreamcatcher will likely work as well as a neat one.

It just needs some dangly bits coming down. I want to use little bunches of eucalyptus leaves. A short Walking Adventure shall be in order tomorrow. I'm surrounded by a jungle of fruit trees here, but I've just suddenly noticed that there's not a gum tree anywhere on the block.

Also visible in the top part of the picture is my 'goddess top,' a t-shirt I found in an op shop in Hobart in 2001 and has been altered in stages ever since. It got a few stitches today as well.

It gives me satisfaction-feelings, to look at the stitches, the work I have made.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

this week at the Op Shops

floral, beaded linen shirt, $1

Betty Boop pyjama singlet, $1

Bendigo pottery sugar bowl, $5, and ceramic jug, Old Foley England 1973, $3

saucers. above, Japanese, 50c, and below, Royal Albert Lily of the Valley, 50c

jonquil print double bed doona cover, part of a fill-a-garbage-bag-for-$5 sale

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

sleepy Koala

I'm so tired today. The day is mostly over and I still haven't really woken up yet. I'm just too tired to stand up for any longer than it takes to put the kettle on or go to the bathroom. I'm too tired to keep my eyes open long enough to read more than half a page of a book. This post is being typed in short bursts with lie-downs in between.

There's no apparent reason why I should be so tired. I slept fine last night, and I haven't been overdoing anything. I'm not experiencing any other symptoms related to depression or to the epilepsy. I feel fine. I'm just so tired.

It's really quite annoying. I did have plans to do some good things today. But it turns out that nothing more eventful than putting a DVD in the player will happen today. I resent this, all this time lost to nothingness, time that could be spent doing or learning all sorts of wonderful or creative things... if only I could wake up.

I'm not like this every day, but enough of them. I just seem to be tired almost all the time. I very rarely have the experience of feeling 'full of energy.' There is no official medical theory as to why I'm so tired all the time, though it fits in with the general theme of chronic depression and epilepsy. It's often been suggested to me that I might have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It certainly fits. My GP once asked me if I wanted to see a specialist to get a diagnosis of CFS but I figured it wouldn't really matter anyway, I'd still be tired all the time, only I'd have to pay for a specialist.

I've also noticed that my extreme tiredness meets a lot of disapproval from acquaintances, family members etc. It seems to be the least socially acceptable aspect of my condition. There's hardly any stigma left around epilepsy anymore, and great advances have been made in the general social awareness around mental illness since I was a teenager. But still, if people find out how many hours a day I sleep (average 12), or that I've been too sleepy to get out of bed for the last day or two, I hear a note of something unpleasant in their voices as they tell me how lucky I am to be able to lie around in bed all day if I want to. Ahem. Cough, choke, splutter. This is so rude! I would never say to a person in a wheelchair, "oh, aren't you lucky, you never have to walk anywhere, you can just get people to push your chair for you everywhere." People seem to think it's laziness rather than neurobiology, and resent me for the fact that they have to get up every morning and go to work, while I don't. Well I can assure those people that I would swap my 'cushy' disability pension for reasonable health, and enough energy to do half the things that I would otherwise be able to do, any day. I have the skills, talents, inspiration and motivation - I just really don't have the energy.

Everyone has an opinion, a different theory as to why this might be. I might need certain supplements, or more exercise. Ahem, cough choke splutter. If it were that simple, I think I would have worked it out by now. I'm very active in staying conscious and informed about my medical conditions, and I have had a lot of success in overcoming many unpleasant symptoms and getting on with life anyway. It's extremely insulting to suggest to me that maybe it's really simple, only I just haven't tried the right 'fix' yet.

My own theory is that it's more related to the epilepsy than anything else. The way I see it, in a very simplistic way, is that basically, the way my brain is wired up, with all its hyperactive synapses, it takes a lot of energy to function normally, so it needs more sleep. Well, that's an explanation I can live with.

Once, when I was 19 years old, I was talking to a new friend, an older, very spiritual man, about my sleepiness. He suggested that perhaps the koala is my totem animal, and smiled as though this was a beautiful thing. Koalas actually sleep around 20 hours a day when they're perfectly healthy and normal. There's just not too much pep in eucalyptus leaves, clearly. This is the only time in my life that someone has expressed this aspect of my life in a positive way. It's something I can smile about, to think that I'm like a koala, oh how cute and cuddly, squish.

Though I am extremely appreciative that I get a nice, soft, cozy bed to sleep in, nestled among doonas and pillows, rather than hanging out up a gum tree all my life. I can't imagine how they can get their big, heavy, soft bodies comfortable in the limbs of a tree.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

of Certain Disaster and getting Back on Horses

Last week, I was still buzzing on the high of all the excitement of this blogging caper, when disaster struck, and pfft, the bubble was burst. Well, it had to happen sometime.

I'm sure I don't need to bore anyone with the technical details. Suffice to say, there was a glitch or two, and I was unable to use the Internet connection for a couple of days. I had realised that I was going to be left at the mercy of a capricious machine and its unfathomable goings-on once I started this blog, and I had figured that this part of it would not be fun at all. So as I stared at the frozen screen in despair, my careful plans for the next fabulous post were laid waste, and I just watched what happened.

I'm sure that many of you are familiar with the basic process of anxiety running riot in one's mind and growing into a full-blown panic attack. It starts as a little niggling thought or feeling, possibly about something that's not really important anyway, in the grand scheme of things. But soon those thoughts have established a terrific momentum, and washed away all one's security and composure in a great jumbled panic, and we end up with something like this:
The computer is not responding to my directions. It doesn't work. This is wrong. It's all wrong. Everything is wrong, the whole world is wrong, reality isn't real, how can I ever believe in anything, I'm lost in a swirling world of uncertainty and failure.

Surely, I can see how unreasonable that is. Well, yes I can, and after several years of studying and practising CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), that is usually enough to light up the way back to reality and sensibility. In the usual course of things, I can spot a potentially troubling thought pattern before it's even formed a proper syntax in my train of thought, formulate a CBT defense and squash it back into oblivion in two seconds flat. Sounds impressive? Well, it was many years of extremely devoted and disciplined practise of the CBT principles to get to that point. And still, if the original problem involves a computer, or a telephone, or something with a screen, it's next to no use at all. The technophobia seems to override all my training and establish itself as a real, adrenalin-fed panic in an even shorter time space than my thought process could come up with a line of thought to support or explain such a shocking reaction.

Eventually, of course, I managed to calm down. I even had a plan. I intended to write a post about my technophobic panic once I got the computer sorted out. I did what I used to do in the days of the extremely-recent-past before we had Internet. I read a book.

(You've got to love an old-fashioned, hard-copy book. They never suddenly or mysteriously stop working. They can endure such extremes of conditions, even considerable neglect and abuse, before they are lost beyond their purpose, ie, become illegible. And they come in handy for all sorts of stop-gap jobs, holding up the uneven ends of tables, blocking draughts or pressing flowers. All that before we even begin to consider the content.)

So far, all this was to be expected. It was bound to happen at some point, and I had accepted this, so I got on with letting it go. It was when I got back online and in front of a blank 'compose post' field that the unexpected part happened.

This time, it was me that was frozen. Why would that be? I asked myself. And the answer was as clear as it was surprising to me. I just didn't WANT to write about anxiety, mental illness, phobia, all that dark stuff. It was a lot easier to blog about fun stuff, like the cushion covers, about which I did end up managing to put together this post. I thought perhaps that would get me back on the horse, but, no, here we are a few days later and I still don't want to do it. I know my procrastination has reached serious resistance issues when I find myself thinking, 'oh, I'll just do some dishes first.' Well guess what folks, my kitchen sink is all cleaned out. Time to confess.

Of course, it did occur to me that I didn't have to write a post about an anxiety attack if I didn't want to. Hey, it's my blog, I could just blog about cushion covers every day if I wanted to. But that would have contradicted my Principles, which I take very seriously. One of my intentions around having this blog was to share my experience of living with mental illness, of living a great life in spite of it, and of caring for others experiencing mental illness. I think it's an issue that needs a lot more awareness and sharing of experience, and I thought that this would be a great medium in which to 'become the change I want to see in the world.' I thought it would be easy. I even thought it would be enjoyable, as a cathartic release kind of thing. I thought I would feel pride in sharing my struggles and some of my victories along the way. Now I think I was kidding myself on that one. Now that I'm here, with just one little panic attack story, it feels yucky and shameful and I want to run and hide from these plans. I have always had a lot of respect and appreciation for people who publicly share their experiences with mental and chronic illness - and that has just increased by about tenfold since I sat down to force myself to write this post.

I won't be running and hiding. This is something that is too important to me and my nearest and dearest. And, if it takes me a while to marshall my resolve, well then, in the meantime, I'll have a clean kitchen sink. There's always a bright side.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

"...sit on a cushion, and sew a fine seam...

...and feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream."
- Anonymous

A recent little project.

These pink velvet cushions came from the op shop in a fill-a-garbage-bag-for-$5 sale. The fabric is a tough upholstery or curtain material, and they are perfectly made, but other clues led me to conclude that these were most likely someone's homemade cushion covers. There are no tags, and a uniform machine stitch has been used throughout the project, with the seams left unfinished. They go wonderfully with my pink velvet lounge suite, but they just seemed to be crying out for their own doilies. These ones are random op-shop finds that I have dyed in maroon dye. I just pinned and stitched them straight on.

And by the way, to all those people who told me that using a digital camera was just a matter of 'point and click' - I say pfft to you. I tried these cushions in all sorts of different lighting conditions and the pictures NEVER turn out the way I see the thing. I couldn't get any pictures of the pink velvet lounge to turn out. I find all this extremely frustrating.

Now wouldn't it be much easier if you all just popped over to visit and came to see my cushions etc. for yourselves? It would certainly be easier for me.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

an Anecdote about a Short Story

On February 14, 2001, I went to a certain pub in North Hobart to attend a local writers' open mic event, with a theme, rather appropriately, of Valentine's Day. I'd seen some fliers around. I went alone, carrying my journal in my bag. I was so nervous. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I didn't know what to order from the bar. I don't drink beer and I hadn't yet discovered the delights of sparkling wines. I settled on a Stones and ginger. I sat way at the back of the room. I watched and listened as, one after another, people went up to a small impromptu lectern and read stories, poems, letters and essays, all somehow related to the phenomenon of love in all its varied manifestations, aloud to the audience, perhaps some two dozen people. As each person finished their piece, there would be a moderate, polite round of applause. I was unsure as to the protocol or procedure for getting up the front to read, so I waited until it seemed that most people had already read, and there was an appropriate gap in proceedings. I got up to the mic. My heart was pounding, my whole body was trembling, I hoped imperceptibly, and it was an extraordinary effort to control the catch in my voice and put on my best Public Speaking accent and enunciation.

I read a page and a half from my journal, something of a short story, dated January 14, 2000. I was in Switzerland at the time I wrote it - just one of those mysterious, unbidden things that come out of nowhere and landed on my journal page, all in a complete piece, no drafting or planning or rewriting. I kept my Public Speaking voice together quite well. I came to the end and I looked up.

Something had happened that I didn't understand. The whole mood and atmosphere had altered palpably. People were sitting with stunned expressions, jaws slightly agape, as if they had had some kind of shock, or perhaps consumed several of those beers in a hurry, in the time I had been reading. There was silence. No one clapped. My cheeks flushed and burned. I put my journal back in my bag and slunk out of there as quickly as decently possible.

It was some years later that I happened to meet a man who had been the co-ordinator and organiser of that particular event. He told me with great excitement that everyone had been extremely impressed by my performance, and the group had hoped for a long time that I would come back, and that he was so glad he finally found me and got to meet me. I told him of my experience of the shocked faces and conspicuously absent applause. We shared a moment of wonder at the subjectivity of experience, and human misunderstandings, and the prospect of an alternate universe in which I had hung around, met people and perhaps done that sort of thing again.

Anyhow. This is the story that I told.

When I left you were still sleeping. Forgive me, I could not bear the awkwardness of meeting each other naked in the morning light, and I am sorry for the moment when you reached over to hold me and your embracing arm found only an empty space, size and shape of me, but you see it is best this way.

I awoke before the Sun, touched your eyelids for the last time and packed my things in the next room, careful not to disturb you sleeping so soundly under your blanket of soft fur, silently I folded and stuffed, silent but for the rasp of my uncertain breathing.

I stole out into the street in the first grey light of the new day, the first day of my life without you. You will see, it's best this way. I moved lightly under my heavy pack, down the slopes of the hill on which we lived, down into the valley where the morning mist lay, ready and waiting to cover my tracks as though we had arranged it all beforehand. By the time the mist fades under the midday sun I will be long gone, downstream to the next valley where the river opens out into the sea. I hear there are many fishing boats, maybe I can find some work.

I did not leave a note but a kiss folded up in an envelope I recycled from yesterday's newspaper. Trust me, it's best this way.

We lived together for many years in the little green hut made of moss and branches. Early in the afternoon you would return up from the market in town carrying the vegetables, and I would return down from the orchards where I had picked the fruit. In the evening you would read aloud to me in the speech of many tongues while I spun fibres all of the same colour. I was making for myself a travelling coat, long with a hood and deep pockets, though I did not know so at the time. But in the mornings we never spoke and never met, preparing ourselves for the day in our separate rooms, for the morning light is strongest in these parts and the window faces east.

And so as the sun set on that evening when we found the place where we no longer had edges but melded together into one, the moon rose fat and full like the egg that passed through the night of the interior of the body to meet your seed. Westward she sank as we sank exhausted into sleep, side by side. But alas that we chose the eastern room, the morning light threatens us, exposing every flaw and bleary line as it reflects off the edges of ourselves, the edges we denied. And so you see that is is best this way, now the morning light will shine on my path as I travel and I will no longer have need to withdraw from it, careful of exposure, but as you sit alone in the fading light tonight, know this my love:

I would follow you to the ends of the earth if you would take me, yea, I would summon all my courage to follow you to the eastern horizon and there in the dazzling dawn all the stories you told would fade from their pages, the fibres I spun would disintegrate and we would be left naked and without a language, defenseless against the eternal newness of the day, raw and without edges I will look at you and I promise you that I will not falter.

So until you are ready to leave, it is best this way: the birds will bring me news of you, and while I travel west into the fading light I do not close my ears to their song.

Monday, 6 February 2012

"This is my house...'s where I spend the vast majority of my time...

...and it's fine."

Quote by Tim Minchin

Thursday, 2 February 2012

on becoming Lady Demelza

I had a different name when I was born. I have changed every part of my name since then - first, middle, last, and title. I have made these changes legally, by deed poll. My mail arrives addressed to Lady Demelza.

Each of these changes has been made with a great deal of thought - many years worth of thoughts in fact. Each change has been a step toward crafting my identity to reflect my inner self.

My mum chose the name Demelza when she was pregnant with me. Demelza was the heroine of a Cornish TV series, Poldark, which was screening on ABC at the time. Demelza was the kitchen wench who married the master and became the lady of the house. Pretty cool story. Excellent choice, Mum!

This is my copy of the novelisation of the series, with Angharad Rees playing Demelza. (Apologies for the blurry picture. Keep in mind, folks, this morning is my first ever attempt at taking photos with a digital camera, and there's no-one around to show me how it works. I'm pretty much just pressing buttons at random and seeing what happens. This is the best image I got in nearly an hour of stuffing around.)

Unfortunately, my father did not agree. He vetoed Demelza and I was named with Mum's second choice, also a Celtic fictional heroine, but definitely not a cool name like Demelza. I was about 14 or 15 when Mum told me the story of how I might have been named Demelza. I loved it. When I was 17 and went out into the world, I was among new people who hadn't known me for years. It was a chance and I took it. I started to introduce myself as Demelza. I made this change legal by deed poll aged 19. It fits into a very neat division now - I had one name for my childhood, and another as an adult. This is a pattern which has been seen across many cultures throughout history and the world.

People often ask me something along the lines of - is that the name your parents gave you, or did you choose it yourself? In my case, the answer is both! I am so glad my mother had an extra name for me tucked away like this. She kept it safe and secret until I was old enough to appreciate it.

The Lady prefix started as a nickname. It started with one bloke I met at a festival who coined the name 'Lady Demelza'. It was not intended as a compliment. It was actually a cheeky, back-handed, Australian style affectionate criticism on my blunt and far-from-subtle manner. He was likening me to Lady Macbeth. We emailed for a bit, and ladydemelza struck me as a pretty cool email address. It might have stayed there but for a remarkable turn of events in January 1999.

I was at a Rainbow Gathering in Northern Tasmania for several weeks. One of the people at this gathering had to go back to town for a couple of days in the middle of this, so I gave him the keys to my flat in Hobart. While he was staying there, some mail arrived for me. He was considerate enough to bring my mail up to me at the gathering when he returned. Among the standard typed mail were two pieces of personal, hand-addressed mail. One of these was from the cheeky bloke, and so of course, it was addressed to Lady Demelza. Another was from a girlfriend, addressed to Demelza the Great. As these things generally go, my mail was passed around from hand to hand across the whole camp until it found me a few hours later. By then, of course, the whole camp was delighting in calling me 'Lady Demelza the Great'.

Now, that's a bit of a mouthful, especially for Australians, who will always want to shorten a word or expression, even if it were pretty succinct to begin with. And so in a couple of days, the Great wore off, and I was known to one and all as Lady Demelza.

I took this with appropriate good humour, but I didn't actually refer to myself to Lady Demelza for quite a few years. This happened at the firm insistence of my community. If ever I was heard to introduce myself as just Demelza, someone would most pointedly correct me and impress upon the newcomer that my real name was Lady Demelza. People said it all as one word, in one breath. Any separation between Lady and Demelza was frowned upon.

This went on, and after some years, I went with it and started calling myself Lady Demelza and signing my letters as such. On one memorable occasion, at a good friend's wedding reception, a man I didn't know introduced himself to me at the bar. I replied, of course, with, hi, I'm Lady Demelza. This man scoffed and snorted at what he saw as an affectation. I turned around and addressed the slightly raucous crowd in general. 'Hey people, what's my name?' Assorted voices replied in a wonky chorus. 'Lady Demelza!' The scoffing man apologised sincerely.

It was just last year when I learnt of a rather extraordinary legal loophole that exists only in Scotland, where one could argue until the cows come home about whether the title Lady, as it is used in Scotland, is the same as a Lady of the English peerage, or refers to a specifically Scottish tradition whereby owning land is all that is required to be a Lady, rather than having to inherit or marry a title. I discovered Highland Titles, an estate in the Highlands of Scotland that is exploiting this loophole for the most noble of purposes, that is, to preserve and protect the few remaining areas of Scottish wilderness. I purchased a 100-square-foot plot - just enough to pitch a tent on - within the Estate and received a title deed which gave me the paperwork to prove what my friends had known for years - indeed, Demelza is a Lady.

 Here's my title, and inset, the view from my plot.

I just love what Highland Titles is doing. Exploiting a loophole to subvert the dominant class system paradigm - what could be more fitting to the Australian way! But most importantly, by breaking up their estate in many tiny, individually owned plots, the estate holders are ensuring that this rare wilderness can never, ever be sold to developers, and nobody can ever build on it. The land is reserved for the grasses and the eagles, and I think that's just beautiful. Profits go toward purchasing further vulnerable areas of wilderness to include in this scheme, and to maintaining these areas as wildlife reserves.

I love to learn the stories behind the names given to people, places and things. Do you have a name story?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

in which our Heroine boldly enters the Brave New World, despite Great Trepidation

It's a miracle. Many people thought this day would never come, and others persevered in the face of great resistance to ensure that it did. And here we are. Lady Demelza  is online.

Yes, that's really me, completely absorbed in the task of learning how to use blogger. The picture is a little bit blurry because there's actually a frenzy of activity going on in there, despite my sedentary posture. Thanks to Mr CJ for taking the photo. You see, I am terribly technophobic. Partly just because I'm generally pretty old-fashioned, I think. And largely because I have temporal lobe epilepsy, and being around too many computers, or for too long, or even just one computer that just makes the wrong kind of whiney noise, can trigger an epileptic episode. I didn't actually know that this was the problem until I was 25 years old. Before that, all I knew was that 'I had a yucky feeling' about and around computers. I think this is why I developed such a strong aversion to anything involving computers during those formative years when the Internet was the New Thing and all my friends were learning how to do it.

I probably would have lived a lot longer in willful ignorance, but for the insistence of my friend, Dr MJ. He told me I was living in 'information poverty' and took it upon himself to provide me with a modem and a refurbished iMac. Now that's the kind of insistence that is hard to resist.

Several months later I was taking my first tentative steps into the blogosphere, guided by my dear friend the Majik Faerie, who has been keeping a most excellent blog for some time now. Soon enough, I had enough blogs to follow that the blogger dashboard came into my life, and I learned how to make Comments, and follow links, and... and... and... well you know what happened next. I discovered there's a whole world out there, populated by some mighty interesting and talented people.

That would have been good enough for me for quite a while, I think, but the peer pressure would not let me stop there. It has seemed, for some time now, that the unspoken question in every computer-related or -located conversation I have had has been, 'Well, where's your blog?'. And it was a fair enough question. I could already see the events of my life forming blog posts in my mind - but that's where I wanted them to say. There were too many things to worry about with blogging, not to mention the fact that i didn't know a gadget from a widget, and my camera had a film in it. Okay, I still don't know the difference between a gadget and a widget, but I have given up the film camera for good. Thanks again to Dr MJ for the device that points and clicks and plugs in to the computer.

The crunch came when suddenly, mysteriously, quietly and without fanfare, I received a revelation. God wanted me to have a blog. I'm not going to argue with that. Yes, I do whatever God tells me to, no matter how crazy it seems at the time. It works for me.

Oh dear, now I've dropped the G-word, and I must clarify. When I say God, that's more of a shorthand term for Gods/Goddesses/Great Spirit/The I Am/the Universe/(insert name of your preferred deity here).
I'm certainly not referring to the Judeo-Christian god that many people in Western societies first think of when the word 'God' is dropped. Clearly, this is a complex issue that deserves its own posts, and will no doubt get several in the near future. The point that is relevant here is that I now had no excuses and could not hedge any longer. I had to start a blog.

My education in earnest began a little over a week ago when I wanted to copy a long passage I had already written into a different email. I used the copy-and-paste function... for the first time in my adult life! And it worked! This was so magical and dramatic for me that the moment required a Happy Dance.

Then it was off to the library for a copy of Blogging for Dummies, and several dozen emails back and forth to Majik Faerie - messages of the 'okay, i've got x, what do I do next?' variety - and a week of neglecting the housework and having toasted sandwiches or take-away for dinner, and well, here we are. Just me and my 13-year-old iMac, named Cami. Yes, I give a name to all my electrical devices. I was brought up that way.

Welcome, friends, to The Maroon Diaries.  I think the occasion warrants a Happy Dance. C'mon, get up and join me!