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

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

of the Faerie Guardian Tree

Upon considering my previous post, I felt that the special tree right in front of my home deserved a bit more of an introduction. I've lived so close to her for so long that she has really become a part of the household in her own right. She does protect me directly from the sun and the rain, and beyond that, I feel she has a spiritual guardianship role to this little spot. And yet I still don't know her name. I don't know the proper names of a lot of the plants up here, as they are different to the ones I know from the southern states. As for her personal name, as kind as she is to me, she hasn't chosen to share that with me yet. So she's just the Tree, with a capital letter to distinguish her from all the other trees.

When I first arrived, you couldn't exactly tell there was a tree there, so much as infer its existence by the presence of branches poking out of the top of an enormous tangle of weeds. An afternoon's work and a five-foot pile of compost later, I discovered the tree, and her family of bromeliads and bird's-nest fern that grow around the trunk. Not to mention the mysterious holes. I love holes in the trunks of trees.

So, here is my lovely Tree's graceful canopy.

And these are her delicate flowers.
 This is her shapely trunk, that is home to an entire ecosystem of living things in itself.
 And this is what I mean about the mysterious holes.
 Her space was loosely marked by a rough ring of stones around her base, but at some point a few months ago I got inspired. I started to go on regular rock-hunting trips along the edges of the waterways. I played around with them and this is what I ended up with.
 It's the first rock wall I have ever built, and I am so proud of it. I must have done a decent job of it, because it hasn't fallen down yet. I've filled it in with forest litter and cow manure and started a herb garden of those particular herbs that are known to be unpalatable to cows.
 So far I have thyme, rosemary, mint and lavender. They get morning and afternoon sun and seem to be thriving happily. Apparently, cows will not eat these herbs until they get really hungry, and the cows that come up here look so amazingly sleek and healthy and well-nourished that I don't think there's much danger of that happening.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

of the Cow Cage and the Drunken Lettuce Babies

This is the view from the door of my new home, looking out.

Yes, I know. How can I still call it my new home when I've been here more than a year and half now? But something strange is happening to my sense of time as I get older. It was when one year had passed that I got the feeling of really having arrived, of my body knowing that it doesn't live in the city any more. I feel like I'm just starting to get properly set up and organised now. It seems to me now that you have to spend a full year, a full cycle of the seasons, in a place to really know it. Maybe when I get to the second year, this won't be my 'new' home any more.

The beautiful tree provides shade in the space immediately in front of the hut, a godsend on hot, sunny days. It's a real faerie tree with lots of deep, mysterious holes in its trunk wherein the otherwordly may dwell - not to mention an astonishing variety of plant and fungal life forms. And just beyond that, you'll see the fenced space for the vegetable garden.

When I first arrived, I assumed that the fence was to keep the possums out. I'm used to people having to fence their gardens against possums. But it turns out that even though there are some possums around here - I can hear them at night - they seem to stay in the depths of the bush and not come near the dwellings. No, it turns out that this fence was built because of the cows. They will wander right up to the hut and munch anything that takes their fancy. And so I call it the cow cage - not for keeping cows in, but for keeping them out.

The metal walls for raised beds were in place when I got here - and that's about it. There wasn't much dirt in them, and no plants except for the weeds which would cover the whole surface of the ground inside the cow cage every time you turned your back on them. It's taken me all year to build up the beds and start some plants, and the garden bed is still operating at barely half of its full potential. I've still got a long way to go. The cows are doing their bit to help - I go down to the cow paddock and collect the manure to fill up the garden beds. Then the worms come back, and we start to get new soil. Maybe by next summer it will be the bursting bed of greenery I see in my mind's eye.

Earlier this year I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It's an amazing book that should be read by everyone who eats any food that they haven't grown themselves. I was inspired to do my little bit by finding an heirloom seed company to order seeds from, rather than supporting a multi-national company that is using its profits to patent and interfere with genetic material. I found The Lost Seed company online, and ordered an exciting array of seeds with such exotic monikers as Early Blood Turnip beetroots, Violet Sicilian cauliflowers and Drunken Woman lettuces.

I planted the Drunken Woman seeds while under the influence of a bottle of sparkling wine that was a birthday gift, and throughout the early spring we enjoyed the partly-maroon leaves of genunine Drunken Woman lettuces, planted by a genuine Drunken Woman. When they started to go to seed, I let them go, just to watch what would happen, even though I had no particular ambitions of seed-saving. After many years of growing various lettuces, I finally got to see what lettuce flowers look like. Not very impressive, is the answer.

But oh, what a wonderful garden-type surprise I got when I looked a little closer one day.

And over here- more babies! This is my first experience with self-seeded lettuce. I was so excited, I jumped up and down. Maybe you have to be a gardener to get that.

When I showed Majikfaerie, she said something along the lines of that was typical of the drunken sluts to just breed all over the place. I defended their anthropomorphic honour and pointed out that they are clearly good mothers, because the babies are healthy and well-nourished. It just goes to show, drunken women can be good mothers too.

And if all that wasn't exciting enough, this is the view just in front of the cow cage.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

in the Poetry Corner - Michael Leunig

If you're not from Australia, there's a very good chance that you have never come across the work of Michael Leunig, which in my opinion would be a great tragedy. How much harder it would have been to work out this whole life caper without his divine words of wisdom to guide me along the way.


Leunig is known primarily as a cartoonist, as that's how he came to be known to the world - creating regular socio-politicial commentary cartoons for The Age newspaper. He is absolutely brilliant at managing to capture an incomprehensively complex human emotion or situation in just a few scrawly little lines, but I think we'd all agree that he's not exactly a fine artist. I think it's kind of hilarious that lately he is being considered in those lofty Fine Art circles and given exhibitions and having limited editions released of his scrawlings that are selling for enormous amounts of money. I reckon Leunig would be finding it all rather amusing himself, actually. He may not be producing Fine Art, but he makes true, human art, that touches the soul and will continue to do so regardless of what the art critics have to say about it. For me, his art and his gift, his soul, it seems to me, is more that of a poet, and he does manage to squeeze an awful lot of poetry into his cartoons. Sometimes the poem is more powerful and doesn't even really need the picture, but he has to put one in, you know, because his boss is paying him to produce cartoons.

The path to your door
Is the path within,
Is made by animals,
Is lined by thorns,
Is stained with wine,
Is lit by the lamp of sorrowful dreams,
Is washed with joy,
Is swept by grief,
Is blessed by the lonely traffic of art,
Is known by heart,
Is known by prayer,
Is lost and found,
Is always strange,
The path to your door.

Leunig writes about the human spirit, and the spirit of nature, and all the terrible things that the various governments and institutions of the world are doing to destroy it. He calls society on its hypocrisy and injustice, unceasingly and unflinchingly. This is the role of the poet in this mad, modern world - to remind us just exactly how mad and modern it's all gotten, and to remind us of more ancient, primal truths.

God help us. With great skill and energy we have ignored the state of the human heart. With politics and economics we have denied the heart's needs. With eloquence, wit and reason we have belittled the heart's wisdom. With sophistication and style, with science and technology, we have drowned out the voice of the soul. The primitive voice, the innocent voice. The truth. We cannot hear our heart's truth and thus we have betrayed and belittled ourselves and pledged madness to our children. With skill and pride we have made for ourselves an unhappy society. God be with us. AMEN.
- from A Common Prayer, 1990

I just absolutely adore and admire Michael Leunig beyond measure and from the depths of my heart, because he understands the Truth of the Human Condition, and he bears it bravely. Well, he probably has days when he's not so brave, but he still manages to bear it and keep on living and loving and sharing his beautiful art with us. I'm so very thankful that through his words, he is a beautiful, loving and forgiving part of my life.

As one would expect of a sensitive soul, Leuing has experienced his share of depression through his life. Of all the reams that have been been written on the subject of advice for the individual suffering from depression, I reckon this succint little piece is the best ever put down on paper.


And when it comes to the exquisitely unbearable pain of a broken heart, Leunig is there for us again, telling us what to do with a poem. I can tell you from hard-earned personal experience that this remedy is also reliable.


But of all the blessed miracles that are Leunig's cartoons, I think this one is my favourite.


You see, I actually have done all those things he's described here, the singing in the moonlight and the joyous tears and the running off with gypsies and feasting and dancing and all that. And oh, the sweet memory of it is indeed one of the greatest treasures in my life. Whenever I'm feeling poor or disadvantaged or powerless or oppressed, I look at this cartoon to remind me of the truth. That I am a Have, and I am blessed.

All images and poetry remain copyright Michael Leunig and are reproduced here in the context of review.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

on a Better Way for Tony Abbott to Save Money

Our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, wants to cut the national spending on the Disability Support Pension. And fair enough. We're expensive, us sick people. I have no idea how much money the government has spent so far on keeping me alive, but I reckon if I knew the actual figure, even I would find it offensive.

It's not just the sick people that are too expensive. He's cutting spending all across the welfare and housing sectors, and making it more expensive to get health care or tertiary education. The nation is in debt and in need. We all have to do our bit.

For example, as of next year, people under 30 will not be able to receive any unemployment benefits until they show they have been looking for a job for six months. So if you're in your 20's, and you're on a low wage, you probably don't have much in the way of savings. If you lose your job, or you get bullied and abused at work and can't cope with it, or you get sick and can't get to a doctor at the right time to get the appropriate medical certificate, suddenly you can't pay your rent. Then you're homeless, and once you don't have a home to put it all in, you lose all your stuff. And then you have nothing and it seems impossible to get back on your feet again. It may well be impossible without the support of friends, family or charity organisations.

I've been dependent on the Disability Support Pension since the age of 18 - my whole adult life. Tony's worried that this has been a waste of money, and that I should have been made to help myself by supporting myself. It's true that there have been some relatively brief periods in my life where my health was fairly good and I might have been able to support myself. But without reliable income support, I would have just lost everything every time I had another relapse. Looking back as objectively as I can, I really believe that without the pension, I wouldn't be alive by now. I wouldn't have made it. I can see if that if the welfare system were in the state it is in now when I was 18, I'd really most likely be dead by now.

And that's okay. I can appreciate the desire to create a fitter, leaner, stronger society the way we did in prehistoric times, by eliminating the weak. But it's obvious what's going to happen to here. We're going to end up with a whole lot of dispossessed and mentally ill people running around on the streets, committing crimes out of desparation and upsetting decent, tax-paying folks. It's going to get ugly. Fortunately, I have a better idea.

If Tony would just invest a few dollars in a few discreet, hygienic euthanasia centres in all the major cities, then all us useless, non-productive, overdemanding disadvantaged people could be taken care of quietly, neatly and painlessly. No mess, no fuss. No more crazy people, no more frail elderly, no more mentally handicapped, no more useless lazybones to just suck up all the taxpayers' dollars into the endless black hole of welfare. Only the fit, functional and employable will be left to enjoy the limited resources of our earth. It sounds like utopia. For the common good, I'll even volunteer to go first.

Friday, 25 April 2014

on ANZAC Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Soldiers

source: Australian War Memorial

I used to be a pacificist. It was so simple - War is Wrong, any violence is wrong, anyone choosing to participate in it is wrong, and that's that. I knew how right I was with all the confidence and ignorance of a member of a generation that has never known war.

I grew up in Australia in the 1980's, where there was no war. The blackfellas had long been defeated and their history revised. War was something from history books, something that other, less intelligent countries still did, something you could see on the news, but it was never a part of my life. I was 13 when Australia went to the Gulf War, but I didn't know anyone who was involved, and couldn't see what it had to do with us at all. And because my priveleged, peaceful, Western society was all that I knew, I thought it was normal. I had an image of the history of the world as being mostly peaceful, interrupted by bouts of terror and violence occasionally. I didn't see how Anzac Day really had anything to do with me or my life.

The first suspicions that something didn't quite add up in this theory came to me when watching nature documentaries - David Attenborough and that kind of thing. I would watch these shows about animals living in the wild and I would be in floods of tears, distraught at the horrific violence and suffering that creatures in the wild will routinely face. Everywhere, the evidence said that the natural world is violent, the nature of life and survival is inherently violent. Mating, birthing, feeding, preying and dying - all so horribly violent, all so utterly natural.

Life went on. I got older, and my life diversified into areas I wouldn't have expected. I started to get to know people who had never had the luxury of the chance to articulate a pacifist philosophy. I watched as the world went about its business. I read and studied. I learned that contrary to my prior impression, humanity had been in some kind of state of war for most of its existence - that war is the rule rather than the exception. I realised that the media is far more interested in exposing the horrors of war than in participating in glorification propaganda ever since they realised they could make more money that way - and yet war is as big a business as ever. Increasingly, my hippy ideals just didn't hold up to the harsh light of reality. They were really falling apart by the time I found myself living in a seedy boarding house in an inner suburb of Sydney, the kind of place where you step over unconcious junkies in the hallway to get to your room, and violence was a seething backdrop to the everyday.

Even with all these swirling uncertainties, I was still pretty shocked when I first got to know Mr CJ and heard about his intense pride in his family's military history, and in his own profiency in the pugilistic arts. It took me a while to understand where he was coming from. He grew up being beaten up just about every day of his childhood, until he got big enough to fight back. The practise of violence was simply a matter of survival for Mr CJ and his peers. There was no point questioning it.

The first year or two we lived together was an intense process of challenging and reforming beliefs for both of us. I came to understand the truth of the role of violence and war in our society and history, and to not just apply a black-and-white blanket ideal to every situation without discernment. Mr CJ, meanwhile, came to understand the joys of a peaceful, loving social group, and different ways of dealing with conflict.

Besides these intense philosophical dialogues with Mr CJ, I put myself on a study course to learn more about the history of warfare and the role of war in my society, with a wide range of books, films and documentaries. I think it started with Band of Brothers. When it came on TV, Mr CJ wanted to watch it. He said it was a great show. It was the sort of thing I would have usually avoided watching, but I made myself watch that series and try to really look at the events unfolding from the perspectives of the individuals involved, rather than just writing it off with a 'War is Wrong' slogan. It was a powerful experience. Of all the texts I studied, this stands out in my memory now, a few years later. So does the stunningly beautiful film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), the TV series Foyle's War and the book La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith, one of my favourite writers. The TV series M*A*S*H has had an incredibly deep influence on me, as I discussed in another blog post, here. I started to realise that war, like natural disaster and other shared traumas, brings out the best of humanity as well as the worst, and that nothing about the world I know could exist without the history of warfare - it's so inextricably linked with every aspect of our society. Of course, our efforts to reduce violence and conflict, and to engender a peaceful society, are also a fundamental aspect of our humanity - part of the best of us, something we can apsire to. As with so many things, the truth lies in paradox.

And finally it coalesced, an understanding of what Anzac Day is meant to be about.

Ultimately, it's a love story. A terrible and tragic love story, but no less proud of its love for the suffering it has borne.

The reasons for the Great War are still unclear to me now after trying to understand it for several years. Yes, yes, the Archduke was assassinated and all that. But still, the conflict itself is incomprehensible. How could people do such a thing? With respect to the politicians and governments that got us into this mess, the individuals who can sit in a desk and sign a paper that sends thousands of men into combat, well may we ask this question. But for the men who signed up to fight and found themselves amid a hail of bullets, thousands of miles from home, ninety-nine years ago today, I think I understand it now. I think most of them went to fight because they loved their families. Whatever they understood of the conflict themselves, the government sold them a way by which they could show their devotion to their families, and shipped them off to the war. And when they got there and saw the horror, they were so afraid. They wanted nothing more than to not go out there. But they looked around at the faces of their mates standing by them, and they saw that their mates were also afraid, but also, they tried not to show it. And they all looked at each other confronting their fear, and they decided that as long as their mate had to go in there and deal with this, well, they were going to stick by their mates and not let go. Nothing else mattered. For the first time in their lives, race and class and other social divisors were irrelevant in the thick of this passion. The orders were given, and that is what they did. They went into that slaughter because they were sticking by their mates, and they did not let go until the carnage claimed them, not a one of them.

Greater Love Hath No Man.

And that's what it is, at the core. That a man would walk into the living pits of hell and lay down his life for the love he felt for another person. And it should humble us, and remind us to be grateful for the heritage this love has laid down in our world, for all its tragedy.

I might have been from such a priveleged generation that was never called to war, but the war comes to many of us in different ways. For me, it has mostly been in my battles with depression. Of all the weapons I use to fight this battle, the most powerful is the love that I feel for my friends and family, and that they feel for me. I have no doubts that this love is the main reason I have not surrendered in battle, and why I'm still here to fight. In this way, the ANZAC spirit is alive in me, and in all of us who keep fighting to live and love another day.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

the most astounding Dance Scenes ever filmed

Salma Hayek playing Frida Kahlo in Frida. I think this is the single most erotic scene ever filmed, and nobody even had to take their clothes off.
The Roxanne Tango from Moulin Rouge. I would barely average one trip a year to the cinema, but when Moulin Rouge was screening, I went five times to see it on the big screen.

The Cell Block Tango from Chicago.

Yes, I've just realised myself. These are all tangos. I must really like the tango. Okay, no more tangos, I promise.

Michael Jackson's Thriller has so many layers of cultural references by now that I couldn't even begin to try to unravel them and watch this objectively. But it rocks as hard as it ever did. I have no idea what happened to this man in the end, but when you look back, my god, he was so extraordinarily talented.

And there has to be some belly dancing. Something raw and authentic and unpolished, like Gadjo Dilo with Rona Hartner and Romain Duris. I couldn't decide between the scene where they dance together, or Rona Hartner's solo, so here are both of them.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

on my Mother the Pisshead; with thanks to Dionysus

One of the best things about my childhood was that my mother was a functional alcoholic.

I realise what an unusual statement this is, and I want to start with a kind of disclaimer and apology to anyone who might find it upsetting or offensive. I do realise that an enormous number of people have suffered terribly due to their parents' alcohol abuse. I know that the cost of alcohol abuse and related issues like drink driving is tragic and bitter and huge for our society as a whole, and I wouldn't want anyone to think that I was being disrespectful or flippant about the issue. But my story was different.

I never even realised that my mother would, under current conventional terminology, be considered an alcoholic until I was in my late 20's. I happened to be visiting with her on the day of the weekly shopping trip. At this time she was living in a remote area, and had to stock up on all her supplies, alcoholic and otherwise, for the whole week. Her weekly budget of alcohol came to six bottles of wine and two bottles of bourbon. There was more for her husband. By now I knew the current definitions. I did the maths, and a light bulb went off in my head. "My mother is an alcoholic."

A generation ago, my mother would have been a 'heavy drinker.' Now the term is 'functional alcoholic,' because my mother's alcohol intake has never had a negative impact on her life, or none that I can see. In fact, it made our lives better. There was never once a single evening during my childhood when there was not dinner on the table, not a single morning without her up before us and a clean uniform to wear, not a single occasion when she didn't turn up whenever I was expecting her to pick me up. She never started drinking before dinner on a school night or lunch on a weekend, except for Christmas and the Mother's Day barbeques. She never fucked anything up because she was pissed. She was completely functional as a caregiver. She just happened to drink a lot, as well. Even at the time I had my lightbulb realisation, long after her children had grown up and left home, my mother was caring for newborn orphaned lambs, which necessitated going out in the freezing winter night every four hours to feed them with a bottle. That's hardly the actions of a person sick with an addiction.

My mother is naturally a very friendly, sociable, likable person. She's fun, and she's funny. She has a great sense of humour and can always get people laughing. She's quite dismayed that her children have not inherited her easy sense of humour. Regular readers will know that I take things way too seriously. Some people get mean and nasty or violent when they get drunk. But my mum just gets more fun and more funny the more she drinks. It was absolutely wonderful to hang out with her like this when I was a kid. Some of my best memories from my later childhood years were the weekend evenings when we would just sit at the kitchen table, my mother and I, and chat, listening to cassette tapes. She would drink triple bourbon-and-Diet Cokes and I drank the Coke straight. As the evening wore on, and she got drunker, she would get funnier and funnier until I would end up literally rolling on the floor in helpless laughter, clutching my stomach and yelling for mum to please stop being so funny, because it was hurting my stomach to laugh so hard. She would earnestly try to comply with my request, and the sight of her trying to pull her expression into composure was so hilarious that I would go off again, tears streaming down my face.

Other weekends she would go out nightclubbing with her best friend, who was 15 years younger than herself, and into that kind of thing. My sister and I adored our regular babysitter, Miss N. She would come and stay the night and we would make popcorn and stay up late watching Nightmare On Elm Street or The Terminator. Miss N would let us do whatever we wanted with her hair. She would sit placidly, munching popcorn and watching the screen, while I sat on one side of her and my sister on the other, and we would each style half of her hair in our own way. We got out the sprays and mousses and gels, the crimper and the blowdryer, from the bathroom. We plaited and teased and combed and sprayed. This was the 80's, remember. Miss N's boyfriend often came to spend the night as well. We just adored him too. He was a drummer in a band, and would often turn up with big, sore knots in his shoulders after the previous night's gig. He taught me how find the knots with my fingers and work them out. Basically, I learned the skills of a professional massage therapist. (Again, I realise how this might sound off in the current climate, so I will stress that there was never anything inappropriate about it. All above the waist and above board.) This has turned out to be one of the most significant practical skills I ever learned during my childhood, much to the great benefit of those whom I have had an opportunity to be able to help. Even now, I'm using these skills almost every day, which is very important for Mr CJ with his chronic pain condition. He gets terribly painful knots in his neck and shoulders, and I can work them out, and ease his pain. This is real-life practical magic.

The morning after a night out, Mum would have a Hangover, and would stay in bed late. We loved this, because we got to take a pile of coins from the jar under the kitchen sink and go the shop to get her green icy poles and hot chips and sour cream, the official Hangover Food. We were also allowed to get whatever lolly or ice cream we wanted while we were there.

And so I never noticed that my mum was an alcoholic. We just knew the word 'pisshead'. That's what a lot of her friends and family would say - "Ah, you're just a pisshead, love." They meant it with affection and admiration. Most of them were pissheads, too.

Australians generally drink quite a lot of alcohol. The average, blue singlet-wearing, Aussie working man will think nothing of knocking back half a dozen stubbies (375mL bottles) of beer after a day's work. And I should point out that Australian beer has a much higher alcohol content than common American beers. I didn't turn out to be an alcoholic myself. In fact, by Australian standards, I'm not much of a drinker at all. On a hot day, I might have one cider rather than six beers, and I usually still stick to the Coke, straight. I did have a few periods in my 20's when I engaged in what would be defined as regular binge drinking, but they each only lasted a few months and then faded away without me having to make a concious effort to reduce my alcohol intake. But like a true Australian, I can really put it away on a special occasion. And like my mother, I'm a highly functional and pleasant drunk. Like the Italians, I really enjoy cooking while drunk. I can polish off two bottles of sparkling wine and still produce a damn fine roast chicken dinner with all the trimmings and gravy from scratch. Last week was such a special occasion, my birthday. I'm pleased to note that at thirty-six years of age, I can still put away two bottles of wine and wake up without a hangover. That's doing well.

My mother cut down her drinking significantly when she got into her fifties and our doctor told her she was at risk of diabetes. She didn't develop diabetes, and of all the health problems she does experience, none of them are related to her alcohol consumption. Of all the curses that the gift of Dionysus has lain upon the burden of humankind, we were granted with a blessing. It made the hard times better and easier, and I am so thankful.

Blessed be, Dionysus, Lord of the Vine.

Monday, 3 March 2014

on Madness, a Memoir by Kate Richards, and Not Being a Doctor

It's often not good for me to read books that are detailed descriptions of other people's mental illness. I'm glad that people are writing and publishing this stuff, it's vital for raising awareness in the wider community. But I find it difficult to immerse myself in such a book, to really go there along with the author. It just reminds me that I'm mad too, and of the suffering it causes in my life and others, and brings all that sensitive stuff up to the surface. I really appreciated this comment in this review on Readings - While I would suggest that this is perhaps not the book for those who are currently suffering deeply from mental illness themselves, it would serve as an invaluable resource for the people who work with and care for them.

So when I found Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards in the library I wasn't sure I really wanted to read it. But there was one particular detail here that made me really want to try to read this book - the fact that Kate Richards is, herself, a doctor.

I was going to be a doctor. All through my later childhood years I had no doubt at all that I was going to become a doctor, and neither did anyone else who knew me. It seemed to be a given, a natural fact of life, that this would happen. But then it turned out that I had mental illness and temporal lobe epilepsy and I was never going to be able to attend a university long enough to acheive such a qualification. I didn't know, in the beginning, that it was going to be 'never.' I really thought I would get well enough one day to make that choice again. I thought that I was choosing to put university off til a later time when I would be in better health. But the years have gone by, and now I know. If it were possible, I would have done it by now. I've tried often enough. Now I know that it really is unattainable for me.

Quantum mechanics tells us that an infinite number of dimensions exist, in which all possible choices and alternatives in every life are respectively made manifest. I've always felt very aware of the reality of an alternative dimension in which I have better health and I became a doctor. I feel like it's just on the other side of some metaphysical sliding doors, just like in the Gwyneth Paltrow movie - me in a white coat, listening to patients tell me what's wrong with them. I sense her every time I go to a hospital and see all the equipment that I never learnt how to use, and all the forms and paperwork that I'll never have to fill out. I feel regret for this life that I never got to live in exactly equal proportions to the gratitude I feel that I don't have to live like this - the long hours, the fluorescent lights everywhere, the overwhelming responsibility squeezed by the limitations of a ridiculously inefficient and ignorant medical system. I am so, so, thankful that I don't have to bear those pressures, as much as I am so, so sorry that I can't help all those people who would have been my patients. I am so often aware of the contrasts of my potential and my reality.

Kate Richards is on the other side of the sliding doors. I could have been her. Kate Richards went to medical school and got her MD - with honours. I admit, I'm envious that she has something that I wanted. I'm reminded of another alternate reality I've always wondered about - the one where I do have health problems, but I also have resources that I saw others had, but I didn't. Middle-class people who have families who can look after them and the money to pay for treatment and support them. I've had to look after myself and rely on benefits since I was fifteen years old. My mother, wonderful, caring, person that she is, did not have the financial, educational or domestic resources to support me or know how to. My father didn't appear to have the interest. He did start paying for counselling and health insurance when I was nineteen, but after about two years I didn't get better. The cheques stopped coming and he suggested I get a job. I always found it so hard just to keep up with looking after myself. I was often envious of other people who could just go home to their parents or some equivalent when things got tough. I never had that option. I used to wonder, if I lived with family and had meals put on the table and someone to drive me to appointments and pay for whatever treatments would be best, rather than the ones the government is willing to pay for, could I have stayed at uni and gotten my degree? I really think I could have.

I hope I don't sound like I'm bitching about my disadvantages here, because honestly, I'm not. Again, my gratitude that things have worked out this way for me is at least equal to my regret. I'm also always aware how extremely lucky I am to have the benefits of a socialist society. 

Reading Kate's memoir, it seems that she has considered these issues as well, and it seems she agrees with me, basically. It turns out that Kate has the parents that I imagined in my alternate reality. Kate is fully aware of how much they help her, and does wonder at one point about the people who don't have that support. Hello Kate, here I am. I'm pretty fine after all, I just don't have a degree, or a house. 

But here, Kate has shown me a glimpse through the sliding doors that I had never seen before. She relates a conversation with a counsellor.

'You went to uni?' she asks.
'What did you study?'
'Graduated with honours. In between hospitalisations.'
'How did you manage to pass your exams?' she asks.
'Bursts of extreme concentration. Some days I'd study for twelve hours straight. Other days I didn't get out of bed.'
'How about school?'
'It wasn't ever what I'd call serious depression at school. But I think it was more extreme than the normal teenage emotional rollercoaster. When I was seventeen I knew, I mean I really knew, that I could go on living for a couple more years at most. I was exhausted. Turning up to school every day and trying to appear normal when inside... I was a witch or a banshee or I was dead and rotting or I was just plain ridiculous depending on the day. It was exhausting.'
'So are you practicing medicine?'
'I can't. I mean I wouldn't - I mean if something happened, if I made a mistake because I was unwell, I'd never forgive myself.'
'All that training!' she says.
I look at her hard. 'Yes.'

There it was. The glimpse into an alternative dimension that I hadn't even thought of before. The possibility of having a medical degree, and then not being able to practise medicine. When the counsellor says 'All that training!' I can just about hear her say 'What a waste!' even though I'm just reading her words as text. I bet Kate gets that a lot, and it had never even occurred to me.

I think again about how things balance out in the long run, in strange, wonderful absurd or tragic ways. With every blessing lost, you release a burden.

One thing I've noticed about people with mental illness is that we compare ourselves to others. We consider how well or unwell we are compared to others, and how well we are coping. There are always some people who are coping better than we are, and some who are not coping as well. We compare our mental illness symptoms, our medications and their side effects. I don't mean to say that this is a bad thing - in fact some therapists see this as positive behaviour. I just mean that I've noticed that we do it. So of course, I am comparing my experience of mental illness with Kate's.

Reading Kate's account of her illness, I can certainly relate to a lot of her experience. The sense of familiarity for me in reading her story was heightened by the setting in Melbourne, in a lot of places that I knew. I could visualise scenes she described because I knew the locations. It always seem to give me a feeling of connection with an author, knowing we have inhabited the same spaces along our lives.

The main difference between us is that she has experienced psychosis, and I haven't. I have never actually had a psychotic episode. I believe I've been quite close to that state on some occasions. I feel like I've seen or sensed it just on the other side of one of those metaphysical sliding doors, but the door is just the sheerest of veils. I've felt the allure, the seductive quality of that state, promising a way out of the horrific certainty of reality. I've sometimes felt that I had to stay very still, and if I moved, I would fall into that state. But throughout all these experiences, I've known in some deep, certain part of myself that that world wasn't really real in the same way as the floor I'm standing on and the food I eat and the people who love me. I've known the difference, and never lost that knowing, and so, by definition, I've never actually been psychotic.

Still, even though the voices in Kate's head are a symptom of psychosis and mine are not, they have quite a lot in common, the way they talk to us. Hers have a fascination with rotting that mine do not, though they both agree about death, in particular, that we really should be dead. I appreciate that Kate has been so brave as to share her voices with us. Kate's voices sound like this - you are rotting bitch rotting we are gutting you like a fish / don't move don't breathe don't fucking breathe suffocate BITCH stab yourself you're a fucking animal we're watching you bleed where's the red we're going to kill you you deserve this / watch bitch you killer KILLER / kill yourself kill / keep the fires burning you are dead kill her you are dead / asphyxiate decapitate dilate / shhh bitch / rip yourself stab knife your heart stick it in...

My voices sound like this - you stupid fucking bitch so stupid / die just die just fucking die you should be dead / I should be dead cut my head off cut my fucking head off with a sword / hate hate self hate self forever I'll hate me forever / we should all be dead they should let us die / stupid bitch YOU STUPID BITCH stupid fucking cunt hate myself hate you hate me let me die die die / how could you be so fucking stupid you can't exist you can't be here /oh the shame oh the guilt guilt GUILT I have to die let me be dead kill self I should kill myself kill me I should die...

When I first mention the 'voices in my head' to a doctor, they really prick their ears up, until we clarify that I do not hear my 'voices' audially. They are not an auditory hallucination. It's a train of thought running in my mind, and therefore classified as 'uncontrolled ruminations' by the doctors. Therefore, not psychotic. But I think of it as a 'voice in my head' because it feels as though it's not a part of me, that it is actually another entity talking to me. And it bloody hates me. I would never talk to another person the way my voices talk to me, and if a real person actually talked to me like that, I wouldn't want anything to do with them. But I'm trapped with the dialogue going on in my head, over and over again. Always.

It's always there, on some level. When I'm well, I just hardly notice it. It's like a television on in the next room, I can 'hear' the buzz, but it's got nothing to do with me and I can ignore it. Sometimes I go a long time forgetting that it's even there. It becomes more persistent as I get more depressed, and when I'm really very unwell, it feels like a monster that is actively trying to kill me, that I have to constantly battle to stay alive.

Recommended treatment for hearing voices is usually anti-psychotics and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I learned CBT about ten years ago and it was extemely helpful in my relationship with my voices, even though they're not technically voices at all, medically speaking, but ruminations. I learned how to stop them. Once I notice that the nasty voice has started going on, I can make it stop. Instantly. Just like that. I just remind myself of what I learned in CBT, and process it in a fraction of a second, and stop it. I turn my thoughts to something else. This is a wonderful skill and I'm so glad I have it, but the catch is, it doesn't last. Once I've stopped the voice, it can start again at any time. Maybe even in just a few seconds. Some days, I stop the voice dozens or hundreds of times in a day. If I can keep focussed on something and concentrate enough that my mind is filled with what I am doing, there is no room for the voice to come in. But as soon as I let my mind wander, it finds a way in. Eventually I notice what's happening, and stop it. Sometimes it goes on for quite a while before I notice and remember to stop it.

I used to think that one day, with enough therapy, I would get self-acceptance, and stop hating myself, and the voice would stop. Now, after all these years of therapy, I don't even think that the voice has much to do with my self-esteem or lack of it. It's just a constant. I'm starting to think, as I get older, and see that I  can be so strong against the voice, and not listen to it for so long, and yet it's still always there, that it's not going to go away. I don't think I'll grow out of it anymore. I think it will always be there, to some extent. I hate that thought. It feels like a failure. I just have to remind myself of my successes - that I don't believe what the voices say, that I know not to believe them, and that I can stop them, however temporarily.

Another big difference between me and Kate is how we've responded to treatment. Kate did not want to accept that she had a mental illness for a long time. She didn't trust her treating practitioners and went through significant periods of not co-operating with taking her medications. This would result in psychosis and hospitalisation. I've never been like that, though I must say, looking back, I could have done with a bit less trust in my treating physicians, myself. For better or worse, I've mostly taken meds exactly as directed, and only very occasionally forgotten them. I haven't always wanted to. I haven't always agreed with the doctor's choice of prescription. But I am not willing to become known as an 'unco-operative patient.' I know what happens to people who get that label in a hospital, and it's not pretty. I do exactly what I am told as a patient, out of fear of effective punishment by the mental health system, rather than because I think the treatment is okay for me or not. But then again, when she did take her medication as directed, she ended up in hospital seriously ill after the levels of Lithium rose too high in her blood, which is very dangerous. So, what, if it doesn't kill you it cures you? Why would people want to comply with taking medication that has such desperate side-effects? It's a complex question. Cancer patients can, and sometimes do, choose not to be treated with chemotherapy because of the unbearable side effects. Mental health patients often do not get such a choice.

Kate's book ends with her having been relatively well, that is, managing symptoms, for four years. For me, it's been more than five years since I was last in hospital. But she knows now, like I do, that it will always be there in some form. She will have to manage it for the rest of her life.

I'm so thankful for Kate for writing this book, for going public with her struggles. I always admire people who do this, which is why I've written this post, and why I'm going to click the Publish button, in spite the voices screaming at me about how wrong it is that I am disclosing to the world at large all these terribly intimate demons.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

the Neighbours at My New Home are a Bunch of Cows

Most of the neighbours at my new home are the non-human variety, which is just lovely. A lot of them are cows.

The land we live on sits behind the road from another block of land, with a right-of-access road running through it to get to our home. This land is owned by a cow farmer, so we have to pass through a cow paddock to get in and out. I just love it. Unusually, there seem to be a lot of different breeds of cattle all together in one paddock. I wonder if the farmer just really likes cows and wanted to collect lots of different kinds, like I do with vintage crockery and suchlike. I'm not sure when the official cattle breeding season is meant to be but these cows seem to be producing young regularly. Every now and then there will be a new tiny baby cow in the paddock, following its mother and finding its feet. There's always a mixture of the young ones that stick by their mothers, and the older, more sedate and mellow mothers, and some feisty half-grown adolescents that we call the 'teenage cows.' These ones are confident and lively and playful and often seem to want to play with us. Sometimes they try to organise little races with our car. I think the very cutest thing about cows is the way their long ears flap as they are running. Quite often there will be a band of cows resting lesuirely right in the driveway, and they just don't seem to understand what a car is or how they are supposed to respond to it. I have to stick my head out the window and yell at them. Then they realise that we are humans and that it's time to get out of the way. This always has the effect of making us laugh all the way to the gate. Usually I try to do my best, deep-toned impersonation of an Aussie farmer when I'm urging them to get out of the way. Then as we pass them by, I say nicely, "Thank you very much ladies, sorry for disturbing you."

Yesterday was a stupidly hot day. It's completely unbearable. So rather than go out and spend the day somewhere with air conditioning, we set up a little day camp down at the creek which separates the cow paddock from the residential block. This was absolutely an excellent idea. I just spent the day sitting in the creek on and off, and sipping cold drinks in between, thanks to my impromptu version of a Coolgardie safe. I took a big plastic tub and sat it in the shallow water at the edge of the creek. We filled it with ice and cold drinks, and then I covered it with a wet sarong, with the edges of the sarong sitting in the water. It worked a treat. All the ice melted quite early on, but the temperature of the water and the drinks stayed icy all the way til the end of the day. You can see it here at the edge of the creek. The creek with a cow in it. Of course. The cows were really hot too, they were all hugging the shady edges of the paddock.

And of course at some point they got a bit curious and had to come and check us out. Apparently a committee of teenage cows was selected to approach us as an initial reconnaisance. They came slowly towards us.


...and closer. This one was the most brazen and confident of the lot. She got right up close and personal and sniffed all over my head. I think she was trying to work out what kind of a cow I was.

At this point I suddenly realised that I was sitting surrounded by at least a half dozen animals that were all bigger than me, and one of them was nuzzling me like a baby. I realised that a lot of people would be terrified to be in this situation. It's amazing how many people are scared of cows. I understand it sometimes, like this moment right here. They are massive and powerful. I am relying on generations and centuries of breeding that has taught a cow to be afraid of humans. I know that they are more scared of me than I am of them, so I don't find cows intimidating.

Not like one hapless courier who came up here to deliver a package one day. Funny, they ask if you have a dog in the yard, they never ask about cows. This poor bloke was so scared. I tried to reassure him but I don't think he really believed me. One cheeky little teenage cow in particular was really hassling the poor bloke, trying to tease him. The next day, when we were passing through the paddock, I noticed that particular cow and pointed it out to Mr CJ, saying, "That was the cheeky little bugger that was hassling the poor courier yesterday." And, just as I was pointing and saying this, I swear to god, this cow winked at me.

I often think about how in this part of the world, the really scary creatures are little ones, the deadly snakes and spiders and so on that can crawl right into your boots, or into bed with you. I must admit, the creatures that do freak me out are the ticks. And they are really so tiny you can sometimes hardly see them.

One cow seemed much more interested in the back of the chair than in the person sitting in it.

The initial sniff must have pleased Miss, because she thought she'd quite like to play games with this interesting creature, and began making little run-ups and head-butting into the back of the chair, just enough to give Mr CJ a nudge each time. This was absolutely hilarious until a big, solid mama cow with a pair of very impressive twenty-inch horns thought that looked like a fun game and she'd like to play too. At that point I had to stand up and shoo them away.

One person I know who really loves cows is my mum. I keep thinking how when she comes to visit one day, she will be able to just sit in the paddock all day and watch the cows and be so happy. You'd think it would get boring, but they manage to move around and keep doing cute things and pulling cute faces and keep it interesting. I really love what my mum says to people who want to argue the point of vegetarianism. She says, in the cutsie-poo voiced reserved for babies, kittens and cartoon characters, "I love cows so much I could just eat them."

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Lady Demelza's Year in Books 2013

Happy New Year, everybody! Cheers!

I meant to spend the New Year's Eve putting this post online, but instead, I spent the evening socialising with Loved Ones over drinky-poos like a normal human being. I'm so pleased with myself. So here we are with my Year in Books for 2013.

1. Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn 2012
2. The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide by Francine Jay 2010
3. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin 1974
4. The Pickled Pantry by Andrea Chesman 2012
5. Wild Women edited by Sue Thomas 1994
6. Ignorance by Michele Roberts 2012
7. The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson 2012
8. European Mythology by Jacqueline Simpson 1987
9. The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody 2008
10. Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs 2011
11. The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson 2009, English translation 2012
12. World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler 2008
13. Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith 2012
14. The Witch of King's Cross by Nevill Drury 2001
15. This We Can Say: Australian Quaker Life, Faith and Thought by the Australia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Inc. 2003
16. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas 2006 (my review)
17. The Virago Book of Fairy Tales edited by Angela Carter 1991
18. The Witches' Book of the Dead by Christian Day 2011
19. A Visit From the Footbinder by Emily Prager 1993
20. The Earth Path by Starhawk 2004
21. The Lover's Path by Kris Waldherr 2006
22. Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks 2007
23. An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks 1995
24. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks 2001
25. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger 2009
26. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter 1967
27. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan 2008
28. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin 1968
29. Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho - A New Translation by Willis Barnstone by Sappho ca. 600 BCE, English translation 2006
30. The Gate by John Connolly 2009
31. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino 1965, English translation 1968
32. A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith 1998
33. In My Skin by Kate Holden 2005
34. The Curly Pyjama Letters by Michael Leunig 2001
35. The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales edited by Angela Carter 1993
36. Becoming Sister Wives by Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn Brown 2012
37. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay 2004
38. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 1908 (re-read)
39. The Secret Lives of Sex Workers by Krystal Smith 2012
40. You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh 2001, English translation 2009
41. The Red Chief by Ion L. Idriess 1953
42. The Gypsies by Jan Yoors 1967
43. The Music of What Happens by John Straley 1996
44. Tom Bedlam by George Hagen 2007
45. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren 1945
46. London: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd 1997
47. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman 2013
48. The Sending by Isobelle Carmody 2011
49. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1 - The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson 2006
50. Dublin: Foundation by Edward Rutherfurd 2004
51. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver 2009
52. Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay 2005
53. PopCo by Scarlett Thomas 2004

I'm really struggling to pick a best book this year, which is how it should be. I try to read only the best books to start with. But I know you want to know, so I forced myself to whittle it down to a shortlist. My top picks for 2013 are -

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks. This is the story of Sacks' childhood and his obsession with science and chemistry, and also the single best book on the history of science I have ever read. This is one for all the science geeks out there. You will wish that you had had Sacks' childhood.

The Gypsies by Jan Yoors. I found this book randomly on the shelf in the library and reading it was such a surprise. I never knew such a book existed. In the 1930's, a twelve-year-old Belgian boy ran away from home and joined a Roma tribe. He lived with them for many years and later in life wrote this book about his experiences. I believe it is the only published text to report such intimate knowledge of the life of this closed society. It's an extraordinary story, and depicts a stunningly beautiful way of life that is all but lost in this modern world. I am so very thankful that this man took the time to write this book, and that I found it.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas. Thomas was my great New Discovery of the year. I just recently read PopCo, and I loved every minute I spent with that book so much. I am working on a review on it now and I will post it soon.

I want to give a special award for the funniest book I read this year, which was The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Absolutely laugh out loud, do not read this in a public place unless you mind making a spectacle of yourself. And why not, I say. It would be a great thing if people engaged in spectacular laughter more often.

The crappiest book I read all the way through this year was The Secret Lives of Sex Workers by Krystal Smith. It's a bit of sad story, I'm afraid - not the sex workers' stories, but what happened to that book. I have never in my life found a book with such blatantly terrible production values. They couldn't even spell the same word the same way twice. Not even the author's name, which appears with different spelling on different pages. The punctuation appeared to have been sprinkled on like confetti. Nobody even bothered with any fact checking. A footnote tells us that Rohypnol is cocaine. I just can't even begin to tell you how bad it all was. On the dedication page, the author made the unusual choice of dedicating the work to the people who worked on the book with her, her editor, proof-reader, even the typist. If I had been involved with such a dismal atrocity I wouldn't want anyone to know about it. At least the sex workers got to use assumed names.So why did I get all the way through to the end of such an embarrassment to the publishing industry? Because, just as promised on the cover, the stories were intriguing and fascinating. There's a reason why this subject is such a publishing goldmine.

I'm happy to report that I finally got around to re-reading a favourite book this year, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I got around my hang-ups about spending time re-reading books by reading it aloud to my goddessdaughter. It's been so wonderful to share it with her.

I'm linking up with Click Clack Gorilla's Book Lover's Blog Hop.