Scratchings At The Heart

Driving home tonight I listened to a podcast interview with a clinical psychologist. Dr Chris Blazina had completed a study on the relationship between men and their dogs. One of the findings was that for the majority of the middle-aged men who participated in the survey, the relationship they had with their dogs was one of the most safe and trustworthy relationships in their life.

This was in part a reflection of how, in general terms, men may have a smaller group of friendships and people that they are willing to confide in when compared to women of a similar age.

But it also highlights the importance of dogs in people’s lives. A couple of men had called in and left voicemail comments about their relationship with their dogs which provided further insight. John, a farmer, had sadly lost his working dog, Ned, after many years of faithful service. He spoke not only of the usefulness of dogs in a working sense – along with the frustration when they act of their own accord when they believe they know best – but of the sense of loneliness when that constant positive presence is no longer there.

Another caller was a carpenter who had a young border collie called Pip as a working companion. Pip made the workday better, helped with handling stressful situations, and was great at breaking down barriers with customers and other tradespeople on work sites. Tradies felt a bit freer to play with the dog, or speak to her in a high-pitched voice which they normally wouldn’t use.

The study confirmed the important role played by dogs in our lives and relationships in general. Losing a much loved companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a friend, loved one or the end of a relationship. Animals also play an important role in enhancing our relationships with the people that matter in to us.

Our lives are richer on many levels for being shared with our companion animals.

Scratchings at the heart was one man’s description of his relationship with his dog.

[Photo: dog in bathtub at Gunning, NSW]

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Creative Challenges

I have learned to accept that my writing tends to ebb and flow. In an ideal world, I would diligently write every day or most days at least, and if I didn’t write then I would edit or research or plan the next writing project. There are times when I can be disciplined around my writing, then other times life crowds its way in and a day or two slips by, then a week. I have to scratch my head to think about when I last wrote something in a creative sense.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast interview with author Hedley Derenzie. Derenzie had been in a very dark place and had attempted suicide when feeling overwhelmed with grief, loneliness and disconnection. Her road to recovery was long and difficult, but one of her lifelines was a return to her creative path. Derenzie is a writer, but writing had not been a consistent presence in her life for some time. In a moment of inspiration, Derenzie committed to writing 2,000 words a day for a month. There were rules around this commitment, including the need for the day’s writing to be inspired from the events in the previous 24 hours which in turn encouraged reengagement with the world during her creative pilgrimage.

I have just started reading Write Way Home: Writing My Way Back To A Meaningful Life. This is the result of not only that month of writing and experiences, but reflections on what reengagement with creativity can mean. And it isn’t necessarily just for writers; Derenzie encourages connecting with those creative outlets which we love, but which tend to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, or when it is realised that they will not result in employment or income generation. It isn’t the outcome that matters here, it is the action and that sense of joy and engagement that creativity brings to each of us.

About a month ago I decided that I would write 250 words a day. This is my minimum goal and it can be in any format. It can be a personal piece, something creative or a blog post. The words can be a continuation of a story in progress or something entirely new. It isn’t the output that is important, it is the activity. It is early days, and I didn’t have an end date in mind, but I wanted to see if I could keep up what feels like a small commitment to write each day. So far, I’ve made it, even if it is sometimes the last thing I do before I call it a day. And I do feel more engaged, and my mind is finding a creative rhythm of sorts.

Do you set yourself creative challenges?

[Photo: close up of some creative craft adorning a tree in front of St Hilda’s Church at Katoomba]

Moments of Zen

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast about zen moments. The podcast was also about cat burglars and included an entertaining collection of stories about cats who like to bring things home, including gloves, other people’s underwear and cooked legs of lamb.

But it was the zen moments which resonated with me. These were predominately ordinary actions or repetitive tasks which induced a sense of calm in people. The moments themselves varied quite considerably, and included the untangling of masses of electrical cords or looping up a long length of rope following abseiling, to the act of weeding and creating a sense of order by putting laundry away. The common element was focusing on the task at hand and finding a simple pleasure in creating order or establishing a working rhythm. A sense of calm was created in the mind and these tasks which might otherwise be seen as irritating or time-consuming instead contributed to a sense of well being.

Apart from the ordinariness of the actions, I was struck by how individual these responses were. What created a moment of calm in one person might seem inexplicable to the next. Perhaps it was the mindset applied to the task, or simply a sense that the task had to be done and approaching it with calm acceptance was better than to greet it with resistance and irritation.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when the feelings of zen-like calm fail to materialise but it is nice to know that there are instances in which they can appear, regardless of the mundanity of the task. For me, it is the repetitive, endless chores of washing up and hanging out laundry that come to mind, along with the sense of order that follows putting things away. Perhaps it is because there is little required of the mind in those moments apart from repeating actions that have been carried out so often they require little concentration and provide time in which the mind can be satisfied in the motions.

What creates a zen-like moment in your day?

[Photo: a single cloud skipping across the sky, also known to induce a zen-like moment]

Songs in the Key of Jane

We hear our names spoken thousands if not millions of times during our lives. It is no surprise then that we become conditioned to respond when we hear our name, even when it isn’t us being called.

I have a simple, old-fashioned name. Growing up I used to marvel at the extravagant spelling of Lady Jayne hairbrushes and combs. Imagine the luxury of a ‘y’ in your name. An upside of an unadorned name is that you don’t usually have to spell it, although I have been called all sorts of variations from Jan to Jenny, Jean to Joanne.

Another bonus is the number of songs out there celebrating Janes in a multitude of ways. Here are some standouts.

  • Janey Don’t You Lose Heart by Bruce Springsteen. I discovered this song by chance in a book review following the release of a biography of The Boss a few years ago. There was a passing reference to the song in the article and I tracked it down. Perfect for those moments when ‘you feel like a stranger … who knows too much’.
  • Sister Jane by New World was one of those songs from the early 1970s which seemed to appear on compilation record albums. Poor Jane was in a bit of strife for falling in love again and was being urged to leave town on a plane before she goes insane (oh the joys of rhyming). This clip is worth a look if only for the hairstyles.
  • Jane Says by Jane’s Addiction offers a much darker version. The Jane in this song is a prostitute with a drug habit and capacity for violence. She’s never been in love, doesn’t know what it’s like and only knows if someone wants her.
  • Maroon Five offered an entire album with Songs About Jane released in 2002.

Do you have a favourite ‘name’ song?

With a nod to the ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ podcast which provided the inspiration around name songs (ep 213).

[Photo: keys suspended near a lookout at Glenbrook with Penrith in the background] 

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

When will there be time to write?

Recently I listened to an interesting TED talk by Laura Vanderkam about gaining control of your free time. As a renowned expert on time management, Vanderkam is sometimes invited to contribute articles on effective time management to various publications, and she provided some examples given by others on how to save time. This included being guided by the minimum timeframe when heating up meals in the microwave – if the range is 7 to 9 minutes, take it out after 7 minutes and potentially save yourself two whole minutes! Whilst I’ve often felt rushed and time-poor, I’m thankful that I haven’t become quite so literal about it. Yet.

My key takeaway from this talk was something simple but powerful. We all have the same about of time. 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week. It is what we do with this time that matters. There was an example of a successful, extremely busy woman who ran a business and had a family and multiple other commitments. During a time management study to help understand how she managed to cope with all of these demands, a water heater flooded creating chaos and mess. It required hours of liaising with tradespeople and cleaning up and getting things back to normal, time that was already earmarked for other things. Time didn’t stop ticking, but there is an elasticity in time in that it will shift to incorporate what is necessary. The water heater had to be fixed, and life and all of its associated commitments had to be flexible enough to be prioritised and slotted in around it.

Like most people I go through periods of time when work, family and the basic requirements of living (grocery shopping, washing, cleaning, sleeping) seem to take every available moment in the day. I catch myself moaning about not having the time to sit down to finish the last draft of the short story I’ve been working on, or tease out an idea that came to me on the cusp of consciousness. But if I’m honest and realistic, I can find the time to spend on something that brings me so much pleasure.

It might mean being less pedantic about certain things, or even something basic like getting up when I’ve had a meal rather than lingering with a sense of weariness. I know if I do get up and keep moving I feel motivated and far more likely to make use of the extra few minutes snatched here and there.

How do you find time for what matters most in your creative life?

[Photo: detail of red typewriter spotted in an op shop]

Splendid Synchronicity

I have been thinking lately about synchronicity, those surprising instances when something that is on your peripheral comes into sharper focus through a multitude of moments.

This was started when I met up with a friend a month or two ago and we were comparing recent travel stories. Whilst talking of a recent cruise along the coast of Western Australia, Kelly mentioned seeing stromatolites. I nodded politely, not really knowing what they were. She explained how they are one of the oldest forms of life on earth, with three known locations, two of which are in Australia. She had discovered this while reading Down Under by Bill Bryson. I had this book on a shelf at home but hadn’t read it.

Kelly mentioned that Bryson had travelled on the Indian Pacific across the country, and I thought it would be of interest to read of his experience. When I got home I pulled out the book, read the opening pages and was hooked. It was a genuine delight to spend the next month or so reading a little of this book most nights before sleep claimed me. I wanted to savour the chapters and this was enjoyable on several levels. Seeing what is familiar through someone else’s viewpoint, including many of the little quirks that come with being Australian from a different perspective, was pleasurable. There were lots of laugh out loud moments, along with reminiscing about places that I had visited years ago, such as the tall trees in the south of Western Australia.

Whilst reading the book, I was listening to podcasts on my longer drives and this included an episode on books on Let It Be. This podcast, by the incredibly organised and motivated Kelly Exeter and Brooke McAlary, ended with a round-up of their favourite comfort reads. For Kelly, this was Down Under by Bill Bryson. Snap! I could see why it would appeal in this way, and how it was one of those books which probably gives a little more with each read.

Then today I was noodling through my Twitter feed when I should have been doing something else, and came across a link to footage taken by a drone of Uluru. The way Bryson writes about Uluru makes me want to travel to the Northern Territory as soon as possible to see it for myself. As this is logistically not possible in the short-term, it was one of those joyous moments of synchronicity to come across this beautiful footage.

Have you had any moments of synchronicity lately?

[Photo: servants bells in Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta]