Life is easier without them.
Not the ones that hold your shirts together and not the ones you find in elevators or on keypads. I’m not writing about zippers and Siri.
It’s the ones I’ve stitched onto myself, the threads shallow beneath the skin, and the bright, shiny ones that surface in my skin, wires running down into bone marrow and even deeper into my psyche, rooted in something forgotten. These ones especially, like gross, shiny, flat-topped pimples located on the edge of awareness and trailing inside to something unknown – these ones I can do without.
Both sorts can set me off – fury, weeping, cold withdrawal, panic et al sweeping away rationality.
Think of a fear you might have – heights, spiders, strangers, dogs, enclosed spaces. One of mine was heights. I’d feel it in my gut first, then the panic would spread, paralyzing me. I could talk my way, white-knuckled, through some situations, but walking out on a glass floor in a skyscraper, or leaning over a lookout’s railing – no way! There was no rational way around or through that fear. No amount of encouragement, admonishment, rationalising or self-talk could diminish it.
It’s the same with the irritation-anger-rage spectrum. Being thought a fool, being called Stupid, invoked blinding rage, a red mist like a smoke bomb.
Everyone has buttons. My Chemistry teacher arranged his chalk precisely on a cloth in the colours of the rainbow. Granny Reid abhorred familiarity in servants and workers.
Children discover them early in their parents and teachers. They learn to calculate how hard to push for a given effect. Curiosity, entertainment, pleasure – all at the press of a button. So people learn to camouflage and protect their buttons from the antagonistic and malicious. To love is to expose them and caress them.
I see them clearly in others. Illegal drugs, gun laws, piles of washing-up, weeds, grubby nails, swearing, see-through fabrics, hijabs, alcohol, white skin, nudity, sex, a certain person’s name, a statue – anything can be a button.
I learned that not everyone shared my buttons. I had to learn to find them in myself by tracking back irrational eruptions.
Buttons short the circuit of consciousness, going straight to a visceral response. It can seem that there can be no control over them until each is grappled in therapy. I have tried this over multiple sessions with mixed success.
I now have a different tool to employ.
I don’t know how it works, but it does. It takes but a second or three, doesn’t require a facilitator, or notebooks or recounts with anyone else, and it has ramifications beyond what I expected.
For instance, that fear-of-heights button. Invited to go for a walk along a cliff-face in the Blue Mountains where, 35 years previously, I had been utterly terrified, I chose – from this different space – to go for the walk. It was lovely. I even looked over the edge and delighted in the view. Imagine my surprise when, some weeks later, I was up in the elm tree pruning its excess growth and realised, suddenly, I was not afraid. Then when I was leaning over the roof’s edge to reach some outlying branches, I thought ‘I couldn’t have done this before.’ I haven’t gone bungie-jumping yet and I won’t be balancing on parapets, but the button has gone. In taking on one instance of the fear, one button, it is as though this choosing has followed the wire deep down to its most basic attachment, and released it. With it has gone everything else that was connected up to it.
The power that button had over me has gone.
7Second – it is worth the look.
Some of the recent history of the Malayasia-Myanmar-India-Bangladesh region sits clear through the window of this book. What I read in the news from that region now has more depth. The detail in the book is amazing. No wonder it took Ghosh 5 years to research it. Historical fiction, in my opinion, should attempt to reveal something of the past clearly and sincerely. I want to know things like: What happened? Why? What was it like for the people involved? How is the past visible in the present? etc. The Glass Palace is most satisfactory. (That sounds condescending!)
There are some things that will stick with me for a long while: the scathing critique of imperialism delivered politely, two of the wartime deaths, the change in Burma’s circumstance over the twentieth century.
There are glimpses of linguistic genius. For example, of the King’s place of exile:
‘The whole town lay spread out below, framed by the sweep of the bay and two steep promontories on either side. The view was magnificent, just as Mr. Cox had said. He went back into the bedroom. He sat in one of the armchairs and watched the ghostly shadows of coconut palms swaying on the room’s white plaster walls. In this room the hours would accumulate like grains of sand until they buried him.’ (p54)
The reason for 4 not 5?
The spikes in my connection with characters were few. I felt as though I remained comfortably removed from most of them most of the time. The plot had an episodic feel to it, though perhaps that says more about what I expect from a story than literature which sets out to represent life as it is.
For my own writing, I take away the imperative to make my readers care about my characters.
Imagine you come upon someone saying ‘I know of a way to be free of the buttons and bindings of being here, a way to brush aside dusty webs from the mirror – it’s as simple as breathing …’ What would you say?
(You may choose more than one option.)
A – What’s the catch?
B – No thanks. I’m an atheist.
C –Spill. My life sucks.
D – I’m too busy. I haven’t the time for your feel-good crap.
E – What are you selling?
F – If it’s so good, why haven’t I heard about it before?
G – What you need is a digital marketing strategy. I know someone who can help.
H – What has it done for you?
I – I’m quite happy with what I have, thank you.
J – Piss off.
K – You’ve got five minutes, mate.
L – Do I look like an idiot?
M – Oh? And how is this different to the 1,001 other self-help projects out there?
N – I would so like this to be real …
O – Go ahead. I’m listening.
P – Who are you and who do you work for?
Q – Got any big names onboard?
R – What’s in it for you?
S – How much?
T – Where is the supporting evidence?
U – I’ll wait to see how it turns out for others first.
V – What’s the philosophy behind it?
W – My old Dad used to say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
X – Have you got a book or a DVD or a website I can go to?
Y – Hang on – I think ________ would like to hear about this too.
Z – Nothing. I’d keep walking.
And me? I’m the clown without a mask making strange and wonderful claims.
The subject is stark – brutalised humanity in the plight of Syrian refugees living in appalling conditions. What stands out is the humanity.
I am reminded of the poetry of Wilfred Owen – exquisite poems from the horrors of the trenches in WW1. He too stressed the humanity of his subjects despite their shocking situation.
It takes a special writer to achieve this.
Flanagan offers, in this short essay, a masterclass in human portraiture.
No wonder this book was shortlisted for two Premiers’ Literary Awards in 2014 and won two in 2016. Dark Emu caused a slip in my consciousness. It is a pivotal work.
The book turns our Australian ‘history’ on its head. I grew up believing that the Aboriginal way of life was pretty fragile, apt to be shattered by the next drought or flood or outbreak of disease. As ‘hunter-gatherers’ they basically moved from one kangaroo to another. Admittedly, they were pretty clever, I later learned, in their use of fire to manage the wildlife – they had to have something going for them to have lasted this long – but basically they were opportunists, lacking the technology to create or store food reserves. And this left them at the mercy of the vagaries of the elements and meant they were inferior to us white folks.
This view of Aboriginal life fitted with the prevailing Darwinian perception that change is good because only through change can advancement occur. Looking back through the development of the human species with this conditioning, it is obvious that we are the pinnacle, culturally, physically, technologically, etc etc. We got to where we are by settling down. The sedentary lifestyle facilitated the further development of agriculture and fostered pursuits such as mathematics, metal work and pottery. It allowed us to ‘develop’. Civilisations that do not exhibit the markers of this Western view of progress are considered inferior.
Pascoe challenges this dynamic. He points it out in plain and simple terms having taken most of the book to show what was really going on in the human civilisation at the time of European conquest. And how does he do this? By going back through the written records of the first settlers and the explorers. In the introduction, he writes that as a consequence of his research for his previous book, Convincing Ground, he was sent material from the families of original European pioneers from a number of districts in Australia. It connected with other material he kept turning up, and so Dark Emu was written.
I did know that my school education was fundamentally lacking in regard to Aboriginal history, but I thought that was mainly to do with the covering up of the violence and ruthlessness of dispossession, massacres especially. Pascoe has provided us with an understanding of what was disturbed, destroyed, obliterated. Not just people but a way of organising life so that the well being of future generations was at the forefront of the society’s consciousness. There was a continental political system that, while it in no way precluded violence between nations, did maintain boundaries between peoples. There was a sophisticated culture, agriculture al and irrigation systems, sensitive practices in the management of food and other resources, established trading routes, systems of cooperation between nations, clans and individuals across past, present and future.
To take but one example from the book, the descriptions of permanent housing intrigued me. Hunter-gatherers don’t go in for houses much as a rule, but villages were described and sketched right across the continent by explorers and white pioneers. Further, I shared some of Sturt’s surprise when, staggering through what is now called Sturt’s Stony Desert, famished and heat-struck, he stumbled upon a village of 300 – 400 people! As much as their presence in this ‘inhospitable’ landscape, the courage and hospitality of these people amazed him. (pp74-75)
So extensive were the challenges in Dark Emu that I found Mitchell’s journals online and read them. Pascoe does not exaggerate. What he says is there, is there. With Dark Emu now a part of my learning though, I can also see how European is Mitchell’s view and how coloured are his interpretations. But the raw images of what he came across are really there. I now look forward to reading more – Sturt and Eyre for starters.
So much of our history was wiped from our national consciousness that our perspectives now are fatally warped. Pascoe posits that one of the main reasons for this amnesiac recasting of history was to legitimise theft on a grand scale: British colonisation of Terra Australia. It is a pattern not peculiar to the Brits or to Australia. This one is ours to confront, however, and it is one that is continuing to be played out. To resolve issues from the past, the reality of the history needs to be acknowledged and the distortions clarified.
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (2013)
Not as gripping as The Truth (the birth of news-papers) or The Colour of Magic (the birth of Film) and perhaps it is a fact that I have read an inordinate number of Discworld novels. HOWEVER, Pratchett is clever. His toying with words and their meanings delights me. For instance, it took me some time to realise that the ‘loggysticks’ that the engineer was going to depend on to finish building a bridge in time were actually … (cue drumroll) … ‘logistics.’
I checked the publication date for this novel because it, very early on, appeared obviously satiric. 2013 – the global troubles had been bubbling away for some time. In Raising Steam Rhys, the Low King of the dwarfs, faces a rebellion from those who reject peace their fellow creatures – humans, trolls, goblins – in favour of preserving their ancient Ways and Identity. Their garb derived from the dangerous task of releasing pent-up fire in the mines (I think) but they have made of it a uniform:
It was the deep-down grags that gave him nightmares because, well, there was something offensive about those thick leather clothes and conical hats. After all, he thought, we’re all dwarves together, are we not? Tak [dwarfs’ God] never mentioned that dwarfs should cover their faces in the society of their friends. It struck Rhys that this practice was deliberately provocative and, of course, disdainful.
Throughout, the novel prods and teases and pats human experiences – of Learning, Change and the Fear of It, Tradition, Modernity, Curiosity and Mastery, Prejudice – into a shape resembling Our Present Times, and All Times for that matter, I suspect. There is a final shout out to the biases of our Western Societies, and others, in the final pages, but it would be spoiling things to say.
My fear of heights has vanished. When I was very young, I had no such fear. I was not too reckless – I only recall falling from one tree – and enjoyed the challenge and the different view. My aunt Alicia had to bring my younger brothers and I down from the platform of a tank set high above the orchard – two storeys at least. (‘You were a bastard of a child’ she said to me lovingly and grinning at a recent family gathering.) In my teens I climbed onto roofs without a thought. Sometime, somehow, I developed a feeling of dread about being up high – in a bell-tower, or near a window in a skyscraper. Edges next to falls became terror-filled. Or I did. A vivid memory of the intensity of the fear was a walk my girlfriend (now my wife) took me on in the Blue Mountains: the Undercliff Walk. I felt uncomfortable many times, but was terrified I was going to fall into the valley on one particular stretch. Some force was pulling at me, trying to suck me off the narrow, unfenced walkway and into the abyss beside me.
Not long after my first day of 7Second, we were back at the Blue Mountains, with a friend who loved to walk – in the mountains. ‘Shall we do the Undercliff Walk?’ And suddenly the remembered feeling of being terrified of falling from the path to my death was back, vivid. I had a choice, clear and simple. ‘Yes.’ And the walk was an absolute delight, even that part that I had remembered with such fear.
When we returned home to Tassie, we had some pruning to do on the Chinese Elm. I found myself at the top of the extension ladder, balanced against a high branch, wielding the pruning saw, when I suddenly realized what I was doing. No fear – just a smile, a mental shake of the head at myself and gratitude. Next year, I noticed the same thing, this time when leaning out over the roof’s edge trying to cut branches hanging over the power line. Same response.
I don’t know at what level these changes are taking place – it is beyond or my conscious awareness. It is as though, when I exercise what is above the surface, the thread that runs down to the roots in me comes free. And whatever else has grown from that root comes free also. I don’t understand it, but it is working for me.
I lost my reading glasses last night. Annoying. Without them, I have to squint at anything I read close-up. We had driven to Launceston in the afternoon, with a number of stops, to drop two friends at the airport, then driven home in the dark. So I searched my clothes; I searched the car. I looked on the benches and table-tops where I might have put them on my return. Nothing. Do I start phoning the café, the airport, the friends?
No, I squinted, and that’s all I did. I did not enter into an internal diatribe about my failings, nor look for a way to shift blame. My mind, so used to being in charge, did not leap to making up interpretations of this little event. There was no rage, merely the ephemeral annoyance. I went to bed content and in the morning found the glasses in their case beside my seat in the car.
So different. My response to this minor irritation was so different to what it would once have been. There was not the wasted time or energy, no self-bombardment with intense doses of negativity. Why? I don’t know exactly. How? Through using a small, internal exercise given me in 2015: the 7Second exercise. In this case, the change was in place when I noticed the glasses were missing. Sometime in the last 18 months, I had worked the exercise using a similar experience, and it stuck. The change stuck through no ongoing effort on my part. It is a constant revelation to me and I much prefer living my life this way.
By-the-by, my wife also lost her (back-up) glasses three days ago. Before they turned up last night, there was very little ruffling about them or the inconvenience – as there once would have been. Living with each other is much more calm, easier.
This might sound like a long bow to draw from a briefly lost pair of glasses. True enough.
More to come then …
I wasn’t born depressed – I was born free.
Somehow, I picked it up, or learned it, or caught it.
Maybe the could-be-crack in me faulted under stress.
Maybe it was a virus, like the one that causes stomach ulcers,
or a cancer-like cell that hides in us all.
Maybe I looked down once too often and the fear stuck.
It doesn’t matter now.
I was a happy, cheeky kid, beloved and smacked often enough.
I was a leader, confident and unaware there was any other way to be.
It didn’t last.
At 14 my teacher thought I was overly serious.
By 19, paralyzing grey days strung together into months.
Thirties and forties – sliding into bottled oblivion.
At 43 I was diagnosed chronically, clinically depressed and started meds.
I was ashamed.
From pitying judgments, I hid my incapacity.
A temporary measure? No.
But years later I was sharing my story
with other sufferers.
In a new land, after a new start,
then I started telling certain other people.
A psych gave me ‘You weren’t born depressed.’
She was right.
I remember a childhood shot through
with confidence, curiosity, adventures of our own discovery.
We were a handful, my brothers and I,
tales of our mischief are family legends,
told with delight.
No malice in us. We were fierce little explorers,
oblivious to danger.
I still can’t pin down the fracture point.
I don’t need to anymore.
Sixteen years now, officially, and still I hope
to be doing it on my own one day.
The meds are no guarantee of
or well-lit days
Some black patches have nearly taken me.
Always there has been the shadow of
a wish that I could be like other people …
a shame that Life has found me not quite up to the job.
the laughter has felt forced or somehow too loud.
Now, at 59,
as from the corner of my eye,
as from a whisper partly heard,
I have put down or unlearned,
left behind, shrugged off or forgotten
the root of my depression.
Whatever it was, I feel free of it.
Could it really be this simple?
Could it be only the failing habits that remain?
Exploring this Spiritual Space – it’s a working title for what is turning into a maybe-something-more-than-scribbles. A blend of journal-memoir-experimental prose. Might amount to nothing – might not. Clarifying is the notion of giving away control, giving way to what is waiting.
It sounds terribly heavy & serious, I know, but no apologies. I have always thought I am here for more than the oxygen.
Have a good day.