On the move again…

I was about to turn five and father and I were on the move again. This time, we were going to Kétegyháza, on the Southern Great Plain of south-east Hungary, near the Romanian border. Once there, my father looked for his brother-in-law, who was the director of an agricultural college. Uncle Attila lived in the caretaker’s house with his family. It must have looked like bucolic bliss.

‘Can she stay a while with you? It’s complicated right now. I’m trying to work out whether I can come home to Hungary and start afresh. There’s a lot to consider,’ my father confided to Attila.

‘Of course she can stay, Stephen,’ my uncle answered. ’She’s family and we always look after family.’

‘It’s only for a while,’ my father said and then he was gone again. I didn’t mind being left this time. I loved my time with Uncle Attila, Aunt Margot and their twelve-year-old son, Atti. My cousin and I adored each other from the moment we met. He treated me like his little sister and I saw him as the brother I’d never had. For Atti, I was a welcome distraction from his exacting parents and for me, he was nothing short of a demigod whom I idolised. For that one magic summer, we were inseparable.

It was fun to be in the country where I was allowed to play all day and make as much noise as I wanted. The house and garden seemed enormous after my time at my grandmother’s deathly quiet flat in Budapest. My stay seemed perfect in every way, and I honestly can’t remember missing my parents at all.

I followed Atti everywhere. Every morning we ran out of the house, climbed trees, played hide and seek. When we were tired, we lay down in meadows and watched clouds drift across the sky, I picked a riot of wildflowers for my aunt. There were so many that my fingers barely reached as I hugged the bunch to my chest. Everything about this summer was expansive like the soft blue sky above us.

In the evenings, I sat on the veranda and watched the colour of the sky change from pale blue to pink then orange and finally to ink. I inhaled the intense sweetness of lilac flowers and kept an eye on the light show in the sky. For hours I sat mesmerised watching uncle Attila whittle away at a piece of wood which would become a miniature blacksmith’s block with a tiny anvil on top. He also carved tiny hammers which made up the blacksmith’s set. I never tired of watching my uncle, although I did think at the time that the tools he made would be too small even for one of the seven dwarfs. Years after my uncle’s death, I would learn that he had made these intricate ornaments to supplement his income.

‘Let’s go and pick some apricots,’ Atti said, near the orchard at the back of their garden. ‘I know the best tree to climb. Catch me if you can!’

I ran after him barefoot. Knee deep in grass, I felt the soft blades brush against my calves. In the orchard dappled apricots hung heavily, ready for the taking. But then, inexplicably, agonising pain. Piercing pain shot shards up my left foot. I screamed.  Atti raced back to find me sitting in the grass, fat tears tumbling onto my cradled foot.

‘Show me,’ he said, and, ever so gently, he removed the bumblebee stinger.

I limped along beside him attuned to the drone of bees. Sure footed, Atti arrived at the orchard, reached up and picked ripe, freckled apricots. He ran back offering the sweetest antidote to a bee sting. One bite and the sting lost its power.

That summer passed far too quickly. It was almost time for Atti to return to school. I couldn’t imagine the house without the sound of his footsteps searching for me, inviting me to come and play. My aunt and uncle spoke about me in hushed tones and then, just like that, my father walked through the front door.

Fifty years later, my cousin Atti explained what had happened on that day. My aunt and uncle had desperately wanted another child and when I arrived on their doorstep, it was as if their prayers had been answered. They put their case convincingly to my father. If he allowed them to formally adopt me, I would not only stay within the wider family, but I would be assured of a secure future with excellent educational prospects and loving ‘parents’ to look after me. Uncle Attila, who was always self-assured, could also be loud and overbearing. No doubt, he clearly spelled out the advantages that my father could not provide. I think he made my father feel inadequate. Indignant, and above all proud, my father packed my few belongings and we left for the train station. In a little over three hours, we arrived in Vienna. He had a few leads to follow but besides those, he knew no-one.


Empty Nest

Ten days ago, I sent off my completed memoir for a manuscript assessment. I have been working on this project consistently since January 2019. It has, however, occupied my thoughts for many years before I was ready write the first sentence.

For someone who has devoted years to this project, the past ten days have felt like an eternity. Does it have merit? How many more edits will it require before I can approach a publisher? Where do I even begin with this next chapter of letting my manuscript go? And the most important question of all – what now?

For three years, I have conducted research, worked on individual scenes, pursued emerging patterns and themes. Several times I have read the manuscript cover to cover and have cut and polished and cut some more. Through this process I have jettisoned some 20,000 words to distil it to its essence. I don’t know whether I have succeeded.

I have put my heart and soul into writing. There were months when words dried up like ink in a misplaced pen. The less I wrote, the more arid my inner landscape became. Then I found my way to a state of flow through the London Writers’ Salon. Once I committed to writing daily, the words cascaded on the page and I completed my first, second and third drafts. I fantasised about working part-time to devote more energy to writing. I wanted a new rhythm to my days and spend happy hours in companionable silence over Zoom with writers from around the world.

But what now? As I am approaching the end of this project, I feel something akin to grief. What if I have nothing more to say? What do I do then? For someone who has the urge to write each day, this is a distressing thought. I have nursed and watched my memoir grow, but it is time to let this fledgling find its wings. When it does, I will have to let it go.

I have no idea how any of this works. Perhaps I need to have more faith. Perhaps I simply need to show up each day. Or perhaps the muse only visits those who have an empty nest to offer.

The Artist’s date

Last month I watched a live interview with Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had read the book five years ago and began writing morning pages. I thought that was a good enough start and resisted putting her other tools to use. It worked for a while and then I lost my way.

After struggling for years with writing a memoir, I came across the London Writers’ Salon. Joining that supportive group of writers has enabled me to commit to daily writing and within a few short months, I have been able to finish the manuscript. I am now in the throes of editing, editing and editing. Who knows how many more edits will be required to make this little gem shine.

Listening to Julia Cameron I realised I needed to revisit the Artist’s Way and recommit to some of her principles. My morning pages were going well but as for the rest of it, I could see I was avoiding key pieces of her advice. Like the artist’s date for example.

Commit yourself to a weekly artist’s date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it.

She was right of course. The idea of an artist’s date is to allow yourself at least two hours a week to have a playdate with yourself, to do something that brings joy and is self-nurturing. It has to be a solitary activity, but dogs are permitted.

The first week I took Zoë to the Botanic Gardens in Orange. I found solace in walking in the rain and enjoyed finding various paths that led to different areas for me to explore. I then wanted to complete the date with lunch at their café, but I was 15 minutes late. Disappointed, I had a piece of cake I didn’t really want. Annoyed at myself, I drank my tea, ate the cake, and left. I wasn’t so sure that this had been a successful date but was willing to have another go the following week.

The next Saturday I began to wriggle and squirm. Still, I was determined to do it. I found that my local cinema was showing Ticket to Paradise with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Why not? So, I went to see it. Surprisingly, I felt quite comfortable on my own in the cinema but was less than impressed with the movie. The plot was so predicable that I worked out the ending within the first five minutes. Ho hum.

Yesterday, I decided to go for a drive up Mt Canobolas with Zoē. We drove the potholed roads past stunning wineries and beautiful homes. Then I turned left onto the windy road up to the summit only to find that it was closed for redevelopment. I did a three-point turn and headed towards Mt Canobalas Lake instead.

I noted that the café was open, but decided to walk around the lake first. Zoë had to stay on her lead which she didn’t mind as she had plenty of interesting smells to explore. I quite liked being out on the track on my own. There were interesting cloud formations and new growth on trees which I photographed. Yet I was restless within me, even though this was exactly the kind of activity that always soothed my soul. I think I was about three quarters of the way around the lake before I stilled my mind and relaxed into the activity. Time for a cup of tea, I thought. But once again, I missed the opening hours by 15 minutes. Is this an omen?

I have no idea what I will do next week. I’m running out of ideas. There are a couple of art galleries I could visit or maybe there is a free course I can attend. A week to go and I can feel the struggle already.

You are likely to find yourself avoiding your artist dates. Recognise this resistance as a fear of intimacy – self intimacy.

Ok Julia I hear you, but let me tell you, the struggle is real.

Indistractable

Photo by Jazzy Jazz

I am the queen of distraction. Any excuse will do. A ding on my phone? A dog barking? Stomach rumble? I’m up for it! Literally. I will get up to investigate, check the phone, open the fridge door…

Recently, I decided to spend more time in the office. Even with all the distractions there, I get more work done. Sure, I may have a chat to a colleague and make myself the odd cup of tea but somehow, I am more focused because I know this is the place for work and not play.

About a year ago I listened to Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I felt motivated for about a week and then, slowly at first before accelerating with a vengeance, my old habits resurfaced. I didn’t want to be boxed in by time blocks, or make public commitments about my goals, I was happy to coast along, chop and change as my want and hit the panic button when deadlines emerged. After all, I work best under pressure. Doesn’t everyone?

Last week, London Writers’ Salon interviewed Nir Eyal. As I’m a bit of a self-help nerd, I decided to listen. I’m so glad I did. He explained my resistance, which is far from unique. There’s a psychological term for it. It is called reactance. ‘…when people feel coerced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion, often by demonstrating an increased preference for the behavior that is restrained, and may perform the behavior opposite to that desired (APA Dictionary of Psychology).’

This describes me perfectly. Even if I’m the one who sets the expectation, I will fight tooth and nail against it. Just knowing that I can name this pesky trait really helps. Now when I hear that voice saying, ‘I don’t want to do it that way, I prefer to do it my way,’ I can say, ‘hello reactance, I know what tricks you’re up to!’

Nir also had a great idea for people who get distracted by their children when working from home. His solution is to buy a cheap crown to wear when working. His kids were told that when he was wearing the crown, he was indistractable. They could only interrupt if it involved blood or vomit. I have used a similar tactic when teaching. I’d say to my class that I was in a bubble with my reading group. Only the people inside the bubble were allowed to talk to me. Surprisingly, kids really respected the bubble. If they ignored the rule I drew an invisible bubble with my arms, and they would walk away. It worked like a charm. At least until an enterprising young chap walked up to my invisible bubble with an invisible pin and pricked it.

I really like Nir’s idea of wearing a crown. I will go out and buy a tiara (much more elegant) and wear it to remind that naughty distracting child within me that I have work to do. If nothing else, I will at least look stylish when I raid the fridge.  

Writers’ Hour by London Writers’ Salon

There are many disciplined writers, but I am not one. There have been weeks, sometimes months when all I have done is to agonise about writing but get a single word down. And then there have been times when I have found that magic state of flow. Inevitably, a busy period at work throws a spanner in the works and I fall out of the habit.

A few months ago, my friend Margaret Paton, who single-handedly organises the Central West Writers’ Group, put up a post on our Facebook page.

Writershour.comDaily Writing Sessions. Brought to you by London Writers’ Salon.

I was intrigued. It took me a while to work out that there were in fact several writers’ hours, all held between 8 and 9 am around the world. The one in London is between 5pm and 6pm Australian Eastern time, while the New York hour comes on at 10pm to 11pm. As I am night owl, I tend to catch the New York session but sometimes I am lucky enough to be home by 5 to take part in the London session.

The concept is deceptively simple. Writers log onto Zoom at the specified hour, a host mutes the conversation and welcomes us all. There is an explanation of the process: we are to type our intention for the next 50 minutes into the chat pod and some of these are read out. We may be sitting isolated from each other yet there’s a definite feeling of community. We are all comforted by the couple of hundred people sitting in their own space, all engaged in the writing process and experiencing similar struggles and joys.

The host reads out an inspiring quote, we raise a glass of water or cup of tea and off we go, keeping our cameras on for extra accountability, or not. After fifty minutes, a voice gently invites us back into the ‘room’. We use the chat pod to say how we went, whether we reached our goal for the hour and how we felt. One or two people are randomly chosen to report back before we say goodbye. It is as simple as that.

Since coming across the London Writers’ Salon, I write every day. I am beginning to recognise faces and love the way we encourage each other. I feel part of this wonderful world-wide community and best of all, I have written many thousands of words. I only wish I had come across the London Writers’ Salon when they first went online during lock down. Since then, they have grown exponentially. There aren’t many positives I can point to when it comes to Covid, but the Writers’ Hour is definitely one. I have finally found my community and reawakened my enthusiasm for writing.

For the past three years I have struggled with writing my memoir. Within a few months of regularly attending Writers’ Hour, I have completed my first draft and I’m now using my daily writing habit for editing. I never thought I could say that I’m looking forward to when my book is published. Thanks to the London Writers’ Salon, that day is now within reach.

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