Sunday, December 14, 2014

The temporal death that is loneliness:


As a child, I equated loneliness with being alone. It wasn't so much that if you were alone, you were lonely but, rather, that you could only be lonely when you were alone. People are the cure for the disease that is loneliness. This is what I thought.

But as an adult, I now recognise that loneliness is no respecter of persons or relationships. Most of those times that loneliness has weighed heaviest on me are moments when I am quite literally surrounded by people. Because there is not just one type of loneliness. There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of lonelinesses.

There is the loneliness of being in the middle of a crowd that is engaged in watching or singing or being, and you are somehow disconnected from it all. There is the loneliness of being at a gathering where everyone is sharing and talking and laughing, but you can't speak because tears are close to the surface and to speak would make them spill over. Then there is its counterpart, that other, seemingly irrational loneliness that hopes someone will intuitively know what's up, seek you out, help -- care.

There is the loneliness of evolving friendships, of someone who was once very dear in your life slowly moving out of it. There is the loneliness of not having someone's hand to hold as the clock ticks over midnight and the fireworks blaze up into technicolour life. There is the loneliness of heading north while everyone else is headed south. There is the loneliness of someone saying "I wish I could help you," and then the deeper loneliness of someone saying, "I don't want to help you."

There is loneliness in unfulfilled expectations. There is loneliness in having to keep quiet when you want to speak. There is loneliness in fighting a battle that no one else around you is fighting. There is loneliness in the dying off of traditions. There is loneliness in frailty and loneliness in weakness. There is the loneliness of someone laughing at your dream, and the loneliness of endless rain.

There are perhaps as many different lonelinesses as there are happinesses, and each one of them feels like a small death -- a death of belonging, a death of hope, a death of security. But perhaps that is the very thing that is redemptive about loneliness, too: that just as it can come out of nowhere and make your throat tighten with unfelt feelings and uncried tears, so too can happiness. Just as unexpected, just as powerful.

In the loneliness, though, joy feels far away. Joy feels impossible. In those moments, I have to talk to my soul, to remind it that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, the sun will come out. I remind my soul that loneliness is a side effect of being human. I'm lonely because I'm alive -- which is, after all, the complete opposite of death.

[this post was inspired by the Life Captured Project]

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Sunday Currently


I'm stealing the format for The Sunday Currently from Carina, who in turn found it somewhere else. I like the idea of a simple check-in, a way to orient one's heart- and head-space at the end of one week and the beginning of another. It's also the perfect chance to switch gears from my last two kind of heavier/more analytical type posts (and thank you all for your really thoughtful and affirming comments, by the way). Here's what's current in my world:

Reading
As always, I'm deep in too many books at the same time. But the two I've spent time with most recently (hello, Sunday afternoon; today you were made of wonderfulness) are Fredrick Backman's A Man Called Ove and Anna Funder's All That I Am. Ove is my local book club's pick for this month and, to summarise it super briefly, it's about a grumpy old Swedish fellow who nevertheless has some endearing redeeming qualities. For the first thirty pages I hated it -- hated his constant grumbling and his almost cartoonish old-mannish ways. Then on page 31 something happened and I suddenly loved this character. I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of the story develops. And I literally only started All That I Am today, but already it's proving wonderful. Anna Funder's non-fiction work Stasiland was amazing, and I feel confident her fiction will be just as good.

Writing
I'm working on a short story at the moment. It's been in the works for most of the year, and I keep pulling it out when it forcibly impresses itself on my memory. I'm also dipping a tentative toe back into journalling. I haven't done it for so long that I confess I'm quite scared by the whole process.

Listening
I'm all about putting my iPod on shuffle these days. To my shame, sometimes I discover stuff I haven't ever heard before. I'm also not above skipping tracks I'm not in the mood for. Current/always/forever favourites are Josh Garrels and The Civil Wars (who are, sadly, officially disbanding), while Citizens & Saints are my newest favourite. Musically, their stuff is like gentler hard rock, if that's even a thing. Lyrically, their songs are exquisitely literary contemporary Psalms. So good.

Thinking
Oh, what a wide brown land that word encompasses. I'm thinking a lot about being faithful in the little things, about reconciling the present with the future, and the interesting dynamics of share-housing (I've only ever shared with my sister; I'm so intrigued as to how people share a living space with someone they're either not related to nor in love with).

Smelling
Bushfire smoke and a cool breeze.

Wishing
[withheld, because] 

Hoping
...to get better at hope; to find the delicate space between idealism and cynicism; for more cool breezes; to ignore the chocolate cake in my fridge; to connect with people I need to connect with.

Wearing
Post-church, Sunday night daggies. If only I'd written this a half hour ago, when it was a black sheath dress, gladiator sandals, and a diamante collar necklace.

Loving
The feeling that life is maybe finding a rhythm again after several months of really intense busyness.

Wanting
A little more job security, perhaps.

Needing
To go through my walk-in-robe-slash-storeroom-space and overhaul everything.

Feeling
Grateful to be on the mend and getting my energy back after a really prolonged flu. 

Clicking
Here for adorable German words translated into adorable line drawings. Here for cute Israeli cops lip-syncing to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Here to watch the latest episodes of Doctor Who. And here because there's always something good to read.

You?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Be more attractive."

Yesterday a friend sent me the link to a recent post on the Boundless blog. The tagline to the post reads: “If no one’s asking you out, here’s the solution: Be more attractive.” Author Josh Loke offers three ways for women to attain this attractiveness: demonstrate respect, look good, and be fun. Specifically, he adds, “If girls are looking for a guy with humor, kindness, stability and initiative, etc., guys are looking for a girl who’s hot.”

Somebody hold my flower.

A blog post like this presupposes that a woman’s one goal in life is to find a date (or enough dates in order to up the numbers and somehow statistically find The One). But let’s bypass that red flag in order to concentrate on what the injunction to “be attractive” actually says to women everywhere. It says that your success as a person and a woman is measured only by externals. It says that you have ‘arrived’ only when men are asking you out. It says that if this isn’t happening, then it’s for no other reason than that you are not enough. It says that your flaws – both the ones you can change as well as the ones you can’t – make you unlovable and unworthy of love. It says that whatever you are already doing, no matter if it’s your best, it isn’t good enough.

The thing is, there’s nothing new about this message. It isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. Culture screams it from every poster on the side of a bus, highway overhang banner, and prime time commercial. It’s something that many women tend to believe about themselves anyway. It’s knitted into our culture and it can often be woven into our psyches. So we don’t need to hear it from people whose stated goal is to encourage and inspire. What’s more, the principle behind the idea isn’t even true.

I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who didn’t want to be the best version of their self. Most of us are actively working at this in smaller or greater measure in various ways. For many of us, this ‘best possible version’ includes looking after our bodies and expressing our personalities through the way we present our faces and bodies to the world. I like wearing makeup. I like cute dresses. I like spending a little time on my hair of a morning. It makes me feel ready for life, like the cheeriest, most confident version of myself. A bright lip colour and tamed hair and suddenly I am Joan of Arc. It would be certainly be cool if my personal version of beauty caught someone's eye. But that isn't why I do it.

And in many ways it’s irrelevant anyway because no matter how much effort I put into my personal attractiveness, no matter how much effort you put into yours, there's still going to be an arbitrary line in the critical sand of our culture which has beautiful people on one side, and those who fall short on the other.

I was born with a slight physical disability. It’s only a minor one as far as they go but it means I have some impressive scars and my attempts to learn how to jog keep getting pulled up by injury. I have weird feet and I’ll never be able to wear sexy heels. This is certainly a mark against me in what begins to seem like a high-stakes attractiveness contest. Add to this mark the flaws that I could correct with surgery if I had the money (which I don’t) and I believed I could justify it (which I also don't). Then of course there are all the basics: nose too big, eyes too small, skin too flawed, and twenty-five other things I’d be able to list off because we all get so good at recognising where we fail to come up to snuff.

There is nothing unique about me in this respect. Most of us could rattle off a list of our own remarkable failures to be beautiful. But vague hand-wavy ideas like “be more attractive” imply that with just a little more effort anyone can achieve the nirvana of beauty and finally catch the eye of a passing gentleman. And when people say “be more attractive”, we believe it to be true. If I could pull together all my components and recompose myself into my picture of the ideal externally beautiful woman, I would be tall, slim, elegant, and graceful. I would have narrow shoulders, sleek straight hair, and devastating cheekbones. My skin would be flawless, my hands small and strong. I would be athletic without really trying. But the thing is, I know girls exactly like this. What is more, their inner beauty is just as powerful and profound as their luminous external beauty. Yet they, too, are wondering, “What’s wrong with me? What do I need to do?”

The standard for physical beauty is ridiculously subjective. It is trend-driven and culturally specific. It also has a tendency to be wealth-privileged, ageist, ableist, and exclusionary. Some of us, no matter how much effort we put in, will never be typically beautifully. And that is okay. Every single one of us is far more than our face or our breasts or our waistline. And it’s a little beside the point that I am hoping to make but perhaps it’s worth a reminder: ugly people get married. Awkward people get married. Overweight people get married. Flawed people get married.

One commenter on the post illustrates why telling women to “be more attractive and boys will like you” is an unhelpful mindset:
“I've never ever been asked out over the entire course of my life, and neither have either of my two sisters. We all love Jesus and are very active in our church(es), and we are all perfectly fit (run marathons). We look attractive (well, maybe I'm not, but my sisters are both super cute in my opinion). We are also employed (or studying to be employed) in meaningful ways (medicine, actuarial science, and/or music). We all have hobbies that we are really good at and enjoy. We all would like to be committed, godly wives and mothers someday. We may be a bit reserved in public/around people we don't know well, but in reality, we've got to be the funniest, most hilarious bunch of girls on the planet (in my opinion). We live in a fairly large town near one of the largest cities in our state.

But, I'm trying to remind myself that there's always room for improvement. Maybe what I need is to improve my looks. Or could it be that I don't think of anything to crack a joke over during the 10 minutes of coffee hour after church (this period of time is always truncated for me because I'm either playing a postlude on the organ or teaching Sunday school--sometimes I don't even show up at coffee hour at all!)? Could it be our academic/professional interests that put people off? Could it be that we're Asian?? Could it be that we were homeschooled? Anyway, I'm trying not to think that we all happen to have the gift of singleness...although, of course, it is possible."
This commenter sounds like an awesome, well-rounded, fascinating person. And her first paragraph asserts that. However, she moves from these confident observations -- I am a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman who has a full and creative life -- to the almost apologetic confession that ‘there’s always room for improvement.’ And in one sense she is right: all of us can be better. We can all grow. That’s one of the things that makes life so interesting and the Christian walk so challenging. But the standard imposed upon her by this blog post has it wrong: the assumption is that because no man has asked her out, then there must be room for improvement.

When someone says “What is wrong with me?” to my mind it rarely arises out of personal conviction and a passion for growth. Rather, it’s steeped in despair and shame. People who force us to ask “what is wrong with me?” are not being helpful; they’re being bullies. “How can I be a better person?” is getting closer to the mark. But “How can I be a better person so I attract the attention of a man?” is so far off-base.

Taking care of oneself is good for the soul. It enhances the lives of those we care about because we are happier and healthier as a result. It gives us courage and personal freedom. It sets us loose to more freely care for others. It allows us to be our authentic selves.

So be healthy for you and for the people you already love. Be healthy because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Be your own form of beautiful because your creativity reflects the splendour of the creator’s hand. Don’t strive to reinvent yourself in order to attract the eye of every possible good guy who passes you by. If your personal brand of beauty is bohemian layers and hippie hair, do that. If it’s farm girl chic with dungarees, boots, and a bare face, do that. If you believe external details are mere periphery in a world where people are hungry and dying, then act on that. Be your own form of beautiful because to do so for any other reason is illusory and transient and it might work -- but it might not work, too.

Be your best you. But be it for you, for the one who made you, and for the people who already love you. If that fails to capture someone's attention, it says less about you than you think. Be great, but be great because life is now, not because it will begin once someone notices how truly lovely you are. The world doesn't magically move out of black and white with true love’s first kiss. Life is already happening and it’s in full colour. Shine bright.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A hug for the third wheels:


One of the challenges of extended singleness that’s not often discussed is the idea that you are no one’s special person.

I realise, even as I write, that this seems glaringly obvious.

But there is a subtlety to this idea that I’ve not seen explored in the singleness discussions that I’ve encountered. There can be a loneliness to being alone, sure. That much is obvious. But there is a unique, entirely other kind of loneliness to being alone when everyone around you has their one person – that person who is their responsibility, their care, their focus. It's the one they check in with, the one whose opinion they will defer to, the one whose schedule they will shape their lives around.

It is lonely to have nobody, but it is another kind of loneliness to be nobody’s somebody.

As nobody’s somebody, you become the dispensable variable in relational equations. It is you who might have to change your intended meetup time to fit better with what your girlfriend’s boyfriend wants. Your sister might need to pause in the middle of a deep and meaningful conversation with you to take a call from her husband at work. Your plans with a friend will fall through because her toddler is teething. If you don’t know your guy friend’s new love interest, chances are you won’t know your guy friend for much longer, either. You will grow accustomed to being the third person, or fifth, or seventh in gatherings where all the other attendees are pairs.

All of this is good and fine. It’s healthy, even. It’s sanctifying and humanising to be reminded that our own needs are not paramount. It is good to be adaptable, and to learn to hold things loosely. It’s good to know that others’ lives don’t carry the same freedoms that singleness does.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt to be reminded that everybody you care about most is aligning their lives closely to another person’s, moulding their days and hours and moments to fit another’s, but that person is not you. You are loved by many but not at the top of anyone’s priority list.

Is it selfish to mourn that a little? Is it greedy to even notice? I don’t think so. It is a genuinely difficult thing to be nobody’s main priority and to have a multiplicity of primary priorities yourself. It’s even harder to talk or write about it without seeming small-minded and petulant. But the sorrow is real, I think, and it is okay to acknowledge its existence.

What’s more important, though, is to acknowledge how significantly you (me, we) are loved in spite of the fact that we aren’t anybody’s significant other. We are surrounded by people who care, and if their care must be broken into pieces and scheduled around parents and children and spouses, that does not make the love any less genuine; it just makes it real.

And in reverse, we can treasure the opportunity to pour our own unfettered love into the lives of others, with all the freedom and creativity that the unattached life gives. It brings its own challenges, this season, but there are also some very cool pluses. We need to remember those in the moments when the other stuff aches.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Answers to all the questions and a tale to tell": an interview with Darren Groth, author of 'Are You Seeing Me?'

As most of you already know -- because I flailed about it from here to instagram and everywhere in between -- I really enjoyed reading Darren Groth's recent release, Are You Seeing Me? 

From the back of the book:
Justine and Perry are embarking on the road trip of a lifetime. It's been more than a year since they watched their dad lose his battle with cancer, leaving nineteen-year-old Justine as the sole carer for her disabled brother. Now, the twins' reliance on each other is set to shift. Before they go their separate ways, they're seeking to create the perfect memory. For Perry, the trip is a glorious celebration of his favourite things: mythical sea monsters, Jackie Chan movies, and the study of earthquakes. For Justine, it's a chance to "free" her twin, to see who she is without her boyfriend, Marc -- and to offer their mother to chance to atone for past wrongs.
This sums up the story beautifully. I suppose it's not the done thing to also add sentences to the effect of: 'a beautiful emotional story that somehow manages never to descend into melodrama,' or 'finally a love story that's more about familial love than the romantic type,' or 'characters you'll wish were actually real so you could give them a big hug (if they were up for it of course).' These are the kind of postscripts I'd tack on if it was my job to write a blurb for this book -- which tells you what a good thing it is that this isn't my job.

Are You Seeing Me? is set partly in Brisbane and partly in Vancouver, Canada, echoing the author's own background. Darren Groth is a Queenslander now writing from Vancouver, where he lives with his wife and thirteen-year-old twins. Recently I got to chat with Darren about his work.

Before talking about the text itself, a process question because I'm fascinated by the processes of creativity and the rituals (or lack of them) that creators employ. What does your writing process look like? And how long did it take to write AYSM, from idea to final draft?

My process is pretty organic. I'm not a huge planner of a novel -- a lot of the details reside in my head and unfold on the page. I tend to start with a simple idea or scenario which, through the thousand and one questions that result, ends up becoming a full blown story.

With AYSM, it began with an idea close to home for me: a set of twins -- one with a disability, the other without -- left on their own after their father's passing and their mother's departure many years ago. From that basic premise, the questions commenced: who are they? Where are they at in their lives? What happened to the father? Where is the mother now? Eventually, I had answers to all the questions and a tale to tell.

The first draft of AYSM took almost a year to write. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be the first of many. Final draft would come after six previous! I think it turned out for the best, though.

I'd agree with that.

The relationship between AYSM and your own family story is quite clear. When did you first realise you wanted to write a book like this? Did you wrestle at all with finding a balance between following the story you were writing versus exploring the story you are living?

I knew soon after the release of my previous novel, Kindling, that I would do AYSM. I wanted to write a book that would be a gift to my daughter and explored the idea of a young woman trying to find her own way while caring for her brother. As you mentioned, there were plenty of touch-points I could bring from my own family's circumstances -- not enough that you would call the work "faction", though. Historically, I've tended to do that with my novels: I'll use compelling narratives from my own experience, add lots of made-up stuff, give it all to caracters I create, and then see where it ends up.

This makes perfect sense. And I suspect we can't help but imbue our fiction with some of our own history, even if we are writing in worlds completely different to our own.

Have your children read the story? Did they offer any feedback?

My kids are thirteen; neither has read the story yet. My daughter will read it one day -- as it's dedicated to her, I hope she loves it. She's more into The Hunger Games and The Simpsons at the moment. My son, due to his ASD, may never be able to read AYSM or Kindling (the book that was my gift to him). He has progressed very well over the years, though, so never say never!

It's very important to AYSM that both Justine and Perry have a voice. It's not solely Justine's story; neither is it solely Perry's. Did you always intend to tell the story like this, even from its inception? And did you encounter any special challenges in writing a story with two protagonists?

For a while, I entertained just writing AYSM from Justine's perspective. Not far into it, I understood Perry needed to be heard, too. He was actually far easier to write than his sister. Justine is far more nuanced than Perry and required a lot more care during editing to ensure her voice was consistent and authentic. Putting Perry on the page involved a greater amount of research (everything I now know about earthquakes, sea monsters, and Jackie Chan movies, I owe to him), but he was a dream to author.

The editing and crafting shines through. Justine's character is gently deep and manages to authentically straddle the sometimes awkward divide between youth and adulthood.

Speaking of divides, the book, with its dual settings of Brisbane and Canada, has a very strong sense of place. How important to you is this sense of place in what you read and write? Is it always as significant within the text as with AYSM? How does being an Australian living in another country help (or challenge) you as a writer?

Place, when done particularly well, is like another character. One of my favourite reads of all time is I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti, and the backdrop for that -- a remote rural town in southern Italy -- is remarkable and plays as much of a role in proceedings as any of the protagonists. If my sense of place in AYSM is half as good as Ammaniti's then I'm rapt.

Regarding living in Canada as an Aussie, I think it offers a different stimulus to my work than I otherwise would've had remaining in Brisbane. As Justine herself might put it: no better or worse -- just different.

Beautifully said. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and background on this important story. Good luck with all your future work!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The season of love:











I got to spend most of this past week down south with my precious friend Meaghan as she prepared to marry her true love handsomeface manperson. It felt like such a privilege being behind the scenes of all that pre-wedding busyness -- and then to actually walk down the aisle ahead of the bride's sister and niece and then the bride herself.

Wedded bliss might signal the end of our epic Meaghan-and-Danielle weekends (usually an annual occurence), and I will undoubtedly grieve the subtle shift of things, but at the same time, I'm rejoicing for her and for the great man she has married. Lives change all the time, every moment of every day, but it's very cool to get to watch and observe one of those new chapters as it begins. (Plus, pretty dresses and 1938 Fords were involved!).

Added to all that was the fact that so many wonderful people came together to celebrate Meaghan and Geoff, and we -- the guests -- took advantage of the cool company to catch up with friends and family we see only too rarely. Love was in the air, and not just wedding-love!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Are You Seeing Me?"; one of my favourite reads of 2014 so far.


I've been in something of a heavy duty reading/writing/creating slump since July. But this week I read Darren Groth's Are You Seeing Me?, which was a completely spontaneous purchase on National Bookshop Day, and I loved it.

For a summary, check out Goodreads. In the meantime, here's a hastily-scribbled impressionistic list of reasons why I think this book is great:

1) it's beautifully-written. From the get-go, the prose is lovely -- gentle, literary, but never over-written. Here's a taste, from page 37, as twins Perry and Justine step out into the Canadian sun for the first time and stop to take a selfie: "The snap is more than money -- it is perfect. Our eyes are ablaze. Our grins are starlight. Despite the fifteen-hour flight and lack of sleep, we have been captured at some sort of fission point; the release permitting the very best of our past, present and future to burst through for a nanosecond. As I stand there, spellbound, breathing the gluggy Vancouver air, the photograph materialises in other places, other times..." On top of that, it's a good story. It's possible to have great words but a bad tale; happily, this is not one of those books. It works.

2) it's contemporary YA literature that manages to avoid cliches and tropey-ness. First off, there's not a love triangle in sight. In fact, there's only a glimmer of romance and what's there is honest, real, and not composed of pink-tinged warm fuzzies. Secondly, there's very little space given to what the characters look like or wear, or their appraisal of others' appearances. The story isn't about school or work or rivalry or the boy next door (none of which are wrong, all of which have been done a thousand times before). Finally, at 19 years old and functioning as the primary carer for her brother, Justine is the exact definition of YA: a young adult. She is wrestling with responsibility, decisions about the future, relationships, the way others perceive her brother's disability. Her experiences are ones readers will relate to no matter what their age.

3) Perry and Justine live in Brisbane, and there is something so I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I-like-it about reading a book with links to a place you know and love. It's a feeling akin to belonging, or even ownership. Having looked out onto the same bridge, same river, same bookstore cafe that the characters are also seeing makes their story that much more real, more tangible. And for me, it brought up all my fledgling feelings of Queensland patriotism, which have taken eight years to generate.

 4) it punched me right in the heart. My little brother has down syndrome, so I get what it's like to walk through life with an answer waiting on the edge of your tongue, ready to explain away anything that people find unusual or unsettling. There's 17 years and three other siblings between me and him, but the others all live away and I live right next door, and that feeling of the two of us out to face the world is something I can relate to deeply. Sometimes I have dreams of disasters happening and the one person I always try to find in the midst of the tsunami or the earthquake, the one person I have to reach to make sure he's safe, is my brother Tain. I could understand Justine's fierce love for her brother because I feel that for my brother, too. At the same time, I felt a little envious of these characters. Perry -- who narrates part of the story -- is articulate and expressive. He's able to explain himself clearly. He has defined tastes and interests, special skill sets, and knowledge that can impress others. There is no external sign of his disability. Though people might be startled or feel uncomfortable because of the way Perry responds to situations, he can also blend into a crowd. No one can look at him and, simply by evaluating his physical characteristics, make assumptions about his abilities, his personality, his worth. I envied that in Perry and wished momentarily for some of those things for my brother. This was a new experience for me, but at the same time it reminded me that things always look different from the outside looking in.

5) finally, it inspired me to love better, which is one of the best things a book can do.
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