Avoiding the unexpected

For the first time in my life, my Bleeding Heart is thriving.

My Bleeding Heart or what others call my Chain of Hearts.

For me it bleeds, heart-shaped leaves that slip from purple-grey to green and give off a wash of sorrow made more beautiful by every tendril that falls. 

I’ve been in discussions of late with a friend who is concerned about the rise of content warnings to the point of suggesting we put such warnings on books.

This blogger urges content warnings on books because she hates to read a book and find herself suddenly assaulted by images in her imagination that she can’t remove. 

If she had known in advance that such content in the book might stir up memories of her own distress or refresh distress then she would most certainly have appreciated a warning in advance.  

To me, this is the oddest thing.

Why read if you don’t want to be moved or even unsettled?

Why read if you want every word to be as predictable as the next?

Why read if you don’t want your imagination to take you places where you have never been before or take you to places that are all too familiar, including those of distress and so-called trauma? 

The more you read into these territories the more you can get your mind around events of your own experience that once disturbed you, and maybe still do, to learn about how others have tackled them. 

At least this blogger is asking for a content warning only. She’s not suggesting we altogether ban such books from the library of human thought. 

I’d have thought the blurb, the cover and a few pages from the beginning might give you some idea of the nature of the terrain ahead. 

Not the specifics though.

That’s the magic of literature. You can’t go on a journey without going on that journey. And everyone’s perspective of that journey will be different, even as we might all be exposed to the same landmarks. 

That’s the joy of reading and most writers know that not all readers will read their work in the spirit in which they’ve written.

People will see things the writer never dreamed of. 

You can’t get to your destination without actually going through the landmarks of that journey unless you want to avoid the experience of life altogether. 

You can travel from A to B in a hermetically sealed bubble. You can fly from Australia to Los Angeles without a stopover and know almost nothing of the terrain over which your plane has carried you, but you will still have the experience of the plane journey itself. 

Unless you anaesthetize yourself.

Your time within the airport your time landing and those fourteen hours or so where you entered what I always think of as a travel bubble where time takes on a new dimension and you try to pass it by sleep or reading or watching movies and the occasional usually awful airplane food. 

Perish the thought the unexpected happens. That the plane encounters difficulties. No one wants this and this is the extreme of trauma to be mid-flight in turbulence that causes the air in the plane to drop so that airbags become necessary. 

Still, this happens rarely. 

Air travel is an actual experience, a reality and by-product of the amazing thing called human flight. 

Reading a book is a virtual experience. We might find ourselves plummeting to the earth in our story airplane, feel all the anxiety and horror of the descent, our imaginations filled with the angst of our fears of dying but we will not die. 

Note I’m using a safe metaphor here. Flight as opposed to the horrors of being on the receiving end of gross cruelty or sexual abuse.

Yesterday, I listened to a Ted talk by Keely Herron who spoke of her distress over what she calls the cult of happiness. The pressure always to exude happiness in public and to hide our ‘unacceptable’ trauma from others. 

In contrast to ‘acceptable trauma’.

She uses the example of a young man, Danny, who did not learn to swim until he was thirty because he had been bullied as a child.

Everyone applauded Danny’s story. They admired his tenacity. He learned to swim after all that distress. At least one person even found his story inspiring. This trauma of being bullied at school is ‘acceptable’.

But other stories such as this women’s father who killed himself, or her first experience as a five-year-old of sexual abuse and her later experience of being raped. These rate as unacceptable trauma. You keep them to yourself. 

Sexual abuse of all forms, especially incest, go into this category, along with suicide and mental illness.

These then are the cornerstones of unacceptable trauma. 

The stories we might tell, about which our blogger wants a pre-warning:

This content will distress you. This content will unsettle you, and for those out there who do not want to be unsettled by life, by what you read, do not go there.

Stay in the safe bubble of Facebook land or elsewhere where images are sanitised, even as the news every day overwhelms us to the point of horror to which we have become inured.

It’s a crazy world that on the one hand advocates content warnings on literature and at the same time allows the governments that currently lead us to thrive. 

I watch my Bleeding Heart grow and admire its beauty. There is beauty in pain, sorrow and suffering if only we can see it.

Not for its own sake, but for the fact we can’t avoid such feelings and also in the sense that to feel is to be human, and helpful. 

Our feelings help us to understand ourselves and our world. They help us to connect with others and guide our decisions.

Let’s not wrap our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, up in avoidance and denial.

Clock watching

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Mary Oliver

A Memory from 1973

‘But do you love him?’ my friend asked, and something clicked in my brain. 

Not anymore. The thought left me breathless. 

I need not be like my mother and stay forever in this relationship, which others had earmarked for marriage. 

I could try elsewhere for love.

My friend and I sat in Coles Cafeteria where the rattle of plates and cutlery was like the symphony orchestra you hear in movies when the hero reaches her epiphany and knows finally, she must act.

But did I dare?  

I had one such moment several weeks ago when I dared to send an email to a well-known literary agent. 

To it, I attached my synopsis, the first ten pages of my manuscript with a truncated list of publications and asked her to become my agent.

I heard nothing for weeks and decided I must dismiss this hope from my mind. 

Either my email never reached the agent, hidden among the many emails on her desktop, or she did not bother to respond.

In time, she replied with apologies for her lateness. 

‘I love your writing,’ she said, but I’m most likely too busy to take you on. Let me think about it.

Hope soaked back into my thirsty body, hope for someone who might back me and help me get my manuscript beyond its third draft stage into something closer to ready for the world. 

I wanted to write then and there and tell her how chuffed I was that she might even consider me. 

Was this too humble? 

Should I sit on a reply? Leave it a while. Sound cool and nonchalant. Say ‘Thank you, I look forward to hearing back’. But I did not. 

I wrote immediately and with gushing enthusiasm.

The agent wrote back again within the hour to say she could not take me on after all. 

Once again, the sadness in my mouth. 

Not for the first time.

What could I do with my devastation?

I could not write back to her and say, ‘Oh please change your mind. Please take me on.’

Instead, I wrote about my understanding of her situation, my thanks for her consideration and the pain of rejection we writers cop. 

She wrote back to commiserate.

I can still feel the pain of coming so close to finding an agent. 

Like a sponsor, someone who would back me, or such is my fantasy of agents. 

They champion you. They say things about your writing, you cannot say yourself because that would be boasting. 

Besides, you don’t even believe it yourself. 

You need someone else to believe in you.

Otherwise, you stumble around trying to build confidence in your efforts while most of the time the bright lights of other people’s successes dazzle you while you keep on trying to be pleased for them and hope one day your turn will come.

Another memory, 1974.

The laundromat near the corner of Inkerman Street and Kooyong Road is still standing. I once loaded washing into its heavy-duty machines on a Saturday morning and flicked through magazines. 

Between bursts of attention to the magazine, I watched the circle of glass on the machine and listened as the driers spun round and round. 

Laundromats tend to look alike, the same laminated table in the centre of the room, walled with white machines in rows, the washers on one side, the driers on the opposite. The same set of rules and instructions mapped out in bold print on a central wall below a large white clock, that invariably does not tell the exact time. 

I sat opposite my spinning load, clock-watching in my boredom. The only other person in the laundromat, younger than me, a man with dark hair and black eyes like cherries also stared into his magazine. 

He was not my type, but still, he prickled my desire to meet someone new. 

Somewhere out there in the wide world, there was someone, who thought like me. Who shared my interest in exploring the inner workings of his mind, just as I liked to explore mine. 

A social worker perhaps, with a social conscience, an intelligent fellow who also knew his own mind, who could stand up for himself, and yet did not despise me for my foibles. 

Such a man must have existed somewhere.

The writer before she wrote, circa 1973

I have written so much about my past it seems as if there is nothing left in it to explore. I know that this is not true. I know there are countless avenues to re-traverse, but they do not come back to me so readily these days, these memories of a past that seems constantly to slip from my grip. 

My experience of the past has changed through writing about it. Mere thinking about it was never enough. 

Thinking about events in the past merely served to keep them locked inside as if in a bubble of sense impressions but writing about these memories drags them out into the light and there they begin to change, not only to fade but to resemble something different from how I originally thought of them.  

So, I shall keep on writing and hoping and trying for that agent.

Not much of a plan for what’s left of my ‘one wild and precious life’.