Category Archives: Chemotherapy

Sunset Walk At Patonga, NSW.

Lately, I’ve been getting itchy feet. Real itchy feet. Not surprising after being in lock down for at least 2 months, and not being allowed to leave the house except for grocery shopping and my eternal arch-nemisis….exercise. I wasn’t too sure whether meandering along with my camera, especially pausing to take in the view or stick my camera up a tree, counted as “exercise”. Or, whether this seemingly innocent escape for a woman with mobility issues, might be considered “illegal”. After all, a girl simply going out on a driving lesson with her mum in Victoria, was pulled over and initially fined $1652 until sense and intense media pressure prevailed. I didn’t want to land myself in that kind of trouble.

DSC_9837

The Jetty at Patonga looking towards Broken Bay and Palm Beach. 

 

Restrictions are really starting to lift here in Australia now, especially considering the exceptionally low transmission rates we have here. However, although our kids went back to school this week, I’m still practicing social distancing and largely staying home. Besides, it’s almost Winter here. I’m as snug as a bug in a rug getting on with my WWI research and writing projects, which I view as my job. At least, that’s the direction I’m working towards. I also have a fairly extensive, global network of blogging friends and we get on really well.

Rowena Patonga 2020

Here I am going for my walk. No selfie capabilities on my SLR. Besides, I quite fancy being a lurking shadow in all sorts of distorted dimensions. 

“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk

and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

I don’t really NEED to go out, but that can also become a problem. Unfortunately, my arch-nemesis exercise, along with sunlight and the great outdoors where I can stretch my wings and almost inhale the ocean, are almost critical for my mental health and happiness.

 

So, feeling rather virtuous, I headed over to Patonga Beach on Thursday afternoon. It’s  about a 15 minute drive away, taking us past last week’s Water Tower Walk Water Tower Walk, Pearl Beach, and we keep driving through Brisbane Waters National Park with nothing but bush on either side and the road stretching through seeming nothingness ahead. This area is so untouched and seemingly remote, that it’s hard to believe we’re only a stone throw from Sydney.

Lorikeet in a flame tree

Here’s one of our stunning Rainbow Lorikeets feasting in an Illawarra Flame Tree at Patonga. The tree was full of them chatting away.

The last stretch of the drive passes through some sharp twisting bends as you descend the hill into Patonga. After driving through the bush, the tranquil sea-side village of Petonga, which means “oyster” in Aboriginal, feels like something out of the set of an old movie. Patonga is nestled on Brisk Bay, which is on your left where there’s a rustic jetty heading out towards the Hawkesbury River on the extreme right and Palm Beach, across the other side of Pittwater on your left. There’s also a children’s playground here on the waterfront, which no longer captures my attention now that our kids are in high school. However, before our local park was given a massive upgrade, I used to take the kids to a park located next to the camp grounds at Patonga, which was almost on the beach.

However, today I was fairly rather reflective because my sister-in-law is starting treatment for breast cancer, and my thoughts are very much with her. Not only because she’s family and because what she’s going through is rotten, but I went through chemo a few years back for my auto-immune disease and it’s a frigging rollercoaster, even just from a logistical point of view. This time, it’s my turn on the sidelines, and I want to do a good job of that. Indeed, I want to do a better job of what I’m doing so far, because the card I wrote and it was an extensive message straight from the heart) is still sitting in the loungeroom and I’ve been thinking of a gift but haven’t got there yet. You know, there’s that going round in circles and wanting to get that gift that’s going to hit exactly the right spot, and heaven forbid in your desire for perfection that you actually end up doing NOTHING!! My goodness. Haven’t we all been guilty of that.

 

 

DSC_0036

Frolicking in the wonders of nature, able to walk through the clouds.

Anyway, I picked up a few shells along the beach to include in my letter to my sister-in-law. I hope she appreciates them for what they represent, and that she doesn’t take me for a cheapskate.

Sea gulls Patonga

Sea gulls might be common but I still love them. They’re such characters and theis flock was just standing in the shallows on the beach looking like they were really enjoying themselves and I had to join in their festivities. Besides, they made me feel like less of a lone ranger and part of a wider belonging. 

So, going on this walk was really good for dealing with all of that, as well as all the fall out from the coronavirus and the kids suddenly being forced back to school full time  this week by the NSW Education Minister. As my walk continued and the sun started to set behind a row of incredibly majestic Norfolk Pines, my footsteps seemed to lighten as all these stresses wafted out to sea and far away.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher

storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”

― Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

DSC_0004

Sunset Behind the Norfolk Pines, Patonga. 

Of course, by this stage, I’m castigating myself for staying indoors and not getting outside amongst all this more often. What I appreciated, perhaps, beyond all else,was soaking in that vast expanse of space, and being able to stretch out as far as the eye can see. Even the most minimalist of homes, still has four walls, and I can assure you that our place has a hell of a lot more. You could say that the interior is made of books and tea cups with a pile of musical instruments thrown in.

Meanwhile, the sun has set on another day, but we did make it next door for a chat with our elderly neighbours who are family to us. They live behind us across a back lane way and one thing I’ve loved about lock down, is that is been perfectly acceptable to get around in your pyjamas. I bought a fancy pair of Peter Alexander PJ pants with are hot pink with white circles and are pretty shmick. I had no qualms about wandering out the back gate over to their place in my PJs with my ugg boots on. It was so incredibly relaxing. You could even say liberating. It’s been the same on zoom. At first, I used to get dressed, but now we’re all in PJs, dressing gowns and the other night I even watched an interview with Cate Blanchet and Stephen Colbert via zoom and both of them were in their PJs. It made for such a relaxed and intimate interview.

DSC_0015

What a magnificent sunset and I just love the feathery white clouds floating over the lingering blue sky. 

“Ô, Sunlight! The most precious gold to be found on Earth.”

― Roman Payne

As tempting as it is to immerse myself in nature and escape the heaviness and responsibilities of life, there’s always that rubber band drawing me back home in both good and bad ways. At times, I really resent having to rush home from my sunset photography jaunts to get dinner cooked for the family. However, I really cherish our family and all that being part of a family entails. Sure, there are responsibilities. However, there’s love, connection, intimacy, belonging along with frustration, irritation, expense, and that sense all round that someone’s clipping your wings. As much as we need togetherness, we also need time apart, space to do our own thing and the capacity to create and be a part of stories which we might choose to share with the family and have something to talk about. Moreover, this sense of family is also what you make it. You can build your own family. You do not need to be alone and these families are just as legitimate as your more conventional families. Blood is thicker than water, but the bonds of experience and caring for each other and especially being in the same boat are also strong.

I’m not quite sure how I reached that point after setting out on a walk around Patonga. However, with everything going on in the world at the moment, for many of us, it’s a time of deep questioning and thinking about just about every aspect of life and it will be interesting to see what life will be like on the other side. I for one am not planning on going back to how it was before and am working towards creating my own new world. How about you?

I hope you and yours are well and staying safe.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Acknowledgement & Gratitude…2020 Revised.

Last night, I was going through my list. I don’t know if everyone has a list. However, I’m pretty sure most of us have that list we go back to when something else goes wrong, and for some of us this list of our misfortunes goes round and round in our heads and conversations like a broken record. Indeed, this list can be a millstone round your neck, and it’s no doubt taken many over the edge.

Bilbo watchin the sun set Palm Beach

This photo of Bilbo seemed to sum up the reflective pre-acknowledgement stage of the process.

While some advocate an almost aggressive, constant state of positivity no matter what, I prefer a different course. Indeed, I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about acknowledging the bad stuff which is the equivalent of popping over to visit a friend, without moving in. Indeed, you ACKNOWLEDGE what has happened, and then you you can sit with it for a bit, grieve, process and try to understand what’s happened and why, learn your lessons and even make some constructive fixes if required. However, at the end of that time, you pack your bags and you’re out of there, although you’ll probably pop back for a visit now and then, but as I said, this is very different to moving in. After all, there also comes a time where you need to leave the past behind. I can groan a bit when I hear people talking about moving forward while there’s still a splinter in the wound and it’s all starting to fester. However, not moving forward at all, even without the smallest and almost invisible baby steps, isn’t good either.

Bilbo and paw prints

However, while acknowledging the crap, we also need to be grateful for what’s gone well, or the good things which have come out of the bad. Take on board the yin and yang.

Thinking more about it, gratitude is also a form of acknowledgement, and that when you put these two processes together, it resembles a process which is very familiar. Stacking up your wins and losses. However, if you’re going through a particularly hard time (and let’s face it 2020 hasn’t been great), you might need to work particularly hard to find anything at all to be grateful for. Or, you might feel that the weight of all you’ve lost weighs down that side of the scales so much, that the wins feel pretty light weight and very much out of balance. Indeed, that the hand you’ve been dealt is mighty unfair.

Jonathon Heart Hands 2011

Holding love in his hands…our son painting when he was about 7 years old. What a beautiful young man. 

That’s why I’ve put these two words together as bookends to give them added strength and weight, and to encourage us to see how these two seemingly opposing forces can actually come together and ultimately get us out the other side.

Today, I spent a few hours writing down my Acknowledgements & Gratitudes. Rather than sharing the extended version right now, I thought I’d quickly list them down so people wanting more of a quick snapshot could take that in, rather than getting bogged down. However, as it turns out, even this is not a snapshot.

Quite frankly, in many ways, I’d like to return to New Year’s Eve 2019 when 2020 was all set to be a year of perfect vision.

Meanwhile, this is the bad stuff I’d like to acknowledge so far:

Rowena bogged Western Australia

Getting bogged in a remote sand dune in WA near the Pinnacles around 1990. I’m smiling on the outside but freaking out and seriously concerned about our well-being. 

Acknowledging the Bad Stuff

1) The catastrophic Australian bush fires. During the 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season, 34 people were killed directly while 417 died from smoke inhalation. The impact on our wildlife was absolutely devastating killing around one billion animals, and destroying over 18 million hectares of bush. 5,900 buildings including over 2,800 homes were also destroyed. Despite living well away from these bushfire areas, the dense choking smoke which went on to travel several times round the globe, forced me inside dependent on the air-conditioner to breathe. In hindsight, there were a few times I should’ve gone to hospital, but I didn’t want to be a pest. For awhile there, I was literally hovering in the balance.

2) The Coronavirus. When I think back to New Year’s Eve 2019, it looks like we were like the passengers and crew on board The Titanic feeling utter invincible as it sailed at breakneck speeds through waters dotted with deadly icebergs. When I first heard about the outbreak in Wuhan, China I thought it was going to be like SARS and that it would largely stay over there and leave Australia alone. Our geographical isolation is a blessing and a curse, and means we often miss out. While, our experience has been exceptionally good to date, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact. As the number of cases initially started to increase, they matched the same trajectory as Italy, and we were expecting things to be a lot worse.

Here’s how the toll of Covid 19 stacks up today on the 20th May, 2020:

Worldwide                                                              Australia

Cases:                         4.89 million confirmed                                        7 069 confirmed

Recovered:                1.69 million                                                            6 411

Deaths:                       1.69 million                                                            100

3) Lock Down due to the Coronavirus/Covid 19. People isolated, businesses closed. Massive job losses. Everything completely out of synch and out of order.

DSC_9231

Even the poor old park bench was in lock down and wrapped up in red tape.

4) I developed a chest infection in March which developed into a repetitive barking cough, asthma and gasping for air well after the infection itself had  cleared. The timing couldn’t have been much worse, just as cases of coronavirus is NSW were rapidly increasing and starting to match Italy’s trajectory. It was not a time where anyone wanted to be heading to hospital, especially someone with dodgy lungs. There was also the concern that I’d end up competing for one of those rare as hen’s teeth ventilators. Or, given my poor health and disability status, I might just be left to die in the corridor (Thank goodness I gave my lung specialist a Christmas card last year!! Next year, I’d better give him a packet of Tim Tams as well).

5) Our son’s school history through Europe was cancelled on the 2nd March, when the NSW Education department banned all out of state excursions. At the time, there were minimal infection rates in Australia and it was just on the cusp of the spread to Italy. So it was very early in the peace and were were feeling a bit cheated. Was this really necessary? They were due to fly out on Wednesday 8th April bound for Berlin. From there, they were heading to Munich, Rome, Sorrento, Pompei, Naples, the French Battlefields of WWI and Paris. What a trip of a lifetime, just gone up in smoke. At the time, we were also unsure of refunds and they’ve only just started coming in. All up, it was a huge hit.

6) In late February, I had a really nasty fall dropping our daughter off at a dance audition when I tripped over a significant crack in the footpath. While I didn’t break any bones, I was in rough shape for a few weeks. I also suspect that the stress of the fall exacerbated the chest infection as it was just managing to behave itself til then.

7) Work. Although my husband’s kept his job during lock down and is working successfully from home, both of our teenaged kids had been looking at picking up part-time jobs this year and that’s gone on hold thanks to Coronavirus. I’d also wanted to pick up some work, and those hopes have also been dashed.

ballet shoes

Dance Classes via Zoom have involved both acknowledgment & Gratitude. 

8) Our house has gone from being a home, and is now an office, school, Church, dance studio, Venturer hall, cafe. That’s been a lot to process.

9) Rather than social isolation, we’ve had the whole family at home under one roof almost 24/7. There have been times where that has grated, although nowhere near as much as expected.

10) My violin lessons have been cancelled due to the Coronavirus.

11) Much of my daughter’s dance activities have been cancelled this year.

Sunrise

Sunrise, Bathurst pre-Covid.

Gratitude For The Good

  1. My husband & kids who live and breath everything with me. As I’m coughing my lungs out and gasping for breath, they’re running for water, reaching for my ventolin, asking if I need an ambulance and wondering whether this is going to be it. Even our three dogs get called into the battle. We also have a lot of good times together in between.
  2. My parents who have been my rocks forever.
  3. Like all Australians, I’m incredibly grateful to our bushfire volunteers and their support networks. They signed up to help, but found themselves fighting inside the very heart of an apocalypse, and they kept going at incredible personal cost. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
  4. Very thankful for the very generous donations from around the world to help save our precious Australian wildlife, and for carers trying to save them.
  5. For the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, chaplains and scientists who are treating people with Covid 19. Or, who are working towards a deeper scientific understanding of the virus and hopefully towards a vaccine or treatment.
  6. That I haven’t contracted Civid and am still here. Also that I recovered from my chest infection and didn’t need to go to hospital during the Coronacrisis.
  7. For our Australian leaders and medicos who responded quickly and efficiently to flatten the curve and provided us with the information and support we needed to get through. Indeed, we’ve far exceeded our grim expectations and I am so grateful for that!!
  8. For the Australian people (and those around the world) who have stayed home, and continue to practice social distancing. This has saved our bacon. (Well, at least, so far.)
  9. Friends and family who have helped me grapple with life, the universe and everything inside my head, and tried to help me accept the mysteries of God and his role in all of this.
  10. A special thanks to the strangers who stopped and helped when I had the fall mentioned in acknowledgements. A teacher from the school went back and found some ice and she dropped me down at McDonald’s down the road where I was meeting my friend, while a man fetched big band aids, saline and antiseptic from the medical kit in his car.
  11. Grateful that my Church has maximized the use of technology during this time to hold Church online and using zoom so effectively to allow us to keep in touch. It’s meant so much for me to keep in touch.
  12. For making significant progress towards researching and writing my books about WWI soldiers serving in France during WWI.
  13. Humour, empathy and understanding  from family, friends, strangers. It’s helped us all get through this.
  14. My Blog and all the friends I’ve developed over the years and the new ones. I typically experience periods of time each year where it’s difficult, impossible or inadvisable for me to go out and beyond my family, you are my social contacts and community. I really and truly appreciate each and everyone of you, all the more so too, because we’ve never met in person.
  15. For the kids’ school for advice, empathy and consideration while the kids were doing school from home, and for putting in strict social distancing practices for the first two weeks where students were back one day a week.
  16. That my daughter’s dance studio has been providing lessons online and she’s been able to dance and keep her dreams and goals of being a professional dancer alive.
  17. Thankful for our son’s venturer leader who thought of ways of keeping the group connected and engaged during lock down.
  18. That we’ve been able to save some money, and clear my credit card.

    Zac & Rosie dogs grass

    Even our grass is greener in lock down.

  19. That we now have a back lawn that’s green and not looking like a tragic lunar landscape after Geoff wrought the backyard back from the dogs.
  20. I don’t want to thank the NDIS because it’s often my bete noir. However, it continues to make a difference and has funded the supports which have also helped me get through this year, and more more personally challenging times.
  21. Surprisingly, we’ve actually been able to save money during lock down and I actually paid off my credit card. Meanwhile, I have also been grateful for a few online purchases. Thinking I’d be in lock down for months, I bought some new Peter Alexander pyjamas on sale…yippee!!
  22. The beauty of nature and being able to go on extended photography walks and experience that beauty more intimately through the lens and back home, through the pen.
  23. Having family time at home without having to rush around. On this point, I’ve also been grateful our kids were teens and I didn’t have little ones at home with the parks and playgroups closed and needing to teach kids myself at home.
  24. Cooking with my kids.
  25. All the people who have helped and offered to help throughout the years.

……

Well, I’m actually rather surprised that my list of gratitude has more than doubled my acknowledgements. So much is really going well for us.That is, despite my health issues, the coronavirus, being in lock down, grappling with the bushfire smoke. It seems we’ve strangely come out of the first six months of 2020 strangely ahead.

However, I am acutely conscious that isn’t the case for everyone. So, I would like to acknowledge those who are grieving, distraught, experiencing PTSD, trauma, and I send you our love. It’s up to those of us further away from the front line, to support those in the thick of it in anyway we can. What you are experiencing is real. You’re not the only one. You’re not going crazy. Well, you’re not going crazy without due cause. May I encourage you to find local sources of support and encouragement and to try to get out for a walk in the sunshine when you can. It’s certainly helped lighten my load, which you can see, hasn’t exactly been lightweight or just been a recent development either. I also have a few key friends I can share with beyond my family, and I do that myself. That’s the value of community…many hands lighten the load.

I would encourage you to do this exercise for yourselves either on or offline. I found it very constructive, especially this was just another one of those blogging ideas I came up with on the fly. That’s right. It all started out with those two simple words: Acknowledgement & Gratitude…another way of looking at our wins and losses.

I would love to hear from you on this and I hope that you’re okay.

Best wishes and much love,

Rowena

Rowena Victory

This photo was taken during chemo to treat my auto-immune disease, where I was at least looking victorious in the midst of some pretty tough times. I hope and pray that we will ultimately conquer Covid 19 with a vaccine and treatment. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Saint & His Shadow…Bilbo Continued.

Writing about Bilbo yesterday has brought back so many precious memories. While it’s easy to canonize the dead and turn them into a saint, they’re still human. Or, in Bilbo’s case, canine but believing he’s human, and he was always treated as such.

Newton Feet Jan 26 20147

One for all and all for one…our feet at the beach taken January, 2014.

For much of the day, Bilbo could pass for a glorious designer floor rug sunning himself in the backyard or sleeping under my desk. However, he had his triggers like the rest of us and the posty was the most predictable one, along with anyone riding a bicycle or walking past with a dog. As a younger dog, he was also a real villain on the lead and he must’ve thought our local footpath was a racetrack to the beach. I’m most surprised we didn’t become air born. He was also particularly protective of the kids. At least, that’s what I blame for his metamorphosis into a lunging, barking, snarling menace when the school bus pulled up. Indeed, it got to the point where we couldn’t take him. He was vicious. He also wasn’t happy when my friend Clare used to pick up the kids and take them to school, while I was recovering from chemo. She did that for at least a couple of months, and yet his manner never changed. He stuck to his guns.

Bilbo feel the fear

Bilbo wasn’t overly inspired to fight his fears.

It’s hard to understand how such a placid, loving dog could change so much. However, like the rest of us he’d also been traumatised by my severe health battles, and we couldn’t explain things to him. Like us, he also knew he was fighting against an invisible force, and he rounded up his own list of suspects however misguided. He’d spent many nights comforting me, and knew something awful was out there somewhere. However,  I couldn’t tell him that with an auto-immune disease, the enemy was within.

Bilbo Lady Ro kayak

Anyway, looking at the photo of me with Bilbo and Lady in the kayak last night, reminded me of another one of Bilbo’s epic stories. A few years ago, my parents had this idyllic place on the waterfront at Palm Beach. It was on the Pittwater side where it was flat water and very tidal. The bay would fill up and empty like a bath with methodical clockwork which we couldn’t ignore. Indeed, we were very much controlled and directed by the tides, and at their mercy. That was fine because we adapted to the rhythms. At low tide, you could go for a walk and at high tide, you could head out on the kayak or the Laser, the little sailboat the previous owners had left behind.

The very first time we headed out on the kayaks was unforgettable. Not just because we were out on the water. We were some distance from home, when we spotted a Border Collie standing on the shore. At first, we were merely excited to see another Border Collie, as you are when you see another dog that looks like yours. However, as we got closer, it soon became obvious this Border Collie was also watching us. Indeed, he was following us along the bank.

Oh no! Our precious, docile floor rug had decided once again, that the sky was falling. It was the end of the world, and he had to save the day. The only trouble was that being totally averse to getting his paws wet, he couldn’t leap in to save us. He was painfully stuck and doing all he could…barking!

Amelia & Bilbo

By the way, I should also point out that Bilbo had gone to great lengths to get out. He’d shewed through the side gate and gnawed through a paling and he’d also run through quite a few backyards to reach his lookout post.

Oh dear! Geoff was off to the local hardware store to buy tools and carry out repairs. Mum and Dad had only just bought the place and we didn’t want to be known as “The Wreckers”.

Of course, this wasn’t Bilbo’s only tale of mass destruction. I might’ve mentioned this before. However, I was in hospital for about 8 weeks when I was first diagnosed with my auto-immune disease The kids were staying with my parents and Geoff kept working while I was in hospital so he could take time off when I got home. Again, not being able to explain things to the dog caused issues. Indeed, it’s hard enough to explain things to the dog at the best of times, let alone when you don’t know what’s happening yourself!!

Well, like so many of us, Bilbo took matters into his own hands. Or, in this scenario, it was more of a case of chewing and digging his way towards enlightenment. He started digging and chewing through the computer network cabling under the house, which was clearly getting in his way as he dug wombat holes perilously close to the foundations. It appeared that he only stopped when he started on a power cable and might’ve had experienced more than a slight tingle.

Geoff arrived home after work, after driving round to see me in hospital and visiting the kids at Mum and Dad’s (which had become his nightly routine) to find out he had no connectivity. Fortunately, the reason we had such an elaborate home network going back about 12 years ago, is that Geoff is a senior network engineer and back in the day when Novel mattered, he was a Certified Novel Network engineer. However, that didn’t mean he wanted or needed to rebuild our home network even though he could, and Bilbo’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Moreover, Bilbo’s complaints to management had clearly gone much further than the usual puppy antics of chewing shoes and disemboweling the stuffing out of his bed. Let’s just say Geoff wasn’t happy and while he was re-installing the network, he also blocked the said pup out from under the house.

Bilbo Jonathon & Amelia Rabbit Ears

However, to be fair to the dog, he’d gone from having me and the kids at home much of the time where he was with us constantly. He was one of us more than the rest of us could ever be, and was the glue at the heart of our family. To go from that, to suddenly  being alone without rhyme or reason must’ve been a huge shock. So, I don’t blame him for staging a four-legged protest. I wasn’t too happy with the situation either.

Bilbo Rabbit Ears

The strange thing about all of Bilbo’s antics and so many of our own, is that once we’ve worked through the initial response and allowed the dust to settle, we actually find these catastrophes funny. They make us laugh. Indeed, life would be so uneventful without the things which give us nightmares. I’m not sure how he psychology or mechanics of all of this works, but perhaps someone out there can enlighten me.

Wet Bilbo

It didn’t happen overnight, but Bilbo eventually conquered a degree of his fear of the water. I look at it now and think how hard it would have been to swim weighed down by his heavy coat.

Meanwhile,  if you’d like to read about laughter’s capacity to get us through the toughest of times, I encourage you to read this very uplifting though very difficult post from Aimee Foster who lost her baby girl when she was a day old: Why It’s Essential to Find Humor At Your Darkest Hour. 

Bilbo watchin the sun set Palm Beach

Do you have any funny dog stories you would like to share? Or, perhaps you’re more of a cat person. Or, perhaps reading this has reminded you of a cherished person you have lost? I would love to hear from you in the comments. 

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

Tough Questions About Self-Isolation.

There’s no doubt that here in Australia we’re poised on the edge of a precipice. It’s now a question of how long the corona-crisis will last, and how we can best protect ourselves and our communities.When it comes to this, the anticipated duration makes quite a difference, because you prepare for a marathon in quite a different way than a sprint. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re in for a marathon. So, perhaps isolation in its severest form, is something only to be pursued when there is no choice.

The message has been very clear that social distancing is the obvious response to the Coronavirus. Moreover, it’s a no-brainer for people like me with rotten lungs and compromised immunity. However, what that self-isolation entails is somewhat semantic and more a matter of isolating from people. In other words, you don’t necessarily need to stay locked up in your box at home to be isolated. You could be on a boat. Walk well away from people or go and camp out in the bush. Indeed, I saw quite a few different ways of being outside yet self-isolating while I was down at the beach.

 

So, although I’m largely self-isolated at home, the main reason I decided to go for a walk along the beach was to exercise my lungs and try to build up some strength and resilience. My lungs are quite weak at the moment just from my regular lung condition, but they do improve with exercise which clears them out a bit (even though it makes me cough like a trooper). After all, I need to be in the very best health I can muster in case I catch this thing and being under the weather beforehand, I’m playing a losing battle.

Fortunately, our local beach, especially late in the day, is relatively unoccupied. This is quite a contrast to Sydney’s Bondi Beach which was packed on Friday and Saturday with idiot Australians just begging to catch the damn thing. Indeed, as you may have heard, Bondi Beach was shut down on Saturday as a preventative measure. If people aren’t going to think, then law enforcement needs to do the thinking for them.

DSC_8987

Even parts of our beach were looking over-populated. I walked the other direction which was sparsely occupied. 

At our beach today, there were still a few people down between the flags. So, I drove down to a more remote access point where I could stay within my protective bubble of space. No patting dogs or talking to dog walkers and thank goodness I only saw one friend a few metres away who well understood that I could only wave and keep moving. This was all very out of character for me, because I’m usually an absolute social butterfly given half a chance. I had to hide myself away.

DSC_8989

Idyllic and away from the crowds.

I was pleased I went, and immediately felt the psychological benefits. While being locked away inside much of the last couple of weeks has felt okay when I’m there, I felt so liberated to be at the beach again and out of the house.  Indeed, basking in the sunshine, inhaling the sea air and watching the ocean, I felt a surprising sense of exhilaration and well-being. A certainty that this was good for me and to keep looking for safe ways of getting outside, especially at the moment. We live a bit outside of Sydney and while this provides no certainties, it does provide more secluded exit points.

At the same time, I understand that leaving the house at all, goes against the strictest interpretation of advice.  However, if you’re only in self-imposed isolation, there’s no reason why you can’t go bush. You just need to hope you don’t start a movement.  After all, it’s people and public places which are the problem, not the trees.

Of course, once the virus spreads further, I will be bunkered down like a soldier in their trench, except I won’t be throwing any missiles, pineapple bombs or other incendaries over at the enemy. I certainly won’t be hopping over my trench pursuing it with my rifle and bayonet drawn either (been doing too much WWI research). Rather, my strategy is focused on withdrawal and getting myself as fit as possible by eating plenty of fresh fruit and veg, taking my vitamins and getting what exercise I can.

Family photo

Family photo taken 18 months ago.

Unfortunately, my greatest threat is my family. While my husband is now working from home, my son has been home with a cold and our daughter is still going to school and seeing a few trusted friends. She has been self-isolating from the family for some time. So, unless whatever she has can escape under her door like some bubonic slime, we’ll be safe. I’m sure if you have teens you’ll know exactly what I mean. Anyway, as you might have read in my previous post, that’s why we bought a caravan so we can isolate within our family.

I don’t know what the way forward will look like, but for the time being it looks like we need to pull together by staying apart.

How are you and your communities getting on? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Best wishes and blessings for protection,

Rowena

 

The Countdown to 50…Yikes!

Tomorrow, which is currently approaching faster than a Japanese bullet train, I turn 50 and in so many ways am happy to chant “Fifty not out”, even though I’m not a cricket fan by any stretch of the imagination. After all, when we rewind six years ago before I found out they were were going to give me chemo to combat my rampaging auto-immune disease, I was in dire straits. I was potentially looking down the barrel of 12 months to live. That’s serious stuff for anyone. However, at the time, our kids were nine and seven. They were along way off independence and being able to fend for themselves.

So, I am absolutely exuberantly happy to still be here. I truly appreciate the frailty and transience of life and the need to grab onto it with both hands and carpe diem seize the day.

However, in addition to this gratitude, there is also disappointment. A disappointment which can feel like an arrow straight through my heart.

Of course, it’s only natural that reflecting on my 50 years really intensifies both the good and the bad. It brings out the stuff you don’t think about very often as well as the stuff you leave right at the back of your closet hoping there might just be an imaginary land out the back where it could disappear altogether never to return. Of course it doesn’t though, does it?!! Instead, it sends you a huge birthday card. One of those ones which play a song when you open it up which is too loud to ignore.

Of course, I’m not the only one you has had disappointments. Indeed, while mine have been pretty intense at the time, others have been through worse and even much worse.

Moreover, since I’m still here to tell my tale, I’m considerably lucky. Blessed. Whatever you call it. My glass is more than half full. It’s literally overflowing.

Yet, there is the tear. I’m not going to deny it’s there. Or, wipe it away so no one else can see it. Life is full of ups and downs and I don’t believe we should ever deny those times we’re face down in the mud unable to surface. It is what it is. However, acknowledging that, is very different from getting stuck there.

I haven’t got time now to take this any further at the moment. The clock’s just past midnight and so I’ve already passed from my 40s into my fifties and moved on.

Now, it’s time to get to bed because some wise owl thought it would be fantabulous to welcome in the new day by watching the sunrise with the family. We’re heading off to Pearl Beach about 6.00am when I’m usually snoring and dreaming away.

However, I’ll leave you with this great hit from the Uncanny X-Men:

Stay tuned for more reflections.

Meanwhile, you might want to share how you felt about and experienced your most recent milestone birthday in the comments below.

Love & best wishes,

Rowena

 

G: Goals – Motivational Quotes A-Z Challenge

Today, our journey continues through an alphabet soup of motivational quotes especially geared towards writers and creatives working on a big project.

Of course, all of us know that goal setting is important. Indeed, many of us also know that goal setting needs to be SMART:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable 
  3. Achievable 
  4. Relevant
  5. Time-based 

Developing SMART goals is all about removing that fantastic dream-like quality from what you want to get done, and creating an actionable plan for results.

For many creatives, no doubt terms like goal setting and SMART goals sounds way too business-like and we’d prefer to go with the flow.

The trouble with not having a goal is that you can

spend your life running up and down the field and

never score.

– Bill Copeland

However, for me there comes a point where your credibility is at stake. Not just when it comes to other people, but also with yourself. If you’re not even striving towards your life’s goal, what are you waiting for? Life is short. Not only that, it can be shorter than you thought. After all, not everyone receives their full entitlement of four score and ten. Not that I want to be morbid, but I do live under the shadow of a nasty auto-immune disease and I’ve already slipped through the net a few times. That has made me think, but it hasn’t always led to action!

The greater danger for most of us isn’t that our aim is

too high and miss it, but that it is too low and we reach

it.

– Michelangelo

However, I don’t believe that goals need to be rigid and stuck in the ground like football posts. They can and do change, and it’s important to be responsive. Intuitive.

To be perfectly honest, this is probably something I need to put some more time and focus into. I have worked in small business and been to quite a few seminars and one of the big catch phrases for small business owners is about spending time on the business as well as in the business.

As writers, writing is our business. The same goes for artists, photographers etc. However, we still need to work on our business which includes things like goal setting, planning, keeping our desks and computer files sorted and backed-up. Having the best goals in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have the wherewithal to carry them out and see them through to the end.

Otherwise, they’re just dreams!

Well, so far I’m somewhat keeping up with the annual Blogging A-Z April Challenge again this year and am finding there’s much I need to action from these posts.

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

 

Merry Christmas – Weekend Coffee Share.

This is just a brief message to wish you and yours a Merry and Blessed Christmas and a Happy, healthy and Wonder-filled New Year.

As you may be aware, I live in Sydney, Australia where it’s looking like we’ll be having a scorchingly hot Christmas and Boxing Day. We’re heading out to Church tonight for Christmas Eve and will be heading to my aunt’s my parents and extended family for Christmas Day. We’ll be catching up with Geoff’s sister from Boxing Day.

I’ve written a few Christmas posts in the last week which may interest you:

Silent Night

A Stinking Hot Christmas (written 2015 for Solveig Warner’s Advent Calendar)

A Sydney Christmas

Christmas Door – David Jones

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

 

We would like to wish you and yours a Merry and Blessed Christmas. Happy Holidays isn’t a phrase we use here in Australia, but I understand it’s used a lot in USA and has its place.

Yet, at the same time, we understand that this time of year is very difficult for many for a variety of reasons and we would also like to acknowledge that. We hear you and I put my hand on your heart and stand alongside you. It’s not easy and while I’ve experienced the most amazing miracles myself, they haven’t come about like clockwork. I haven’t clicked my fingers and hey presto, pulled a rabbit out of my hat. I’ve also found there’s a lot I can do to both improve my lot and also completely shoot myself in the foot and make things worse.

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

-TS Eliot

Well, that’s a rather large dose of philosophy and reflection for what’s supposed to be a coffee share. However, so much is shared over a cup of tea or coffee in the real world. Why shouldn’t that be a part of our virtual coffees?

“Way too much coffee. But if it weren’t for the coffee, I’d have no identifiable personality whatsoever.”

-David Letterman

Best wishes,

Rowena

This has been another Weekend Coffee Share, hosted by Eclectic Ali.

PS The photo of me as the elf was taken in the Cancer Centre at Royal North Shore Hospital. I popped down there to pick up some resources for a friend. However, 6 years ago I had a round of chemo (cyclophosphamide) to treat my auto-immune disease, which had started attacking my lungs. Treatment began the week before Christmas with my second dose on Boxing Day, when there was plenty of parking for a change. The treatment worked and I’ve been in remission for 6 years. So, I have much to be thankful for and it’s a reminder not to take the seemingly hum drum and every day for granted.

Hospital Cheer…Thursday Doors.

Welcome to Another Thursday Doors.

This week’s Featured Door is attached to the Respiratory Investigation Unit at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney.

When you think about having a Merry Christmas, the last place you want to end up, aside from the local morgue is in hospital. That also applies to the weeks leading up to Christmas where it seems like the rest of the world is floating in bubbly and doing the Christmas party circuit, while you’re shuffling from appointment to appointment. That’s not all bad if it’s all routine, good news and you can wipe all that off your radar.

However, it doesn’t always work out that way. Six years ago, after my auto-immune disease flared up again and was resisting conventional treatment, I found out that they were bringing out the big guns and I was having chemo for Christmas. Yet, while this might seem like the worse Christmas present EVER, we actually viewed it as a blessing, a heaven-sent answer to prayer, and not a curse. They could do something.

_DSC7621

I wasn’t intending to revisit this journey today for Thursday Doors. Although I had lung function tests followed by an appointment with my lung specialist, I was intending to focus on my apres-appointment trip into the city (Sydney) where I photographed oodles of intriguing, eye-catching and even historic doors.

However, before I sorted them out, I wanted to acknowledge the efforts hospital staff have made to brighten up the place, trying to lift your spirits through what are often very traumatic, bleak and desperate times. News you don’t want at any time of year, but especially not at Christmas. Bad things aren’t allowed to happen over Christmas. That should be written into the fine print. Moreover, you wouldn’t be the first person to try to sue God either. Do you remember Billy Connolly in The Man Who Sued God?

Anyway, when I turned up for my lung function tests today, they’d decorated the doors for Christmas and clearly I had to take a photo for Thursday Doors.

I still remember when I walk out of those doors when I was first diagnosed with the fibrosis, and was absolutely distraught. My kids were only seven and five at the time and obviously needed their Mum. I felt bad if I was even five or ten minutes late to pick them up from school, and it was incomprehensible that I wouldn’t be there to pick them up at all. I left the lab with a single tissue and ended up in the hospital chapel sobbing my heart out, and there wasn’t a single tissue in the place. As hard as that tissue tried to cope with the deluge, it was overwrought. I ended up having to sneak back into the hospital toilets, get myself together and buy some tissues. I distinctly remember saying I had hay fever. What a duffer. A year or so later, when things deteriorated, I burst into tears in the hospital shop and the pink ladies rallied around me with such love. They were beautiful.

_DSC7627

Christmas Decorations in the Northern Cancer Centre. I think they’re Santa Kangaroos.

Anyway, as I mentioned, my specialists decided to treat the flare up using a chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide, which then introduced me to the Northern Cancer Centre on level 1 for my treatments. While I was there, I found out they had a resource centre and I came across a series of work booklets put out by the Cancer Council. These were really helpful for dealing with those really hard questions around death and dying, especially for families with kids. I was mentioning these booklets to a friend recently and that’s what brought me back to lvl 1 today. _DSC7625

Christmas Raffle at the Northern Cancer Centre downstairs.

Having photographed the doors upstairs, I asked the staff if I could photograph their Christmas decorations. I felt like a bit of an idiot, but I wanted to back up the doors upstairs with a another example of how the hospital was getting into the Christmas spirit. Anyway, much to my delight, they upped the anti and asked me if I wanted to have my photo taken in their elf frame. Being an irrepressible extrovert, of course, I jumped at the chance. It was a lot of fun.

 

_DSC7631

 

_DSC7633

Before I head off and while we’re talking about the hospital’s Christmas celebrations, when I was there on Tuesday, a jazz band was playing the foyer and it’s something they’re doing during December. I couldn’t thank them enough. I’d actually just been to see a friend and it was an emotional time. So, it was really therapeutic to listen to the beautiful music and feel soothed. It was so thoughtful!

IMG_2861

Well, I realize that talking death, dying and hospitals is a rather gloomy subject at this time of year, when I reflect that I’m still here six years later and in reasonable health, it actually becomes a celebration. A good news story which might touch somebody else’s troubled heart with a touch of hope. After all, as much as we might not want to be in hospital, the alternative is far worse and rather permanent.  So, I’d better close off this Thursday Doors with a huge shout out to all the doctors, nurses, physios, OT’s and support staff who help get us back on out feet and out the door.

This has been another contribution to Thursday Doors hosted by Norm 2.0. Why don’t you come and join us and share a few of your favourite doors. It’s a lot of fun and helps you see parts of the world you’ll never get to visit.

Best wishes,

Rowena

The Journey Home…A Personal Quest.

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

– Matsuo Basho

For those of you who have been following my blog for awhile, you’ve probably sensed that I’ve been grappling with something. Something like a whole lot of random puzzle pieces, and wondering why they won’t all fit together. Arranging and rearranging them and then darting down another wombat tunnel (these are rather long and extensive by the way) searching for another missing piece, hoping that this time, I’ll finally be able to see the entire picture. Or, at the very least, have all four corners and the edge pieces in place.

Fueling this quest has been a sense that something isn’t quite right, which might’ve been blown off as anxiety or misplaced perfectionism if the story had been a little different.

Scan10098

The Good Little Girl.

Of course, the general recommendation was “to go with the flow”. The only trouble being, that I was beyond the flow. Moreover, nobody ever presented me with a map or gave me any directions whatsoever to try to find the flow, let alone a lift. Indeed, since whenever, I’ve never gone with the flow or even known what it was.  Hence, why I’ve called my blog “Beyond the Flow”.

Rowena 1981

Here I am in Year 6 aged 12. The Serious Student.

Lately, this sense of not going with the flow re-positioned itself, and I felt more like I was living in between the lines where I perhaps don’t belong to either group but see something in between that other people miss. This perspective is also rather interesting when you look at it from a visual perspective, as you’re inhabiting that white space between two sentences. Not that I can actually read either sentence, as I’m up too close. It’s all a blur. I’m just there. Indeed, I could well be fast asleep, and quite at peace in what actually seems an uncomfortable, or even isolating position.

Rowena Dressing up

I used to love dressing up and performing. My brother and I put on little shows at home.

By the way, I didn’t say that I was alone. I’m not. Indeed, I’m actually starting to wonder just how many of us hover in between worlds not really knowing where we belong and yearning to find our home. Or, perhaps we/they have reached a point of acceptance, or even giving up, and have pitched a tent where they are and set up camp.

For many of us, there’s a complicating factor which heightens this sense of living in between the lines. Of not going with the flow. Even, grappling to know who we are within our own skin, before we can even attempt to work out how we can find our place in the outside world.

Scan10439

The Irrepressible University Student. You can see I’ve jumped right out of my box by now.

Personally, my struggle to know and understand myself raised up into something of a tsunami wave, after I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain when I was 26. Apparently, it had been there since birth, but randomly became symptomatic in my mid-20s. Suddenly, thanks to my diagnosis, I had an explanation for being quirky, uncoordinated, and not fitting in. Better still, I had a cure. A magic fix. I had brain surgery and was given a shunt, which not only reduced the pressure in my brain and improved my coordination, it also felt for a time like the lights had gone out. Indeed, I started to believe that the theatrical, extroverted independent woman I had always been, was largely the fabrication of this disease. That all this pressure in my head, had made me disinhibited. That at least some percentage of who I thought was me, was in actual fact the disease stepping into my shoes and even inside my very skin and taking over.

Poetry Reading

Performing My Poetry in Paris in 1992.

This, of course, left the door open for way too many questions, and they not only moved in, but also made themselves at home.

Indeed, it left many doors and pathways open as I grappled to find some rock solid sense of myself. That core at the very centre of my being. The bit that is left, when you remove and take off all the layers and external forces and just is.

“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.”

Eckhart Tolle

Much of this exploration has either been unconscious, or going on in the background while I’m getting on with the realities of life. If you’ve lived with this , you’ll know what I mean when I say the front screen is running but there’s another screen running behind closed doors, behind the curtain, or even somewhere at the back of your eyeballs (the eyes being the window of your soul). I never intended to live and operate like this, and I must admit it’s been very frustrating. I’ve really struggled to know quite who I am, and then to confound it further, I developed a debilitating auto-immune disease, which side-swiped me like a massive monster truck. Of course, it didn’t stop to see if I’m okay, or to even help me get my bearings. It just kept going.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

Aristotle

Anyway, as I said, I’ve been niggling with this in the background and moving very much by feel. I feel comfortable, belong and really thrive in some settings, but in others, I shrivel up and am almost screaming in my skin to escape. I feel awful. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. Indeed, there often isn’t one.

Performance Queanbeyan 1886

 

I am coming to wonder whether it’s been this struggle within myself, which has taken me so deeply inside my family history. Indeed, now that I’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle, it feels like this is what I’ve been searching for my entire life. It wasn’t a coincidence that I wanted to swing from the chandelier. Or, that I wanted the be an actress right through high school (in addition to being a journalist). There was this pull from somewhere deep within my DNA, which didn’t connect with Mum and Dad or anybody in the near vicinity. However, deep within the lines of historic newspaper text, there it was. My grandmother’s grandmother performed in an amateur Minstrel Show in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. While it wasn’t New York, the programme was printed in the newspaper, and she wasn’t only the pianist. She was also acting. Indeed, Lizzie Johnston was playing Louisa in a romantic farce: The Rival Lovers. Finally, I had permission and acknowledgement of who I’ve always been. A constant beyond the ups and downs of life and collisions with life-threatening illnesses. An extrovert who doesn’t need a stage to perform, and can even perform in words upon the page, just like my kids sing and dance across the stage. Indeed, I don’t need a drink to perform a on stage either. Rather, I need someone to tie me to my seat in the audience.

Of course, that is not to say we’re pre-determined by our genes. However, personally I found it very encouraging that someone else in my family has been down this road, and I’m not crazy. That it wasn’t the result of too much pressure on the brain. It’s simply me. Moreover, there are quite a few performers on both sides of my extended family tree.

Aunty Rose & Kookaburra.JPG

My Great Great Aunt, Rose Bruhn, owned an elite hair and beauty salon in Brisbane but could also make kookaburras laugh on command, had a budgie who recited reams of Shakespeare. She appeared with them at charity fundraisers where she also performed poetry and she played the violin.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost.

Rowena Lizottes

The humble violinist. I was actually a rank beginner when this photo was taken, but I have an in-built sense of theatre.

However, I’m not sure that this discovery is going to change a hell of a lot. These days, I’m pretty content with what I’ll call “my lot”. I’ve been doing some performances on my violin, which isn’t quite the same as jumping out of a cake or swinging from a chandelier, but I now understand a little better why I wanted to perform, and wasn’t content to only play alone at home.

While this journey is incredibly personal, and having problems with your brain isn’t something to brag about, it was a story that needed to be shared. While it’s been a catharsis for myself, I wanted to reach out to people grappling with similar issues, and hold your hand. We are not alone.

The Missing Piece

Lastly, I wanted to share an animation of a favourite book of mine by Shel Silverstein: The Missing Piece . It might be simple, but it’s very profound.

If this post connects with you in any way, I would love to hear from you via the comments.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Dealing With Characters in Non-Fiction.

Not every writer aspires to write a novel. Although I have stumbled into a passion for both writing and reading flash or bite fiction, my book-writing aspirations focus almost exclusively on writing non-fiction.

By non-fiction, I’m not referring to something along the lines of memoir and motivational writing. However, a few years ago, I stumbled upon some gripping stories through my family history research, which were writer’s gold. You know, the sort of stuff which could easily be described as “the Big Bang”.  After all, as the saying goes, “fact is often stranger than fiction”.

Anyway, after having yet another monumental tussle with a character this week, I thought I’d share a few peculiarities I’ve encountered dealing with characters in non-fiction.

Obviously, the very clear distinction between developing characters in non-fiction, is that your characters are or were real people. They’re not products of your imagination, even if they were inspired by real people.

This places certain limitations on how you construct and develop your character. For example, you can’t just make up where they lived, their occupation. Moreover, something real has happened to spark the story in the first place. So, as the author, you’re not really in command of character development or plot. Indeed, you’re role is more that of a meticulous restorer, than a designer.

Using the Proust Questionnaire.

This is where turning to the Proust Questionnaire can be particularly helpful, as it allows you to focus on and bring out the idiocyncracies of your character. It poses a series of questions, which may be used to “interview” your character. Here’s a brief snap shot, which was taken from the Vaniety Fair version.

1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

Character Have Limitations in Non-Fiction

Clearly, with your characters being real, this places all sorts of restrictions and limitations on how you can develop your character if you are trying to be truly authentic, rather than using a real person as a launching pad into fiction.

With the pieces I’m currently working on, I’m trying to be as authentic as possible. Indeed, I am in effect being, in effect, more of a restorer, than a designer. I’m working with my tweezers and magnifying glass to get those little details right, and yet at the same time, using a broad brush to create suspense, action and all the usual tools that you usually use to make a story worth reading. After all, a reader has no obligation to read anything we write, and there has to be an exceptionally good reason for them to even read the title, let alone the opening page. The days of readers bowing and scraping to the almighty author are long gone. We are the ones who need to get down on our knees and thank the reader. Be thankful they gave us their precious time.

Meticulous Research, Minimal Use.

This is why you don’t want to burden your reader with too much detail, even though you may have volumes of research. They should only see the tip of the ice berg. That’s not to say you don’t need the ice berg, but the reader is also interested in the other bells and whistles. You need to know your stuff. They need to know you know your stuff, but they don’t want you to regurgitate it all over them.

There is beauty in simplicity, something I’ve been appreciating more and more through writing and reading flash or bite fiction. A well-chosen object, piece of clothing, or even the use of language, speaks volumes. You don’t always need to write a novel.

Best Guess is Good Enough.

Another challenged I faced writing non-fiction, was working out about how to fill in the gaps. There’s stuff I don’t know. Can’t find out. Making things up bother me. Was it lying? However, I don’t believe there’s any harm in a best guess scenario. After all, the lines between fact and fiction are really quite blurry once you look into them. There’s always an overlap. Well, at least, that’s my humble opinion. I certainly wouldn’t call it “lying” or “fabrication”, and I am fairly fastidious about getting historical detail right.

The Character Drives Plot. The Author is the Passenger.

This week, I struck a another challenge peculiar to writing non-fiction. You are not writing or making up the plot. Rather, your character is in charge, and doesn’t care whether their next step is going to scuttle hours of work, and your entire philosophical position. No. They just do what they like and all you can do is structure and arrange facts and events, through your own editing lens.

The project which brought this to light, was actually my family history research. While I have been developing a series character sketches, which I’ve been posting on the blog in preparation for a book, I actually had nothing to say about my 4th Great Grandfather, John Johnston. I couldn’t find anything.

Plot is Unpredictable

However, after 20 years of passive research, I found out John Johnston was convicted of bigamy in New Zealand in 1864. Indeed, not only was he still married when he married my 4th Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget Flanagan. They even had four children, and it wasn’t like they weren’t living nearby either.

Photo2

This could well be John Johnston approx 1886.

As you could imagine, this changed a lot of things. Indeed, it actually changed his name. He was known as “Alexander John”, despite having a younger brother who was Alexander.  Moreover, instead of immigrating directly from Scotland to New Zealand, I found out that he had been living in Liverpool. Indeed, he had married Jane Ellen Jones at St James Church, Toxteth Park, Liverpool in 1855. Alexander John and Jane Ellen then lived with her parents for four months. They ultimately had four children and at least two of them were born in England. Alexander John moved to New Zealand around 1860 and three months later, Jane Ellen and the children sailed out. They settled in Dunedin where Alexander John was licensee of the Argyle Hotel until he went off to the diggings.

Understandably, my impressions of John Johnston nose-dived sharply. Although I’d never found any signs of greatness,  family legend had it that he’d built the North Sydney/Cammeray Suspension Bridge in Sydney in 1892. As it turned out, that was built by his brother, although we’re sure he was in there somewhere. Previously, I was thinking very much in terms of right-hand man, not the family charity case. Meanwhile, his other brother, Angus Rutherford Johnston was some kind of Indiana Jones type character who’d fought in Nicaragua, had been shipwrecked and captured by Indians, escaped, found gold and settled in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island where he ran a successful store. This has been, and continues to be, a family of high achievers. I’d always thought it was just a matter of time until I found out that John had built a railway, a monumental bridge or somehow made a name for himself somehow, and certainly NOT as a bigamist.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the bigamy case here, except to say that he stared straight at his first wife in court and denied being married to her, despite their four children. Indeed, when he took the the detective round to see his wife, he really seemed to apply the charm: ” Jane, my girl, you wont prosecute me,” You see, it was actually the Crown which was pursuing the case. In the end, “Alexander John” was found guilty and fined. He got off lightly on a technicality.

However, it wasn’t just the bigamy, or his denial which shot him down in flames. He was also a perpetrator of domestic violence. In 1863, he attacked Jane Ellen with a knife:

Threatening to Stab—Jane Ellen Johnston I charged her husband, Alexander John Johnston with threatening to stab her with a knife on the 13th inst. The defendant was required to give bond to keep the peace towards her for six months, fined in the amount of £lO, and to find two sureties tor £2O each.”

Otago Daily Times, Issue 464, 16 June 1863

I knew nothing about this a week ago, and as you could imagine, it changes everything. I was shocked right to the very core. After all, you don’t really need much of a sense of ethics or values to know this man was a bastard, or at least capable of acts of pure bastardry.

However, as if all of this wasn’t already bad enough, it gets worse. Much, much worse.

On the 8th February, 1866 Jane Ellen and Alexander John’s nine year old son found a pistol, which his mother thought was safely out of reach. Jane Ellen was out in the garden weeding with two of the other children, when she heard a firearm exploding. Nine year old, Thomas James Johnston had shot his 15 month old sister, Ellen Overton Johnston, in the chest and she died. He didn’t know it was loaded.

Clearly, real life has now moved into the pits of hell, and to compound his first family’s agony, Alexander John was off living with my 4th Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget. Indeed, their son Angus had been born on the 6th January, 1865 and Margaret was born roughly a year later.

This wasn’t the story I was planning to write, even for my own consumption.

Of course, not all non-fiction takes such a turn for the worst. However, the story of John Johnston certainly illustrates that you need to be prepared for surprises, and somehow make the necessary adjustments.

The Challenge of Writing My Own Motivational Memoir.

I’ve faced different, but related challenges, working on a motivational memoir, known as: “The Book Project”. Just as I thought the plot was reaching it’s climax and about to trail off to its “living happily ever-after” conclusion, fate stepped in and the book was dead.

You see, I was working on a motivational book about overcoming my severely debilitating auto-immune disease, dermatomyositis and for 12 months, I was soaring. Flying high. I’d managed to all but turn my mountain around. I’d lost 10 kilos despite being on the fat drug, prednisone. I’d taken up the violin despite my disabilities and had played at a happening local music venue at our end of year concert. I’d started my blog and had built up an online blogging community. I’d also gone on an adventure camp where I’d gone parasailing, driven a quad bike and gone down the water slide on the boat without my glasses on, and had ridden a camel. I’d also managed to return to work one day a week as Marketing Manager of a local IT company and was also helping out in my son’s classroom as a volunteer teacher’s aide, and sometimes took the class. These were all things not only I had deemed impossible. It was all there in black and white, or at least shades of grey. The grand finale for the book, was going to be skiing down the Front Valley at Perisher, which would represent turning my mountain. Unable to climb a mountain and ever the individual, I’d decided to ski down the mountain instead.

Indeed, I did it. More as a terrified, quivering wreck of my former self, but I’d pulled it off.

However, even while I was still  down at the snow, I developed the beginnings of a severe chest infection, which blew up into pneumonia. One night while coughing uncontrollably, I briefly even stopped breathing. Meanwhile, a CT scan on my lungs showed that I’d developed fibrosis as a complication of the dermatomyositis, and suddenly the thrill of soaring steadily upwards, came crashing down and didn’t stop at ground level. It kept falling. Seriously, at this point I thought I was looking at a death sentence. Twelve months to live. I’d smacked into the wall, and I was all but a dead duck.

This wasn’t how the Book Project was meant to end. You can’t write a motivational book, which finishes off with you drowning in your own lungs. Come on. That’s not even a story you could give away, let alone become that guaranteed best seller I’d written in my head right down to the second last page.

Fortunately, my doctors put me on a series of chemo infusions of a drug called cyclophosphamide and five and a half years later, I’m still here, and I’ve been in remission ever since. Amen!

While these plots certainly plunged unexpectedly deep into the dark side, they do illustrate how when you’re writing about real people, the author is not in charge. Indeed, you’re much more of a passenger, than sitting in the driver’s seat. Indeed, you can see that at work even when I was writing my own story, although in that instance, it was fate which stepped in.

Clearly, this has become a very lengthy post, and so I’m going to stop it there and turn it over to you. Have you ever written non-fiction? How did you face and overcome some of the hurdles involved? It was be great to get a bit of discussion going.

Best wishes,

Rowena