Category Archives: Chronic Illness

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Belated Weekend Coffee Share… 25th June, 2018.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

It’s now Monday night here, so I hope you’ve have a great weekend . Although I’m turning up rather late this week, hopefully a few stragglers would still like to join me and keep the coffee and conversation flowing.

How was your week? Do you have any stories you’d like to share?

Well, I had a busy week and much of it was rather annoying because it involved medical appointments. I had one in Sydney, one locally with my GP and was back to the GP for an iron infusion on Friday, which will hopefully turn me into Popeye the Sailor Woman in a few weeks’ time once it’s take effect. These medical appointments weren’t such a big deal, and it was more a case of one appointment generating another and then they seem to breed like rabbits for a bit. However, fortunately they largely retreat back into their hidey holes much of the time these days and only reach this kind of frequency very occasionally.

After my doctor’s appointment on Monday, I headed down to Kirribilli for a coffee and set myself up with my notebook and started randomly writing. I love downloading my soul in pen on paper like this in a rustic old cafe, and it also feels so good for the soul to get all that stuff out as well.

Last week, the kids’ school held their annual Variety Concert over two nights. Our daughter danced on Tuesday night and our son was on lights the first night and backstage the next. What with having to drop him back and forth, my daughter and I also decided to watch the second concert as well. I’m really glad we did, not only because the acts were so good and we enjoyed some incredible entertainment, but also because I hope by being there, we might’ve encouraged some young performers. It’s very rare that you ever hear anything about being a “talented audience”. I’ve personally put in many years learning the piano, ballet and the violin, but no one even sat me down and encouraged me to learn how to be a productive member of the audience and be more than just a bum on a seat. Of course, my mother taught me not to crinkle lolly wrappers and not to cough, go to the toilet or talk during a performance and these days we also need to ensure we switch our omnipresent phones to silent. However, these things are more about the etiquette of being in the audience, rather than really getting into it. You can applaud with gusto and enthusiasm. Smile. Better still, you can compliment the performer afterwards, ideally pointing to something specific so they know you mean it and you payed attention. You see, while the performer’s talent might seem very obvious to you and that you might expect them to be egotistical and full of themselves, quite often I find the reverse is quite true. That many highly talented performers are perfectionists. Perfectionism is a state which can never be reached, and so far too many live with an agonising sense of their weaknesses and mistakes, rather than their incredible abilities to take everyone around them on a magical flight to someplace else, or even deeper within their soul.

Anyway, I digress. I am rather prone to philosophizing, and I guess sharing philosophical ideas over coffee is nothing new.

While I don’t really see getting around my local area as “travelling” per se, the beauty about blogging with people from all around the world, is that my own backyard become exotic. My backyard to travelling to you.

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Our local Beach during Winter.

Anyway, last Saturday Geoff’s sister from Queensland came down for a visit along with her son who has been living in Canada or the US for over 15 years. So, we met up with them at a local cafe and then decided he should see more of his own country before he heads back and took him for a drive to Patonga, which is located on the Hawkesbury River about 15 minutes drive away through the bush and round some fairly twisty bends. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to Patonga, and I’ve really get to ask myself why I don’t get out and see more of the local environment when I’m surrounded by glorious beaches, stunning coastal views and the great Aussie bush. I guess, like for most of us, life gets in the way. There always seems to be so much to get done and so much of that really isn’t exciting either. It’s little more than crossing stuff off the list, but I know from past experience that ignoring it only makes it worse.

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Fishing Boats at Patonga.

Well, I guess it’s time to wrap things up here. I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit and I look forward to popping round and touching base with you as well.

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

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

Flaming Embers…Friday Fictioneers.

Boat was the only way home. A huge fire storm had engulfed Ku’ring-gai National Park, and jumped across the M1 Motorway, burning out the trains and blocking all traffic in and out of Sydney.

Dave was trapped, just like millions of  nameless commuters jammed into this hellish sardine tin of burning embers.  Yet, like a bat out of hell, he had to get home. She’d never leave the house. Would rather go up in flames, than face her fear.

Dad’s dingy would never make it across the Hawkesbury, but he had to try. Only love could find a way now.

…..

This has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wishoff Fields. This week’s PHOTO PROMPT © Fatima Fakier Deria. 

Bushfires are quite a normal, anticipated events, especially during a blazing Australian Summer. It is not uncommon for the M1 Motorway, the only main road North out of Sydney, to be closed due to bushfires and on such instances, the trains are likely to be down too leaving stranded commuters to crash out wherever they can for the night. My husband has been caught up in these closures, although our house is nowhere near the bush.

If you are wanting to read a first hand account of driving through such fires, Kimberley’s Bushfire Diary is worth checking out.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Weekend Coffee Share… 3rd June, 2018.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

Well, the fact that I’ve turned up here on time, should let you know that I’m having a quiet weekend and am not gallivanting around exploring new places, like I was last weekend. Indeed, I probably should’ve held off on some of last week’s news and popped it into this week so I could actually have something interesting to say.

How has your week been? I hope it went well.

Well, it’s officially Winter here now, and I guess that also explains my shift towards hibernation, and wanting to wrap myself up in thick woolly layers. Indeed, we’re all mighty thankful for a warm dog on the lap and they’re also thankful for the added warmth themselves. We don’t have central heating and we actually try not to heat the house at all to keep the electricity bills down and be kind to the environment. Most of the time, it’s not that cold. Mind you, I confess that I do have my electric blanket on low some nights. It feels so good. Despite Winter and the cold, the days are largely pleasantly sunny and I can’t complain too much. It’s actually 17°C or 63°F, which would probably make for quite a nice day out in London. Actually, the weather in London surprised me. It’s actually climbed to 25°C. I wonder if they’re actually enjoying it or starting to complain about the heat?

A few weeks ago, I had a call from my Dad’s second cousin about the family history, and this has launched an effort to try to get “my affairs in order”. Or, to be precise, get my ancestors’ affairs in order. I tend to dump new information into a file and intend to get back to it, but inevitable don’t and the information I’ve dumped might really belong somewhere else. I just put it there so I can find it again. Moreover, some family members warrant a book all of their own and so I’ve accumulated a hell of a lot of information and stories and it is rather overwhelming. It’s only when someone rings up that I’m forced to get on with it and get the chaos sorted out.

1910 circa Suspension Bridge German postcard

Cammeray Suspension Bridge circa 1910

 

My latest family history adventure, has taken me to New Zealand. My 3rd times grandparents John Johnston and Maria Bridget Flanagan (nee Docherty) were married at Invercargill and lived along the West Coast in fairly rugged terrain during the New Zealand gold rush. We went to New Zealand on our honeymoon and visited a few of these places so I am able to visualise their lives to some extent, which sort of brings their lives back to life. They ended up moving to Australia where John worked with his younger brother Alexander Johnston who was a building contractor, who built a beautiful historic bridge called the Cammeray Suspension Bridge. It was quite an engineering achievement in its day. Well, that is quite aside from the fact that the cables were rusting away by the 1930s and the bridge needed to be almost completely overhauled. These Johnstons also trace back to whiskey distillers on the island of Islay in the Scottish Hebrides. So, there are more than enough stories to tell and it’s been very difficult to wrap it all up and declared it “done”.

I also participated in Friday Fictioneers this week, which is hosted by Rochelle Wishoff Fields. This week’s story Babushka had a Russian influence. Not sure where that came from, but isn’t writing like that? All sorts of snippets from all over the place, come together in a kind of dance.

We also went to a funeral on Friday. It wasn’t just a funeral. No funeral ever is. She was a friend, not a close friend, but our boys used to play AFL football together and you do get to know someone standing on the sidelines over a few years. Our boys have also been in the same class for the last couple of years, and while they’re not close friends, there’s that connection from their football days. However, unfortunately the thing that really connected us together is our common fight to overcome severe health issues to see our kids grow up. As much as you can say you’re going to fight it and put up a fierce incredible fight, sometimes you just don’t make it and I guess I’ve really come to believe we each have our time. You might get cancer. You get run over by a bus. You just don’t know.

a million birds take flight

During the burial, I looked up and saw three black cockatoos flying majestically like eagles overhead. They were strangely comforting.

So, while I questioned whether I should keep our coffee share light and chatty or whether I should share the funeral with you, I thought that was also part of my week. That it’s important to share our downs as well as our ups. To acknowledge the passing of a friend, and not just gloss over the surface like it doesn’t matter. It does.Indeed, I also wanted to share that although I expected to breakdown and really lose it at the funeral, I actually found it quite beautiful. It was held in a beautiful, local glass chapel and you look out onto majestic gum trees and the great outdoors…God’s creation. I was really touched by how my friend had touched so many lives through her enthusiastic and loving community involvement, and her particular love and focus was to help kids struggling to learn how to read. So, in her humble everyday style, she changed so many lives for the better and loved her family like a warm Mama bear, and so she will be keenly missed.

So, last week for me was more about rest, recovery and recharging the batteries than climbing mountains and conquering the world. All part of striving for some kind of balance, when we’re always living with so many competing pressures.

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share hosted by Eclectic Ali. I encourage you to pop round and join us. 

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

Belated Weekend Coffee Share 29th May, 2018.

Welcome to a coffee share that is so late, that I’ve even missed the online deadline. The shop is shut, and for the first time ever, I’ve been left outside pounding on the door: “Let me in ! Let me in!”

Well, it’s my own fault. Even the extended weekend opening hours have to come to an end, and given that it’s now Tuesday afternoon, I am actually wondering whether I should be hosting a weekend coffee share after all. Isn’t it just a bit too late? Why don’t I save it up for next weekend?

 

Above: I am enjoying Autumn.

You see, the thing is that I actually had a very busy and exciting week last week and it’s actually too much to even condense into one week let alone spread it over two, even if the next week is looking rather empty after doing so much. Indeed, I’m currently needing rest and recover.

However, I also figured that some of us need that daily coffee hit, and perhaps a few caffeine addicts might be needing a mid-week hit.

So, given that I’m so far behind, I’m just going to take you through the highlights.

Last Tuesday, which is now exactly a week ago, I have a fairly important meeting with my lung specialist. My lung volumes have dropped by 20% in the last six months and instead of his usual: “I’ll see you in six months”, it was I’ll see you in two weeks and you need to have a lung scan and also handed me a swag of other tests. Well, I didn’t pass them all in flying colours. That goes with the territory. However, my lungs haven’t changed and that’s what really matters. So, from where I was coming from, I consider that good news.

 

After the lung specialist, I caught the train into the Art Gallery of NSW and saw the Archibald Exhibition. This is Australia’s most prized portrait competition, and it’s also been prone to quite a bit of controversy over the years. I am rediscovering my passion for art atm, and just even the sensation of looking at deep brush strokes carved through thick, luscious paint. I can’t explain what it does to me, but it like walking into a dark house at night and all the lights suddenly switching on at once. Wow! I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it at the time. However, I found myself drawn into the eyes and even zooming in and photographing just the eyes on quite a number of portraits. They seems to be telling me something, although in typical fashion, I can’t quite decipher the words and the messages is quite nebulous and difficult to untangle. Anyway, it’s left me wanting  to learn how to draw eyes. Humph..I ‘d probably be better off trying to trace around my hand. Art is an intimidating thing to step into. I was even anxious and crippled with self-doubt as a kid, and when my teacher picked me up on it, I wasn’t bad. Indeed, I got an A.

Anyway, I ended up writing two posts about my trip to the Art Gallery and this included a look at the importance of eye contact.

 

Moving right along, on Friday I caught the train down to Parramatta where Geoff and I went staying for a Couples’ Retreat with Muscular Dystrophy NSW. I am a member of MDNSW because my auto-immune disease is considered a neuro-muscular condition. The Muscular Dystrophy Association actually has quite a broad scope helping people with quite a range of very rare conditions under that one umbrella, which can ideally get the lot of us more acknowledgement and assistance. By bringing us all together, I wouldn’t call it a self-help group. I just see it as being like any networking meeting with colleagues. We encourage and understand each other and while most of us straggle to walk or are in scooters, wheelchairs etc, we still seem to “stand on our own two feet”. We’re a fairly independent bunch. Staff are there to facilitate the get togethers, provide additional information and are sort of like the backbone, which holds us together. I find it very important to mix with “my people” because I get sick of trying to explain myself everywhere else and it becomes a place of psychological, mental and physical rest. That said, I did become pretty animated meeting up with my own and I was exhausted at the end of the weekend, also because we pushed ourselves to see as much of Parramatta as we could. I could recover when I got home.

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Writing with a real quill…Or, at least, being a poseur.

I’ve written a few extensive posts about our trip to Parramatta, and haven’t caught up yet. However, there was walking around the streets of Parramatta and talking in the historic St John’s Church and Town Hall while stopping off at cafes and being quite mesmerized photographing the fountain in Centenary Square. My husband and I are both photographers and see the world better through the lens. We also toured historic Elizabeth Farm, where you could interact with the exhibits and really get a feel for the place and Government House which had real artifacts and was much more stuffy.

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I haven’t quite had time to write up about visiting Parramatta Park, which runs along side the Parramatta River. However, in addition to falling in love with the oaks trees in their glorious Autumn finery, we couldn’t but spot a huge tree where hundreds of cockatoos (Corellas) had found a home. They were making an awful din, if that’s how you interpret the screech of the cockatoo. Anyway, something scared them and all of a sudden the sky was filled with birds in a way I have never quite seen before. It was amazing and fortunately the camera cooperated and we managed to seize the moment. Yippee! Photography is so much like fishing and so often I’m left talking about the one  that got away. However, this time, I actually caught it.

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Since returning home, I’ve had a big sleep. Actually, a number of big sleeps in addition to trying to share our wonderful adventures on the blog.

Here are some links to posts from my travels:

What Are Museums For?

A Weekend In Parramatta, Sydney

An Autumn Stroll in Sydney

Making Eye Contact At the Art Gallery of NSW

The Artists Behind the Eyes

We hope you and yours had a great week and that you enjoyed catching up with me for coffee and enjoying a little piece of Australia.

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share hosted by Ecclectic Ali

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

Making Eye Contact at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

“The eye, the window of the soul, is the chief means whereby the understanding can most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of Nature; and the ear is second.”

Leonardo da Vinci

After spending April cavorting round the world with a ramshackle gang of dead artists, yesterday I was stealing the eyes out of the living. Well, not exactly the living artists themselves, but rather their portraits. Or, to be exact the portraits they’d submitted for the Archibald Portrait Competition, Australia’s Premier Portrait Prize.

I’m not sure exactly what drew me towards zooming in and photographing the eyes on a number of portraits. However, as a person who wears glasses and is considered “high myopic”, I am perhaps more conscious of sight. As a creative, I’m also aware of this intangible thing called vision, which seems to involve seeing the unseen. Or, even having magical x-ray eyes, where you can somehow perceive the hidden bones of things.  As a photographer, I also became aware that I see so much better through my camera lens, than my own eyes. That I’m seeing with a conscious gaze, instead of being on auto-pilot.It makes such a huge difference to my powers of observation. Have you found that?

“Now do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of the whole world? It counsels and corrects all the arts of mankind… it is the prince of mathematics, and the sciences founded on it are absolutely certain. It has measured the distances and sizes of the stars it has discovered the elements and their location… it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting.”

Leonardo da Vinci

 

Recently, my awareness of sight and the eye was expanded further, while researching Leonardo Da Vinci. Once again, I was reminded of the special and very intensely detailed way he saw, analyzed and even dissected the minutae around him. Indeed, fueled by his insatiable curiosity, he also studied and dissected the eye itself. Clearly, you don’t need to be Einstein to figure out that Leonardo Da Vinci was an inspirational role model. Someone we should at least consider worthy of emulation, or in my case, it would be thrilling just to touch the hem of his garment.

However, what particularly concerns me is the impact that screens are having on our vision in the contemporary world. Eye contact is being superseded by people staring deep into their screens, as though they contained the meaning of life. So often, I see people who can’t get through a conversation without checking their messages. Indeed, they react with all the excitement of Pavlov’s dog when their phone beeps, rings or tap dances (if they have a smart phone), and place any face-to-face interaction on hold while they jump for the phone. There are people walking their dogs along the beach while on their phone. People walking through the park glued to their phones sending text messages. Cafes full of people sitting alone nattering away with their fingers, instead of doing what we always loved to do…people watching. Or, heaven forbid, actually having coffee with a friend.

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision”

Helen Keller

What is the meaning of this loss of eye contact? What are the ramifications for our communities when our eyes are glued to our screens, instead of observing and even absorbing the world around us through our own eyes? Is humanity, and not just those with a diagnosis, losing our people skills? Will we soon reach the point where robots could replace humans, not only because the technology’s there, but also because our quintessential humanity has been switched off?

I write these warnings as though I’m immune from the screen. Yet, I’m frantically typing these words into a screen myself. However, it is a conversation I’ve had in person many times, which might’ve first started five years ago when we were my grandfather’s home town of Hahndorf, in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills. It’s a very picturesque, historic village with original German Fachwerk cottages dating back to the 1850s or so. Of course, locals live there who are caught up in the normal day to day and aren’t going to gawk at the historic features everyday like someone whose just seen them for the first time. However, I think it was while we were sitting in a cafe in Hahndorf, that I heard my very first warning about mobile phones replacing human interaction. Indeed, the proprietor pointed out this Mum who was talking on her phone while out walking with her child in the pram. From an older generation, she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t talking to her child instead.

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I see oceans and wondrous lands looking in these incredible eyes.

Of course, mother’s are an easy target. I’m one myself, and I can appreciate the serious difficulty of trying to get any time to yourself. Moreover, I’ve also know the difficulties of trying to run a business and work from home while juggling a baby and seemingly dropping each and every ball. Yet, as much as we might need to make a dollar and have some intellectual and social stimulation, perhaps we could also pay more attention to where we are, even if it’s purely from a safety point of view.

Anyway, I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you, that the screen invasion isn’t just about mothers. It’s everywhere.

Fortunately, I’m not dependent on my mobile phone for work, and am one of those non-conformists who can be difficult to reach. Moreover, somewhere along the way, the phone went from being a source of connection, to becoming an irritation. I’ve rushed to the phone too many times, only to be greeted by a telemarketer. Or, it’s just getting to the climax of a show or I’m in the flow writing, and the phone rings. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly rare that my phone rings and I’m excited when I answered it. Of course, for me, actually getting to the phone can be quite difficult, as can talking with my lung issues. So, I’ve reached a bit of a stand off with the phone. “Leave me alone”, and now we’re getting along just fine.

That said, I do have a mobile phone and when I haven’t left it at home, it’s very helpful for touching base with the family when we’re out. We can each go our own way and meet up again quite easily and there’s always that backstop. On any family outing, there’s usually somebody who wanders off.

Anyway, getting back to the Archibald Exhibition, my interest in photographing the eyes of paintings was piqued a few weeks ago on my last visit to the Art Gallery of NSW. I zoomed into one of Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly portraits, and photographed Ned Kelly’s almost googly eyes inside his helmet. They were rather freaky to be honest. My son had posed next to this painting as a five year old, and instinctively mimicked Ned’s gaze and it made for a funny portrait of our then “Little Man”. I might be his Mum, but he was just gorgeous, especially when he wasn’t walking into ancient statues, threatening to decapitate them.

“A painter may be looking at the world in a way which is very different from everyone else. If he’s a craftsman, he can get other people to see the world through his eyes, and so he enlarges our vision, perception, and there’s great value in that.”

Edward de Bono

Yesterday, I just found myself drawn into the eyes of many of the portraits, and zooming in and photographing just the eyes seemed like a natural next step. Indeed, it’s actually inspiring me to try to draw eyes myself. Seeing them all zoomed in like that, has actually made it easier to see how i could be done.

I don’t know whether anyone else has gone through a gallery picking the eyes out of the paintings before. However, that’s where I finished up yesterday and I’d like to go back and take it further.

How do artists recreate the eyes of their subject, especially when the eyes are the window to the soul and should be reflecting more than the reflection of a photographer’s flash?

Well, I have no idea. I can’t even pull of my doodle of a cube and get the perspective right. Indeed, after seeing the Young Archibald collection, I thought I’d better give up an an amateur doodler as well. “I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I’m hopeless.”

Yet, I’m not.

Art is intimidating, and doubt that artists even feel they’re good enough.

That they’ve arrived.

Anyway, I found myself drawn into the amazing eyes of so many portraits.

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So, after viewing the Archibald finalists, I wandered through the older portraits looking for eyes to photograph there, and didn’t find much to inspire. Many of the subjects weren’t looking out at the viewer and were turning away. Few, if any, of these eyes captured me in quite the same way as the modern portraits. Indeed, I know they didn’t. I pondered that a little, and would’ve liked to speak with someone more knowledgeable about art and get their opinion. It’s not that I don’t value my own opinion and observations, but there are no embellished gold frames around my opinion, only my glasses.

I guess when it comes to appreciating your sight and not just taking everything around you for granted, that losing your sight would add an intensity, an urgency that most of us lack. The same could be said for myself. I’m already living on borrowed time, and I know what it means to carpe diem seize the day, and not let it fly off into the ether…get lost into the screen of a mobile phone.

Best wishes,

Rowena

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Ned Kelly’s eyes clearly popped out. However, he looks like he could be watching TV.

PS For those of you who might be somewhat artistically inclined, I found it interesting cropping the eyes out of the faces. While I’d zoomed into quite a few faces while I was at the exhibition, there were others which I cropped tonight at home and I was having to decided whether to include or exclude noses with each set of eyes. The whole process did seem rather strange, as is my current desire to try to draw/paint the eye, when the eye kind of needs a face to nestle into.

That brings me to another question. In preparing yourself to tackle something like the Archibald and pull off a portrait which gets hung, do you practice drawing all the bits of the anatomy on their own first and then try to amalgamate it all as a whole. Or, do you just go for it and hope to pull of something vaguely human which might, if you’re lucky, capture the essence of the person?

What I can tell you, is that I could really feel myself being drawn into the eyes of some of these portraits and that they truly were leading me beyond the face, the canvas and a journey deeper into their soul, or goodness knows what or even during a bit of a U-turn and heading inward. After all, there’s some sort of energy or connection bouncing back between the artist, the subject, the canvas and the viewer, although I have no idea how you’d plot that out diagrammatically, or even if you could.

I’ll be coming back tomorrow to add references to all the artworks and the artists tomorrow. It will be quite a job in itself.