The Whole Intimate Mess

I came across this excellent memoir, The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics and Women’s Writing because the author, Holly Walker, sounded familiar. Indeed, it turns out that Holly and I crossed paths briefly at University when we both worked for its student publication, which Holly went on to edit. She then went on to be a Rhodes Scholar and a Greens Member of Parliament. Overachiever much?

What I love most about this concise, well-written book is how candid it is without being oversharing-y. While it must’ve been terrifying for such a public person to lay her struggles bare, Holly navigates the personal and the political with grace, warmth, humour and vulnerability. In a nutshell, she opens up about the perfect storm of events and conditions that led to the brave decision to step down from her parliamentary role: her struggle with becoming a mum while working in parliament, her postpartum depression, her husband’s chronic illness, their rocky marriage, and the anxiety and self-harm that came along with these stressful life events.

In her vulnerability, she is down to earth and relatable. Holly also weaves throughout her at-times harrowing story quotes from other female writers from around the world who speak to, and contextualise, her struggles, and it is with the fusing of these excerpts and her writing that bring a universal quality to her work. I certainly identified with elements of her story as a white, NZ/western, working woman.

This memoir is ultimately hopeful – Holly gets help and rebuilds her life in a way that is more workable for her and her family. She acknowledges her privilege and that she has more options than most people. As a fellow lefty, the memoir is littered with examples and anecdotes of how New Zealand is not doing enough for children in poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor which is having a detrimental effect. Still, it gives me hope that people like Holly are working on these issues. Thanks Holly for all that you do, for reminding us that the pen is mightier than the sword, and for being such an excellent role model for the women of Aotearoa/New Zealand!

One day

This morning I woke up early, before 7am, and meditated. Just for fifteen minutes. It was gray outside and damp from last night’s downpour. I had some fruit for breakfast and went to yoga. The teacher is impossibly tall and thin. She’s like a fairy godmother beanstalk. I can’t even fathom how she gave birth to three children. She is kind, gentle, funny. She meets us where we are at. This morning, because of the humidity, my body felt tight. I heard creaking. My clumsiness and un-coordination felt more pronounced than usual. I felt weak. I blame the weather and my own laziness. I cycled back to my guesthouse. I was feeling a little cold, even wearing merino wool in twenty five degrees. I lay down on my giant bed that could easily fit four people. What should I do today? Where should I eat? What am I doing with my life? I was about to fall down the self-flagellation rabbit hole when I heard my friend Clea calling my name. She bounded up the stairs and knocked on my door. I opened it and there she was with a large block of opened chocolate.

“Here, this is for you, it’s from Norway. Sorry, but I already opened it and ate some,” she said with a mouth full of chocolate.

I didn’t mind at all, considering how expensive good chocolate is here. I ripped off a few pieces and stuffed them in my mouth. It tasted exactly like Cadbury’s chocolate. It did its job, giving me a sugar and dopamine rush. When then discussed our plans. It was raining. A lot. We were both hungry (as usual). Should we go to the restaurant nearby that we’ve been going to almost daily? We decided we would. We invited Akio, a retired Japanese scientist who is staying at the same guesthouse. Umbrellas in hand, we trudged down the road dodging puddles and potholes.

We talked over pizza and pasta. Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, restaurants. Three countries, one language. I learnt that our Japanese companion is a Princeton-educated genius. It explains his ongoing interest in everything, his curiosity, his impeccable English. He’s here to study meditation. Like everyone in this town, he’s looking for something.

We return and I get back into a book I had picked up again after tossing it aside some months ago. I had written it off but this time, I became riveted by it. It’s a memoir written by a woman who lost her mother then her father, both to cancer. She was in her teens when her mother passed and just a few years later, her father was diagnosed and passed away while she was in her mid-twenties. This exploration of grief was harrowing. This woman, now a well-known writer, grief therapist, and divorced mother of two young girls living in Santa Monica, went to Hell and back. Her writing sucked me in – I was right there with her when she was holding her dying father’s hand, or drinking herself into oblivion, or having a sobbing fit, or just being alone and falling down the rabbit hole of shame and self-loathing.

I am tired now. I wanted to finish the book and it probably took about an hour, but I feel like I was with her in all those years, so vivid is her writing. I was drained by chaos and self-destruction. But ultimately I’m buoyed by her hard-won happiness. She learnt how to be alone, how to be happy, how to go through the grieving process, how to heal wounds so that they turn into scars. She finds self-love and acceptance through friendship and healthy relationships, work she loves serving others, writing, yoga, meditation, and most intriguingly, by taking long baths each evening. It’s here in the bathtub she realizes the wisdom of no escape. I was in awe of how much living she had done – all the jobs, moving, travel, study, and all the loved ones she had lost. She is only a year older than me. Holy crap! The book was published a few years ago. Cut to today and has had an affair, her marriage unravels. She is in a relationship with a man who lives on the other side of the country, she has published another book, also focusing on grief, and seems to be thriving. Due to her prominent, transparent social media presence, I know so much about her life now. What I love is that she is in a much better place – that depressed, lonely, anxious, grief-stricken mess of a young woman lives on in her but it is just a tiny part of her now. This gives me so much hope for humanity. We are more resilient than we think and things do get better.

It stirs up all kinds of feelings in me. I have never been to a funeral. I imagine her at her father’s funeral. I imagine myself at my father’s. It’s morbid. I think of a phrase I learnt the other day in relation to our thoughts and feelings: ‘Real but not true.’ I say it over and over again like a mantra. It’s not even 8pm yet.

 

 

Two Weeks

I have been in my beloved Ubud for two weeks now. The time here seems to evaporate, like rain. I don’t know where it goes. I can only remember a series of moments. Sitting on the bright, round cushions in front of my room furiously trying to finish the amazing The Undoing Project, being immersed in the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and being amazed and questioning all my life choices (again). Then I’m just meters away listening to director Vikram Gandhi (who starred in this documentary that I wrote about a while ago) talk about his new film Barry, about the college years of one Barak Obama. He (Vikram, not Obama) spoke after we watched the film together. Of course I had to pinch myself that if I was in his presence. Some days later (how many, I really don’t remember) I saw another Obama film about his first date with Michelle. What an interesting, complex, high maintenance man I thought. Let it be known that I do crush on the former president, but just imagine living with someone with a law degree from Harvard who feels the need to question everything.

Since there’s not much to do at night, there have been more movies. And yoga. But not as much as last time. Yesterday while ‘practising’ under the guidance of a Jewish yoga goddess, I felt how my fitness level had decreased and how sad that made me. I struggled through, consciously trying not to let that second arrow (how could you get so unfit? why don’t you exercise more? you’ve become so lazy…). Another night, I found myself on a dark, rainy night slipping into a traditional health resort and ended up having an incredible massage, guided into a boiling hot sauna then gently urged into a freezing cold jacuzzi for ten minutes while listening to the music from a ceremony at a nearby temple and looking up at the blinking stars. I’ve been riding around on a bike, taking in all the green. I’ve been hanging out with my friend who has been kind enough to introduce me to her friends. We have been debriefing after her days of anthropological fieldwork, gossiping about the ridiculous fairies that wander around seeking enlightenment from raw food and dreadlocks. We’ve been walking in the mornings through rice fields, dodging stray dogs and eating breakfast together. In stark contrast to Cambodia where I spoke to maybe one person in five days, it feels really good to have a friend.

There are the characters from my previous visits – I know where to find them, they are so predictable in that way. At the same cafe, at the same studio, giving the same class at the same time, with the same people, in the same clothes. But, appearances can be deceiving, for they have come so far in the year since I’ve last seen them. New relationships, marriage, divorce, new businesses, new travels, new opportunities, life and death swirling around them as it should.

I ride my bike down the main road, past the locals dressed in their sarongs for their ceremonies. I bump over a dead snake and see a monkey sitting on a motorcycle. I dodge ugly mating toads. When it’s really hot, I crash the pool of the hotel next door and try to block out the obnoxious Australian accents. It’s hard to get annoyed here, though, amongst so much vitality. There’s literal jungle, blue skies, giant clouds, and an abundance of delicious flowers whose scent evokes the word paradise. Every afternoon it rains, but of course, even rain in Bali is beautiful – the way it falls over the temples, feeling of it on an overheated body is sensual. There’s not long to go now and there’s still a volcano to climb, yoga to learn, online study to be done, oh and a novel to write. Everyday is a battle between discipline and freedom. But this is a lifelong battle and I hope that I can at least, if not win, then make some progress.

When in French…

wheninfrenchLauren Collins’ memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language is a stunning read. Treats await the reader on almost every page – whether it’s her flawless prose, her rendering of complex linguistic concepts and anecdotes, the honest and relatable portrayal of her relationship with her French husband Olivier, or my favourite, her sly and understated sense of humour with a knack for finding the irony in even the most ordinary situations.

It would be easy to not like Collins – as an American who grew up in an upper middle-class family, she attended Princeton then got her foot in the door at The New Yorker, working her way up to a coveted and prestigious writing position that sent her on interesting assignments all over the world. Then, on a whim, she decides to become their London correspondent, easily gets herself a work visa and after only three weeks in her adopted home, meets the French man who will become her husband. They marry and eventually live in Geneva followed by Paris. It sounds like a fairytale. What makes her likeable, and her memoir relatable, however, is her brutal honesty: when she moves to Geneva, she makes it her mission to learn French, which, it turns out, is not so easy. She finds the city and the people conservative and backwards. Her and Olivier argue and face the usual relationship problems as she tries to pressure him into marriage. She refers to her in-laws as ‘Les Fockers.’ She is self-deprecating and often portrays herself as awkward, annoying and clumsy. She’s also gutsy and is not afraid to go there.

As she fumbles with the French language, we are on her side. Not only is her prose revealing and entertaining, but it is also educational. No need to ever again read a boring journal or newspaper article about the theories of Chomsky. Collins is quite the armchair anthropologist and has done a stellar job of including a range of linguistic theories that are so intricately and subtly woven into the narrative that you barely even notice you’re lapping up Linguistics 101.

I eagerly wanted to share some of her most outstanding nuggets and zingers here, but I think it best you do yourself a faveur and read this formidable book in its entirety. Here’s a little sneak-peak of what’s in store:

Schnapsidee – the way a German would describe a plan he’d hatched under the influence of alcohol. Pilkunnussija – Finnish for “comma fucker,” a grammar pedant. In Mundari [a language spoken by some ethnic groups in India and neighboring countries] ribuy-tibuy refers to the sight, sound, and motion of a fat person’s buttocks. Jayus, in Indonesian, denotes a joke told so poorly that people can’t help but laugh. Knullrufs is Swedish for postsex hair. Gumusservi means moonlight shining on the water in Turkish. Culaccino is the Italian word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Words like these are marvelous. We make lists of them, compile them into treasuries, trade them over any dinner table at which holders of more than one passport have convened. (The German, armed with Kummerspeck – “grief bacon” will always win the day.)’

Why write?

woman-writingI am feeling inspired by something my friend Carly posted on her blog recently. A published and award-winning writer, in this beautiful and thoughtful piece she examines why and how she writes.┬áLike many people with an artistic or creative streak, I sometimes feel that choosing to write isn’t actually a choice. It’s something that needs to happen, a force greater than oneself. It is something that can be denied, suppressed, and forgotten about….for a while. But it will never, ever disappear.

I suppose that for me the writing seed was planted at a young age – I am that cliched introverted, shy, sensitive child who was always observing, trying to figure things out. I read a lot and I wanted to copy what I was reading, so I wrote poems and short stories about my pets and toys. I have a very vivid imagination and think visually, so writing came easily to me. Add to that potent mix some teachers who praised my writing and told me I would be an author when I grew up. As I grew older, I wrote mostly academic things for school and university and the praise still came. I’ve had a few paid writing gigs over the years and the accolates and the money came. But by choice, I now write solely for myself and find my income elsewhere.

So why write? Because writing is a way of processing the world, of making sense of my experience. As the venerable Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” And it gives life meaning – it’s a method of making life’s lemons into lemonade. If art can come from tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, hardship, death, then maybe that experience has more value. And through writing, one can also revel in the beauty of the world, to not only lament its sorrows, but celebrate its joys.

And then there’s the unpredictable, mysterious journey of writing. It’s one of the few things that puts me in a state of flow, in the zone where the conscious mind is seduced by the subconscious. Where you start at one place with no idea of where you’ll end up, but with a knowing that where you do end up is where you need to be. Things emerge that you couldn’t understand or figure out with your conscious mind. Answers are found. There is a sacredness in that experience. It is mystical and magical, and brings one back into one’s self, a kind of mental yoga.

Writing is also a way of recording one’s own development. Looking back at things I wrote in my journal 15 years ago, I laugh at the silly things I was upset or obsessed about. And I hope that the things I vomit-write into my journal now I can look back on in years to come and see how far I have come and how far I still have to go. Documenting this journey through words is a way to understand the peaks and the valleys, a way of connecting the dots.

Perhaps most importantly, writing is a way of learning (and practicing) that the destination is the journey, that the act of writing is its own reward. That, to borrow an Anne Lamott quote mentioned by Carly, writing is “like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”