Right now I am in the throes of birthing a big, bad-ass novel. Oh man, is it lovely to get in the writing groove again. But sometimes the drama of novel writing gets to me. Because creating a novel means creating conflict. Making bad stuff happen to a character, over and over, until you want to scream at yourself, DUDE! STOP TYLER DURDEN-ING THIS GUY!!
Bad stuff happens to people: this is fundamental human experience. When the same bad thing happens to two different people it gets interesting. One will come out of that experience with new resolve. The other will crash and burn. The difference is in how they have framed their own story.
How to craft story out of our own experience is such an important thing to teach to children. It can influence whether they become victims or survivors. The best way to do this is by example. The second best way is through reading, setting sail on an alternate reality that teaches other ways of being.
As readers, we want to see how a character transforms that bad stuff into good stuff. We want to see the alchemist turn lead into gold.
Our capacity as storytellers will dictate whether the hard life stuff will drown us or elevate us, over time.
I always had the desperate urge to do the thing prosaically described as writing. I felt guilty about it in my youth. I was good at it, but that did not feel enough of a reason to spend thousands of hours putting pen to paper. It felt frivolous. Not useful to society. Escapism.
Now I understand something. Writing and creating are not only ways of crafting a fictional story, they are ways of teaching storytelling for real life. When you read a book or look at a painting, it reminds you that there is always another way to look at things. That book or painting can provide you with a frame of reference, an alternative worldview that you can use to rewrite the story of yourself. The way we construct our stories of the past shapes our future, because stories are the way we decide what is meaningful, what is of value.
Storytelling gives us more hope, as a human race, than almost anything else.
Here is a shy admission. When I was a not-so-sweet sixteen, I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I shrugged my shoulders, thought it wasn’t too bad. Sixteen years later I was shelving books at my library job, and saw Frankenstein on the shelf. I burst into tears. Sixteen years later. I’m not joking even a little bit.
The story sat in my bones all those years, waiting for me to realise this:
Frankenstein’s monster is a precise mirror of a human life. He’s an absolute mess. The messy characters are the ones we love, right? The ones that remind us that even in our messiness, we are lovable. Because dammit, I love that monster. I want to invite him home and give him lots of hugs and cups of tea until he feels better. And in loving the monster, I realise I, too, am able to be loved despite my flaws. This is the best reminder we can have in dark times.
Stories matter. Both reading and telling stories are ways of making sense of life. By having some consciousness of the stories we tell ourselves, we have more control over our happiness. Is it absolute truth? It doesn’t matter. All truths are shaped, in one way or another. Why not shape it is a way that is beautiful?
Of course, I am not suggesting you lie to yourself. But framing is an essential component of storytelling. A tragedy can uplift and inspire more than a comedy, if it is woven well. We are conditioned by the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves. We are, all of us, robots with feelings, built of shifting, unfolding stories. Stories that change like clouds. Stories that are wonderful and tragic and sad and magical, all at once. But these stories can change, depending on how you narrate them.
Mingus has been the constant through two houses, through a season in hospital, through babies and sleepless nights. Every night for the past five years, Mingus has crept under the blankets and curled up in the space next to my womb, pushed to the edge of the bed as my belly grew over two pregnancies, purring over the scaffolding of the little people inside. From conception my babes heard that purr from inside their little womb-hut.
Last week, out of nowhere, he became deathly ill. As the vet bills escalated for some reason I thought that meant we were getting closer to recovery, like I could buy Ming’s way out of this. But as the moon rose each night, he sunk a little, into those unknowable cat shadowlands. Perking up during the day, and sinking at the night with the sun. My Mingus. He was always solar powered.
And then this morning he took his last inhale, his last exhale from this world.
As he lies curled at my feet for his last sun-bath, and my fingers rake his warming coat, I can can almost forget the spirit has left the body. Only a week ago he was curled up, purring at my belly as of old. The shock of life. The predictability of change. A reminder to always hold your dear ones close.
I’m not sure where it comes from, but a voice inside tells me I’m overreacting. That this is just a cat. That I should move through the day, through my interactions without fuss and without hurt. Whoever that dispassionate voice is, I tell them this: that I choose hurt. I choose hurt, and love, and friendship felt with just a cat. I choose strong bonds between nature and humans that make the whole world come alive, that enrich our being. Where partnerships with animals enlarge the scope of our mind, our stories, our humanity. I tell that voice that Mingus has taught me as much about what home is, what contentment is, and what refuge is, as any human I know.
This is a friendship worth mourning. Knowing the pain of what I have lost gives me answers to what I need to find next. Thank you Mingus, my teacher and friend.
Darkness is of immeasurable value, dear one. It is the thing that can tell us most about what we need to work on to be happy, about what has made us the way we are. The whispering dark things will tell us everything we need to know, if we can bear listening. They will never tell us the truth. They will always bear the mark of pain. But they will draw us a precise map of where the trouble lies.
The human, fragile, vulnerable qualities that arise in the face of darkness are such a large part of what makes us loveable. Even if what troubles you is unknowable, impossible to understand. Even if it is as vast as the sea.
There is a condition to this beauty. The darkness is not beautiful when hidden, neglected or suppressed. The darkness is beautiful when has been awakened. Your darkness is like this. It is tangible, when someone has touched their darkness: wild and alluring and brave. It dances like a flame in you.
I know the hardship. The deep grooves of habit, our neural pathways so well trodden we can fall in and get lost in them for days. We’ve unknowingly groomed ourselves for unhappiness, filled the sacred river that runs through us with corpses that fill and foul until we believe that it was always like this, that it can never be any different. When that happens the infernal noise and rot simmers into inescapable disquietude. We need to unhook each thought from the riverbank, one by one. If the river flows the darkness is no trouble. It is natural and useful. The darkness is what allows the light. Working with the darkness instead of against it, you experience the body’s autumn and winter, follow the natural cycle of things.
Your darkness will always be there, my beautiful one. But we will get the waters flowing again, I promise. In the meantime, I will sit in the darkness with you. I know it well. I am not afraid. x
I spend a lot of time alone with my pictures, unearthing buried treasures and monsters, exploring the dark wilderness of myself. But in a fortnight I’m brushing off the earth and darkness, offering my musings and dreamtimes and heartsongs to the world, letting them breathe and be seen.
My debut exhibition opens on Saturday 12th April. Feeling vulnerable and also pretty good.
The show is about diving deep within, facing fears, and being curious about what lies beneath. The work accesses a more primitive, wild mind to ‘release the beasts’; promoting happiness, self-acceptance and a more soulful connection to the world.
Here’s a preview of the types of works in the show.
Paintings for children
And of course, beasties
I would love to see you at the opening. There will be collaborative drawing and lots of fun. BYO beasts, and I’m not talking about your kids. But kids are (always) welcome!
This feels like a time when ancient wounds are coming to the surface. I don’t know if it’s a Mars retrograde thing or if stuff I’ve been working through are coming to a head, but a big change is happening. My body is telling me that the old hurts are going to express themselves by my body getting vulnerable and sick.
Which is ok. Those neural pathways don’t like change.
Healing–at least the healing of psychological wounds–is seen in a pretty linear way. It’s mostly seen to happen in the head, in a landscape of words, or the suppression of words. Talking about the wound, or finding new words to talk about the wound, or not thinking about the wound at all. We see a counsellor who encourages us to talk, or we take a medicine that helps us not to think at all. There is a focus on explaining, understanding, capturing and controlling the language around the wound.
I kinda feel like the body has seasons. There’s a season to talk and figure stuff out, a season for things to sleep and mature, and a season to wake up and reap the seeds sown. I must be aligned to the northern hemisphere, I think, because I feel like spring is in me right now. It hurts a bit, the labouring, the birthing, but what grows is worth it.
Last weekend I went demon dancing with my friend Lucy. She lives a lot in her head, too. 5Rhythms is a dance class which is somewhere between therapy and exorcism. It taps into the tribal, intuitive wilderness within. Their recommendation is: “to still the mind, move the body”. You dance to unblock, to connect. Here we were, two brains on legs, amongst leaping, grunting, whirling dervish animals. We couldn’t help but leap and grunt a little, too. I didn’t let go, completely. But I got to pretend a bit, and even that felt good.
Like most humans, I have wounds that run deep. I have a longstanding and bloody mythology about myself and my place in the world, which causes more suffering than happiness (I’m working on it). Well and good to rewrite it in my head, but I want more than that. I want to feel the change in my muscles and my breath. I want every cell in my body to experience the release of those stories, of them catching the wind. I want to live like I am my body, not my thoughts.
Does it matter if you don’t identify what causes suffering? Does it matter if you can’t explain the sadness? Do we have to understand to heal? Can we purge things and move through them without putting them into words?
All that I know is that I’m tired of talking. Talking only gets you so far.
Gosh. Time passes SO slowly when you’re not well, doesn’t it? The last month I’ve been fighting a bacterial infection. Control over bad thoughts, cohesive speech (and thus the blog), went out the window.
Somehow painting didn’t, though. Painting is so integrated as part of my wellbeing now that I can’t go too long without it. I haven’t had much energy, so I’ve focused on small tasks, mostly finishing up nearly-done paintings. It’s allowed me to review themes that are occurring in my work. Whales have been relentless.
Considering the layers underneath–the history of the picture–was interesting, too. If a whale hijacked what was a picture of a tiger, I know I should pay attention (not quite adding the highlights to an eye, hmm?). A forest turned into a whale, too. And a still life of vegetables. Eh? What are the whales telling me? Those elegant, calm beasts suspended in the dark corners of the earth have something to say, it seems.
You can get carried away with metaphors, of course, but there is something about whales that signifies a dive into consciousness. Perhaps the underwater metaphors are a hangover from David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish, which I read at a time meditation was really starting to work for me. Lynch taught me to fall well, to go deeper, to not be afraid of the darkest corners.