seeing/being seen

It’s just over five years now since I swapped GP work for a simple, menial job, so I could focus on writing. Around the same time, I started a new volunteer role. I also ended fifteen years of karate training to learn yoga instead.

What was this like, all this change at once? Actually, it was rough. I felt anxious, I worried whether I’d made the right decisions. I lost weight without meaning to. Everything I did was unfamiliar—exercise, work, volunteering, writing. There was no place I felt I had expertise. I kept going, and gradually acquired a few skills. But it was a big adjustment, being a beginner in my forties. I also felt the drop in ‘status’ in the eyes of others.

I was treated very differently by surgeons in my new job as a surgical assistant. Several spoke to me rudely, with sarcasm, or with disdain. A few yelled. Some were polite but cool. Only occasionally was I greeted with real warmth, or treated in a truly friendly manner. Even now, working mostly with the same (pleasant) surgeons, I have the occasional job with a new surgeon where I am treated as if I’m some kind of moron. It was a huge change from being an established medical practitioner, with staff and patients who treated me well. My pride was shot down.

Though it hurt, it did me good. I have a better idea of how it feels for others with nasty bosses. And I’ve learnt to ground my sense of self-worth inside me more, rather than looking to others for validation.

Almost worse than the snarky surgeons, though, was something else new—invisibility. In the hospital where I now volunteer, I was amazed how many doctors ‘blanked’ me. Many don’t make eye contact, let alone smile or say hi. Cleaning staff say hello, and nurses greet me by name. If I dressed in a blouse and skirt, with a stethoscope around my neck, would the medicos acknowledge me? I watch them greet other doctors, so I reckon they would.

Perhaps these doctors’ minds are elsewhere, maybe they don’t realise their rudeness, but I tend to think they classify me, in my blue volunteer vest, as a ‘non-person’. I find this fascinating, and yes, being a doctor myself (though these doctors don’t know that), I suspect I’m more sensitive to the way they don’t ‘see’ me. (My pride may be battered but it’s obviously alive and well!) But also, like anyone, I dislike being walked past in a quiet corridor as if I don’t exist.

Maybe I did the same thing to people when I was a hospital doctor. I hope I didn’t, but it’s entirely possible. If so, I’m trying to make up for it. In everyday life, I’m making eye contact more, smiling more. I’m initiating brief chats in different situations, trying to make sure the people I come across feel ‘seen’. Because I know what it feels like to be ‘unseen’, and how that bites.

My recent experiences have been insignificant compared to what other workers endure. But they’ve made me examine my own behaviour. And they’ve taught me to appreciate active kindness, one person really engaging with another. How that attention makes someone else feel valued. And how uplifting that really is.

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Keeping it real at Christmas

I recently went on a family holiday, and while we were away, I posted some photos on Facebook. I don’t post very often, but I was excited to be seeing new places. The pictures were of pretty scenery, with all of us smiling. And we did have lots of fun, in some beautiful spots.

When we returned, I phoned a close friend, and she asked me about the trip. I told her about the highlights, and how I loved every town and city. Then I whinged about some of the things that drove me crazy. The not-so-happy family moments. How partway through I had to give myself a stern talking-to, and remind myself that I’m not always a delight, so I shouldn’t expect others to be constantly sweet. I laughed at the irony of the smiling family photos, and told my friend – don’t believe everything you see on Facebook! 

I’ve been thinking about the public face of Christmas versus the reality. How people wish each other Merry Christmas and talk about getting together with family, and how won’t that be lovely, when in reality, as much as there will (hopefully) be love, and laughter, and usually some great food too, there is often hurt. Disappointment. Misunderstanding. Perhaps in small ways – if you’re lucky, or in huge, painful ways – if your family is especially damaged. There is almost always some uneasiness, no matter what family you belong to.

But the good news is that every family has its dysfunction. No one actually lives that Hallmark card Christmas. If we’re lucky, we have elements of the glossy day, but no one goes beaming through their entire festive season. (Well, with the exception perhaps of the odd very fortunate and oblivious small child!)

A friend of mine once told me of a quote she likes to live by:  ‘Expectations are resentments in the making’. I often think of these words at Christmas. I try to keep the food simple. I don’t get in a lather about decorating. And I understand and expect there may be irritations and undercurrents. After all, a large group of people, often small children to older adults, are gathering in a house for several hours.

Of course I hope people will laugh and relax. I hope the food is delicious. I hope the kids like their presents. But instead of bemoaning anything less than picture perfect, joyous family celebration, I just take the small good moments as they come and try to breathe when those other times occur.

For those who celebrate Christmas, I wish you all as much calm and peace and love as possible, given the season and your circumstances. May you have a comfortable bed to rest in. May you have a few minutes to yourself, to think and dream. And may 2019 bring you excitement, opportunity, and wonder.

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Review of ‘My Name is Revenge’ by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

My Name Is Revenge - cover

What if a book is gripping and gritty and deeply emotional, yet also informs you? Not in an obvious way, but so subtly you don’t even notice? Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s novella and reflective essay, My Name is Revenge—recently published as a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award—does just this.

The first section, the novella, is set in 1980, but flashes back to the past. It centres around Vrezh, a Sydney university student living at home with his parents, his older brother Armen and his invalid grandfather. Armen has become secretive of late, and Vrezh decides to find out why. He suspects his brother is involved in a secret Armenian group planning attacks on Turkish diplomats. Living up to his name, which means ‘revenge’, Vrezh also dreams of retribution for the terrible crimes committed against his grandfather’s family and countless other Armenian families during the Armenian Genocide—crimes that left his grandfather orphaned as a young boy, crimes that give his grandfather nightmares to this day. A foreboding atmosphere builds, layered with the pain and anger felt by everyone in the family. But Vrezh is not as single-minded as his brother, and he begins to realise that good and evil are not always black and white. He expresses this uncertainty to Armen, who treats him with disgust. ‘It was as if Armen had sliced through the flesh of his chest, peeling it away to reveal a heart that was Armenian, but not sufficiently so.’ It is this complexity of character and plot, the examination of right and wrong and all the gradations in between, that gives the novella its potency and poignancy.

The essay that follows is a wonderful counterpoint to the fictional world. It clarifies true historical events within the novella, and explains more about the Armenian Genocide. The essay also details how Kalagian Blunt is connected to the story, both personally and as a curious writer. This makes for heartbreaking but compelling reading.

As you finish and catch your breath, you realise you’ve devoured a fascinating narrative and essay, but you’ve also learned about the Armenian Genocide of World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by order of the Ottoman Government. You begin to comprehend the horrors of what happened, and the repercussions for Armenian families as the trauma echoed through generations.

My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion. Ashley Kalagian Blunt has created a striking and important two-part work.

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A crazy good Monday

Richell-Longlist-2018-Blog-HeaderMonday morning I was dialling my ‘other mother’ Lynsey, who lives on Vancouver Island, to wish her a happy 80th birthday. As the phone rang, my eyes flicked to my computer screen, and I saw an email from Will Dawson, executive director of the Emerging Writers Festival, letting me know I’d been shortlisted in the 2018 Richell Prize. My heart almost stopped. I’d been stunned to get longlisted last month, let alone making it any further.

I talked to Lynsey for about an hour, then got off the phone and stared for awhile at the emails and tweets and messages coming in. My eyes filled with tears. I started replying. After awhile, I messaged my husband and my best friend. I called my dad. I called my mum.

When I collected my kids from school they were excited, but that night, my son was disgusted to discover I hadn’t posted on social media. I tried to explain that several other writers had posted on my behalf, that I’d received heaps of congratulations and I didn’t want people to feel they had to do it all over again. He was still unimpressed. “Nope. You should have posted. That’s what you do.” Then I worried that the judges or Richell prize organisers and supporters would think I wasn’t grateful for the shortlisting, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I am so thrilled, and so thankful.

So here I am today, posting about my Monday, which was the very best Monday of my life.

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how’s the writing?

If you’re a writer, do you get asked by friends and family for writing news? When they see you, do they ask So, how’s the book/poetry/play coming along? and then Any news?

I’m lucky enough to have friends and family who ask, and I often wish I did have news to share, but mostly when they ask How’s the writing? I reply – Well, I’m doing it. I’m writing. They look at me kindly like I’m not very bright and they say to me gently, Well, that’s good.

Every time I hear this question, as thoughtful and well-intentioned as it is, I feel a little at a loss. Because I rarely have any news. Now and then something exciting happens, but it can be months from one small success to the next. And logically I know this is part of being a writer, that doing the work is what it’s really about, that getting published or winning competitions is great, but it isn’t going to happen every week. Most weeks we’re just doing it, just writing, trying to translate something funny, or tragic, or magical into words. Yet in my upbringing there was a focus on ‘achieving’, or perhaps it’s the influence of our culture, too – telling us we’re not really a ‘success’ unless we’re lining up trophies on the shelf. Sometimes I feel silly saying Well, I’m doing it. (Especially when the other person laughs!)

So today I’m here to offer comfort and company to all the other writers out there, especially those feeling weighed down, weary or short on faith. It’s tough, I know. Don’t feel silly if you don’t have a thrilling answer lately when asked about your writing. We’re here. We’re putting words on the page. And all the very best things take time.

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listening

I met a friend’s new partner, Julie*, a few weeks back and she was solidly drunk. That’s not the point of the story, but I’m sure she would have been less forthcoming without the wine.

This sweet, slurring lady had no sooner figured out who I was married to (my husband has the same stressful job as this lady) than she began quizzing me—”What’s it like being married to him? How do you cope with listening to him when he gets home from work?”

At first, I tried answering her briefly and laughingly—”Oh, he doesn’t say much about his day anyway—his usual answer is ‘Standard’.” But Julie persisted. “No, seriously.” She was all eyes. “Don’t you find it draining, listening to him?” After awhile, I realised Julie was worried about her own need to discuss work, her own need to de-brief after a stressful day, and whether it was too much for her partner.

So I told Julie that sometimes when my husband has a tough day and comes home wired and tired, he’ll talk a bit about it and I’ll listen. I’ll give him a hug, make him food or tea. But I reassured Julie that my husband does the same for me if I have a rough day (rarely due to work these days), and I think that’s normal in a relationship. I told her I don’t think one person’s bad day is something for the other to ‘cope with’, it’s part and parcel of being supportive. She seemed unconvinced, and said she hates how she needs to talk about work, hates burdening her partner.

The whole conversation struck me as odd. It made me realise that listening is often seen as a favour performed. And I feel this too sometimes—a profound gratitude if someone simply listens intently. Yet focussing on others when they speak, especially our friends and family, should be the most basic courtesy.

I’m often guilty of drifting off during conversations. My son tells me all about his bike ride and how coming down this specific hill his speed reached blah-de-blah-de-blah and I tune out and realise I’ve missed a chance to connect. My mother calls me and tells me something about a neighbour and I switch off and start planning dinner in my head. But I want to do better. I know when someone listens well, I feel the gift of it all day, the pleasure of being heard, maybe even understood. And it is no small thing.

After my talk with Julie, I am reminded to listen more closely. To pay attention. To give others that fundamental care.

*not her real name. Obviously 🙂

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a letter home

ANZAC Day has prompted me to write about a letter I found amongst a pile of my grandmother’s papers passed on to me. This letter still brings tears to my eyes, even after multiple readings. When I collected it from the framing shop, I had to blink rapidly as I thanked them for their work. The letter now hangs in our living room.

The letter is from my great-grandfather, James Trickett, to his two sons, one of whom was my Papa (my mother’s father). James wrote a long and loving five-page letter, filled with life advice for his boys. The tone is hopeful for his return and yet the instructions prepare his sons for his possible death.

This is the first page:

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James did survive to travel to France, but according to a letter from his commanding officer, in late January, 1917, he complained of a headache, and then suffered a ‘bilious attack’. He became very unwell, and eventually was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with ‘spinal meningitis’. He died in early February, 1917.

Here is the last page of his letter:

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Here is the entire letter on the wall:

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Lest we forget.

*Just in case anyone is concerned, the letter is framed with archival matting and tape, and has maximum UV protection glass. The letter is also hung on a wall which is not touched by any direct sunlight, and which receives only muted daylight.

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