The Turning: Reflections on Reaching 50

The Turning: Reflections on Reaching 50

I am taking the business of turning 50 terribly seriously.

I am dedicating the twelve months since my 49th birthday to this incongruous milestone, given that the actual age of my physical body – half a freaking century – and how I feel inside couldn’t be further apart had Donald Trump built a wall between them.

My 30’s and 40’s wore me down. Immigration, motherhood and establishing a new career stress tested the collagen out of me. Back problems. Heavy bleeding. Anxiety and panic attacks.

But in my 49th year, I feel more girlish than I’ve felt since my twenties. I recently completed an evening indoor rock climbing course and was the oldest person by a decade in our group. I’ve started wearing high heels. I’ve found a lipstick I like and can wear without looking like a clown, a soft brown by Natio, endearingly named ‘Flutter.’

In my 49th year, not only have I learned to live with my big nose, but I’ve befriended it. It belongs on my face – finally. I’m relieved I’ve outrun vanity and have never succumbed to the pressure to involve a plastic surgeon in the matter.

I give blood regularly – my iron levels are high because my periods have started missing their appointments, as if my uterus has gotten intermittent Alzheimer’s.

I’ve stopped colouring my hair. I feel an endearing gentleness to the emerging streaks of white and think of them as my own natural highlights. Until I met up with an old lover who used the term ‘slippery slope’ about my natural look, which in a previous decade would have made me feel ancient and undesirable but at 49 makes me think he’s a bit of a dick. I’ve given up on being radical about anything, so when I’m in the mood, I still colour my hair, but only with products without ammonia that are body and planet friendly. And I’m perfectly delighted when the white grows back again.

In my 49th year, I’ve given up friendships that have been draining me for years. I’ve pulled the plug on people who make me feel like a therapist (without the fee) or a life-support system for chronic help-rejecting complainers. I did this gently and without guilt.

I’ve given up alcohol but not in a sad feel-sorry-for-me way. Because I realise it makes me feel shit and I really don’t enjoy it that much.

I do a lot of yoga. Without trying to be the best in the class.

I’ve stopped wearing anything remotely uncomfortable. This means graduating from bikini to granny panties – that frontier that once crossed, one can never uncross. And though actually seeing my panties in the laundry basket causes me to wince – just a teensy bit – the relief and joy of actually pulling those generous spacious undies up without a tight elastic castigating and pinching my belly makes it a perfectly happy compromise.

I say ‘no thanks, I think I’ll have an early night,’ often.

I’ve thrown out every single polyester item in my wardrobe.

I’ve gone through twenty photograph albums, and gotten rid of thousands of photographs, only keeping a few, which when I have time, will be scanned and plopped in the cloud, that lovely virtual space that never gets cluttered.

I’ve hired a VA.

I’ve made a list of every person who has made a difference in my life – old teachers, friends from school, ex-boyfriends all over the world, people who’ve opened doors for me – some without even realising it – and I’m busy handwriting letters to every one of them. It’s a ritual of deep gratitude for all the people who have crossed my path. I’m even writing to people I no longer speak to (only a couple) to thank them for the role they played in my life, even if our relationship is over.

I’m reading books on abundance. Everything by Marianne Williamson.

This is the year that I finally got an American publisher for a book I self published. I was finished with ‘trying,’ so all I did was put my best work out into the world and Hay House came to me with a publishing offer. Just at the point in my life when it didn’t matter all that much.

My kids suddenly – and I’m talking never-saw-that-coming-whiplash suddenly – outgrew their need for me. Mothering had been upon me, a psoriasis of effort for two decades, and suddenly it left. Lifted and peeled, like a miracle cure. But a cure for what? For the neurotic need to be needed? As if I’d been told ‘no more treatment is required – you’re free to get on with your life…’

What shall I make for dinner?” which was always a thought relating to everyone else’s but never my own preferences, boomeranged back to me. What did I want for dinner? A question so disused, so undusted and locked in the back of the closet, I struggled to relate to it. That there was a ‘me’ tucked in there somewhere. I’m having to to tug it out, wipe it down, and assess it.

With my nurturing of others forced into early retirement, I feel oddly bereft, shorn and unsure. I’m still feeling blindly for the shape of myself, clean and whole. Like a newly laid egg.

But as the year draws towards my 50th birthday, I cannot suppress the excitement. I’m planning a ritual. It will involve 50 lanterns. A photoshoot. And a white dress with goddess sleeves.

In Mary Oliver’s words, I will become a ‘bride, married to amazement.’ Bring it on.

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald

 

A historic moment shared.

In my 49th year, my publishing company, Joanne Fedler Media, published its first book, The Turning: Poems from my life on my 50th birthday.

The Turning: Poems from my life on my 50th birthday

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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Bedrock

Bedrock

‘I’m totally claustrophobic,’ the woman in front of her giggles.

‘No you’re not,’ her husband chides, slapping her on her bottom. The gesture almost jolts Virginia to a standstill, but there are people walking behind her and James the cave tour guide in his khaki uniform has instructed, ‘keep moving.’ It is one of such playful certainty, with a shared history of anniversaries and ablutions, children in there too, no doubt, more than two, though they seem to be unaccompanied this weekend. There must be grandparents somewhere, insisting they baby sit, to give them some ‘much-needed time-out.’ It is common knowledge parents need that. Space.

Virginia can’t say if she is claustrophobic herself. She’s never been this far inside a cave before. The little spelunking she did as a child along the coast of the Western Cape was hide-and-seek with bare-footed cousins, in sea-carved rocky alcoves. Nooks and crannies they made into ‘beds’ with towels and pretended they were fugitives. Places the daylight could reach. Not this deep penetration into the guts of the earth. Not this venturing so far from sunlight and oxygen and wind. In an organized group. With a tour-guide. Where is the adventure in this?

As soon as the heavy reinforced refrigerator-like door behind them shuts tight with a suctioning clunk, she reaches behind her for Dave’s hand, but he is holding the video camera to his eye, like some ghastly robotic ophthalmic extension. He is moving slowly from side to side to make sure he gets it all. ‘Capturing,’ he calls his documenting of their exploits, which, by the way, he takes very seriously. He has a daunting archive of movie clips – of their scuba-diving, rock-climbing, kayaking, camping. It is an extreme sport of its own. He is fastidious and vigilant about downloading them as if something might get inadvertently lost if he does not attend to this transfer. He chews hours away on this assignment. Their history of weekends-away eats steadily away at his computer memory, a mountain of memories. Some nights she finds him replaying them in the den, with a triple whiskey on ice. She can’t bear to watch them. They seem desperate. Utterly pointless. Once upon a time she would have been able to muster compassion for this obsession. Now she just observes it with the kind of pity she might wring forth for an anorexic or a drug addict.

From the door, she watches. He looks up at her. ‘See you in the morning,’ she murmurs.

He waves at her. ‘Don’t wait up for me.’

He used to say, ‘sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.’

But perhaps that began to sound too childish, too hopeful.

Alone in her hollow king-size bed, she dreams of things with wings. Angels maybe. They touch her with their petal-like hands, they flutter around her like butterflies.

* * *

Hands matter to her more than she’d ever imagined. By her estimation, thalidomide had wreaked a wretched legacy on generations of people and not just because they could never play tennis or swim. A person’s entire character, like their history, their future could be told in the hands. Who were you without your hands?

She had been standing in line at international departures, boarding for Katmandu. She needed to get away. It had been only six months since she and Patrick had broken up. He had his back to her, but she could see him holding his boarding pass and passport which he was using as a bookmark in a small paperback, which later she glimpsed was Plato’s Republic. She got stuck on them. His hands. The veins, sinew, the half moons of his cuticles. Okay, she admitted it, she was a phalange junkie. If she saw nothing more on a man, the hands would be enough.

She knew things from them. She could see the life in them, ingrained with silt. They were hands at ease in mud, not that they weren’t clean. He was a scrubber. He took care of his nails. But you can’t hide a history of dirt. She found herself imagining him – this stranger in the line in front of her, nameless and faceless – putting his fingers deep inside her. She blushed at the thought of it. She was one up on Erica Jong’s zipless fuck, this was a faceless fuck. Fingers and hands. What more did one need?

Science has given us all the answers. There’s nothing mysterious about it at all. The brain releases pheromones which in turn creates a chemical reaction. This is why he turned face her. And oh god he smiled. Could he read her thoughts?! Could he smell her imagining him fucking her with the generous width of his Peter Pointer and Tommy Thumb? Could he also see her arching, pushing down hard, climaxing around his fingers? She blushed brazenly. If his brain knew what his chemicals knew, he didn’t give it away. He would be good with secrets.

‘Have you read it?’ he asked, mistaking her fixated gaze on his hands for a fascination with Plato.

‘At university, it feels like a lifetime ago.’

‘I’m still trying to work out if I understand the allegory of the cave…’ he confessed.

‘That we’re all prisoners, facing away from the light, watching shadows cast on the wall…’

‘You seem to get it.’

‘I think I had to write an essay on it in philosophy.’

‘It’s kind of depressing, don’t you think?’

‘Not if it’s true… do you think it’s true?’

‘I haven’t made up my mind yet.’

‘I think you do get it,’ she smiled, grateful to be thinking of Plato and not being finger fucked by this strange man. With his … were those freckles? Sandy hair? No ear hair. Straight perfect teeth.

He was a landscape artist.

They exchanged details.

Twenty four hours later on a noisy bed in a hotel in Katmandu, sheets peeled back, she moaned as his fingers, as if they were slaves to her own private fantasies, pushed deep into her.

* * *

‘If you just give me a moment, I’m going to put the lights on,’ James’ perky rehearsed voice comes from somewhere in the dark ahead like the voice of God in the wilderness before light was on his agenda. How many times a day must he reiterate the genealogy of these caves? Virginia wonders if awe can be faked. He sounds genuinely fascinated by his own archaeological account on endless repeat.

A series of clicks engage the light system, and suddenly they are in the bejewelled belly of the rock. Despite her sweater, Virginia shivers. If it is beautiful it is also strangely terrifying.

About 10 000 years ago, the Khoisan used the entrance of the caves as shelter. They never wandered deeper into the caves because of their superstitious nature.

Of course not, Virginia thinks. It is primal, this antipathy to delve too deep. It feels like trespassing. Some places are not meant to be made open to the public. Or unearthed. Or climbed. Dave’s been talking about Kilimanjaro. As if people don’t die of altitude sickness on its slopes. ‘Why take the chance?’ she asks.

‘You can’t live life from your bed,’ he says.

Depends on your definition of ‘life,’ she supposes.

In her bed, she’s travelled to Middle Earth, the middle East, Afghanistan, Tuscany, the Maldives, one page at a time. Books grow in piles, like untamed weeds at her bedside, half-read, waiting, re-read. She stops in at the library every Wednesday. It isn’t sensible to buy books when you read them at the speed she does. It is wasteful, and they have already wasted enough money. If you find a book you simply desperately unremittingly need to have, well then, it could be purchased. But she’s tamed the desire. Once you’ve read a book, it is that book itself, not some untouched pristine version off the shelf you want to own. Humans are territorial that way. It is the touching that makes something yours, not the price you pay for it.

Dave doesn’t read anymore. Not since Plato.

She hates even thinking of it as a failing, because criticism is neither helpful nor fair in a relationship. It is misplaced. She must find the right place for the right things.

The past doesn’t lose its integrity. Not even in the face of the painful present. Those are her therapist’s words. And she is grateful to have them to grip between her fingers, on the edge of her tippy-toes, like handholds, footholds on a sheer cliff face.

It doesn’t matter how late she reads. By the time Dave comes to bed, she is always asleep, her reading glasses skew from the droop of her neck. He used to take them off for her.

‘I’m scared to wake you,’ he says when she asks him why he no longer does.

* * *

His hand in the small of her back was warm, possessive. His other hand was clasped over her eyes.

‘Not much further to go,’ he’d said.

She had giggled, inebriated with anticipation.

‘Ok, keep them closed, no cheating,’ he said, removing his hands from her eyes. She kept them shut tight.

She heard him fumble with a key.

She tried not to pre-empt. That was a form of presumptuousness, and life is capricious and full of surprises. It was joyless to always be in the know. But she couldn’t help telling her mother on the phone, ‘I think he’s going to do it this weekend.’ He wouldn’t tell her where they were going, just that she didn’t need pyjamas. I want you naked in my bed all weekend.’

He had driven her to a private Game farm. They had taken a land rover to get to their room. Now, they were standing at a private bungalow that overlooked a watering hole. She could smell the animals watching them.

‘No peeking,’ he admonished.

‘Okay, you can open them.’

The enormous bed was draped in a soft billow of gauze, held apart by large ties.

And the bed. Oh the bed. He must have collected those rose petals all year! The bed was covered, literally covered in a carpet of them. Pinks and splashes of red, and yellows and peach.

She’d stood frozen. She only realised in that moment that she had always trailed this moment. A bed made for love, for her.

The soft flesh of a million petals was cool on her bare back.

He gathered them up in handfuls and cascaded them onto her in a shower. He blew each one off with his hot breath.

When they emerged from their post coital sleep, the bed was a mass of bruised and browning leaves, fecund and lush.

‘I want you to share my bed for the rest of my life,’ he’d said, removing a small velvet box from a drawer.

* * *

 

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For thousands of years, we believe the caves were unknown except to animals. According to legend, the caves were discovered in 1780.

These are some of the oldest limestone caves to be open to the public in the world, and of course the San people were the first to discover them.

‘Where are the bushman paintings?’ someone’s voice trails up from somewhere.

‘They’ve been damaged over time,’ James says. ‘But there used to be a whole lot of them around the entrance.’

‘What a pity,’ someone says.

‘Yes, it’s a tricky balance between preserving what’s here and opening it to the public. Please don’t touch the walls,’ James laughs, but there is authority in his voice. ‘We damage these formations inadvertently- just with our presence – the skin that comes off our bodies, the oil and acid on our skin, the dirt we carry.’

‘It is so beautiful,’ the woman ahead of her sighs.

‘Not as beautiful as you,’ her husband chaffs.

Is it beautiful? Virginia isn’t sure. Stalactites and stalagmites, the more unusual helictites, uncertain of which direction to grow, all formed over millions of years. Was that an exaggeration – millions of years? Like millions of sperm in one ejaculation? It seemed improbable. But science confirms this to be the case. Millions.

She never used to mind it on the sheets.

But that was when its value was undiscovered, latent and lost in an idyllic ignorance. Before test tubes and pipettes and injections and harvesting. Before it lost its mystery and became a solution with varying degrees of potency, acidity, concentration.

The odds are so heavily weighted in favour of life. And yet. Bed became a laboratory.

* * *

‘There are many different theories about how these caves formed – but we don’t know for sure,’ James says. ‘It is one of those mysteries Nature has chosen to keep to herself. At best, we can speculate, based on the evidence that has been left behind.’

There is movement in the Earth’s crust, which causes dykes to form. Then rainwater combines with acidic carbon dioxide from decomposing plant material and flows through the fracture zone. This in turn initiates a complex chemical reaction, resulting in various solutions which finally crystallize and evolve into the various formations we see here.

There had been seismic shifts. The cracks became crevices. Continents drifted away. They had looked at each other from afar.

She had felt herself slipping.

The earth gave way beneath her.

There was nothing to hold her. She fell. If he fell too, she couldn’t tell.

From the outside, she thinks, you would never know they existed. These Gothic cathedrals of moving stone, ‘flow stone,’ hollowed out, shaped like those sandcastles you make with drippy sand with little children. What if they had never been discovered? Would they become their own koan, like the tree falling in the forest which no-one sees?

Virginia wants someone to tell this to, to share like a playful slap, but Dave is swallowed into the lens of his new digital toy.

No insect life survives in here. There are no butterflies, no ants, no ladybirds. It’s an insectless world.

‘What a pleasure,’ the woman ahead of her says.

Virginia feels a barb of spite towards her, this cosy woman with her cosy life, and her antipathy for insects. No butterflies? You might as well as well extinguish spring. Blossoms. Rose petals. The stupid cow.

‘There are obviously no cobwebs, that’s because there are no spiders … all insects need light. And as you’ll see, it gets very dark in here.’

James warns people who are afraid of the dark to close their eyes before he switches the lights off. There is nervous giggling around her. The man who still touches his wife-who-doesn’t-care-for-insects’ bottom now has his arm around her shoulders. The click is dramatic, and echoes in the cavernous spaces. Virginia keeps her eyes open. For several blind moments she cannot see her hand though she holds her palm to her eyelashes. She feels extinguished in this entombing darkness. She sighs into it. You can almost imagine the world beginning over, so thick and solid is this blackness. A place before light intervened. Strange things happen in caves. She thinks of A Passage to India. What really happened in that cave? The point was to finish the book not knowing.

For a moment, she imagines the electricity failing, and them all being trapped in this rock, never to emerge again. It is not quite a wish, but it is a thought. To die in this icy terrestrial womb, stillborn. It would be easy. Heartbreak would soak into the stalactites, sorrow into the stalagmites, flesh and bone would fossilize into the granite of this disturbed earthly cellar that doesn’t care for humans and their dirt and the destruction they wreak with their presence. A final resting place, like Romeo and Juliet, mistaken, out of sync, but unshakable in the bedrock of their love.

Could you call it grief, to mourn the unconceived? It was enough of a personal flaw to fail at conception the natural way, but to fail at IVF too?

‘I’m sorry,’ the doctor had said.

‘It’s no-one’s fault,’ Dave said back.

But he didn’t know.

The bed in the surgery had been covered with a plastic sheet. Stirrups on either side. She was told to ‘breathe.’ She had clutched the nurse’s hand as she felt the cold speculum push inside her.

‘It isn’t mine,’ Patrick had said, as if it was a jumper he’d left behind in her apartment.

And in that, he disowned, not only what was taking root in the soil of her belly, but the countless tender, funny and joyous histories they had accumulated over the three years they had shared a bed.

She was not ready to be a single mother.

When the lights come back on she tries to catch Dave’s eye but he has it firmly attached to the camera lens. Look at me, she hopes. Her thoughts echo off the cold patient walls of this frozen breathing beast. If she speaks it, something might shatter, or perhaps like a blind bat, it will just reverberate, return to her, faithful as echolocation.

Maybe it is possible to save a relationship one vacation at a time – attraction after attraction. Perhaps sites and histories can fill the hollow spaces between people. If you use up enough computer memory, it is possible to fill the cave of emptiness, shore the heartbreak you never even knew you were holding until it was discovered by too many nights in bed, and too little action in the dark of the fallopian mystery.

* * *

By the time they tunnel back from the womb of the rock, she has it formed, word by word to deflect the stalactites of blame they have been growing towards one another. ‘Me. It’s my fault. I had an abortion when I was twenty-four … I didn’t know… maybe the scar tissue …’

But two things happen. Dave turns the video camera to her. He films her for a few moments and then something makes him stop. He lifts his eye off the camera and looks at her. Directly. Then he clicks it shut and from deep within the darkness he reaches out for her with his hands. His fingers close around her wrist. Then they reach for her cold fingers, and interlock with hers.

‘No butterflies…’ he murmurs. ‘I bet you hated that…’

And it falls from her. The unsaid thing she has been hollowing out inside herself.

Then she remembers, the first of these weekends away. The doctor’s words still ringing in her ears, ‘I’m sorry.’

He had lead her into the cloying humidity of a breeding enclosure where hundreds of butterflies touched her, a winged confetti, warm, flickering, breathing.

The opposite of falling petals.

His hand, warm and alive, holds her steady as they reach the light.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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Ageing Songlines

Ageing Songlines

I remember being nineteen and having a crush on a married man who flirted with me just enough to get away with it. As I sat, bikini-ed on the beach, contemplating the unfairness of other peoples’ marriages, his wife, a woman in her forties, took my arm with affable firmness and walked me along the beachfront. We chatted about bluebottles and sunburn and the price of a decent perm, and then she said in a different sort of voice: ‘It’s obscene to grow old.’

I can still remember the look she gave me. It was a look that took it all in – the way I silently scorned her pubic hairs sticking out untidily from the crotch of her bathing costume, my vain comparison of our limbs – hers speckled with varicose veins, mine smooth and browned by the summer’s sun; my proud pitying of her, unfairly advantaged as I was, she so past it all, and I so utterly gorgeous. She generously let me wallow in the privileged limelight of my youth, only alluding to the inevitable justice of it all, that someday, I too, would be the forty-year old mother with a husband hankering for a glimpse of an unwrinkled cleavage. And that’s all I was back then, an unwrinkled cleavage. I understand that now.

These days, I find myself wondering more and more about her warning. Is it really obscene to grow old? I mean, what are a couple of white hairs, a bit of sagging skin, leathery arms and the odd stray facial hair? Really.

King Alobar, in one of my favourite books, Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins, secretly leaves his castle each night to examine his reflection in the water and to pluck out his grey hairs. In his kingdom, a king was to be put to death at the first signs of ‘enfeeblement’ or ‘decay,’ indicators that his powers to rule were waning. Fortunately, not being a king-‘n-all, I’m spared the anxiety of compulsory beheading. And there is, of course, hair colour. But the horror when the first white hairs pop up is, I can assure you, no less. My mum once told me ‘you know you’re growing old when your pubic hairs start going white.’ That bought me a couple of months.

Lately, I’ve noticed these little lines around my mouth. Folds. I think the official term for this is ‘puckering.’ Puckering, while a perfectly benign term in the context of clothing, is hardly innocuous when applied to one’s face, inspiring in even the most brave-hearted an arsenal of hysterical pharmaceutical purchases. In my case, I returned armed with expensive ‘skin-firming’ creams and ‘wrinkle-vanishers.’ Lies, all lies. Nothing firmed and not a single wrinkle vanished, though admittedly, the puckering felt much smoother.

Apparently, there are seven signs of ageing: lines and wrinkles; dullness; dryness; blotchiness, age spots; roughness and visible pores. And that’s just the skin. Let’s not talk about organs south of the equator, or trying to remember where you left your keys. There comes a time when the phrases ‘after-party’ ‘recreational drugs’ and ‘unprotected sex’ seem otherworldly as if you’re peering through a looking glass, receding from life-as-others-are-living-it. ‘Ah, I remember those…’ you might muse as you don your not-in-public slippers and look forward to an early night with a good book.

At a certain age, no matter your previous objections, Botox seems alluring. Hair colouring is a monthly appointment and expense. Certain dress lengths are … well, wrong. And you’re fighting a futile war against puckering.

I have expended rather too much consternation, time, energy and angst on the unfairness of this inevitable decline into decrepitude. I wondered, during the dog posture in my Pilates class as I came face to knee with the puckering on my thighs for heaven’s sake, what it would be like to stop fighting. To surrender. To do the Buddhist thing – and embrace old age as a teacher, one of life’s ‘messengers’ (the friendly trio being, illness, old age and death).

There must be some joys available to the aged. A couple of benefits the geriatric can celebrate over and above knitting and purple rinses. Surely it’s not all downhill from puckering? In the poem by Jenny Joseph ‘When I am old and wear purple,’ the poet celebrates the freedom from ego ageing brings and the deepening of a sense of fun and freedom from the tyranny of doing what is proper, expected, civilized and socially acceptable. I have finally understood old ladies in curlers.

No matter the vanity ageing takes from us, it doesn’t come empty-handed, bringing with it a confidence and sense of personal clarity we’d have killed for in our early twenties Armed with just this inner strength, and despite an entire childhood of taunts about the size of my nose, just before my fortieth birthday, I got a nose stud, no longer caring that others thought it would only draw attention to the size of my nose.’ With age, I’ve stopped listening to what others say and think because I’ve realised that – well, what others think about how I look doesn’t matter to me all that much.

Ram Das, the spiritual teacher believes it is possible to age ‘consciously’ claiming that ‘what it means to be a person becomes apparent in old age.’ The journey of ageing, he says, has to do with how we handle change. Those of us who’ve navigated the rapids of puberty or pregnancy know how alterations in our bodies inspire fear and uncertainty – but they’re situated at the front-end of the experience of life, and old age a little less comfortably at the other end. The lesson – as is so often the case with things spiritual – is one of non-attachment and a release from over-identification with the body (which is inherently unstable and unreliable). The poet Yeats described humans as ‘a soul fastened to a dying animal.’ One needs a strong absence of denial to fully inhabit that identity.

Perhaps then, it is not so much that our bodies change that is crushing, but that we identify these particular changes of old age with … you know… kicking the bucket.

So how do we manage the problem of over-identification? Spiritual teachers suggest the trick is to find the part of ourselves that is changeless and timeless, unaffected by cataracts, incontinence and osteoporosis. It’s in there somewhere. Some call it soul, some call it divine energy. It requires a bit of work, but then again, all things worth doing do. Spiritually, then, ageing is a challenge to grow, for us to ‘be with the changes’ (even those as testing as arthritis, high blood pressure and liver spots) with equanimity and grace.

Ram Das optimistically suggests we can use the spaces that old age opens up for us resourcefully – deafness or blindness allow us to retreat into inner work and spend time meditating; the slower pace due to impaired mobility gives us a chance to reconnect with Nature; we can use pain as a teacher to help us with mindfulness and peace. Above all, he exhorts that we should embrace ageing as a creative act. There is no drama to ageing, except what we make of it.

It seems that we have a choice – we can spend our time and money on tummy tucks, face lifts and whatever else falsely promises to keep the tidal wave of old age from engulfing us, zimmer-frame and all. Or we can turn towards old age as if it were an old friend, embrace the discomfort of our changing features, interrogate the experience for what it lays bare and truthful about the nature of life and surrender to the unknown with faith and trust.

What is certain is that unless I change how I feel about my changing face and body, I am destined from hereon in to always be disappointed when I look in the mirror. That amounts to thousands of disappointments spread out before me like a mocking red carpet leading to personal misery and self-disgust.

I’m opting, like Cate Blanchett who claimed that her wrinkles are the ‘songlines of her identity,’ to reframe my cellulite as the dimples of meals-gone-by; my flabby belly as the sacred pouch of my little peeps; my wrinkles as the canals of my laughter and my tears.

In my little ‘rage’, in the words of Dylan Thomas ‘against the dying of the light,’ I’m on a scavenger hunt to find every last gift – including the fact that men now look me in the eye rather than in the cleavage. That when people are interested in me, it’s ME they’re interested in and not the fraying packaging. That no matter how dry my skin gets, I get juicier on the inside as, in Emerson’s words, the ‘beauty steals inwards.’ And on a shallower note, I find that the puckering around my mouth disappears when I smile.

And if this spiritually mature approach fails, I plan to go down fighting like my eighty-nine-year old granny Bee, who, being wheeled into surgery, for what would prove to be her final surgery for the life-threatening and painful condition of necrosis of the stomach, took one look at her young handsome doctor and with a gasp of horror, lamented to the nurse, ‘Oh my goodness… what my hair must look like!’

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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To begin at the beginning. No – let’s go back, back to before then. It is an apricot day in the big whirly world, spring-sprung and parchment-pink. Dylan fills the doorway of his china-tiny writing room, buffalo-tired, refusing to budge to the write or the left,...

Don’t Tell Me the Moon is Shining: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Don’t Tell Me the Moon is Shining: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

One of the trickier ‘golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule.

What does it mean?

It’s the technique of painting a picture for the reader rather than spelling out what a character is sensing or feeling.

When should we use it?

Generally, when we’re writing about emotions and senses, showing works well. However, we need a balance of showing and telling in a text. Telling is more effective when we’re summarizing backstory or describing action.

Why should we use it?

When we show, we paint an image for the reader (like in movies) so the reader gets to interpret and feel his or her own emotional response. This is how we create rich, vivid text that is open to interpretation. It makes writing inviting, not didactic.

E.g. She was grief struck (telling) versus ‘Something cold flickered inside her, memories of her mother moved like minnows beneath a dark surface.’(showing)

When we ‘show’ we leave spaces for the reader to fill in with his or her imagination.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

The movie director, David Mamet talks about ‘telling the story in cuts…through a juxtaposition of images that are basically uninflected…a shot of a teacup. A shot of a spoon. A shot of a fork. A shot of a door. Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration. If you slip into narration, you are saying, ‘you’ll never guess why what I just told you is important to the story.’ It’s unimportant that the audience should guess why it’s important to the story. It’s important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised.’

Telling robs the reader of his or her own emotional take on the situation. It flattens instead of expands the text.

‘She is lonely’ versus ‘She looks for a kind face but never sees one.’

When we ‘show’ we’re letting the reader in, we’re writing for the reader. Showing opens rather than closes the text.

‘He felt hot’ versus ‘Large half moons of sweat grew at his armpits.’

The writer Adam Robinson’s exercise for showing not telling is: drop an adjective into a sentence like this ‘He was so….. that he once.’ Or ‘the day was so cold that…’ Then delete the first half of the sentence.

Have fun experimenting.

Keep writing – the sentences you don’t write keep you where you are. The ones you do, take you places.

PS: Check out my Instagram video on how to ‘show don’t tell’ in your writing.

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

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A Room of One’s Own

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Not Pretty Enough

I was never a pretty girl. Not for want of trying or wishing. But there it was. I longed to be someone other people refer to as ‘adorable’ but there was always too much of me for it not to sound ironic. My father put it straight very early on. ‘You will never be a model, my darling,’ he said as if it truly did not matter.

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My being here is actually not about me. It’s about you. My new book is about you – and your story. So I thought what would be the most helpful input I could give you, as an unpublished author at this point in your writing journey. Here are my top 10 insights or lessons that I’ve learned over the past 12 years as a published author. Things I wish I’d known. A harvest of hindsight in the hope that it will help you to get more quickly where you want to go.

A Man’s Job

There is, however, a fine line between an acceptance of these jobs as ‘natural’ and the slippery slope into boorish gender stereotypes in which I am invariably left unshod with a frilly apron at the kitchen sink. Whilst I can do anything if I wish to, I do believe there are certain tasks I, as a woman, am simply and without further explanation excused from. I don’t want to get into a conversation about it and I don’t want to fight about it.

Don’t Tell Me the Moon is Shining: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ One of the trickier 'golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. What does it mean? It's the...

A Man’s Job

A Man’s Job

I am most disagreeable in the face of gender assumptions.

For example, I am perfectly at ease using tools and would never forgo an outing to Bunnings. I used to be a silversmith and find I am very happy with a pair of pliers in my hand and would wrestle any man to tighten a faucet despite his brawny advantage. I am also fabulous at changing light bulbs and am adept at filling in my own tax return. And though I don’t know how to change a tire, I can drive a manual, a people-mover and would even be so bold as to grab the steering wheel of a lorry if I had to, say rush someone to hospital in an emergency.

I get annoyed at men who get fidgety in the face of female doctors or pilots as if hormonal fluctuations could interfere with brain surgery or a perfect take-off. If pushed, I would go the whole hog and say there is nothing men can do that women can’t, even though it would be churlish to deny the biological, emotional and psychological differences between us which have nudged us into habitual roles from which it can be difficult to break free.

There is, however, a fine line between an acceptance of these jobs as ‘natural’ and the slippery slope into boorish gender stereotypes in which I am invariably left unshod with a frilly apron at the kitchen sink. Whilst I can do anything if I wish to, I do believe there are certain tasks I, as a woman, am simply and without further explanation excused from. I don’t want to get into a conversation about it and I don’t want to fight about it.

The best way to keep on the right side of this distinction, where on the one hand I feel liberated and on the other, I feel totally oppressed, is to let me decide who does what job. That way a man can never make the mistake of patronizing me.

For example, driving is not entirely a man’s job and I resent the assumption that a man should always be the one behind the wheel on long car trips. For one thing, women can (it seems to be an intact part of the brain) ask for directions without having her womanhood called into question. It is, however a man’s job to take over the driving when the woman is tired. And to feed the kids while she is driving. Whilst women are marvelous multi-taskers, we still cannot be expected to keep hand on wheel, eye on road and to shell those eggs or open up the sandwiches. It’s not for want of wanting – it’s an appendage deficit.

I am not fond of non-negotiable gender roles, but as it turns out Nature is. I do what I can to compensate, but there was no bargaining when it came to who had the babies. I know when to concede defeat. When the babies came, my husband and I struck a deal: I, given the mammary advantage, was in charge of nutrition. That left him in charge of excretion. We each took control of one end of the deal. And this has worked well, on the whole.

This simple and equitable transaction has morphed into a larger unspoken societal contract that has designated us routines in the kitchen where I do all the catering, and he does all the cleaning. I certainly would never elbow a helpful fellow away from the oven were he offering for example, to cook me up a melanzane with buffalo mozzarella. But I know this: I’d rather slave over a hot stove than have to scour a pot or clear the scum off the sink. It’s the nails, you see.

I am not seeking asylum in the fainthearted excuses of ‘the fairer-sex.’ This is entirely a personal preference: if something smells bad, I don’t want to have to handle it. If it is maggoty, has been regurgitated, or comes out at the lower end, I claim immunity. Considering the way in which my nether regions have had to endure a certain indignity beyond all reasonable expectations at childbirth, I’ve bloody well earned it.

I also think it makes a kind of logical sense: I, as the handler of food, should never have to come in contact with excrement, barring the necessities of personal hygiene. If I were married to Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver, I would certainly be open to renegotiating these terms.

There is, of course one exception to this general rule. It is a man’s job to be in control of the barbeque at all times, even if the man in question cannot boil an egg or make a cup of tea. If it involves an outdoor cooking surface, tongs and smoke, it is not a woman’s job. My job in this instance is to be sipping on a martini and checking on the salad.

I have a friend whose husband does not barbeque. I think he has issues. He plays the ukulele.

Given the input/output demarcation (and for those of us not married to Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver), garbage is not, generally speaking, a woman’s job. Women are disposed to filling the garbage and men need to take it out when it is full. And just for the record, ‘taking the garbage out’ is a job that remains incomplete until a new fresh garbage bag has been put in its place.

That old nursery rhyme about girls being made of sugar and spice is a lie as Heather Mills has shown, and so it should never be taken literally. Neither are all men at ease with slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails – actually women make perfectly wonderful veterinarians. But when it comes to pets and dogs in particular, it is a woman’s job to feed it and take it to the vet for its’ annual check-up. But we don’t walk the dog and we most definitely do not scoop poop. Even if the woman is the one who wanted the dog in the first place.

As women, it is not our job to unblock toilets, remove the mauled bird from the cat’s mouth, bludgeon the cane toad, or clear the lawn of a month’s worth of dog’s doodles for the kid’s party. Do I really need to explain this further? Furthermore, it is a man’s job to put the toilet seat down, potty-train his son, and check out any funny noises in the house in the middle of the night.

We don’t catch things. Whether they are fish or balls or spiders. If something might pounce, draw blood or hurt on contact, we are excused from this interaction. We don’t hold things down or run after things. Things must come to us.

When things break, it is a man’s job to fix them, unless of course I am in the mood (as I’ve mentioned, I am very dexterous with a pair of pliers). I can and am able to assemble furniture from Ikea, but perhaps I’ll check on the dinner instead. If things need to be wired up, like computers, televisions and various other electronics, I find I get a small headache figuring out what goes where, so I guess, this too is a man’s job. If my email is not working or my computer is giving me the blue screen of death, I expect a man to be able to look at it and go, ‘oh that’s easy’ and to have it working in no time. It seems a natural progression from anatomy to technology than men should be able to sort out which wire goes where and what plugs into what.

But women, I concede can be our own worst enemies, reinforcing some of those ghastly stereotypes and unsettling the score about whose job is whose. For example, at the pharmacy last week, I did that female multi-tasking maneuver – whilst filling out a prescription for minor ailments, I remembered we had used our last condom just that morning. And I found, myself, quite involuntarily I might add, whispering, rather than speaking out loud and proud to the pharmacist, ‘Can you show me where the condoms are?’

‘Sure,’ he chuckled.

I followed him sheepishly, jibbering on about how I don’t really think it’s my job to buy the condoms, but while I’m here… ‘

‘At our age, darl, we’re lucky to be getting it at all,’ the pharmacist reassured me, at which I laughed, because that’s what women annoyingly do when we’re being polite but which I have to say, kind of depressed me.

Whilst I happily do all the grocery shopping, I do question whether condoms falls within the parameters of what one would commonly accept as ‘groceries.’ Just as I wouldn’t expect my husband to buy my tampons, I think condoms do qualify as ‘personal hygiene,’ items, the kind of thing you want to pick out personally and not leave to the vagaries of casual supermarket specials.

Besides, condoms are the prophylactic equivalent of those people who talk so loudly on their mobile phones so everyone within a five metre radius cannot avoid becoming a third party to the interaction. Buying condoms is a public broadcast to the cashier, the person in front of you and behind you in the queue: I have sex. Like it’s any big deal at my age. But being a woman, I am modest about such assertions. I prefer sensible little rows of coloured pills, or diaphragms which come in their own little plastic containers, bespeaking a responsible, family-planning consciousness towards sex as an act of procreation, befitting a woman with two small children who haven’t quite gotten their little heads around the whole mum-and-dad-have-sex caper.

In my case, I have, to use my doctor’s vocabulary, ‘completed my family.’ The only thing I’m likely to pick up these days from my husband is his dirty socks (which, mind you, is his job too).

‘Well, here they are,’ the pharmacist said pointing to the rows of ribbed, feather-light and ultimate pleasure.

‘What do you recommend?’ I asked. Honestly, anxiety is the laxative of conversation. Besides, this only reinforced my instincts that I should not have to find myself in a pharmacy, talking to a man in a white jacket about what sort of condoms I prefer.

When it comes to condoms, I have no preference. My preference is that my husband go for a vasectomy. His preference is that ‘it may hurt,’ ‘get infected,’ ‘someone he knows nearly lost their testicles,’ and ‘perhaps when next he goes for a hernia op…’ Since I am the one who was on the pill for eight years, endured six months of nausea in two pregnancies, got the unsightly stretch marks, the Caesarean scar, the saggy boobs from breastfeeding, I as the one who goes for annual pap-smears, consider I have borne more than my fair share of responsibility for the results of our nuptial bliss, (which by the way, still includes the laundry – that apparently is still my job). In a moment of reckless selflessness, my husband agreed to, conceded the need for, took on the burden, the mantle of The Condom.

Doesn’t taking responsibility include the inconvenience of remembering to replace them when they have all been used up? The indignity of having to ask for directions from people wearing name-tags? The decision about which will work best in the circumstances?

Look, I am a feminist. I believe in the equality of the sexes. I don’t have a problem with stay-home dads or mums who work all day. When it comes to condoms, I will endure them, the way they interrupt the flow of natural consummation, their horrible little rubbery smell, the way they can chaff at the more delicate bits, and even at the end of it all, their viscousy little air-bubble, which my husband has, on occasion, referred to as ‘a hell of a lot of child-support.’

But, and I am prepared to take the flak for this one – it is not my job to buy them.

And of course, it goes without saying that it is a man’s job to pleasure his woman with a back-rub, a hot bath or a bunch of ‘for-no-good-reason’ roses which infinitely increase his chances of actually getting to use those condoms.

First Published in Vogue, Australia, February 2009

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

A Room of One’s Own

When I was five years old, during a routine game of hide-n’-seek, I hid in the cupboard in the spare room, amongst the hanging fur coats and long sequined dresses my mother would never wear again. I was there a long time. Even when my seeker had ‘given up’ and rallied the adults to help find me, though I heard people calling my name, I kept silent, not wanting to betray the sanctuary of my hiding place.

Not Pretty Enough

I was never a pretty girl. Not for want of trying or wishing. But there it was. I longed to be someone other people refer to as ‘adorable’ but there was always too much of me for it not to sound ironic. My father put it straight very early on. ‘You will never be a model, my darling,’ he said as if it truly did not matter.

8 Reasons to Write Your Story

As an author and writing mentor, my days are spent writing stories and helping others to write theirs. But every writer I’ve ever worked with (myself included) throws themselves down this emotional garbage chute: why should I write my story? Who will care? What does it matter?

A Harvest of Hindsight: My top 10 insights about publishing for aspiring authors

My being here is actually not about me. It’s about you. My new book is about you – and your story. So I thought what would be the most helpful input I could give you, as an unpublished author at this point in your writing journey. Here are my top 10 insights or lessons that I’ve learned over the past 12 years as a published author. Things I wish I’d known. A harvest of hindsight in the hope that it will help you to get more quickly where you want to go.

A Man’s Job

There is, however, a fine line between an acceptance of these jobs as ‘natural’ and the slippery slope into boorish gender stereotypes in which I am invariably left unshod with a frilly apron at the kitchen sink. Whilst I can do anything if I wish to, I do believe there are certain tasks I, as a woman, am simply and without further explanation excused from. I don’t want to get into a conversation about it and I don’t want to fight about it.

Don’t Tell Me the Moon is Shining: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ One of the trickier 'golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. What does it mean? It's the...