Being with What Is Leaving Us

Being with What Is Leaving Us

Tanaka 1I have never nursed a dying person.

Regrettably, I have killed many a plant. Not on purpose. But it seems as if I’m afflicted with a negligence – perhaps more generously understood as a failure of translation – between caring for fauna and caring for florae.

I have listened to stories and read books about ministering to the dying – a mother, a spouse, a sister, even, god-help-us, a child. My husband rushed back to South Africa to be with his mother in her final weeks of life. It involved nappies, holding hands, watching her writhe in pain, released finally by morphine. I have heard it is unglamorous, raw – a gateway into a secret chamber only those who have held space in this way will ever know. Many accounts talk of the liberation from the pain of personality – how it is possible to find love and forgiveness in these brutally real hours before a relationship is extinguished, at least in material form.

Much as I have prepared for these times, in Buddhist practice now and then, in contemplation and vicariously, I have not been there yet.

My cat Tanaka has recently been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. She is seventeen years old, as far as we know. We got her from the RSPCA some weeks after my family arrived in Australia in the spring of 2001. We had promised our kids, aged nearly 2 and 4 that we would replace Rain and Shadow, our beloved pets we had to rehome before we immigrated.

Tanaka was the youngest cat there – at around 9 months old, already erroneously christened – by whom we have no idea – for Tanaka is a male, not female name. Having spent nine months in a cage and almost too old to be cute, she was catatonic when we got her. Unresponsive – more so than is usual in cats. We loved her back to life. Queenly from the start. Neat paws. Extremely chatty – in a sort of back-and-forth if you echoed her mews. Zed taught her to ‘jump’ like a Lipizzaner, over his torso, back and forth, back and forth. She amused us for hours this way when we got bored of television. She slept at the end of my bed most years. In the heat of summer, she refused to come indoors. She’d watch us from the neighbouring property call her from the backdoor, saunter in when it suited her, but sometimes we’d have to send my son down to get her.

Tanaka 2In her early years, she got into a fight and had an oozing abscess on her abdomen the vet informed me would cost around $500 to treat. As new immigrants, we didn’t have that kind of money, so I treated it myself. She let me squeeze it until it cleared, as if she understood I wasn’t intentionally hurting her, but helping her.

One year I went away to Bali to teach a writing retreat, and returned to find her face skew. No-one in the family had noticed. She was diagnosed with a form of Bells Palsy which eventually cleared, but needed me to treat her unblinking eye with eyedrops twice a day to prevent her eyeball from drying out.

Her white nose was always a worry – especially because she spent so much time on the fire-escape in the sun. She got nose cancer late in life. She had a procedure to cut it off, but when she recovered from the anesthetic, her third eyelid covered her right eye from nerve damage. It remained this way for months and we accepted she’d never recover, but it eventually did.

 

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?

Tanaka hated the car. In the years we inflicted trips to the vet for her annual checkup, she’d froth at the mouth, urinate and defecate in her cage. We soon found a travelling vet who came to us. It was the least I could do for her.

On mornings when I’d meditate, Tanaka would approach me, her purr loud and deep. She’d caress me with her tail and find a place close by to sit with me.

Our friend Melvin called her a ‘horny-assed cat’ because if you patted her lower torso, she’d raise her bottom. She didn’t like her tummy or her toes to be touched. Zed couldn’t help himself and would tease her trying to touch these off-limit parts. She’d often win, leaving him with bloody scratches.

When she was a young hunter, she’d often bring beheaded rats and disemboweled birds into the house.

She survived four moves and outlived two other cats we got over the years – Midnight, who died within two years of feline Aids, and Jinx, whose life ended after five years under the wheels of a car outside our apartment. Tanaka despised other feline company and was never so happy as the two years in which she was the only cat in the house. Then Archie came along. Tanaka disapproved from the start. He was a handful. A bully. She chose to spend more and more time outdoors.

In the past few months, she started losing weight rapidly. I noticed she was thirsty all the time. Tests show she has chronic kidney disease. We’ve put her on antibiotics, bought expensive ‘renal’ food which she hardly touches. But she shadows me wherever I go. Every day she lies on my bed, and I wrap her in a blanket, making her a ‘housey-wousey’ as we call it, where she can sleep all day away from Archie and his annoying pranks.

Now at night, I lie with her beside me, a raggedy parcel of cat-bones and fur, my heart bursting. ‘At most, a year,’ were the vet’s words. But with so little appetite, I wonder.

I have never nursed a dying person. My time will come. But here I am, loving what is leaving me. It is a painful, exquisite gift. I am in presence with impermanence and the fragility of life and friendship and unconditional love. I rest my head beside her and tell her the story of our friendship. She musters a mew, without sound. She purrs into my hand. She knows me so well. I don’t want her to go. And I am filled with tender gratitude.

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In Search of Words about Writing

In Search of Words about Writing

What is it like to write?

When I first discovered Dylan Thomas in my early teens, it unbolted a mayhem of yearning inside me. I knew only that I wanted to do that with language, to cause a rousing inside another, simply by the laying down of words in a particular order so that they pierce and prod, stir and surprise.

But it was only when I started writing in my twenties that I learned my own way into the writing process. Until then, I had never heard of how in writing you might come across your own strangeness and feel yourself grow large and curious as words trickle from somewhere (inside? outside?) like soft rainfall, and make their way onto a page. And then how you might stand back on the crest of a day’s work and appraise the shape of the world you have formed from nothing – a blank page.

When I’m in the density of writing a book, Zed notices. He says I disappear. A part of me slips away. My personality changes. I talk less. I recoil from noise. I cannot watch TV. I prefer my own company. But in this fading out, I am filling up. I’m surging, closing in on something that feels just within and just beyond my grasp. I close my eyes and let myself sink. I tumble like Alice down the rabbit hole, and any disruption, no matter how small breaks the reverie, like an alarm clock on a deep and powerful dream. It’s a radical act of surrender to an energy carrying me, a tiny surfer on a massive wave, sourced beyond the confines of my body and my ego.

I love to write when I’m half asleep, sometimes with eyes barely shut, and see what seeps out.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Writing is searching for a vein, the best vein, piercing the surface and letting the blood flow.

It’s an affair without the guilt. Knowing something others don’t – being in on a secret entirely your own.

It excites me in a way that nothing else does, a blind date with yourself, replete with eager anticipation – will this work out or won’t it? Will you leave with a flutter in your heart or disappointment? You never know until it’s done.

In my day-to-day life, I’m foolish and mundane; but in writing, I can be wise and profound, to the point of utter unfamiliarity, of self-startling, the way we might gawk at ourselves in the mirror, after a professional makeup artist and hairdresser have done their jobs. Who is that person? Consequently, I like much better the person I am when I write. I’m more interesting, fascinating, deep and thoughtful. When our writing is carefully edited and rewritten, not the blurt of a first draft, every single weighed up word is a musical note in a perfect melody. Writing is architectural, structured, the ‘mathematics’ in Jorge Luis Borges’ equation ‘art is fire plus algebra.’ It is a true marriage of the wild, mysterious and untamable, and the careful construction of engineering and craft.

You sometimes hear of people living double lives – I know a woman whose husband pulled this off before he left her for his second family. I can see the appeal – especially for those of us who find the idea of choosing one set of circumstances annihilating of freedom and choice. When I write, I am living this double life, without the commute or the deception. I am a self, larger than my choices and more beguiling than my personality. I can opt for the predictable and unimaginative (heterosexuality, monogamy, parenting, mortgage) because when I write, I breathe fire. I can force language do to things I cannot force anyone or anything else to do. I can pair words that do not belong together: heart-sweep. A bonfire of the groin. A huddle of psychoses. I don’t loathe myself for sitting in my sweatpants all day as long as I dance in stilettos and castanets on the page.

I do not know if I want to be myself if I cannot write. It is, like all terrible loves, filled with both longing and terror of how I would cope if I lost it.

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Why We Should Keep Broken Things

Why We Should Keep Broken Things

You’ve probably all heard the phrase the ‘first shitty draft.’ Anne Lamott coins it in her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird (which if you haven’t already read, needs to go on your Urgent Books to Read list).

First drafts are shitty. It’s in their nature to be bad. Our problem lies in our expectation that first drafts should be good.

Think of the first time you tried anything – a kiss (how sloppy, how ‘where-the-hell-should-the-tongue-go?); a recipe (overcooked, raw, unflavoured, soggy in the middle); a musical instrument (how the hell can it be so hard to strum?). Why do we expect that our first writing attempts will just sing on the page? We will be clumsy. We will be verbose. We will tell too much and not show at all and we won’t even know the difference. We will sink into cliché and think it’s marvellously profound and we’ll write in the passive voice believing it sounds fancy and professional.

Our first drafts will suck. They are meant to.

The problem is that we think it means we suck. The shittiness joins forces with our inner critic and very soon we’re in the shame zone, feeling like we’ll never write again.

But I’ve got a different way of thinking about shitty and sucky first writing attempts. I call them ‘wabi-sabi’ drafts. ‘Wabi-sabi’ is a Japanese term (derived from art) which denotes the beauty of that which is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. We can learn so much from our broken attempts, from our ineptness, from our misshapen inelegance. We can grow in acceptance and compassion, and find the joy in effort and grace.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Alice Walker’s poem “I Will Keep Broken Things” offers some insights here:

I will keep broken
things:
the big clay pot
with raised iguanas
chasing their
tails; two
of their wise
heads sheared off;

I will keep broken things: the old slave market basket brought to
my door by Mississippi a jagged
hole gouged
in its sturdy dark
oak side.

I will keep broken things:
The memory of
those long delicious night swims with you;

I will keep broken things:

In my house
there remains an honored shelf
on which I will keep broken things.

Their beauty is
they need not ever be “fixed.”

I will keep your wild
free laughter though it is now missing its
reassuring and
graceful hinge.
I will keep broken things:

Thank you
So much!

I will keep broken things.
I will keep you:
pilgrim of sorrow.
I will keep myself.

The questions I ask writers about their first drafts are:
What is imperfect about this draft?
What is incomplete about it?
Where are the cracks?
Where is the wisdom and beauty in this draft?
And most importantly:

What do you love about this draft?

Find what you love in what is broken, and brokenness will become part of the story you are telling.

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‘Words have helped me understand who I am – all of me, not just the loveable parts I present to the world in a curated Facebook profile.’
– Joanne Fedler, Internationally bestselling author and writing mentor

I didn’t start writing to become a better person. Back then, I thought I was perfectly fine as I was, thanks very much. I started writing because I needed to understand my life. As a child, I had no-one to talk to, so I spoke into the quiet I found on the page.

I got lucky. I became a published author, ten times over. On the path, I’ve done book signings, received fanmail and royalties, been flown here and there to talk about my books which have all been fabulous in the way that a new cocktail dress and stilettos are fabulous. But they’ve not been the lasting or true gifts my writing has given me. As I’ve stayed with writing, through sunny and shadowy times, we’ve grown together like partners in any relationship of intimacy.

Not only has writing given my life meaning and tracked my journey, but it’s bestowed these unexpected gifts along the way:

1. Embodiment: people imagine writing is an idea that begins in our heads, but it doesn’t. It starts in our bodies. I learned this early from Tom Robbins, who suggested writers need to do half an hour of exercise and then get sexually aroused before a day of writing (I’ve not quite managed this). It’s about sweat. Senses. Blood. Guts. For a heady gal, this commitment to bone and muscle has helped me to really see, hear, feel, smell, taste and touch the world. It’s made me a better mother, lover, friend and all-round human.

2. Depth and Intensity of Emotion: it’s impossible to escape the truth of how we feel when we write. Writing has helped me to express, instead of suppress my deepest feelings. I don’t have to worry about being ‘too intense.’ The page doesn’t judge or flinch. It just receives whatever you’re bringing – passion, grief, anger. This has given me permission to feel everything I feel, fully and without censorship. I’m not scared of my own feelings or others.

3. Lightness through Forgiveness: in writing, I’ve made making meaning of my experiences including some really dark and ugly stuff – and in doing that, I’ve been able to let go of pain and trauma. Writing has helped me to offload old wounds and move on in my life. I’ve forgiven myself and others for mistakes and hurts inflicted.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

4. Self-Compassion and Acceptance: words have helped me understand who I am – all of me, not just the loveable parts I present to the world in a curated Facebook profile. I’m able to be a full person, imperfect, flawed, vulnerable, rude, impatient, selfish as well as successful, smart, generous and whatever else I want others to think of me. When we can meet ourselves with self-compassion (and a sense of humour), we grow in empathy towards others.

5. Unshakeable Self-Worth: to write, we must believe we have something worth saying. Even though we may battle the incessant question, ‘who’m I to write?’ we soon develop a curiosity about ourselves, and this question shifts into ‘Who am I?’ which is one of the power questions each soul must answer. Honestly, I always hope people will find value in what I write. But if they don’t, at least I have.

6. The Compass of Intuition: writing has shown me how to trust myself and to stop second-guessing my gut. Over the years my intuition has become my compass. Our intuition is our inner guidance we often ignore, which reignites when we listen to the silence within our hearts. I once made my husband get off a plane before take-off because ‘it didn’t feel right.’ He wasn’t happy with me. I think he thought I was losing it, and for a moment, I thought maybe I was – I mean who gets off a plane before takeoff when the doors are already closed? But after we’d disembarked and the captain ordered all the other passengers off soon after, he gulped and apologized. (I’ve got to say, it was a relief to me too…)

Writing has helped me stay sane. It’s expanded my sense of what’s possible to know, feel and discover.

I have just one regret.

I’m sorry about the trees, I truly am.

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