I saw this tweet from my colleague Kumi and like many of you, I connected with the sentiment she expressed.
A few years I was doing a Q&A with Rosie Batty at a conference. One of the things that stuck with me was something along the lines of how she had always feared losing her only son, Luke. And then the unimaginable happened; Luke was killed by his father.
The Kelly family, like Rosie has been through the unimaginable.
Hearing about the attack on Thomas Kelly in July 2012 felt sickening.
That his younger brother Stuart would take his own life in 2016 was another incredibly cruel low for the Kelly family. How could such loss strike twice?
At the time I hadn’t followed the events between Thomas’ death and Stuart’s suicide too closely, but I know about these events intimately now, having read Too Late Too Soon, Kathy and Ralph Kelly’s blistering, heart-breaking book which has just been launched.
Two weeks ago I interviewed Kathy for One Plus One which airs this Friday on ABCTV.
When I heard my show had been offered the interview with Kathy, a part of me froze.
How was I supposed to face a woman who had been through the unimaginable. Twice.
First I had to deal with my own dread. What if something like that happened to my family? How would we survive? What would it be like emersing myself into Kathy’s world? How does anyone move on?
I read the book from cover to cover. The first chapter ends with Thomas’ death. It had a pace that puts you right in the scene. And it was utterly harrowing. I put the manuscript down and cried.
But as I progressed through the story, scribbling my thoughts down in the margins, the sense of dread receded. I searched for anchors. There are many experiences in the nearly 500 interviews I've done and the places I've travelled to. I've had friends and family who have stories of great suffering and great restoration. As I crafted my questions, I read poetry (mainly Mary Oliver) about loss and meaning. I read up on resilience, and noted how Kathy said she and her husband Ralph dealt with grief in different ways.
I now had a pathway. I tidied the questions into a neatish road with a beginning, middle and end.
I’ll never be ready, I thought. But then I never think I am.
I’m usually thinking up questions to the last possible moment.
Before I knew it, interview day had arrived and Kathy appeared in the studio. We chatted briefly. She was cheerful and seemed to be in a good place. I liked her instantly.
Did I hit the mark with the interview?
I’m never the best judge. But now when I think of Kathy I don’t think of her as a sad person with incomprehensible loss weighing her down. She is someone with multiple dimensions. I think of her walking the dogs in the park. I think of a partnership she's held together, of nurturing her daughter Madeleine. I imagine her having dark moments as well as times of clarity and lightness and joy.
For me that feels better than the cocoon of sympathy we sometimes wrap people in.
“Christmas tree!” My daughter yells as we step onto the escalator at David Jones. It's October and it's a timely reminder that the end of the year is about to hit me with light speed.
The Christmas tree sighting releases a small surge of panic, but I’m thankful to DJ’s for triggering my annual burst of planning for the next year. It doesn’t matter when you initiate this. Another great time is as soon as the 2019 diaries start to appear. Go for the diaries which start in December because in my realm, a year is thirteen months.
It can be stressful to hit the road in January. I know. I should have posted this in November.
With a bit of forethought you can ease into the weight of expectation, excitement, inspiration, order, chaos or introspection that can overwhelm us in January with the start of another new year.
Here are some thoughts to get you started...
Holidays. A good place to start is to block out your leave/holiday dates on a single page calendar or your new diary where the whole year is on a page or a double page. Using different colours and annotating what you intend to do helps to lift the spirits as you anticipate the journeys or events you’ll make in the coming twelve months. It’s motivating as it’s always good to have something to look forward to.
Do you keep a diary? My friend keeps a diary which he writes only throughout the month of January. I see him having lunch on the benches of the high-rise building where we work. He writes long-hand in an A4 notebook and the look on his face as he writes is one of calm and accomplishment. Then January is over and the the exercise book is put away for another year.
Academic Paul Dolan is a Professor of Behavioural Science in the UK and has advised the UK government on wellbeing. In his ground-breaking 2014 book Happiness by Design, Paul describes how being happier means allocating attention more efficiently; towards things that bring us pleasure and purpose.
After interviewing Paul in 2015, I decided to do my own annual happiness stock-take, which I’ve done for the last three years. I keep the lists in a locked file on my phone.
Doing an annual stock-take gets me thinking about what’s important to me.
The more I look at the list, the more resolved I feel.
One thing I noticed was that I did quite a few projects for people, simply because they asked me to. Sometimes I took things on, because there was a decent payment attached to it. Often, it wasn’t really work I wanted to do. So I decided to draw up some rules about the types of projects I wanted to take on. I also learned that if I didn’t want to do something, I should let people know immediately. These two strategies allowed me to say ‘no’ to work that didn’t align with my intentions.
The start of the year tends to move slowly for some of us. At around this time some years back, I asked someone I respected if I could meet them for a coffee to discuss a few career-related issues. Now I schedule coffee-chats or quick lunches throughout the year. You could even suggest a walk-talk. In many cases, if you explain that you a) admire someone’s work b) want to learn c) you are patient with their shortage of time d) can be focused about what you want to gain from talking with them, it’s unlikely they will turn you down.
Related to the coffee-chats is a habit I was taught when I did a life-coaching course a decade ago. Our tutor asked us about self-care. She told us to make a list of people we enjoyed seeing and other ways that we could look after ourselves. We were urged to put regular dates in the calendar: exercise sessions, massage or hair appointments, lunch-dates during the working week with interesting/inspiring friends. When I told my friend about the strategy, over one of our lunches at a Japanese restaurant (where we sit at the same table each time ;)) she gave me some extra tips which I am passing on: “Life is about choices," and "every little bit counts.”
Whether you are saving for a something, trying to lose weight, or attempting to start a big project, making small inroads is better than fretting about the mountain which lies ahead.
In my neighbourhood, someone started a public wishing hedge. It's a lovely idea but to make your wishes come true, you have to make a plan.
I am always feel a little low at New Year. The introvert in me makes an appearance. So I won't wish you a happy 2019, but a thoughtful one where planning can make a difference. Do the stock-take and let me know what you think.
I recently went to the 2018 Byron Writers Festival as a guest moderator. I planned to use my downtime to write. A children’s novel. Very early stages.
The hotel had a resident dragon to keep us entertained and two of my favourite things for breakfast: sourdough bread and peanut butter.
But something in me shifted. Maybe it was the magnificence of the lighthouse. Or the encouraging warmth of the air. Something was telling me NOT to shut myself in a room and tap away on a laptop.
It wasn’t the time to be a hermit. I was meant to connect with other people and take in their wisdom. This was no time to hide.
Here are some of my Byron encounters:
Selina had the best job title of anyone: New Zealand Poet Laureate. We talked about finding time to write. She talked of gifts, or objects that tell us stories. She left me with ideas and two recommendations:
I met another poet. His name is Lemn Sissay and he took my breath away performing his razor-sharp poem Hanging On, to an audience under the marquee. I like the way he pronounces the 'g' in the middle of 'hanging'.
Alas, I didn’t write my novel, but I met 97 year old Nina who’s a One Plus One fan… she told me that if there’s a stem of roses covered in thorns, she only ever sees the roses. I’m glad I listened to the universe.
This morning I reading two profile pieces which held my attention and moved me profoundly. One was an appreciation of Professor Stephen Hawking, the physicist who died this past week (Cerebral Celebrity, The Australian by Dennis Overbye - paywalled).
The other article was a profile (by Jane Cadzow) of journalist and author Cynthia Banham. Her new book, A Certain Light (which I haven't read), in part details the terrible 2007 plane crash in Indonesia in which she nearly died. More importantly, it details her recovery from severe injuries including the amputation of her legs while she spent three months in a Perth burns unit.
I did not have the opportunity to interview Stephen Hawking. I would like to interview Cynthia, although I'm not sure at the time of me writing whether she's agreeable. I can imagine how difficult it would be to talk about her experiences, so the profile may be the closest I get to her.
What moved me about the stories was a sense of wonder about survival and and an acknowledgement that life doesn't always go the way you want it to.
Earlier this week, I read how Hawking lost his ability to speak more than three decades ago after a tracheotomy. This was related to complications in his condition, motor neurone disease, which he was diagnosed with at the age of 21. He told the BBC that after the operation he had considered committing suicide by not breathing, but he said:
the reflex to breathe was too strong.
Cynthia Banham says in the Sydney Morning Herald profile that she often imagines seeing the two Australians sitting on either side of her, who perished in the crash. They were journalist Morgan Mellish and diplomat Liz O'Neill.
It's like they occupy those places on either side of me permanently now." She keeps in touch with O'Neill's husband and daughter. She often imagines she sees Mellish's face in the street.
And then this about the nature of tragedy.
Actually there is tragedy everywhere you look...you can find it very easily in certain countries overseas but even when you look in your own very privileged country, it is there in every family. Whether it's cancer or mental illness or misfortune of some kind. Losing a child. Whatever. It's everywhere. And actually that's the way life is.
Life as I knew it took a vibrant twist when I left Hong Kong and became a communications student at Mitchell College (Charles Sturt University) in the 1980's. Bathurst was a long way from Hong Kong. At first I kept the curtains in my room firmly shut, because the wide-open field outside my dorm window was too confronting.
Within a few weeks, however, I had friends and that made all the difference to the girl from Hong Kong.
Without a doubt, the most terrifying person at Mitchell was our writing lecturer Peter Temple.
Peering from behind his glasses as if he were gazing out of a window, he had this soft South African accent and a laugh that was more a whinny. Likeable yet fearsome, he was by far the toughest of our lecturers.
Peter Temple used to leave our corrected assignments outside his office. The door was always shut. One day, I arrived to see a student named Tim pick up his assignment. He searched for the mark on the back page of the assignment and then began to shout abuse and kick Peter's door. Clearly, his assignment had failed to impress our writing lecturer.
"You bastard!" Tim cried as his foot pounded the wood, echoing down the hallway.
Suddenly, the door opened. I don't know why, but it had never occurred to me that when Peter's door was closed, he was actually in there.
Tim was taken aback too. He was a tall man, but Peter stepped forward, unafraid.
"Fuck off." Peter said, as if Tim was an annoying fly.
And then the tutor retreated into his room, closing the door behind him.
Years after I left Mitchell College, I started to see Peter's name in the headlines. He quickly rose to become a brilliant crime writer. Many of his books became TV series. I particularly enjoyed The Broken Shore. He was so economical with his descriptions and his stories kept you on the edge. Imagine having to suffer students like me.
It's at this point I have to post some of the pertinent and hilarious comments he wrote on my major writing assignment (on my favourite subject: chocolate) at the end of my first year:
I didn't get a brilliant mark (65% when 55% was a pass, if I remember correctly) but I passed and without that, I wouldn't have moved into Year 2 of my degree.
In 2014, I blogged about the chocolate assignment after reminiscing with my first Mitchell College friend and now crime and romance author Jaye Ford.
A few days after my blog, incredibly, I received an email from Peter Temple.
The subject heading was "chocolate box".
Just when you thought you'd got over it, someone mentions that first assignment ...
I think about it every time I see you on the box.
I was gobsmacked. At the time, apart from presenting my interview show One Plus One, I had embarked on my second book China Baby Love, but wasn't sure I'd make it to the end. This is how I replied.
Great to hear from you Peter.
I’m still a struggling writer, but it’s becoming more important for me to write. I’m not sure why.
Always grateful for the first 65%
All the best, Jane
And then he wrote this drops of magic.
Imagine being remembered only for your face or your voice?
Writing is a puny lunge at immortality.
Nice word, puny. PT
That was our one and only exchange after Mitchell College. I will treasure it. #ValePeterTemple.
I was recently asked to participate in a seminar about the writing of life stories for elderly people in an aged-care home. Residents are selected by social workers and a volunteer proceeds to interview the resident over a period of months to record, write and eventually publish his or her life story. The program's been running for almost twelve years with fifteen volunteer story-tellers.
The most experienced volunteers had written thirty life-stories. They spoke of the special bond that formed after spending an hour a week for up to six months, in order to craft the mini-biography.
I was asked how I would go about interviewing an elderly person who had lived a very simple life. It was explained to me that many of the residents don't feel they have achieved much in their lives or have had a hard-time adjusting to living in aged-care. Women in particulary, often put little value in bringing up families or supporting their husbands.
I used a simple device to describe how I gather research about a person who has little or no archival footprint:
Fishing with Onions
By recording answers to simple questions, I create a basic timeline of the person's life. That timeline might look like this to begin with.
Then, here's where Fishing with Onions comes in. Still using straitforward questioning with lots of encouragement, I 'fish' for details from my participant to flesh out their timeline. It's like peeling away the layers of an onion, eventually adding depth and context to the timeline.
Then, when I have the basics in place and I can see the twists and turns of their lives, I can become more curious with my questions. Eventually, I might end up with something like this:
After delivering what I thought was a neat little summary, the volunteers brought up some of the roadblocks they'd faced.
Residents are very happy to tell me the details of their lives, but then they insist that some of these details are not for publication.
Sometimes the stories contain inaccuracies or claims that can impact other people's lives.
And then a volunteer storyteller down the front who'd had her hand raised, sighed deeply as she confessed that she found one subject she'd been assigned to boastful and competitive. Eventually she had to remove herself from the process because she found it so challenging. She realised that she didn't like the individual.
I sympathised with her. It's impossible to like everyone.
But you can give them a decent hearing.
I remember actor Hugo Weaving saying this to me when he played the part of the much-reviled (to Australians at least) English cricket captain Douglas Jardine in Bodyline, the mini-series. Weaving said:
I don't believe in heroes and villains, I never have. In life - by and large - people are just people, everyone's pretty grey and we all have heroic and villainous qualities. We contain contradictory complex emotions and feelings and attributes.
I read Douglas Jardine's autobiography, and the last chapter was about fly fishing and suddenly you read that and there was something his daughter had written, as well. So suddenly he was a father to me and suddenly also he was a contemporary man who probably enjoyed his own company and solace and probably enjoyed nature.
I thought if he's a fly fisherman he likes being quiet, he likes the skill of something, he likes the game, the chase, he likes thinking about things. Suddenly that put everything in perspective. You can't just be the villain who wants to win at all costs.
I thought about Hugo Weaving only after I left the care home, but what I said to the volunteer was this:
You could extricate yourself or... you could try to find out what made him competitive and hard to like.
Find out what made that person into the man he was. Why was he motivated to be so tough and unforgiving? When did it happen?
When I come across an uncompromising individual in my interviews, someone who lacks empathy, the questions that open up discussions of hurt, trauma, neglect or defence usually produce answers which are the most rewarding and surprising.