About Mary Lou Stephens

I've been a radio presenter, a singer/songwriter & an actor. Now I write books and live in paradise. www.maryloustephens.com.au

When a Writer Meditates (quite incidentally includes a cure for writer’s block)

I’ve recently returned from a ten-day silent meditation retreat at the Queensland Vipassana Centre. Another one? Yep. It was the eighth time I’ve sat in silence for days on end, trying to meditate. I say ‘trying’ because usually I spend the first four or five days with a head whirling full of unstoppable thoughts and stories. This time it was no different. Over the ten days I came up with the ending for the latest novel I’m writing, the outline, beginning, plot and ending for the next one and the next two after that. I also came up with changes to an unpublished manuscript I still have great hopes for.

On the fifth or sixth Vipassana I did a few years ago I was having trouble stopping my mind from coming up with story ideas and it was causing me some angst so I went to have a chat with the Assistant Teacher. (Yes, it’s a silent retreat but you are able to ask questions about your meditation troubles to the Assitant Teacher who conducts ‘interviews’ at 12 noon most days.)

‘Oh, you’re a writer,’ she said. ‘I have a special technique for writers.’

‘Really, what’s that?’ I hoped it might involve pen and paper and a special place in which to write down all the spectacular story ideas I was having, each of which was bound to be a best seller.

‘Put your writer in a separate compartment in your mind, give her a typewriter, not a computer because she’ll only surf the internet, but a typewriter. Then let her go for it while you get on with your meditation.’

‘So, I compartmentalise my writer in my mind. What if she tries to break out and take over?’

‘Kindly but firmly insist that she goes back into her writing room and leaves you in peace so you can meditate.’

‘But what if I want to know what she’s writing?’ My writer could be coming up with brilliant ideas, more sure-fire bestsellers. I’d never know what they were about. It was a worry.

‘Then that’s when you have to master your own mind, observe the breath, observe sensations. Do not let her distract you.’

‘Right.’

It was a great idea in theory but my meditation practice is far from perfect.

So on this most recent meditation retreat I tried to tuck my writer away yet again but she absolutely refused. She wanted to play and came up with endless ideas which she told me in such an entertaining way that I couldn’t resist. A couple of times I said to her, ‘That’s enough. Go back to your room and type all these novels up. Stop telling them to me, I need to meditate now. I need to observe the breath, observe sensations and I can’t with you yapping away with all your oh so clever ideas and notions.’

She didn’t listen to me, she never does. So instead I gratefully received her idea for the ending of this latest novel. (It had been bothering me because I wanted a happy ending and there are not many happy endings in the area about which I’m writing.) But her idea was sweet and sad, melancholy and funny. It’s a total fantasy, but still it is a lovely ending. I also gratefully received all her ideas for the next umpteenth novels and patiently waited for her to slow down, which I knew she would do, eventually.

Sure enough at the end of day four her voice became softer and sometime on day five she floated off, popping back only occasionally to make sure I was still breathing. (I was and observing the breath while I did so.)

I won’t say that for the next five days I meditated perfectly. (I mentioned I’m not a perfect meditator but we aim for progress not perfection don’t we and some progress was made.) But my mind did become quieter and I even had moments when I could observe the breath and observe sensations without any other thoughts in my head. (Not many moments, but some.)

And now? Can I remember anything she told me over the course of those chatty days? Yes, thank goodness. You see, my writer does come up with good ideas and then, while I’m trying to meditate, she repeats them to me over and over and over again. And then a couple more times for good measure.

I don’t have writer’s block but if you do, I know the sure-fire cure for it. A ten-day silent meditation retreat. Meditating for over eleven hours a day. No reading, no writing, no talking, not even looking at another person is permitted. No distractions at all. Except your own head. I promise you, your writer will have a field day.

 

 

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Today’s Life Lesson

Over the years of trying to grow my own food, I have discovered that the only things that don’t get eaten by the possums, grasshoppers, caterpillars & native rats (which chewed through the nets I’d put up to try & stop the grasshoppers & caterpillars) are turmeric, lemongrass & ginger. Even the chili bush was stripped of every chili & leaf by the possums last year.

Oh, and I have a very happy bay tree growing in a pot. I’ve even supplied my organic bay leaves to a local restaurant for free.

Fortunately, The Hubby & I love ginger & turmeric & have some every day, so having all the garden beds planted out with these two, and one very enthusiastic lemongrass bush, is a win-win. I’m starting to harvest the latest bumper crop little by little according to our needs. What a joy it is after all those years of failure & frustration.

It’s a life lesson really, isn’t it? For years I battled to do what I thought I should do no matter how stressful it was and no matter how much it cost me emotionally, physically and financially. Mind you, as far as growing my own food is concerned I was also passionate about it and really, really wanted to be able to make it work. But no matter how hard I tried and how much money I threw at it, nature always won. All I ended up doing was feeding the neighbourhood possums, bugs and native rats. There was nothing ever left for our table. 

So now I’ve let go of that dream and support my local organic store and farmers markets instead. In so doing I’ve discovered the delights of growing the things that really thrive in my garden, things that even those voracious native rats leave in peace.

So here’s to a bumper harvest of ginger and turmeric. And here’s to celebrating the delicious things we will make together and the health they will bring – physically and emotionally.

My Two Million-Year-Old Brain

I didn’t have to go. I could have said no. All the signs were there, telling me not to, yelling, “Danger! Danger!’

A volcano, for God’s sake, about to erupt at any minute the headlines screamed. I bought masks and goggles, and borrowed a Steripen in case water became scarce.

My husband glanced askance at my growing pile of precautions. ‘Are you sure you really want to go?’ he asked. ‘Doesn’t look like much of a holiday to me.’

“I’m going,’ I said. But in my head the voice remained, ‘It’s a sign, pull out now. Don’t go.’

The facilitator of the writing retreat I was attending sent an email. Because we don’t want to put anyone in danger we have decided to relocate the retreat to Australia.

I was incensed. I’m the one who decides to put myself in danger, or not. I didn’t want to go to a writing retreat in Australia. I wanted to go to Bali. Besides the retreat was being held in Sanur, miles away from the widest of the exclusion zones. And the locals needed us. They were suffering because of cancellations and the lack of tourists. We had a moral duty to keep the retreat in Bali. I emailed the facilitator and told her so. But all the time the voice in my head kept saying, ‘See, even someone who spends half her time in Bali thinks this is a bad idea. It’s a sign. Don’t go. Stay home. Stay safe.’

The facilitator changed her mind. The retreat was going ahead in Bali after all. I could tell my husband was disappointed but I was jubilant. Well, most of me was, all except that voice in my head.

The plane refuelled in Darwin, just in case we had to turn back. The stewards told us stories of how they’d been stuck in Bali two years ago because of a volcanic eruption. I thought of my mask and goggles safely packed in my suitcase. Volcanic ash consists of tiny pieces of glass that cut and gouge into eyes and lungs, so the voice in my head kept telling me. ‘It won’t be pretty. You could jump out of the plane now, in Darwin, and catch the next plane back home.’ I didn’t.

The week in Sanur passed without incident. No eruption. No disaster. No ash cloud. But my next stop was Amed, up the north east of Bali, right next to the volcano but just outside the exclusion zone. I was going there to learn to scuba dive. It took me three days to find a driver who’d take me. “Too dangerous,’ ‘Amed is closed,’ No Miss, you can’t go there.’ These were the stories I was told. I emailed the dive school three times for reassurance. Yes, they were open, yes, it was safe, and Amed was suffering because of the lies about it being closed. The small town of 500 people needed me to come and spend my rupiah. The voice in my head disagreed. ‘This is a sign,’ it said. ‘If you go to Amed you will die. If the volcano doesn’t get you the diving will. Breathing underwater? Are you kidding? It’s against nature. You will drown. Your equipment will fail. Your death will be horrible, excruciating, and tragic. Your poor husband. He didn’t want you to come to Bali but here you are and now, against all advice, you’re still going to Amed, you’re still going diving? Idiot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

A strange thing happened when I arrived in Amed. That very day all volcanic activity decreased; the tremors, the crater steam, the magma readings. They all plummeted. I was disappointed. I’d hoped to feel some tremors at least. Nothing. The volcano was beautiful. I walked along the beach of black volcanic pebbles and was in awe of its pointy, steaming majesty. Here I was, right next to the cause of all the fuss, and it was nothing but a gentle, sleepy giant. (And yes, I took the photo above of Mt Agung.)

The next day I learnt to scuba dive. I breathed underwater. I swam through fluttering clouds of rainbow fish and over magical realms of coral and creatures. I was weightless and buoyant, oblivious to gravity and atmosphere in another world beneath the surface. The voice was in my head the entire time, urging me to stop this foolishness, telling me I’d proved my point after the first dive and didn’t need to continue, that persisting with a second and then a third dive was lunacy, I was just pushing my luck, I would definitely die. After two days of diving I was triumphant and invincible. I was still alive.

The voice in my head didn’t let up, it warned me about the state of the roads, the lack of driving skills of the people using them and the total absence of road rules, the fact that tourists get robbed and thrown out of cars on a regular basis, that my credit card would get skimmed, my passport stolen and I’d have no money, no proof of identity and I’d be left in a desperate state, abandoned and probably injured.

I’d managed to avoid monkeys and the numerous stray dogs that populated every area I visited. The voice had warned me about the very real threat of rabies. Ironically it had also insisted that I not to get a rabies shot, or any other vaccinations. ‘Vaccines don’t work, just look at the flu shot debacle,’ it had told me before I left for Bali. ‘Besides vaccinations are full of crap like mercury and other poisons you don’t want in your body. Avoid them entirely.’ And so I did, and gave every monkey and every dog a very wide berth. Even the dog that came running out of an alley in Ubud, threw itself on the ground in front of me and rolled onto its back wagging its tail begging me to rub its tummy. I missed my funny old dog back home. This dog was so full of joy and fun I laughed out loud but I didn’t touch it. Besides, the voice told me it had probably been trained to do just this by some nefarious person who would be appearing out of that same alley any moment demanding money to feed his funny, loveable dog.

On the fast boat to Nusa Lembongan the voice had me checking for life jackets and devising escape strategies in case of capsize. ‘The lack of legislation and protocols is obvious,’ it told me. ‘Safety standards are non-existent. You’ll have to take care of yourself. Can you imagine being left in the middle of the ocean with no proof of identity and no money? Make sure you keep your passport and credit card close.’

On the island I wanted to see the sights and travel to Nusa Cenigan which was only accessible by scooter across a narrow, yellow bridge. The hotel where I was staying only offered truck tours, which, and here I agreed with the voice, would be a lot safer. The roads were shocking, narrow, pot-holed, rutted and in some places flooded. A vehicle with four wheels was a better bet than the two-wheel variety, especially as there wasn’t a bike helmet to be seen on the island. But I persevered. The young men at the hotel’s recreation centre had a friend who would take me for a scooter tour. All I had to do was pay them the money and they’d arrange it for the next day. I handed over 200,000 rupiah and not even thinking to ask for a receipt, the deal was done.

The next day at the appointed time there was no friend, no scooter and a different young man in the recreation centre knew nothing about the arrangement I’d made.

‘You could take the truck tour,’ he said. ‘There’s one leaving at 11am.’

‘Yes, take the truck tour,’ the voice said. ‘This is a sign. If you’d gone on the back of a scooter you would have died. Remember that Australian girl who fell off the back of a scooter in Bali recently. She died. That could be you. Forget the scooter. Take the truck tour.’

But I had paid 200,000 rupiah. It was the principle of the thing. Although I felt like an idiot for not getting a receipt, I was going to get what I paid for. I marched off to the front office and told them what had happened. Within ten minutes a scooter complete with driver appeared and I was off and away, leaving the voice floundering in my wake. It was a marvellous adventure, rugged, rutted roads and all. The scenic spots were rather ho-hum for a girl from the Sunshine Coast who’s surrounded by exquisite beauty every day of her life, but being on the back of a scooter was a blast especially when we zoomed along a beautifully paved and maintained back road past the mangrove forests. I felt free and victorious. Once again I had triumphed over the nitpicking nay-saying of the voice.

I understand the voice. It’s my two million-year-old brain. That ancient reptilian amygdala that wants to keep me safe. It doesn’t want me to have adventures, it doesn’t even want me to have fun. All it wants is for me to survive and back then, two million years ago, survival was paramount. And no matter how I try to reason with it, it doesn’t understand reason, all it understands is fear, especially in a strange place like Bali, or underwater or on the back of a scooter.

And so heading back home, the over-packed minibus did not roll over in the chaos of Denpasar airport traffic, the plane did not fall out of the sky, and, apart from a case of Bali belly, I arrived into the arms of my loving hubby unscathed and still very much alive. But the voice persisted. ’There’s still the journey up the Bruce Highway,’ it muttered. ‘There could be a massive accident. You know how notorious this highway is. You could still die.’

‘Oh, shut up!’ I said.

Scrabble Divas Rule

It makes friends of strangers, enemies of friends and binds like-minded souls in a pleasure that cannot be experienced by the uninitiated. Scrabble.

Those who have never owned a well-worn Scrabble set and a much-thumbed Scrabble dictionary may scoff, but the pain and the pleasure of Scrabble cannot be beaten.

Like most people, I’d played as a child, enjoyed it at the time but moved on. That was until I met the Scrabble Queen. I was living in a small country town and she took me under her wing. Every Sunday afternoon I would go around to her place and she would wipe the board with me. Month after month this went on. But as I watched and I learned, she passed on her skills to me and I became powerful. The day I beat her I became worthy of the title of the Scrabble Princess.

The legend grew and people would travel to that small town to take on the Scrabble Queen and the Scrabble Princess. One cocky Sydney journalist thought he would have his way with us using his vast knowledge of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. But no.

He left a defeated man, his tail between his legs and our laughter ringing in his ears.

I moved to a bigger town and kept my skills a secret for some time. Sometimes it is best to watch and wait.

Eventually, I found a worthy opponent.

Once again every Sunday we would meet and while her boyfriend cooked us dinner we’d hit the triple scores with everything we had. I taught her tricks I’d learned from the Scrabble Queen and before too long she became a Scrabble Diva to beat the best of them.

Once again I moved on, my Scrabble destiny not quite complete.

It took a while to find an opponent brave enough or foolish enough to take me on. This time I took pity on a poor little Scrabble Tadpole. She reminded me of myself in my younger days. I passed on the skills that had been taught to me by the Scrabble Queen and eventually I bestowed upon her the honour of her very own Scrabble set. But if you challenge her, beware, she has the training of many generations of Scrabble Mistresses. She may toy with you for a while but eventually, she’ll hit you with a seven-letter word on a triple word score that will blow your mind.

These days I play online. I keep in contact with the many Scrabble goddesses I’ve met along the way and we battle it out with each other, thanks to the glory of the internet. But whenever we do get the chance to catch up in person, the Scrabble board gets dusted off and it’s game on. Nothing can beat the clatter of the tiles on their wooden stands, the scribbled scores mounting ever higher on a hastily found piece of paper and the satisfaction of stealing that triple word score, quite literally, from under your opponent’s nose.

Scrabble on!

The Shallow Promise of Your Best Life Ever

The holiday and festive season is over. How do I know? It’s not the suddenly empty beaches or the re-emergence of school crossing guards. It is the plethora of magazine and newspaper lifestyle segments telling us that the good times are over and it’s time to pay for all the excess.

It’s like getting your first credit card statement of the year.

Suddenly, instead of recipes for the perfect chocolate pavlova, the media is full of ways to remove the undesirable poundage that said pavlova has deposited on unsuspecting thighs, waists and chins.

I was tempted for a few seconds by a seductive little detox number that promised to clean up my system, get me into my old jeans and supply me with a fabulous life all within the space of 10 days. However, when I read what I was expected to eat, or more importantly not eat, I came to my senses. I realised that 240 hours of sheer misery was too much to endure, even for the promise of my best life ever at the end of the torture.

Let’s face it. Diets aren’t about reaching your healthy goal weight. Diets are about reaching your goal happiness, your goal size smaller than your best friend, your goal boyfriend, and best of all; your goal envious looks from other people. Diets are about being suddenly slim and glamorous. They’re about swanning around in sports cars and being lusted after by movie stars. Wouldn’t we all be deliriously happy, content and rich if only we were just a little bit slimmer?

I’ve been wading through the lists of sure-fire diets and the swathe of Celebrity Diets. There are only two things that I’ve read that have made any sense. One was a celebrity singer saying that the only way to lose weight was to eat less and exercise more. The other was a celebrity actress telling us not to believe other actresses who say they eat whatever they like and stay stick thin. She said that she, like all the rest of them, was hungry all the time.

This week I’m relishing my morning walks along the near empty, post-holiday beach, not to lose weight but just for the sheer joy of it. And when I see those people who are slimmer than me, I no longer see them as morally superior beings who live incredibly fulfilled and fascinating lives with their perfect life partner. I see them as people who are just a bit hungrier than me.

The Miserable Joy of Eeyore

I’m a year older than I was last week. There’s something about having a birthday that always reminds me of Eeyore. After all, what’s a birthday? Here today, gone tomorrow, as he would say.

Eeyore has always been my favourite of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters. With such lines as, “Good morning Little Piglet. If it is a good morning. Which I doubt. Not that it much matters”, how could you not love him?

On his birthday Eeyore is sardonic, witty and urbane but most of all he is miserable. Eeyore makes us all feel better on our birthdays. He takes on all the pain of ever feeling forgotten or abandoned on what’s supposed to be our special day. He makes even the most monumental loser feel good. No matter how bad things get they’ll always be worse for Eeyore. And that’s a form of comfort.

When I was a kid I was always jealous of my sister’s toy Eeyore. It was a home-made job way before merchandising came to be the market force it is these days. It had character and was well-loved. From an early age my sister and I both knew that Eeyore was the only one who saw the world as it was but still found something worthwhile in it. Even better he expressed his pessimism in no uncertain terms to anyone who’d listen and they still loved him. But most of all he was funny.

I once met a man who used to size people up by finding out who their favourite Winnie-the-Pooh character was. To him it was a reflection of how people viewed the world. Pooh types were optimistic, undemanding and simplistic. Piglets were insecure, needy and eager to please. Owls were quirky, odd and kind of interesting. Tiggers were arrogant and immature. Kangas were often nurses, caring but tired. Roos were wishy-washy. And Rabbit? Who on earth would choose Rabbit as their favourite character? You’d have to be perverse.

Very occasionally you’ll find someone who cites Christopher Robin as their favourite. According to his theory, it shows someone with a marked lack of imagination or a male going through a mid-life crisis.

But when you find another Eeyore you know you’ve found a soul mate. It takes a special type of person to love and appreciate an old grey donkey who pretty much keeps to himself in a damp corner of the 100 Acre Wood.

“I might have known’, said Eeyore. “After all, I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And it was last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’ The Social Round. Always something going on.”

Thanks Eeyore.