Ice and Snow

It’s zero degrees outside right now, and autumn. Translated for the US, that’s 32 degrees and Fall. This is one of the times of year that confuses our friends in the northern hemisphere. I know this because the number of times a day every single May that I’m told that the weather is warming up is ridiculously high.

Once upon a time only my US and Canadian friends forgot the southern hemisphere had different seasons, but these days it’s parts of Europe as well. December is the worst for this, because we’re told that Christmas is for everyone and requires cold weather to celebrate. A storybook Christmas has cold and snow and a big hot meal. Here, it’s more likely to include a picnic by the lake with black swans demanding their share of the food and with unlimited cold drinks.

Being told to rug up during the summer holidays has a special absurdity, but when it’s negative temperatures overnight (-3.2 last night – I’m typing this at breakfast time feeling that sudden rush of warmth as things become less bitter) every “Isn’t it nice that summer is coming” kinda rankles.

Of all those who forget that the southern hemisphere is not the northern, the most annoying are those who insist that I’m wrong and that winter is not coming. Our autumn is fully settled in late April everywhere, and one in three years is cold by mid-May. This is one of those years. Winter may not be already here, but it’s sent very clear messages that it’s close.

I live in the mountains (inland), so it gets particularly chill here. Canberra is too dry, mostly, for snow (though we had snow in northern Canberra over the weekend) but one of the southern hemisphere’s best ski fields is merely a bit over an hour away. Not that I ski. I did, however once unintentionally provoke the Deputy Prime Minister to fall thirty metres in the snow. That was, however, in summer. The snow was remnant snow and it was the day he gave his particular speech at the top of our tallest mountain and… I put the rest of it into one of my novels, because it’s one of those incidents that sounds fictional and therefore was crying to be used in fiction.

Anyhow, the ski season has begun (just) and I now work late at nights.

Why late? It doesn’t get properly cold until 4 am here, and I would rather go back to bed until my toes don’t curl to protect themselves. This is not typically Australian, and, in fact, didn’t used to be typically Gillian. When I was a child I’d wake up before dawn to walk in the melting frost. As I age, more and more I like going back to bed on days like this.

My work day, in fact, will be shaped around how cold it is over the next three months. And what work does this day entail? Mostly research into how writers develop the worlds for their novels and how these worlds, in turn, can feel more or less real to readers. It doesn’t matter (I am discovering) whether or not the world has magic or if all the plant life is purple with turquoise spots. The world can still feel real when things are not like the worlds we know. It can still feel entirely fake when thing are depicted precisely as we know them. It all comes down to the world building and how the writer pulls that world into the story itself.

My fiction for the next little while depends on my mood. This month’s new writing is all about a light novel where I test some of my discoveries about how writers build and depict worlds. The episode I’m typing when I need a breath of warmth has an almost-human couple discovering that kittens, too, can become vampires. Also that braggarts and fools exist just as much in the world of the supernatural as in the world we know.

This week has a few extras and will be busy. I’m late with my tax, so that’s urgent, and I’m editing, and I’m working on my Patreon papers.

This month’s Patreon essay discusses the very curious relationship between Medieval French epic legends and MCU movies, and I’ll be delivering that paper live at a conference later this week (from my home computer). This month’s fiction for patrons includes the how the kitten’s household semi-domesticates that very cute vampire kitten, and this month’s advice to writers will explain how popular knowledge of famous figures can work in fiction.

And that’s my world this week. It’s busy, but not so busy I can’t sleep for an hour more. Since I started writing this, the temperature outside has gone up by a full degree. Soon the sun will beam loudly into my east-facing work area and everything will be almost-comfortable. I shall take that as a victory, because this year’s winter is going to be cold, if autumn already contains frost and black ice.

When I was younger, I dreamed of a good income. I also dreamed of living somewhere warmer (northern NSW or southern Queensland) in winter and in my more-comfortable mountains in summer. Now that I can’t pretend to be young, I complain about the weather. The reason for the complaint today is not, in fact, because it’s cold outside, but because someone left the security door open over the weekend and all the warmth leeched out of my flat and so the warmest I can get it is fifteen degrees (fifty nine degrees for US readers). Crunchy cold grass underfoot ceases to be exotic when the warmest corner of indoors is under sixteen. And I’m sure there’s a joke in there… but my brain is frozen. Even the postie (who just delivered a parcel) tells me that it’s brisk outside. If you’re reading this from the part of the planet that careens towards summer, this morning I envy you, so very much. How much is so very much? Probably about ten degrees.

Turning Away Wrath

You have probably heard about Jordan Neely, the man choked to death by a another subway passenger in New York City because he was yelling. By all accounts that I have seen, Neely wasn’t doing anything violent, though he was certainly making others uncomfortable.

Elie Mystal provides an excellent account of all the issues involved – including race, mental illness, homelessness, and even the possibility that the man who did the choking, a former Marine, overreacted with violence because he hadn’t received enough care for his own traumas. Mystal points out:

But, to be honest, the racism saturating every part of this story is only the most obvious of its horrors. This murder takes many of the problems we have in our society and shoves them into a giant melting pot.

A lot of homeless people live in my neighborhood, many of them under a freeway and BART overpass a few blocks away, others camped in a nearby park. They are often rousted out and have to find other places to go. Meanwhile, there are vacancies in the brand new overpriced apartment buildings put up all over this area.

The people living on the street can’t afford those places, of course. Studio apartments start at over $2,000/month.

Some of the people on the street are mentally ill. Some are just very broke. I give a few of them a wide berth when I see them, but I have never felt compelled to attack any of them, even the ones who scream abuse at all and sundry. I don’t feel threatened. Mostly, I feel horrified that the richest country in the world does not take care of its most fragile people.

Before the pandemic, I was better at being compassionate, but the need to keep my distance from others for my own health got me out of the habit. I’m trying to get back to being kind again, though I know that a couple of bucks and a word is so much less than they need.

As I read about the death of Jordan Neely, I remembered a well-known story from the late Aikido teacher Terry Dobson, an American who trained in Japan with the founder of Aikido back in the early 1960s. That story too took place on a subway (this one in Tokyo) and it featured a very drunk and abusive man. It was entitled “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath.”

I first read it in a 1985 anthology edited by Richard Strozzi Heckler called Aikido and the New Warrior, though it occurs to me that I might have heard the story in the dojo before I read the book. It’s the kind of story that Aikido people love to tell.

I suspect from the title alone you can guess that the situation was resolved very differently from the recent killing in New York, though it was not Dobson, a martial artist then in his prime, who resolved it but rather an elderly and very traditional Japanese man.

Every time I read this story, I tear up.

I could summarize it here, but it is so much better in Dobson’s own words and I was able to find it online here under the title “A Soft Answer.” 

Give it a read, and then give it some deep thought.

We don’t have to live like this.

In Troubled Times: Being Allies

I started a blog series, “In Troubled Times” after the 2016 presidential election. Folks I trust said that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. That’s true now, too, so here’s the first in a renewed series.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone I love dearly who, like so many of us, belongs to overlapping groups that have been targeted by the current crop of hate-mongers. So many of the people and causes I support are at risk, it’s easy to feel battered by prejudice, overwhelmed, infuriated, and hopeless. But, in a moment of spontaneity, I found myself saying, “We can be good allies for one another.”

Let me break this down a bit. There is more than enough hatred to go around. There will never be a lack of worthy causes and people in need. No one of us can save everyone.

Thankfully, we are not all crazy (or desperate, or paralyzed by events) on the same day. Progress happens when we are actively pursuing it, but also when we allow ourselves to take a break, tend to our inner lives, and allow others to carry the load. The world does not rise or fall solely based on any one of us. This is why solidarity is essential. Insisting on being on the front lines all the time is an engraved invitation to exhaustion. If we look, we will always find those who, for this moment anyway, have energy and determination.

I think the secret to being a good ally is to realize that we can be that person for someone else.

This requires paying attention.

It is not helpful to do for someone what they can and should do for themselves. How then are we to discern when “helping” is arrogant interference? When is it a genuine offer and when does it result in telling the other person that they are inadequate and helpless to achieve their goal?

We ask. We listen. We give ourselves permission to appear clumsy and we forgive ourselves when we make mistakes.

Sometimes, the best thing we can ask is “How can I help?” and sometimes it is the worst, laying yet another burden on a person bowed down under them (“Oh god, I’ve got to think of something for her to do!”) Sometimes, saying, “Would you like me to help with that?” is the best, and sometimes it is the worst. Sometimes, “You are not alone” is a sanity-saver. Sometimes, it is a reminder of looming disaster. Sometimes, “I’m here and I care” is all the other person needs to hear, and sometimes it is worse than silence.

We listen. We ask. We pay attention.

The one thing we do not do is walk away. When I think of being an ally, I envision someone with whom I can be depressed, angry, volatile, and just plain wrong—and know that I will be held up by their unrelenting care for me. I can vent my frustration and they won’t abandon me. They will hear the pain and despair behind my words.

I want to be that ally for others. I want to be that safe person. I’m far from perfect at it, though. My feelings get hurt. I sop up the other person’s despair when I know better. I do my best to not walk away.

Listen. Forgive yourself. Take a break. Do what you can, when you can. Then pick yourself up and get back into the fight.


Up soon… “This too shall pass…”

On Feeling Better about the World, one email at a time

I’m sorry I missed posting last week. I fully intended to write, but then my birthday started (unexpectedly) a little early with a movie, and by the time I took a breath it was Tuesday night my time. I felt much loved. But I missed posting.

The visit to the movie for my birthday is a tradition that began some years ago. A friend admitted he never knew what to get me and I admitted I never got to the cinema. Because my birthday is a national holiday in Australia there are often new releases, and, since both of us enjoy superhero movies, I have seen a number of them over the years, as my birthday treat. This year my friend was away on the birthday itself, so he suggested we go see Kuzume the night before. Not quite my birthday and not quite a superhero movie, but the perfect movie for my current mood and I still have that birthday tradition.

The next day (my actual birthday) I had an afternoon with friends, followed by dinner. And messages. Many, many birthday messages. I still have a few emails to open and answer. I think I’m putting off the last few because I want this feeling of being treasured to last a little longer. I do live alone and these last few years that has taken a big toll. Every friend who remembers me and talks to me is so very, very important.

Other people worry as they get older. I always love birthdays because it’s a day when people around me stop and remember “I need to send Gillian a message” or even give me a gift. There is a special wonder in this for an older single woman without children. For a brief time my life matters.

I no longer get a family time at the Jewish high holy days (it’s a long story and entirely inappropriate to talk about). I have created an extended family-by-choice time to replace it so that my high holy days have love and happiness and much food (except for Yom Kippur, which is alone and foodless), but there aren’t the family traditions of presents and hugs from all the children in the family-by-choice, largely because most of them associate all that stuff with Christmas. Christmas is the festival I celebrate with friends and for those friends – it’s their festival and I have a lovely time, but it’s not about me and never should be about me. My birthday, though, if I can get people I love, a slice of cake and a clinky glass full of very nice Shiraz and a few hugs and some parcels to open… it gives me hope for the whole year. This year I experienced the first full set of hugs since COVID. It was rash of me, because I’m still COVID-vulnerable, but I daring accepted all hugs  then, soon after, the children and I put our heads together and plotted (and also tested a CO2 meter: the verdict was that the best place for me to live ie the safest place with the most oxygen… was the letterbox) – these are amazing things and three years without them was far too long. I had a lovely birthday.

If you know any people who are alone and don’t get a special day, wishing them happy birthday can mean a lot. Unless they’re like someone I know who hates birthdays with a cold-death-glare. You should find another day to make these someones feel loved. May 1, for instance. Or September 1. Find a day and buy them coffee or send them an email or drop in. It’s a handy way of making sure that people who are alone are not actually lonely.

Now I need to find out a way to remind all those who love me that it’d be nice to see them a bit more and to feel that love more often. I shall work on this. In the meantime, I shall watch the letterbox (not the COVID-safe one – my untested-for-oxygen one). Two friends sent me something fir my birthday and those somethings have yet to arrive.

I do adore this one (very, very extended) day in the year.