The power of names and nicknames

child sitting on a ram in front of an old army tent
Robin the tomboy about to become Rachel the ewe lamb: the summer before high school

To name a child is brave,
or foolhardy; even now it shakes me.
Lauris Edmond

How many names and nicknames have you had? Have they stuck, do they still work for you? I had a baby nickname, a kid nickname, a couple nickname, and a wife nickname. I’m wondering whether they still hold some truths, some messages for me as I blunder towards the void. If I talk about these nicknames, maybe you’ll be thinking about your own…

But when I think about them, one inescapable truth astonishes me: all my names and nicknames were given to me by other people. None of my names or nicknames were actively chosen by me or even endorsed by me, except for adopting and keeping my husband’s surname, and even those were default decisions. A name plays a powerful part in building your identity, especially when the name-callers have strong opinions about the kind of person they believe or want you to be.

Who am I—a person who accepts and conforms with barely a twitch? Looking back, I think maybe so.

Baby Jigger jigs on forever

As a new baby I was Jigger, so-called by my big sister Jill, because I never stopped jigging and jumping. My mother pinned me into a sleeping bag and pinned the sleeping bag to the mattress of the pram, and still I jumped right out of the pram at the ripe old age of three weeks. Does Jigger still work as a nickname for me today at seventy-eight? Possibly, when I go prancing and even jumping around the dance floor. And possibly not, as I am lazy for much of the day.

Robin a-bobbin’—wistful hint of a former self

This nickname was discarded for Robin, and so I was Robin Taylor all through primary school. Why? The story goes that I could not be a Rachel, because a Rachel was mature, a grown-up woman. They said I was a tomboy, running wild, up trees and in creeks, grubby and fearless and happy outside. (All this is relative, of course—I had my partners in crime.) I was forever making huts up trees, under hedges or in the fowl house.

How does Robin work today for me? Robin Taylor is a delightful name, round and cheerful and honest, don’t you think? And the South Island robin is very cute and it hops around your feet as you walk through the forest stirring up insects—a wild bird that poses as tame for the sake of dinner. I love little Robin Taylor but I think of her as someone from my past.

I carried on making huts and homes in unsuitable places for much of my adult life, but today I look through windows at Wellington’s Green Belt from within the solid enclosure of an apartment. I do love a brisk walk to the top of a hill, but I prefer a strong roof  that does not leak. Nobody would call me a tomboy today, although perhaps I have remnants of rebellion.

As a child I rejected the very idea of being a woman, I wasn’t having a bar of it, and when the symptoms appeared, I was wracked with horror. (Some years later I grew into my destiny as a woman, even embracing it with a certain glee.)

A dignified first name is imposed on an unsuitable child

B&W photo of 11-year-old Rachel in Christchurch Girls High School uniform
Hair cut, school uniform: the day Robin became Rachel. Mission: get some dignity!

My parents believed that I wasn’t dignified enough for a Rachel. When I was about to start secondary school, my godmother stepped in. “Why do you call her Robin? She has her own name, a fine name, and that’s what she should be called.” She, whose own name was Phyllis, won the battle. I was not consulted.

So I had to stop being my own self and become somebody else’s construct of me. The new me had her long blond plaits cut off, wore an ugly gym tunic, spent her days scuttling around a scary corridors full of tall strangers, and had to answer to a spiky new name.

What sort of a person was a Rachel? I was a grubby talky precocious little blonde kid and the only other Rachel in my entire world was a tall Plymouth Brethren girl at school, with a heavy black plait roping down her back: a quiet, calm, grown-up woman who was always clean and tidy. In other words, an alien. And this was to be my role model? Apparently Rachel meant a ewe lamb: luckily I could identify with that instead—running around sheep paddocks was normal behaviour. Baa!

So Rachel was my grown-up name: I had to grow into it. That’s odd, isn’t it? Usually a name grows around a child and the two become one. But Rachel still didn’t fit, apparently, because at university my future husband’s friends called me Tosh, while he called me Pud. Tosh was half of Mac ’n’ Tosh, and Pud was—perhaps my shape, perhaps my cooking? I quite enjoyed these marks of affection at the time. Do they still apply to me? Not on your Nelly.

To the rest of the world I have been Rachel McAlpine ever since.

Switching from patronymic to maritonymic

What? McAlpine? In 1959 a bride’s identity was swallowed by her husband’s: we took their surnames at the altar without blinking. When Grant and I got divorced twenty years later, I looked aghast at that custom. If only I had remained one of the Taylor girls, or renamed myself McTaylor, or Taypine, or Celia!

Too late. By D-day I had been McAlpine for more than half my life, and my four children were McAlpines, and my first three books of poems had been published—as an author I was already Rachel McAlpine. It all seemed far too complicated so I chose to keep my married name forever. I’ve put my mark on McAlpine: I’ve earned it. I know I’m Rachel McAlpine and I’ve grown to like the balance and pointiness of these two words.

Many years later, the role that I’m resisting is that of an old person who happens to be a woman. Another round of forcible growing up is in process. So maybe I need a new name for this phase; how about Griselda Old?

Motivation: all about feelings

677px-Darwin-The_expression_of_the_emotions_in_man_and_animals_Wellcome_L0014839.jpg

Writer’s block: Part IV

So much fuss over starting a simple task—writing a book. When I was still stuck, I mumbled about this to a young AirBnB guest, who has certainly never written a book in his life. He instructed me with great confidence: “You just need to make time! It’s that simple.”

But no, turns out it’s not that simple.

You also have to really really want to write a book. And apparently I didn’t, not this book, until now.

Looking back three years, I’ve had a year of being old (doing my boot camp); then about a year of refusing to write about the experience in any depth; and then this last year, a year of good old-fashioned writer’s block. In other words, a year of saying What? A year of saying No! A year of saying Yes But…

That’s what I was thinking. But what was I feeling?

Neuroscientist-philosopher Antonio Damasio posits a simple idea that instantly sheds light on great cultural movements and petty daily personal problems such as writer’s block:

[…] feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavors.[1]

His idea is so original (in the world of neuroscience at least) and is so beautifully argued that it will be adopted by the masses and refashioned and misinterpreted and appropriated for many purposes. I am about to do this very thing.

Looking through Damasio’s lens, I can see I’ve been engaged in a struggle to regain homeostasis. I wanted to write because I had decided to write and I love to write. On the other hand, I also did not want to write, because of certain feelings.

Watch out, I am now going to use bullet points.

  • I felt strongly attached to early morning exercise, which made me feel strong and proud.
  • I felt contempt for the iPad Pro.
  • I felt angry with myself for failing to get over writer’s block, and embarrassed too.
  • If I should write this book about my boot camp for the bonus years, I feared I might patronise people, or trivialise the terrible challenge of ageing, or come across as a know-it-all or a bully.

Powerful stuff. But month after month I had ignored these feelings, doggedly trying to solve writer’s block through logic and professionalism, and mystified when it just didn’t happen. It was high time I faced up to these feelings. And that’s all I did, nothing more.

What shifts writer’s block?

What kick-started me writing again, quite suddenly one morning? Maybe it was losing stress, or decluttering my mornings, or reverting to an old computer. Maybe it was reading Damasio’s words and acknowledging certain feelings. Maybe it was a few jolts to my security—illnesses and deaths in my world—reminding me that oh yes, I’m going to die soon, today or in 20 years. Anyway, I got going. Something lit the dynamite stacked around my writer’s block.

Next time someone says to me, “I want to write but I can’t find the time,” I will for the first time understand what they mean. In the past this conversation has tended to focus on practical problems, like schedules or computers, or on the type of writing that appeals. But from now on, the first thing I’ll ask will be about their feelings.

As for me, I’m belting along nearly every morning, no problem. Just me and a notebook in bed, then me and the MacBook Pro for a couple of hours. It’s deeply satisfying. Even if I chuck away every page, even if the book is never published, I’m into it. I’ve got my rhythm back. I’ve got my mojo back. The happy act of writing has justified my existence for today.

In general, I believe my own experiences are common ones. I never think my life is at all unusual, and I don’t mind that one bit. But this particular experience, writer’s block, was new to me, so of course I was puzzled. However, I imagine many of my readers have gone through a similar process,  either eluding or melting or exploding a case of writer’s block. True? Or have you employed different tactics?

[1] Antonio Damasio The Strange Nature of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures Pantheon New York 2018

Photo public domain, Charles Darwin, The Expression of The Emotions in Man and Animals

Reclaiming the magic morning hours

sunrise

Writer’s block, Part II

So, it had been decided that I wasn’t too old to write another book. So what could be the problem? If there is an external reason why this book wasn’t getting written, I can either change something and write, or at least get the message and move on.

Writing a book requires more than a functioning body and brain. It requires habits, tools, and (as I have advised many a would-be writer) motivation.

My almost forgotten morning habits

For about a decade I was a full time writer. Imagine that, what luxury! During those blessed years, early morning was dedicated to the current creative project. Wake, think, write. That’s how it went, day after day, year after year. Wake, think, write. I suppose I ate breakfast, probably in bed.

One by one came changes that destroyed the simple beauty of my mornings.

When I started a business in my 60s that familiar rhythm went right down the tubes. My early morning routine became more cluttered: wake, meditate, feed the cat, tai chi, breakfast in bed —so far so good, it’s still only 6.30—but oh la la then came the smartphone and social media. To add to the confusion, I now host occasional AirBnB guests, adding more flurry to mornings. And thanks to my boot camp for the bonus years, I then developed a beautiful exercise routine that took place, naturally, in the early mornings.

Goodness knows how I managed to spit out the occasional book. My last novel took a very long time to write, which only makes it harder. My writing behavior was chaotic. I’d create plans that changed from week to week — I would vow to spend Thursdays at the National Library, or write after lunch (daft), or write on Saturdays, or stay in the country for a few days. None of these habits ever stuck. Mornings are better. Mornings happen every day.

Arresting the smart phone saboteur

My smart phone perpetrated the deadliest, most pervasive sabotage. It didn’t just disrupt my mornings: it was disrupting my brain. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? I’ll confess to my own folly, confident that I’m not alone in this. For you it may be a tablet that lures your attention, but same reason: the internet and all who sail in her.

I had been squandering that precious early morning time by diving into the iPhone at breakfast or even earlier. Sometimes even before meditating. Now that is weird, like getting a fix before rehab. What would I check in the morning? Some, no, many of the following: messages, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC news, Stuff, news apps of Japan and Korea, The Daily podcast, Facebook, comments on my blog, other blogs, the weather, earthquakes, meet-ups, and yesterday’s step count. (Over 24 hours I might use 30 applications, including books, podcasts, email, videos, browsers, notes, maps, and games.)

Social media snuck up on me

Social media is a prime culprit, and it contributes to an endless jabber and jumble of news, flinging handfuls of trivial, deep, true, fake, wanted, unwanted, personal and global information in our face. I had been paddling in the shallows, just the way Nicholas Carr predicted.[1]

Worse for the mind is the fact that all this activity was merely consuming content, not doing original work, not producing. Those very words—consume, content, produce—have gained new meanings with the rise of the internet. They used to puzzle me, but now I get it: content means stuff, any old stuff that you put into a container such as a blog or app or website or magazine. Quality is irrelevant. Some people produce stuff and stick it in containers. Other people suck it up, they consume it. Some stuff is good stuff, but we don’t need it more than once a day.

Whenever I picked up my iPhone, I stopped thinking and started sucking. This had been obvious for years, had I cared to see it. Now, finally, I looked at my iPhone and saw the physical manifestation of writer’s block, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been using it.

I’ve kept my Facebook page, Rachel McAlpine Books: that still matters, but I’ve disabled my personal Facebook timeline. Sorry, my Friends, I won’t see your posts any more.

WordPress matters to me: my blog and the blogs of others. But blogging, though “creative”, is fragmented and unsatisfying compared with a bigger work. So that drops back in the queue for my attention.

News finds you: no need to graze

I’ve unsubscribed from news sites. I got addicted to the New York Times when Trump was elected, that’s a fact. But you don’t need to actively hunt for news. You get news by default, you can’t avoid it. If something big happens, people will tell you. Now I get news on the kitchen radio, and I read the New Scientist and local newspapers in cafes. Later in the day I sometimes sample a more reflective article instead of the thrill of endless updates.

My job is not sucking: it’s writing. For the last three weeks I have changed my habits, writing for two hours every morning. When it’s reading time, I read a book. (The iPhone’s handy for that.) Wish me luck with the new regime.

[1] Nicholas Carr The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0

 

Too old to write another book?

pass-solitude-768-sm.jpg

Writer’s block, Part 1

I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my next book. Unconcerned as always about the quality or even the topic, because a first draft is just that. (Significantly, the chapter was called I didn’t want to write this book.)

Months have passed since I wrote that first chapter. I’d never stopped “working on it”, and my office is overflowing with books, links, and notebooks real and virtual. I kept writing on my blog now and then— and yet curiously, I hadn’t written another word of the book.

Is old age the cause of my writer’s block?

This nasty question is a variation on a mantra that rings and rings, like an automated fraud call from India: “Your current problem is an inevitable, insoluble, bloody awful consequence of advancing age. Get used to it.” Too often that thought springs to mind automatically.

Resist, refine, reframe! Make a list—that might help.

  1. First let’s clean out the pejoratives and make it a genuine question: Is this non-typical (of me) procrastination at least partly a consequence of old age? (Now we’re in business.)
  2. If so, what can I do about it?
  3. If not, what else might be causing the problem?
  4. OK, how can I solve the problem?

Because I’m 78 I have to take this question seriously: is it a sign of old age, that I, who have loved the act of writing all my life, cannot get started on this particular book?

True, my short-term memory does seem to be changing. It’s mobile, it feels like layers of misty muslin, shimmering and distorting with digressions and flourishes. But I believe it was ever thus.

Is my ageing short-term memory to blame?

Half asleep one morning, I constructed half a chapter in my mind, just the way I used to do for every book I’ve ever written. But at my desk later, I couldn’t remember the gist. That delicious creative hypnogogic creative flash was gone, puff, into the void. Like we all do, one day.

So what does it mean, that I forgot two pages of “thought”? As I learned recently[1], our memories are dynamically recreated with each recall. Our brains do not store complete memories but dedicate perhaps a single neuron to remembering something highly specific, freeing most of our brain resources to work on constructing meaning. Remembering and perceiving use the same mental process. When we try to remember something, we’re not just fishing in a pool of complete memories, a pool that grows bigger and bigger as we age, we’re working to make sense of something.

So if I can’t remember what I was going to write, too bad. Why waste time reconstructing a reconstruction when I could use the same resources to construct meaning from scratch, to start from the same point (namely forgetting what I’d decided to write) and think a new thought? The old thoughts were not wasted just because they got forgotten.

Instant write-up trumps instant recall

Fortunately I remembered something else: After thinking a scene or a chapter, I used to write it down immediately, without delay. Interrupting the flow is wasteful, damaging, an insult to the muse. To re-establish contact, I would need to tweak my morning routine—again.

Writing a book requires a functioning brain and a functioning body: all of these eventually degrade—but right now mine are functioning, and that’s all I ask.

Writing a book requires energy and stamina

It also requires intense, sustained, consistent bursts of energy. For us old people, loss of energy can be a problem. I commiserate with my friends but I tend not to admit to it personally. However, at this moment, as I type, nobody’s reading these words, so I will admit that torpor features in most of my days. Catch me after lunch. Sometimes, happily reading, sometimes doing pointless Sudoku. Never dozing! It’s just that I often wake from not-dozing with quite a jolt. Sometimes I debate whether to have a little lie down, but by then it’s too late.

Nevertheless, for many hours of the day I have a familiar level of energy, and my days are my own, I’m in charge of the way I spend my time. No job, no business, and an almost manageable set of commitments. In the last two years I’ve kicked two major stressors out of the way: first my business, then the thankless role of body corporate chair. I am free to reshape my days.

Rejected: old age as a barrier to writing

And so, here and now, I forbid myself to blame the physiology of old age as a legitimate cause of my mysterious procrastination.

Surely now I’ll be able to unpick the true cause or causes of an unfortunate case of writer’s block.

[1] Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” Interview with Ginger Campbell, MD. Brain Science Episode 141

Illustration from Old Book Illustrations, public domain, by Peter Newell in Hunting of the Snark

Perils of being regarded as a confessional poet

Cartoon of poet vomiting her crimes, sins and secrets into a poem
Confessional poet at work: the popular view

If you intend to be a poet and to publish your work, it’ll be a lot of fun but be prepared for three things:

  • many people will assume that all your poems relate true facts about your actual life
  • some people will completely misunderstand your poems, even taking the opposite meaning from your intention
  • once in a while, this can lead to trouble.

That’s the deal!

I’m pretty sure that most people believe that any poem that seems to be about a real person is about a real person. And particularly if you write in a confessional style, people will naturally assume that you are confessing the truth about yourself.

I try to make you believe all my poems are true

This phenomenon is a mixed blessing. I’ve often been labelled a poet of the confessional school, and yes yes yes, I do want people to plunge into my poems and suspend disbelief.  Sometimes my poems are true — in fact I hope they all seem that way, and that you can’t tell the difference.

However, fact is I’ve written hundreds of poems that start from my observations of other people. For example, I’ve written “love” poems that are actually about or addressed to gay men friends, platonic men friends, strangers on a bus, strangers seen from a bus, trees, flowers, road signs, birds, weather, mythical, historical and literary characters, my mother-in-law and other family members, and the imaginary wife of an imaginary member of parliament. I wrote poems for every woman in a 1970s sensitivity group, all the occupants of a house I lived in in Kyoto, and fifteen love poems to a funny little house in Berhampore. I did not have sex with those entities. But I loved them!

I wrote a wedding song not for my husband but for two friends, and it fits almost any couple getting married. I wrote a love song forty years ago for a man who I still adore:

if I die
before I lie
with you
rocks will rain from heaven
on my grave

Sounds like I was deadly serious, right? And yet we have never gone to bed and we never will—it was never going to happen, and it’s a kind of excessively affectionate in-joke. Actually, I love this poem almost as much as I love the real live person who inspired it. (Now that’s a true confession.)

When I’m in full lyrical mode, I fall in love about five times a day. At the Harbourfront Market this morning I fell in love with a shiny black aubergine, a perfect mango, a couple of Italian baristas, and a pain au chocolat. I’m in love with my two gorgeous young AirBnB guests and with a yellow flag flapping above the ngaio trees outside my window.

You think that’s weird? If you’re a poet, attending so deeply to the other that you almost drown, being not only the imaginary lover of your subject but also the cool observer—that is all part of the crazy poet-package. But I am starting to see that it is little bit weird. That’s probably why I’ve never written about this: I don’t want to seem as if I am denying the truth of my poems, but it’s a different kind of truth, so hard to explain that I assume nobody understands except another poet. (Maybe I read too much Martin Buber in my youth.)

Where passion, poem, and assumptions spell trouble

Last month my lawyer had to intervene in a strange case. A woman discovered that I had known and worked with her father 40 years ago, and she jumped to the conclusion that we had had an affair (not true). Then she read some of my poems and decided that they must be about her father, and that I was an evil person who told lies. (I have behaved badly in the past, but not with her lovely father.)

She sent her literary theory with some documents to various academics, hoping that they would archive them, revise their view of my work, and preferably prosecute me.

I felt sorry for her, so angry and so wrong. But for me, it’s all in the job description.

I have a message for people who study poetry. Have fun, have theories, but remember, a poem is not a documentary. Let that knowledge liberate you as a reader.

Two poems in House Poems with a drawing of a house growing roots and vines
Two love poems to a little house

Cartoon by Rachel McAlpine; photo of House Poems by Rachel McAlpine, Nutshell Books, Wellington 1980. Both CC-BY 2.0

Keeping up with selected blogs your way: follow and fix WordPress settings

Screenshot of WordPress with Settings for notifications
When you follow a blog, set your email preferences at the same time.

Once there were RSS feeds, and I had one on my blog. For months it shuffled people to the wrong URL—my fault, and what a waste.

Some people still prefer RSS feeds, and who am I to suggest a change? Changing online habits is such a pain, and I myself resist it with a little question: how does this improve my own life or others’?

Nevertheless I can’t resist whispering a word of unsolicited advice. O ye bloggers and readers, one tiny new habit can save you rather a lot of time, in the long run.

Follow other blogs without pain or penalty

The immense size, the richness of the WordPress blogging community is both thrilling and overwhelming. After a certain point you need a strategy or you will go crazy!

  • Never miss a post from your favourite bloggers.
  • Never feel overwhelmed by blogs you like but want to read only occasionally.

Each time you follow a new blog by hitting the Follow button (top right of the screenshot above), pause for a second. By activating the Settings icon immediately below, you get some options. First, do you want to be told by WordPress when a new post appears on the blog you’ve decided to follow? It’s not mandatory, it’s a choice. Second, do you want an email with that information? If so, would you like instant updates? Daily updates? Weekly updates?

  • Maybe you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere and don’t want to miss a thing: then you’ll opt for instant updates by email as well as notices in your personalised WordPress Reader.
  • Maybe you have only got about 15 minutes per week to read blogs: then you’ll want updates from just a few key people, and catch up on others on vacation.
  • Maybe you follow 1,000 blogs, but only need to read posts on specific topics. Then you might get weekly updates on specialist blogs, and skim the others with Reader: Search.

 Skim in Reader to select before you read

Using email notifications is a great way to follow your hot favourites, and never miss a post. But you’re sure to follow other blogs as well, blogs that delight you now and then. You’ll want to see a headline before you open that blog. What is this post about? You need a signpost and a summary.

You get that on WordPress Reader facility. For skimming in advance, it is a beauty, on a screen of any size.

So you see, you can probably do everything you need as a reader without exiting the WordPress system. Which saves time.

Still want me to add an RSS Feed? I might. I might not.

Walking back home: joy of serendipitous pavement art

It’s not a long walk home from aerobic dance class, just five small blocks, and I’ve walked that route hundreds of times. But it’s still full of beautiful surprises. Walk home with me now and I’ll show you what I saw tonight.

  1. Small bunch of grapes, elegantly squashed.
Small bunch of green grapes squashed on the footpath
Squashed grapes: a sweet bouquet with a juicy shadow

2. A question mark on the footpath.

Question mark on footpath
Huh? Just what I was wondering…

3. A gloriously decorated parking spot.

Number 23 on footpath with yellow and white squiggles
Carpark no. 23 comes with mysterious runes

4. A tree with a splendid pair of antennae

Tree with street lamps apparently growing from its crown
Is it a tree or a very large insect?

5. Ngaio tree growing in the gutter: good luck, darling.

Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter
Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter. So far so good.

6. Road cones are a beautiful sight if you’re waiting for fibre-optic cable to reach your property.

Road cones in Queen Street
Road cones in Queen Street: progress

7. Before installing cable, workers put squiggles everywhere. But I don’t like the look of this one.

Workers' notes painted in purple on pavement: Dunk
Purple prose: but what are they going to dunk?

8. Nearly home, and it’s crab-apples and lichen: cute, ay?

Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath
Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath

As my friend Dale says, ain’t life grand? If we are lucky enough to be able to walk, such visual delights are just around the corner. If our luck stretches to a smartphone, there’s a bonus.

I tend to notice very small things, and take pleasure in them. And I’ve got a theory about why this is so. I believe that’s an echo of a Japanese aesthetic, and I thank my time in Kyoto for this extra layer of delight.