Clementine Fraser – Author

Thinking Through my Keyboard

My 99 year old grandmother died last week. She wasn’t your stereotypical kind of grandma. She painted, but she didn’t paint still life or scenery, she painted vivid abstract compositions based on nebulae and quantum physics. She was fierce in her hunt for knowledge and her passion for science and art. She engaged with socialist ideas well before they became hipster.

At her funeral, we all shared our memories of Grandma and some consistent themes came up. Her huge sense of fairness and the importance of equality, the love of knowledge, the loyalty to and importance of family. We talked about how all of these had been passed down through the generations and her 23 descendants.

Today I’m sharing some of the many lessons my Grandma taught me.

Childhood Trauma can Shape you Forever

Grandma lived through the Great Depression. Born in 1920, she was just a child when the Depression hit, her father died, and her family had to leave the big house she loved and move cities to live with extended family. She didn’t live with her mother, but with a cousin whose wife treated her very badly. She had to leave school at 14 and help her family. These early experiences shaped my grandmother deeply, some in sad ways (her fear of being thought ignorant which drove her fierce acquisition of learning in later years) and some in more quirky ones. Grandma could not abide waste. She was known to slip bacon from the motel breakfast into her purse ‘for later’ and couldn’t throw away anything that might end up being useful later.

I didn’t understand a lot of that until I was older. When I heard more of the stories of her life I had a much greater understanding of how she came to be the way she was. It’s so important to remember that people are so often the products of their upbringing and their earliest experiences, and to be kind.

Resist Authority

Not long before she died, Grandma told me about when she was 10, and the woman she stayed with took the roses Grandma had gathered to give to her mother and put them in her own living room. Grandma was as furious as a sad little 10yo deeply missing their mother could be. She told me she went to every corner of that room and stuck her finger in the wallpaper and ripped it down. I nearly cheered.

A story I remember hearing when I was younger and I really hope isn’t apocryphal because I tell it to all my students 😬, is that during the mass protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour, Grandma hit a policeman on the head with her handbag when he was rough with protestors. My grandmother was never one to bow to authority unless she deemed it moral and worth listening to. Even then I doubt she would bow.

Be Yourself even when Others Have Opinions

Grandma was never one to worry too much about the opinions of those she didn’t care for. Certainly not by the time I knew her.

She and her sister opened a fashion store in 1950s Hamilton and shocked many with their glamorous selves. And she was glamorous.

(photo is from her engagement earlier, but STILL so glamorous)

She was a working mother when that was frowned upon. She read about communism (although she did burn her little red book in the backyard in the 60s when anti-communism was at a high). She learned acupuncture and ran a successful clinic in the 1980s in central Auckland. She was always a rationalist and had little patience for sentimentality. She painted her house herself. She had staunch political opinions and was not afraid to discuss them.

Grandma was so very much herself. So much of her childhood always sounded to me as if she was being required to repress her feelings and experiences and I’m so very glad that for most of her life she allowed herself to just simply BE.

Young Women Have Urges

So…. When I was in my early 20s and single, I was visiting grandma when she asked:

“Have you found a nice boyfriend yet?”

“Ah no, some dates but they never last long.”

“Don’t worry you’ll find someone.”

“I’m sure I will.”

her: *looks intently at me* “But, young women have… urges….and it’s quite alright to date someone you aren’t in love with to satisfy those urges.”

me:

I couldn’t believe my grandma was telling me to have one-night stands 😂

You are never too old to create

Grandma taught herself to paint and came up with her own style. She painted and learned and had her first exhibition at the age of 96. It was such a success they brought her back for another the year after. She was still talking of having another exhibition not many months ago.

Three weeks before she died, grandma was still working on her paintings. She still had so many ideas she wanted to try, visions to pursue.

I began writing again in my late thirties, dropped it, and picked it up again a couple of years ago. Knowing that age is no barrier to creativity is endlessly inspiring.

The world will change, and we change with it

Over Grandma’s 99 1/2 years, she witnessed so many things: The Great Depression, the creation of the first welfare state in New Zealand, World War II, the first Atomic Bombs, the rise of second wave feminism, gay rights, first woman Prime Minister in New Zealand, fights for civil rights, the Vietnam War, protests, climate change, the hippy counter culture of the 70s, the rise of computers, televisions, movies, mobile phones, passenger flight, the Moon Landing, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, 9/11, the #MeToo movement and third wave feminism….

It’s been a huge century, and she saw and experienced so much of it. And I know I said we change with it, and we do, but the essential core of who my grandma was – the loving, curious, determined, creative little girl she was – remained throughout her life.

I was so incredibly blessed to have known her.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Emotions are tricksy beasts. Especially the negative ones. They build up until they’re a roiling mess of sobs and anger and UGH lying just under a thin film of ice. At any moment the control can snap, the ice shatter, and everything just cascades out.

Negative emotions are not inherently bad. Sadness can have its place, as can concern and worry. It’s when they layer one on top of each other so you can’t breathe, or when they appear hand in hand with negative self-talk, that the problem starts.

Suggested ways to deal with emotional tsunamis

These are ideas that work for me, or at least can help a little.

One: Write it Out

Maybe because I’m naturally happy writing, but I’ve always written out my emotions. In letters that I don’t send (and some that I do), in diaries, in endless lists and mind maps and jotted notes in planners and bits of refill.

Research shows that writing out your problems and emotions can be just as, if not often more, effective than talking it out. This article explains it well, and this one gives some advice on how to do it. Writing your feelings helps you to structure your thoughts – we naturally think in paragraphs or bullet points when writing. We edit ideas and words and definitions. This earlier post of mine shows the process I often go through. Writing can help me parse my thoughts and reframe my catastrophising.

You don’t need to do regular journalling to benefit from writing out your emotions. To be honest, the most therapeutic benefits I’ve experienced is from simply allowing myself to spill out all the thoughts and fears and demons that sweep down to roost at various times.

Two: Talk With Someone

Although writing can be just as therapeutic in many ways, there’s no doubt for me that talking is important. I think it’s the whole “a burden shared is a burden halved” thing.

Telling someone you trust about your problems, about the emotions threatening to explode out of you or the sneaky ones eating away at your sense of being – that talk can be such a weight lifted off. For me it’s that I’m no longer hiding how I feel. And honesty and openness are, I believe, healing.

Opening up to someone also means you end up with someone else in your corner, someone ready to have your back. And that’s helpful when dealing with either the negative self-talk, or emotions about something you can’t control.

Photo by Jopwell on Pexels.com

Three: Look! a Squirrel! Distraction Distraction

Honestly? Sometimes we just need to fill our heads with something light and fluffy and different. Baking shows. Comedians (I love Michael McIntyre for this purpose). Golden Buzzer winners. Puppy pictures.

Chris Evans Laughing. No, really. Evidence below.

Told you it is good.

Four: Exercise and Sleep

I know, sometimes sleep is impossible to achieve when those emotions keep you up in the middle of the night, brain whirling, or worse – tears falling. Routines help here. Doing the same thing every evening at the same time can help train your body into falling to sleep mode.

And this is where exercise helps too. Not just for working out those emotions and getting those sweet endorphins, but for helping you sleep.

Sleep is so incredibly important for resilience. And resilience is what helps us cope with emotional overwhelm in the long run.

I feel hypocritical advocating exercise when I’m possibly at my unfittest, but I also KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that when I’m fit, exercising, I feel better. I have more energy, I have more confidence, I feel more capable.

Exercise can be as simple as a walk, or some stretches, or dancing in your living room (dancing also gives happy vibes so that’s extra bonus points).

Five: Use Logic

So what I mean here is – I catastrophise. It’s easy to do, especially when those emotions are roiling. Logic makes me stop. I think backwards from the horrific end point my catastrophising has filled my brain with and at each step I question ‘how would THIS have happened?’. In the end, I usually prove to myself that whatever overblown fears my brain has cooked up are unlikely to happen.

If it’s a reasonable fear it’s a bit trickier. That’s when I use logic to tell myself things like; ‘It’s 3am. I literally can’t do anything about [Big Problem] now, so thinking about it will have to wait until tomorrow.” I follow that up with a promise to myself with a set time: ‘I will look at this or think about it at 11am tomorrow.” Middle of the night jotted out lists also help me go back to sleep because I’ve tricked my brain into thinking I’ve dealt with it.

This is reminiscent of ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy where you acknowledge the emotion, assess whether it’s useful, and if it isn’t, ‘thanks Brain but that’s not helpful right now.’ It isn’t about denying emotions, or even about solving them, just recognising that they exist but aren’t necessarily helpful. Then choosing a direction to take that is more helpful. Have a read about it here.

Six: Cry

Pretty self explanatory.

Sometimes we need a good cry.

Those emotions that are roiling under the surface? Sometimes we need to let them out in a safe space so they don’t explode at inopportune moments in ways we regret or are embarrassed by.

Stock up on the tissues and let it all out.

Seven: Be Kind To Yourself

This is kind of my go-to advice for most things really. Let yourself feel the emotions. Don’t beat yourself up for having them. Don’t tell yourself you’re weak for having emotions or for not being able to cope with them. That’s human. And feeling intense emotion is not a bad thing. It probably means you have a strong amount of empathy and empathy generally = good.

Don’t be horrible to yourself.

Give yourself time and space to deal.

Have that cupcake if it will help.

Snuggle in the blanket and feel sorry for yourself.

But also be kind enough to look after yourself – do the things that will help you feel better in the long term, not just in the short term.

That brings me to my final point

Bonus: Seek help if it’s really bad

Seeking help from trained professionals (General Practitioners, Counsellors, Psychiatrists, Psychologists) is never shameful. It isn’t weak. Seeking help is about one of the strongest things you can do. And it’s a big part of being kind to yourself.

I hope that some of these can help, and remember – you are not alone. There are others out there on the rising tide of overwhelming emotion as well. Maybe if we help each other out we can build a life raft that takes us to calmer waters.

Rollercoasters are pretty cliche for describing a life journey but that’s the image I find myself returning to again and again when trying to pin down the last ten years. Those highs, sometimes reaching such pinnacles that you can feel the drop downward about to hit, leading to twisting paths that have you careening out of control with no idea where you’re headed or why, and the lows *shudder* the terrifying or stomach churning lows where you’re sure this is it–there’s no further to go. And then a jolting lift upward again.

It gets very exhausting.

Then when we factor in the way the world is going…Eeek. Sometimes we want to get off the rollercoaster. Have a break for a bit. You know, a cuppa and a nice cookie and tune out for a while. Look at some cats.

This last decade gave me some mighty lows and some real scares. It was the decade my marriage ended. The decade I had to get used to sharing custody of my children. The decade I had emergency bowel surgery and up to six members of my family in hospital in one year. I gained weight–lost weight–gained it-lost it and, yes, gained it again. I’ve spent thousands of dollars at the dentist and hours in pain. I spent years working myself into burnout and a solid year suffering clinical depression. I lost myself–found me–lost me again. My dogs died. My aunt died. My grandmother died.

Looking at it like that makes me glad I try not to focus on the negative things because there were some major bad things and they hit more than just me. The bad things that hit my friends and family, and the downward spiral so much of the world has sunk into, wraps around me as well.

But – through it all there were highs. I applied for and achieved two promotions. I’ve presented at two local and two national conferences on something I’m passionate about. I took on a mortgage on my own house and I like my house a lot. I have a study with a nice computer to write on. I may have lost my way fitness and health wise after finding it again BUT I’m not going to let that diminish my accomplishment of working hard for it in the first place. I took my kids on holidays.

Writing wise I’m proud of myself. I started the decade with no real intention to write, just a ‘wouldn’t it be cool to write a book one day’ kind of thought. Since 2014 I have written five (unpublished) books, and a host of beginnings of other ideas. I started a blog. I had a story published in an anthology. I entered and won contests. I queried and had full requests. I haven’t got the agent or the publishing deal *yet*, but I’m feeling much, much closer to it than I had thought possible at the beginning of 2010. More importantly (to me, anyway) I began to identify as a writer. Not just a teacher who writes part time. That’s been an important and wonderful shift for me.

It strikes me that one of the things I look back on and am proudest of is often the struggle, or the striving. I’m not just proud I wrote and entered contests, I’m proud that in the middle of severe depression that targeted negativity around my writing, I still wrote. I learned to revise. I had the courage to query and to push the ‘send’ button even though my heart raced and my stomach churned at the thought (and I’m not hyperbolising – I genuinely panicked every time I pushed send on my first 30 or so queries).

I’m so glad I didn’t give in to the panic. I’m so proud I felt the fear and did it anyway.

I am proud I learned to deal with and accept rejection.

I went to school and did my job even as my health and mental wellbeing staggered along. I’m proud that as I tried to balance teaching with parenting and a marriage break up and finding a new passion – I still managed to inspire and touch students’ hearts. That’s what keeps me going back to teaching, the connection to students. I noticed that over this Christmas with my son in hospital. I saw three ex-students working in pharmacies or in the hospital and one of his nurses was the aunt of an ex-student. It makes me feel part of a community.

The most special part of this decade has been my children. Their support and joy and humour and how they’ve learned to deal with pain–all of it has been a privilege to see. Watching them become who they are, the leaps they’ve taken, has been so amazing. I look back and I feel that HERE, with this important job, I did my best. I don’t know what I did to be so blessed, but I do know I’ve tried my hardest to teach my boys about kindness and empathy and social responsibility and awareness of inequality. They might not keep their rooms tidy, but their hearts are huge. I know which I see as a bigger achievement.

I’ve learned so much over this decade. Some of it through experience, some from advice from others, and some from giving advice to others that I’ve realised I should follow myself. I’ve learned that vulnerability terrifies me–until it doesn’t. I’ve learned that my tendency to run away from and avoid big problems CAN be overcome. I’ve learned to appreciate the small beauties of life and that spending time stargazing or stopping to look at the daisies in the field is never time wasted. I’ve learned that humour makes life a gazillion times better. I’ve learned I’m strong, even when I don’t want to be. I’ve learned that I’m worthy of being treated better than I was. I’ve learned that letting others help you and be your cheerleaders doesn’t make you weak. I’ve learned to apply my own oxygen mask first and that boundaries are important-to refill my jug before filling others’. I learned to say No.

When I think back on the good things though, what really made this decade is very clear to me. They are the small things. The conversations with my children. The kindness from strangers. Laughing with old friends. The dewdrops on a rose. I’m so pleased I kept my happy jar going for so much of this decade. Looking back on years of small moments of happiness is such a good reminder that yes there are dark times and sometimes we can’t escape those, but there is goodness and kindness and joy to be found as well.

Ultimately that’s my belief about the world. There is darkness and many (far too many) people living in awful times and facing racist and increasingly authoritarian and elitist power structures. But there is too much kindness and too much hope to give up. Resistance and ally-ship and tagging in to help those who can’t, refusing to lose ground on the progress society has made – those things help make the world a community. And I have met, and taught, too many great kind people to think that the world is all awful. That doesn’t mean I think we can relax. This decade also showed us how much we’ve taken for granted and how desperately bigoted and small minded people cling to their harmful ideals. This is the time that we must pick up the torch and keep pushing, keep striving, keep trying. And not just to save ourselves but to save others.

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have the most amazing people in my life: a wonderful family who support and encourage and love me; friends new and old who lift me when I’m down and remind me I don’t have to be anyone other than who I am – that I, in and of myself, am enough.

They are the ones who have made this decade – this turbulent, bizarre, uplifting decade – what it is. They are the ones who have helped me to make me what I am.

And I find, at the end of this decade, I like who I am.

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Persistence. Ugh. Sometimes it’s TOO HARD. In fact, it’s often always hard because if it was easy we wouldn’t call it persistence, we’d call it something else, like, idk, ENJOYMENT.

 

But it’s necessary.

 

And so very rewarding.

 

If you don’t trust me, trust Cap.

Cap do this all day

 

You may know if you saw my post from earlier this year that 2018 was a difficult year, to put it mildly. Poor health was followed by a bad episode of depression and struggles with anxiety. Although depression affected pretty much every area of my life there was one bit it targeted with particular cruelty – my writing.

 

2018 was going to be the year I really took action to make my writing dreams a reality. I paid more attention to craft, I not only finished a book but REVISED it (a fate I’d previously circumvented because ugh), and I engaged in the writing community on Twitter.

 

So it seemed particularly unfair that it also became the year that I would weep for hours in front of my computer because I believed deep, deep down that everything I wrote was trash. Not the jokey ‘here, have my garbage fire of a draft! lol!’ but a genuine deep belief that this thing I wanted more than I’ve wanted anything for a really, really long time, was out of reach because I simply wasn’t good enough. That I was, and would remain, a failure because of my own incompetence.

 

I was also weeping in the shower because I’d forgotten to bring a dry towel into the bathroom, to be fair, but the usual self-doubt and cycle of rejection that comes with writing and putting your work out there was amplified a MILLION-fold by the depression. I couldn’t see any of the positive comments from beta readers, only the critical ones. And I mean that almost literally – they became nearly invisible. I know this because once I was well I went back and reread some comments and SAW all these amazing positive things I hadn’t seen before.

 

HOWEVER! 2018 was also the year that I finished revisions, queried, got full requests, dealt with rejections, queried again, and again, sent to competitions, wrote another book, started writing three other books, came 12th in a writing competition and was awarded a Judge’s Favorite.

 

For so much of 2018, I was on the verge of quitting.

 

I was going to give my book away as a PDF to people who were silly enough to want to read it.

 

I was going to stop querying.

 

I was going to stop calling myself a writer.

 

But I didn’t.

 

Even in the worst moments there was a little corner of my soul that wouldn’t give up

I kept pushing ‘send’ on the queries, even though my heart raced with anxiety every time.

 

I queried that manuscript 84 times. I moved on to another one. And another one.

 

I would love to tell you how I did it. But I don’t really know. I know I didn’t do it alone. My writing friends had my back the whole way through – they let me freak out and panic in the DMs, encouraged me, lifted me up, cheered me on.

 

Treatment helped a TON.

 

But sadly there’s still no handy medicine for self-doubt and that rears its ugly little head ALL the TIME.

 

Ultimately, I did it because I kept going. I persisted (see, I told you it was necessary). Even when I loathed every word I put on the paper, I kept writing. I kept revising.

 

And it does pay off.

 

This year I entered the same manuscript I spent so much time hating last year into the Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fabulous Five Contest.

 

It won its category.

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Talk about validation!

 

It’s had more full requests.

 

My son said after looking at my query spreadsheet and I’d explained all the red was rejections and the scattered green was the requests: “Wow. If you’d let all the red stop you, you’d never have got to the green!”

 

So simple, so true, and yes, so hard.

 

But so worth it.

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For some reason the heavy wooden rectangle that came in the mail today gave more weight to my achievement.

 

It made it more real.

 

I’ve propped it up next to my computer, near my index cards shouting positive and encouraging things, reminders like RUN YOUR RACE.

 

Because persistence is draining, we need the reminders of the good things on the journey.

 

It’s very much a journey – I’m still waking up to rejections from agents, still don’t have that publishing deal – but it’s a journey worth taking.

 

And I know I can do it.

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I am not a very good gardener. Often, in the past (okay including the last few months), plants have died from neglect or they’ve struggled for survival in a cocoon of weeds. I don’t mean to kill them, I just forget.

 

A little while ago my parents bought me a lot of beautiful flowers for my garden. Okay, I did manage to kill two of the plants before they went into the garden BUT, my point is – I was very touched by their gift not only of the plants but of their time and encouragement. Together, along with my kids, we got the garden looking pretty for the first time in a long time.

 

Since then, I haven’t killed anything.

 

I get so much pure pleasure from these flowers. Roses, daisies, begonias, geraniums, and some others I’m not yet great on remembering the names of. They greet me when I come home every day and give me so much happiness.

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I’ve been really making an effort during these hot summer days to remember to water the garden and make sure the boys weed it.

 

Tonight, as I stood watering the garden and letting my mind drift (because there’s not a lot else to do) I realised that taking care of my garden is a handy metaphor for taking care of my mental wellbeing full stop.

 

And you know I love a good metaphor!

 

Neglecting our happiness, our mental well-being, is pretty easy to do. We forget to weed out the negative and unhelpful thoughts. We think everything is fine and we can just look after it next weekend, when we have more time.

 

When it gets a bit untidy and overgrown, or things start wilting, we get embarrassed when people come round, or look at it. We feel bad about asking for help because we feel like it’s got that way through our own neglect so we should have to deal with cleaning it up ourselves.

 

But sometimes it’s really hard to do by yourself.

 

Sometimes, when the weeds are everywhere, and the flowers are brittle sticks, you don’t even know where to start. It all feels so very overwhelming. And you’re a rubbish gardener anyway. Why bother?

 

But then maybe you see a little flower blooming through the weeds, pushing its way valiantly to the light. You stop and marvel at it, admire its resilience.

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Maybe you ask for help, and people want to help, and you finally manage to clear it all out and replenish it and it brings you happiness again.

 

As I stood there watering I realised that the only way for me to ensure that not only do my poor little plants survive but that the joy I get from them is ongoing, is by investing time and effort into maintaining it.

 

It doesn’t take that long either – a bit over half an hour maybe to water my flowers. A little bit of time weeding. A bit of effort to remember to spray the roses and check for aphids.

 

And it’s the same with my happiness. Now that I have come through an incredibly difficult year of depression and stress and ill-health, I need to make sure I am putting effort into myself – my health, my wellbeing. I need to make sure I am keeping the weeds away regularly. Part of self-care is practicing positive self talk. I need to water the things that bring me joy – spending time with friends and family, writing, reading, exploring – even when perhaps I feel it’s too hard.

 

The focus on effort is not an accident. Being positive takes a lot of energy and sometimes hard work. Keeping demons at bay requires consistency.

 

It’s worth it for my garden, and it’s worth it for my well-being and my happiness.

 

How will you water your happiness in 2019?

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