Back to normal, back to writing
In my last post, I wrote about how my brother’s unexpected death earlier this year in the USA put my writing on the back-burner. This post continues my thoughts on how our writing can suffer when things go wrong in our lives.
In late February, I returned home after a two-month writing retreat on Maatsuyker Island. A tiny island lying off the south coast of Tasmania, Maatsuyker is perfect for a writer because it offers few distractions. For two months, I fell out of modern life, with NO access to the internet, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines.
Even better, I had few commitments to compete with writing. Activities left behind when I came to Maatsuyker included shopping, socialising with friends, doing volunteer work, attending club meetings. Maatsuyker has no shops, and no one lives there permanently. All the food and other materials required for my two-month stint came with me on the helicopter.
The experience was perfect for my project: writing about solitude and nature. My starting point is the seminal book, Walden. Its author,Henry David Thoreau, provides an account of two years (1845-47) when he built and lived in a little cabin in the woods, near Concord, Massachusetts. Following Thoreau, I became a keen observer of nature on Maatsuyker—watching lizards and birds going about their business, rushing outdoors to witness stunning sunrises and sunsets, walking everywhere on the island, listening to the wind, seals and muttonbirds, getting up at night to watch satellites cross a star-filled sky.
Soon after returning home from the island, the death of my brother, Hal, required me to make two extended trips to my Kansas hometown. The first was for two months—the same length of time I had spent on Maatsuyker. The island had provided uninterrupted time for contemplation, stillness, writing. Kansas was jarring, complicated, exhausting, with me bearing the weight of sorting out messy financial details, possessions, and legal intricacies.
And there was the grieving, of things that were, and what could have been different. Technically, Hal died from a cardiac arrest, but the long-term issue was post-traumatic stress. He was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. After spending months in a military hospital, he returned to civilian life, marrying and holding down a job.
But over the years, he withdrew more from family and friends, a change so gradual I missed its significance. Buying many guns and coins, refusing to bank his pay cheques, ignoring crucial house repairs—I viewed these as eccentricities, nothing to worry about. But when I arrived in Kansas this time and walked into his house, it was clear that his life had sadly deteriorated to a point far from normal. My second trip included carrying out one of his final wishes, to be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
These longer stays in Kansas provided some bright spots. I again enjoyed the spare beauty of Kansas. I also renewed ties with friends and relatives I had not seen for years.
But throughout this time, I could not write. When I returned to Australia in late August, I found the nights difficult. I would swim up to consciousness from bad dreams, and think at first that I was still in Kansas, mired in all that had to be done and decided. By the time morning came, I was already exhausted. During the day, I found myself undertaking the same cleaning and sorting that had occupied me in Kansas. Only recently have I realised that keeping focused on small, mundane activities helped me move, in baby steps, back to normal.
And part of this normal life is that I have started writing again.
A year ago last Wednesday, a big Sikorsky helicopter landed on Maatsuyker Island. I stepped out, ready for my big adventure. On this first anniversary, I was back at my desk, reading my notes and writing. Joyfully. Thankfully.