Postcards from Portugal

So part of the reason I’m here is because of my pozible project. About halfway through the project a friend told me she felt bad because she could only pledge $10, which prompted me to add a new reward level. The $10 pledge receives a postcard from Portugal with a three line poem on it. I wanted to acknowledge and thank those who had little to spare, and then chose to send that amount to me (also, this is the heart of crowd funding – many people giving small amounts). That said, I thought I’d put up some pictures of some of the postcards that will be sent this week. Here’s the first one.

Postcard of tiles



In transit

Ok so it’s clear I’m a pretty crap blogger. Inconsistent. Up and down. Rarely Aeroplane shrouded in mistregular. But I’m sticking at it. And right now I’m on my way to read my work in Lisbon because I won an award that wasn’t quite enough to get me there and a bunch of people jumped on board to help me get the rest of the way. So I’m going to blog Lisbon. Probably in very short posts.

6am in London. Heathrow is mist full and quiet. The French woman at the coffee shop suitably disdainful. Portly men in purple jackets guarding doorways and trying to look cheerful and authoritative at the same time. The quiet elation of putting your feet down in Spring, having come from Autumn.

Saying thank you

Karina smilingTwo days ago I couldn’t resist having a coffee at 6pm because I have this thing called an aeropress and it makes the best coffee I’ve ever had and then I couldn’t sleep and then I sat up and wrote a post about Amanda Palmer and Philip Seymour Hoffman and how it feels to ask for help. It was also a post where I got vulnerable. I told you a very small portion of my past. I talked about begging on the street, and how that felt. And then I went on to ask for your support to get me to Portugal so that I can read my work at a conference there in May.

And now I am crying.

I am crying because within 24 hours of writing that post, and Amanda Palmer retweeting it, I had hit my target. And yesterday I exceeded it.

I am crying because now I have enough for travel insurance and if the pledges keep coming in the funds will cover transfers and meals as well, and pozible have featured my project, so that will probably happen.

I am crying because sixteen years ago I was a twenty something on a street corner asking for money so that I could disappear just a little bit more, and this year I will be forty, and I’m doing way more than surviving: I’m living the biggest, bravest, most amazing life I can.

So. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Amanda Palmer, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and asking without shame

It’s midnight. My children will wake up in six hours and I can’t sleep. I tried everything, but now I’ve given up. I open my computer and find a message on Facebook from a friend. I had been telling her about crowd funding to get myself to a conference in Portugal and how it felt like begging and she said you must watch Amanda Palmer talking about asking for help.

When I told her that asking for help to get to Portugal felt like begging I was not speaking in metaphors. I have been clean and sober for sixteen years. I am writing this the day after Phillip Seymour Hoffman died with a syringe in his arm, after having been clean and sober for twenty three years. I am writing this with a keen memory of standing on King Street in Newtown, begging. Sometimes it was for drugs. Sometimes it was for food. Sometimes it was for a coffee so I could sit in out of the cold and feel like I belonged to the rest of the world.

Once, it was for a light. I held an unlit cigarette in my hand and asked, and asked, and asked. People said no before any words passed my lips. They assumed it was money I wanted (and usually it was, but that night it wasn’t). I got angrier and angrier. Finally somebody stopped, and lit my cigarette without meeting my eyes, and moved on.

People rarely looked me in the eye. I know what begging feels like.

So when I won a $2,000 travel scholarship from my university, and worked out that I would need another $2,250 to actually go, I was reluctant to ask for help. I searched out other sources of funding, but there was nothing available. Eventually, I decided to set up a pozible project. Was I begging? Was it ok to ask other people to help me? Was it fair?

In the first two days there were pledges made to the value of $1,565; I have just over $600 until I reach my target. I was overwhelmed, and thrilled, but also ashamed. I had asked for help, and asking had made me vulnerable. I had offered poems and post-it notes covered in kisses from my children as rewards. Was it enough? Was this fair?

So tonight I watched. I watched and listened as Amanda Palmer in her tight black jeans and beautiful boots and painted on eyebrows held a white flower and stood on a box and talked about asking for help. And I heard her speak about crowd funding, and then she said this:

“The perfect tools aren’t going to help us if we can’t face each other, and give and receive fearlessly. But more important: to ask, without shame.”

So now, I am asking without shame. If sixty people read this, and pledge $10 each, I will be able to go to Portugal this May. And when I get there, I will read my hybrid poetry/theory/memoir, and absorb Lisbon through my skin, and write more poetry, and know that I am not on King Street anymore.

I am asking for help to do something real: to move my body through space, to find poetry wherever I land, to send hope spiraling back to the woman I was. To speak. To write. To travel. To create.


On success, and over-achieving, and the salvaging of a life

English: Pennisetum clandestinum (with Mynah e...

Almost two weeks ago I wrote a post on rejection and disappointment. I was suffering, and weepy, and exhausted. Writing it made me feel better, as did the love of my partner and friends, performing some of my work outside of academia, and some very strong cups of tea.

And then I received this comment, from ‘S’.

OMG, sorry I realise you are going through a tough time but I find it hard to empathise with you- you’ve listed all your achievements in your Phd and it reads like a list of an over-achiever….how do you manage all this with kids? I’m pleased if I even make it to campus on a good day. I’d be dancing if I managed to achieve 1/2 of what you’ve achieved and so would many people that don’t have kids.

And I was kind of thrown back there all over again. I admit, after I’d listed all the things that had gone well in the last six months, I failed to show sufficient gratitude/amazement/humble joy. I was too tired. What I said, after that long list, was that it “was ok”. I probably should have said it was spectacular and I could hardly believe how fantastically lucky and blessed I was, but I didn’t have it in me. Also, I often find success much harder than failure. I have failed, often and well, for most of my life. When someone actually wants to publish some of my work, or better yet, someone reads some of my work, and then talks to me about it, I am often besieged with a kind of pre-emptive, gut-wrenching grief laced with shame. Where does this particular feeling that really has no word to describe it come from? It comes from a life aching towards writing, and wanting to be read, and not being. Nearly always. It comes from knowing that this brief, shining, wren’s egg moment, all blue and translucent and lighter than nearly everything I’ve ever held, is about to break; that success is a quick bright thing, that will always be replaced with a return to the slog.

So yes, at that moment, all I could say was that the journal, and the publications, and the teaching experience, and the international conference, were ok. Because they were. And because they took a great toll. And because I was completely and utterly spent. And because as well as managing all of those varied, thrilling (but kind of empty) moments, I was struggling with asthma that was so bad I spent one afternoon in emergency, canulated, unable to say more than two words without gasping. And because every other member of my family was also struggling with their health (and not just in a I-have-a-head-cold kind of way).

I read that comment and got it again. That rush of grief and shame. But not from success this time. This rush (the tingling in my scalp, the clenching stomach, my burning cheeks) was from being torn down. I’ve felt it before; I know it well. I couldn’t work out where the tearing was though, so I gave this reply, and tried to leave it alone.

I guess everything’s relative. Yes it’s a big list of achievements, and I manage it because I have to. I’ll be 39 this year, I’m facing a job market at the end of my PhD that has slim offerings at best, I’ve been either unemployed or a casual employee for most of my adult life (the joys of being a writer), and this is my shot at a career. So yes, I take it seriously, and work my guts out. Those achievements don’t mean I don’t suffer when I hit bumps in the road…

I couldn’t leave it alone. I felt angry, and wronged, but couldn’t work out why. It was something to do with that term: over-achiever (and in this case, the three ellipses that spooled out after it; oh that pause). I niggled at it, because it’s a term that’s been applied to me before, and one that I’ve never liked. But why? What’s wrong with it? And then a friend said this:

“You’re not an over-achiever, Karina. You’re a high achiever. There’s a difference.”

And suddenly it made sense. He was right. It was the word ‘over’ that I took umbrage to, and deeply. And also the sense that I was being told that I had no right to my hurts and disappointments in the face of so much achievement.

Yes, I’m a high achiever. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel battered when I don’t hit the mark. And what is it about those achievements that makes others want to pull me down? I don’t do what I do to make others feel badly about what they don’t do. I do what I do because I must. Because I spent most of my adult life in severe untreatable depression, in a melancholy so deep I could barely move. And there was no writing. No text spooling from these fingers. Just a vague memory of having wanted to write.

Occasionally that vague memory would turn razor sharp and slice me open. I remember very clearly watching the movie Iris one day. It came on the telly and I was still in my pyjamas, comatose on the couch. I watched, and saw a woman writing, fairly up to her elbows in words, and I sobbed with the deep and sudden grief of having lost more than I could ever quantify.

Yes, I’m a high achiever. I’ve got so much lost time to make up for it’s ridiculous. And this life I’ve had, of mental illness, and wrenching pain, and oblivion-seeking, and then the love of my life (who is patience, and depth, and the smell of sun on skin) and those children of mine (button-bright, back-jumping, monkey-screeching, banshee-hugging) have made me. And now, finally, I write.

So this is what I think. I’m new at all this. I’m learning how to deal with rejection, and rejection is spectacular. Rejection means I’ve written something, that went into the world, to be rejected. I’m also learning that if I put my stuff out there, some people will want to bring me, or my work, down. And that’s how it is. I especially like this little pearl of internet advice-for-writers goodness that landed on my screen tonight out of sheer serendipity:

…on mean commenters: Don’t internalize the crackpottery of others; on grad school: You’re not loving grad school? It might be just that you need to give it time. It might be that it’s not a fit, and you should leave. You can’t really know which it is yet, most likely; on success: You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life.

And I have a life. An amazingly good one, that most days, I’m incredibly grateful for.

PS: if you’re going to comment on this, please remember that there is a real person reading your words, and if you wouldn’t say to me in person what you’re about to write, then please, refrain.

On rejection and disappointment


Ditch (Photo credit: Ben Bunch)

I’m battered, and bruised, and in the market for a thicker skin.

I sat down this morning to write, and found that I needed to blog instead. Where I’d like to start is this: doing a PhD is not just doing a PhD. When I first started I read lots and lots of PhD advice, especially on The Thesis Whisperer, and I took it to heart. I don’t just want a publication at the end of this; I want teaching experience, and connections with peers working in similar areas, and some conferences under my belt, and a job.

In the last two years I’ve published six papers from my PhD (some of them are still in the pipes). I just finished my first semester of teaching. I’m the Faculty representative for our Faculty Higher Degrees Research Committee. I won the Faculty level Three Minute Thesis Competition last year and this year have been asked to administer and compere the event. I applied for and received funding to present at both a local and international conference, and I’ve written two thirds of a PhD. My scholarship runs out in December next year and I’m well on track to finishing in time. This is not a skite list: it’s a testament to clear strategic thinking, a certain type of stubbornness that insists that if I do the right things in a professional manner I will be employable at the end of all this, and an utter belief in the work I’m doing.

To top it off, I recently founded a peer reviewed, open access, gender, sexuality and diversity studies journal with a group of postgraduates at my university. I’m one of the managing editors, and we recently released our first issue. I did this because it fills a need, and because I’m passionate about creating space in the academy for voices that are still unheard. I also did it because when I started my PhD a trusted friend and former academic told me it was probably best to have a Plan B, C, D and possibly E in the event that I would be unable to get a job at the end. The journal is thrilling, and spectacular, and I truly love doing it, but it’s cost me more hours than I can count, and a huge amount of emotional energy (often at the cost of my partner and children).

But all of this was ok. And then these things happened, all in a row:

  • I came back from my overseas trip and couldn’t right myself again. Sliding doors. The realisation that, without children, I would have emailed my supervisor a simple ‘sorry, it’s too spectacular here in Paris, I’ll see you in a year or so’, and to my partner ‘get yourself on a plane’. But I have children. And they’re the reason I am where I am, and the reason I write what I write. So here I am, back, with honey toast handprints on my jeans and requests for water in the night.
  • I came back from my overseas trip to 80,000 words of marking that needed to be turned around in three days, and ended up injuring my arm and shoulder, and I’m still injured (brace, ice, warmth, anti-inflammatories, keep going).
  • An AWOL postgrad that I’ve never met sent me a horrendous email out of the blue that attacked me and my research. I was shocked and disbelieving. I cried for hours. Academia, it seems, can be rough.
  • A top international journal rejected my breastfeeding chapter because it was too claustrophobic, and just depicted the woman and baby, without locating them in space, or in greater discourses around class or race. I wasn’t writing a social political history of breastfeeding, and it was meant to be claustrophobic, and I told myself it just wasn’t the right place for it, but you know, it still stings.
  • And then the nail in the coffin: one poem, ‘this mother thing’, that was accepted into an anthology early last year. I followed up once, and was told it was still in the pipeline, and so I left it alone, not wanting to be a nag. Then last week I saw an article from The Age about it on one of our lecturer’s doors, and contacted the Editor to find that my poem had somehow slipped off the list. Goodbye publication in a hardback anthology launched at the State Library of NSW with some of Australia’s top female poets.

I’m exhausted and heart sore. I know why writers put down their pens and go to work digging ditches. We tell writing students to separate themselves from their writing when they send it out. Your writing is not you. It’s not true. It’s me. It’s me sending a part of myself out into the world and when my writing is judged it’s nigh on impossible not to feel judged myself. So I’m doing the only thing I know to do: I’m writing more, and sending out more, and trusting that amongst the nos I will also get yeses. But it’s hard, and it hurts, and I’m tired, and it hurts.

2012: another sporadic (but good) blogging year

I love my wordpress annual report. It makes me feel a bit warm and happy, and gives me a little push to keep going. It also shows me very clearly that I’m a sporadic (at best) blogger. I’m not surprised – I’m a sporadic journal writer too. This not being regular thing, posting every Tuesday at 2pm for example, has always carried with it a lick of shame. So I declare 2013 the year of shameless sporadic blogging. Hooray!

Happy New Year my friends. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore. I just try to keep doing the next right thing. Right now that’s feeding myself well, exercising, reading, writing, and noticing those brief shining moments when my children are not screaming at each other, strangling my knees, or swiping honey coated hands across my shoulders. Right now that’s catching those minutes when my love and I are alone in the quiet and lengthening evening, children asleep, and letting gratitude settle, warmly, under my skin.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.