Halcyon days

by Stephanie on June 22, 2013

These frosty June nights are biting. They numb my fingers and turn my lips blue. I drink mug after mug of hot water, wrap myself in shawls and scarves and sit at my desk with a heat pack slid under my thighs, trying to ward off the inertia that comes from icy skin and viscid blood. My electricity bill has done enough damage.

Halcyon is now seen only in the idiom “the halcyon days” although it was once used as a verb. It is generally used as referring to days distant and more pleasant, shrouded in the contentment of selective memory.  Properly used, it refers to the 14 days of calm weather at sea which, according to Greek legend, interrupt the storms of mid-Winter. It comes from hals (salt, or the sea) and kuo (to brood on).  According to Greek legend, the kingfisher makes its nest on the water and hatches its eggs during the 14 days of calm at mid-Winter. Properly used, halcyon means the tranquil spell surrounding the Winter solstice. In the southern hemisphere, that is on 20-21 June.

I rode along the creek in the dark last night, blue-white headlamp flashing across the water, still as glass. And I thought, if there is no soul and I am simply body, then where does love come from?

Halcyon was the daughter of Neptune, keeper of the seas. She fell in love with Ceyx, the mortal king of Thessaly. Ceyx went to sea at mid-Winter and was shipwrecked. His body was washed ashore, where Halcyon found it. Distracted by grief, she took his corpse into the water, wishing for death to reunite them. But the gods took pity on her and turned the two of them into kingfishers. 

If love is reducible to hormones and proximity, and romance to social context and chance; if my instincts are socialised and my thought patterns so potentially malleable, then what impacts do the changes in my body make? And if my physical responses are so easily manipulated by chemical-in-chemical-out, how do I evaluate the difference between how I feel now on medication to how I felt without it? Which feelings are real? What can I trust?

Out on the stormy seas, the two kingfishers mated, and made a nest on the sea. Neptune, concerned for his grandchildren, stilled the waves whilst the eggs hatched. The sea was still for 14 days – the halcyon days. 

If I don’t know which of my feelings to trust, how can I possibly ever know myself? And how on earth can I know what will make me happy?




by Stephanie on June 1, 2013

My parents called me yesterday from Montreal. Various stems of the family grapevine had covered the distance before I could bring myself to do so and let them know about the second burglary: that hefty gobbet of muck spattering up over the top of all my other troubles.

I miss them both, and perhaps it is their absence, or perhaps I am just getting better at talking about how I feel, but I need little prompting to pour my heart out to them over the distance. ‘Things are awful. I feel awful. None of these choices seem right but I have to make one.’ And they give me advice, one after another, comfort coming in short, intense bursts over the scratchy line. ‘It’ll get better, love. Just remember to breathe slowly. Take one day at a time. You can always go home if you need to.’ I am sure I have never heard my father be so kindly and understanding as he is being now. But there was a time, after all, when it was just the three of us: before my baby brothers came rolling and tumbling into the world; when a family of seven was a simple cocoon of three. He was there for me then, completely accepting of my every irritating quirk and cry, and he is here for me now, even while he is on the other side of the world. And I realise as he talks how well he actually knows me. No matter how much conflict there may have been in the middle, somehow we have come full circle.

My mother sends me beautiful postcards: a map of California; a blazing sunset over the grey Lake Michigan beach; the apex of Frank Lloyd Wright’s roof rising up against a clear summer morning. I blu-tac them to the wall so that I can track their journey from my desk. She writes that she visits these places and thinks, ‘Stephanie would love this.’ I expect I would, and part of me aches with it. She wasn’t going to talk on the phone while they were on their trip — ‘The point of going away is to be away, I think’ — but she is worried about me. I am glad she breaks her rule for these calls. The little things are so important right now.

Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.

I read this essay on Thursday morning over breakfast. I read it four times through. My tea went cold as I retraced the final four paragraphs, again and again and again, and with each sentence I saw myself, naked and branded, exposed for all my sins in cruel black ink.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game.

I have always found myself saddled with a bubbling urge to go, to leave, to be somewhere else. A desire for change is healthy, I think, but this is something more. It manifests geographically but it is a reflection of internal conflict. Disorder. A machine cobbled together from slightly ill-fitting parts that have begun to scrape and wear and break apart.

I’ve been taking painkillers to sleep. The headaches are too intrusive, and I can’t wake in the middle of the night or my mind whirrs into rasping half-life again.

To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no-one at home.

A vase of lilies sits on the living room cabinet, blooming unexpected white stars on a dismal, rainy evening. They were a cheer up gift. An it will get better soon gift. Will it, I wonder? Will it? And I take a deep breath.


For posterity’s sake

by Stephanie on December 31, 2012

I struggled a lot this year. I worked really hard and have come so close – if not crossed over – to burnout on a number of occasions. I have been depressed and exhausted, anxious and upset more than is healthy, and it’s possible I have been this way for longer than I am comfortable acknowledging right now. But 2013 is a new year, and for the first time in a long time, it feels like a proper new start. So in the interests of saying goodbye to this year on a positive note, I made a list of ten things I achieved in 2012. Things I’m proud of; things that feel like steps forward.

  1. I finished and submitted my PhD thesis.
  2. I signed with a wonderful literary agent.
  3. I moved out of a sharehouse and into an apartment of my own.
  4. My PhD thesis passed with flying colours.
  5. I ran a half-marathon.
  6. I graduated as Dr Convery and left university behind – after a full 9 years.
  7. I appeared on a Wheeler Centre panel.
  8. I helped organise a pro-choice feminist protest.
  9. I created a political group.*
  10. I started writing a new book.


*Could not have done either 8 or 9 if I hadn’t done them with my friend/colleague/fellow runner/reading group associate Jacinda Woodhead.


In pursuit of a political argument for exercise

by Stephanie on October 3, 2012

I’ve been a bit low lately. I’ve had knee problems since the half-marathon and for a few weeks I didn’t run at all. Even my bicycle seemed to be constantly in for repair, which meant hideous train rides to and from work every day. I got sick. Then I got sick again. The Melbourne Writers Festival came along, followed by the Brisbane Writers Festival, I was still working five days a week at MTC and every night my calendar seemed to demand my presence at an underlined-in-red-pen important event. I fell behind with quite a few writing projects due to sheer exhaustion, and twice in the space of three weeks the thought of leaving the house reduced me to tears because all I wanted was a goddamn afternoon to myself. The fact that I haven’t had a holiday since well before I finished my PhD probably has a lot to do with this. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the enormous emotional slump I fell into corresponded exactly with a dramatic decline in the amount of physical activity I’d been doing.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies over the last few weeks, about exercise and its relationship to the individual, but also about its relationship to politics and society. Outside of feminist-driven criticism relating to body image and beauty, there doesn’t seem to be much political theory about exercise in and of itself. It’s understandable, in a way. It’s common, particularly in feminist circles, for discussion about exercise and the body to morph rapidly into issues of weight, body shaming, social expectations, beauty industries and personal choice. Trying to critique aspects of this debate from a pro-exercise point of view is inherently tricky, because fitness rhetoric is tied so tightly to sexist beauty standards imposed by corporations and institutions that exist to make personal profit from women’s (and men’s) insecurities, so it’s easy to misinterpret advocacy for physical activity as social pressure to conform to the status quo.

But I don’t think it has to be like that.

From a materialist perspective, a person is solely a physical entity. There is no soul, no separate spirit that exists apart from the corporeal, but only a creature composed entirely of matter. I don’t mean that to be reductive: if this being that is me is solely material, then the capacity, complexity and intricacy of the body is perhaps even more fascinating and wondrous than if it were inhabited by some supernatural force. But conceiving of the body in this way has far-reaching implications. If a person is no more or less than their body, then what you do with that body, how you treat it, is incredibly important. If a person is no more or less than their body, then how you treat other people’s bodies is simultaneously important. It might be stating the obvious, but rather than being a kind of ancillary concern, actually, the body itself matters a lot.

This has political implications. It suggests that how corporations and state structures treat the body is crucial. Feminists often argue that women’s bodies are the sites upon which misogyny is made manifest. But I would argue that all power abuses are enacted, in some way, upon the body. Consider assault, rape, torture, murder, war. Politics as a question of a relationship to the body also speaks to issues of personal agency: consider restrictions on access to birth control and abortion. Consider social structures that prohibit sex between consenting adults. Consider slavery, sweatshop labour, child labour, incarceration. There are further implications for social services and government: consider provision of public hospitals and easily accessible health care. Consider public sports facilities, open community spaces, and first aid. Consider disability access schemes. Consider hideously expensive pharmaceuticals. Consider food, shelter and clothing.

Furthermore, understanding a person as a purely material entity does not exclude attention to the mind or the emotions, but rather, reminding oneself that the mind is part of the body. Consider access to education, trauma counselling, creative fulfilment, holidays, time to oneself, child care, social networks, and the arts.

And it has personal implications, too.

There’s this idea that permeates contemporary liberal thinking that discipline is in itself bad. That it is diametrically opposed to agency, to freedom. But discipline and agency are not mutually exclusive. They are dynamic, fluid, contradictory aspects of the same entity. The practice of personal physical discipline doesn’t restrict your personal power, or your physical and mental strength and ability; it increases it. It is through that discipline that you gain greater agency. Writing is a great example of this process in action, but so is exercise. Our bodies are made to move. The muscles are there to be used, and if, in the end, this temporal lump of matter is the sum of us, then we should be embracing that and all of its physical potential with all the energy we have.


On offense

September 1, 2012

1. At the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, at the Overland panel on the Tent Embassy, a woman in the front row put her hand up to make a comment. She understood Indigenous people were angry, she said. She understood that horrible things had happened. But she felt personally offended by what she perceived to be […]

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One foot in front of the other

August 2, 2012

I used to hate running. I hated it like I hated mornings, or sitting down to start an essay. The threat of dawn invoked dread. Impending deadlines made me want to curl up on myself, clutch at my knees, like a caterpillar being poked in the belly. And putting on my running shoes, stepping out […]

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June 16, 2012

Sometimes the water gets so muddy it’s impossible to see through the swirling dirt and debris looms dark and sudden though the murk. Sometimes you have to wait for the silt to settle to clear your head. For what it’s worth: Sexism is not simply reducible to the prejudice of individuals. Individual misogyny is not […]

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Pocket holes

August 16, 2011

We flew the budget airline. My father blithely strolled through customs, waving cheerfully at the guards who waved cheerfully back, took our fingerprints but asked us almost nothing. When we checked in at the hotel, he started pulling half-open packets of biscuits, chocolate, candy, piles of muesli bars—even a chicken wing—out of his bag. ‘In […]

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June 6, 2011

A golden autumn morning breaks through leafless branches. The chainlink fences that flank the railway tracks gleam as the sun rises behind them. The footpaths wear mantles of brown and red leaves. My fingers are cold and only seem to get colder as I type. I piece together a couple of paragraphs from the scraps […]

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Things I do not want to talk about at parties

May 18, 2011

This is the worst thing. This dry mouth belly tumbling soul sucking can’t tell if I’m breathing. People say the art of conversation is dead. That we don’t know how to connect any more. That our relationships have devolved into farce and fancy, as though the rules of engagement are tempered by deliberate pantomime and […]

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