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Rosemund Handler

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Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Dying to talk about death

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 14 November 2014, entitled “Dying to talk about death”

Say them quickly, then forget. The dying words. Terminal. Dead. Deceased.

Friends and acquaintances die every day. We go to their funerals, but we try not to think about death.

Most of us have never spoken to a dying friend about death. We ask how they are and then talk about everything else rather than how they feel about what they are going through. It makes us uncomfortable. And it hurts to lose a friend.

We forget that the dying may feel abandoned when they most need our empathy. We choose not to confront that finality with them, not because we lack compassion, but because someone else’s death forces us to contemplate our own.

Talking about dying seems to be the work of somebody like Dr Sean Davison, who helped his mother in New Zealand to die and paid a heavy price for it. Or it is the work of hospice staff, or those who deal in death anyway, such as doctors – many of whom are not of Davison’s calibre.

In San Francisco last month, a family reunion was marred by the death of my daughter’s good friend, Erica. She had died hours before our arrival after a three-year struggle with breast cancer. She fought hard for her life. At 42, with two young children, she had much left to do. It wasn’t to be.

Victims of terminal illnesses appear to find resources in themselves that they and their families didn’t know they had. Some almost become different people.

Erica came to accept the inevitable, yet also rejected its dreadful finality. She couldn’t accept that she was leaving her children forever. Despite her duel with drugs and pain, she felt an immense pressure to make her days count, to spend time with her family during well-loved getaways, to travel to exotic destinations. Instead, as her health deteriorated, she found it difficult to be around her children, and even the thought of leaving home exhausted her.

Between extended bouts of chemotherapy, Erica wrote in her blog about her heightened sensory awareness: binocular vision in which colours sharpened and sounds increased in volume to the point when even birdsong seemed too loud. She found pleasure in nature, but was often overcome by a frightening sadness and apathy. Her seesawing emotions, she wrote, were not contradictory but existed side by side, more so as it became clear her time was running out.

An acquaintance mourning a friend who died of cancer tells me that the friend fought like mad, hoping for a cure and suffering pointlessly through ghastly treatments.

A recently widowed woman confides that her oldest friends are avoiding her. “They are the people who know me best, yet they don’t know what to say. They don’t need to say anything, but it would be nice if they would listen; if I could talk about it.”

An emergency room doctor in a public hospital recently wrote in the New York Times about her experiences with terminal patients and with her colleagues. “They treat the illness. Keeping a terminal patient alive seems more important than ensuring that the patient is made as comfortable as possible.

“It’s not the patients who must change, it’s us, the doctors. We need to become human beings treating a fellow human being who, given the choice, may choose palliative treatment rather than aggressive support of failing organs.”

In his recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and New Yorker writer, explores illness and death, suggesting that we exalt longevity over quality of life. There are two issues here. The first is the care of those who have been granted great longevity. The second is how the decline of the body is managed when there is no cure for its affliction.

We can keep people alive for longer than ever before, but we have not developed the essential skills involved in palliative care for those who become dependent because of serious illness or old age. Building compassion among staff and a caring hospital environment does not cost more, and the benefits in terms of improved quality of life are considerable. Sometimes, Gawande writes, the most humane decision is to do nothing.

Helping patients to a good death can be the greatest gift an attending physician can give his patient, yet doctors routinely overestimate how long a terminally ill patient has to live – and oncologists rarely confess to a patient that there is no more hope.

Family and friends can play a significant role: listening compassionately and communicating lovingly while there is still time. We would all choose a quick death if we could, but for some of us that won’t happen. We should talk more about it. We’re all going to die. We should make death and bereavement more manageable for those we love, and for ourselves.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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Polyamorous, mon amour?

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 21 February 2014, entitled “Two’s company, three’s a charm”

The Ravenhearts, a polyamorist couple, defined polyamory for the OED as ‘the practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved”.

On a recent visit to a well-established centre of polyamory – Berkeley, California – I was instructed in the norms and bylaws by a long-term polyamorist who is clearly convinced it’s the way to go: “It’s perpetual harmony between the sexes, man, amazing sex in an atmosphere completely lacking in the negative and destructive emotions.”

“Sixties free love in disguise?” I suggest. My advisor disagrees vehemently. “Polyamory is nothing like free love. It’s about honest communication with good, loving intentions; it’s about eroticism in all its forms, it’s about inclusivity.”

“No swinging at all?” I ask.

He frowns. “Swinging is just expenditure of energy, man. No love there, just raw physicality, like let’s do it, then move on and do it again, maybe with two or three others.” He tells me he’s been poly for years, and that polyamorists “connect and communicate. We value the integrity of our connection.” Ryam Nearing of Loving More agrees. He says polyamory is about powerful sexual and emotional relationships.

I ask my expert about married people. Married is fine – if the partner agrees to participate, or agrees but refuses to participate. “I used to be possessive about my girlfriend until I found out that her polyamory didn’t turn me off; rather the reverse, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted some of her genuine cool about loving other people as well as me. It took a while, but it worked for me.”

I ask if they’re still together – they’re not – and if she is still polyamorous. He shakes his head. Apparently she wanted something different when she had a kid. I ask him if the child is his. He shrugs. “I don’t think so. She doesn’t know for sure who the father is. Which is fine too; for a while I contributed financially, as did the others.”

The Jim Evans poly pride flag consists of three equal horizontal stripes, with a symbol in the centre. Blue is for honesty, red for passion, and black for solidarity with those who must conceal their relationships because of social pressures.

Social views on polyamory vary by country and culture. One of the founders of the polyamory movement in the UK says Britain is about 15 years behind America in its acceptance of polyamory.

Most of mainstream established religions do not accept polyamory. Recently, a prominent New York rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, said that biblical patriarchs had multiple wives and concubines, and there is no reason for the practice not to work today.

As early as 1929, Marriage and Morals, written by Bertrand Russell, questioned Victorian notions of morality regarding sex and marriage; his views prompted vigorous condemnation. Virginia Woolf, DH Laurence, and others provoked a similar reaction. In 2010, British artist Connie Rose made a film, Questioning Monogamy, which consisted of interviews with leading polyamory experts. In London in 2011 the film was symbolically recreated as an eight foot installation for 12 people to lie in, with 10 screens.

Back in Berkeley, I’m told that while polyamorists have to be comfortable with whatever arrangements are negotiated – such as a husband with his wife’s involvement with another woman, or her of his with another man – as important as good sex is the emotional support, the range of experience, skills and fresh perspectives of partners. Sharing child-rearing, chores and the reduced financial burden are powerful incentives.

Twice-weekly free-flow dances are held. I spoke with a woman who described the sensual appeal of these dances, and the kind of opportunities they offer polyamorists. She has had a succession of experiences with attractive men who made rapid, romantic connections with her. Later, these men told her they practised polyamory, and were hopeful of her becoming part of their group.

She no longer attends the dances because she can’t even imagine the complications that may arise. Investing in one relationship at a time is challenge enough for her. ‘So many guys are hopeless at emotional bonding,’ she says wistfully. ‘Those guys connected in an amazing way, and it was with me. It’s just that they connect with others in the same way.’

A manual for psychotherapists with polyamorous clients was published in 2009, entitled What Psychotherapists Should Know About Polyamory. A psychotherapist I spoke with says that emotions such as jealousy and possessiveness can destroy even long-term partnerships. A South African polyamorist – Jo’burg has an active polyamorist community – agrees. “It can take years to negotiate the intrusion of negative emotions,” he says. “Some can’t do it. The green-eyed monster is a powerful part of our psyches. It is not easily eradicated.”

Clearly, to be or not to be is a decision that should not be taken lightly!


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The family in fiction – or is it the other way around?

Us and Them, my new novel, is due out in August. Asked what it’s about I say, a family. Before I can utter another word I’m asked if it’s about my family. No, it’s fiction actually, I reply, slightly jolted as always that so many people still cling to the belief that a writer cannot possibly choose to write about anything outside of his or her personal experience.

They have a point, of course: the proper answer is probably yes and no. Yes, because any piece of writing is bound in some way to reflect something of the writer; not necessarily personal experience but certainly observations and areas of interest. Books such as The News from Paraguay and The Tenderness of Wolves, both strikingly authentic, were written in libraries; neither Lily Tuck nor Stef Penney, both clearly passionate about their subject matter, had ever visited the locations in which they chose to set their novels.

As a writer of fiction, the settings of my books may be familiar to me, but it’s still the ‘no’ that is more significant: the ways in which my writing diverges from my life experience. How many different lives there are – and each of us gets only one!

So for me it’s the path not taken: the risks and revelations that venturing into unlived, imagined lives may bring, and securing a hidey-hole for myself among them that may not be comfortable. And then, even more daring, adopting them: sculpting from outlines people that – if I do my job well – will stand up and walk alone, think alone, make decisions and choices which influence their lives and those of their families; and ultimately have little to do with their creator.

It’s those differences from my life that intrigue and challenge me, that motivate me again and again to engage with the unknown and perhaps the unknowable; to eavesdrop lives that may be more intensely lived or outwardly mundane or mysterious, abstruse, hidden. And it’s a privilege to take readers on that journey with me.

Is fiction therefore a form of displacement for writers? Maybe. Not always… Take family life, take children: they are the source, the essence of our most intense emotional connections and experience, yet in the literature of the greats children are seldom admitted. Perhaps they dismantle the enigma, the romance. Shakespeare’s children vanish after a phrase like ‘I have given suck’; Jane Austen, the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield – the list goes on, all women, yet not a single child features in their novels. Dickens, who loves and victimises his children to make a point about the society he lives in, in the end romanticises them in the interests of the fairytale ending his readers expect of him. Lord of the Flies is the exception, though it is essentially a novel about human nature.

Later, Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing do build novels around children, and since them, of course, much has changed. Family, and childhood in particular, have become enormously popular subjects of memoir and autobiography, and the driving force – and the face – of fiction. (Although several prize-winning, mostly male, writers continue to cherish the character of the loner trapped in a hostile world rather than choosing to explore as well the family who raised such an individual.)

The only surprise in this is that it took as long as it did. Particularly for fiction. Family – parents and children and what lurks in the genes and in the home – is probably the broadest and deepest area to mine in all of literature, not least because as with two individuals, no two families are alike. The possibilities are endless; exploring them is like tracing a vein of gold that may or may not take one to the source.

And it doesn’t matter. It’s the diversity of the journey, the treasures to be unearthed enroute that are the beating heart of every story. Families are complex and elusive, bristling with secrets and half-buried rivalries; and this writer, for one, is incapable of turning her back on such riches; has no choice but to offer those families and their potential a room of their own in her home. No matter that there will never be safe or stable ground beneath her feet.


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On writing and wilderness: may the twain meet more often

The private, inward, isolated world of writers is a peaceful but intriguing place of dusk and shadows. From this reclusive lair – which may even be the busiest of coffee shops – we are obliged to emerge from time to time to talk about our work. For me, the exposure is like hobbling from a gentle dusk into the glare of a midday sun: it can be intimidating and exhausting. Yet that hard light is also the source, the canvas, the vast and never- to-be completed tapestry of creative endeavour. Fiction writers, writes Nadine Gordimer, are ‘unconscious eternal eavesdroppers and observers, snoopers, nothing that is human is alien to the imagination… fiction is a way of exploring possibilities present but undreamt of in the living of a single life’. What makes the writer is ‘the tension between standing apart and being fully involved’. It is from this tension that revelations emerge, and it is these revelations that validate what fiction writers do. We are a bridge across which diverse worlds merge and collide at the will of the imagination.

There is another habitat without which I, for one, could not survive, let alone create. This is the world of wild places, paradise on our planet: what I would describe as paradise now. Liberally strewn across our country, across the world, these jewels make our lives bearable, often beautiful. If we make the effort to see through and beyond our cluttered urban vision, it is wilderness that is a primary source of inspiration and joy, where the infinite is neither myth nor mystery, but as much a part of us as we are part of it. Wilderness is our parent; it is also our child. And caretaking begins in the womb.
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History and the Mystery, Waltzing Us Round the Room

On the meaning of election night, USA, by Marisa Handler.

When the election was called for Barack Hussein Obama on the evening of November 4th, I did two things. First, I danced around the room, skipping between friends, hooting and ululating. Then, I cried.

Judging from the photos of people across the country and the world, my reaction was far from singular. From Milwaukee to Columbus to Charlotte to Nairobi to Tokyo to Paris, people were jubilant and emotional. In left-leaning online political forums, sites of unbridled cynicism and despondency for the past eight years, contributors wrote things like “my faith in humanity and democracy has been restored,” “we are dancing in the streets,” and “I can’t quit crying, I’m so happy and relieved.”

We came together as a people, as a planet. It was a moment that struck me in its paradoxical resemblances to 9/11, likenesses that echoed obliquely in the way circus mirrors do, reversing and triangulating and upending. 9/11 vanquished the myth of an untouchable U.S. It rendered this country vulnerable, just like any other nation. And the world opened its arms in an outpouring of empathy. Over the following seven years, the Bush administration effectively wrecked that capital, along with the other, more intoxicating mythology—that of America the great, beacon of liberty and justice. (Whatever remained intact, that is, after Nixon and Vietnam and Reagan and the multiple covert and overt meddlings in other nation’s politics) We were just like any other nation under the helm of bad leadership: we were fallible, misguided, blind in our vengeance. Except the consequences, being a superpower, were not limited to our shores, our climate, our economy.
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