Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

October 18

Shyness in the Classroom

(This article was published in The Age newspaper on October 20th 2014)

 

Imagine this: you are about to deliver a presentation to a classroom full of your fellow school students, watched over by your teacher. Perhaps your palms are sweating, your face slightly flushed. Perhaps your heart rate has increased. Perhaps there is a tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they’re in the right order.

Imagine yourself imagining that everyone in the classroom is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph. Imagine yourself standing in front of that critical audience, wishing that you were invisible. Now imaginefeeling just like this every time you find yourself in a social situation with people you don’t know intimately, because you are shy.

I have had a lifelong battle with shyness. I know the intense distress this common temperament trait can cause for those of us born on the shy end of the spectrum, especially at school. And it is at school where shyness threatens to impact both social and academic development, preventing a person from full participation in school life. But can teachers actually do anything to help?

First, we have to understand shyness. Shyness is a state you inhabit physically as well as mentally. Shyness can freeze you over and refuse to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe can be the hardest thing, when you’re shy. But what are we shy people afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems telling us there’s a hungry lion about to pounce on us, when in fact we’re just minding our own business in the corner of someone’s balloon-strewn living room?

I have spent the last four years researching shyness for a memoir called ‘Shy’, published in June this year. According to the experts, shyness is just one of many temperament traits we might inherit from our parents. Shyness sits down one end of a spectrum from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. Picture a bird on an electricity wire. If you’re very shy you’re hanging around on the far left of the wire, staying away from the other birds. Every now and then you might chirp quietly at them, simultaneously hoping that they will ignore you and that they will chirp back. What you really want is to be hanging around with the other birds, but you’re afraid of them. You fear their negative evaluation and the possibility that, if you approach them, they might reject you.

So teachers should realize that shyness is not a choice, or a student acting up. It is a real problem and one that is likely to be inherited.

Shyness manifests as social anxiety and at its most extreme, this anxiety can become a form of phobia so severe you cannot leave the house. Social anxiety usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling, sweating, hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff. It induces hyper-vigilance, a hyper-awareness of one’s physical presence in social environments, and a mental preoccupation with how one is being perceived; in other words, intense self-consciousness. In social situations, the shy person’s body can easily become caught up in a distressing feedback loop of shame, awkwardness and discomfort.

Over years, even decades, these repeated experiences of anxiety-related distress (and the mere anticipation of these experiences) can become inscribed upon the body. For me, shyness is a kind of poison that enters my body, a toxic elixir of anxiety that eats away at my digestive system so I can only eat what I ate as a baby – comforting, squishy, easy-to-digest foods like potato, pumpkin, rice and porridge. Anything else hurts.

I also get a lump in my throat every time I feel acutely socially anxious, a lump that no amount of swallowing can remove. I have discovered this constriction is aptly called ‘globus hystericus’, but it feels like my own body IS trying to strangle me, perhaps to punish me for my foolish fears.

Finally, there is the sensation of liquefaction that can accompany the experience of social anxiety, when it seems your whole body has turned to water.

Teachers need to watch for symptoms such as this and note shyness as they would other special education needs.

But what can teachers do to help these students?

My own shyness became most acute when I spent six months in a London comprehensive school as a teenager. Transplanted from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, I felt like an alien in that environment, and making friends was almost impossible. I simply didn’t have the skills or courage to insert myself into this new school’s social cliques. In the classroom, I was reluctant to speak up, even when I knew the answers, for fear of drawing attention to myself. Many long lunch hours were spent hiding out in the school library, reading books, avoiding social interactions, immersed in loneliness. No doubt you know children just like this in your school.

So is it possible that some of my distress could have been alleviated by my teachers? According to psychologist Barbara Keogh, the author of Temperament in the Classroom (Paul H Brookes Publishing Co, 2003), if teachers have a better awareness of individual temperament styles they can not only help their students but they can also alleviate some of their own classroom stress. Keogh uses the example of a shy teacher who may be especially understanding of a shy and inhibited child, whereas another teacher may be impatient with that child, not understanding why they are so reluctant to participate in class activities.

Another thing to bear in mind, says Keogh, is that shy and withdrawing children may have problems when they are faced with a program with many demands for quick adaptation to different activities. Hence, reframing your expectations of that child in those situations may be advisable.

There are other things you can do, too. My shyness research and my own experience as a teacher of creative writing (and as a shy person) has given me some insights into how to manage shy students.

  • Find alternative tasks: If a shy child is grappling with intense self-consciousness, having to present or perform in front of their classmates may be excruciatingly anxiety inducing for them. Offering those children alternative ways to demonstrate their learning may help them to achieve better outcomes.
  • Offer social opportunities Shy children often find it very difficult to approach others in social situations, for example in the free-form environment outside the classroom. Offering them structured opportunities in class time to interact in a more relaxed way with their fellow students (group projects for example) could facilitate better social interactions for them outside the classroom.
  • Manage your expectations Teachers should try to avoid making shy students feel even more self-conscious than they already are. Trying to force them to behave like extroverts when they have inherited a shy temperament will only increase their distress.
  • Help them understand the problem Helping students to better understand their own temperament could help them feel less socially incompetent. Since the publication of my memoir I have been inundated with emails from shy readers, thanking me for explaining their own behaviour for them, and expressing relief at the knowledge that they are not alone with their irrational fears.

Some might argue that to prepare shy children for adult life their teachers must insist they behave in non-shy ways. Gentle encouragement from empathetic teachers, though, will be much more effective than rigid insistence on confident performance in the classroom. Allowing shy students to take small ‘safe’ risks will help them to imagine their way into a less frightening world.

September 23

The Singers of Forbes

There were a few chapters that didn’t make it into the final cut of my memoir ‘Shy’. Somehow they didn’t fit. So i had to kill my darlings. But they’re not entirely dead. Here’s one:

Between the NSW country towns of Grenfell and Forbes the world seems to turn upside down. Through the windows of a Countrylink bus I watched flourescent fields of canola throwing sunlight up into the cloud-dark skies. Soon the skies would return the favour by throwing back rain. Which would no doubt turn the canola an even more lurid lemon.

As I pointed the camera, trying to capture proof of this improbable sea of yellow, I remembered a newspaper article about a canola farmer. His lush springtime crops looked perfect from ground level. But then he flew over them in a light plane. Looking down, he discovered field after field had great gaping holes in the middle where a mice plague had swarmed through. From above, those perfect paddocks looked like slices of Swiss cheese laid out on a giant open sandwich.

This was my first visit to Forbes and I was in extremis. A five week-long winter cough had left my lungs shrunken and my vocal cords shredded. Or so it felt.

And yet I was here to sing the most difficult music I had ever learnt.
The world premiere of a contemporary art song cycle.
In front of an audience of skeptical strangers.
With a chorus of amateur choristers.
At a first-time regional community arts festival.
Upon whose success the future of any further festivals entirely depended.

But, like, no pressure.

The evening of the day I got to town there was to be a get-together at the Forbes Bowls Club. The local choristers wanted to meet the visiting musicians who’d come from the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney; four instrumentalists and the opera singer. The Festival coordinator welcomed me with a hug at the caravan park where I’d be staying for the week. As she was leaving she mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that the singers were all worried about their parts and, in particular, about meeting the standards of The Professional Soprano.

Professional? This was only my second paid gig all year, and the year was almost over. The Pretend Soprano, more like it.

A party full of new people.
All waiting to meet me.

My anxiety went so deep I could scarcely access what was left of my lungs to inhale the crisp country air.

What if: my voice gave out entirely during the performance and I had to flee the stage in shame?
What if: my personal failure led to the failure of the entire festival enterprise?
What if: the locals didn’t like me?

I wanted Tom to be there with me. To tell me that I was worrying for nothing. To answer my what ifs with his but remember whens. To remind me I’d been in this pit of fear before and climbed out.

But he was on the other side of the world.

Sitting on the porch of my little cabin beside the Lachlan River, watching the birds flitting over the water, I thought about the singers I’d conducted in the Trade Union Choir all those years ago, the Fearless Boss-Slayers-by-day who reverted to Chastened Schoolchildren by night, who had come to me with their own shameful hoard of what ifs, their tales of music teachers who’d instructed them to mime in the school choir because their voices weren’t good enough. I tried to remember how it felt to play the Confident Choir Mistress, reassuring them they were gonna be just fine, that everyone could sing in tune, all it took was practice.

Then I tried to focus my mind on the choristers I was about to meet. To imagine their terror. Imagine not being able to read the notes on the pages of music. Imagine having to try and memorise the strange, unpredictable rhythms that the faraway composer has given them to learn. Imagine how they might be imagining me.

I remembered the fictional visiting soprano in Thea Astley’s novel ‘The Kindness Cup’, a bloated, attention-seeking diva who lords it over the local ladies in a Queensland country town. A middle-aged woman with a fortissimo laugh and poccissimo empathy. I wondered if that was what they feared from me?

And as I burrowed my way into the minds of the imaginary choristers I was about to meet, calm descended.

This was not about me, after all. I was here to reassure. To erase the anxieties of others. I was here to help in upside down world. My role would be The Humble Soprano. From this lowly position I would throw sunlight up towards the dark clouds of anxiety hovering over the caroling residents of Forbes. Helpful Sian.

When I arrived the partygoers were milling around in porch light out the back of the Bowls Club. Drinks were being served in plastic cups and there were platters of crackers and cheese being handed around. A dozen silver heads turned towards me as I made my way up the path.
My face was ready.

I lent towards strangers, shook their hands, gripped their arms, nodded and smiled. I tried to remember names – Marj with the matching green eyes and scarf, Beryl with the mannish haircut, Olive with the laugh-lines that reach from her eyes to her ears – and I told everyone about how hard it had been to learn the music, about my shredded vocal cords and my fear of letting them down. I laughed and wheezed and coughed and laughed again. I was self-deprecating and expectorating.
Soon their anxious chorus of ‘we’re just a country choir, you know’ faded away and they were reassuring me that it would be okay, that we were all in it together, that we-can-only-do-our-best and that our-best-will-have-to-be-good-enough. A woman with a South African accent and loud jewellery placed the palm of her hand on the middle of my chest, looked up towards the heavens and instructed The Good Lord to take away my cough. Another promised me lemons from her own tree to make a curative hot drink with honey. Handing around plastic glasses of champagne, I imagined that I was sharing the elixir of sympathy.

The choir members of Forbes would never guess just how much self-doubt was gnawing away at me like a plague of mice mowing through a canola field.

And as I took my leave, promising them that I would rest well and be fit as a fiddle in the morning, I could swear the scoreboard on the other side of the moonlit bowling green read:

Sian – 1
Shyness – 0

September 8

Media coverage for ‘Shy: a memoir’

Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – review by Natasha Mitchell

Life Matters (ABC Radio National) – interview by Natasha Mitchell

The Sunday Age – review by Owen Richardson

The Good Weekend – profile by Stephanie Wood

Readings magazine – review by Felicity Ford

The Saturday Paper – review by ‘HT’

Booktopia – review and interview by Caroline Baum

Radio New Zealand – interview with Kathryn Ryan

The Conversation Hour (774 ABC Melbourne) – interview with Jon Faine

The Big Issue – interview with Emily Laidlaw

Australian Book Review – review by Dina Ross

The Australian – review by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

Books and Publishing – review by Emily Laidlaw

The Wheeler Centre – essay by Kirsten Krauth

The Wheeler Centre – interview with Francesca Rendle-Short

Australian Financial review – review by Simon Hughes

Artshub – review by Olivia Mayer

GoodReads website – review

Conversations with Richard Fidler (ABC Local Radio) – interview with Richard Fidler

Melbourne Writers Festival blog – interview with Emma Jones

Kill Your Darlings literary magazine – feature by Carody Culver

The Book Club on 4ZZZ FM – interview with Sky Kirkham

RMIT News – profile

Northcote Leader – profile by Julia Irwin

Otago Daily Times – review by Ian Williams

The Listener magazine (NZ) – profile by Guy Somerset

Shyness and Social Anxiety Treatment Australia – review by Catherine Madigan

Mama Mia Book Circle – interview with Cheryl Ackle

http://katrinalezaic.com – profile by Katrina Lezaic

Daily Life – column by Sian Prior

New Zealand Herald – column by Sian Prior

The Wheeler Centre – essay by Sian Prior

Washington Post – column by Sian Prior

TES (Times Educational Supplement) magazine – article by Sian Prior

Upstart magazine - feature by Erin Leeder

Victoria University blog – comment by Diana Gaba

The Age Spectrum – feature by Jane Sullivan

Meanjin website – blogpost by Jo Case

Abbey’s Bookshop blog – review by Lindy

Book Club notes for ‘Shy’ (via Text Publishing)

September 8

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

I recently attended the Brisbane Writers Festival, where i was invited to contribute a story to the ‘Jukebox Confessional’ event about the first pop song that made a strong impression on me. This is the result:

Three bleached blondes. Bare muscled arms, crossed defensively. Eyes to camera. Spiky percussive guitar riff. Spiky percussive ungrammatical lyrics. Short bursts. Unfinished sentences. Two word lines.

‘Wet bus-stop

She’s waiting.’

Bleached blondes with pouting lips. Teachers’ black capes flying behind them. Drum-sticks waving. Unplugged electric guitar.

‘Loose talk in the classroom.’

Not scenes. Not narratives. Fragments.

‘His car is warm and dry.’

Allusions to literary heroes. To books I’ve actually read.

‘Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.’

A pop song – a Countdown hit – that mentions Nabokov.

I’m in.

I wanted to part the pixels on my television screen and be IN the video clip of that song. To BE the schoolgirl who was making Sting chew his pen to death as he sat at a desk, pretending to be a teacher.

The Police were my first real band crush.

Oh yes, I’d loved Abba in the ‘70’s. We all did. Abba Arrival was the first album I ever saved up to buy with my own pocket money. Glamorous Swedes with lollipop harmonies and their own helicopter. But it wasn’t a sexual crush. Not for me. Not until The Police.

Not until the bleached blondes sang me a song about isolated people in steamy classrooms longing for – what?

I didn’t know what, back then. Back in 1980 I was 15 but I was an innocent. Oh of course I knew about sex, the mechanics, the procreative purpose. But touching men was something I’d never done, not in the way Sting meant in that song.

It was something I was terrified of, because I was shy, and therefore terrified of lots of things, but mostly of men. Terrified, and longing. Just like the people in those books by Nabokov. Just like the people in the song. Longing for the bleached beached muscled blondes I watched entering the water with their surfboards as I lay on my towel, waiting for my teenage years to end, waiting for my shyness to end. Waiting waiting waiting.

The song’s title could well be the title of a book about shyness: Don’t stand so close to me. I half wish I’d thought of it before I named my memoir ‘Shy’.

Except that it would have been a terrible cliché. A memoir about shyness which features a failing relationship with a famous pop star, named after a song by a bunch of famous pop stars? I don’t think so.

But still. Don’t stand so close to me. That’s how I felt, for most of my teens and twenties and thirties. At the same time as I was wanting that closeness. Wanting to do the kinds of things the teacher and his student in that song never dared to do. Or did they? I always wondered. Did they fuck?

It’s fiction, Sian. You’ll never know because it never happened.

The lyrics of that song seeped into my wannabe writer’s brain.

Short sentences.

‘It’s no use. He sees her.’

Lists of things.

‘Temptation. Frustration.’

Metaphors.

‘This girl’s an open page.’

Simple language hiding complex emotions.

And when I developed my last ever crush on a pop star, it was the same recipe that drew me in. The same kind of language. Simple. Complex. Literary allusions. Emotionally-nuanced ear-worms.

I had the same sense, listening to the music of my last ever crush, that the author of these words knew me, knew about my longings, knew that I wasn’t really wanting people not to stand so close to me. That what I really wanted was for them to stand so close that we would never stop touching.

Dangerous lyrics for someone like me. The stuff of school girl fantasies.

‘Inside her there’s longing.’

Two weeks ago I turned fifty. I don’t do crushes any more. They’ve been crushed out of me. And I’m kind of sad, and kind of relieved.

Because there is nothing as exquisite as a crush. And nothing as exquisitely painful, especially for a shy girl.

I don’t do crushes any more. I just do love.

June 18

Shyness isn’t nice but…

Shy people have quite a bit to contend with – not least the word itself.

It has a number of different meanings, none of which are flattering. To “shy away” from something implies avoidance; to “shy” can also mean to move suddenly in fright; to “be shy of” something can mean to come up short, or be insufficient.

And to be a shy person in our extrovert-worshipping age can be seen as being inadequate for the task of relentlessly positive self-presentation.

I recently wrote a memoir called Shy as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University and have been exploring the different definitions of the word “shy” as part of a quest to understand the impact of shyness on my own life story. As at least 40% of us would self-identify as shy, I suspect my deep interest in this subject will be shared by many fellow-sufferers.

Psychologists would say it is a temperament trait, one that can induce feelings of social anxiety ranging from mildly distressing to severely debilitating. I have been relieved to discover, though, that shyness is also accompanied by a range of socially useful and positive character attributes.

Part of my research involved interviewing my mother, Melbourne University psychologist Professor Margot Prior, who has been studying temperament for more than three decades. In her view, all children fit somewhere on a spectrum called “approach-withdrawal”, ranging from the most engaged and extroverted kids to the most withdrawn, fearful and anxious kids.

For the shy ones among us, this fear comes from our biology, specifically from the reactivity of our nervous systems. American psychologist Jerome Kagan has studied the physical symptoms of so-called “timid” and “bold” children and found in the timid ones a neural circuitry that is highly reactive to even mild stress.

In short, those children were shown to sweat more and their hearts beat faster in response to new situations. Some kids grow out of shyness but many of us carry this anxiety into adulthood, when this reactivity commonly manifests as blushing, trembling and hyper-ventilating.

I had two shy parents so it is hardly surprising that I inherited a large dose of shyness. As a child and teenager this shyness often got in the way of me initiating social contact for fear of rejection. As an adult I have grappled with social anxiety and been forced to find strategies to overcome my irrational fears.

One such strategy has been to create professional personas for myself, enabling me to function as an apparent extrovert in the workplace. In the memoir I label this persona “Professional Sian” and analyse how she has managed to perform the roles of environment campaigner, choral conductor, opera singer, broadcaster, arts critic and university lecturer.

I now call myself a “shy extrovert”. If I was an introvert, I might be quite happy to remain in the background and avoid social situations. Shy people long for social connections but have to fight through a thicket of fears to make those connections.

Managing anxiety often comes at a cost to the shy person’s body. Swinburne University psychologist Dr Simon Knowles has studied the “brain-gut axis” and its role in the fraught relationship between anxiety and the gastro-intestinal system.

Many of Dr Knowles’ anxious patients present with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), a bowel condition caused by the interaction between the gut’s nervous system and the brain. My own digestive system has reacted to decades of nervous stress by developing a broad range of food intolerances.

While the symptoms of shyness can be difficult to control, the distress of social anxiety can be compounded by feelings of shame and embarrassment. We shy people often feel like incompetent idiots in social situations.

English sociologist Dr Susie Scott believes this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. But she blames these feelings on what she calls “the illusion of competence”: the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.

In her 2007 book Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence, Dr Scott argues that shy people are perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations and that, while non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable.

The misperception of shyness as rudeness or aloofness plagues shy people, but in fact we long for social inclusion and connection.

But the news is not all bad. According to Macquarie University psychologist Professor Ron Rapee, shyness usually comes with a range of positive attributes, including greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty.

When I interviewed Rapee, he told me shy people were often reliable, conscientious, and good listeners who demonstrated high levels of empathy. Many shy people can be found in the caring professions, working in roles that are generally non-self-aggrandising and non-domineering.

The social acceptability of shyness is also somewhat dependent on the culture in which you’re living. According to Canadian psychologist Xinyin Chen, while North American parents typically react to their children’s shy-inhibited behaviour with disappointment, in group-oriented societies such as China, shy-inhibited behaviour may be encouraged because it is conducive to group organisation.

Back in the 1980s the lead singer of British band The Smiths offered a succinct summary of the situation for shy people. In the song ‘Ask’, Morrisey sang:

‘Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to’

My autobiographical quest to understand shyness has not “cured” me of this temperament trait, as I had hoped. But it has erased my shame and embarrassment about my social anxiety and reassured me that without shy people the world would be a far less compassionate place.

(This article was first published on The Conversation website on June 18th 2014)

April 23

Interview in ‘Books and Publishing’ magazine about ‘Shy – a memoir’

Thursday, 20 March 2014 ( http://www.booksellerandpublisher.com.au )

Speaking up: Sian Prior on ‘Shy: A Memoir’

In ‘Shy: A Memoir’, journalist and former ABC broadcaster Sian Prior explores the ‘psychology behind timidness’ and reflects on her own battles with shyness. She spoke to reviewer Emily Laidlaw.

Q. ‘Shy’ started life as an essay in Meanjin in 2009. You’ve since published opinion pieces on the topic of shyness in newspapers. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about shyness, and why did you decide to make this the focus of your debut?

A. After I’d written the shyness essay for Meanjin I was still curious to know more about it. It’s been said that writers often write about what troubles them and shyness had troubled me my whole life. I thought perhaps by understanding more about it I could possibly control it better. And I assumed that if I was so troubled by it, perhaps there were lots of other shy people who would be interested in finding out if there were ways to eliminate it, or at least minimise its impact on their lives. I think back then I thought of it as a form of weakness—a kind of character flaw. What I realised is that I will never be rid of it—it’s here to stay—but that I have found all sorts of good strategies for coping with it. And that it is not a character flaw but a common temperament trait that is often accompanied by some really positive qualities, like empathy.

Q. Having had such a public career as a writer, broadcaster and performer, you acknowledge throughout ‘Shy’ that you shirk the spotlight as much as you crave it. Do you feel the same tension when publicising this book?

A. No doubt I will feel anxious having to ‘perform’ at writers’ festivals and answer questions about my personal life. But I will try to assume the role of Professional Sian (she is much braver than Shy Sian, and rather enjoys the limelight) and tell myself that the information in this book might potentially be useful for others—so it’s not ‘all about me’. Having spent three years writing about myself, I am rather tired of thinking about me.

Q. It’s inevitable some people will hone in on the parts of ‘Shy’, which discuss the relationship breakdown with a famous, unnamed musician. Are you dreading the reaction to this, or did you find writing about this turbulent time in your life to be a cathartic experience?

A. As a journalist and a lifelong student (and fan) of popular culture I understand the allure of fame. There might well be some prurient interest in that part of the book just because people are naturally curious about the famous. As I try to explain in the book, the problem with fame is that it draws attention towards itself and away from other potentially more interesting things. I hope, though, that when people read it they will see that it’s not a book about fame or about a famous person. It’s a book about me and about my obsession with shyness and, yes, in part about the effect of that temperament trait on my love life.

Q. A lot of research has gone into ‘Shy’; you interview many specialists in the field of personality studies, including your own mother. Has investigating the psychology of shyness helped you better understand yourself?

A. Yes, in that I now have a much better idea about why I am sometimes swamped by intensely uncomfortable emotions and anxieties in social situations. I’m now less likely to give myself a hard time when I’m feeling shy and, interestingly, I do feel stricken with shyness less often these days. So maybe it has been cathartic. In some ways shyness has driven me to take risks in my life that I might not have taken if I’d been a more relaxed, less anxious person. I’ve been so determined not to let it ‘beat me’ that I’ve often chosen the path of most resistance as a way of proving to myself that I’m not ‘weak’.

Q. Thinking of other readers who identify as ‘shy’ or suffer from a form of social anxiety, what would you most like them to take away from your book?

A. That shyness, or any form anxiety, is not something to be ashamed of. That many people who don’t seem shy or anxious probably are. That there are ways you can take more control of this stuff but that you also might just have to learn to live with it. My mother the psychologist assures me that high anxiety often goes with high intelligence. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s kind of consoling. Because shyness has often made me feel like an idiot.

Q. What was the last book you read and loved?

A. I am gradually catching up with all of David Mitchell’s novels and recently read Black Swan Green (Hodder). It is astounding how much psychological insight Mitchell-the-adult has into the mind of a sensitive adolescent boy. It took me straight back to the months I spent at an English high school as a 15-year-old, and the labyrinth of unwritten rules that must be negotiated to survive in that kind of environment. He’s a writer with a lot of empathy. I bet he’s a shy one.

March 17

Writing the Body

I don’t have any tattoos but there is plenty of stuff written on my body.

Last year I went to see a dermatologist to check for any dodgy results of my lifelong habit of spending way too much time on beaches. I have pale Anglo-Celtic heritage but I can’t bear to stay out of the sun. She showed me all the marks the sun had left on my body and then cut bits out of me to test for skin cancer. I’ve been lucky, so far. But my history is written on the epidermis that covers my body.

I never got tattoos because I don’t like the idea of self-inflicted pain. But my history is written in my body in the form of ongoing self-inflicted pain. Right now my lower back has an ache that dates back to a prolapsed disc in the lumbar region just over twelve years ago. This injury resulted in a hospital stay and spinal surgery, the result of years of not looking after my dodgy back. The disc prolapse and surgery also coincided with the end of a nine year relationship so by association, almost every time my back hurts I remember that particular grief.

I have another scar on my body from surgery to remove my gallbladder when i was in my early twenties. Soon after that surgery a man came to visit me at home – a married man who I had, not long before, come very close to having an affair with – so every time I see that scar I remember that particular near-mistake. The history of my emotional life is written on, and in, my body.

Right now my eyes are a bit dry from a lack of oil in my tears. This is an inherited condition, and the reason why I never used contact lenses but instead spent my adolescence and young adulthood wearing thick plastic spectacles. Then in my thirties I had laser surgery on my eyes and threw away my spectacles, which felt like a miracle, until recently when I have had to get spectacles again, because now I’m middle aged and my eyes are too tired to do what they’re meant to do. The history of my eyes is written in my personality which was shaped, at least in part, by my adolescent experience as a wearer of thick, unfashionable spectacles. Behind which I hid.

Now that I am nearly fifty I often see my body as a series of small problems to be managed. My friends and I have a ‘five minute limit’ rule. We can only talk about the problems with our bodies for five minutes and then the conversation has to move on or we will talk about it for hours. We will tell each other the history of our bodies until we have bored each other to death. Because the history of our experiences is written on, and in, our bodies.

I have just finished writing a memoir about my lifelong battle with one particular temperament trait: shyness. That battle is written in and on my body because my body had been the locus of agency in this battle, a fighting, protesting, self-sabotaging entity that often seemed to have a mind of its own.

Psychologists label shyness ‘social anxiety’ and one of the key symptoms is self-consciousness. According to one expert, ‘if you suffer from shyness, you worry a lot about the impression you’ll make on others. You are constantly self-monitoring, creating a vicious circle of clumsy behaviour, social avoidance and an impoverished repertoire of social skills.’ The shy person is constantly standing outside of their own body, critiquing it, trying in vain to control it and to control the impression it makes on other people.

Social anxiety often leads to digestive problems. The mind is in a pact with the gut, both trying (unnecessarily) to protect the shy person’s body from perceived danger from other humans. The history of my anxiety is written in the lining of my over-reactive guts.

Psychologists have identified a condition called ‘body identity integrity disorder’, the feeling that one of your limbs doesn’t belong to you, and the accompanying desire to have it surgically removed. Sometimes I wonder if shyness been like for me like one of those unwanted limbs, a perfectly normal part of me that I simply cannot acknowledge belongs to me.

Writing a book was an attempt to come to terms with the fact that shyness does belong to me. We are inextricably bound together just as I am bound to the image of my body I see when I look into a mirror. The history of my shyness is written in, and on, my body. And, now, in my book.

My academic essay on [Writing the Shy Body can be found in the Published Proceedings of the 2013 AAWP Creative Manoeuvres Conference.

March 14

Secret Baroque Music – March 16th

This Sunday I will be performing in a ‘Secret Baroque’ concert of vocal music. The following program essay by soprano Katrena Mitchell gives some context for the wonderful music we’ll be singing:

‘The term Baroque covers an incredibly diverse period ranging from around 1600 to 1750. To understand the extent of the musical revolution during this period just compare the music of the composers Claudio Monteverdi and Georg Handel who represent the two extremes of the Baroque.

Chamber music first began to be used as a term around the middle of the 16th century to denote small ensembles of instruments and voices, particularly in a private setting, well, as private as your average ducal court could get. Secret music doesn’t necessarily denote anything clandestine but indicates the private and often domestic nature of the music. Within the ducal palace, the court or the private chapel, great households retained composers and musicians to provide the musical soundscape of their world.

Aristocratic tastes and pretentions dominated the musical world at this time. They enthusiastically endorsed the Platonic philosophy espoused in Platos’ second book of Laws, that the music which pleases the best men (the noble and those educated highly enough to know about Platonic laws) is, by default, the best music.

This may have been a very noble idea but it did lend itself to outrageous flattery, only thinly disguised by classical allusions and figures. Such is the case in this except from a Neapolitan festa e ballo from 1620. Giovanni Maria Trabaci (c. 1575–1647) was Master of Chapel to the Spanish viceroys at the Chapel Royal of Naples. He was conscripted to provide some of the music for the celebration for the recovery from illness of Philip III of Austria, King of the Spains, a grand festival of music and spectacle. During the festivities, three sirens and Sebeto, the personification of Naples, emerge offering tributes and praise for the great Ulysses. He alone can bring them joy and make everything beautiful and serene. He need not fear that their customary enchantments would be used against him. They hope that he will be as gracious towards them as they are towards him.

Private settings also permitted the use of risqué or erotic lyrics. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the first superstar of the baroque, served the Gonzaga family in Mantua as court composer from 1602 to 1613, although he continued to write works for Mantua up to 1628. Come dolce hoggi láuretta was written some time during this period but was posthumously published in a collection of madrigals and songs in 1651. It is evident that these three ladies are greeting the coming day after enjoying a night of blissful love making.

From Book 7 of the madrigals, published in 1619 come two works, Io son pur vezzosetta and Parlo miser o taccio. In the first the beautiful young women exult in their attractions but remained puzzled why Lydio seems not to notice them. The second tells the familiar story of unrequited love, to speak out or stay silent; both options carry their own danger. Perhaps silence is best after all.

A nod to the crowning achievement of the baroque period, the creation of opera, we have Arianna’s lament Lasciate mi morir, part of the tiny fragment that remains from his 1608 composition. The heartbreakingly dramatic outpouring of grief as Arianna begs to be left alone to die probably contributed to its survival. It was obviously a favourite of Monteverdi’s as well since he sets it again as a 5 part madrigal in 1614 and in 1640 reworks it into Pianto della Madonna (Tears of the Madonna).

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by James I of England around 1615. His most enduring madrigal is The Silver Swan, based on the legend that swans only sing on the point of death. It appears to take rather a dim view of Jacobean society; “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”, however it is thought that perhaps Gibbons was commenting on the general demise in quality music after the Tudor period.

Along with Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was one of the most influential composers of the early baroque. As a young tenor living in Rome, he was heard by Francesco de’ Medici and taken back to the Florentine court, then one of the most progressive music centres of both Italy and Europe. Amarilli is taken from his 1602 publication boldly called Le Nuove Musiche, in which he carefully explains the new style of composition for single voices called stille recetativo and which has become known to us as the operatic recitative. The singer invites Amarilli to open up the breast of the lover so she can satisfy herself as to his devotion. There she will find inscribed on his heart the words, ‘Amarillli is my love’.

The Venetian Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was the proverbial triple threat. Not only was she an exceptional singer, she was renowned for her poetic ability as well as her compositional talent. Her father was instrumental in publicly promoting his daughter’s talent in the early years. Both works come from the first book of madrigals published in 1644. Begli Occhi speaks darkly of wounding eyes. Were they arrows, they would be fatal. Merce di voi takes a much more joyful view of love; the singers thank their lucky stars and exult in the joyful harmony of two loving souls.

The composer who personifies baroque music for most of us is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and one of the best known collections of works are the preludes and fugues that make up the Well-tempered Clavier. One of the more virtuosic pieces, the C# major prelude and fugue from Book 1 was published in 1723. Dubbed “the old testament” by Hans von Bulow, the Well-tempered Clavier is acknowledged as one of the most significant works for the keyboard ever written.

Most of the composers featured in this concert were servants attached to great houses; Monteverdi and the Gonzaga family in Mantua and Luzzaschi with the d’Este family at the court of Ferrara. This concert features a rarely performed composition by Luzzascho Luzzaschi (?1545-1607). Tamo mia vita was written for the Three Ladies of Ferrara known as the Concerto della Donne. Here they sing of the joy of their love; Let “I love you my life” be my life.

Another highly significant but rarely performed composer is Luigi Rossi (1597 or 8-1653), who entered the service of the Borghese family in Rome in the 1620s and later Cardinal Antonio Barberini, a great lover of opera. Following Barberini to Paris, Rossi was instrumental in bringing opera to that city. His melodious style became popular throughout Europe and his music was well known in England. He was one of the few composers of the time to accrue some wealth during his lifetime. The chamber duet Speranza, al tuo pallore speaks directly to Hope, noting its sickly pallor and exhorting Hope to cure itself before trying to help the person in which it resides.

The last great star of the baroque was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Best known for his large public works for the English court and the King’s Theatre, Handel first began to write chamber duets when in Italy and Hanover as a young man. The reason for his return to this form much later in his career is unknown but during 1941-1945 he composed several more chamber duets of which “Quel fior che all’alba ride” is one. This rather jaunty piece, recycled for use in his most enduring work, the oratorio Messiah, tells of how quickly youth fades. True for flowers that fade in a single day and people who likewise lose their youth all too quickly.

In the mere 26 years of his life Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) managed to become a leading light in the development of 18th century comic opera and produce one of the most enduring and often recorded and performed pieces of music from this period, the Stabat mater. It was the last completed work before his all too early death and was written for the noble fraternity in the Church of Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori in Naples as a replacement for Alessandro Scarlatti’s Stabat mater. The Stabat mater concerns itself with the Holy Virgin as a mother watching her child crucified which is aptly described in Quae mœrebat et dolebat. The duet Quis est homo asks, who could not weep to see the sufferings of the Virgin and Vidit suum dulcem Natum tells how she stayed there until the very end. The German poet Tieck reports that he was reduced to tears at this point. The sublime, other worldly tone of the music lifts it beyond its dolorous subject matter.

Like Pergolesi the comparatively obscure composer Girolamo Abos (1715-1760) worked in Naples. Unlike Pergolesi, who worked mostly for the viceregal court, Abos primarily held teaching positions but was also maestro di cappella at several important Neapolitan churches. As a liturgical sequence the Stabat mater had only been restored to use in 1727 but it became immediately, and has remained, a popular theme for composers and those who commission them. Abos’ version was written in 1750 and these excerpts come from the very end of the piece where the focus moves from the Virgin to the listener who longs for Paradise after their bodily death and finishes the thought off with a rousing Amen.’

‘Secret Baroque’ will be performed at Armadale Uniting Church (86A Kooyong Rd.) this Sunday March 16th at 3 pm (tickets available at the door).

The Performers:

Kerrie Bolton graduated from Melbourne University with a Batchelor of Music Performance, furthered her studies in the UK and completed a Master of Music Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts. Kerrie performs regularly with the choruses of both Opera Australia and Victorian Opera and as a soloist with many companies including Melbourne Opera, Lyric Opera, Chamber Made and with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.

Claire Macdonald graduated from the Victorian College of Arts Opera Studio and has appeared with More Than Opera. (More information to come)

Katrena Mitchell is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. A fellowship at the State Library of Victoria focusing on baroque vocal music has resulted in a series of concerts exploring aspects of this rich music period. As well as concert performances Katrena has performed various operatic roles with Eastern Metropolitan Opera. She also occasionally programmes music for ABC Classic FM.

Sian Prior is also a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. She has performed with Operalive, More Than Opera, Opera Sessions, Divas Inc. and at the Macedon Music and Castlemaine Festivals. A writer and broadcaster, Sian is currently completing her PhD at RMIT University and will publish her book ‘Shy – a memoir’ in May this year. http//sianprior.com

Greg Smith was born in NZ and studied composition at the University of Canterbury. Despite his teaching duties he maintains a constant performing profile. His skills in Musical Direction have been sought in many professional productions, including “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Asia, NZ and Australia (Really Useful), “Hello Again” (Halogen), “Putting It Together”, “A New Brain” and “Falsettos”. Greg has played keyboards in productions of “Mamma Mia”, “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “Into the Woods”, “42nd Street”, “Me & My Girl”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “Evita”. He has also performed the role of Manny Weinstock in Terance McNally’s “Masterclass” at the Court Theatre in Christchurch. A versatile accompanist and repetiteur, Greg can play anything from figured bass to jazz and rock. His operatic highlights were playing in “Eugene Onegin” and working with Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Dame Malvina Major.

March 10

‘Shy – a memoir’: another excerpt

You’ve been asleep for ten hours but you wake up and it’s actually only been ninety minutes and what woke you up was the sound of the woman in the next hospital bed whimpering with pain.
Her whimpers turn to sobs that turn to groans as her head threatens to explode from pain. Where the hell does it come from? The doctors can’t say, it looked like an aneurism but all the tests in the world, the MRI tube of pain, the dye of pain, the lumbar puncture of pain, can’t confirm or deny their vague diagnosis.

So she’s crying out for the nurse, who gives her Panadeine Forte, but that takes a good twenty minutes to work, and in the meantime her arms and legs start tingling and pretty soon she can’t feel her hands, and who is there to comfort her? The nurse has gone away to page a doctor, and the woman is calling out, ‘Come back. Don’t leave me. I’m scared. Somebody?’

You’re lying two feet away from her in your roofless tent, earplugs out, wide awake, wondering if you should ease yourself painfully out of bed and go to the side of this woman and hold her hand (what if she doesn’t want you to?) and tell her someone cares (what if she doesn’t believe you?).
You don’t move.

You lie there silently and half of you is resenting your broken sleep and wishing she’d shut up and the other half knows exactly how she feels, how unspeakably awful this pain is, how you think you’re going to die and you half wish you would. But you don’t move. You just lie there behind your sky-blue hospital curtain, blushing with shame.

Eventually the pills kick in and she sleeps. But you don’t, not for a long time.

In the morning you offer your sympathy, too little too late, and she apologises for waking you in the night. Somehow the night’s dramas have opened everybody up and pretty soon the other two women in the ward are telling their stories too.

There’s Polly who has five kids from three different fathers, but her new boyfriend is different, she says. She’d been having a holiday, the first day of a week-long holiday from her job cleaning in a nursing home where she really loves the old folk. She says they have a great sense of humour. One old woman, Gladys, said about a new resident, ‘who’s that bastard?’ and when Polly said ‘I beg your pardon’, Gladys said ‘whose is that basket?’ and smiled a sly smile.

So Polly’s on holiday and she’s kissing her new boyfriend and suddenly it feels like a small plane has done a suicide plummet into her temples and she can’t stand up for the pain. Her boyfriend calls the hospital and she has to be airlifted from her country town to Melbourne because they don’t have the technology to sort her out up there. The trouble is, they don’t seem to have it here either. She’s been through all the technologies of pain too, and they can’t figure her out. She’s also had a drip inserted into the wrong part of her body all night so instead of reaching her veins it’s gone into her soft muscle tissue and her arms have swollen up. When the offending doctor comes around in the morning to sort it out, she apologises to him for causing trouble.

And then there’s Beryl whose son-in-law has promised to buy her a Frankenstein mask because that’s what the new scar on her temple reminds him of, and she thinks it’s a hoot. She’s quite disinhibited and often talks to herself, and you’ve learnt not to feel like you have to respond. Beryl got sacked from her job last week, by letter, because her boss couldn’t wait the three months it will take her to recover (if she’s lucky). So she’s asking the nurse if there are any jobs for her at the hospital, and offering to go to a job interview in her nightie.

She asks you if you’re married, or have any children, and when the answer is no, she and the others lose interest in you. You’re half disappointed and half glad, because even though you could tell them some stories, none of yours could compete with theirs.

Even when you close your eyes you can’t block out their pain and their after-midnight groans and their sad, worried children and their uncertain futures. You ache with the relief of knowing that soon you’ll be out of here, now that they’ve chopped the protruding bit off your dodgy spine, but next week these women will still be here, propped up on their pillows, hair awry, mouths dry, waiting for the next round of pills and the next visit from the be-suited young doctors who hold all the answers – except maybe they don’t.

You wonder for a long time afterwards why you hadn’t gone to the crying woman.

And what if you had?

(‘Shy – a memoir’ will be published by Text Publishing on May 28th 2014.)

February 27

Tribute to an indigenous cultural hero

Sad news today of the passing of the man who has been leading the fight to protect James Price Point and the Goolarabooloo and Lurujarri Heritage Trail, in the footsteps of his grandfather, Paddy Roe.

I wrote this piece about him in 2010, and it was published in The Age. (I have removed his name, out of respect for indigenous tradition, and replaced it with Mr R.)

Mr R steps backwards out of the fluorescent glare of the beachside fish and chip bar and lights a cigarette. He’s late, but he’s here. While we wait for our chips to fry, Mr R’s wife, Margie, tells me about her work with young indigenous offenders in the Kimberley. The petrol sniffing’s coming back, she reckons. She’s not sure why. It eased off for a few years, but now some of the community kids are back to stealing fuel from parked cars.

Margie shakes her head in frustration and stares over the wooden railing towards the glittering black water of Cable Beach. She blames the parents. They’re not teaching the kids, not about hygiene, not about whitefella laws and not even about blackfella lore, she says. So the kids have nothing. Her husband sucks hard on his cigarette and nods: ‘‘THAT’S what I’m talking about.’’

You might have seen Mr R on your TV in June, an Aboriginal man sitting alone on a jagged red rock in the middle of a deserted beach on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula. The Four Corners helicopter circled slowly around him, capturing a cliched but somehow affecting portrait of solitude. Mr R has been leading a campaign from his home town of Broome to prevent Woodside Energy from building a gas processing plant on his traditional land at James Price Point and closing off up to 80 square kilometres of Goolarabooloo country to anyone but plant workers.

The plan could also bring an end to Mr R’s annual pilgrimage along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. His grandfather Paddy Roe, a Goolarabooloo traditional custodian, initiated the trail in 1987 to try to bring his people back to their country. Paddy passed away in 2001, but each July a swelling group of traditional owners, Broome locals and southern visitors follows Mr R’s footprints along the dunes towards the point, listening to his stories of the Goolarabooloo song cycle, camping in the same places traditional owners have camped for thousands of years.

Mr R wants to take my partner and me up to see his country, maybe catch some fresh fish, but he’s in the eye of a perfect storm of commitments. He has come to Cable Beach straight from the local court, where he has been trying to keep some Aboriginal boys out of jail.

Tomorrow he will have back-to-back meetings with lawyers and traditional law men to try to block Woodside’s bid for his land. And then there is next week’s Heritage Trail to prepare for, food and drink to be supplied for nearly 100 this year. Margie will use up her annual leave to cook for the walkers.

So tonight we’re perched on wooden benches watching the tide come up on the moonlit beach, sharing our chips and calamari and trying to make sense of this complicated battle. Mr R’s fired up. He is taking the Kimberley Land Council to court, and is still enjoying the memory of delivering the legal documents to the bewildered office staff. His language is all Old Testament vengeance, but as a campaigner he’s as slick as a fish.

‘‘My grandfather told me those stories of that land,’’ Mr R says as he waves a wilted chip in the air. ‘‘That’s my responsibility now. It’s heavy, but it’s mine. And that Wayne Bergmann, he’s been talking to the wrong people.’’

Bergmann, executive director of the Kimberley Land Council, is a man who swallows a lot when on camera. The recent Four Corners program portrayed him as a patsy, a small-town Aboriginal lawyer being manipulated by WA Premier Colin Barnett, and caught between his ambition to be a player in this big-boys’ game and a genuine desire to help his people. Woodside is promising jobs and money for the local indigenous community if the project goes ahead.

But it is hard to understand how Bergmann could have left Mr R out of the picture when the land council boss signed an agreement last year with Woodside and the state government on behalf of local native title claimants. ‘‘My name’s on the original native title claim.’’ Mr R’s words are almost drowned out by the sound of the shutters coming down on the fish and chip bar. ‘‘First name on the claim, lodged back in 1994 — Mr R, grandson of Paddy Roe. He chose me when I was three months old and he taught me the stories and he’s still buried up there on his land.’’

Mr R lights another cigarette. His Sydney barrister is planning to walk the Lurujarri Heritage Trail this year with his wife and daughter. Could be a shock to the system. No mobile phone cover, no internet, no tents. Just the clearest night sky in the country, according to experts; you can see the stars setting all the way down to the horizon.

Later in the week my partner and I do make it up to James Price Point. We pause at the creeks and estuaries along the way where local families go fishing and mud-crabbing on weekends, and wander among the dunes, poking through ancient middens. We swim in tidal rock pools, then watch as the water mysteriously disappears, leaving rippled wet sand where we’d just been swimming freestyle.

Finally, we park close to the edge of the burnt red cliffs overlooking the beach and spot the rock where Mr R posed for the Four Corners helicopter camera. Picking our way over the jagged remains of a petrified forest, we scan the horizon, hoping to see calving whales — almost 1000 humpbacks were recorded in the area last year — but no luck today. Black kites circle slowly in the warm updrafts above the cliffs as our host points north and south to where four giant jetties would be built if the gas plant goes ahead.

It’s after nine now, and Mr R’s looking tired. Fish and chips dispatched, I need to use the ladies’. The public lavatories are locked so I stride past the waitresses in the noisy cafe, and when I get back, Margie follows my lead. She takes a while to return and when she does, her face has changed, shut down.

‘‘They didn’t want to let me use the toilets,’’ she says. ‘‘What do they expect me to do? It’s their fish and chips we were eating!’’ I’m embarrassed as Margie hugs us goodbye. Mr R holds out a stiff arm to shake our hands. He’s already thinking about tomorrow.

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