The Slow Train

I find myself a window seat and settle in for the long journey to come. This train stops at every station. People get on. People get off. Everyone is smiling. No one is in a hurry. There is plenty of time to move around the carriages, to enjoy the adventure, to be happy. I look out of the window and notice a lake that has frozen over. Two small figures glide across it, their scarves streaming behind them like a picture on a postcard. I inhale the musty scent of the carriage and examine the worn, faded seats. I imagine those who were here before me, and those who will come. I turn my gaze inward. I ask myself how I spent so many anxious hours over the years just waiting to get off the train, that I didn’t let myself notice, inhale, examine or imagine anything at all. But now I understand. Taking the slow train isn’t a waste of time. It allows you time.

Introspection makes my head spin, so I make my way to the buffet car. Perhaps I will meet a smiling person with whom I can strike up an unhurried conversation. I know I am almost there because a whiff of sausage rolls and hot chocolate hits my nostrils. The conductor is standing by the coffee machine, waiting for his cappuccino. He drums his fingers on the counter while the waitress is caught up in a flurry of coffee beans, milk jugs and an industrial-sized machine. Another passenger bounds over to the counter, pushes in front of me and demands an almond piccolo: “Make it quick. I’m in a rush,” he barks at the waitress. He does not make eye contact with me, although I am looking right at him. He is not smiling.

I glance out of the window. The scenery is changing faster than I expected. We are already at the next stop, and now the next. This is confusing. Why is everything moving so fast? Why do I not get the time to enjoy the view? Why isn’t anyone smiling?

“Excuse me, Sir,” I ask the conductor. “I thought this was the slow train? We seem to be going incredibly fast.” The conductor looks up. His eyes are piercing.

“You’re in the wrong carriage then, love.”
“I don’t understand,” I say, hypnotised by his gaze.
He puts his coffee cup to his lips, throws his head back and takes a big gulp.
“Slow carriages are on the other end of the train.”
I blink, then shake my head, hoping this will help me understand his explanation. It doesn’t.
“How can they be different, on the same train?”
The conductor picks up his ticket machine.

“We’re all on the same train,” he chuckles. “But the journey you take is up to you.” He calls over his shoulder as he walks away, “Choose your carriage wisely!”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, or actual events is purely coincidental but probably worth analysing. 🙂

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Simplify and Spark Joy

Marie Kondo introduced to the world the idea that when it comes to decluttering, a positive attitude will serve you well. Keep only the things that bring you joy, she says, and you will be able to successfully simplify and organise your home, and thereby, your life.

She advises all of us messy, disorganised hoarders to focus on the physical items that we love, and it will naturally follow that the items we don’t love should be discarded (after thanking them respectfully). This positive spin on decluttering means we are not looking for things to throw out. We’re looking for things to keep. So our focus, and our energy, shifts to the happiness-generators and therefore creates more happiness in our lives. Good vibes only.

The art of simplifying is beneficial not just for our kitchen drawers or our linen closets. There are parallels to be drawn (so I will try….) in other aspects of our world, such as in writing, in art, and in life.

Simplifying writing
During a wonderful Creative Writing course I took last year, we were taught to simplify our writing by removing excessive adjectives and adverbs. This was not an easy lesson to learn, and I still struggle with (and sometimes ignore) it. We were also guided towards making our writing tight and compact, so that what’s left on the page holds more impact.

“Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” – Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist painter, defines the ability to simplify in terms of removing the non-essentials to allow the essentials to shine.

But to do this, first we need to know what exactly is essential. In writing, what is your message, what is your tone, where is your impact? Keep the powerful words; keep the slam-dunk sentences; keep the necessary frills. And then, perhaps, most of what is left is excess and can be eliminated.

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Hans Hofmann, 1963

Simplifying art
Hofmann painted this piece titled Enigma in 1963, and it was sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for a cool 2.4 million USD. Maybe Hofmann had five more colours on his artist’s palette that he could have used. Perhaps he almost used circles as well as rectangles. But he didn’t. He chose the thing he deemed necessary and allowed it to speak. And it spoke to someone who thought it was worth that much money. Hofmann believed that abstract art was a path to discovering reality. He found truth not despite the chaos, but through it.

Simplifying life in the 19th century
Mindfulness has now become a buzzword but it is not a new concept. The poet Henry David Thoreau famously undertook an experiment in simple living in 1845, because he wanted to ‘live deliberately’ and to encounter ‘only the essential facts of life.’ Thoreau lived in a cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts for two years, to experience a simple, purposeful life. During this time, he wrote a book on life in the woods, in which he says:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” – H.D. Thoreau

Thoreau wished for people to be more self-aware and to value personal growth over material wealth. He explained that outward progress did not necessarily mean inner contentment, and criticised the ‘busy’ mentality of society, advising instead to: “let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

In simple words: cut down, cut back, cut loose. Thoreau found his joy in nature and made that his ‘necessary’ – thereby eliminating the aspects of society he did not like, such as materialism and consumerism.

Simplifying life today
So how do we adopt the advice of a decluttering expert, an artist and a writer in our lives today? To do it Kondo-style, focus on the positive, identify the essential parts of our lives that bring us joy, and respectfully remove the excess. To be an Enigma like Hof, decide on what is necessary, eliminate everything else, and continue your quest to search for what is real. And finally, like Thoreau, make deliberate choices to keep things simple, dig deep through the layers of unnecessary detail to find inner joy, and focus on the things that matter.

Simplify, simplify. Then what is left will be the powerful stuff that’s worth holding on to.

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

Furious Fiction: Brilliant Disguise

This time last year, a short story I wrote was one of six shortlisted entries in the Australian Writers’ Centre’s monthly Furious Fiction competition. Each month you are given a different set of story prompts and just 55 hours to submit your 500-word story. Since then, I have entered the competition every single month. This sometimes meant hitting the submit button at 11.55 on a Sunday night, 5 minutes before the deadline. Most of my stories would have benefited from another day of editing, and some of them would have remained average even with another month of re-writing, but I submitted them anyway. The challenge makes me focus my writing, forces me to be creative, gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment at the start of every month, and then nervous anticipation for the announcement about 3 weeks later. (Living on the edge stuff, right here.)

So, 11 submitted short stories later, we got to May 2019. This was the criteria:

  • The story had to include the words MAYBE, MAYHEM, DISMAY, MAYOR and MAYONNAISE.
  • The story’s first word had to be an 11-letter word.
  • The story, at some point, had to include someone or something RUNNING.

The force must have been with me, this May as well, because my Bruce Springsteen-inspired story made it to the shortlist! Here it is….

boss

“Springsteen? Yeah, I know his music.” He took a sip of water and glanced around the restaurant.

She was relieved. A good start. She raised her wine glass to her lips and tasted the Pinot Noir. It was smooth, like Springsteen’s voice in I’m on Fire.

“He is a bit miserable though, isn’t he?” He shot her a quick look. “All those songs about struggle and loss?”

The Pinot caught in her throat and she coughed. He looked up from his menu with raised eyebrows.

“You disagree?”

She did not like his tone. It was too nonchalant. This was a highly important topic. A non-negotiable.

“Well,” she began, carefully. “He sings about the hardships of everyday life. And about his dismay at the contrast between dreams and reality. But he…”

“Like I said. Miserable.”

She bit her lip. This was not going well. Still, she would persevere. After all, Bruce had been telling her for years to look for that human touch, that two hearts are better than one, and most importantly, that faith will be rewarded. She would have faith. This one even looked like him. In the dim lighting of the restaurant. If she squinted.

The waiter arrived. They ordered the seafood platter for two.

“Hold the garlic mayonnaise though,” he said, with a wink that she deliberately ignored.

“I don’t think you understand,” she frowned. “Springsteen…his music helps us escape the misery and the mayhem of this complex world we live in. He believes in a better future, in the real possibility of happiness!”

He looked at her, bemused. “You’re a proper fan then?”

“I am his biggest fan,” she emphasised, realising with every passing moment that, once again, her suitor was unsuitable.

This one was also oblivious. “I know they bestowed upon him a title of some sort. What was it? The King?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “That was Elvis.”

“Oh, right. Was he a Sir, then?” He seemed to be chuckling to himself and she wondered how someone so ignorant could also be so arrogant.

“You’re thinking of Elton John.” You idiot, she wanted to add.

“Mayor, perhaps?” He would not give up. She was running out of patience. Time to put herself out of this misery.

“Boss. He was The Boss.”

“Ah, right. Silly name.”

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, she thought. The rest of their dinner was peppered with small talk. She was already planning her escape. As they stepped outside into the cool autumn air, she held out her hand to avoid any human touch beyond a handshake.

“Thank you for tonight,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”

“That’s cool,” he said, squeezing her palm. “If there’s no spark, there’s not much you can do.”

She was about to nod in agreement when she caught the glint in his eye as he continued.

“My dad always said you can’t start a fire without it.”

©2019 Seetha Nambiar Dodd

The judges said….
What we liked:

This was a fun first date scene that manages to do what many fail at – find a good balance between the external action and internal dialogue. Well-paced and sprinkled with humour, it saves a little in the tank for an ending that delivers a dose of intrigue. Simple storytelling, effective in bringing this tale of hungry hearts to life.

Furious Fiction

Furious Fiction is a monthly short story competition run by the Australian Writers’ Centre, with different story prompts each month. 55 hours, 500 words. This month’s challenge was launched on May the Fourth, and therefore had this criteria:
• The story had to begin with the words “A long time ago”
• The story had to include the words “star”, “war” and “force” (or a plural).
• The story had to feature something that flies.

I am delighted that my story was shortlisted and published on the AWC website!!!

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A long time ago her life had not been controlled by beeps. There were languid hours dedicated to doing absolutely nothing. There were long walks on beaches with powder-white sand and no time limit. There was the delight of getting lost in a book with no interruptions. There were nights of staring up at a sky so crowded with stars that it seemed as though a few might have to fall down to earth to make room for the brightest ones. Life was about enjoying the pauses between the moments.

Then slowly, without warning, something changed.

Her life became punctuated by noises that signified the ceasing of fun by an external force. The pauses were no longer an invitation to breathe, but an opportunity to maximise productivity.

Beep. The alarm clock set for 6am kept its promise and ruined her slumber party of one.

Beep…Beep. The phone called out to be scanned for notifications, messages and other people’s highlight reels, all of which cut into her own dressing room preparation.

She stirred her steaming coffee and inhaled its heady aroma.

Beep. The clothes in the washing machine cried out for attention or they would punish her with creases that would need to be ironed out.

Beep. Now the doorbell. She put down her coffee and signed for a parcel she couldn’t remember ordering.

Beep…Beep. Her laptop was running out of power after her late-night session browsing for paperbacks that she wanted to read but would never get around to reading. Better plug in the charger.

On her way to work, she waited for the Green Man at the traffic crossing whose sole purpose was to give permission for people to cross the road: Beep. She was envious of him for finding his calling.

She thought about how it seemed she was not enjoying her life but merely enduring it.

Then suddenly, without warning, something changed.

A doctor’s appointment that produced a new way of living. Her life became only about the beeps.

She stared out of the window. She felt like a bird that was always too afraid to soar above the clouds and now had its wings clipped.

Beep…beep…beep…she looked over at the contraption that was keeping her body functioning, with its flashing lights and synthetic noises.

The nurse strode purposefully into the room. “Are you alright, love? It’s time for your walk. We’ll bring the machine with us.”

The war would continue. She closed her eyes and decided that finally, it was time to unplug.

©2018 Seetha Dodd

The judges said….
What we liked:
A new twist on the benefits of unplugging, this story opens with a long paragraph – itself representing the freedom of being uninterrupted – before the short sharp paragraphs kick in. We loved the purposeful repetition as the story took its first, and then second turn – all tied together by the same element. A (beep)ing good story. Perhaps having no title is also significant…