Friday, March 4, 2016

Meg Welchman - cancer survivor, journal writer, psychologist, mother, artist, great woman! - tells her story

Meg Welchman has a story worth telling. And courage we can be inspired by, and learn from. She has been forced by recurrent illness and circumstances to face more than any of us would wish. Don't turn away, thinking that Meg is the kind of hero most of us couldn't be. Out of her suffering and fear and the immense intimacies and even the weird glorious moments of illness, she has insights to benefit us all. Her wonderful book, This Present Moment, an art therapy journal based on fifteen important themes of life, including Love, Hope, Courage, Creativity and Resilience, is exquisitely illustrated by Grace Cuell. Details below about how you can buy it. And please do buy it - for your sake, not for Meg's only. But first, Meg's story of writing.

I have always loved books. Growing up in a small coastal town, my favourite place, besides my bedroom, was the town library. The library was an old red brick building that was dimly lit and deathly quiet inside. It had a distinctly musty paper smell that made my stomach churn to such a degree that I would need to detour to the restrooms before I could continue walking the linoleum aisles. I would wait in line to flick through the dog-eared cards that made up the library catalogue, housed in long thin narrow wooden box drawers with tiny round metal knobs at the front. A small rectangular lined card for each item in the building. The cards held secrets - the intriguing Dewey decimal numbers and the scrawled handwritten names of those who had previously borrowed the books. This strange place bursting with stories. I dreamed of being a librarian.

I would scan a pointer finger along plastic covered spines in those quiet aisles languidly scanning for a new story that would satisfy. I took my time. I preferred biographies and real stories rather than fiction. Books were my favourite accessory. I would most often walk with a book in hand, and had piles teetering haphazardly on my bedhead. I would read multiple books concurrently, by the light of my bed lamp or, if late, under the doona with my torch. Each book would provide a chapter, it would be lovingly book-marked and then placed back up on the pile. The next book in rotation would provide another chapter, and so on. I can’t recall when I started reading only one book at a time.

As I progressed through school my dream had flipped, from reading and being surrounded by books as a librarian, to writing a book and being an author. I was motivated by the joy of shaping something out of nothing but an idea. I loved how writing could take you from point A to point B via numerous side-steps on the way, usually in such a fashion that you wouldn’t know how things would end until you felt the words falling out onto the page. As I grew and my interests diversified I let writing slide. As an adult practically every second person I met “had a book inside them” but not many of them would actually write one. Other things became priorities. University study, career, love, and then family life. I continued to write periodically in beautiful blank paged journals that my husband would present to me for Christmas or birthdays. The writing in these journals became more urgent when disaster struck. My father’s devastating drawn out death after years of emphysema, and our infertility woes riding the highs and disastrous lows of IVF.

Eventually, when the miracle children arrived, first a son, and then two years later, a daughter, I wrote out of joy and a need to chart their early days, with the thought that they would read the diaries when they were older. Not long into our daughter’s first six months on earth I would find out I had breast cancer, in fact, secondary breast cancer that was life-threatening as it had spread rapidly and aggressively through my lymph glands and into my liver. It was inoperable and incurable. Everything stopped but my mind kept racing. Suddenly those diary entries became vital. I filled volumes of notebooks and started writing a blog. Almost six years on, I am still here. [Hurrah, Meg! Hurrah!! eds.]

At the end of 2015, just as my debut book This Present Moment had returned from the printers, I attended my daughter’s primary school art show. There was incredibly brilliant drawings and paintings on display; works in the style of Kandinsky, Picasso, Magritte, Monet and many other famous artists. All of whom were once children, just like this hopeful bunch of five-year-olds. The artworks hung under a colourful sign proclaiming brightly “EVERY CHILD IS AN ARTIST”. We were all children once; we were all artists. Some, a few of us, continue to flourish as adult artists. Most of us do not. “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” or “I can’t draw to save myself” are some of the mantras people tout as explanations. Well I am proof that you do not need anything magical to create something beautiful, even by simply colouring in the hand-drawn mandalas that feature in This Present Moment. All it takes is making time for your dreams and some coloured pencils to really let go!

The driving force of This Present Moment is mindfulness. Being in each moment as each moment unfurls. Not living in the past of “what if” or the future of “what might be”. You have now. All we have is now. The book takes the reader on a journey through fifteen life themes that illuminate the gift of “now” combined with a hand-drawn mandala to colour.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit”.
Albert Schweitzer – Nobel Peace Prize Winner

My inner spirit was rekindled by many close friends and family after facing cancer and chemotherapy three times. I have been a recipient of vast kindness and care. I am lucky to have such people in my life. I wrote This Present Moment to thank them, in particular, to thank my generous husband and beautiful children, and to my circle of friends who took on child care and meal making during my low hours. These small acts of kindness made a huge difference.

When I became a psychologist I learned that pain shared gives the chance to feel differently in order to act differently. In writing This Present Moment I have shared some of my pain with the hope that anyone reading it will also allow themselves to do just that – feel the pain and then build on that feeling to act differently. To take a running leap towards life. A big fat juicy creative life! Because, we are all artists.

Writer Meg Welchman was diagnosed with aggressive incurable secondary breast cancer in 2010 just after the birth of her second child. After chemotherapy and surgery, she faced another two life-threatening reccurrences and is now, thankfully, in remission. As a psychologist with a background in relationship counselling and positive psychology, Meg was interested in how people cope with adversity, and after finding her own way through such treacherous times, she was inspired to share her story. Illustrator Grace Cuell developed an interest in drawing mandalas as a tool for mindfulness during her travels. As a Fine Arts student with a passion for mindful living, Grace wanted to create something beyond her studies that contributed positively to the world.

Together Meg and Grace have created an art therapy journal based on fifteen important themes of life, including Love, Hope, Courage, Creativity and Resilience. “This Present Moment” is designed to give peace and focus through colouring and contemplation. With a distinctly “hopeful” flavour, Meg charts the pivotal moments that reflect each of the themes over the last five years of living with cancer. This Present Moment is for anyone facing a difficult diagnosis, a difficult relationship or any difficult situation. It is both a “how to” for navigating a path through the darkness and a wakeup call to jump into life.

This Present Moment is available online for $29.95 through
A portion of each sale is donated to The Wesley Choices Cancer Support Service, Auchenflower.
For further information contact: Meg Welchman at

Purple Cords Press – Remarkable Books for Remarkable People  
Facebook: This Present Moment book                                                       
  Instagram: thispresentmoment

The Evolution of "Shards of Ice"

We asked Minnie Biggs, author of Shards of Ice, and first-time author in her older age, to reflect on her creative process. Her words follow. But first, the dedication verses in Shards:

Those whom we love and lose
Are not where they were before
They are now wherever we are.
St John Chrysostom

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau urged us to "explore our inner selves, to be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within: is not our own interior white on the chart? Explore your own higher latitudes..." 

 Minnie Biggs writes:

Writing journals and diaries all my life led me to becoming a blogger before the word or the internet was invented. I would write up reports of travels or experiences and send them around to interested friends. Way back in the days of typewriter and carbon paper! Of course that first voyage to Antarctica was one of those accounts. By email.

Somehow that piece turned up at a writing workshop with [writing teacher] Joyce Kornblatt. She liked it and suggested I continue with it.  One thing led to another. My writing about my husband Stephen - such a significant part of Shards -  over a period of time, as well as this exploration of a new land and a new me, trickled on. Joyce just said, “Keep going.” And so I did. Checking in with her from time to time: “Keep going.” She would make suggestions, she would be supportive, she would praise my writing. “Keep going.” Maybe it would be a book?

It was never anything except writing for myself. As I became more absorbed in the study of Antarctic history and stories - I’d forgotten how much I liked researching and making notes - it expanded into that series of vignettes, snapshots. The writing was often challenging, always interesting and usually fun. Seldom real “work”.

The writing about, the remembering of Stephen, was poignant, sometimes funny and often painful, as images or memories surfaced. Sometimes it left me teary, yet it always felt healing. I was literally moving through my grief as I wrote. Not in any particular order. I would get up and leave it for periods of time and always be surprised when I came back. Oh, really? And move along with it.

Journal writing in its essence is honest and clear. Other essays that I have written, about food and place or spirituality, for example, have been in that same mode: what I like to call real. Real is important to me and comes out in Shards of Ice. It is an everlasting pursuit for me, the search for real.

I was bothered by the lack of a ‘narrative curve’ or narrative anything, and wondered about writing in those snippets or sections, yet could not see a way to transform it all into some “proper” format. Fortunately Joyce let me go with it - keep going - even as I added a section on the Red Centre and the Journal of Dying, separate sections in their own right. It would be fun if I could remember when it felt like it was actually a book, when I surrendered to it being the way it was, but I cannot! Like so much of the rest of it, it just was.

Then thoughts occurred that it might be helpful for other people. I met grieving people, people who were caring for loved ones, and I began to feel an urgency about my thoughts about dying: how important it is to communicate with each other, to face the end together. Perhaps these experiences of mine could be valuable for others? So the work became a little bigger than just my experience, my researching, my passions, my play. It might really be a book.

Something about endings felt difficult. How did I know it had ended? I did not. I could have kept going and going. But there was also a feeling of completion, I think. Still not sure as little shards continue to arise, in my memory or experience. How could I not have mentioned  Stephen’s use of the phrase “Your blood’s worth bottling” which came out of my mouth the other day to a kind friend?  But then if I had kept going, maybe there would not be a book at all.

When it was finished - what is finished? - I sent it to a friend, anthropologist Peter Sutton whom I like a lot and whose writing skills I admire. When he came back with a reply of heartfelt enthusiasm beautifully expressed I nearly fell over. It felt done. It had happened. It worked. There was a “message” and it was conveyed. That was enough. Some excitement to publish, but not really necessary.

Little did I know!

Publishing took longer than  the writing. “We really like it…it should be published…but not by us..not now…”  All those writers’ tales about rejection, they were all true. Somehow I shouldered on, not terribly hurt, partly because I wanted it published but did not feel invested in publishing. One other person read it with pleasure, so I felt all right. Kept going.

Finally came the email: “I’d like to publish your book.” It was Stephen Matthews at Ginninderra Press.  Ginninderra means “throwing out little rays of light”. Easter Sunday, 2015.

Now it is out, and of course that is thrilling. Just the presence of it on the table, that beautiful book! And now friends are writing with their reactions and, to my delight, they are all different. Each person picks out another aspect  she specially likes, he wants to pursue, another meaningful observation. It has done its work. Let it continue.