Weaving the story of a Witness Tree

A few weeks ago, I was sitting under a Canary Island Pine tree (Pinus canariensis) weaving three-stranded pine needles through a re-purposed children’s trampoline safety net. It required great focus and flow, feeding the needles through the correct holes to maintain the pattern of what would become an 8-metre wall hanging. Sheltered from the wind on one of those less kind late summer days, I was taking part in a community art project known as Refuge. Created by artist Carmel Wallace from Portland, Victoria, Refuge celebrates and pays homage to trees as silent and enduring witnesses of the past.  The Canary Island Pine is in Brighton’s Billilla Gardens, an English-style nineteenth century garden with lawns, trees (many of them non-natives), flower beds and a water fountain surrounding the Art Nouveau mansion built in 1878. Now owned by the Council but leased to a Jewish Orthodox school, the gardens are open to the public.  Other ‘migrant’ trees include two Bunya Bunya pines and a Canary Island Date Palm. Before the Suez Canal opened, the Canary Islands were a stopping-off point for sailors to the New World. Hence Carmel’s reference to trees as metaphors for Australia as a “nation enriched by displaced and transplanted peoples.”I have wandered many a time in the lush and leafy gardens, sometimes with my dog Bertie, or on summer days I sometimes go alone and lie under a tree with a book with just the rustling of trees for company. You can’t fail to spot the iconic Canary Island Pine with its distinctive shape. From the side it resembles the bustle on a Victorian dress with its backward curve. I love the way it commands the space. Sitting on a deep carpet of pine needles and weaving a row or two with Carmel, I discovered that the tree owes its singular form to a lightning strike in 1918 and that it is listed on the National Trust Register of Significant Trees.  You can see the scars where the tree has lost branches, but I’d never lingered long enough to notice the jewel-like beads of sticky resin.Standing under the broad canopy of the tree and looking up offers a quite different perspective; the mosaic of sky peeking through the gaps in the branches, the sparkling droplets of resin sparkling against the reddish bark and the vivid green of the pine needles.

Chandeliers made from spectacle lenses and electric cable

Carmel is  part of Bayside City Council’s Artist in Residence program and worked from one of Billilla’s studios – formerly one of the property’s outhouses. She uses variety of media in her work and often incorporates cast-off or recycled materials as part of an exploration into environmental awareness and ethics. Her studio is a magpie’s den of salvaged bits and pieces: spectacle lenses suspended on copper wire like chandeliers; a collection of drinking glasses and goblets from charity shops; wood, branches and leaves.  The glasses are part of a work inspired by Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44) which represents Cleopatra wagering with Mark Anthony that she can stage a more lavish feast and outdo the latter’s excesses.

Eighty people from the community took part in the weaving, sharing stories under the tree, tapping back into the oral tradition of pre-literate societies. The process was timeless, meditative and encouraged contemplation, respect for nature and connection to the earth and community. Trees don’t rush, don’t judge, don’t gossip, complain or engage in conflict and warfare. They stand the test of time and bear witness to man-made and natural events.

The week of the launch of Refuge at Brighton Town Hall, I watched a program called Judy Dench: My Passion for Trees. One of the things I remember most is the story of a 1500-year-old yew tree in a churchyard in Surrey in the UK. Hidden inside its immense, hollowed-out girth is a cannon ball most likely dating from the English Civil War. The tree predates the church and would have been revered by the pagans and druids as a symbol of life and longevity. At the launch Carmel quoted from British author Robert McFarlane: Witness-tree:” originally a tree that stood as a record of property boundaries, marked as such by scores in its bark. Now broadened to mean a tree that has seen remarkable things, that stands as “a repository for the past.”

It was a privilege being part of the work and seeing it unveiled at the 5th May launch.  Mixing with artists, arborists, neighbours and curators, we drank toasts to the tree and to Carmel with Prosecco, and even better, vodka that had been infused with a green pine cone. I can thoroughly recommend Vodka canariensis! For more information on Carmel visit www.carmelwallace.com  

 

Manifesting wealth: Walnut Baths, Barsony Lamps and Book Boxes

I’ve been in a very quest-y phase, working on creating what comes next in my life. Other people get hooked on drugs, gambling, food, shopping – name your poison – but I find self-development can be quite addictive. I’ve always been very determined to steer my life forward, even more so when setbacks occur.

One of my goals this year is to build my finances, which, for me, equates to freedom of choice. I’m not interested in designer labels, handbags and luxury restaurants; it’s more that I don’t want to be doing a desk job at 75, or even 65 for that matter! But I do want to increase opportunity and decrease stress.

Earlier this year I signed up to a 27-day online course – I forget the exact title – but something about manifesting financial abundance. It involved creating a positive ‘attitude of gratitude’, re-framing limiting beliefs and writing affirmations. The values and mindsets we grow up with do play a part in our relationship around money –  that bit rang true for me. But I found the affirmations written in quasi Biblical archaic language risible: ‘my lamps are now filled with the oil of faith and fulfilment.’ But, for sheer ridiculousness, nothing compared with the Feng Shui cures.

I’m pretty broad-minded when it comes to ‘alternative’ stuff whether it’s past lives, angel guardians, karma, soul contracts, tarot or the one-ness of all things, but I draw the line at these hocus pocus cures and the investment of time they require. For example, the cure that called for water collected from nine successful businesses between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.  Once collected, you had to put the water in an empty vase, rub a little over your hands and chant a mantra visualising the water turning into not just wine (Biblical scholars will pick up the reference), which was spelled as whine (ouch), but actual money. Then there was the instruction to collect soil from a rich person’s house – with their permission. There are plenty of wealthy people living in expensive real estate in my suburb, but I am not going to go round with a trowel and ask if I can dig up a bit of their garden so I can plant my seeds of wealth. Who knows, maybe they would think I was some kind of plant thief or worse!  The crazier the cure, the longer the explanation; this one also required Chinese coins, silk or cotton in five different colours, money from nine different countries, dried foodstuffs and 100 coins of any denomination. Coins and foodstuffs combined have happy memories for me – Christmas pudding baked with sixpences inside, a tradition that harks back to ancient Yuletide customs. 

Talking of baking, another cure recommended fixing one or three convex mirrors above the stove in the kitchen. The aim being to energise your money luck and prevent your money going up in smoke. But my favourite was the one about bathing for precisely eight minutes in walnut juice (made from boiling whole walnuts that had been soaked overnight), making sure you immersed yourself fully – head included – seven times to wash away any feelings of unworthiness blocking your money luck. I don’t know about you but I prefer my walnuts in a piece of cake or encased in chocolate.

Interestingly although abundance did not manifest in 27 days (who knows what would have happened had I faffed around with vases of water, bowls of rice under my bed, jade plants with coins buried in the soil not to mention walnut baths), some useful financial tools and tips came my way. A friend recommended comedian Claire Hooper’s Pineapple Project on Radio National. To quote from the blurb: learn what rich people know, how poor people think, and how you can take control of your coin. From how to save smarter, to earning more, and setting yourself up for a secure future, it’s all the money skills no one ever taught you. Incidentally, did you know that a $50 dollar note in Australia is colloquially referred to as a pineapple? I didn’t.

The podcasts covered lots of ground from interviews with super rich retail giant Gerry Harvey to a  mother feeding a family of four on $50 a week. But it was the episode on debt control – or lack of it – and low levels of financial literacy among women that made the greatest impression. Particularly the story of a woman in her 20s who had been through an acrimonious divorce and, keen to cease contact with her ex as soon as possible, settled for the investment property while he kept the apartment they had shared.  She thought that sounded fair until she realised the investment property was heavily mortgaged. Alone and devastated by the divorce she sought refuge in spending with the help of four credit cards, and soon failed to keep up with the mortgage payments. It wasn’t until she received a letter from the bank re-possessing the property that she realised the gravity of her situation.  But what I found most upsetting is that this woman, already up to her eye balls in debt, then invested $15,000 on ‘Get Rich Quick’ courses and workshops. It seems as if her ex-husband, the bank and so-called self-styled gurus were all out to manipulate her. At this point, I should say that my online dabble in financial self-helpery only cost me $30.

In a nice twist of synchronicity, the following week I received an invitation to a free local seminar – Inspiring Conversations for women: Empowering Your Finances. I reckon I will come away with some useful tips, none of which involve water or walnuts.  And creating a budget and finishing reading The Barefoot Investor are on my list.

But I confess to still being a bit of a dreamer and, secretly, long to be part of a discovering a-million-dollar-Old-Master-in-the-attic story. A few weeks ago, I went on an Airbnb Experience, an Antique and Treasure Hunt. Darren used to be in insurance dealing with cyclone and bush fire-related claims,  but got tired of ‘dealing with death’. He now has a portfolio career and plays in a couple of bands, is an Airbnb host and buys and sells antiques online. It’s all about having a keen eye and knowing what sells. We had a fun day out and I learnt about some of the things that command a good price such as antique book boxes (trinket boxes masquerading as old classics), Barsony lady table lamps (Barsony denoting matt black coloured ceramics named after Hungarian refugee George Barsony who came to Australia in 1949) and Kiss (the band) memorabilia. My purchase of the day was a $13 pair of jeans that fit me like a glove – nothing I can translate into retirement millions, but a good money-saving buy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And last week I had two wins: a fine bottle of wine in a door price and $37 in the lottery. Maybe my cup will soon runneth over. Meanwhile I should have enough oil to keep my lamps of faith and fulfilment burning brightly!

For all Melbourne-based vintage and treasure hunters, check out Darren Trott’s Facebook page for some finds: https://www.facebook.com/antiqueandvintagemelbourne/

 

 

I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

Last week was a bit of a flat-liner for me; life consisted of patchy nights and weary bleary days of fog-brain and fatigue. By the end of my working week on Thursday I felt desiccated in mind and body and was ready to hang up my tools. As I was wolfing down some pasta (gluten-free, of course) before choir practice that evening, a text came in from my friend Nick. And it was bad news: the eldest of his two Border Collies, Woody, had been diagnosed with internal bleeding and tumours. The vet was due to go to their house that night to release him from his old age infirmity – he was thirteen and a half.

Tears welled up and dropped into my dinner. I felt the grief as sharply as if it were my dog, Bertie. That all-familiar sense of absence and loss. Beautiful Woody, who, although increasingly arthritic as he aged, still embodied so much joy, innocence and playfulness whether luxuriating in puddles or hanging out with his ‘bitser’ girlfriend Minnie, a dog about a tenth of his size. Woody had the biggest heart – he’d rush across the park to greet me with great whooping barks and then he’d dance around and make a fuss of me. He made me feel special – I used to joke with Nick that if I found a man as devoted as Woody, I’d be doing well.

On arrival at choir, I felt dizzy and spaced out and, when a fellow chorister, Steve, who also writes grants for a living, mentioned a particular grant round, I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. And that was it: the floodgates were unleashed, this time in great wracking sobs. My speech somewhat incoherent, I tried to explain how the news about dear Woody had tapped into a seam of grief. And I was so sad I hadn’t had chance to say goodbye – particularly as I hadn’t seen Woody for several months.

We’re not very good at goodbyes in our family and I am no exception.  There have always been so many comings and goings; by the time I was fifteen, I had lived in nine houses and been to eight different schools with a spell at boarding school. You could argue that all the chopping and changing of friends and places might have made us more practised in the art of efficient, painless farewells, but the opposite seems to have been the case.

Even when I make a conscious decision to leave something or somewhere that no longer serves me or gives me joy, it can create emotional upheaval. Reading recently that Frances Lincoln Ltd, a publishing company where I worked from 1988-1995, had been sold to the Quarto group, brought back a flood of memories. Started by Frances in 1977 it was the publishing house for quality gardening and illustrated books; the attention to detail was extraordinary. I realise now what a privilege it was to work there. And it was fun; trips to book fairs in Bologna and Frankfurt and to publishing houses in Europe and America. As the article notes –  there was a huge overseas market back then for books on Gloucestershire ladies’ gardens. I loved my job but was feeling a bit burned out when I left after seven years. I jumped off with no job to go to and, instead, took off to on my travels – mainly to Australia. It was a bold move back then when the concept of the adult gap year was still in its infancy.

I was given the most lavish and warm-hearted send-off – and a hand-made card designed like one of the titles on the children’s list complete with the most cleverly-worded blurb full of in-jokes and references. Although I was excited about pastures new, I cried almost non-stop the day after my leaving party, reflecting on the friendships I had formed and the many shared experiences – all those publication deadlines, conferences and overseas trips were deeply bonding. My colleagues had become part of my family. Grief can strike at your very core even when you have chosen to move on.

And that’s why farewelling an animal friend, one that has shared our life day and night over several years is so extraordinarily painful. Because we can’t intellectualise, verbalise or rationalise with our animal friends – as we might prepare for the end, say, with an elderly relative – it requires us to be present emotionally and to communicate with our senses and heart fully engaged. Maybe that’s why even the toughest and most pragmatic of people crumple when their dogs depart this life.

When I first moved to Australia, I bonded with my brother’s Blue Roan Cocker Spaniel Mudgee. Looking back, she helped me get through those first few difficult few months. She was a loving presence offering unconditional love and support. When she died, I cried on and off for weeks, great noisy sobs that shook my whole body.

A love-in with Mudgee

But there is a silver lining to this tale. After choir on Thursday I got another text from Nick to say that the vet had failed to show up and that he would bring Woody for a final sniff round Dendy Park on Friday morning.  A bit like a person with a terminal illness might rally before they finally succumb, Woody had a spring in his step, was barking and loving all the attention as his tearful human friends gathered to say goodbye. And I am happy to report that Woody got to enjoy one more weekend on earth and swam in the sea on Saturday.

I feel so blessed to share my life with a canine companion. Woody’s departure (last night) reminds me to cherish Bertie all the more. If it weren’t for him, I would never have net Nick, his wife Saabi and their dogs (Woody leaves behind Jessie and Belle).  Even writing this post is wringing the emotion out of me.

This blog is dedicated to Woody and to all my canine friends past and present. Their gift to us silly humans who make such a mess of so many things with our supposed superior intellect and powers of reasoning is their unfailing and constant loyalty, devotion and love.  They stand by us through thick and thin; they don’t say one thing and mean another, harbour grudges, judge, change their tune, blow hot and cold,  play games (unless it’s ball-chasing) or leave us guessing. Theirs is the language of unadulterated love. They just are.  Which is why it’s so very heart-breaking when they go. RIP dear, dear Woody. You will be greatly missed.

Reflections on Writing Part 2

Following the interest in my recent post about writing, I was inspired to share further reflections and other pearls of wisdom I have gleaned over the years.

For anyone who has gone through the process of trying to get published, whether a short story, feature article or a novel, this quote will resonate.

“Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” Don Marquis (novelist, poet and columnist 1878-1937)

Getting published requires enormous perseverance and you need to develop a thick skin.  Between 2013 and 2015 I made multiple submissions to both agents and publishers of a memoir-style book I was writing. I got close, and received some useful feedback, which, with the benefit of hindsight, validated the process. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I am now glad it didn’t get published – a lot of what I wrote was a kind of self-therapy – but I do give myself a pat on the back for putting myself out there at the time.

It strikes me now that it’s a bit like internet dating; you cast your net far and wide, and into an unknown and bottomless pit, to see what interest you attract. You might find a match, you might not.  You might have a bit of a flirtation only to find it comes to nothing or you may get rejected outright.

Whether online dating or writing to get published, you need to have a strong sense of self, who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you bring to the world and what you want to achieve.  One of my all-time favourite quotes is Oscar Wilde’s “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” And then, on LinkedIn today, I spotted one of those inspirational quotes which, paraphrased would be something like: don’t be afraid to be yourself, be afraid of not being yourself.  Which brings me to an unattributed quote I once wrote down – I think it comes from an article I read in one of those New Age-y publications. And it very much resonates with me:

“If you are a budding artist, or a sportsman or anyone whose heart’s desire is to create more in this incredible world, then don’t listen to the doubts or insecurities of the mind. They are just voices in your head that keep you in separation from your true nature. That is all. By shifting your focus onto the peace within you, you become a vessel to express whatever wants to flow through you.”

Expressing who we are as writers, creators, employees, friends or lovers without feeling the need to change ourselves to fit an alternative agenda takes enormous courage. Another go-to read of mine which combines tips on writing with self-empowerment is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (what a great title!). She advises:

“Learn to trust the force of your own voice. Naturally, it will evolve a direction and a need for one, but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”

And she encourages a visceral relationship with writing: “Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. Just enter the heat of the words and sounds and coloured sensations and keep your pen moving across the page.”

But even if we do have a strong sense of self-belief, tap into our inner creative and get some flow happening, writing can be a tough gig. I love the raw honesty in this Evelyn Waugh quote (taken from How to Write a Novel.)

“If only amateurs would get it into their heads that novel-writing is a highly skilled and lugubrious trade. One does not just sit jotting down other people’s conversation. One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables.’

Life in all its various guises, and how we experience it is indeed our raw material. The good times and the bad. It’s all material! I am reading a book about author H. G. Wells (author of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine) and his multiple affairs with young women. He was a proponent of Socialism and free love and a member of the Fabian Society and, amazingly, his second wife put up with all his amours. His book Anna Veronica published in 1909 was clearly inspired by his relationship with Amber Reeves. Rather than defuse the scandal about the affair, the book threw it into the spotlight. Amber’s husband, a lawyer,  (who gallantly married Amber when she was pregnant with H G’s child) threatened to sue Wells for libel, forcing him to sign an agreement not to see Amber for three years. Needless to say, Wells didn’t learn from the experience and repeated the same pattern with writer and feminist Rebecca West. If we are going to mine our life experiences to inform our writing, it’s a very fine line – beware defaming others –  and we have to tread carefully. Plus it can work both ways: other writers may weave us into their stories.

For Paul Auster living and writing are inseparable: “By living my life as a writer, I am living my life to the fullest. Even if I sit there crossing out sentences, tearing up pieces of paper, and I have not advanced one jot, I can still stand up from my chair and say: “Well, I’ve given it my best.”

Although I am not currently writing a book, writing is still part of my life; I write grants and proposals for work and I blog, but I also rely heavily on journalling and jotting down thoughts as a mental health exercise. It’s part of how I express myself.

“Writing practice embraces your whole life ( … ) It’s a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window.” Natalie Goldberg.

 

 

Luxury is not all it’s cracked up to be

I recently read I am, I am, I am by Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell, an account of her Seventeen Brushes with Death. In one of the episodes she’s at a luxury resort in East Africa as part of a press trip.  She brilliantly sums up the claustrophobic level of attention to guest needs, their every whim indulged, as she seeks refuge in the sea.

“No one is in danger of rushing towards me with an ice-bucket, a finger-bowl, a complimentary tray of hand-made chocolates.  No one is trying to clean the sea.”

Although in recent years, I’ve sometimes upgraded to Premium Economy flights and from shared house Airbnb accommodation to boutique hotel, for much of my life budget travel – think 2 to 3-star hostels and hotels, packed lunches (or sandwiches made at breakfast and smuggled out of hotel buffets), DIY holidays and everything BYO – has been the go.  Whereas I’ve always liked comfort and my ‘Princess and the Pea’ tendencies have increased when it comes to beds, I am also a big fan of learn as you go experiences.

I recently had a small taste of the luxury end of the market when I met up with my mother (we met halfway between the UK and Australia before flying on to Melbourne) at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Singapore. It’s large, sleek, formal and rather sombre with a glass lift at the heart of the place whirling guests between floors. Yes, the beds were super comfy and the high thread count sheets gloriously soft, but the much-advertised breakfast buffet, where everything from Indian to Asian, Western and American was on offer, offered quantity over quality. With many of the dishes sweating under a hot lamp, you could have got the same fare at a Little Chef motorway café in the UK. And although the staff were impressively attentive remembering our names, newspaper, dietary and tea and coffee preferences on the second day, it felt a little intrusive and a bit obsequious. Just because I had camomile tea on day one doesn’t mean I wanted it again on day two. I simply wanted to make my own choices and be left in peace.  At one point, a waiter adjusted the lid on my teapot as he came past our table.

The one time I managed to get down to the pool, a white fluffy towel and robe magically appeared along with a glass of iced water. But it started to rain when I got into the water which was fine by me, but not by the attendant who told me the rules forbade swimming in the rain. Luxury is not just suffocating, it can be bossy too!

The Singapore experience prompted me to look back on some of my memorable travel experiences, and none of them involved luxury.  Back in the 80s a school friend and I went to Galicia in Northern Spain. We arrived in the town of Pontevedra on a fiesta weekend to find a no room at the inn situation. The only room we could find was above a bar and it had a bare light bulb, sagging beds and the loo in the bathroom along the corridor had no seat. But we had a fabulous time; that night we met a charming couple José and Maribel who invited us to join them for dinner – they were cooking fresh sardines over repurposed oil drums. How deliciously fresh, meaty and smoky they were, complemented by the local rosé wine. Jose took us on a drive the next day and we stayed in touch for a few years after that.Later in the trip we travelled by overnight train in a sleeper compartment from La Coruña to Madrid. We’d come straight from the beach and our bikini bottoms were still gritty with sand. A man with a dark five o’clock shadow and reeking of garlic came into our compartment early in the night and claimed the third of four bunks.  After a few station stops where, each time, travellers would slide open the door to our compartment in search of a bed, garlic man got up, swearing a very Spanish joder (Google it!) and locked the door. Terrified as to his motives, we whispered frantic contingency plans, but soon realised that he simply wanted to get a good night’s sleep without disturbance.  Selfish maybe, but not a sexual deviant, his swearing was replaced by snores. No joder simply a bit of roncar!

A 1990s holiday in a rental house in the South of France with a bunch of friends relied on simple pleasures: self-catering, walks, reading, swimming in the lake, drinking wine and playing silly games in the evening. One night we went to a local festival of music and, after a few glasses of wine, ended up dancing with total abandon on the roof of our hire car. And then we visited a restaurant specialising in all things duck starting with jambon de canard (cured meat like parma ham) followed by duck pâté, pâté de foie gras and then roast duck. I’d never tasted foie gras before and wanted to know if they sold tins of it. I asked – in all innocence – “avez vous du foie gras dans un préservatif?” Which caused an explosion of mirth – I had asked whether they sold foie gras in condoms!

 

Playing ‘Who Are you?

And that’s my quibble with in-your-face luxury; all that pampering and pre-empting of one’s every need takes away the joy of discovery, the journeying, exploring and mishaps along the way. And I feel uncomfortable around the servile attitude of those delivering a luxury service. It all feels like a throwback to colonial times.

I’ll never forget the expert massage I received from a hill tribe woman in the Chang Mai region in Thailand back in the 80s. I was stiff from trekking and she walked on my back, pushed and pulled and smoothed out all the knots. It was bliss. Yet there were no dolphin music or pan pipes in the background, no white robes, scented candles or oils.  Simple pleasures.

In the words of Eugene Fodor: “You don’t have to be rich to travel well.”

Slowing Down to survive the Season

How was your December? Did you remain in one piece? By Christmas Eve I was bit done in.  I’d been through an intense month at work, flown to Singapore for a few nights to meet my 86-year-old mother who came in from England. On day two her viral aches flared up big time and I got gastro so there we were in our twin-bedded luxury hotel room, me rushing to the bathroom and my mother whimpering with pain, making the next day’s onward flight to Australia a bit of a challenge to say the least.

On arrival in Australia, Mum got the gastro (which lasted two weeks) and I had to fly straight up to Brisbane for work the following morning at 7am. Still a bit of digestive disaster, I had stayed overnight in a pretty basic motel at Tullamarine and, distracted by worry about Mum,  managed to leave my laptop on the conveyor belt at Security. Inconvenient, but I did get it back the next day; as a dear friend quipped, security is a pretty safe place to leave your computer.

The previous week, rushing for a train, I had nearly fallen down the steps at Flinders Street and the Friday before  Christmas I was so caught up in thoughts that I threw the ball for my dog Bertie into the road rather than into the trees. Bertie has zero road sense and, but for the timely appearance of a Guardian Angel disguised as a fellow dog walker, he would have run out in front of the cars. Like so many of us I was galloping mindlessly towards the end of the year.

By Christmas Eve, although the gastro had gone, I had a touch of Bridget Jonesitis (the world can appear very smugly married at Christmas time with everything screaming happy families and TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY).  Remember Colin Firth’s reindeer jumper in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary?  To add to the heady mix, I had some personal life entanglements – the jolly season does tend to heighten emotions – and the night before Christmas I experienced a resurgence of grief for my father who died last December.  How I wished I could pick up the phone and chat to him. Dad loved Christmas and was always the life and soul of the party – I can remember him drinking a bit too much and playing catch with a bowl of Christmas pudding one year.

Never one to be defeated and wallow, I took a deep breath – well several – and spent the evening dipping into some inspirational texts, quotes, poems and other self-help bits and pieces which I have collected and curated over the year, treating myself to a philosophical and spiritual immersion.  One of the texts I returned to was by Henry Scott Holland, a piece that was read at my grandmother’s memorial service and at my father’s funeral in January. Here’s an excerpt.

“Death is nothing at all…I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the way in which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air or solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed.”  

My father and I enjoyed lots of in-jokes, references that only we understood, and we invented multiple silly languages that involved Mr Bean-type gesticulations. That humorous and playful thread still connects me to the essence of my father. Then I came across Mad Dogs and Englishmen (as in they who go out in the midday sun), the song written and sung by Noel Coward (although some attribute the words to Rudyard Kipling) in 1931. It satirises the failure of the British to adapt to foreign climates and starts like this:

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don’t care to
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to.
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one
The Englishmen detest a siesta.”

While my father was not an embarrassing English man ‘abroad’, he was quintessentially English and always had dogs at his side. I can picture him now striding across heather-clad moors with his black Labradors. How these memories nurture me.

Then I dipped into a bit of Buddhist compassion – for self and others, remembering to slow down and simply be present to what is and to surrender to things and situations I can’t control and change; life doesn’t always deliver what we want.  I love the concept of coming back to the senses as a way of circuit-breaking the chatter of the mind. There’s a softness to kindness and compassion – it’s the opposite of achievement-driven rushing. And softness can twin with resilience; I remember an Ayurvedic retreat where we visualised a strong spine, our support system, while breathing in and out peace.  Just ten deep breaths can re-set an agitated system. Ahh…By Christmas Day I had undergone something of a 360-degree transformation. When I walked my dog in the morning, I felt my feet on the ground, listened to the rustling of the trees and the orange of the canna lilies and the purply blue of the agapanthus flowers jumped out at me. I spent a joyous day with my mother and my brother and his family celebrating in the traditional way.

A few days later, I heard a wonderful program on BBC Radio 4 about sloths and the benefits of taking life at a more leisurely pace. Slow-moving animals live longer – and even creatures associated with industriousness have some less active members among them – think un-busy bees and lazy ants. The only time that sloths speed up is when they have sex and that’s all about survival. As they normally keep a low profile to reduce their exposure to predators, raucous sex and lots of movement puts them at risk, making it sensible to get it over with quickly. Well, we don’t have to take too many leaves out of the sloth’s book, but a few maybe, and those that we do, we should digest slowly – they take a week to digest their food!

Happy New Year to all my readers! May it be evenly-paced, kind and mindful.

Reflections on writing: only you can tell your story

I am always inspired when I hear writers talking about their craft. What always emerges is that there’s no hard and fast rule or approach. Like any creative pursuit, it’s highly individual and subjective. Although there is a plethora of information on writing – from blogs to podcasts, how-to manuals and modules, a formulaic approach will only take you so far. Working out why you want to write, what you want to say and why is an important part of the process.

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How authors approach their writing differs according to their motivation. It could be therapeutic –personal journaling, for example, has become very popular as a way of expressing, releasing, even purging thoughts and emotions – and, more generally, making sense of the world. Some authors have been penning stories from a young age, it’s in their blood and part of who they are, while others are more strategic and have a business-like approach to writing a blockbuster.

Whatever the frequency or medium, one unifying theme I have observed is the importance of finding – and trusting – your own voice, being authentic, tapping into your heart and soul and mining your storehouse of emotions, experiences and memories. Included in Neil Gaiman’s top tips on writing is this one: “As quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell – because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

Looking back, I realise that the first book I wrote in 2002-2004 was clearly a thinly disguised autobiography. Titled Unknown Territory, it wasn’t bad for a first effort – had it been published it would have slotted into the Chick Lit section of a bookshop. A few years later I picked it up again and decided to be more honest and write more directly about my personal journey. I framed it as an A-Z – a kind of ‘my life on a plate’. Some of it was good, some of it was a bit forced by dint of having to come up with content for each letter of the alphabet, and I glossed over the darker and more difficult episodes in my life as I was so hell bent on making it funny. I did get interest and some very positive feedback from publishers but the consensus was that I needed to plunge the depths and ditch the A-Z format.

Neil Gaiman talks about letting go of the inner critic and the perfectionist: “If you are making mistakes then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.”   I would say that writing my A-Z changed my perception of my world and enabled me to re-frame some of my past in a way that made it more palatable even though I didn’t fully allow myself to write out some of the rage and more raw emotions.  I am glad it didn’t get published but now acknowledge that it was valid as an exercise in catharsis.

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Earlier this year I heard author Kate Grenville speak at Clunes Booktown. When talking about One Life: My Mother’s Story, she said: “Being truthful about the past is a pre-requisite for walking into the future.” That struck a chord with me and I wondered if I will ever have the urge to write a full-blown memoir, one that is uncompromisingly honest and free of the fear of being judged – or even worse, of upsetting some of my nearest and dearest.  Other advice Kate gave was to never start at the beginning of a story but where it gets interesting. Contrast that more intuitive approach to the planned writer who plots out the story and characters before writing.

Jane Harper, whose murder mystery The Dry has become a bestseller enrolled in a novel-writing course and in 12 weeks produced a 40,000-word draft. She takes a no-nonsense, roll up your sleeves approach to writing: “Writing is a skill that can be taught and learnt.” How refreshing to encounter a writer unencumbered by angst, anguish and sleepless nights. “I approach it logically,” she says, “and just take it step by step.”  Although Harper trained as a journalist and so, arguably, had a head start, writing a novel requires a different skill set. What comes across in the article I read is that Harper is efficient and organised and applied to herself to writing a novel as she would to any other task.  For her, the hard graft and discipline paid off, but for some too much effort kills off the creative spirit.

Also speaking at Clunes Booktown was Hannah Kent author of bestselling novel Burial Rites. She values the importance of routine but also – and I found this very heartening – allocates herself sick leave and annual leave. “You can show up too much.”

Once again, it’s about carving out our own niche and tapping into our own rhythm and association of thoughts and ideas. By all means take inspiration from other writers, but never fall into the trap of trying to imitate them either in style or writing practice. I like Neil Gaiman’s advice to be kinder to yourself: “Write more. And remember that everyone who writes anything good, wrote a lot of bad stuff first.”

Speed dating is all too speedy

In a rash moment of FOMO (fear of missing out) I recently booked onto a speed-dating evening. My rationale was that it had to be better than internet dating – see: https://wp.me/p3IScw-id  –  in that at least you can see the person and get a feeling for them and whether there’s any connection or chemistry, or can you?

The evening was held in a local wine bar and there were 12 women and 11 men– one man cancelled at the last moment–  and thank Goodness. 11 seven-minute small-talk chats with an uninspiring selection of men was quite plenty. By man six, I already had a bad case of the Groundhogs. I tried jumping in with interesting conversation starters and did share a love of dogs with one man and dreams about retirement travel with another, but they were just not my kind of men, physically or otherwise. When I got to the tenth man and he asked how I was enjoying the evening, I confessed I was looking forward to going home. By that point, I couldn’t fake interest any longer.

The experience reminded me of a literary speed-dating event I attended about five years ago.  Intrigued by the book angle and reassured by having a handy prop if the conversation dried up, I went along clutching one of my all-time favourites, Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.  Placed opposite each other at long tables, we had the opportunity to get to know ten members of the opposite sex in fifty minutes. And that’s the thing about speed dating; it’s fast and furious as clocks – both biological and real – keep time.

I warmed to guy number three; he had read Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (a quirky love story) and told me he did Tai Chi. “The trouble with speed-dating is the speed,” I confessed a little wearily. “Ah,” he said slipping out a green piece of paper from between the covers of his paperback and sliding it across the table. It was a flyer for slow -dating. “Much less hectic and adrenal than the current caper,” he said explaining that it attracted mind, body, spirit types. I imagined a roomful of vegans with shaved heads sitting in the lotus position.

Would I have been better off supping an alcoholic beverage with the Dave Allen lookalike with the florid face and cream woollen scarf? He had brought Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and not wanting to let him down, I pretended to have read it. He insisted that I listen to an original reading by Faulkner himself on YouTube, peppered every sentence with the F-word and dropped in mention of his ex-wife. The next man told me had recently retired and was suffering retirement angst. He also referred to an ex-wife. Another guy had overly flared nostrils. I was sure I had read somewhere that wide nostrils should ring alarm bells, but couldn’t remember why.

In the interval I stuffed down the nasty sugar and salt-laden potato chips and drank the cheap, acidic wine. And then the bell rang, and we were under starters orders and off again. The next man shared my English heritage, oohed and aahed about Thomas Hardy and Dorset and generally made all the right noises. He was neat, tidy and polite but could have been controlling under his polished veneer.

By the time the final bell rang I felt wrung out, my head was thumping, and I could hardly remember who was who and what was what.  When it came to filling in the ‘match’ forms, I wrote down Dorset man and ticked the platonic rather than the romantic tick box.  But, clearly, I didn’t tick his boxes – platonic or otherwise – as I never heard from him.

I still had the green slip of paper given to me by Tai Chi man.  There had been something a little strange about him, a certain tentativeness and lack of ease, but then again, he was more likely to be on my wavelength than an investment banker.  A few days later I emailed him on the pretext that I was interested in writing a feature for a magazine about the slow-dating evenings. Perhaps he could organise a free ticket?

He replied that he was not keen on having a journalist snooping about.  It wouldn’t be fair on the guests and would undermine the integrity of the whole thing. I wrote back saying I was not the snooping kind and suggested instead meeting for coffee during the week.  After a bit of toing and froing, it became clear that weekdays weren’t going to work so I suggested meeting for breakfast one weekend.  He replied enthusiastically suggesting a venue my side of town and then asked point blank: “Would it be easier if I stayed over the night before?”

Amazed at his audacity – meeting for breakfast is a very normal thing to do in Melbourne – I didn’t reply and deleted the email. He wrote again asking if he had been too forward and claimed he had only been joking. Well, if he had only been joking, why hadn’t he added an exclamation mark, some elliptical dots or even a smiley face emoticon? You have to be careful with emails, I said.  Without any indication of nuance or humour, it’s not clear what you’re trying to communicate. I hit a nerve and he penned a sarcastic reply. Maybe I could deliver a workshop on how to write emails and communicate better. He could provide the venue if I could find the clients.

In an effort to walk the talk, I sent off a final reply: “Don’t worry about it. It’s just that it’s strange for someone promoting slow-dating to be so quick to suggest a sleepover! 🙂 🙂

 

Amsterdam Part One: Hippies and Rosehips, Canals and Cafes

I never dreamed that a fundraising job based in Australia would take me to Europe – until I got the chance to attend the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam in mid-October. The Congress was in Noordwijkerhout, about half an hour outside Amsterdam, in the bulb growing region famed for its tulips. October is not the time for spring tulips, but Noordwijkerhout is also situated about 5km from the North Sea. The day before the conference kicked off, a group of us hired bikes – those wonderful Dutch bikes with the wrap-around handle bars that ensure effortlessly good posture – and rode to the sea through the sandy dunes, dotted with bracken, rose-hips and autumn leaves. And how different the North Sea is to Port Phillip Bay here in Melbourne – the water so grey, the landscape so flat, the beach dotted with windbreaks, a line of defence against the chilly winds.

I got to Amsterdam the weekend before the conference and stayed in an Airbnb place in the Jordaan, in the heart of the city centre, an area that in the 17th century was home to the working classes and immigrants – Amsterdam was known for its tolerance towards other political and religious beliefs. It’s still a pretty tolerant kind of place – where else does marijuana waft out from seemingly every other bar and café? Having spent a couple of weeks in the UK visiting my mother and other relatives and friends – one long, if enjoyable, talkfest ­­­­– I arrived in Amsterdam exhausted and with a sore throat. The upside was that I learnt to override my normal tendency to move into manic sightseeing mode and, instead, to take it more gently, absorbing the place in a more visceral way.

Had I never gone further than the Jordaan’s many canals and flower-decked barges, zig-zagging over bridges, dodging the multitude of bikes, and window-shopping in the narrow streets lined with eclectic shops selling everything from antiques and antiquarian books to vintage, vinyl records, jewellery, designer goods and more, I would have come away sated. Every building, street corner, view and vantage point is a delight to the eye.  Like every other tourist (the bane of the locals’ lives) I found myself standing on the various bridges and marvelling at the canals lined by tall, narrow houses – some of them lop-sided and leaning Pisa-like to one side –  with their distinctive gables and winches, which are still used to hoist furniture in and out through the windows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first stop was the Noordermarkt, which, on Saturday, sells organic and fresh produce as well as second-hand clothes, bric-a-brac and craft items.  After sampling different cheeses and cured meats and browsing the many stalls and hearing a bit of folk music, I ordered a lemon and ginger tea (excellent for the throat) in a nearby café.

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I got talking to a permaculture-loving hippie who was reading ‘The Freedom to be Yourself’ by Osho. He was pondering whether you have to step out of mainstream life to find freedom or whether it’s more of a mental attitude. I noticed a jar of thick, orange-coloured liquid on the table and asked what it was. Turns out it was home-made rosehip puree, packed with vitamin C. He offered me some and it was delicious, and I credit it with knocking my sore throat on the head. Who knows, maybe ingesting one of his vials of home-brewed therapeutic grade cannabis oil minus the mind-altering THC would have done the trick, but I stuck to the hips. Amusingly, my soul-searching friend drinks two strong espressos follow by a slug of cannabis oil to calm him back down. Each to their own.

From there I headed off to another market in the Lindengracht, this time tasting salted caramel-coated almonds before plonking myself down in a canal-side café to drink Earl Grey, write post cards and people watch. A man with an unleashed dog trotting along at pedal height cycled past, then a woman balancing a suitcase on the back of her bike, and another with groceries piled up  in a large box attached to her front wheel.  A girl with a German shepherd dog – no Nanny State health and safety fuss here – came into the café and ordered her coffee.

In the afternoon, I took a ferry (a free, three-minute trip) over the River LJ to Noord Amsterdam, an area that was once home to industry and shipbuilding but is now vibrant, edgy and home to places such as Café Pllek, made out of converted shipping containers, and the iconic EYE Film Institute, a modern geometric building with floor to ceiling glass windows designed to mimic film concepts of the illusion of light, space and movement.

I had lunch (this time with fresh mint tea) in the terraced café with views over the water (it’s a similar concept to the Sydney Opera House minus the sails and sun) and then explored the exhibition.

The EYE documents the history and evolution of film to the present day. From dioramas and zoetropes to the magic lantern and a showcase full of static frames, it’s a fascinating journey through the world of moving image with lots of interactive exhibits including a 360-degree panoramic room where you can choose from various film fragments on subjects such as slapstick, celebrity culture and voyages of discovery. I also watched part of a German vintage film in one of the film booths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday was a glorious warm and sunny day and I started with pancakes (a must-do in Amsterdam) – goats cheese, spinach and smoked salmon – followed by a browse in a vintage clothes shop where I fell into conversation with an American couple. I overheard them mention Frankfurt and knowing the Frankfurt book fair is in October (I used to be in publishing) got chatting. Beyond Words are the company that published the hugely successfully self-help book The Secret. Later that evening, I bumped into them in the Thai restaurant next door to my Airbnb place and we had a drink – I even gave them an idea for a book. I was starting to like this more spontaneous style of sightseeing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two more cafés (and I thought Melbourne was the café capital) punctuated my day; one right by the water and with a selection of international newspapers, and the other one –  Rembrandt’s Corner – a nice post-brunch, pre-dinner refuelling stop after a tour round the Greater Master’s house (who would have guessed he went bankrupt and couldn’t pay his 13,000 Gilder mortgage? – more on Rembrandt’s House in Part 2).

A few days in London: from pearls to plywood and the Pickwick Papers

Being a tourist in a city where I once lived  as a worker, commuter, tax payer and home-owner is a joy. It’s an absence makes the heart grow fonder scenario. Although I made the most of London when I lived there from 1987 to 1996, there’s nothing sweeter than returning, unencumbered by day to day responsibilities, with the time and space to experience the place afresh, and inspired by the appreciative perspective of a long-distance traveller. Google tells me London is 10,497 miles away from Melbourne.

This time I tapped into a bit of glamour with dinner at the Athenauem Club in Pall Mall, one of London’s oldest clubs which counts 52 past and present Nobel Prize winners among its members and has oil paintings of Dickens, Darwin and other dignitaries lining the walls. Another night, my sister took me to the theatre to see the Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Gielgud Theatre in Piccadilly. The play set in the 80s about four generations of an Irish family was mesmerising with 22 actors on stage at one time plus a live rabbit and a real-life baby. It’s a tale of grief, disappearance and loss – an aunt to dementia and an elder son’s body is found in the bog. Woven throughout the family narrative are myth, magic, ‘the Troubles’ and the corrosive and threatening presence of the IRA.

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Pall Mall at night

Before the theatre we strolled through the Burlington Arcade admiring its high-end jewellery, leather, cashmere, shoe and perfume stores all so exclusive that, in most cases, you must ring the bell to be admitted. For fun, we enquired about the price of a beautiful pearl necklace only to find it was £77,000!

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Pricey Pearls

As if to bring things down to earth – albeit in an airborne way – the ceiling space in the Arcade featured the work of French artist Mathilde Nivet whose 300 bird sculptures, painstakingly crafted from paper, fluttered overhead.

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After that it was onto Fortnum & Mason known as Fortnum’s for short, an elegant and gracious store with its plush red carpet and spiral staircase connecting the floors selling luxury hampers, teas, coffees, cheeses, biscuits and fine wines all presented in its trademark green tins or boxes. It’s a bit like entering a fairy tale until you come to pay the bill.

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A quick trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum offered plenty of contrast. An exhibition about plywood  showed how layering cross-grained veneers to make material stronger than solid wood has been used since 2600 BC in Ancient Egypt, but the advent of mechanised saws in the 1830s saw it emerge as a key material in the industrial age as it was cheaper than cast metal.  From the covers for Singer Sewing Machines, tea chests, car parts, surf boards and the moulded fuselage of Mosquito aeroplanes in the Second World War, the exhibition highlighted the versatility of plywood. Today, plywood has become popular as a material for digital design due to rise of digital fabricating machines known as CNC Cutters (Computer Numerical Control).

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No visit to the V & A would be complete without a wander through the fashion section where we took in (crazy) cumbersome court mantuas, corsets and crinolines –  the starchy, scratchy and restrictive Victorian costumes were a perfect segue to a trip to the Dickens Museum the next day.

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A court mantua worn by women in the 1750s to royal assemblies and balls

Dickens and his wife Catherine lived at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury from 1836-1839, and this is where he wrote OIiver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. Some samples of his hand-written drafts – they were published in monthly parts – are on display along with his writing desk and chair and one of his reading desks, from where he performed his public readings. He’d edit his own text and write himself stage directions in the margins. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms is a mirror in which he practised impersonating some of his characters so he could ‘see’ them.

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A hand-written draft page from Oliver Twist

Other more quirky exhibits include a model of a hedgehog in the kitchen (they were kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects and keep the bug population down), a commode with a letter from Dickens to his doctor complaining about: “distention and flatulency, and disagreeable pains in the pit of the stomach and chest, without any disarrangement of the bowels.” Sounds like a long-winded way (forgive the pun) way of describing indigestion. Dickens was also a big fan of cane chairs, perhaps the latest in ergonomic design back then. He writes to a friend: “I can testify there is nothing like it. Even in this episodical hotel-life, I invariably have my cane chair brought from a bedroom, and give the gorgeous stuffed abominations to the winds.” I’m sure Dickens would have been a fan of mattress toppers had they existed in his day. See: To sleep, perchance to dream