As Christmas 2019 approaches, my thoughts turn to the many different ways in which Christmas is experienced in Australia and around the world. Whether you see it as a religious celebration or an important cultural festivity (or both), each of us has our own take on the ‘season’. For many, it’s a precious time, an opportunity to get together with family, or friends, or neighbours, to share good food, perhaps exchange gifts, and relax as we move towards the end of another year. For others, it is a super-stressful time to be managed, coordinated and even endured, all the while hoping that the gifts bought are suitable, the food stretches far enough, and Uncle Bert doesn’t get too loudly tipsy. Yet others spend Christmas Day alone, whether by choice or necessity.
Which of the above group do you fall into? Or maybe your plans are hybrid – some time with loved ones and some much needed time alone? Or something completely different?
As we travel through the years, our Christmases change as we do. The thrill of Christmas in childhood, of trying to work out which of the mysteriously shaped packages under the tree are for you, morphs into sneaking presents into the house and hiding them in a spot where our own, or others’ children, won’t discover them. Family members come and go, new people are welcomed and others farewelled. And the elders in a family, who once held all the Christmas reins and (expertly or otherwise) guided Christmas activities year after year, become unable to do that because of ill health or other reasons.
So my Christmas post this year is a short story in honour of one of those elders, to whom I owe a thank you for many special Christmas memories of my own. It’s fiction, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
‘Please, can someone help me?’ I call for a nurse. It’s the tenth time tonight. I’ve slipped down the bed and I can’t sit up and I can’t reach the buzzer for help. Something’s wrong with my legs. I don’t know what happened to them or when.
My cheeks are wet. I stare out my window at the thin moon just beginning its rise into the night sky. It’s beautiful but my heart is pattering strangely. Am I frightened? It’s worse at night. I don’t think I used to be like this. It’s the spider webs in my head that make me fuzzy and slow and scared, all at once. Especially when the sun disappears each evening.
There’s a rustle and a nurse appears, wearing a tight, zipped up smile and a pink shirt.
‘What’s the matter, Ida?’ Her heels click as she walks to the bed.
‘I can’t…I can’t…’
Why is she here? Did I call her? I gaze up into her smooth young face, trying to remember. She puts an arm around my shoulder and slides me up onto the pillow.
‘Is that better? You were halfway down the bed!’
‘Katy? Are you Katy?’ I’m squinting to see her face in the half light.
‘I’m Sally, the night nurse,’ she chirrups. ‘I was here last night too, don’t you remember?’ She tidies my bedside table as she speaks, picking up a hairbrush, nail scissors and tissue box and lining them up in a row. I stare at these things. Where did they come from? I give her a watery smile and close my eyes. It doesn’t matter. Objects appear, disappear and reappear in my room every day. It’s very hard to keep track of things as well as thoughts.
I remember Katy, though, with her smooth red hair and soft hands. Katy visits, so the nurses tell me, though I don’t remember the last time I saw her. I strain and push inside my head but my treacherous memory fails me again. I like it when Katy comes. I taste strawberries when I think of her. I have a photo, somewhere, of Katy and me. We are at a table outside, eating strawberries. It must be summer, because I remember flowers in the garden beds nearby. There were eleven different flowers in the garden. I don’t know why I remember that and I don’t remember what type of flowers, but they were pretty. In the photo, Katy is laughing; her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her hand touching mine as we lean together across the table. I don’t know where that photo’s gone. I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Katy again.
My lashes feel damp as I close my eyes and lay my head back on the pillow. The moon beckons, a peaceful quiet place where I’m not afraid. Murmurs drift towards me from the doorway as I sink into the pillowy softness.
Sally, the nurse, is speaking to someone.
‘I’m sorry, Katy, looks like she’s asleep…’
I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.
I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.
While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.
Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:
…young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet
There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.
The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.
So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.
And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.
If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/
If you are anything like me, you might pick up a book for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s to escape into another world, or another life, or to learn things, or pass the time. Or just because I can’t bear passing an entire day without reading. And sometimes, reading can help me cope with difficult times or emotions.
Here’s my go-to collection of books that have helped me at various times and for various reasons.
About ten years ago I came across two beautiful books that I connected with strongly.
Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight (Penguin, 2010) is a meditation on how particular books helped the author through her experiences of diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. In it, she writes:
A good book laces invisible fingers into the shape of a winter armchair or a hammock in the sun. I’m not talking about comfort, necessarily, but support. A good writer might take you to strange and difficult places, but you’re in the hands of someone you trust.‘Reading by Moonlight’ p 8
The other book that was meaningful for me around that time was Worse Things Happen at Sea by William McInnes and Sarah Watt (Hachette, 2011). This collection of anecdotes, reflections and photographs celebrates the author’s marriage, creative partnership, children, families and neighbourhood and is made especially poignant by the knowledge that Sarah later died of breast cancer. I loved the book because of its inherent optimism and the spirit of thankfulness that imbues the writing of both authors. Here’s a snippet from Sarah:
I began to count what I had. Not my blessings, just what I had: a car, a healthy child, a lovely man, enough money to pay the mortgage, not enough to cause worry, Australian citizenship, ten pairs of shoes. A pathetic amount in some eyes, absurdly wasteful in others.‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’ p 145
Another kind of inspirational book is Rise by Ingrid Poulson (Pan MacMillan 2008) Ingrid endured what many would consider the worst kind of trauma: in 2003 her estranged husband murdered her father and her two small children in front of her, and tried to kill her also. Her book is both a reflection on these events and her own survival, and a guide to developing and practicing resilience. It’s a very practical book while also being full of compassion and kindness for the suffering of others. Here is Ingrid at the end of her book:
My journey continues on, as does yours. There is always room for improvement, but much more for appreciation and gratitude...I have never regretted love I have given…I seek joy and I survive well. I live for those who cannot.Rise p 226
And now, some books to allow for the experience of various emotions:
Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, first published 1908. I read and re-read all of the Anne books so many times in my childhood and teens, I have lost count. Full of sweet humour and poignant moments, it’s a perfect book to indulge in a good cry – especially the scene when Mathew dies. Never fails for me.
The House at Pooh Corner and all the other books about Winnie- the- Pooh by A A Milne, first published 1928. These books are all mini philosophy lessons wrapped up in simple stories for children. So many quotable quotes! Here’s one of my favourites:
Christopher Robin thought that if he stood on the bottom rail of a bridge and leant over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath him, then he would suddenly know everything there was to be known, and he would be able to tell Pooh, who wasn’t quite sure about some of it.The House at Pooh Corner, p 102
I’ll finish with some poetry, because poems are always good to turn to in difficult times. There are two poems by the American poet Mary Oliver that I especially love: ‘A Summer’s Day’ and ‘Wild Geese’, both in the collection Wild Geese (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)
And Judith Wright, a favourite Australian poet, with her poem ‘The Trap’ (in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, 1986. Here’s a stanza from this poem:
‘I love you,’ said the child,The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, p 75
but the parrot with its blazing breast and wing
flaunted in the high tree, love’s very beckoning,
and would not be beguiled.
Australian author Heather Rose’s 2016 novel The Museum of Modern Love’ is her eight novel and the winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.
It is unlike any book I have read before. Literary in its style, it is an accessible read and populated by a varied cast of characters, most of whom could be described as ‘creative types’ – musicians, artists, writers, poets, broadcasters, journalists. The novel takes the viewpoint of several characters, though it circles back to two main protagonists: Arky Levin, a film score composer, and Marina Abramovic, a well known performance artist.
Now, part way through the book I had to stop and ‘Google’ Marina Abramovic. I needed to check if the performances described by Rose in the novel were based on real events. They struck me as especially far-fetched. To my astonishment, there they all were, listed on various websites describing Abramovic’s artistic career. For example, Let’s See what happens, 1972, in which the artist sat in a room equipped with seventy two items (including wine, scissors, a knife, a whip, a gun – with a single bullet – paper, flowers…) and invited people to use the objects on her as they wished; Balkan Baroque, 2000, in which the artist sat scrubbing an enormous pile of cow bones; and the performance at the centre of this novel, The Artist is Present, which took New York by storm in 2010.
In this piece, Abramovic spent seventy five days in a bare room, at a table with two chairs facing each other. She sat in one, and audience members took turns to sit in the other. During each sitting, the artist and participant did nothing except gaze on each other’s face. A sitting could last between several minutes to several hours. When one participant vacated the seat, another took their place and the gazing resumed. Abramovic kept up this still, silent sitting every day until the Museum of Modern Art closed each evening. She did not move, drink, speak, visit a toilet – she did nothing but sit and gaze at the revolving cast of people in the chair opposite.
Before reading this book, I knew very little about performance art, and thought even less of it, to be honest. If asked, I probably would have dismissed it as ‘indulgent nonsense.’ While I’m not sure that this novel has convinced me to rush to the next performance art piece I hear of, but it has made me stop and reflect on the place and value of art – in all its forms – in our human world.
In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose describes the impact of sitting across from the artist, on those who chose to do so and those who watched but did not participate. A surprising number were visibly moved or shaken by the experience. In the novel, we get an inside view of this impact, from the point of view of several of the characters.
The other pleasure in this novel is Rose’s beautiful language. Here is just one example:
He saw how her students must see her. This bird of a mind leaping from branch to branch.
And here’s another little snippet, which I think sums up one of the main themes of the novel:
Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice,then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die.
As an aside – a shout out to Blue Mountains Library Services, who have introduced a range of books printed in a font style that is easier for readers with dyslexia. The copy of The Museum of Modern Love that I borrowed from there just happened to be in that format. What a great innovation!
It’s not too often I get a thrill from reading my local newspaper, Blue Mountains Gazette. I did last week, though,when I came across an article about the awarding of an honorary doctorate degree by Western Sydney University, to Blue Mountains author Jennifer Rowe.
At first Ms Rowe’s name didn’t register, until I read on further and realised that she is also known as Emily Rodda.
Now, if you have children who like to read, that is a name you’ll recognise. When in primary school, my son and his friends loved her Rowan of Rin books, first published in 1993. She is also the author of the very popular Deltora Quest series. Emily Rodda has written over 50 books for children and young adults and is a five times winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Younger Readers Award. And this year, 2019, her most recent book His Name was Walter, was shortlisted for the Children’s Book of the Year.
So, quite a writing career. You can learn more about Emily Rodda here:http://www.emilyrodda.com/about
And as Jennifer Rowe, she writes crime novels for adults.
The WSU Honorary Degree was awarded in recognition of that significant career and her contribution to Australian literature. In January 2019, Jennifer Rowe was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia for her services to literature.
And until last week, I had no idea that she lived in the Blue Mountains, just up the road! Of course it matters not where she lives. But I did get a little thrill. There is something about stumbling across someone you admire, in whatever field or pursuit, and finding out that you are almost neighbours.
We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?
I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:
Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:
I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result. Markus Zusak
These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…
It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.
And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.
As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”
My husband and I have a little riff between us, where if one of us says a “mood” word in a sentence (such as ‘I’m feeling disgruntled / listless’, etc) the other will say something like ‘Yes, but what does it feel like to be gruntled? Or listful? (I know, you probably have to be there for it to be funny.)
Funny or not, these moments usually have me thinking about the word itself. Where on earth does a word like ‘listless’ come from, anyway?
So I did me some searching…
We all know what ‘listless’ means, right? The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as Feeling no inclination towards, or interest in, anything. After our spate of super-hot days in the NSW summer, I’m sure many of my fellow Australians will understand this feeling. Who wants to do anything remotely energetic on a 45 degree Celsius day?
OK, so that’s ‘listless’. But take off the suffix ‘less’ and it makes no sense, surely? No one says “I’m feeling listy (or listful) today.
No, they don’t. But if we understand the origins of the word ‘listless’, it starts to make more sense. The website for the podcast A Way with Words https://www.waywordradio.org/origin-of-listless/describes ‘listless’ as sharing a root with the English word ‘lust’. Ah! Now we get it. Back to the Macquarie: ‘lust’ means desire, passionate want for something, sexual desire…So to be without those, we can well be described as ‘listless’.
I love the way our English language is full of words that can appear to be nonsensical – until you dig down into their roots. Then they can have a magic of their own.
In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’
At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.
I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.
The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.
To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977
or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/
In January I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in Canberra for the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate. The exhibition is on until the end of April 2019 and if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage a visit to Canberra (if you don’t live too far away, that is.) It’s a beautiful experience.
Information about the exhibition is on the NGA website https://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/default.cfm
I was somewhat vague about this group of artists, who produced their works in the nineteenth century. I’d expected images of beautiful women in flowing robes, flowers floating on lakes, Biblical stories and medieval legends brought to life. I found all those things, and more. Incredibly accurate representations of nature in landscapes, alongside detailed scenes of everyday life of the times. Portraits, works about tragedy and love, goddesses and strong, powerful women, and – most surprising of all to me – the works of William Morris of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement.
So much colour and romance, so many powerful stories. For a small group of artists working (as many do) in relative poverty and obscurity, the Pre-Raphaelites produced work that packed a solid artistic and cultural punch.
It reminded me that stories aren’t always told in words alone. Colour, shapes, images, rhythm, music – these are all ways to tell stories.
If you’ve seen the exhibition in Canberra, or been lucky enough to see the works at the Tate or elsewhere, let me know in the comments below.
This is a ‘Strange New Year message’ because it’s all about ‘lasts’. Usually, as a new year rolls in, we are caught up in thinking about everything new and shiny: new year plans, resolutions, a new calendar on the wall…
And I’ve been doing all that too, of course. I’ve set my goal for 2019: to have a completed and edited manuscript of my first novel, and be well and truly on the path to approaching agents and publishers to gauge interest in the story.
For this post, though, I want to write about ‘last’ things.
How do we know when its the last time we do something, see something, speak to someone?
I ask this because last night, I called to wish Happy New Year to an elderly person in my life. After I had hung up the phone, I began to wonder if this was to be the last New Year greeting I would exchange with that person, who is not in the best of health and approaching the grand age of 90.
Would knowing that it was the last time I wished her a Happy New Year, change the way I did so? Or the way I act before or afterward? Probably. But of course I don’t know, and generally speaking, we never do. Which is, perhaps, for the best.
That got me thinking about other ‘lasts.’
The last time I might kiss someone hello, or goodbye.
The last breakfast I might eat.
The last coffee I enjoy.
The last swim ( I’m writing this post after 20 laps at my beautiful local pool, and it’s mid summer here in Australia, so swimming is definitely on my agenda right now)
The last piece of beautiful music I hear.
The last book I read.
Disappearing down that particular rabbit hole has me reflecting on what I would choose, if I knew that a book was to be my last one ever…and I truly don’t know the answer! Would I choose to re- read a well loved favourite, perhaps one I hadn’t read in a while? Or would I elect to tackle one of the many, many books on my ‘to be read’ list?
Even thinking about that incites a little bubble of panic. I always say, only partly joking, ‘So many books, so little time’. But of course I never really think that I won’t actually have enough time to read all the books I want to. Despite being perfectly aware of the reality that we all leave this life some day, I have never truly considered the fact that there will be a last book. So, which one would I choose?
Which book would you choose for your last book ever? Let me know in the comments.
And, Happy New Year to you and yours.