Stars of the Future?

Sunday Blog 144 – 14th July 2024

By the time I was born, the sixth child in eight years (no multiples), my mother’s hair was grey. I mean, that makes sense right? Wouldn’t such a profusion of children dim the shine of most people’s hair? She’d started late for her generation – 29 when she married in 1957 and 38 by the time she had me in 1965.

I can still remember my dawning realisation that she had, in fact, existed before I was born. Why, the very idea! What was she doing all that time? I was filled with self-absorbed resentment at her living on this earth forty years without me.

This was around about the time we all gathered around our television to watch a show called Stars of the Future. Sort of like American Idol but with very very bad haircuts and cheap stage sets. And probably not quite so much polish and talent, if I’m honest. They often featured the Shirley Halliday dancers who were decidedly racy (this video may amuse you to watch.)

Anyhoo, one day I was shadowing Mum as she was doing what she almost always did daily between 1959 and 1989 – laundry. I was too small to actually help her, I was just tagging along. She has a beautiful singing voice and was belting out a tune as she pegged up the sheets. She taught us all to sing in harmony, a fiendishly clever thing to when you five daughters slogging over the washing up. We can’t argue when we’re singing.

So impressed was I with her vocal abilities that, grey hair and plain house dress notwithstanding, I exclaimed, “Mum, you should be on Stars of the Future.”

You know that laugh, when someone doesn’t mean to laugh so loud, but they just can’t help themselves? She fought to catch her breath between the next guffaw. The thought of a grey-haired matron in her housedress and apron, neck deep in laundry being The Next Big Thing was the funniest thing she’d heard all day.

Could I obsess over quality?

Sunday Blog 143 – 7th July 2024

Meme with "Perfection is the enemy of done" crossed out and Could I obsess over quality?
Blackboard with coloured chalk background

Is it just me, or are podcast episodes by men always at least one hour long? I mean, who’s got the time?

While the lovely Rangan Chatterjee’s Feel Better, Live More podcast has “bitesize” episodes that are just under twenty minutes, I listened to a whole one this week. It was an interview with author Cal Newport. Apparently, I did have the time.

The episode had the arresting title of “Break Free from Burnout.” After all, I am the woman who had to quit her job in 2022 to break the hypnotic spell of over-doing it.

For decades I’ve tried countless methods to trick myself into doing less. I taped a card with the saying “No makes way for yes” on the wall next to my desk. I hoped it would work its magic on my personality. I’m FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) to the core. Newsflash – the card didn’t create the personality revolution I was hoping for.

Cal Newport’s interview was all about his new book Slow Productivity. Let me save you an hour by sharing the nuggets of slow productivity that Cal espouses:

  1. Focus on a small number of high impact activities
  2. Work at a natural pace – vary your intensity and activities to fit your own rhythms
  3. Obsess over quality

Number 1 was interesting as he described high impact activities as those that move the needle forward. AND he said that all activities we take on come with an administration load. People like myself always envision the end product and bleep over this reality. I’ve always lamented that I seem to have an administrative soul and a creative soul, and the administrative soul always chews up most of my bandwidth. Hmm… that insight about administrative load has got me thinking. Perhaps I could use my envisioning skills to see any shiny new project as trailing a load of unwanted paperwork behind it. Could that cure my FOMO just a little? Number 2 is easier for me now that I have jumped out of the full-time working gig. (There are some good tips for those who have a line manager to work to – asking “which one of these projects would you like me to stop doing to get this done?)

But quality? That was something for me to really dig into. Last Sunday, I sent out my Sunday blog on Facebook with all the gobbldegook from my WordPress website. It had delightful text such as “this image is empty” or similar at the top of the post. I was very lucky anyone waded through that gunk to read the blog itself.

I’m often chided for the Sunday Blog typos that can sneak past my six or seven different filters I try to put in their way. Until it’s posted on Facebook, those last sneaky errors are invisible to my naked eye. Then they are in the full public glare. Like a naughty villager in the stocks, my transgressions are on full public display. Have I taken the maxim that “perfection is the enemy of done” just a little too far? Is it time for me to obsess over quality?

To have stumbled across this podcast in the week after my WordPress gobbledegook bungle was a sign, I’m telling myself, that I am at last ready to spend just a little more time on quality. Obsess over it if you will.

Let’s see if I notice any Facebook post bloopers this week.

Solo Mama Memories

Sunday Blog 142 – 30th June 2024

This week I’ve been submersing myself in the memoir edits (I’m revising my 2014 memoir, to get it up to the standard of my novella. Just play along with me!) My 2014 memoir skates right over the top of the reality of my life as a solo mama, and in this edit I’m letting myself sink down, down into the parenting chaos.
All that editing surfaced a replay a memory of a friend’s book launch in April 2023. Renae Hayward’s Say Hooray picture book. I’d watched her writing practice dip as she had her first, then her second child, and was so excited to see that she’d been able to co-produce her gorgeous book and get it out into the world.

The launch event was at Melville Library, a place I used to haunt when my daughter was young. When I arrived at the book launch, I made sure I had my copy ready for Renae to sign, sneak in an extra big hug before the event got underway. I was keen to get my copy posted to my niece for her to read to her little girl.

Renae signed my copy with a flourish, then reminded me I’d raved to her about Melville Library—probably about 2003, when we first met as colleagues. It had a creche, and I’d waxed lyrical about how wonderful that was for me. I had no child care arrangements in place at the time, despite all my efforts to get something in place. My daughter had been persistently miserable when left at day care and any joy I had when briefly snatching time to do my own thing was wiped clean when I saw her sad little face.
Somehow the Melville Creche was that miracle place where she was happy, and I could sit in the library or go to the gym or just walk around the oval crying for an hour. This conversation with Renae was over two decades ago now. I had completely forgotten I’d had that conversation with her.

I sat down with my signed copy of her book, and watched as Renae and her illustrator co-author Rebecca Mills, marshalled and wrangled an enraptured group of children. They sat on their parents knees, on the floor or on chairs. It was a touchingly delightful and sweet scene. As Joan Didion says, “I’ve lost touch with a few of the people I used to be.” But the conversation with Renae had unloosed the memories of the “me” I used to be. The solo mum who went to Melville Library for a little snatch of freedom.

The children sing along and listen in rapture to Renae but they recede and I’m lost in the tug of the past. Just around the corner of my eye, I can see my daughter’s artwork from twenty years ago when she was four years old. It had received a prize and the right to be displayed at Melville Library. Zoe sitting proudly next to it, posing as I take photos, and then we walk off together hand in hand. It’s like friends I’ve long neglected have brushed past me in a crowd and disappeared around a corner. I’m calling out to get their attention, but it’s all too late. They’re gone. I want to tell that exhausted solo mum that in no time, but also a really long decade and a half, her days and nights and weeks and months will be all hers. Her daughter will be launched and gone.

The wash of two decades old memories became a wave, then a tsunami. I’m pulling painfully against the now, where my daughter is an adult. Well-established in her life now. I need to make an appointment to make sure we see each other regularly. That is the point of parenting, after all. To raise independent people.

But could we be closer than we are? Is she suffering through some really difficult adult crises that she isn’t reaching out to me for help for? I check my phone where a couple of my texts to her sit unanswered despite their excess of emojis. Then I sneak away from the book launch and the sight of parents and children sitting so close and entwined. I creep into my car just in time to ugly cry.

Before I finish, my darling girl texts me. I soar with the glory of connection. She’s sick, that’s why she hasn’t returned my recent texts or calls. There’s a gig that night and she’s not sure she can make it. She asks for my help and I roar out of the Melville Library parking lot, on the way to help and, help her get her show on the road.
PS if you want a beautiful kids book, I’d highly recommend Say Hooray. https://fremantlepress.com.au/contributor/renae-hayward/

Solstice Full Moon

Sunday Blog 141 – 23rd June 2024

Every time I walk a labyrinth, I think this time I will fully understand its elaborate geometry, its pattern of winding paths. It’s not a maze, it’s a single curved path into the centre, and out again. I walk around it as if I’m following the curves and kinks of my brain. But in truth I never work it out. I just walk it, and am always surprised when I reach the centre, or reach the exit.

Snapped on Friday night was a cheeky shot of the full moon as I was waiting for my Uber home. I’d been at a Fleetwood Mac tribute band, soaking up the fun. Getting a Friday night lift.

I super-imposed the full-moon image on a labyrinth because it seemed fancy, then it seemed magic. Just like the labyrinth itself.

Happy Solstice.

Re-reading Jane Austen

Sunday Blog 140 – 16th June 2024

I’m guessing the very first time I read Pride and Prejudice (P&P) I was 16, when the excellent 1981 TV series first aired. I remember the copy we had in our family library. Our shelves were stuffed with classic fiction, poetry, and history. How I loved the small, navy-blue hardback copy of P&P, with its imprint of “Oxford’s World Classics” debossed on the front cover. The rice-paper thin pages and antiquated versions of some words, like shewn instead of shown, for example. How people would dress a sallad and cucumber. I raced through every book Jane Austen ever wrote, and the ones she didn’t quite get to finish.

P&P’s particular perfection soothed me, and over time I considered that navy hardback edition mine and I took it with me when I moved to Europe, aged 25. Perhaps I kept re-reading it to see how I’d changed, while the book’s perfection remained the same.

In the picture I’m 27 years old, re-reading it in the shade of a tree in the garden of Versailles. I was living in London, so that was one decade’s worth of re-reading already. But there was more to come. After a four-week teacher training course, I moved from London to Greece in 1996 to take up a position in a school. I took P&P with me, the only book I saved from my library. I knew I’d need all the comfort perfect prose could provide.

Teaching was every bit as hard as I thought it would be, and the isolation of having to schlep to the phone box to talk to anyone super-charged my isolation. One particularly trying day, I took my sacred copy of P&P with me to the phone box. (Why? Why?) Somehow, in the fug of homesickness and the miasma of unfinished conversations, I left the book at the phone box. Just three blocks later I realised, rushed back breathless – it was gone. I trudged home to my apartment. Sometimes the universe can’t resist giving you a thorough drubbing.

But leaving a well-loved 1950s edition of P&P in a phone box in Thessaloniki in 1997 really was small beer. The giant body blow of surviving a home invasion in 2002 got me thinking about Jane Austen again. I was tussling with how difficult it was to stay in the house afterwards. I wanted to stay but my body was in post-traumatic revolt. In my memoir about the incident (which I’m currently revising), I wrote:

“I thought of Jane Austen’s Anne in Persuasion, who comments ‘one does not love a place less for having suffered there.’ I realised now that only applied to emotional suffering. The kind of visceral, physical ordeal I underwent was precisely what Georgian and Victorian women of the upper classes were assiduously protected from. Perhaps this experience would finally cure me of my habit of re-reading Jane Austen novels. Perhaps that wasn’t altogether a bad thing.”

Apart from being awoken out of my Regency Classics world by reality, another reason I’ve stopped re-reading Jane Austen is that there are just too many new books to read.

Like Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. If you haven’t read it, I would recommend. It’s a complex novel which depicts the enormous suffering of the Caribbean plantation slaves through its complex and even funny plot.

As I listened to a wide-ranging interview with Zadie Smith about the book, discussing her writing and teaching life, my hair nearly stood up on end as she said,

“So if I were teaching, for example, Pride and Prejudice, nothing could be more natural or normal to me to hold multiple ideas simultaneously. I adore that book. I can teach it at a level of rhetoric, a level of character, as a history of the middle classes in England. I know exactly where Darcy’s money comes from: It comes from the Caribbean.”

Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR – https://www.npr.org/2023/09/05/1197604421/zadie-smith-the-fraud

I’m not ruling out ever re-reading P&P again. I now have a green hardback copy on my own shelves, just in case. It jostles with hundreds of more recent books and looks out of place in its antiquity.

When and if I do read P&P, I will always understand the social and economic context of the delightful grounds of Mr Darcy’s home, Pemberley. And that’s not altogether a bad thing. In fact, it’s a vitally important thing.

Turning 59

Sunday blog 139 – 9th June 2024

It’s actually been a couple of weeks since my birthday, and I didn’t properly thank everyone who posted lovely messages on my birthday. Thank you. I love all that internet love, it’s the one day of the year when Facebook makes sense to me.

The photo above is from my birthday afternoon tea last week, the simple celebrations that make life rich. The refrain of “Happy Birthday” in the air. Some of my large family, still sitting in my house, gathered around the family table. The table I’ve been lucky enough to end up with when our family home on Cobb Street was sold. So Cobb Street is gone, but love and family carry on.

But I digress. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the late Gabrielle Carey. Who, you ask? The second author of the seminal Australian novel Puberty Blues. She co-wrote (and I mean, they really co-wrote everything at that point in their lives) with Kathy Lette. Then when it became hugely popular (because, seminal) she refused to join the publicity bandwagon and sort of disappeared. She wrote several riveting non-fiction works, including her memoirs, and spent her life working in the arts. Writing, teaching writing at university, mentoring other writers. At retirement age, her superannuation was minimal and her financial precariousness crowded in on her. In May 2023, she died suddenly, with no suspicious cause identified.

Not long before her death, she wrote, Why had I spent my life being a writer, thereby deliberately leaving myself in this perilous financial state?

My actual birthday was a couple of Mondays ago. I emerged from the wondrous creative cocoon of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre fellowship, back to the full blast of the world. I worked very, very hard on my birthday, and most of the days in between and now. The work on my book has dried to a dribble again.

As I reflect on my 59th birthday, I’ve set a new, final line in the sand. I know this is the countdown. This is my last year of working like this. My menopausal gap years have been fun. Returning to part-time work has been positive, but it all takes up writing bandwidth. I need to work while I have a mortgage, but come 60, the game will be different.

Perhaps I have taken the coward’s way out, but I haven’t tried to make a living as an artist. As my dear friend and beloved YA author Julia Lawrinson has advised in her Substack newsletter today, and I quote;

don’t try so hard to get published. Don’t aim for a career in this industry. Enjoy the connections you develop with other people who want to create, who love stories and art and presenting to children. Enjoy the delight you feel when you share your story with kids, and get kids creating, and that connection sings. But if you want a career, go and get one that pays you, that shows its value to you through paying you.

Julia Lawrinson, Substack Newsletter What Were You Thinking, 9th June 2024

Now, I never will have to make a living as an artist. Always, I will have the luxury to stay in love with the process of writing, and savouring connecting with creatives. And that is exactly what I plan to do.

Reconciliation Week Reflections

Sunday Blog 138 – 2nd June 2024

This Reconciliation Week got me thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago. 

“I’ve experienced positive discrimination.” I said to an Aboriginal colleague. Positive discrimination, the white, middle-class privileged water that I swim in, and so often forget. I was thinking about a few times when the positive treatment I received was so glaringly obvious that I noticed. 

“Positive discrimination. I’ve never experienced that. What’s that like?” She was genuinely curious about my answer.

Here are several I remember.

-Arriving in London in 1990, the fumes of Heathrow still on me, visiting an Abbey National bank with my pound coin to open up a bank account. I needed it so I could get paid when I started temp work. Two young men of colour in the queue behind me, also with the fumes of Heathrow coming from their backpacks and jackets, tried the same conjuring trick. A gold coin to create a mechanism to receive a salary. Only they were declined. I said nothing and slunk away.

-Moving to Thessaloniki in Greece to teach English as a Foreign Language. We needed our passports validated at the Alien Department (that’s pretty much a direct translation from the Greek) and we were hustled to the front of the queue. Past everyone that had been waiting for hours, people from neighbouring countries such as Albania, Bulgaria, perhaps further afield. We were in and out within minutes. As a slightly more mature person, I said “sorry” to each person as I passed them.

-Becoming the victim of a serious crime in Perth and experiencing the privilege of being “the credible witness” from the moment of reporting to the police, all the way through to a significant sentence being imposed. The police officers who had been part of the investigation even went along to the sentencing (which was more than I did). Soon I was invited onto advisory committees to talk about the victim’s experience and how things could be done better.

Once I took part in a workshop activity designed to bring positive discrimination to the fore. We all lined up at the back of the room. Each of us had a piece of paper which told a few details about our lives. Where we were born, the colour of our skin, the level of poverty and trauma we experienced as children, the education level we’d attained. We were asked to take one step forward if we had graduated from high school. Or if we’d experienced a peaceful home life as children. And on and on. Some people were already at the end of the room before others could take one step forward.

At the end of the Walk for Reconciliation held in Boorloo (Perth) on Friday, we gathered around a stage where the facilitator spoke to the crowds. She asked the children, who were all sitting cross-legged on the mat in front of the stage, to stand up. She asked them to turn around and look at us. Several dozen faces looked at us — Aboriginal and Wadjella (non-Aboriginal) children. In their gaze, I felt the punch to my heart, the tears push at my eyes.

There was so much hope and power as the children gazed at us. Our children have been educated about the horrors of colonisation in Australia. They won’t, like me, be young adults before they first start to grapple with our history.

In the horrid ashes of the Yes vote debacle, when Australia slapped away the Indigenous hand of friendship, this Reconciliation Week march was a balm to my soul. Now, more than ever.

What if we called it Elder Care?

Sunday Blog 137 – 26th May 2024

After a couple of false starts, I find the right café to have breakfast before I visit Mum. It’s a charming old-style café in Guildford, and unusually I am the only woman. Perhaps it’s the early hour. I set up the laptop and order breakfast, toggling my need for writing with my hunger. I have to keep shoving around the elements—coffee, laptop, breakfast, but eventually I can re-focus my attention on the writing.

Two men are in almost identical polo shirts and appear to be having a business meeting. They move off and another pair with almost identical polos soon arrives. I have to look carefully to make sure they’re not the same people.

An odd male couple, friends, sit in another corner, one dressed casually in jeans and striped polo shirt, the other in a sharp suit, clean cut and shaved. Clearly, they’re regulars—more regular than the owners who have recently bought the café. The odd couple talk loudly, especially the one in the sharp suit, but I’ve tuned them out. I like a noisy café to write.

Next to me, I’m joined by another man on his laptop. Perhaps he knows the odd couple. He comments on their increasingly loud discussion on whose turn it is to pay. A male pantomime reminiscent of Father Ted is emerging (google Mrs Doyle, I’ll pay) They appeal to the new owner, who confirms that last week, the polo shirted man paid. It’s sharp suit’s turn today. They laugh about how old they’re getting and how hard it is to remember whose turn it is at their age (late 50s, early 60s I’m guessing.)

“One day, we won’t even remember who each other is!” sharp suit wisecracks. There is a bravado of guffawing.

Right in mid-air, a vivid recent memory re-plays in my mind. I see my mother’s hand stroking Roma’s face at the dinner table at the residential aged care facility they both now live at. Roma, the doctor, a woman medical graduate in the 1950s. Thumbing her nose at the deeply sexist times. Roma the inveterate traveller. She doesn’t know my mother, or their friendship of seven decades. She doesn’t even know Roma any more.

The men in the café laugh and laugh with the brutal, untrue certainty that this will never happen to them. They are above ageing, above dementia, above death.

But they’re not, are they? None of us is. We don’t know which one of us will be wheeled into the dayroom to sit in front of a jigsaw puzzle. I see Roma picking at the jigsaw pieces some days. Her hands which once ran over surgical instruments with a practiced touch. She turns the jigsaw pieces this way and that, puzzling at what they are.

It got me to wondering. Why do we call it “aged care?” But imagine if we called it “elder care?” If we saw through to Roma the doctor, and through even further to ourselves? Because it’s all ourselves.

We call it elder abuse. Why can’t we collectively imagine elder care?

Golden Hours at KSP Writers’ Centre

Sunday Blog 136 – 18th May 2024

I’ve got one more glorious week ahead of me at KSP Writers’ Centre, after an entire week immersed in this beautiful place. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Katharine Susannah Prichard (KSP) was an Australian writer and co-founder of the Australian Communist Party. Born in 1883, she mainly lived in this house in Greenmount in the Perth hills from the 1920s until her death in 1969.

The KSP Writers’ Centre was established in 1985 and dedicated volunteers have lovingly restored, maintained and improved it. Three writers’ cabins were constructed which mimic the one she had built in 1930. Trying to write in her house with a busy family and activism schedule was impossible, so she had a cabin built just for her. Our cabins are very like hers but bigger to include our own bathroom and toilet. Two other writers and I are staying here for a fortnight on a Fellowship. We look out over the twinkling lights of the Perth skyline from our writing desk, bump into each other in the kitchen, share progress and talk book structure. Right down to every cell, I feel my luck.

Being a KSP Fellow means I can go into the actual house, so I do. I open it up every day. Let the breezes through, sit in the spaces she sat, write in the places she wrote. I’ve even done yoga in the library.

In my ideal world, I would have cleared my calendar in time for this fellowship. In the real world, however, the day job demands continue. But in the blessed synchronicity that life can sometimes offer, my two writing companions also have life demands that can’t be completely turned off for two weeks. It’s helped me come to peace about my reality, something I’m not good at. So I’ve followed James Clear’s advice to set small, achievable goals. I write for one hour each day, then I can do whatever else I want/need to do. No beating myself up for having to put the pen down and join an online meeting or even leave this haven to do things that must be done. I’ve just written for an hour every day, and it’s been magic.

Mother’s Day Melange

Sunday Blog 135 – 12th May 2024

Today was Mum’s first Mother’s Day since she moved into a residential aged care facility. How we had wanted to keep her in her own home, but it was not to be. So we did what we could to create a home-like morning tea. “I wish I could see it,” Mum said, so we described the egg sandwiches, the special teacups and saucers, the pink iced cakes.

Morning tea merged into lunch, then Mum and I napped in her room. I roused myself and left to get on with my Sunday Blog, found myself a beautiful spot by the river. And then I saw the empty battery on the laptop with me. It declined my power bank’s kind invitation to charge it. Handwriting is fine but I need to get an image right before I can blog, so I ended up writing random notes about passing people. I was then a bit late getting to the Mother Nurture Activate Saplings event where my daughter was playing. Ah, my beautiful daughter who made me a mum. What a sweet joy to listen and sing and dance along to her music. Mother Nurture was the name of a long-ago volunteer group I joined when she was two, and then I recycled the name for a post-natal depression group for new mums struggling to bond with their babies (now called Mother Baby Nurture). I took a picture of the sign, tucked it away into my Mother’s Day.

At the end of the gig, I raced back home to plug in the laptop and get going with the Sunday Blog already. My eye fell on the picture of us I’ve had on my desk for several months—my daughter and I, when she was just three. We’d been displaced from our home and we were making the best of it in our new home, a secure apartment block. 22 years ago on 10th May 2002, just before Mother’s Day, someone invaded our little home and changed it forever. It never truly felt like home again. But I remember that photo being taken by my sister, who had come to visit us in our new digs. I can still feel my daughter’s body against me, my hands resting on her little shins. 

Fancy morning tea in an aged care facility, a photo taken in the sunshine. These disjointed moments can still be sewn back together – by the incredible luck of just having loved ones together, moving forward, always moving forward.