It’s the end of November and time to review my monthly goals, only to see my November goal “regular writing practice” mock me from the page. I was going to do my version of NaNoWriMo. In case you are not familiar with the abbreviation “NaNoWriMo”, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. It began in 1999 by setting the communal, audacious, hairy goal of writing 50,000 words of a novel project over the month of November. That equates to 1,666 (recurring) words each day.
My cut-down version of NaNoWriMo only asked me to look at my memoir project for as little as 15 minutes every day. I didn’t even attain this modest goal, unless “regular” means achieving this one week out of four. Not the last time I looked.
I know from bitter experience that leaving a work alone for too long requires enormous energy, repeatedly, to get the flywheel rolling again. And so this, my 112th blog, two straight years of Sunday blogging is part-excuse note, part kick myself up the bum.
Yes, life can be difficult, and it’s not every month that your mother transitions from home into aged care. Yes, life can be busy, especially when one enjoys putting on fun but time-consuming events in the local neighbourhood. But still. Writers write. That’s it.
I’m back on the horse today at a new Shut Up and Write group. There’s nothing for it but a re-set.
Here’s to getting back to a good canter soon. Here’s to staying true to our dreams.
Buckle up because this Sunday blog is going woo-woo (definition “dubiously or outlandishly mystical, supernatural, or unscientific”)
I’m pretty sure my Dad would not love the real estate agent’s description of our family home as “a renovator’s delight”, but, well, it is. That the real estate agent chose not to include any indoor images would also have wounded his pride.
He is not here to see this-he passed three years ago, and he died in his bedroom just as he had wanted to. When his body was taken away, we lined up in the driveway and applauded. What an innings. More than six decades of pouring his heart and soul into this home on his kingdom, a quarter acre block. Each decade was a new project, his version of improvement. He was more of a finisher than a perfectionist, and not always in a good way. But still.
This is a liminal time between putting the family home on the market and the final day of being able to access the house. Time where we can still make a few memories.
I don’t love liminal spaces no matter how good they are for my spiritual and emotional growth. So I have been filling my ears with podcasts and content to help with this strange, joyously-sad and sadly-joyous time. An interview with poet Andrea Gibson on the We Can Do Hard Things podcast drew me in. Among many other things, Andrea talked about her Grandma’s Faye’s thimbles she inherited. She puts these on her fingers as she types up her poems, and they’re creating together. Andrea’s take on this is that “almost all art is made by the dead” and this just felt so true.
Her Grandma Faye communicated to Andrea “that the people who are living don’t know that we’re not only still with them, but we’re more with them than we were before.”
And I am going to stay woo-woo curious, allowing in these hopeful ideas about what happens when we die.
It comforts me, gives me hope. And right now, I need it all, every last speck.
The scale of the task is almost hypnotising. Clearing out a family home of more than 65 years. We are so lucky we still have Mum. And that we still have some time to do the clear out, it’s not a mad rush. But still. So. Much. To. Do.
Wikipedia will tell you Ugg boots originated from Australia, they are made of sheepskin with a synthetic sole and were favoured by surfers in the 1960s. They were apparently deemed ugly by the originator’s wife, hence the name. By 1979 when I was 14, Ugg boots had reached our household too. Even though we were generally speaking an anti-surfing, anti-sports kind of family.
My pair had a fetching yellow and brown braid sewn along the back at the back and I loved them hard. Photographic documentation of every family occasion was my mother’s obsession. And so here are some of us lined up on the house’s brick driveway for the obligatory birthday shot where I modelled my Ugg boots with pride. How I loved the crisp newness of my padded waistcoat teamed with the ubiquitous jeans and now, Ugg boots.
I must have loved those Ugg boots hard, because eventually holes appeared at the big toe of each boot. While I can’t be sure now, I think Mum offered to mend them. And so they disappeared to the bottom of the cupboard, where they lay, unmolested for more than four decades.
Just when I thought I had breathed in the last of the choking dust that accompanies neglected items at the bottom of the cupboard, these emerged. Still with their holes at the toe.
Out to the brick driveway I marched, which is still there just as it was in 1979. A photo for posterity. Just for a moment I peer into the photo, trace the face of me at 14, the year I would go to Europe, have my horizons obliterated and re-made in new form.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to refresh the creative well, responding to flash prompts. Here is one I felt the urge to share – flash memoir from the blur of recent hospital visits
“You don’t remember me, do you?” She called to me across the room. Once. Twice. But I was focussed on mum. The medication rounds, waiting like a cat to pounce on the doctor-mouse whenever she ventured in mum’s room.
Three days earlier I’d wheeled mum in, followed the orange line to the lift. The first floor.
When can we find our way out of here again, doctor?
Mum is now Betty 2, because the other woman she’s sharing a room with is also Betty. A rag of a curtain separates the beds and pretends it can muffle sound.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” Betty 1 called again. This time I trill.
“Of course!” Betty 1 smiles and relaxes.
But Betty 1’s husband whips his head around the curtain and glares at me.
“You don’t know her, do you?”
“No” I admit. Betty 1’s face falls. I don’t know Betty 1, and now, neither does she.
It’s Sunday and I’m reflecting on the very big, ginormous, impossibly long week. Do you have weeks like that? Where you shade your eyes to look across the shining expanse of the previous week all the way back to Monday?
My week went a little like this:
Monday: Bring Mum’s favourite armchair, books, photos, rugs, ornaments etc and take them over to her residential aged care room. Feel happy about how they look. Cry a little bit. Pick up a wheelchair her brother used to use that your cousin is willing to lend you. Fist pump. Cry a bit more. Sleep in old bedroom in crumbling family home.
Tuesday: Put said wheelchair in the back of the car and head over with a sister to pick Mum up from hospital and take her over to move her into her new home. Feel that squeeze of her hand when she sits in her favourite chair, the sun coming in through the window, the fresh, fresh air after two weeks of hospital air conditioning. Her gracious thanks, as always. Tag team and tap out to go back home. Do a 3-minute pitch for the manuscript for the very first time. Immediate no but try someone else. “Tell them I sent you” he says before Zoom snaps off. Keep checking the Messenger thread to see how Mum’s going. She’s doing good. She was ready. Still. Cry a bit more, with sad-happiness and happy-sadness.
Wednesday: Prepare feverishly for Thursday’s meeting that will run from 6am (curse you, daylight saving!) until 2pm. Have another go at the keynote for Friday night. Seems pretty good. Have a look at the material for the call-back interview on Friday. More checking of Messenger thread plus long debrief with family member.
Thursday: Wake 4.30am before alarm. Do yoga, might as well. Online. All day. Collapse in afternoon. Croak out another rehearsal of Friday night’s keynote.
Friday: final, final rehearsal of keynote. Choose and pack outfit. Attend call-back interview session which is a mix of sweaty horror and quite fun. Pop off to do another 3-minute pitch for the book. A bit better this time. Not an immediate no. But not a yes either. Go and see Mum for myself. Feel 1,000 times better. Go back to crumbling family home and choose another bedroom that’s free for tonight. (This resonates with my childhood as I moved out of my first bedroom at 12 years of age and then kept moving when siblings boomeranged home and out and home again.) Get dressed in glad rags for keynote. Deliver key note which is great and am still there at 10.30pm. Way past my bed time.
Saturday: wake up in old bedroom under the stairs. My daughter’s actual 25th birthday and I have invited lots of people for an afternoon tea. Procrastinate and then finally get into action after 11 and madly prepare afternoon tea. Mum comes as one of the guests of honour. She is happy to come but happy to go home. A miracle. More surreptitious sobbing. The modest afternoon tea goes somewhat off-piste with siblings and cousins and friends getting into the champers and reminiscing. Definitely miss my bedtime again, but by a much longer margin.
Sunday: feel very bloody shabby and creep about my day. Another visit to Mum who is more and more at home. Drive brother to airport. More surreptitious sobbing. Finally get onto the Sunday blog.
But wait, there’s more…
As you can see, I love to tell stories. I’m telling one again on Sunday night, 5th November from 5pm at the Irish Club. I’m one of ten story tellers yarning about Spare Rooms – I am riffing about my spare room in my London flat in the 1990s. All proceeds from this event go to Breast Cancer Care WA. It promises to be an entertaining evening in a cosy venue where you can still be home by 8.30pm. I’d love to see you there!
It is perhaps hard to be cheerful at the moment, so here is some dark warmth for your Sunday. This holy water font was spotted on my holiday in a Salzburg church, a ghoulish flourish on the way out. Dip your finger into the skull for a dab of holy water. Make a little cross from head to heart, shoulder to shoulder. Perfectly normal.
At the time this holy water receptacle was created, sex was taboo but death was not. This same church had any number of skulls and other deathly paraphernalia in its many artworks and monuments.
Surely this taboo is now reversed, and death is largely airbrushed out of our day to day life.
Since December of 2022 I have joined my nonagenerian mother’s care team. My role was cooking. I like to work to my strengths. I had ditched the incredibly demanding day job which meant I could don the apron on Mondays and Wednesdays. Indulging Mum’s every culinary whim was one joy, but talking about All The Things was another. Perspective is something a 96-year-old has plenty of and includes the taboo topic of our society, death.
For example, one day Mum wheeled herself back into the lounge room singing “I will love you until the day I die.” Then looked at me and remarked, “not much of a commitment, though, is it?”
On another occasion a family member came to visit, and asked after her health. “Well, I’m walking around to save funeral costs.” It took a while before the guest composed herself enough to give her coffee order.
I took the creepy photo of the holy water receptacle on a recent Europe holiday where I hoped against hope all would be well. Mum’s health took a bit of a dive, but she rallied before I got back.
She faltered again when I got back home and we’ve been thrust into chaotic, timeless weeks in hospital. My carer’s role has been cast adrift. During my first visit to her local grocery store without a shopping list for her weekly provisions I had to put on my dark glasses so I could weep largely undetected.
And then tonight we dined in her hospital room, picnic style. I’d brought in paper plates and extra forks. We shared potatoes, mushroom gravy, thickly buttered white bread. And each other’s company. A luminous joy moment of being right here, right now.
For those readers not in Australia, yesterday was a very sad day in our history. The referendum to vote Yes for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to be enshrined in our constitution was rejected. The outstretched hand of friendship was slapped away.
At 3.3o on polling day, I was still handing out how to vote leaflets in a small school, with my wild acid trip flared leggings on. With the time difference between Perth and Sydney, the vote was really already decided. But still, I kept handing them out. One woman loved my pants so much that she told me, on the way out, that I had changed her vote to yes.
There was so much more I had planned on doing for this referendum, but family circumstances intervened somewhat. And the plain old privilege of being on holiday for much of the campaigning period.
I came from my mother’s hospital bedside to be at the polling station, and fell into an existential conversation with the volunteer coordinator. A chance, precious conversation about life, death, and what it all means.
The woman changing her vote was a small blessing. The conversation with the coordinator was a small blessing.
Political disappointments can break our hearts. But. After this week of mourning I hope we can pick our way forward from this tragedy of political missteps tangling with self-interest, ignorance, conspiracy theories (I mean, no offence UN but you can’t run a bath. You have neither the intention nor ability to take over Australia) and of course, racism.
So as an ally who has been able to dip in and out of this I am sending love and healing for the broken hearts and … writing.
I blame the travel, but I missed a deadline for a writing competition. For the lols I thought I would make it today’s Sunday Blog. It’s a fictional riff on a real stay in a writer’s cabin.
When I came out for my morning break, I was no longer alone.
I’d booked a cabin at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard (KSP—she’s too cool for a full name) Writer’s Centre, focused on finishing the goddam talk. I was trying to bring together all my ideas on the health system, to find the right words to generate a revolution. It was just so huge, I’d wrestled with it, labouring without end or result. Normally, this was so easy for me. What was wrong? Perhaps a short stint in a KSP cabin was just the thing I needed.
They gave me the cabin next to the holy of holies, KSP’s original writing cabin itself. She’d created this space to carve out time from all the non-writing demands that clawed at her time and creativity like an ivy strangling an oak.
All the cabins have been modelled on hers, with a few very welcome nods to the twenty-first century in terms of plumbing. Three nights it would be mine, and they warned me I would be all alone.
I didn’t mind. Night one I made my way up in the dark to the Big House, entered the kitchen and rattled around, looked in every cupboard and drawer before sparking up the cooktop to make myself pasta and tomato, green salad, tzatsiki. Took a photo of my dinner just to prove to myself it had happened.
Next night I’ll be able to eat in my room, I thought. It was just a bit lonely, and I was locked out of the rest of the house. I crept to bed, determined to attack the speech with renewed effort in the morning.
On waking I prowled around the cabin, determined to make use of all the writers’ toys—the whiteboard was marked with the connecting ideas of my talk into some kind of frame. The magnetic word game lacked so many letters it wasn’t much use. But I sorted them out anyway, like I sort my Tarot cards, so I never get a reversed card in a reading.
So when I walked out of my cabin, at the very same time, KSP was walking out of hers. I stopped short. She waved me away as if to say, “Come on. No big deal! Apparitions and ghosts are how we roll around here!”
She lit a cigarette, exhaled almost violently.
“That bloody Bill Mountjoy!” she said as we watched her fug of smoke expand out into the sweet air and disappear.
“Are you working on Communist Party stuff?” I couldn’t quite keep the judgement out of my voice. “I thought you’d be working on a novel.”
Her deep sigh came from the earth itself.
“Touche” she said.
“I mean, I didn’t mean to sound critical or anything,” I scrambled, back pedalled.
“No, no. The cabin should only be for creative writing. I quite agree.” She blew another cloud of smoke out.
“Also.” I said, but stopped before testing out the next sentence. It was a branch on a tree that might hold my weight, might not.
She looked at me in her quizzical, earnest way. Invited me to blunder on.
“I feel I should let you know that I’m related to Bill Mountjoy.”
Her laugh bounced off the trees and valley, startled one of the crows and encouraged it to shift branches. “You have my sympathies.”
“Well, full disclosure. I never actually met him. He was my grandmother’s brother. I don’t think she liked him much either. He was the one that made it back from the First World War, but not all of him, perhaps. He lost his brother Johnny and gained a rage and a thirst that no amount of wine could slake.”
She listened. Nodded.
I started again, wanting to fill in the gaps between me and my miscreant relative who would go boozing with undercover cops and unintentionally undermine his beloved cause of communism. “I suppose he mustn’t have been the same after the war. And they were a poor family. His dad was a real bastard.”
Still, she said nothing, but there was an unmistakable click in the air between us. This was a skerrick of material she may use elsewhere, and her recorder was on while I talked.
“Last night, I found myself thirsty for wine. The kind of thirsty that is intrusive. Annoying. Shall I have the wine? Wouldn’t it be better to not drink? Isn’t everything I want—a svelte shape, healthy sparkling eyes and a lifestyle free of any cancer-causing habits—on the other side of alcohol?”
“Oh I know that horrid track,” was all KSP said.
“Anyway, Google maps sent me to the bottle shop just up the road, but it was obviously out of date. It then sent me down the hill, around some quiet streets and then bam!”
She startled just a little at the “bam”, which was in truth much louder than I’d meant it to be.
“Like a family street?” she suggested.
“I guess. Its placement next to the bottle shop seemed apt.”
Her laugh peeled out, rich and strong.
There was a silence as she smoked. She held out the pack to me and even though I’d quit smoking over forty years ago, my body just walked me up the ramp to where she stood, holding out the pack. My hand just reached out to the pack like an automaton and plucked a cigarette out. Just for a moment, I wondered if the neighbours were watching me pluck a cigarette out of thin air. But she was surprisingly whole and robust.
“Yes, surprise. Not just a ghost your hands pass through,” she commented.
Offered me a light, and I drew in the smoke, deep and rich.
“I shouldn’t smoke” I protested. But it felt so wonderful. My insides crumbled, resistance melted away. The cloud of smoke suddenly grew alarmingly and cloaked me entirely. Then it disappeared, leaving me standing there, alone.
The sounds of the bush pushed forward into the emptiness. Suddenly, I saw the shape of my talk dissolve on the while board and reappear in the form required. Before this phantasm could disappear, I bolted back into the cabin, erased the white board and traced the compelling new pattern from the lines in my mind.
And I sat down and finished the bloody talk.
I made sure I acknowledge KSP in the talk. Maybe I didn’t fully explain the nature of her assistance that had unfolded in the magic between the cabins. But I made sure not to waste the crumbs she left me. I could at least do that.
While I was away on holiday, I took two actual physical books. One of them was a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir, which details her struggle with endometriosis. I was too mean to lend it to my husband after he finished his one and only book, and I was rewarded with my selfishness by leaving it behind in one of my hotel rooms – possibly in Ljubljana. I had to buy the kindle version as I need to have a copy about me. It’s a slim book by her standards, but packs such a punch.
Just like last year’s European trip, I thought of Hilary often. In 2022, I was obsessed by her writer’s advice on finding just Two Golden Hours every day (see image). It was my daily writing holiday mantra. And then, just like that, she died. The Two Golden Hours became an important tribute to this author, who clearly had many more books in her. The least I could do was to tap away for two hours while I still can.
Hilary was the very first author I saw appear on Zoom rather than in person at a writers festival. This was well before Covid, when online appearances were unusual, especially for keynote speakers. At the time, I was slightly miffed, but got lost in the richness of her responses in the interview and felt she was in the room. Her health status was mentioned as a reason for not putting herself through the long haul flight ordeal to come to Perth in person. Reading her beautiful memoir, it’s clear life handed her an exhausting laundry list of health issues which she eventually succumbed to at only seventy.
Giving Up the Ghost made me think of all the women who struggle with this hideous, often misdiagnosed ailment. As she says;
Endometriosis is a gynaecological condition with a dazzling variety of systemic effects. It is not rare, though mercifully it is rare for the disease to run on, unrecognised, for as long as it did in me…It is always hard to diagnose, for a doctor who doesn’t listen and doesn’t look. It is comparatively easy if you are the patient, and get into your hands good textbook with a comprehensive account of its effects.
Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir, page 145.
Today is one year on from Hilary’s death, and I wanted to write a little blog in tribute to her, and to plug this wonderfully sensitive memoir.
The ghost she’s giving up on is the daughter Catriona who she would never have due to endometriosis-induced infertility. Here’s to her Two Golden Hours she made such good use of-and a toast to Catriona, the daughter she never got to have.
It always takes me some time to “arrive” once I return from a trip. One of the biggest mysteries of travel to me not just exploring new places, but also being once again in places that you were before.
It’s like re-reading a book over time, when you can re-discover who you were when you read it last time, what you missed, what you know now that makes those same words mean such different things now.
Visiting Thessaloniki, (also known as Salonika, Salonica, Thessalonika etc.) Greece’s second biggest city, was a bit part of this trip for me. Last year, on the way out to Heathrow airport I saw a sign advertising Thessaloniki as a tourist destination. I hadn’t seen that before, and I took it as a Sign that my 2023 needed to include Thessaloniki. I had been to Athens several times to catch ferries to islands, but was increasingly disenchanted with how little grace the city seems to have apart from the Acropolis and the excellent museums, and its delicious, overpriced tavernas surrounding this area. The rest seems to me grim and increasingly desperate sprawl of apartments. Sometimes I felt unsafe walking its dark streets.
Besides Thessaloniki was my home for nearly four years, from 1996 to 2000 in the tumultuous years where I became an English language teacher briefly, and then the mother of a half-Greek daughter. I have been back and forth over the years, but not recently.
This year I was able to spend a little time in Thessaloniki separately and together with my husband, my daughter, and my daughter’s father and friends. I also finally read Gail Jones’ Salonika Burning which was excellent. She also left a clue about a history book she had found very helpful when reading it, Salonica, City of Ghosts – Christians, Muslins and Jews by Mark Mazower. I have downloaded its 700+ pages and am only in the early part of it but it is comprehensive and fascinating. The opening quote in the book leapt out at me because it is exactly as this city seems – “the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place”
Take for example this photo taken through the 6 metre deep Rotunda Walls. This 4th Century building has been a pagan temple to who knows which god, a Christian basilica, a Muslim mosque, back to a Christian church and its main use now, an archeological site and museum. You can see through the window the modern apartment blocks of Greece anywhere, slap bang next to it.
Where I chose to spend my final three days right in the centre in Navarinou Square, the remains of the Hippodrome built adjacent to this magnificent rotunda is mainly ruins surrounded again by apartment blocks.
For three days I lived in one of these apartments, finishing off the working holiday with mainly working, a little bit of holiday and a lot of sunshine. Tourists, something I had never seen before, are now common. It is clear money has been spent on roads, on the airport. More ferries are running again.
I loved this idealised and unrealistic three-day stay in the flash Navarinou apartment, so different from my life when I eked out an existence as a teacher. Perhaps what made it so sweet was that I had spent several days with my daughter in her father’s family apartment in the old town. We were joined by a couple of his friends too, and we camped out there together for a few days. That’s what it feels like, as the apartment is about to be rented out and it’s fair to say, it has been somewhat neglected in the last five years. Also I elected to stay on the day bed so I had the run of the place to make a cup of tea in the middle of the night and do my yoga early in the morning while my daughter slept.
Just before I was due to leave, and after my daughter had already gone, (sob) we found the photo albums from her dad’s family. We’d looked for these in vain while she was there. I pored over these, capturing all the images for my her, filing them away for her to enjoy back in Perth. My last time in the apartment was spent marinating in memories of others lives. Zigging and zagging across the joys and tragedies and sadness of loss and change.
My Greek memoir is beginning to brew and take shape…