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Saturday
Jul302011

Death in Brunswick

A few days ago, a woman had her throat slashed at my local railway station at 6.15 in the morning. A man grabbed her from behind and demanded she give him her handbag. She gave him the bag but he slashed her throat anyway.

The woman survived, as did another young woman exactly a year ago who was walking her dog in the park across the road from my house when she was struck on the forehead, dragged along the ground and sexually assaulted at knife point until her dog bit the attacker, who ran away down my street.

It’s not exactly the Bronx, but in Brunswick we aren’t strangers to violence. Hardly a random attack, but in March 2004, Lewis Moran, father of slain underworld brothers Mark and Jason, was shot dead at the Brunswick Club, directly across the road from the church where I worship most Sundays.

It’s hard to feel quite as upset about the likes of Moran meeting what seems a logical end, but even in the gangland killings, innocent bystanders can be literally caught in the crossfire.

You could get complacent about violence, in a country where most homicides are committed by a person known to the victim. This week’s completely random attack at the station our family members use daily was a reminder of the fragility of life. 

And this week, no one needed to be told, as the horrific events in Oslo and on Utoya Island unfolded. It was Port Arthur all over again but worse, the body count climbing horrifyingly higher than when Martin Bryant took to the blood-soaked penal settlement with his gun.

Yes, we need reminding. Not about random violence so much as about the fragility of life - a thing large populations of the planet know intimately. As we reel in horror from the Norwegian massacre, on the other side of the world, in the Horn of Africa, several million people face likely death by starvation.

In countries in South America, in Myanmar, university students go to take part in protest marches and their parents never see them again. Not so long ago, in Uganda and Southern Sudan, school age kids were forced into The Lord’s Resistance Army and trained to kill people in their own villages.

Until comparatively recently, people everywhere lost as many babies as survived. Women died in childbirth. In Indigenous communities this isn’t just something that happened in the past.

We know this, of course. At some level we are all aware of the brutality of the 21st century world, despite the advent of human rights charters and antibiotics. I sometimes think this awareness is like a cloud we carry with us wherever we go, or a chill undercurrent that leavens every occasion of euphoria and saddens every moment of pleasure.

This week’s events in Norway and in Albert Street Brunswick didn’t make me want to barricade myself and my loved ones in the house and never brave our parks and streets. But it did remind me of what my sisters and brothers in other places know from vivid experience – that life can end or change dramatically at any time, for anybody.

Which means I need to protect it, treasure it, value every moment. Be grateful for every morning I wake up breathing and functional, healthy and safe and loved.

 

Sunday
Jul242011

The misery of the long term writer

‘It’s a horrible, horrible thing, being a writer,’ says my beloved. ‘A burden you carry everlastingly.’

This as I look glumly at him when I should be enjoying a perfectly good holiday. The rain is lashing down outside, the open fire is roaring, we have a pile of good books and a couple of bottles of pretty nice wine. What’s not to be happy about?

He’s not being unpastoral. Just saying it like it is. I seem unable to stop writing, but more often than not, all it brings is frustration and misery. 

The current torment arises from my umpteenth attempt at writing a half way decent novel. This week, this holiday week we both need badly, I have promised myself I will only spend two days writing and the rest of the time I will relax. But the first day’s writing was so bad, I am in despair. I can’t do it, nor can I stop trying.

‘I’m glad it’s not me,’ is another thing he says from time to time. ‘I don’t know how you keep at it.’ Sometimes I think that the certifiably insane compulsion to keep at it is what makes me a writer, not the fact that I’ve been published, or the quality of anything I might have produced.

Over and over, during the past 15 years, since I decided with a burst of rapture that I wanted to ‘be a writer’, I have asked myself why I don’t just give up. I could be a really happy person if I wasn’t always trying to write. 

My day job involves administration and event management and I love it. It gives me challenges, company, fun, and great satisfaction. It also pays the bills. That should be enough for anyone. On top of that, however, there are all sorts of other good things – aforementioned beloved who still makes me laugh after all these years, kids who seem to enjoy our company, friends, books, walking, so many delights. Life is bloody marvellous, or could be if I could just give up the freaking writing dream.

The last thing the world needs is another ‘artist’ carping on about what a tough road it is to hoe. I understand completely the impatience of normal people with our agonised outpourings of inadequacy, bitterness and gloom.

I am generally a cheery person, however, and maybe it does no harm to let my readers in on how difficult I find this writing caper a lot of the time.

Partly it’s the lack of publication opportunities, even once you have a bit of a track record. 

But a lot of it is that you’re only ever as good as your last article, and even that lasts only a day or two, a week at most. I don’t know any creative people who are happy to say, ‘okay, I’ve produced a lot of reasonable work in my time, now I’m going to relax and just be a mum/admin assistant/gardener/beach bum.’ It doesn’t seem to work that way.

There’s this thing inside me that has to keep getting out, and maybe this is what makes me a writer as much as the hundreds of thousands of words I have written, my publication record or the fact that from time to time, other people seem to be touched by what I have to say.

Always, I want to be a better writer. To be less glib and smug sounding. To be funnier. To write with more lyricism and power. To write fiction – ah, that’s the big one, these days. I dash off short non-fiction with comparative ease, why is writing a novel like drawing particularly massive and impacted wisdom teeth? With no anaesthetic.

So why do I keep trying? Because I only know what I think once I have written it down. Because the world seems even more beautiful and funny and sad when I have noticed it and then put it into words. 

Because I know from long experience that the way I feel about the writing when I am actually doing it has no bearing whatsoever on its quality. Time and again I have produced what felt like inspired prose, only to find, reading it back next day that it is overblown and pretentious. Other times I have struggled, eking it out, word by laborious word, convinced it was rubbish, to come back later and find one of my better efforts.

Because I know that what matters is keeping the faith – just turning up and doing the writing, week after week. Trusting in the process: that if I keep doing it, I will, slowly, learn things and maybe even become a better writer.

Because I know that this is part of what I am. Being a writer, although sometimes an unhappy or not a particularly good one, is as much a part of what makes me me, as being a parent, one who sometimes finds it tough and who regularly stuffs up.

Overall, despite everything, it is one of the endeavours in life that gives me most satisfaction and joy. It makes the whole crazy adventure of life a deeper one.

And now that I have reminded myself of this, it is time to tell my beloved it isn’t so bad, return to the novel in better heart, and just get another damn chapter down on the page.

Sunday
Jul172011

Of Gods and men

Scored a faith piece in The Age this morning. Here it is:

 

Here’s a film that everyone should see. 

Of Gods and Men is set in a remote and mountainous region of Algeria in the mid 1990s when a military government ruled the country and terrorists plagued it.

It is based on the true story of eight French monks – middle aged and elderly – in a Cistercian monastery just up the hill from a poor, mainly Muslim village. The narrative tension is provided by the sudden, troubling presence of a band of terrorists in the area. As the monks decide how best to act as pressure from both the terrorists and the government intensifies, their personalities are revealed, as is the depth of their faith and their commitment to the people of their village. 

What has stuck with me is not this drama, however, but the fact that the film captured the nature of faithful Christian living: work, love of neighbour, and prayer.

The monks are poor. They get about in moth-eaten cardies and old woolen hats.  Their rust-bucket of a car keeps breaking down. But they find satisfaction in the mundane tasks that are required for survival and that make us all human. They grow veggies, bottle honey and sell it at the local market. They mop the floors, chop the wood and wash the dishes (and how refreshing to see men in a movie doing these things!)

They love and serve the people they live alongside, without trying to convert them. Although their poverty means they are constantly running short of medicine, their dispensary is open every day. They provide what little they can – a pair of shoes here, a listening ear there, to ease the lot of the villagers.

They offer non-judgmental companionship. The abbot studies the Koran as well as his own holy texts. The monks attend a local Muslim ceremony, listening respectfully as it unfolds and the prayers are intoned.

Most importantly, through all their hard physical work is woven the business of prayer. Even when a military helicopter is hovering threateningly above their tiny chapel, all but drowning out their songs, they sing, defiantly, gloriously, putting me in mind of the wonderful old hymn, popularized by Eva Cassidy, How can I keep from singing? 

Like the life of Jesus portrayed in the gospels, the film, to me, was a vivid picture of what it is to be a Christian. Discovering meaning and beauty in everyday tasks. Loving and serving our neighbours, with no strings attached. Being steeped in prayer, no matter what else is going on around.

In a time when Muslim-Christian conflict dominates the news, I wish every Muslim and Christian in the world could see this exquisite film that captures so beautifully something of what makes truly faithful lives.

Friday
Jul082011

Why I don't read non-fiction

Here’s a confession – although a good ninety percent of what I write is non-fiction, I rarely read other people’s. I force myself to from time to time, but medicinally: as little as possible and because I know I should.

There are exceptions. I enjoy anything by Helen Garner. I gobble up her non-fiction as though it were fiction (ironic, given that her fiction is supposed by many to be non-fiction). On occasion I read devotional books and theology with fervour.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. I have a voracious appetite for fiction. I always have a novel on the go, and although I am powerfully caught up in whatever world I am immersed in, like a chain smoker, the minute I put one novel down, I’m looking desperately for the next.

My mother was an avid reader, but my memories are of her with biographies or poetry. I can’t remember ever having read a biography in my life. As for poetry, I’m sure it’s a good thing, as long as I don’t have to actually read the stuff.

In theory, immersing myself in good poetry, quite apart from any enjoyment it might offer, will make me a better writer. Such economy! Such richness! Such love of words! But although I don’t mind hearing poetry read, I seldom pick up a poetry book myself. As for writing it, I did that with grim enthusiasm through my depression years. Since I got happy, I haven’t written a word of poetry, nor really wanted to.

I have read a memoir or two, but I had to force myself to finish them. Like poetry, the writing can be beautiful, but there’s something missing. I have been writing a memoir cum family history myself for several years but I know something is lacking there too: something to do with narrative drive. Most memoirs just don’t have it.

It’s the narrative drive, or lack thereof that is the key to why I don’t read non-fiction. When I read, what I want is a story. It’s the promise of story that gets me in: plot, mystery, suspense, the development of characters that I have come to know and feel an interest in, even if I don’t particularly like them.

Story is what has captured human beings as long as they have been around. Gathering at the campfire, in the temple/mosque/synagogue, on their mothers’ laps, story is what people wanted and still do. Jesus knew that; it’s why so many of his recorded words are parables.

I understand that there are those who love reading non-fiction. I have a friend whose sole diet is self-improvement books. People enjoy journals and newspapers – a beast I have learned to love over many years, although what I turn to first are always the book and film reviews.

But I cannot resist the lure of fiction – pretty much any kind.  At the end of the first half of this year, I reviewed the list of books I’ve read thus far in 2011. Thirty-four books, two of which were non-fiction and thirteen of which were detective novels.

Detective fiction is what I read when I really want to relax. And it just keeps getting better. These days, there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to beautifully written whodunits and variations thereof. I have discovered with delight the usual suspects – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Susan Hill, Garry Disher, the list could go on and on.

Recently, though, I’ve returned to some of the old girls, of whom we have several shelves at our beach shack. Not just Agatha Christie, but also Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. Great stuff, and a lot more escapist than the Rankins and McDermids with their bleak, black, despairing view of the world. Which is probably a far more accurate depiction of life, but not necessarily what I want to immerse myself in at a rare break at the beach.

On my bedside table, there is always a selection of books. A book on the mystics, or meditation, maybe a memoir, or some sort of self-improvement tome. They sit there reproachfully, these poor non-fiction rejects, and rarely get a look in. It’s the novel I reach for, longingly, mouth almost watering with anticipation, every time I get a chance to read.

Maybe that’s why, despite only ever having had non-fiction published, I still haven’t lost the dream of writing a novel. In fact it’s been written, several times over. First time, thirteen years ago, a reworking every few years. Never quite good enough. I had given up, really, until this year, when I enrolled in a mentorship program in an attempt to give it one last burl.

If this shot doesn’t work, will I give up the dream? Probably not. Reading novels is one of the things that gives me greatest pleasure in life. So the pinnacle of achievement for me would be having a novel published, and read, and loved. So, back to the laptop I go. Chapter 41, draft six.

Thursday
Jun302011

Does choosing not to have children = selfish?

I rattled this off one lunch time last week, having read a piece by Clem Bastow in that morning's Age. I sent my response to The Age and they said, 'Like it a lot, but can't use it'. I proceeded to send it to a popular blogsite I have been trying to crack for months; same response. Dear readers - this is pretty much the story of my life. If I didn't have a day job, family and a bunch of other things I enjoy, I would go stark raving bonkers trying to make a go of writing.

The good thing about having my own blog, however, is that they can't turn me down.  And I get to inflict everybody else's rejects on my family and hard core fans. Thanks guys!

 

Are people who choose not to have children selfish? Do parents have the right to judge them?

A young Melbourne woman raised this perennial issue in The opinion pages of The Age last week when she wrote eloquently about the barrage of questions, advice and criticism she unwillingly attracts when she says that she will probably never have a baby because she’s just not interested.

It always takes me by surprise when I hear of people judging each other in the ways she quoted in this article: ‘Do you hate kids or something? You’ll be sorry when you’re old and there’s no one to look after you. My taxes shouldn’t have to support your single lifestyle.’

My life circumstances have been different from this writer’s. I married my childhood sweetheart at 21; 31 years later we have four grown-up children. Naturally we have had our moments. There has been a bit of anguish and a ton of hard work. Most of it, however, has been great. I love our kids to bits and appreciate deeply what raising and living with them has taught me. They are among the people in the world I most enjoy spending time with.

But parenting is not not NOT for everyone. And if it’s not for you, it doesn’t mean you are any more selfish, limited or superficial than those of us who choose to reproduce. 

My husband and I chose to have babies not because we were particularly noble. We just wanted them. Looking out for your kids children isn’t some great altruistic gesture; it’s more like an extension of self-interest.

In this society, the majority of people have a choice about what they do with their life, including whether or not to have children. We all make choices for reasons. What other people choose is up to them.

I wonder about these parents who are outraged at others not wanting what they’ve got. I suspect those who protest loudest and shrillest are the ones who secretly, maybe without even knowing it themselves, wonder if they made the right decision. Insecurity is usually what makes us harshest in our judgement of others.

I know a lot of childless people who live incredibly rich lives. I also know parents whose lives seem to be pretty damn miserable, insular, limited and resentful.

Then there are those whose lives revolve around their children to such an extent that when these grown children leave home, the parents go into a decline. Or the ‘kids’ stay home well into adulthood, with mum and dad looking after them as though they were five-year-olds.

There’s something skewed here. Children are wonderful, and as a parent you try to love them unconditionally. But they should never be under the impression that they are the centre of the universe. We all of us, parents included, need other things to build our lives around: community service, social justice, philanthropy, creativity, friendship, religious faith, our significant other – the list could go on.

As our youngest turns 18, I am revelling in the new stage of life this heralds. A dramatically lightened domestic load. A chance to throw myself into my two occupations with a little more abandon. More uninterrupted time with the father of my children. Maybe even some travel.

So, if you choose not to have children, don’t let the parent brigade get you down. You are not weird or unnatural. And maybe all of us could just get on with doing what we’ve chosen to do, and lay off other people.