Subscribe for email updates

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner


Google magic

This morning, when I was supposed to be working on the novel, I called up the magic of google earth and keyed in, one by one, the far-flung places where half my family are at the moment.

My husband’s in Honiara. Nice alliteration there. Or perhaps the title of a silly love song. Or a ‘he done me wrong’ song. I type it in: HONIARA and hit the key and we whiz dizzyingly around to the top of Australia and then some.

Ah, so that’s where the Solomon Islands are. There are so many of them – strung out along the ocean between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. I click on images of Honiara and it looks very much like Port Vila the only time I’ve been to that part of the world, except more parochial and empty.

Older son. I know exactly where he is, but still I type it in and spin around the serene blue globe. Glasgow. If I want to take the time, I can home in on his street.

Younger son: Isle of Mull. Not so far from his brother. As far from me, both of them, as they can possibly be without leaving the planet.

I spoke to Hamish just last night. Got straight through to the remote little outpost of Mull where he is staying in old stone miners’ cottages, working for six months with kids from Glasgow. They even have internet access, I can skype him if I have the inclination.

I love this modern ability to communicate instantly across vast distances. I do. Although it doesn’t stop the longing to just have them there, solid and human and real, putting on the kettle as I arrive home from work of an evening. It doesn’t replace the spontaneous little comical interactions that happen in families at the oddest hours – late at night, early on dark winter mornings, when one of you really should get going but doesn’t want to end the conversation. It’s never the same as the warm presence of my husband on his side of the bed.

But I’m not complaining. My forbears lived with communication via sailing and then steamship; I grew up with slow letters traveling by train and then by plane, which still took a week or two, winging between my loved ones and me.

In the Narnia chronicles that I was raised on, there’s a scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that fired my juvenile imagination. On the island of the hilarious, bumbling, newly-visible dufflepuds, the magician gives our heroes, the intrepid but weary travellers, a gift. It’s a map of the known world, which they are sailing rapidly to the end of.

But it’s no ordinary map. Hold a magnifying glass to it, anywhere, the magician demonstrates, and suddenly, you zoom in on wherever it is, and can see miniature hills and valleys and streams, minute houses, tiny town squares and people going about their business. As a kid I longed for this map. Now I have it, at the touch of a button.

So much of the technology we have at our fingertips – literally – would have been considered sheer magic even ten years ago. The whole search engine thing is crazy when you stop to think about it. I can ask anything at all, and in a jiffy, I have the answer in front of me.

This is the kind of thing I used to fantasize about when I wanted to remember the lyrics to a favourite song. Even more, when I had seen a movie and couldn’t remember the last film I’d seen that actor in. These days, I type their name in and bingo, there’s the list.

Back to the spinning blue of google earth. One of the things I love about it is the sense of direction it gives me. As it takes me to the Solomon Islands, I am able to see exactly where they lie in relation to me.

Even more important, it gives a powerful sense of connectedness. Everything, even Glasgow, is just around the corner really. Just over an ocean and a desert and a continent or two and then you’re swooping down and there’s the street of your loved one. Like in a plane only a billion times less boring.

It’s the phrase ‘global village’ made manifest, or maybe made virtual, but whichever, it is here on my little computer screen on my desk in my study in my weatherboard house in West Brunswick, connecting me with the people I love, all around the world.


Parallel universe

I spent a day in hospital last week. Which reminded me of the parallel universe that exists alongside that of healthy people – that of the sick and those who love and care for them.

I was a nurse for several years in the 80s, in a massive city hospital in the days when nurses still did an apprenticeship style of training rather than going to university. Ever since, when my tram passes those distinctive, ugly, orange brick buildings, I think of the hundreds of people packed inside those walls, cut off by illness and anxiety from the heedless, pulsing world rushing by outside.

How vividly I still remember being in hospital with a gravely sick baby for ten days. How that isolation room became my whole world, how I could barely believe that so-called normal life was buzzing away out there. How difficult I found it coming home again, having to focus on more than one tiny, ailing body.

Because I used to be a nurse, I’m comfortable in hospitals. And of course I’ve been a visitor. But I’ve spent little time in them as a patient. Tonsils and appendix out as a kid; since then one whole, gloriously restful week for each of four babies, in country hospitals where they didn’t turf you out the day after you gave birth. That doesn’t really count though.

In the day ward where I spent a few hours last week, every brochure in the place was about cancer, with pictures of happy, floaty things like dandelions heads on the front.

In the waiting room next to mine were people in Jason recliners, hooked up to intravenous drips, looking as though they belonged there. The cancer patients, I’m guessing, in for their treatment.

My own procedure was a piffling one in the scheme of things, although the whole point was to make sure I wasn’t about to become one of those cancer patients. (I’ve discovered, in the two years since I turned 50, that symptoms doctors happily ignored till now make them look grave and suggest all manner of tests. ‘Hmm, you are at that age now…’ I’ve become used to hearing.)

I wasn’t too anxious about the outcome, but thanks to the fairly brutal preparation for the colonoscopy and gastroscopy, I felt like death warmed up by the time I got to hospital. Two days on pretty much fluids only, and the second day drinking potions that purged me so violently I was left as weak as a kitten, not daring to venture more than a few feet from the toilet. Not even during trips around India, eating at street stalls, have I been so very ill.

Compared to the preparation, the procedure was a piece of cake; floating peacefully off in the not-quite-general anaesthetic they call ‘heavy sedation’. Waking up, knowing it was over and feeling enormously, ridiculously relieved even before the doctor had talked to me. Feeling no longer sick and weak, even though I still hadn’t had anything to eat or drink.

The news was all good – no nasties in there. I hadn’t really expected any, but all week I have experienced a sense of escape, of relief, of intense happiness that I have lived to fight another day. I have enjoyed post-illness euphoria, where it feels just so damn good to be able to eat and drink, to be strong and energetic again.

Most of all, while remembering afresh those inhabitants of the parallel universe, I am grateful to be once again on the outside, able to plan, at least for the immediate future, for a life free of disease.


Happiness and despair

This crazy summer I’m starting to feel a little schizophrenic - burdened with minute by minute awareness of insurrection, immense natural disasters and now nuclear meltdown, while simultaneously enjoying a truly lucky life.

I can remember as an undergraduate in the seventies, the fear we had of the nuclear conflagration.  And in the last ten days, this nightmare seems to be coming true.

Not that this hasn’t happened before – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – but coming combined with earthquake and tsunami and in a long line of devastating world events, it feels as though the end of days has arrived.

The way we learned of the catastrophe in Japan at our place was something that could only have happened in the 21st century. My husband and I were reading in bed when our youngest came in to ask if we’d heard about the tsunami.

We followed her out to the living room where she was skyping her oldest brother in Scotland. He had told her about the earthquake in Japan. On the computer screen, we had him in one corner, grave and beanie-clad, commentating from his flat in Glasgow. In the other corner we had live footage from Sendai.

The juxtaposition of the filthy, wreckage-strewn water destroying everything in its path, with my own kid, half a world away but looking safe and healthy, was almost too much to take in. It took me a long time to get to sleep that night.

This happens so often it does my head in. I read the paper every morning. My heart goes out to the thousands of people whose lives have been shattered in Japan, New Zealand, Brazil, Pakistan, not to mention Libya and other countries where the political situation is dire. I send money, I talk about them in grave tones, I pray. I feel the very least I can do is be respectful enough to preface everything I say with, ‘Shall we spend two minutes silence thinking of our sisters and brothers in Japan’. It seems thoughtless to start any conversation without acknowledging how fortunate I am.

Because in my little life in this corner of the world, I am very happy most of the time. This is as it should be, given that I am not being threatened by nuclear radiation, earthquake, flood or fire, my kids are unlikely to be ‘disappeared’ by sinister security forces or die of a preventable disease, I have clean water and food, books to read and an internet connection.

It feels all wrong though, my full, happy heart on a morning when I’ve just read about the Fukushima power station. Overriding my horror is gratitude that my second son has reached Scotland safely, and that when I talked to him on the phone he was surrounded by two generations of family.

That seems to be the way of life in this time and place. Like many others, I have a constant awareness – a kind of backdrop, a cloud over the sun – of the way the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket and no one who has any authority seems to give a toss. Alongside that is a heightened sense of joy at the good and simple things that are mine.

On the recent long weekend, we drove to the northeast to stay with our oldest daughter and her partner in their little patch of paradise outside Beechworth. We slept in their old farm house, walked in the deep bush of the state forest that backs onto their place, swam in the silky water of their dam alongside a brood of new ducklings, visited the outdoor dunny in black nights filled with stars.

The air was pristine; we picked apples off a wild tree behind their house, brewed coffee and sat on the long verandah reading weekend papers full of grief and horror.

There’s not much I can do about this coexisting of deep contentment with despair. I know it’s a privileged problem to have and one that will continue if I am lucky enough to escape searing tragedy myself. My head is full of the grief and brutality of the world, my spirit is oppressed by it. And my heart is happy because today, all the people I love most are happy, and know themselves loved.


A deadline is a wonderful thing

 It’s terrifying the way the year speeds on its mad way without my really getting back into the writing routine. Okay, so maybe not terrifying. Terrifying is probably an adjective better associated with really bad stuff like wars, tsunamis, earthquakes.  Blogger Mia Freedman talks about ‘First world problems’ – a neat recognition that although we have a right to talk about our problems, we have no right to compare them with what probably the majority of the world’s people endure every damn day. And this is definitely a first world problem.

So, I’ll start again. It’s scary how we are almost half way through March and my spurt of enthusiasm that resulted in many thousands of words being written in the last quarter of 2010 still hasn’t reappeared.

I always take January off. That’s fine, in fact it’s a good discipline, I reckon, to take a complete break from writing over the lovely slow month of summer holidays.

But then suddenly it’s February – this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, and there’s a list of start of school tasks (for the last time ever this year) and getting everybody organised again and work plunges back into busyness and I’m tired and have a nap on my writing day instead of composing another chapter.

There are medical appointments that seem to eat up an entire morning, and the dentist reminds me I haven’t been for at least a year, my dad and step mum are arriving soon to stay for a month which is lovely and I can’t wait, but it’s also a brilliant excuse for continuing to avoid doing any writing of substance. By the time they head back to Scotland, it’ll be Easter.

But by Easter, in fact by the middle of April, I’ll have no excuses anymore, or none that will work, anyway. Because, starting mid April, I have an entire, terrifying, wonderful year of fortnightly DEADLINES. And a deadline is a wonderful thing.

Last October I attended a week-long writing workshop with Canadian writing teacher Barbara Turner-Vessalago. It was the second time I'd done one of her courses, and it resulted in my digging out the crappy novel manuscript I first started 13 years ago and giving it a burl. Not just tweaking and fiddling, as I’d tried to do so many times before, always petering out in frustration, but actually taking the entire thing and rewriting it – inspired by Barbara’s skill at helping her students tap into their imagination.

From then until I got busy with Christmas, I continued to churn out reworked chapters, chapters that each had more life in them than the entire, tired, flat, dull old novel did.

I was determined to finish it – regardless of the herculean task of getting a first novel published in Australia. It was just something I had to do.

Wisely, knowing my own immense talent for procrastination, I signed up for a 12 month mentorship with Barbara, starting mid April 2011 (yes, I know, that is only four weeks away).

The way it works is that every two weeks I send her a few thousand words by email. She reads them, marks them up in the way that I have learnt about, comments and emails them back. By which time – if not before – it’s time to send the next instalment winging through cyberspace to Canada, or wherever Barbara is weaving her magic at the time.

Three to four thousand words a fortnight is perfectly manageable. But every fortnight for a whole year? What about September, when I’m event managing a big conference? What about the mad, pre-Christmas rush? Or January, where I am deeply committed being a lazy slob ?

Scary stuff. But at the same time, wonderful. Because if there’s one thing that gets me going, it’s a deadline. And self-imposed deadlines are good, but the fear of letting someone else down is a much better incentive to produce some writing, whatever else is going on in my life.

For a month now I have been planning to start the process – to get ahead, get a few chapters down so that the wheels won’t fall off if I get sick or busy or something unexpected happens along the line. But I haven’t written a word. Because it’s not a really truly deadline.

Once the real deadline looms, however, I’ll be pounding that keyboard like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t honestly know if I’ll ever get the novel Mark II completed – much less if it’ll be anything other than the inadequate rubbish it is now. But the only way I’ll get close to achieving this is by the imposition of those wonderful things. Deadlines.


Hippy haven in WA

Less than two weeks ago I had a few days in WA. I’ve never spent time in Perth but our family had most of three months in the West 13 years ago. A prolonged camping trip that took our whole mob up the guts of the country, barely stopping till we reached Kakadu, and not there for long either, pushing on till we reached Kununurra, on the edge of the Kimberley, where we finally slowed right down.

The bulk of the three months was spent on the Gibb River Road, a taste of the good life in Broome after the austerity of the road (ice creams, outdoor movies) Exmouth, the Pilbara, Karajini, down to the southwest corner of the state and home across the Nullarbor.

This time my husband and I were alone. We had both been asked to speak at a conference in Perth (a first for us), which we did, and the people were gracious and generous and appreciative and lovely.

The minute it was over, we hopped in a little hire car and beetled down the coast to Yallingup – a hamlet about three hours drive south of Perth and just a bit north of Margaret River.

We stayed in a tiny stone cottage a few ks out of the town – hand built by a lovely ageing hippy surfie dude with a Hindu name and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering around his property. In the morning he meditated (we were welcome to join him but slept in instead) and then at midday, because, he said, he just felt that by then he needed a top up.

He had constructed four buildings over several years – felling as few trees as possible in the process. He meditated for three months before he cut down anything, he told us, just to get the feel of the place.

There is a stone cottage and a wooden cottage for people to stay in.  These were fully booked at the time we visited, but he offered us the miniscule cottage that is really an annexe to his own place, and which he doesn’t usually rent out. The only problem, he had said on the phone, was that it had an outdoor shower.

When we got there, we realised that we had to share it with him. It was the loveliest shower I’ve ever been in: an old bathtub, surrounded by a flimsy lattice graced with bougainvillea. Standing under the cascade of solar-heated water, I looked past the papery pink blossoms to verdant tomato and pumpkin plants.

We had a lazy couple of days. We found the loveliest bakery in tacky Margaret River – WA’s answer to our favourite local, The Brunswick Green – complete with sagging seventies brown velour sofas, kitch memorabilia on the walls and a patchwork of doilies hanging at the edge of the verandah, offering protection from the hot sun.

We had a large lunch at a winery and went back to our cottage and slept. We swam at the more sheltered beaches – Gracetown and Smith’s Beach – in water as clear as glass, looking down to fine silver sand. There was no rubbish. There were hardly any people.

We walked on surf beaches where I felt as though I was caught in a Tim Winton novel. I’m used to Anglesea, which, notwithstanding its proximity to Bells Beach, never looked like this. Fierce breakers curling in in perfect formation and smashing violently down close to shore.

Our cottage was filled with stained glass windows created by our host. Glass that looked like mother-of-pearl, glass with flecks and ripples and seams of colour running through it – glass the like of which I had never seen before. Our windows, salvaged from a local chapel, were filled with flowers, with birds, with dolphins, with shining suns.

On our last evening we had a long talk to the creator of this little haven, as the night drew in, surrounded by his fledgling fruit trees and his statues of the Buddha. When he discovered we were Christians he asked a little anxiously if we belonged to a brand of Christianity that thought other religions were evil.

We reassured him and the talk rambled on – over children and divorce, Jesus and meditation, surfing and adolescence, anxiety and therapy and vegetable patches.

Next day we were off by six, for the long drive to Perth Airport, the flight back home and the very slight jet lag that accompanies one from the other side of this big country.

We’ll probably never be back there again, or speak to our host who sees part of his mission in life to provide a peaceful place for souls who need time and space to reconnect with themselves, the environment, God. But it is these brief encounters, which are some of the surprising gifts life dishes up, that I remember long after they occurred.