Kneel down and weed the bindis, baby

Use your hands to get out of your head.

Sometimes, the only way to dilute all the monkey chatter is to do something hands-on and finicky that needs all of your attention.

For the readers outside of Australia, let me explain. Bindis (also called bindi-eyes) are small weeds that grow in circular clumps often near clover. They’re a summertime menace. When they’re young or there’s been a lot of rain, they’re soft and harmless. But as the weather gets hotter and dries out, they get thorny. Whole swathes of gorgeous grass are off-limits to bare feet because of them. Even thick-skinned soles will feel a bindi prick.

Spraying them partially works but the only way to truly deal with them is get down on your knees and pull them out, each little clump at a time across an entire lawn or verge. Your painstaking process will pay dividends across the whole summer and give you the satisfaction of a personal win but it also offers something in the moment – a chance to get out of your head and concentrate on something else completely.

Fine finger work and attention to detail have saved me from the unmooring of heartache, the dogged cycle of rumination and the waiting, waiting, waiting that comes with writing. You can’t do nothing but you feel unable to do any kind of significant something.

Perfect, you can kneel down and weed the bindis then, or make dolmades, clean a window, fold origami, sand back an old stool. There are plenty of small tasks that never get a look-in during normal life. They’re perfect for distraction and pride offering the satisfaction of something completed or created and the reprieve of getting out of your head for a while.

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The bedside bookstack – September 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this September.

Are you Somebody by Nuala O’Faolain, New Island, 1996

This memoir was explosive when it came out in Ireland in the 90s. She’s adamant that her story as one of nine children with an alcoholic mother and a charismatic but absent and philandering father is nothing unique. It blew the lid off unspoken trauma, misogyny, alcoholism, neglect and poverty.

I couldn’t read it without thinking of my father’s Irish Catholic family. What part of this inheritance was theirs and what could they shuck off when they migrated to Australia?

I never knew she existed and now I need to read her novels and essays too. If you don’t have time for the book, in this interview with Canadian radio she covers most of it. If you need more or want the postscript, this is the last interview she gave. Trigger warning, she is dying of late-stage cancer and grappling with the end of her life and is not shying away from the intensity of either.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Penguin, 1997

I read this 20 years ago and couldn’t remember the details but the evocation of darkness and turmoil stayed. If you don’t know the premise, it’s clever. This is the story of Rochester’s mad woman-in-the-attic wife from Jane Eyre. Set in the Windward Islands of Jamaica, Antoinette is Creole. She has inherited her mother’s beauty, reputation for madness and enough money to get Rochester, a second-born son, as a husband. The mood is post-colonial Caribbean gothic where the sensuality of both climate and landscape always has an edge and uncertainty to it.

I read introductions and end notes with more interest these days than I did when I was 20 and the general conclusion is that Jean Rhys was ahead of her time. Her understanding of mental health certainly was, not as something that simply is but as behaviour that comes from trauma, isolation, provocation and lack of support.

I’ve always been a bit suspect of the Heathcliffs, Rochesters and Darcys. It’s too convenient that they get to hurt people repeatedly and then claim passion as their defence. After reading this, Rochester definitely comes in as more a-hole than brooding.

Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Penguin Classics, 1964

I eventually got to this book fifteen years after buying it because we’re in lockdown, the libraries are all closed and I’m actually reading my unread books. The pages are yellow, the font is crazy small and when I saw that it was a novel in verse, I nearly put it back on the shelf. Just seemed like too much hard work but it was an absolute delight.

I’m in awe that a translation can fit the intended rhyme and meter but what I really loved was how a place and age so foreign to me felt familiar because as humans, not much has changed. We’re still pining and snubbing, still loving and losing. My copy is now full with marginalia and post-its and I feel an Onegin essay brewing. I guess it’s a love story but with the infatuation only one side, can you call it that? I didn’t like Onegin, the man, at all.  You’re not supposed to I guess, as a Byronic hero. He was cold, arrogant and entitled and not even Ralph Fiennes in the movie version could change that for me.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2019

There is a distinct world that you enter in a Ferrante novel. You’re placed very specifically not just in Naples but a neighbourhood. Characters are products of family and environment and your narrator’s internal world also becomes yours. Every decision, emotion and reaction is recorded and analysed. The process of living, in this case being a female teenager is dealt with forensically. 

In the Neapolitan novels (her four-book bestselling series), the preoccupations are political and intellectual. In this book they’re more theological and moral as our narrator tries to understand the difference between what the adults in her life have taught and told her and how they are actually behaving. If you know that you like Ferrante, then definitely read this. If not, give it a go and see if she’s your style.

Bark by Lorrie Moore, Faber & Faber, 2014

She is as good as everyone says she is. Her short stories read like a fully furnished room. They’re so complete. But readers a warning, the first three stories have a pretty bleak tone going on with regards to marriage, dating and middle-age life. She’s a great writer and I usually devour my anthologies like a novel but I was reluctant to head back into another bedsit and read about characters who didn’t really like each other or people in general. Glad I did though, because they aren’t all like that.

Seventeen poisoned Englishmen by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Penguin 2005 (first published 1968)

This pocket Penguin has three short stories. They’re pre 100 Years of Solitude and an interesting read because they have none of his signature magic realism style and inclusions. Reading them felt a bit like watching a comedian do a serious role. It gives you a glimpse of the range of their skills.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1962

This slim little volume has been sitting gathering dust on the shelf for years. It’s a green Penguin Classic with severely yellowed pages and a fraying spine. I’ve never read any Zola and if you don’t get to it during lockdown, will you ever?

If you have the idea that Classics are a hard read, which I sometimes do as you may recall from this blog, then you’ll be surprised by Therese Raquin. It’s an easy read but I won’t do it again. Therese Raquin is a young woman who is married to her sickly cousin. Her desire and will have lain dormant. When she gets a lover, everything that was subjugated is awakened. The lovers are consumed by their lust and are desperate for a way to be together. They kill her husband off, pretty early on, bide their time and then marry according to the plan they always had. But now their guilt consumes them, like their passion once did and so the rest of the book is about this inner-torment and how it translates into their physical and emotional abuse of each other – a massive trigger warning about the relentless domestic violence.

I was expecting the detailed human insight of a Chekhov or a Tolstoy but these characters are closer to caricatures. However, Zola was writing to a particular audience at a particular time and as he says in the Introduction to the second edition about Therese and Laurant “I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn to each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature. They are human animals, nothing more…”

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 1994

My husband reads a lot of science fiction and is a big Iain Banks fan. I thought it was time to get out of my usual genres and picked this one off the shelf. Talk about a ‘hard’ read. There’s a clever story buried in here but I didn’t have the patience to find it.

There are three narrators, most people have nine lives and one of the main characters is an ant. All intriguing in their own way but what I just couldn’t slog through was the phonetic narration that popped up every third chapter:

Lookth moar like a albino cro, akchooly. Well I cant thtand awound hea ol day chattin with u…..

On and on and on. Not for me.

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The surprising advantage of a library-less lockdown

Cutting off my usual supply of books isn’t all bad.

You may remember I love, like really love, my local library (I fangirl all about it in this post). So life without a library is one of lockdowns biggest blows. There are plenty of e-books and online offerings but really, does anyone want to spend more time on a computer? Not me. I want the old-school tactile sensation of a book in my hand.

Isn’t it lucky then, that I have shelves full of books? Even better, I have shelves full of books which I haven’t been reading because at any given time I have about 20 items on reserve at the library and another 10 or so out on loan. Of course, I should buy books, and I do, but I’m not in the position to support my habit just now. I also hope that lending rights payments and me talking about what I’m reading goes some way to balancing out that I didn’t buy a book.

The library app was more realistic about lockdown than I was. I thought I could go on and reserve as usual and just pick it all up when things reopened but there is no longer a reserve function. There’s no such thing as a due date anymore either, so at least the 20 or so kids’ books we have out will be with us for the duration.

Once I reached the bottom of my library pile, I moved onto the dusty bedroom floor pile. Reader, the bottom of it was old subscription magazine issues, book catalogues and some crossword collections. Take them away, actually read the books in the pile and I reached the bottom! I know?! I’ve moved onto an actual bookshelf now of dusty volumes I picked up over the years and always intended to read and now I’m actually reading them. Just finished my first Zola (not so fussed to be honest) and am about to give Pushkin a go. I didn’t realise Eugene Onegin was a novel in verse, not sure if I’m up for it but if I don’t read it now when my supply of books has been cut off, will I ever?

In a little post-script, I just got an email from Newcastle library today with details about their Library2U service – fill in a form and they’ll curate a selection of 5 things to read, listen to and watch, which they’ll deliver to your door the next day. For free. I didn’t know it was possible for me to love them even more than I already do. But it is!

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Reading about reading because I’m not reading

When the thought of reading feels like work

Lockdown is slowly leeching my ability to do things I used to love. Reading is at the top of that list. Intellectually I know that reading is the best way to settle my mind, wind down before going to sleep and escape these eternal four walls. However, at the end of a day of home-schooling, work and pre-schooler wrangling the thought of reading sometimes feels like more work.

So I started reading about reading as a way back to books. My hero Maria Popova, she of Brain Pickings brilliance, published A Velocity of Being – Letters to a young reader with Claudia Zoe Bedrick. It’s a gorgeous tribute to the delights of reading. The entries are from 121 writers, poets, scientists, philosophers, musicians. They write a letter to young readers and accompanying each letter is a graphic from different artists.

The letters are as much (perhaps even more so) for adults as they are for children. They talk about the power of the page for escape and growth and adventure, for a chance to see ourselves and others. They recall early encounters with books and how books have shaped their ideas and lives.

Stoking the fire, Mary Oliver says in her letter; “Words on the page are not a puzzle but a door to many worlds. To write is to delight, to read is to plant the seed of endless excitement.”

When I was really too tired to even read a letter, I just flicked through and looked at the pictures. Each one is by a different artist, so the styles vary but there is a book on almost every page. I’ve realised, as someone who loves books, that even looking at images of books makes me happy.

I love looking at the picture of a girl hidden and lost in a book by my cousin, the very talented printmaker Miriam Cullen and one of my favourite things on Twitter is the anticipation of what new magic the brilliant artist Caroline Magerl has created and posted. Her pictures are brimming with books and a real balm for this book lover.

And after a few nights of reading A velocity of being, I started reading books again. It was impossible not to.

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The bedside bookstack – August 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this August.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, 2020

This divine book is a new favourite for me. The premise is the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet but the offering is way beyond that. It’s also about his wife and parents, his other children and extended family. This is a story about the plague, loyalty, parents and children, old lore and knowledge.

As a reader you are fully immersed. To be honest, I didn’t want to come up for air. As a writer, I was looking for clues. How is she doing this? How is she spinning this story into such a wonder? It’s one of the few present tense narrations that never felt affected. The POV was always a perfect match for the character at hand. Shakespeare actually has the least air play of everyone and in this story, that’s as it should be. This one will be a re-read for me and a re-re-read no doubt. I want an in on the alchemy at play.

After you’d gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Review 2001

I picked this straight up after finishing Hamnet and it was interesting to go from her first novel to her most recent. In between there was 20 years and another eight or so books.

She was already doing interesting things in this book, confident and assured enough to toggle back and forth in time and also from first-person to third-person without the awkwardness you might expect.

This is Alice Raikes’ story but it is also that of her mother and grandmother. One day Alice steps out into traffic. She is left in a coma and it’s uncertain whether it was intention or accident. The story circles back to where it all began and we see how the tangled threads of family history can still trip us up years later. Maggie O’Farrell is sooo good at her job.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

This has been sitting on the bookstack since I started the bookstack. It’s a total tome at over 500 pages and whenever I looked at it, I thought ‘too hard’. But if you don’t read a book like that in lockdown then you never will.

And it isn’t too hard at all. It was completely absorbing and exactly what I didn’t know it needed. It’s an epic that follows four generations of a Korean family in Japan from 1932 to 1989. By the end of it, you know them all so intimately. You’ve seen people scrimp and survive and you’ve seen babies grow up and have their own babies. The family offers such rich detail and dynamics but alongside that is the history and context of Korea and Japan. For Koreans in Japan, language, culture, status and identity remain a negotiation for every generation. 

Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane, Harper Collins, 2021

I’d never heard of Scottish writer Mhairi (pronounced Vah-Ree) McFarlane before but am happy to know she’s got a good-sized back catalogue cos I just devoured this book (lying in bed after my 2nd Pfizer vaccine).

Eve, Susie, Justin and Ed have been friends since high school. A sudden accident changes everything and brings old secrets and deep loss with it. Whip-smart, of the times and somehow able to orchestrate grief and a good humour without diminishing either. One of those books where I often found myself thinking, ‘Yes! Yes, that’s exactly how it is!’.

I demand that it be turned into a smart British rom-com immediately!

Car Crash by Lech Blaine, Black Inc., 2021

When Lech Blaine was 17, he survived a car crash that killed three of his friends. This memoir is about grief and depression and the toxic masculinity that disallows young men to feel them. There has always been such honesty and eloquence to his journalism and he brings this to his memoir as well.

 Before the crash he was a product of his own expectations of what sort of man he should be; I was totally beholden to a holy trinity of influences: Christianity, masculinity and capitalism.

Masculinity still hasn’t evolved as this year’s string of revelations from parliamentarians to school boys has shown. Put this on some reading lists, make it a high school text and we can hope that maybe it might.

The Spill by Imbi Neeme, Penguin, 2020

Sisters Nicole and Samantha aren’t exactly what you’d call close. Their family split a long time ago with Nicole and their Mum, Tina, on one side and Samantha, their father and whoever his current wife is on the other. No one wants it to be this way or stays civil long enough for it to be any different.

When their mum dies from liver failure, it’s finally time for the sisters to get answers from each other and the past. Spanning the decades and a fair stretch of Western Australia’s coastline this one is also good as a home grown read. Sometimes you just need to read about a climate that’s familiar and places you recognise. 

Lucky’s by Alex Pippos, Picador 2020

This is a sprawling family saga that crosses continents and generations. During what he thinks were his best years, Lucky owned a franchise of cafes all over Australia. They were usually run by Greeks, like Lucky, but the décor and menu were intentionally American. But times change, families split up and as an old man, Lucky wants to get back some of what he’s lost over the years.

At the same time Emily comes to Sydney chasing the ghost of her father and a commission for the New Yorker. She thinks that Lucky has answers for her and he hopes that her interest could be a final chance to change his luck. Like Pachinko, this is another one where you’re with the family long enough to see babies have babies and witness how the migrant dream changes with the next generation.

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Anxiety dreams for troubled times

Pandemic anxiety has seeped into my subconscious.

Lockdown isn’t exactly a way to ease your nerves. Home-schooling is an exercise in extreme patience. The attempt to get work done on top of that is almost impossible and the thought ‘you’ve got things to do’ shadows most of the day. The best survival tip I got was from a friend who said ‘aim low’. I am and I think it’s making some dent in the mental state of things. 

Like so many other people, I haven’t seen my family in months now. My kids haven’t seen their grandma, aunts and uncle. They’ve only met their new cousin once. As the daily case numbers go up, the reality is it’s likely to be months more. But I think the tipping point was the recent leap of daily infections in NSW going from the 400s (already a pretty horrifying number) to the 600s.

So, I’ve started having anxiety dreams again. I’ve only ever had three variations and they’ve neatly matched with eras of my life.

The first phase was the HSC exam dream. I had this for years after actually finishing any kind of study. I’d dream that I had an exam that morning which I’d forgotten all about. Even in my dream I would think I’d finished school already but the feeling in the dream was strong enough to make me disbelieve it.

I was happy when the HSC dream was retired. It was embarrassing to have something from school still lingering years later. The next one was the suitcase dream. I need a lot of time to pack a bag and I don’t like to be rushed. I also don’t do it well with any distractions or time limits. So, a dream that involves me suddenly realising I need to be at the airport in 20 minutes is just total panic stations. I flap about knowing it’s a dream and just hoping that I’ll wake up soon to end it all.

How cute for a holiday to be the cause of my panic and anxiety. Now that I’m responsible for little people, my anxiety dream is life or death. Ever since I was pregnant with my first child, my subconscious manifestation of worry changed from an unpacked suitcase to the neglect of a baby. I would forget that I had a baby. Forget where I’d left the baby. Forget to feed the baby or keep it safe.

Please let it be OK. Please let it be OK. Please let it be OK. It would run on a desperate loop. This week it was a baby girl. I found her. She had rings of grime around her neck but she was OK. I always find them in the end and they’re always OK. I have to thank my subconscious that even when it writes a horror story, there is a happy ending.

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The eternal waiting room of lockdown

Take away the future and it’s hard to stay ‘present’.

We’ve been in lockdown for a few weeks now. I understand the necessity. It’s not as long as Sydney or as many times as Melbourne but what most of the country, nay world, has realised by now is that any lockdown is lockdown enough.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the idea of presence and my attempt to stop mentally scrolling backwards and forwards in time. Now I realise that to do that you need the neat bookending of both a past and future.

But time has slipped from its moorings. Lockdown, the eternal waiting room, has scrambled our sense of the future and, as I’m now realising, it’s hard to be in the present without a future.  

Waiting isn’t uncommon territory for a writer. We’re well aware of how uncomfortable it is to wait on submissions, feedback and querying. Waiting is its own kind of agony. It’s a protracted presence but one that isn’t really fixed on the moment. It has its sight set on some point in the future, when things will change or you’ll finally have your answer. With lockdown though, that future is on hold.

It feels like I’m caught in a Beckett loop except it isn’t Godot I’m waiting for. My eternal waiting is for the host to let me into the meeting, for the vaccine supply to arrive, for the daily reveal of dire digits in the press conference or for my daughter to actually start writing a sentence using her spelling words.

Some people are writing away and having a mini-renaissance with time and perspective. I’m frozen. Everything has come to a confused halt as I continue to wait.

My lockdown is stagnant in many ways but not still. Alas, not for me the baking of sourdough or learning of a new language. Between home-schooling, work and domestics, I don’t have much left in the tank, time or energy wise. I’m not reading much. I’m writing even less and I’m always at my worst when that happens.

Two characters in a Tom Stoppard play discuss the future. One says, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ The other replies, ‘Tomorrow, in my experience is usually the same day’ and I’d have to agree.

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Living History

Getting my COVID vaccination was a lot more emotional and momentous than I thought it would be.

Warning, no reading or writing, just life in this post.

Some days you feel like you’re living history more than others.

We’re alive and events are happening all around us, so of course we’re part of history. But the fact that things are always happening can also make life feel very unhistoric and just….normal.

You go about your days in much the same way with history happening elsewhere but I feel like the pandemic has changed that. It’s pretty clear that this is historic. However, there’s so much that feels normal now about the pandemic, even it doesn’t always feel significant, unless you’re in lockdown, of course.

I live in Newcastle and when I got my first Pfizer shot a couple of weeks ago, it really felt like I was part of history.

Walking in to the John Hunter Hospital had a definite dystopian movie vibe with people in PPE, queues and questions, masks on all faces and marks on the ground. Thermometers glowed and clicked and people were waved onwards.

It felt almost war like, with people moving forward en-masse in the same direction, as if we were all looking for an escape – which we were, I guess. We’re looking for a way to keep ourselves and loved ones safe and to somehow get things back to ‘normal’.

In a movie the line would end in a cavernous hangar. There’d be people running in and out, and probably the noise of choppers landing in the background to add to the general sense of action and crisis.

Where I was, things were moving pretty fast. It wasn’t in a hangar but by the time I got to the administrative check-in, it did feel like we were at the front line. People were bustling around in high-vis with iPads and clipboards. The post-vaccinated sat in rows waiting to go home. The rest of us were in lines waiting to be sent in to see nurses along an ad hoc extension of tables and counters which really was the front line.

The whole thing made me feel quite emotional. I really did feel a sense of this being the small thing that I could contribute to something much bigger. I felt like we were all in it together and doing our bit and I desperately wanted to hug my nurse and tell her she was doing something amazing.

Of course, you’re supposed to keep a good distance, so instead I just said ‘thanks’ and turned away because of the tears in my eyes.

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The bedside bookstack – Winter 2021

What I’m reading on the bedside bookstack this June and July.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Dialogue Books 2020

This one is definitely in my Top 5 books of the year so far! It’s got that Tolstoy feeling of being a ‘big’ book where the personal and political play out over decades. The big is also for race, identity, family, belonging, secrets and the inheritance of trauma that ripples through generations.

Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up with their mother in tiny Louisiana town of Mallard where everyone is the lightest shade of brown. One night, they leave together for New Orleans. A few years later Desiree wakes up to find that Stella has left her.

The narrative is divided between Desiree, Stella and their daughters Jude and Kennedy whose lives overlap but can never quite make the family whole again.

All the murmuring bones by Angela Slatter, Titan Books, 2021

Make sure you’re warm when read this one, it’s an elemental tale where wind howls and waves crash and the forces of nature have magic in them.

Long ago the O’Malleys made a pact with the Mer. Each generation they would give a child in return for calm passage and safe seas. Miren O’Malley decides it’s time to end this promise forged in blood and saltwater but there are those who want the days of old power and prosperity to return.

This is the stuff of old legends and magic, selkies and ruskaly and saltwater creatures with all the good stuff – greed, betrayal, love, loyalty.

I absolutely loved it!     

Some said the O’Malleys had too much saltwater in their veins….

The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein, Text, 2021

When a (mainly) fiction reader loves a non-fiction book, then you know it’s good. And it is. If you’ve read The Trauma Cleaner then that will come as no surprise and if you haven’t, then you should.

Sarah Krasnostein is meticulous in her detail and eloquent in her telling. She manages empathy and curiosity, generosity and honesty.

The thread the publisher promotes is that this book is about the power of belief. I’m not so sure there are neat parallels between the people in this book but it doesn’t matter to me because they are so fascinating.

There are people grappling with death, with religion, with the paranormal and with life turning out totally differently to how they had planned. All written with her casual blend of whip-smart analysis and poetic observation. In this book truth in definitely stranger than fiction.

“I believe we are united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that separate us.”

The Nancys by R. W. R McDonald, Allen & Unwin, 2019

I didn’t know what I was reading when I first picked this up. Massive Nancy Drew fan Tippy Chan is our 11-year-old narrator whose dad has died in a car crash. She lives in regional New Zealand and is minded by her glamourous hairdresser uncle and his fashion designer boyfriend while her mum is on holidays. When her school teacher is murdered, the three of them form the Nancys to solve who did it.

This book is about death and grief but also family and community. It’s a fun read (note – must enjoy an adult sense of humour) and now I understand why everyone is so pumped about the recent launch of the sequel, Nancy Business. I only wish I’d read some Nancy Drew when I was younger to pick up the full vibe of what they were riffing off.

The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), Darf Publishers, 2010

This is narrated by 90-year-old Taki who has been a maid for most of her life. She works for the Hirai family and is close to the Mistress Tokiko. This is part saga, part history and part love story as Taki writes down her memories of the years from 1930 until after World War II.

It’s interesting, as an Australian, to read about domestic, city and cultural life in pre-war and wartime Japan.

I hope that history is different now but we didn’t spend a lot of time on the ‘enemy’ as individuals when I was at school. This is a story of the little people and how life goes on in its own way even when a country is at war.

The Rest is Weight by Jennifer Mills, UQP, 2011

This is Jennifer Mills’ only collection of short stories. They play out around the globe from Central Australia to China and Russia. There’s a residue of dust and distance in these stories. And when you put the book down, you’re left with that feeling of someone being in the room a moment ago.

Singing my sister down and other stories by Margo Lanagan, Allen & Unwin, 2017

The titular story is one my Top 3 short stories. Ever. I read it years ago and it has stayed with me and partially haunted me ever since. Lanagan uses our world and associations and then tilts everything just a little off. She is subtle and nuanced and a master at atmosphere. For me, Singing my Sister down has that same (brilliant) casual terror as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton2019

I’ve never read a Deborah Levy before but I see a lot of love for her work. To be honest, I took a while to warm up to this one. Reading as a reader, I often just want a straight narrative. Reading as a writer it was more interesting. Pick this one up if you’re looking for layers that circle back and around, over the same territory.

It’s late 1988 and Saul Adler is run over by a car as he crosses Abbey Road. He’s about to head off to East Berlin but not before his girlfriend dumps him. What follows is his time in East Berlin where he meets Walter and his Beatles-fan sister, Luna.

We soon realise that Saul is an unreliable narrator. He recollections are a mash-up of past and present events as he lies in a hospital bed many years later. This is how we learn about the life he has lived, before and after his trip to Berlin.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Viking, 2020

The first page of this book was such a cracker. I was right there with Gifty as she introduced her depressed and bed-bound mother. There again with her when she’s with an aunt in Ghana who is trying to show that the crazy of a man in the market is not the same as her mother.

Her family’s migration from Ghana to America is not the American dream and as an adult Gifty is shaped by the absence of her father, the death of her brother and her mother’s depression.

She goes on to study neuroscience and does research with mice around reward and addiction. There’s a lot about her research and also a lot of bible quotes from her years as a child in the Pentecostal church. Both of these are important elements of the story, the study as a way to grieve her brother and religion as a way to connect with her mother, but they slowed down and diverted from the narrative so much that I didn’t end up finishing this one. This was a good book at the wrong time for me.

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The presence present

Trying to be more in the moment with life and writing

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit. My usual tendency is to spend way too much time thinking about the past and the future. Thoughts about the past keep me circling round regrets and pre-occupation with the future makes me feel like I’m still ‘waiting’ for life to happen. Both of these, of course, neglect what’s going on right now in the present and I didn’t realise how exhausting all this mental time travel was until I started to suspend it.

There are plenty of traditions and modalities that talk about the benefits of being present, so I’ve decided to give it a go. The results thus far are interesting. When you intentionally stick with what you’re doing, it gets done a lot faster and with more ease. I know, nothing surprising there. Just like so many of life’s learnings, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

In the morning, I set some intentions around presence by writing down a few sentences of how I’ll be doing it and why I want to do it. Then I check in at regular intervals during the day to see where my mind’s at – rarely in the present, it turns out. It’d be great to find that I was in the moment more but being reminded that I’m not is enough to cut the loop of whatever mental re-run I’m on.

I’ve mainly been doing it with work and general life admin but I’m wondering how it would affect my writing. I’m sorry to say that I’m not often writing in the present. You get those golden streaks of pure flow but especially before I start writing, I think a lot about the end product and whether it will be published and read, where and who by. Then I think about past pieces and what did and didn’t work.

I’m constantly scrolling backwards and forwards and deciding the future of a piece based on past experiences. It must weigh words down when they arrive with such hopes and expectation, when you want them to achieve something big before they’re even born. I wonder what it would be like to write without that? Does it read as something different when it’s freed from all that chatter and of course, is it easier to write when it’s just you and it in the moment?

I also wonder would it add more depth to my writing. The idea of tuning in to the senses is a common suggestion for finding more of a connection with the present moment, so if I’m more open to the tactile or visual or aural, would that have a flow on effect with my writing?

I’m interested in how it works for others. Maybe this is how everyone else is already writing, firmly in their now. If so, is this just how it works for you or did you cultivate a process to get you there? Or does all that past and future rumination freeze you and stop you from starting anything?

I’m going to keep trying to offer the present of presence to my words. I want to see if it’s as good for them as it is for my to-do list.

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