Friday, 8 June 2018

What Makes Us Cry?

I'm not much of a crier. I very rarely cry in movies or at funerals. Like many others, I used to tear up at those old Telecom ads where the ancient Mediterranean grandma finally hears from her offspring over the ocean. The combination of the visuals, the music, the sentiment, all combined to do me in - but it was momentary.
I didn't cry at the funerals of either of my parents although I was infinitely sad for each of them respectively, that they hadn't had easier, fuller lives and that I hadn't made more of my time with both of them. But that's regret isn't it, a different state of mind that sits, quiet and heavy, in our hearts.
When my brother took his own life rather than spend 6 or 8 more hopeless weeks dying of cancer I was, more than anything else, immensely proud of him. At the funeral what made me cry, helplessly, was the sight of hundreds of his workmates standing outside the church, still in their work clothes, arms akimbo, many with the tracks of unfamiliar tears on their cheeks. Odd the things that get to you. Generally I navigate the sad things in life with anger, regret or a weighty acceptance that that's Life, as Ole Blue Eyes would have us believe.
So why then, when I read on Twitter last night about the sudden death of a little West Highland terrier from Marsden, England, did tears fill my eyes and flow, unbidden, like streams down my face?
I'd never met Busby Watson but I knew a bit about him. I knew that he was immensely loved by his folks, that he often accompanied his dad to a certain cafe for breakfast on Saturdays where the owner gave Busby sossidges. The spelling alone used to make me laugh every time. I don't wish to appropriate the grief of his beloved 'hoomans', nor to use any of the hundreds of photos of Busby and his glorious walks around the Yorkshire countryside but you can see for yourself, if you wish, what an idyllic life Busby led.

I'd followed Busby on Twitter for several years and I know Twitter's not everyone's cup of tea. I have a number of friends who, if I mention Twitter in their presence, go all shifty-eyed, as if I've confessed to some shameful social gaff that doesn't bear thinking about. But on Twitter I follow any number of writers, readers, artists, photographers - and dogs. From the writers and readers I get loads of insights and information, funny, useful or amazing. From the artists and photographers I get instances of beauty from around the world. From the dogs I get to share that matchless privilege of observing the day-to- day doings of dogs and their besotted owners, across the globe.
So I knew a bit about Busby, mainly how unconditionally he was loved and how unexpected his death. I suppose the tears fell mostly for his owners and the grief they're going through.
I  saw the Twittersphere spring into action on the news of Busby's passing with messages of love and comfort from far and wide. Many of those would have known Buzzer personally, walked with him often, but others like me knew him only from a laptop screen.

I have other favourites of the canine variety - Benson the Springer spaniel from Canada, owned by a long distance runner, Ralphy from Dublin (just had an ear operation), Maisie & Maude, 2 Westies from Derbyshire whose mum raises thousands of pounds for the RSPCA in Britain. We lost the beautiful Callista a while back, a golden spaniel belonging to a nuclear theory physicist and her scientist/photographer husband in Ohio. That was an extremely sad day too.

Years ago I rang ABC talkback radio to raise the issue of the cruelty of sow stalls in pig farming. A man rang in immediately afterwards and berated me for caring about pigs (he fairly spat the word!) when there were so many other important issues in the world more deserving of my concern. The assumption, I guess, is that you can only care about one thing at a time.

But I do care about other things; I can grieve for the world and all its injustices. But right now what makes me sad is the loss of little Busby Watson. It makes me think of the vast inevitability of things, of enduring love and the end of a life, and I make no apologies to anyone for the tears that flow for his family way across the other side of the world, even though I've never laid eyes on any of them.
Go gently, Busby, and thank you for the joy you brought.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo - my surprise love.

Recently I flew up north with an agenda that I knew might be stressful and difficult. The night before leaving I was half way through a book that I had not really engaged with and knew I'd finish in a day or two anyway and then have nothing to read. But I'd recently (bravely?) purchased George Saunders' Man Booker Prize winner Lincoln in the Bardo.
I wasn't confident of embracing it, much less finishing it, on the basis of what some people had said in their reviews. So I took it with me on my trip north - only a week - on the assumption that if I had nothing else to read I might stick with it.
Much to my surprise, I was hooked within a few pages.
It is, without doubt, the strangest book I've ever read.
Multiple voices, some historically authentic, others fictitious. We're left to work out which are which - which isn't difficult and nor does it matter.
The small fact of the death of Abraham Lincoln's beloved boy, Willie, is set within the whole terrible drama of the American civil war, encompassing race, class and horrific tragedy. While Lincoln himself is crushed by grief and can't stay away from the crypt where Willie's body is taken, Willie himself is trapped between life and release and in the course of one night a cast of characters of all stripes wrestle over his fate and his soul.
The story is, at different times, heart-wrenchingly sad, funny, ghastly, cruel, and shocking.

The text itself is very odd. Many (most?) pages are scattered only with lines of sparse conversation or comment. So here's a tip, with back story...

Many pages are sparsely filled

My spoken French is pathetic. I turn to stone when someone babbles at me in French, expecting an answer. I can bumble my way around if I have to, an experience that leaves me feeling like I've just come out of major surgery. BUT my translation of written French isn't too bad. I read through text quickly and don't stop to agonise over unknown words. And this was a bit like how I read Lincoln. I read predominantly for meaning, and didn't always stop to process who was speaking. Sometimes of course I did but the two Greek Chorus kind of voices of hans coleman and roger bevins iii were easy to read just as conversation.
When I did take time to read more closely it was because of the beauty of the language and the imagery. The simplicity of it was immensely powerful:
"They buried Willie Lincoln on a day of great wind, that tore through the roofs of houses and slashed flags to ribbons."
roger bevins iii speaks of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded in open fields with their "rain-soaked/blood-soaked/snow-crusted letters scattered about them."
There are "geese above, clover below, the sound of one's own breath when winded. The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars..."
It's a beautiful book, tender and dazzling, tantalising us with glimpses of a thousand different characters and their stories, all satelliting around the terrible grief of the President and the loss of his little boy.
I think I'm going to read it again.


Sunday, 1 April 2018

Just A-Walkin' the Dog

"Every dog knows how to love a person. Not every person knows how to love a dog."


I often walk our dogs in an expansive parkland that runs alongside the railway line in outer suburban Melbourne. There's grass, a creek, birds galore and flowering trees to take your breath away. 
I’m loathe to give its name as it’s an unofficial and much treasured off-leash area though no signs attest to this and some kill-joy is bound to come along one day and complain. But - so far so good.
 If ever a person felt lonely or bereft they’d have only to come here to be uplifted, entertained, puzzled or to laugh out loud. There are funny stories, sad stories and no end of observations to be made, about dogs and humans alike. 
Take Rose. Rose is a robust but unremarkable black dog who fancies herself to be part cat. When I first met Rose she was pouncing into the long grass in what her owners told me was a promising pursuit of field mice, an activity at which she excels. When Rose is feeling affectionate towards her owners at home she will back up, lift her tail in the air and do those schmoozing slow twirls around their legs, just like a cat. She grew up with cats and kittens apparently and took on many of their feline behaviours. It made my day, meeting Rose.
There’s Henry the tradie’s dog who fell off the back of a truck one day and whose owner sped along, oblivious.
The absence of name tags, registration or the necessary speed to get the number plate resulted in Henry now living in the lap of luxury in a posh leafy suburb with his own couch and a penchant for watching the footy with his rescuer and now besotted new owner.
But not all encounters are happy ones. There’s the elderly lady who for years walked two beautifully behaved Airdale terriers, one spritely, one starting to dodder. We chatted several times about doggy things—best food, best parks, vet bills—and then one day she turned up with just the one dog. I knew not to say ‘I know just how you feel’—although I probably did— but this is not what the bereaved dog owner wants to hear. They know that no-one has ever been through anything as bad as what they’re going through right now. No-one. So don’t compete, don’t even empathise. Just listen and know what they're going through. 
Other behaviours come as a surprise. A few dog owners get tetchy if you get the gender of their dog wrong.  A well-meaning ‘What’s her name?’ can bring on the pursed lips and clouds of offence if she is in fact a he. Short of doubling over in a true hairpin bend to check the undercarriage for tell-tale signs of gender, it’s best not to commit. I’ve modified Catherine Deveney’s advice from an old column for Greeting Ugly Babies in these circumstances. Smile directly at the subject, look deeply indulgent and say ‘Well, look at you! And what’s your name?’ Thanks Catherine. Works every time. Unless it’s called Dusty or Spot. The dog, that is.
Of course some owners don’t deserve to own a dog. There are the two regular, lycra-clad runners who pound on ahead of a poor little fluff ball in full designer doggy-gear but who can’t keep up and frequently gets lost, needing to be rescued by some other more observant and caring dog owner. I long for a falling branch to bring them down or for that little bridge to collapse and send them plunging into the drain below but so far, no luck. We can but dream.
There are the owners who keep their dogs on a tight leash which they yank viciously if another dog approaches for a friendly sniff. 'C'mon Raymond!' they command, dragging the dog along mercilessly by the neck. 
Presumably they believe that decapitating their dog is preferable to letting it socialise with another. A variation on this theme is to swoop down and lift the dog high, clutching it to the breast defensively in an act of fierce protection. Unfortunately this usually leads to the approaching dog leaping high and repeatedly, pogo style, to get at the dog now cowering on its owner’s shoulders. Ah me, if only dogs were left to their own devices.
The non-poo-picker-uppers are another source of entertainment if you approach them kindly and say 'Forgot your bags? Never mind, here, have one of mine.'

Then stay and watch. Chances are they've never done it before and won't appreciate your interference one little bit.

Me, I often head for this park to walk our dogs, always off-lead. Until recently we've had three and people would often say ‘Oh, you have your hands full!’ But no. They’re friendly, full of fun and they come when they’re called.  I suspect this is because they’re all rescue dogs and so far I’m the only source of Schmakos they know.

~ * ~
(A version of this article originally appeared in The Big Issue.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

There's reading and then there's reading...


In this household, where I live with my spouse and two hugely loved rescue dogs, we have multiple versions of every device Apple has ever produced. If I'd wanted to read books in electronic form I could've done so on my phone or one of the iPads just for starters. But I'd cast furtive glances at various devices used by friends who are avid readers, after which I quite suddenly persuaded myself that a Kindle would be handy for trains, planes and automobiles (when I wasn't driving) and also for reading at night on those many occasions when I wake to the demons at 3 am but feel bad switching on the light to read.

Spouse loves little more than buying things online so I'd barely voiced my tentative interest in a little Kindle Paperwhite before one arrived in the post, rapidly followed by a girly-pink Bonjour Paris cover.

The lovely Sabine, a Twitter friend from Ohio, had put me onto the Brother Cadfael chronicles, a series of mysteries (21, I think) by Ellis Peters, featuring a Welsh Benedictine monk living in England in the early 12th century. They are historically accurate, linguistically authentic and Brother Cadfael himself is a gem, as well as a dab hand at identifying murderers and dishing out his own—usually fairly benign—form of justice. So he was perfect for my first foray into the use of my Kindle. I read one volume in hard copy then the next two on the Kindle. No drama.

Very soon I discovered how alarmingly easy it is to buy books for this new device. Basically, identify the book you fancy and press BUY. (Here lies trouble, if you don't watch yourself.)

But the next book (are they really 'books'?) I purchased was Tracy Farr's The Hope Fault. And here was a different ball-game altogether. It's a beautifully written story, though 'story' is perhaps the wrong word. Not much happens. A family heads off to pack up a holiday house that has been sold - a husband, an ex-wife, the new wife, a new baby, a son, a cousin, an aunt/twin/sister-in-law. Absent but significant is the matriarch Rosa, about to turn 100. The language is lyrical, the interior lives of all the players are exquisitely and quietly drawn - their talents, their secrets, their fears, their needs, their histories. Best of all, their care of and love for each other. The structure is clever and enticing. I read it very quickly. On my Kindle.

But what a shock when I finished it! Oh there's a titchy little percentage sign down the bottom to tell you how far along the way you are but who looks at that when you're involved? So suddenly it's over! You can't close the book, look back at the cover, read the bit on the back again, flip back to that part where you'd like to check on something again and worse that that, you can't decide who you'll pass it on to next! No clutching it to your chest and thinking 'Sue's going to love this! I can't wait to hand it on.'
So maybe I'll read some things on this new perky little device and other things I'll read in real books. That'll mean I can still browse bookshops for hours on end and never come away empty handed.

I'm sure I'll get used to it, this Kindle device, maybe one day even forget how I ever got by without it. Meanwhile I have this nagging, slightly guilty feeling that I've betrayed someone. Therefore, all those fabulous writers whose books I've loved, and whose next book I await with such anticipation, their work will still end up on my bookshelves, on paper, with the beautiful covers they've agonised over, awaiting the orange spot I stick on the spine to remind myself in the future that I've read it. Then I can still have the joy of physically handing it over to a trusted friend and saying 'You must read this!'


Saturday, 3 March 2018

#Amwriting - at last

I am almost ready to start writing again. I'll stop wittering on about my garden, the things I've cooked, which birds are landing on the bird-feeders this morning. I will stop posting photos of my dogs on Twitter, stop following up endless reading recommendations from writers whose opinions I value and stop checking out obscure opportunities that I could never win in a million years - though that 4-week one in Ireland sounds like fun. (Thanks Varuna Alumni newsletter for making it sound almost feasible!)
So after a six week lay-off where I've written not one creative word, I'm almost ready to tidy the desk, open the notebook to a clean page, check to see that the word count option is still working and hit the keys.
At the very end of January I submitted the final draft (yeah, right, of course it is) of my favourite manuscript to my agent. I had worked 4 or 5 hours a day for most of January on the final edits she sent me just before Christmas - 14 closely typed pages, in 2 sections, several weeks apart. The first section I tackled with gusto - minor queries to be addressed, issue of chronology to be clarified, a few darlings to kill. The second section though made me reel backwards in dismay. Big changes, big deletions, big issues of voice and character to be addressed. Then just when it seemed as if my shoulders might be permanently sagged, she rang me. "Don't be too alarmed," she said, "I just wrote down every thought that came into my head. I love it, I really love it."
So, euphoric, made bold by praise, I started on the second lot of edits and in the following weeks I learned more about writing than I had for the past umpteen years.
When finally I sent off the final draft though, there was no sense of relief or accomplishment, only that paralysing knowledge that it was now out of my hands. It might go nowhere, might never find a home. This significant milestone might signify only the beginning of another long and lonely wait.
But the human spirit in an aspiring writer is indomitable, if you wait long enough. Today I opened up an abandoned manuscript that early readers had loved. It won a few awards, went through some workshopping at RMIT, had some good feedback and some big faults pointed out without mercy. But it's a good story and there's all that stuff I learned while working on the last one. I know the weakness is in the plot and so I'm taking heed of that precious piece of advice from the matchless Cate Kennedy: "Make Things Worse!"
I'm girding my loins - planning to tear apart the plot, delete all that back story, up the tension, make all those poor characters suffer till their hearts bleed. I don't know how I'm going to do it. But I think I'm ready to start.

Wish me luck.


Friday, 5 January 2018

A Sense of Place

I have always believed that there's a certain time of day when you are aware of where you really belong. Not every day, just sometimes.
It happens, this feeling, at that twilight time of day, just before the sun goes down... that lurching, heart swelling feeling that grabs you when you look out the window of a car, a train, a plane and long to be home.
I'm still very attached to the Tweed Valley where I grew up and where my family members still live, including my sister and her husband, with whom I spent a week little while back.
The mountain ranges, the river, the flowering trees, the way most oncoming drivers still lift one finger off the steering wheel in greeting as they pass— all these made me glad to be back.
The Road to Mount Warning

But there's a downside too.
One morning, hastening to get to breakfast, which my brother-in-law, Des, has on the table at 7.30, I grabbed the previous day's denim shorts, stepped one leg in, went to put the other leg in, only to see a giant huntsman spider trying to crawl out from inside. Now, I don't do spiders well but neither do I smash them with a shoe, and clearly this one was in trouble.
I took him outside, shorts and all, called Des and together we freed him from the cobwebs that had bunched up and stuck like Minnie Mouse's shoes on the end of every one of his eight legs.(Lucky for me. This is what slowed him down.)
Then began the tales of other near-misses with the local critters. Des recalled how he pushed a foot into his gardening boot one morning and felt it to be unusually tight. Investigation revealed a cane toad inside, firmly ensconced up in the toe of his boot. (Have you fainted yet? I nearly did.)
So yes, there are indeed more critters up there than I'm used to in Melbourne—spiders, snakes, goannas, cane toads, ticks, to name a few—and they like to get up close and personal. The giant carpet snakes under the corrugated iron roof of their shed are spoken of with some affection.
But the views do indeed make my heart lurch and it's hard to stop taking photos of the flowering trees as well.
Illawarra Flame tree in bloom

All of which leads me to think about writers who write about place and landscape so evocatively that you feel their love for the place in every word.
Tim Winton has to be top of the list. In all of his novels he evokes a sense of place that is almost palpable.
He urges us to feel the ground beneath our feet wherever we are, to see the landscape as a living entity and to stop moving long enough to hear what it's telling us.

If I'd been listening it might have warned me about that big spider.