Tuesday, December 30, 2014

For the year ahead

I wrote this today in response to a Facebook post from a friend, whose mind is turning to the newly-coined (but not new) "frugal abundance" philosophy as 2015 starts. She asked what we hoped for in 2015. I was surprised to find my answer was spontaneous, immediate and felt true, straight away; with more reflection, it still does. I wrote:
I am striving this year for mindfulness - of myself, my body, the people around me, the world I live in, the earth that supports us. Part of this will be the frugal abundance you speak of - having made a conscious choice to prioritise my physical and mental health by moving to part time employment, this is both necessary and a wonderful opportunity.
Part of it is a renewed focus on that which matters, and a sustained practice in letting go of that which does not. My disability is my teacher in this - I could not keep living my life as I was, my body closed the door on that option some months ago.
I haven't officially announced it anywhere as such, but just to clarify - I am moving to 0.6 at my job in 2015, where I'll be working three short (school-hours) days and one "normal" office day, with Fridays off altogether.  The hope is that this will make managing my health flares (which my specialists tell me I must expect as a part of life now, for at least the next few years) a lot easier, as well as freeing me, when I am well, to spend more time with family, community and writing interests. Of course, it also means about 25% less after-tax income, but this is a trade that I am lucky to be in a position to be able to make.

I want to live 2015 wide awake to every moment - the good, the unremarkable, and the shitty alike. I feel a little bit like a deep-sea diver coming back to the surface; the last 18 months has been so immersively difficult that it will take time to re-learn how to breathe and to feel the sun on my face.

That doesn't mean that all of my time as a full-time worker / full-time parent / full-time hyper-vigilant / recent sick person has been crappy, because hello it has not. There have been many great days and many great experiences in this time. (Pooooort Dooooouuuuuglas!) It does mean, though, that the period from mid-2013 until now has been characterised by unbalance, and a lack of mindfulness, in ways that have not made me happier, or more creative, or more productive, or more of a contributor to the areas of life where I most want to contribute. (My community. My family. My world, especially in social justice areas).

So what I hope for from 2015 is just that - to be present, to be mindful, and to show up in the ways that feel the most meaningful to me. In cooking fresh foods, in volunteering, in speaking up, in poeticising, in writing, in reading, in being with my children and my partner, in being a friend, in paying attention to my own body and mind, in being gentler with myself and others.

These are humble goals in some ways - there are no KPIs attached, there is no target list of outputs to measure. In other ways, of course, they are the most transformationally significant I have ever attempted. I know that the game will be worth the candle, though, and I know this is what I need to do in 2015.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: A year in blog review

As the end of the year is upon us, I thought now would be a good time to have a look at the year as it played out on this blog.

I am faintly surprised to find myself writing another of these stats-wrap up posts, as I honestly thought that this blog would tail off to oblivion in 2014. It didn't, although it did have a name change and a gear shift in June, when Play, Eat, Learn, Live became Too Fond of Books. Turns out I need it, and as long as I do, I'll keep writing it, even if only for myself.

Following on from last year, this year saw fewer posts (114 to last year's 150) and significantly fewer PVs for most categories, with poetry being the honorable exception - the poems got a small but measurable uptick in views. Comments are almost a thing of the past here now, and I have settled into becoming a quiet little backwater of the Internet - a position that I'm very comfortable with, in truth.

The top five posts this year, in order, were:

1. Día de la Madre (Poem) - May
This poem that I wrote for Mother's Day in May was retweeted by several people, and drew a good number of PVs.

2. Taking a new approach to managing work / life stress - April
This determinedly positive "I have a plan!" post from April attracted a lot of eyeballs. In light of What Happened Next, aka The Great System Crash of August 2014, I read it now with a certain sadness and wistfulness for its optimism.

3. Friday - February
This little slice of life seemed to touch a chord with a few people. It's quite a gentle, amiable piece overall.

4. A Tale of Two Cakes and a Solar System Party - May
As is usual for my fancy-cake posts, this one got a solid readership and continues to draw new PVs as people arrive via Google searches.

5. Mirror, Mirror (Poem) - June
This is a bitter little scorpion of a self-flagellating poem, but I thought it was also quite good, and it did get read.

One thing that is worth noting is that none of these posts made it into my all-time top 10 (top honours there are still held by two restaurant reviews: of Black Ruby (2012) and Fox in the Box (2013) - and my how-to post on Dorothy the Dinosaur cake from 2012). Indeed, the highest-ranked post of this year, Dia de la Madre, sits out at 21 in my all-time list. I guess this does say that the Internet is losing interest, and also that I am not really good at self-promotion, but that is OK, I'll live.

The focus of the blog this year has been books, poems, stress, and struggling with being sick, which certainly narrows the audience by some considerable margin, but it's what I've wanted and needed to write about, so I am not concerned so much with that. Next year, I definitely hope that things pick up more for me, but I will be writing what feels authentic, regardless, because that is why I keep this blog at all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A small light (Christmas card in a poem)

in my hands a small light, stuttering.

it is a small light, a tiny warmth
flame an amber quotation mark on a blackened wick.

it is a small light, but it is not fragile;
it has survived cataclysms, and it is not afraid.

it is a small light, and it does not say
that it can take all the darkness of the world away.

it is a small light, but it makes promises
it whispers of bijoux joys, within its small and flickering queendom

it is a small light. I don't have a brighter one, or stronger;
but such as it is, this small light -

take it. take it in the spirit it's offered
the moment is all. this light

this small light
this hand-cupped star

a gift, to touch and hold and warm
to remember and to fire delight

this very small golden light
holding all my imperfect heart.

- Kathy,

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On ebbs and flows, and summer words

Being primarily, by nature, a reader and a writer, the last few months have been anomalous ones for me. My reading has been largely confined to re-reading of old favourites (chicken soup for the mind, if you like), while my writing, such as it has been, has been almost exclusively poems and fairly angsty rants about The Sick.

Of course, while I have been in literary stasis, neither my life nor the world has stood still. Plenty of books have come out that I want to read, and plenty of work of other kinds has been done. The work of creation and reflection, though - that's been constrained, but I am hopeful that the summer will see a Renaissance of sorts in this area.

Here are five books I plan to read this summer:

1. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Naomi Klein)
It has been a goodly while since I've read a think piece. This is overdue.

2. Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God  (Will Durant) 
Will Durant was one of my historian-rock stars when I was studying for my Masters degree. I'm fascinated to see what this volume contains.

3. The Children Act (Ian McEwan) 
I don't expect this to be an easy read, but by all reports, it's a novel-of-the-year (and unlucky not to be Booker-listed).

4. The Child Eater (Rachel Pollack)
It wouldn't be summer without at least one curiously-imagined sci fi or fantasy. This one got quiet raves and is apparently a very clever Tarot-themed fantasy.

5. The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)
Because I didn't get to it on the Booker list, and I feel I sort of should. (The insertion of the word "should" in that sentence has instantly tagged this as the Book Least Likely to Actually Get Read).

And here are three creative things I plan to do:

1. Provide at least two columns to Global Comment on books / literary stuff.

2. Do Month of Poetry in January.

3. Write up the short story that's been itching the back of my brain for months.

Summer is almost always a time a renewal for me and my family. I'm really hoping this year will be no exception to that trend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

My Twelve Days of Christmas

It's been a year, a long year, a challenging year, a hell of a year in so many ways. Right now, I haven't much energy for writing here - whatever limited reserves I do have are being funnelled into seasonal prep and commitments, work, and parenting. I am learning to manage my health problems, and slowly, slowly, ohhowveryslowly, I am climbing out of the bottom of the killing jar. (There's still a long and slippery road to go, though).

As December slams into me, I am just taking every day as it comes and doing my best, but with every day behind me I am longing more intensely for Christmas Eve. Because I am working up til then, and we have parties and Christmas commitments that involve me doing stuff and preparing food and gift things, I don't feel I can really relax before that, not properly. No, that won't come til I eat the customary Christmas cookies with my colleagues at lunchtime on the 24th before we all decamp for the 12-day shutdown period, the best break of the year because you know nothing's piling up while you're gone (everyone's gone!)

But once I leave my office around noon on Christmas Eve, ahhhhh, then.

Christmas carols with the kids and Christmas morning delight.
Christmas Day at my parents, being spoiled like a little girl again.
Boxing Day movies with husband and friends.
Beach and BBQs and sun and afternoons at the park.
Taking the kids to the movies and the pool and the lake.
Reading, writing, sleeping, being.

I'll be back at work from 5 January, but this is going to be MY 12 days of Christmas, my peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-all-women, the gift that my true love(s) will give to me - 12 days with my family and no need to rush or run or do, just time to be.

I cannot wait.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

NaBloPoMo #27: The state of the nation (Poem)

a storm is coming for Brisbane; the growling sky
in the photos flooding social media looks evil-beautiful

a cricketer, 25, has died of a fast ball to the head.
it's a shock, as the summer starts; no lightness expected in this season's leather vs willow

Victoria rolls up her sleeves to vote
on roads-education-police-hospitals-roads;
at least the local schools will make a bundle selling sausages in bread

a baby boy found in a drain, still crying
900 scientists out of work, and the broadcaster we own together
filleted and hung out for drying

copay at the doctors may or may not be a thing;
it depends on which minister you ask, and when

and the Speaker in the House
ejects 18 elected members because they were rude, or something

and yet the world turns
on the whole, indifferent to this chunky backwater and its preoccupations
we are, it must be said,
left to our fate
to know nothing but ourselves.

- Kathy, 27/11/14

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #23: A Villanelle for a Sunday

Back to one of my favourite poetic forms today: the villanelle. For a reminder of the rules of the villanelle form, see this post.

the garden sweet as weeds pile high on path
a family, together, tends the soil;
soft lethargy the gentle aftermath.

the mother pigeon, trilling, takes a bath
splashing as she sings of love's fine toil;
the garden sweet as weeds pile high on path.

the air hums with the sound of childrens' laugh
as night demons one by one uncoil;
soft lethargy the gentle aftermath.

a luncheon made of sun and joy; half
blue cheeses, ham and waffles, and good oil
the garden sweet as weeds pile high on path.

the friction rubs of daily life are chaff
deeper truths the aches and pains can foil;
soft lethargy the gentle aftermath.

my strength, my shield, my hope, my rod, my staff,
the best and only answer to turmoil;
the garden sweet as weeds pile high on path
soft lethargy the gentle aftermath.

- Kathy, 23/11/14

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #18: Insomniac Dr Seuss

A riff on the last page of Dr Seuss's One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish ... by an insomniac.

And now
good night
It is time to sleep.
I will try to sleep
and fail at counting sheep.

Last night is gone
It was not fun
Tonight will be another one
Every night, from here to there
Shitty sleep is everywhere.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #16: Spirit

when I wore flesh I -
pain quite often
fear fear fear
bound in time bound in place

bound

yet

with fondness I recall
touch of air touch of velvet touch of lover
sun on face water in oesophagus
the sound of surf the sound of children
the leavening warmth of fellow travellers on the road

now mated with stars larger than galaxies beyond time beyond place
beyond sound beyond taste touch limit
still, and still,
awareness of delight awareness of beauty of embrace of beloveds

from embodied to enrapt
the only constant, this -

love
- 16/11/14

Friday, November 14, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #14: To sleep, perchance to dream

"Have you considered," she says, her face serious, "that many - most, even - of our symptoms are a result of inadequate sleep?"

I don't won't to be rude, so I just stare at her, while my mind screams "What, you mean extreme fatigue, muscle aches, nerve tingling, anxiety, panic attacks and assorted miserable parasomnias could be BECAUSE I'M NOT SLEEPING ENOUGH? YA THINK?"

"Perhaps if your sleep could be regularised..." she muses. "Although I realise that's difficult, of course."

Oh my God.

I have never known, probably never will know, whether the insomnia and poor quality sleep is born of the post-viral syndrome and anxiety, or if it just wildly exacerbates them (or indeed, is mother to them both). All I know is this:

It physically hurts.

It's psychological torture, being committed by my own brain upon itself.

It feeds itself - the more nights it happens, the more likely it is to go on happening, and so on and so in in dreary ad infinitum.

It has a host of knock-on effects and makes everything ten times worse.

It's a mean trickster, breaking the pattern every few nights to throw in a beautiful, uncomplicated long night's sleep, almost as a tease. Invariably this is followed by the worst of the worst - nights with no sleep at all, or two nightmarish hours from 5 to 7am.

The more overtired you are, the harder it is to begin to break.

I would not wish it on my worst enemy, ever.

(This piece on Cracked sums it up pretty well, I'd say).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #13: The Five Stages of Chronic Illness

DENIAL
In which you struggle mightily to pretend to yourself and those around you that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WHATSOEVER WRONG and IF I JUST GOT A GOOD SLEEP, EVERYTHING IN THE GARDEN WOULD BE LOVELY. Pro Tip: This stage is much more insidious and long-lasting if you're lucky enough to cop a Vague Symptoms condition.

Eventually denial is no longer an option for even the most dedicated of self-deluders, and you end up with:

ANGER
Otherwise known as whyyyymeeeeee-itis, this is not a very comfortable stage for those around you, but it's actually reasonably energising in its own twisted way. It leads into:

BARGAINING
Wherein you try to make deals with life. If I do X, then I will feel better. If I don't do Y, then GODDAMMIT I will be better. If I take this drug and not that one, if I change my diet and my work habits and my entire personality, then I WILL get better.

Except you don't, always. Or you don't consistently. Or you don't fast enough. Which brings us to the worst of all the stages, to wit:

DEPRESSION
I'm stuck with this, it sucks, my life therefore sucks, and nothing is ever going to be any better. So therefore I will watch every episode of Escape to the Country ever made and cry into my teacup for approximately infinity days.

Slowly, slowly, oh so painfully slowly, you might start to have flashes and moments of:

ACCEPTANCE
So I have anxiety, panic disorder and CFS / ME, with a probable hormonal component. This is my reality; this is, in fact, what my life is like at the moment, and may be for some considerable time to come.

All of these things should improve to varying degrees over time, but I may never again have the capacity and energy I had before they all kicked in, and you know what? That is OK. *I* am OK. I am alive and I am loved and I have many moments of joy. I am the best person and parent I can be in my circumstances. I accept me as I am, with all my fault-lines. I accept my body's challenges and I accept that I have to make adjustments, to preserve my spoons, to say no and be comfortable with my own tears.

I don't think people (well, *me*) ever achieve a nirvana of complete acceptance. Chronic illness is a shitty thing to deal with, and it doesn't become less shitty because it becomes less novel. Angry moments, bargaining attempts, and blue days keep coming. (Although I think once you leave denial behind, it's usually gone for good).

But cycling back to acceptance ... maybe that's the hard and painful lesson that I'm being taught through all this. Maybe I am learning to live with an openness to daily vagaries and uncertainty. Maybe I am coming to terms with the fact that "most of what will happen now is way out of our hands / So just let it go / See where it lands..." (Indigo Girls)

I am learning myself, here in this shadowland. I am remaking myself. I would never have chosen it, but now that I must go through it, I will try to take something out of this process that is taking so very much out of me.

And maybe that, after all, is what acceptance really means.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #12: Digging in the Dirt

From Peter Gabriel, not me, today. This is exactly, EXACTLY, how therapy feels to me. I'm digging in the dirt, stay with me, I need support / I'm digging in the dirt, to find the places I got hurt / To open up, the places I got hurt...


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #11: In Mind (Poem)

It's Remembrance Day today. I always think of my maternal grandfather, who survived his service in the Pacific arena in World War II, but came back a changed man.

In Mind

It would be easy to say
at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember
But it would not be all that true
not every day
or only a few

Cast their thoughts daily to they
who got onto boats, wearing greens and new boots
and sailed away
not knowing what strange and bloody fruits

Would be born of that journey.
what terrors and trials and fearful ends
closed eyes on a gurney
the razing of friends

But we cannot think always of it;
they would not, in fact, wish us so
if they fought for a world fit
for laughter and hubris, and everyday woe

Or even if they fought for their Mum, or their King,
God, country or some other abstract
Or for absolutely nothing
Or to fulfill their dismal social contract

Of manliness. What does it matter why?
They fought. They died. Once a year
Is not too much to commend them to the sky
From us, living legacies, here.

- Kathy, 11/11/14

Monday, November 10, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #10: Found Art Poem

It's possible to make poetry from anything, I do believe. This is a poem composed of Google's suggestions for me.

feeling
feeling good
feeling dizzy
feeling lonely
feeling inspired

tired
tired all the time
tired legs
tired after eating
tired of life

stressed
stressed out
stressed cat
stressed at work

panic
panic attack
panic at the disco
panic disorder
panic pizza

why can't I
why can't I get a job
why can't I lose weight
why can't I own a Canadian
why can't I find love

what is the answer
what is the answer to life the universe and everything
what is the answer to this question

Strangely resonant, Google!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #9: New Life

Today's is from nature, not me.


Mother stone's egg hatched :-)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #7: A dog story

Everyone has comfort books and comfort series; I, inveterate reader that I am, have many. One of my favourite mental-blankie series has always been James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small books about his life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales from the 1930s to the 1970s. I enjoy them for their warmth, immediacy, and vivid picture of a changing agricultural world.

I also enjoy them because my Dad, until his retirement in April this year, was a vet (albeit a surburban one, with a primarily small animal practice rather than farm animals), and I grew up around sick and recovering animals and hearing many similarly bizarre and hilarious stories. My Dad, who is also a talented painter, has no gift or inclination to write, which is a shame, because his memoirs, which he always used to say would be called "All Creatures Grunt and Smell", would be worth reading.

The story below is a thinly fictionalised version of one of my Dad's funnier tales of life in small animal practice in the 1980s, before email did away with the prime importance of paper communications. I wasn't actually present when it occurred, but I could easily have been, as I often did just as I have described below, hanging about in the surgery (attached to our house) and occasionally deigning to do something useful if I ran out of things to read.

The Dog Ate It

The man burst through the door of the surgery and yelled, "I HAVE TO SEE THE VET NOW! This dog needs to vomit!"

As the other clients in the waiting room moved surreptitiously away from the action, my father, the vet, opened the door and said, "Do I understand you to have an emergency? You had better come right -" Before he could finish the sentence, the man had dragged the dog inside and hefted him up onto the table, grunting a bit at the effort.

"He needs to vomit!" the owner declaimed again.

The dog looked fine. Maybe a little surprised to have been dragged in to the clinic and dumped unceremoniously on the examination table, but other than being a bit wounded in its dignity - basically, it was in the pink of health.

I'd been skulking about, drinking tea and scoffing chocolate royals with the cheerful vet nurse who'd worked in my father's practice as long as I could remember, and I could see my Dad's slightly puzzled face through the open door of the examination room as he carefully palpated the abdomen of the clearly untroubled and slightly bored Golden Retriever. "Good boy," he murmured to the dog, and the dog waved its plumy tail gently and panted with the smiley-faced patience of a good-natured animal.

"I'm sorry, Mr X, I don't see what -"

"Doctor! You have to make him vomit! Now!!" bit out the wild-eyed owner, a pasty-looking guy in his latish 20s. (Or maybe older; at 13, I was no judge of men's ages). "I was just going to feed him salt, I should have just fed him salt, but the missus said no and I -"

"You definitely mustn't feed a dog salt, Mr X," said my father sternly. "Salt's very damaging in large quantities. No, if he needs an emetic, I have an appropriate one here, but you need to tell me why you want your dog to vomit. Has he eaten something he shouldn't?" The vet nurse and I exchanged worried glances. "Something he shouldn't" was usually code for rat poison, and the outlook was often poor.

The man groaned and ran a despairing hand across his face. "Something he shouldn't? I should say so, doctor! I should say so!" The dog, panting happily, licked his owner's wrist encouragingly.

My Dad gestured through the door to me, and I slid into the room, ready to hold the dog steady for the shot. Not that I expected much trouble from this goofy fellow. Dad drew up the injection, saying, gently, "Do you know what poison it was, Mr X? If we know what he's had, it can help in the treatment." And in predicting whether he'll die, I thought sorrowfully; I'd seen quite a few dogs and cats not recover from eating poison.

Pasty-Man stared at Dad as if he was talking Swahili. "Poison? He hasn't eaten poison," he said flatly. "God, no. No, no." He fell silent, staring into some alarming future only he could see.

Dad and I exchanged a puzzled look as he withdrew the needle and reached behind him for the bucket. "Well, then...?"

"He ate the mail," said the man in a voice of doom. "ALL the mail. The full enchilada. The whole bl-" he paused as he registered my presence - "blinking LOT."

Quizzically, Dad said, "Well, that's very annoying, no doubt, but -"

"There were three birthday letters from abroad. From my relatives, abroad," Mr X continued. "The ones who usually send money. A lot of money. In cash. In the birthday cards." He sighed heavily. "My aunt in London, she's a prickly old biddy. She expects a thank you letter that refers to all the stuff she told me about in HER letter." He turned puppy-dog eyes on my Dad. "Do you think, maybe, they'll be alright...?"

Just then, the injection kicked in and the poor Golden started heaving, chucking into the bucket until his stomach was empty of all but acid and affront. He gave us all a bitterly disappointed look and lay down on his paws, clearly intending to pretend this entire nasty incident had never happened.

My Dad looked down at the bucket and sighed. "OK then," he said. "Gloves for everyone, and steady as she goes..."

Gagging slightly, I helped my Dad pick through the mess. One by one, we extracted soggy, greenish fibrous objects that might have been paper (oh man I hope that's paper) and laid them out on towels. Mr X was waiting, the picture of tense anticipation, as I trotted back upstairs for the hairdryer and came back down to give the whole lot a going over.

Shape and meaning was restored as the objects dried (one wasn't paper, but let's not dwell on that) and with a happy cry, Mr X pounced on one sad exhibit that was pretty clearly letter-shaped. "Aunty's letter!" he crowed, cradling it gently, oblivious to the pong rising from it. "Doctor, can I borrow something to open it -"

Dad took the letter from him and very delicately sliced open the top with a scalpel. He shook, and two British money notes, miraculously largely intact (if misshapen), fluttered out. "YESSSSS!" hissed Mr X, looking happy for the first time since arriving. Then his face changed. "But the letter..."

Just then, I was called upstairs to assist with dinner preparation. The last thing I saw as I glanced over my shoulder was the Golden Retriever deep in his sulk and Mr X squinting up at the X-Ray light box as my Dad carefully spread the pages out across it. "I think that's a "lovely", don't you, doctor?" said Mr X anxiously.

My Dad just sighed.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #6: Mother stone

Back to poetry again for this one.

Mother stone

there is a pigeon who has made a nest very low in the branches of the tree
that overhangs my washing line. patient, she sits,
solid as a warm stone, on her three eggs
oblivious to the dog mere inches below her, who drives himself to frenzy
jumping in twist-turns to lay teeth on her

she's just out of reach
so close so far

I stare at her steadily as I pin wet towels to the line
her jet-bead eyes unwinking, her soft body unmoving
she doesn't  flinch when I come within breath-sharing reach of her
when I brush aside obscuring blossoms to count the eggs below her

she just sits, incubating,
the drive to make life new overwhelming
as intractable as the sun

I am looking forward to the babies

- Kathy, 6/11/14

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #5: We are all rocks

This one is just a slice of life, fictionalised, but based on several real conversations.

We are all rocks

The big conference room is emptying now, as people drift away, relief at the end of the interminable meeting visible on most faces. "The bar?" one murmurs to his confreres as they exit. "GOD, yes -"

Packing up my things, I'm struck by the body language of the small, delicate-boned woman beside me. We know each other slightly, professionally, but I'm aware - and becoming more aware by the minute - that something is not sitting well with her today. Her rigidity of posture is a tell as powerful as any I've ever seen. I can feel the ghosts of unspoken things wrapping around my shoulders.

"I was just going to ask you -" she begins, then pauses. "Well, about -"

The mundane matter she raises isn't what she wants to talk about, and I know this, but I play the game, batting the conversational ball neatly to slips as I wait for it.

Wait for it -

"You haven't been well, I hear. Someone said you'd gone to part-time?"

Here it is.

"Yes," I say. "I have been extremely fatigued, and while I haven't got a fully useful diagnosis yet, I'm also dealing with some pretty severe anxiety and panic attacks. Fulltime is just beyond me at the moment."

Her eyes are so tired. Her breathing relaxes.

"Do you have them at night? The panics?" she says softly. "When you're falling asleep...?"

"Oh so much," I say emphatically, the ready tears that are never far away from me forming. "Especially when I am almost asleep. It's so disgusting, it's like -"

" - being punched in the stomach with an adrenaline gun!" she finishes. "Yes! Yes, it's horrible -"

"Are you stressed, too?" I ask gently. She looks so tired. So immensely worn down.

And then she opens the gates, and the river flows down, and I stand steady in the flow, being a rock, being comfort.

Later, I will call one of my own dear friends and wail my frustration, my anxiety, my desperate need to feel better, and she will stand firm, feet planted, in the downpour of my terror and hold me up.

Sometimes granite, sometimes sand. The best we can do is pay it forward, when we can.

- Kathy, 5/11/14

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #4: Fan Fiction in CS Lewis's universe - A Great Effusion of Blood

I am a Narnia fan from childhood, notwithstanding the problematic elements of the books and especially that ... interesting ... last one. Even though it's not one of the more popular ones, my equal favourite book in the series has always been The Magician's Nephew - the Narnia creation story - not so much for the interminable Genesis sequence as for the rich and engrossing description of London childhoods at the turn of the last century and for the various side-worlds that Lewis sketches in. (I also love Strawberry / Fledge the cab horse turned Pegasus, and Polly is my favourite of all the female characters in the cycle).

One thing that has always intrigued me in this book is the relatively short, but remarkably potent, picture of the dead world of Charn, from whence Digory and Polly end up bringing the witch queen Jadis into their own world and eventually to Narnia. I've always wanted to know more about Charn when it was alive. This is the first installment of what I think will be three parts altogether - a short story set in Charn just before the final war began.

 A Great Effusion of Blood (Part 1)

"See to him," said the guard captain unemotionally, depositing the tenth hopeless case since morning sacrifices on my floor.

I ran an eye over the shivering mass of raw meat at my feet and allowed a small plosive "Tcha" to seep out. "Banayar, come now," I said, allowing irritation, but not my deeper unease, to colour my voice. "Why do you bring them to me? It wastes all our time. That's not survivable -"

As I spoke, the bloody mess shifted into repose; Banayar, glancing down, said drily, "Well, Oresti. This problem appears to be self-resolving, yes?" He looked full into my face for the first time, and trouble was writ large in his lines. "Perhaps a walk in the market, healer? To - refresh your medicaments?"

I sighed and gestured my orderlies to come lift the corpse away. "And make sure this floor is scrubbed down!" I shouted after them as I followed Banayar through the veiled door of my hospice wing. Banayar caught the softening on my face as I passed the intricate carvings of the spells and incantations on the high stone doorframe that bound the spirits of healing to this place. "Proud of it, you are," he said softly. "Proud to heal." His eyes darkened. "Better so, than to cleave. Especially, to cleave without cause."

I stared at him, amazed. "What under the sky, Banayar -"

"That miserable sod back there, Oresti." He grabbed my arm, gripping tight in his urgency. "He wasn't a prisoner, or a criminal. He'd committed no offence. Hell, he wasn't even a slave." I narrowed my eyes at this - Banayar knew my ideas on the mistreatment of slaves, and largely agreed, even if his acquiescence was based more on the inelegance of wasting money than anything else.

I said, slowly, "Then, who -"

"A guard! One of my own men!" Banayar bit out, as we stepped out into the cool red light of the morning. "Flayed by Her own hand, Oresti, and for naught -"

The chants of the priest-executioner came faintly through the teeming air, giving me pause. "Wait, the morning cull should be well done by now, surely?" He shook his head, but said nothing. "Besides, are we not low on the blood-guilty to -"

Pushing away the importuning hands of a beggar child, Banayar turned to face me, his jaw working. "Resa", he said, and the childhood nickname froze my blood as much as the bleak fear on his face. I sagged back against the green-golden fabric of the fruit-seller's pavillion, redolent with overripe sweetness.

"Banni, don't -"

"I have to. I have to tell someone." Banayar hustled me past the screaming vendors, jostling our way to the herbalist's pitch and the cool, dry corner, cardamom-scented and quiet, where I often twisted little magicks around my fingers while bartering for spice.

"Resa. Listen. There are no blood-guilty left. There haven't been for months now. Those being sacrificed up there -" he jerked his head towards the faintly smoking mountain - "are not -"

I stared at him with horror. "They're just prisoners? Not murderers, just -"

"Not even. Not even." Agitated, Banayar tugged at his hair with a gesture that propelled me back through many years. Banni and I, children together, paddling in the river by my father's villa. Banni and I, young, in the capital together, he training for the guard, I under the impossible tutelage of the master healer Jolande. Banni and I, sharing a dawn in the cradle of my soft bed...

I reached up and touched his cheek. "Tell me, then," I said steadily.

"It's people, Resa. Just people. Slaves, villagers. Beggars, the poor. Drunks and carousers. Anyone, anyone, who She lays her hand upon." His eyes, oh small gods, his eyes.

"But why -"

"Because, healer," said the priest, behind me, twisting me into immobility with a casual movement of his hand, "we are preparing for war, and this demands a great effusion of blood."

Unable to speak, I fixed my gaze on him in despair. A cold fish, like all his kind, he did not blink as he called forward his troop. "Take this guardsman to the pens," he said. "For tomorrow, I think." Banayar's eyes caught mine as he was dragged away. I'm so sorry...

The priest-executioner turned to me. "Now, my lady healer," he said, and his voice was like a slick of unwholesome oil, slithering around my fingers. "What shall we do with you?"

Monday, November 3, 2014

Creative NaNoBloPo #3: Haiku for a dark day

It was not a good day today.

Haiku for a dark day

collapsing, the air
sits tight as a bandage
on thudding ribcage

the world says spring, while
the heart cries a winter that
never melts or ends

every little
filament of nerve and bone
hums with sick vigour

exhaustion blankets
each tiny sussuration
sadness veils the sky

I am weak, weak, and
have forgotten what it is
to be strong and laugh

- Kathy, 3/11/14

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #2: A vignette from the Ark

Last year I started writing a novel on a blog. I called it The Ark at the End of the World, and it progressed across 18 installments to what I saw then (and still see now) as about the one-third mark. I was enjoying it, and I had a picture (albeit not fully formed) in my head of where it was going, but then life intervened, in the form of my by-then-hyper-hectic job and a mini health crisis - probably, I think with hindsight, the bellwether of this year's more thoroughgoing breakdown - and I lost the impetus and haven't yet been able to regain it.

The central idea I was playing with in The Ark, and that I'd like to get back to at some point, was around the notion of a two-tiered society where the only divide that had any meaning was that between "regular" people and Ark people. Here, I posited a near-future perfecting of the idea of reproducing human consciousness inside a sufficiently complex computer - the hoary old "downloaded self" thing - and I was trying to unpick how virtual people and embodied people might relate to each other. Crucially, I was interested in the difference between those whose consciousness has an unknown fate (ie "regular" people) and those who, barring technical destruction, expect their personhood to continue forever. How do immortals and mortals coexist? Can they?

Some of the side stories and back stories that inform the world of The Ark never got written and would have no real place in the narrative of the plot as it was unfolding, but have continued to float at the back of my mind. This scene, which is alluded to in the post Interlude: On History, is one I imagined / daydreamed in my development of the characters of Ciro Grady and Jessamy Mercantor. I've never written it up until now, though. NB: I've used the same textual style that I chose to denote inter-Ark communication between virtual people.

Above, A Star

- *roses, bursting*: I come! -

- *exasperation* *affection* Jess, I am working, here -

- *bubbling laugh* You work too much, my Kristeva. Come, look at the stars with me -

- I can see the stars anytime, Jessamy. This code has to get -

- *snort* Has to get written, or the Ark falls? Come, Ciro, that's not so -

- The Ark will stand, whatever we do. The Ark will stand, until ... The Ark stands. *sigh* Why the roses, anyway? -

- It's spring, back there -

- Back...? -

- There, Ciro. Where you come from. Where your soul was born. Life without end, not life without beginning, remember? -

- *frown* I didn't remember. It's been so long -

- Yes. Yes. *touch* Ciro, let's ... -

- Jess, we can't. *gasp* Oh, but I -

- You can, my lover. You can -

*parsecs*

- *softly* There's a brightness, I feel -

- Roses are blooming in Copenhagen that was, my love -

- Yes. Yes. Oh, Jessamy -

- *kiss* And above, Ciro, above us -

- *sigh* Above, a star.

- end transmission

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Creative NaBloPoMo #1: Erasure Poem

As I flagged earlier in the week, I have decided to have a go at NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) again this year. Because this is, let's face it, a sop to myself because I am not able to properly attempt my beloved NaNoWriMo this time, I'm twisting it slightly and doing a Creative NaBloPoMo. Each post is going to be a flutter at some form of creative writing - poetry, short-short story, flash fiction, life sketches, maybe even fan-fiction.

Today, I thought I would try an erasure poem. Erasure poetry is a form of found art, where you take an existing text (a page of prose, a poem, some non fiction text) and erase words to create - or find - a poem. It can result in some unusual and lovely poetry.

I thought I would go back to some cultural and childhood roots and see what I could make of a passage that is already deeply poetic in its own right: Genesis Chapter 2, from the King James version of the Bible. You can see the original passage here. Totally appreciate all the ways in which it's problematic, but the language sings.

The place where souls are born (An Erasure poem)

God formed man of the dust
breathed 
and man became a living soul.
 
eastward in Eden
every tree pleasant to the sight, and good for food; 
the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
And a river went out of Eden 

the man in the garden of Eden

It is not good that the man should be alone

the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman
Adam said:
bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: 
Woman, taken out of Man

they shall be one flesh.
both naked, not ashamed.

- Kathy, 1/11/14

Friday, October 31, 2014

On being vulnerable, and letting people in

I made a conscious decision a number of weeks ago, when my anxiety and panic disorder was first officially diagnosed, that I was going to be open and non-secretive about my condition.

I don't mean, by this, that I go around with a big sign on my chest saying "Hi! I'm Kathy McOddBrain!" I do mean that when colleagues, friends and family ask me how I am - I tell them. When they ask about the illnesses that have led to me moving to part-time at work, or withdrawing from many activities, or losing weight or looking strained - I tell them. I tell them about the post-viral fatigue / CFS, yes, but I also tell them about the chronic insomnia, the panic attacks, and the anxiety. I tell them it's been hard, and is being hard. I tell them I am struggling.

I made this decision knowing that it might cause some people to withdraw from me, and that it constitutes a breach of the fourth wall in the professional sphere, where there is often an expectation that people's ... peopleness ... gets left at the door. I made this decision knowing that there is a stigma around mental illness, that I was inviting into the way others judge me. I made this decision knowing that I was choosing to make myself vulnerable, to let people see the scale and scope of my journey with this thing. Losing love may be like a window in the heart, where everybody sees you're blown apart, and everybody feels the wind blow (to paraphrase Paul Simon) - but so is mental illness, when you choose to share it.

And here is the thing. This has been risky, yes, but it has also been absolutely the right thing for me, in my circumstances, and with my personality. Not speaking is toxic for me. Holding things inside is dangerous. Pretending I am OK when I am not is stressful. I am a person who is open to the world and open to other people - I always have been - and to close down when in pain would be alien to me, would hurt me more.

I have been amazed, humbled, uplifted by the response I have had from choosing to walk this path in the sunlight rather than in shadow. The care, the concern, the practical love, of so many friends and colleagues has been overwhelming. When I need to cry (which is often), I have always found someone there to hand me a tissue or hold me gently. When I battle panic, I have been lifted by the presence, the words, the care of those around me. When I need to go away for a while, this has been accepted and not questioned, even when it's been inconvenient, even when it's been sudden.

But actually, the real reason I know beyond doubt that being open is right for me is because in being open, in making myself vulnerable, in showing where I'm blown apart - something in that has allowed other people to be vulnerable in return, to speak of their own struggles and find some comfort in it. I am not exaggerating even a little when I say that 20 different people have confided in me about their own mental health issues, about dark times they have had or in some cases are having, about the places in the heart where the wind blows through. I have held people as they've cried, just as I've been held; I have connected, and if the thread of connection is a dark one, it's nonetheless real for that.

I am very aware of the privilege I have that allows me to choose to be vulnerable and open. I'm white, educated and articulate, employed by an organisation with strong anti-discrimination policies, middle-aged, in a stable relationship with a supportive husband and family. I'm not addicted to anything, including alcohol. I don't need to fear that showing my cracks will result in losing my job or losing my children, being treated against my will, being sub-humanised. For so many people struggling with these issues, the parameters of their lives make disclosure dangerous, and that is so wrong and so sad.

Because, for me, letting people in has been THE factor in continuing to keep going, in trying to wrangle my odd brain into some semblance of peace. Being surrounded by people who see me and see the mess and choose to be with me anyway; people to whom I am drawn closer because my own vulnerability has made me a safe pair of hands for their pain - well, that is everything.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My current life in song lyrics

Most days,
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
It has a cause, and consequences:
I'm so tired, I haven't slept a wink
I'm so tired, my mind is on the blink
This, too:
That’s what’s going on
Nothing’s fine
I’m torn
Even, to be a bit emo about it:
Say a prayer for me,
Help me to feel the strength, I did.
My identity, has it been taken?
Is my heart breakin’ on me? 
This:
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on be a friend
So, to sum up:
And even though I have felt beaten down by constant doubt,
Depression, and confusion brought about by people’s actions, death, and tax forms,
I keep getting up. And I am loved by all my friends and family;
Though, there have been lots of raised eyebrows
And concerned glances lately.
 Bonus points if you can ID all the songs...

Monday, October 27, 2014

On Creative NaBloPoMo

So I indicated a while back on Twitter that I was mourning (again) my lack of ability to try NaNoWriMo this year. For the third year in a row, circumstances preclude - in 2012 I was swamped with contracting work, in 2013 I was still settling into my fulltime job, and this year I am struggling with ongoing health issues.

I've decided, instead, to do a cut-down, more manageable, writing project in November - NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) but as a creative endeavour. Every day in November, I'm going to post something here that stretches a nerve or two. Poems, short-short stories, prose sketches, maybe even some fan-fiction ... we'll see what blows in on the spring wind. Some days will be yellow, some days blue, in keeping with my current state of transience in my own head. A lot of it will be garbage but sometimes getting the garbage out on the kerb has a value, too.

If anyone wants to play along, happy to set up a linky thing - just let me know. I'll be doing it anyway, even if it's just the sound of one hand clapping.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

On liminality (poem)

 vernal mugginess is abroad.
the pollens are inflicting their suffering on the red-eyed army
days are sunnier, or stormier, sometimes both;
nights are still black and cold.

the lavender encroaches yet further on the doorway,
the eucalypts are full of sharp, spiky scents.
the interloping roses shove blooms of enormous beauty
out of every reaching stem.

the world floats, suspended, in a time-between-extremes
that is, nonetheless, flagrant in its own right
season for growing things, and season for hope
and for pain and for change and for wrenching

 fitted to it, I hang, weightless, or leaden,
as the day determines (or, rather, the night before)
fighting a battle I don't properly understand
with weapons I am not well suited yet to use

like a sping wraith, in the limen,
hovering between sun and shade
seeking colour, and finding it, sometimes,
but other days, 
finding only tears in a monochrome sky.

- Kathy, 18/10/14




Monday, October 13, 2014

In a public hospital emergency department, 3am

The cubicle is clean and off white, the floor speckled with grey mica. I'm half reclined in the bed, hospital gown and baby blue pyjama pants tucked under a thin woolen blanket, but it's not really cold, or at least I'm not feeling that way. I feel distrait - well, why else would I be here, at this witching hour? - but not cold, not that.

We're not long back from x-ray, where I wrapped my arms, lover-like, around a chest radiography machine and took deep breaths on command for the radiographer. My friend, who's brought me here, is sitting on the chair, as we exchange low-voiced remarks about family, mutual friends, my children, our work, our states of being, sickness, the heart-deep longing to be well. She's tired, I can see, but unflagging. I think to myself, greater love hath no one than this, that they should sit in an emergency cubicle all night for their friend.

I can hear various machines doing their pip-pip squeeeeeeal in the cubicles all around us. My own monitor, which is just an oxygen reader and a blood pressure cuff, is quiescient - everything is as it ought to be, no need for alarms. I am tired, but not sleepy - I'm well beyond that. My hands and legs hurt as great deal.

"I've been very good, and now I want to go outside and have a smoke. No, TWO smokes!" declaims a hoarse voice two cubicles down. "You need to come outside with me while I ..." Her voice trails off into a paroxsym of coughing that sounds like a lung is going to appear on the floor momentarily. I can't hear the nurse's soft-voiced reply, but we hear well enough her riposte: "I CAN'T stop smoking so forget about that. Anyway, I want to be discharged to home. I want to go home!"

Her voice is hectoring and aggressive, but as she marches, pink-dressing-gowned and dry-haired, past our cubicle, the nurse trailing at her heels, I can hear the fear and longing in it too, the desire to be away from this place, kind as it is, necessary as it is. In the nurses' central glass box, I see someone lift the phone and ask quietly for security to attend.

Somewhere, quite remote, a baby wails. It sounds as thin and high as a Siamese cat, and is quickly stilled.

A nurse is quizzing an older man on his pains. "Did it feel like squeezing? Or stabbing? Or -"

"Yes, yes," he says, his voice unutterably weary. "All those things. All those things".

"Well, I think you had better have an angiogram to be sure -"

We've left the cubicle curtain open, the better to accommodate my claustrophobia and to allow ourselves to feel part of the flow of this place. We've seen several patients come through - like animals to the Ark, they are almost all two by two, a patient and a carer. A young couple, holding hands, looking anxious, but no real way to tell which is the sick one. A woman with a badly bleeding hand, paced by a grim-looking middle aged man. An exhausted-looking woman of about my age, carrying a girl of maybe 6 or 7 who's croupy cough cuts the night.

"I think we shouldn't have come", I say. "I think -"

"We're here now," says my friend. "Let's see what the doctor says."

Like summoning a genie, Dr M appears - short, friendly, remarkably cheerful for a woman who's been dealing with the sick for the past umpteen hours. She talks to me, listens to my chest, and asks the nurse to run a quick ecg trace to ensure my heart is working as it should. (It is). Then she gently, matter-of-factly explains that I have had a severe panic attack; that it isn't my fault or my doing, and that they must always be checked out; that my lungs and heart are very healthy and that I may need to talk to my own doctor about what she is fairly confident is advanced treatment-worthy anxiety and depression, which may or may not co-exist with the CFS I may or may not have.

I am not surprised, or even upset. If anything, it's a relief, to give the dog a name.

As we gather our things and go, we pass an elderly lady sitting straight in the chair of her cubicle, hospital gown on, wispy scant hair feathered across her pink head. Her eyes are very dark brown, and look directly at me. I instruct my mouth to form a smile, and I see her lips move as she inclines her head gravely.

Later, drifting into exhausted sleep in my own bed, I think she might have told me that dawn was not far away.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On being down, down, down in the deeps

So I have not been well at all since August.

I came back from our wonderful Port Douglas holiday in mid-July relaxed, happy and other than some leftover ear soreness from a cold, healthy. Within two or three weeks, though, I started feeling pretty off-colour, with non-specific but gradually worsening symptoms featuring low level headaches, tooth pain, tingling, loss of concentration, cold shakes, severe emotional disequilibrium (especially extreme teariness) and everyone's favourite ... extreme fatigue that was not relieved with sleep.

A warning siren was sounded as August ended, when I tweeted this:




Since then, each week has been a crapshoot, as I have dealt with sick kids, supported my husband to help his sick mum, and every day faced feeling like death dragged backwards through a hedge made of broken glass.

There have, of course, been better days and worse days - I have had a few shining moments of feeling basically really good for a few hours, and a few more of feeling just average rather than seriously bloody. It's fair to say, though, that the trend has been a downwards one.

I have battled on (mostly) at work for the five weeks since I first tagged my fatigue publicly on 31 August. I've interspersed a week of annual leave, just over a week of sick leave, and many working at home days with occasional appearances in the office I am the ghost in the machine now - not often seen, but frequently heard from. Indeed, I have only been in 11 days out of the possible 30 in that period, whereas normally I would've been in 25 after subtracting my usual work at home Thursdays, or 21 if you also subtract my planned annual leave.

I have two major dental procedures to go through now, and it's possible that getting those dealt with will help in time. My doctor, though, is coming to the conclusion that the likeliest cause of my symptoms is a thing I never wanted to hear in regard to myself - ME / CFS.

Only time is going to tell if this is what's going on with me. Only time will tell how severely this is going to impact my ongoing life and my family, and indeed my work. Only time will tell if our planned Tasmania holiday in January is going to be possible or not (definitely NOT if I am still like this).

While time does its telling, I am going to be extremely protective of myself and my inadequate energy levels. That means managing work, social life and commitments super carefully and building everything around rest and recovery time. It means probably not blogging much, but if I feel like it and I feel I can, blogging entirely to interest and taste. It means making me a priority so that I can maybe soon again make others the priority I want them to be.

I do know that there is no valley so deep that the sun can't find it. Even if it is a weak and struggling thing, that sunbeam; even then.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Scene from a Park

watching

one playing cricket, stumps unsteady in overgrown grass
one climbing the dinosaur bones of the yellow painted frame
one spinning to dizziness on the whirling roundabout -

on the hill, looking, the panic rises black and choking, but -

what's there to do? a parent must -

parent

so with both hands firmly the snarling thing is grasped and she contends for balance
against the weight that would push her sideways into the earth and

a small body presses into her side, laughing
and it costs her, it costs her, but she smiles
and her voice is almost normal as she says
I liked your cartwheels! Can you do more?

and she tightens her mind against the hurricane and waits for the sick wave to recede
and breathes grass and eucalypt and sweat, forcing a slowing of the heart
by ferocious will and nothing else

and says
I think there's rain coming, loves,
we should go soon

as the storm moves past and drops her down, draggled,
on the soft green grass with three children

like she never even left at all.

- Kathy, 30/9/2014

How to be both

I am over at Global Comment today, reviewing Ali Smith's Booker-shortlisted How to be both. This is my fourth Booker shortlist review and my seventh from the longlist; you can see links to the others in the list below. I'll be getting a review of Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North up soon, and will try to get through and review the final shortlistee, Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others, before the prize is announced.

Come chat over at Global Comment if you want!

Other Man Booker reviews:
J
Orfeo
The Dog
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A random observation about character age and continuity

I get annoyed - really, really annoyed - with age-related inconsistency and implausibility in books. It annoys me more than any other continuity / suspension of disbelief error would do. (It doesn't annoy me as much as, say, homophobia, racism or bad writing, but on the gnat-bite scale of minor irritants, it ranks high).

By this I mean -

Character A is Character B and C's sibling. Character A is a woman young enough to have a small son, so let's say, what, mid-late 30s? Maybe early 40s? YET CHARACTERS B and C ARE WELL INTO THEIR SIXTIES.

Case in point: Digory's mother and Aunt Letty / Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew.

Or this -

Within the same canon, characters of the same age are described variously as "young", "middle-aged", "elderly", "old", or "in the prime of life".

Agatha Christie, I'm looking at you (and especially the difference in how 40 year old men and 40 year old women are described).

Further, this -

Character A is the parent of Character B and C, but as everyone's age is given at different points in the plot, the application of simple mathematics reveals that Character A was a preternaturally advanced 9-year-old.

(This one pops up oftener than it should in the speculative fiction scene).

I can suspend my disbelief with series characters who don't age at a normal rate - I'm good with people hovering in their 40s or 50s for thirty elapsed book years, that's a step I am willing to take because it's an intentional suspension of natural law for the purposes of story. Laziness with getting age relationships right or possible irritates me, though, and I suspect it always will. It's one of the many reasons that in my own series, I have a file on every recurrent character which includes their birthdates. Call me anal, but my characters ain't ever going to have siblings old enough to be their parents accidentally - if I do that, it'll be on purpose :-)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Royal Melbourne Show

We took our kids to the Royal Melbourne Show today. This is the very first time they've been, although their aunt usually brings them each a showbag from her annual visits. My partner and I last went to the Show 14 years ago, well before our first child was born, and I remember enjoying it but finding it exhausting and a bit stressy with the press of crowds everywhere.

I have been hesistant to take them before now, with a combination of fear of extreme expenditure and distaste for the crowding (especially with a pram or pusher) holding me back. This year, though, our youngest is 5.5 and well able to keep up with the group on foot, so we thought, oh well - it's worth a try.

All three kids were very excited and enthused about going, and have spent a few days researching their desired showbags on the Show website. We had a slight glitch getting going this morning, with still-not-100% youngest declaring herself to be too sick to go, but she was persuaded by talk of baby animals, and off we went.


We ended up spending 5 hours at the Show all up, most of it remarkably harmoniously and enjoyably (not a given in an outing with three children, as anyone who has wrangled same would attest). We petted baby animals, watched the dog breed judging, perused the prize animal tent, watched a quite clever but (I have to say) borderline skeevy magic show, visited the food pavillions, and found time for my perennial favourite, the arts, crafts and cookery pavillion. (Check out that chicken cake! And how about the rainbow serpent? The bar is definitely raised now for birthday cakes in this house ...)

Of course, kids being kids, they also had a ride on a fairly low-key rollercoaster, and showbags were procured - 2 apiece. However, we did manage to steer them away from most of the carnie attractions, which are such a massive cash-suck. Fairy floss and gelato were adequate compensation for not being allowed to feed the clowns or throw darts at balloons :-)

Overall, I really enjoyed the day. The car parking was much better organised and less stressful than I remember it being, and there seemed to be a more manageable amount of people - we weren't crowded anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and didn't have to queue to do anything (including go to the loo!) Maybe that's because we went mid-week, whereas when we were young adults we always went Saturday? Or maybe Show numbers are down? I don't know, but it certainly made for a more pleasant family experience than I was necessarily expecting.

It was a very pricey day, no denying - but I bought the combined Show / Aquarium entry ticket, and that, combined with restricting the kids to two showbags total value $30 apiece, helped keep it within spec. We did drop over $300 today but we'll "save" over $100 when we take the kids to the Aquarium next, so overall, as a huge family day out in a school holidays that doesn't include going away anywhere, I can live with it. I think we'll probably make it a biennial event now - every second year seems like a fair proposition.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Man Booker Shortlist

I'm over at Global Comment today, considering the Man Booker shortlist. What did you think of it?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reading Notes: J

This review is number 6 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge, and, as it transpires, no. 3 in the Shortlist Challenge. You can see links to the other reviews at the bottom of this post.

The Man Booker shortlist has now been announced, and it's as follows:
- To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
- J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
- The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
- How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

I'm planning to write it up for Global Comment, so I won't analyse it here. Suffice to say that it leaves me with only two to read to beat the prize announcement - Smith's and Mukherjee's books. I've started Smith's but so far am failing to be grabbed by it, and haven't felt like pushing on given my current subpar state of health (I have reverted, without the tiniest spark of guilt, to comfort reading, diving back into Bill Bryson, Golden Age detective fiction and Terry Pratchett, and pulling the covers over my literary head).

I did, however, finish reading Howard Jacobson's J over two weeks ago now, but it's taken a while for my feelings and thoughts about it to settle enough to attempt a review. Even with the passage of time, though, I'm not completely certain I have a handle on this one. Thus, if this review is a bit more tentative than is my wont, that's why!

Manifestly inaccurately described by its publishers as "a love story" (it is so, so not), is set in a near-future dystopia in which the two central characters, Kevern and Ailinn, occupy a very particular function in respect of the obstreperous society they are embedded within. The fact that they do in fact come to love each other is in no wise sweet, endearing or happy; indeed, it adds weight to the overall sourness of the conclusion. Indeed, nothing about this book is light or amusing or sweet; it's a real departure for Jacobson in this regard.

This is, to be blunt, a book about the aftermath of pogrom. More than that, it's a book that expounds fictionally Jacobson's central thesis that he expresses in essay form in When Will the Jews Be Forgiven the Holocaust? And that thesis amounts to this: Anti-Semitism is inherent, ingrained, in most societies, and Jewish people serve the psychological role of Other in a way that other Others (for want of a better term) do not. Therefore, pogroms are always and ever a risk.

J has been described by some reviewers as Orwellian in affect, and for once, I think the comparison has legs. There is a real ghost of 1984 running through this eerie, polemical text; the sense of warning, of big scary themes, and especially the surveilling and recording of divergence that runs underneath the action is highly reminiscent of that classic work. Jacobson's written style is more embellished than the very spare narrativity of Orwell, but the overall feel is very similar. This, to me, is a great strength of this book; although 1984 is not my favourite Orwell (that honour belongs to Animal Farm), I have always read it as an immensely powerful and important book.

However.

I think most people's reaction to this book will be filtered by their level of comfort with polemic as fiction. By this I don't mean, do I, the reader, agree that all societies are anti-Semitic and that anti-Semitism is somehow different from all other forms of racial bias in important ways? Rather, what I mean is, do I, the reader, have the capacity to accept a novel that is essentially one long argument on its own terms, or is it just irritating? Actually the answer to both those questions will colour your reading of the book, truth be told.

In my case, the answer to the first question is: honestly, I don't know, but I am not any more persuaded of the veracity of it by the very hyperbolic style in this text than I was before I read it; and my answer to the second question is, not really. While I found the book gripping and generally stylistically accomplished, and I liked poor Ailinn a lot, overall, I thought it overreached itself and lost much of the power it could have had in trying to slam home its main point. This is something that Jacobson could've learned from Orwell, to be frank: less is more. Let the reader take the final step themselves, don't shove their head into the water trough and scream "DRINK!" in their ear.

I'm not surprised it's shortlisted, particularly, but I will be disappointed if it takes the prize over the much more complete achievements represented by both The Narrow Road to the Deep North and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (and possibly one or both of Smith and Mukherjee's books - time will tell.)


Other Man Booker reviews:
Orfeo
The Dog
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Friday, September 12, 2014

Shameless spruiking post

... but not for me, for my friend, the lovely Veronica Foale, whose online soap and body essentials shop went live today!

It's here: http://veronicafoaleessentials.com.au/

Every single thing in it is hand-made with love by Veronica and her family, and I defy you to not want to buy it ALL immediately upon viewing. Go, salivate, purchase. You'll be happy you did :-)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The things I think about

Sometimes I think I would be a lot happier if I didn't work outside the home at all, or at least worked a lot less than fulltime hours.

I think I'd be less stressed. The juggle would be easier. I could do my own cleaning and logistics the way I'd prefer, and I could do a lot more volunteering and community work. I could write more. I could READ more. I could give more quality time to the kids and my husband, and I would probably be a whole lot less exhausted.

I don't fool myself that life would be all rainbow kittens farting fairy floss in a vermillion sky - I'd still be a busy person, my life would still have stressors, I'd still have hell days from time to time, etc etc etc. The thing is, as it is now, it's not like I don't still have all those things and responsibilities and aspirations - I just have them PLUS 45-50 or so hours a week of paid employment to fit in.

Buuuuuuuut.

The reality of our lives is that we're not independently wealthy, and we have three children to raise, and while I don't aim to put silver spoons in their mouths, I do very much want to make sure their educational and life needs are well covered. I want to be able to travel with my family. I want my husband and I to be able to look forward to a comfortable retirement in our mid-late 60s, not be forced to keep working til we drop (which, if genetics are any guide, is likely to happen in our latish 80s). I want to be able to give to a meaningful level to causes I believe in.

We could manage, and manage well, on less than two fulltime incomes; my partner works a 4 day week now, and this is how I also will be hoping to move in the coming couple of years. We couldn't forego a substantial contribution from each of us, though, without compromising on the goals I mentioned above, and without risking significant stress of a different kind (the fear of not having enough to cover the bills is always lurking, in those situations).

There has to be a Goldilocks spot somewhere. I think I was probably closest to it in the 2 years from 2006-2008, when I had two preschool-aged children and was working 20 hours a week, 1 day in the office, 1.5 days from home. I actively enjoyed my work-life seesaw for almost all of that time. I was working enough to be given interesting and meaty projects, but not so much that it consumed all my thoughts and family life. Of course, it didn't hurt that I was part of a highly functional team of great people, and had an awesome manager. I was earning enough to make life doable, but not at the expense of everything else that life is about.

These days, I have three children, all in school, and expenses are growing. 20 hours a week probably wouldn't cut it financially, and realistically I can accommodate more anyway because they are all away 6.5 hours every day. I feel like maybe 30 hours a week would be a useful target for me to aim at - either a 4-day week, or shortened days in a 5-day week. I think that might put just the amount of slack back into my schedule that I need to ease back on the constant overwhelm.

So these are the things I think about, when my stress levels are clawing the roof off my head and threatening to swallow me whole.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Everything is wrong (poem)

clouds press in and promise stinging rains
each corner of the world now bent, awry
the anchor of each day is little pains.

a life stretched tight across hard-pounding veins
and every small thing bloodies up the eye;
clouds press in and promise stinging rains.

the quality of mercy groans and strains
week by week, the well threatens to run dry;
the anchor of each day is little pains.

born free, oh yes, but everywhere in chains,
anxiety a blanket on the sky
clouds press in and promise stinging rains.

so hard to say, in full, what so constrains
and pegs the spirit that was wont to fly 
the anchor of each day is little pains.

the body hurts, and sadness freely reigns
in each last plaintive unlooked-for goodbye
clouds press in and promise stinging rains.
the anchor of each day is little pains.

- Kathy, 1/ 9/14

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Werribee Mansion: A birthday treat in pictures







I took my eldest to the Mansion Hotel at Werribee Mansion for a night away on Friday, as her birthday treat.

I like to do this with the kids where I can - with three children, giving one on one attention is a challenge and sometimes taking time out with one child is the best way to build that relationship up. And quite honestly, at the moment, where I am working 6 long days a week, finding one on one time for *any* of them (or my partner) has been murderously difficult.

So a night and a morning away from the laptop, from the dishes, from my mountainous Inbox and the pile of papers on my desk, from the world at large, did us both a great deal of good.

By 1:30pm on Saturday we were at the local supermarket doing the week's groceries, but our 20 hours away from the everyday was a great refresher and a lovely opportunity to talk, connect and be together.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Shot (Poem)

- from the sky

- with hands in the air

- at play in the fields of a steel trap home town

- at school

- seeking food

- walking

- by soldiers

- by police

- by renegades and rebels

children
children
children

the good blood of the future spilled outrageously on the ground

because -

- they were in the way

- they were there

- they were symbols

- they were black

- they were little

- they were weapons to beat their people with

what

have

we

become

- Kathy, 16/8/14

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reading Notes: The Dog

This review is number 4 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge. You can see links to the other three reviews at the bottom of this post.

The Dog is in many ways quite an unusual novel, in that attempts that not inconsiderable feat of deploying an entire book as the internal monologue of a not very likeable lawyer who thinks and talks like ... a not a very likeable lawyer. Before reading it, I would've struggled to believe that any author, no matter how skilled, could make this kind of language interesting, accessible and enjoyable. It's to O'Neill's credit that he manages to make somewhat of a virtue of the careful, laboured and lengthy sentence structure, the legal terminology, and the self-protective outlook of X, the miserable protagonist.

With that said, this tale of a lawyer who flees New York after a nasty break-up with a long-term girlfriend, in order to take up a post as the Family Officer of a fabulously wealthy Lebanese family based in Dubai, is not completely successful.

There are some definite virtues of the book, though. It's a sharp and insightful glimpse into expatriate life in the Gulf States, and the culture of consumption that underlies it. X's post facto analysis of the inherent misery of his 9-year relationship with Jenn, and its terrible conclusion, is well-realised and feels authentic. X's many mental notes to his mercurial and arrogant employers, especially the unpleasant Sandro Batros, are excellently done. Perhaps I found them so because I TOO have composed many a mental slapdown to persons whose behaviours have given me grief. It is an honorable art, and greatly relieves the feelings :-)

However, all that said, I maintain that internal monologue texts with single narrator-protagonists are playing a difficult hand, and The Dog demonstrates very well the pitfalls of the device. By giving us a narrative entirely constructed around the subjectivity of X, O'Neill is taking the risk that X is engaging enough to hold us, and to me, at least, he just isn't. I didn't care about X or what happened to him (I did predict it, pretty nearly, but I just didn't care). Some of the philosophical points that I think O'Neill was trying to make were just lost on me because of this lack of an emotional set point to hang my hat on.

And the ending - what a bummer of an ending. Not bad, exactly, but bleak as any ending I've read on this Booker list or in any book for a goodly while. Again, this isn't inconsistent, but it certainly didn't help me feel that the book would be worth a second look.

I would be surprised to see this one shortlist (although we all know I've been hilariously wrong before...)

Other Man Booker longlist reviews:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Things I have to do, that I haven't done, in the past month

1. This year's tax
2. My eldest daughter's high school application
3. Organised an orthodontist to assess two eldests' teeth for probable braces
4. Procured health insurance
5. Had my next root canal procedure
6. Sorted my junk towers
7. Finished my holiday photobook
8. Cooked anything halfway respectable in over 2 weeks

Do I feel bad about these? Sometimes. Sporadically. In waves.

What have I done instead?

1. Worked x a lot
2. Parented x a REAL lot
3. Booked our next holiday
4. Read a LOT of books

Yeah, that's the way it goes, sometimes.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reading Notes: How to Be a Heroine

I'm over at The Shake today, waxing lyrical about an utterly charming book called How to Be a Heroine. Come chat over there if you like!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading Notes: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour


This review is number 3 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge. You can see links to the other two reviews at the bottom of this post.

Joshua Ferris is an author I have not previously encountered, which, by all accounts, might be seen as a bit of a modern-lit omission.

I have learned that he's the author of an apparently acclaimed comic novel, Then We Came to the End, which is a first person plural look at contemporary workplaces.  It's widely alleged to be very funny and insightful, and I can only plead the year of its publication (2007, aka The Year I Had Two Non-Sleeping Children Under Two Years of Age) in mitigation for having missed it originally.

That said, if Ferris's comic voice is largely the same as the one he displays in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, maybe it's not such a tragedy.

Because, despite the fact that this book is being widely touted as a mixture of hilarity and deep meaning (that over-used phrase "tour de force" is being bandied recklessly), I don't think it is all that successful overall, and to my mind, it's not actually super funny, although it does have moments of being amusing.

Being a Booker nominee, you will be unsurprised to learn that To Rise Again addresses the Big Important Themes of Life and What It Means - this is almost a given for Booker listers, although they all bring their own lens to the question. The Wake snarls at life through its shadowtongue dissection of a conquest, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves pulls off the feat of digging very deep into the ethics of being human while remaining essentially gentle, while the two other longlisters I have read (reviews coming!) both squint at existentialism through the prism of art - visual art in the case of The Blazing World, and music in the case of Orfeo.

To Rise Again takes a very different angle by probing at the essential meaningless of life, and the problem of belief / unbelief in the face of the inescapable reality of death, much as one worries at a sore tooth - which is entirely appropriate given that the narrator and protagonist, Paul O'Rourke, is a dentist in New York. Paul's pretty fearful, dreary life is upended when someone starts to impersonate him online, setting up a fake website for his dental practice and using it, as well as a fake Twitter account, to proselytise on behalf of a made-up religion, Ulmism, whose people are allegedly the surviving descendants of the Amalekites, a tribe named (briefly) in the Old Testament that were thoroughly wiped out by the people of Israel as they took possession of the land.

The central tenet of Ulmism is doubt - that one must doubt or deny the existence of God in order to live a fulfilled life. In this, it's set up as as antithetical to all other religious traditions, monotheistic or otherwise, and brought into kissing-counsinship with atheism, but it's a bit more complex that that, as the book reveals.

There is a lot of stuff in this book too about Judaism and anti-Semitism, and what it may or may not be. Some of Ferris's thoughts here seem to me to be a bit muddly as well, although he does give Connie Plotz, Paul's Jewish ex-girlfriend and his current practice manager, one of the most decisive lines in the book when she says, "The only people who get to decide what is anti-Semitic are Jews." Nonetheless, he keeps worrying at it like a bad back molar that won't shut up, and it gets uncomfortable in places - maybe intentionally, but it sits awkwardly with the rest of the book.

The thing about this book is that it's not at all an uninteresting premise, Paul is a convincing central character, and the supporting cast is competently executed on the whole (there are a few cardboard props, but I'll forgive that in a book that is so unapologetically One Man's Story). Moreover, some of the humour, especially in the first half of the book, is astute; Paul's one-sided conversations with his devoutly Catholic dental hygienist, Betsy Convoy, are sharply observed and pretty funny, and his contrapuntal obsession with the Red Sox and inability to care about actual sport are also well constructed.

As is usual for me, I enjoyed the professional detail - despite being dentally phobic myself, the descriptions of dental procedures added a bit of ballast to the story that it desperately needed, especially in the weaker second half. There are some pinpoint insights scattered throughout (the observations on what makes a religion rather than a cult are pretty sharp, as are Paul's eventual realisations around the difference between meaninglessness and meaningful-but-finite).

Overall, though, it's not enough to save this book from falling under the weight of its own central confusion. Humour often - always? - is the other face of tragedy, so it's not the mixing of serious themes with the funny that does it; it's that Ferris doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind if he is trying to make a case for "living in the now" or "laughing in the face of death" or "the journey is the destination" or "everything is shit, kill yourself now" or any one of seven or eight variations. At various times he deploys all of these motifs and more, and the result is a plot that eats its own tail and loses its not inconsiderable verities in a morass of mixed-up philosophising and half-carried-off jokes.

Did I enjoy it? I did; it was a sometimes-amusing and relatively quick read, and certainly engaging enough to carry me along. Do I think it should shortlist? I completely do not.

Other Man Booker longlist reviews:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake