Sunday, August 31, 2008

Winter's End

Last day of winter, though not the last day of cold weather. It poured last night and this morning the sky has a hangover; the clouds look exhausted. The wind is pushing patches of blue from left to right so that from time to time a sun stripe lands on our solar panels and on the kitchen table.

One of those patches of blue looks like a map of Australia, but by the time I fetch my camera it has become something else.

There are already leaves on some of the sycamore trees and hundreds of new shoots. It feels hopeful and exciting, but also sad that the still part of the year is almost at an end. Winter is restful, the bare bones of the deciduous trees exposed; their discarded leaves in some light look like fallen snow. I love the starkness of it.

The farm will begin to warm up and life will resume its rush. We won’t have to feed out hay until next winter and soon we’ll stroll and picnic again in the shade of the green leaves that are budding now, but I’ll miss this slow inward-turned time.

Friday, August 29, 2008


I’ve just been reading about the brain in The New Yorker (July 28). ‘The Eureka Hunt’ by Jonah Lehrer describes the work of Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent the last fifteen years ‘trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight’.

As a writer I have a particular interest in insight. Jung-Beeman and his co investigator John Kounios describe it as a delicate mental balancing act.

‘At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas…We do some of our best thinking when we’re still half asleep.’

That must be why writing first thing in the morning (what I call, falling onto the page) works so well. It’s because it’s too early for the brain’s policeman, otherwise known as the left hemisphere, to be on duty, censoring and being sensible, which are the last things you need when you’re writing.

Next time I’m accused of being lazy when I'm having an afternoon nap or otherwise lolling about, I’ll be able to say, ‘I’m working!’ and have science on my side.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


When I was fifteen and on holidays with my parents I overheard a young woman talking on the public telephone in the lobby of our hotel. She was being extremely affectionate with the person on the other end of the line, who I was sure was her best friend, even though it could have been anyone – husband, boyfriend, mother, sibling.

I was shy and awkward and I wanted more than anything to have someone I could call darling and sweetheart on the phone.

That’s 45 years ago now, but I can still recall the longing I felt that day. It came to my mind yesterday when someone called me on my mobile.

‘Hello my darling one, can I call you back?’ I answered, almost without thinking.

‘Yeah, sure,’ she said.

As I rang off I was pierced so strongly by the memory of that longing that it brought tears to my eyes. Only this time it was with realisation: I now live my life surrounded by people I call sweetheart and darling, gorgeous and honeybum, people I love and care the world for.

I wish I could reach back to my fifteen-year-old self and tell her, ‘Don’t be sad. Not all at once, but bit by bit, you’ll get exactly what you want. And it’ll be just as you dreamed it would.’

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Melbourne Writers Festival

I’m just back from a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival. This year the festival is at Federation Square and I don’t think it works as well as it did when it was squashed into the Malthouse. You come out of the theatre and you’re directed out of the way and out into the city again, where what you want is to be allowed to wallow in that soupy place where ideas float. This is one time where you want to be tipped straight into the gift shop; bookshops are ideal venues for wallowing and floating.

Maybe it’s good for reading and writing to pretend they’re part of the mainstream and that they can compete on an equal basis with sport, drinking and shopping. Maybe the festival will attract more attention in this vast public space.

I missed the Malthouse, how intimate it felt, and how the inconveniences made people bond with each other, how you felt as though you were on an island – the Island of Dreams and Dreamers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sandwich Generation

Yesterday I went to a friend’s sixtieth birthday party. Dorothy lives in England but was in Melbourne visiting her mother at just the right time for us to celebrate with her. I sat at a table of old school friends and some people I didn’t know.

We canvassed our children’s lives quickly. Seems at our age people have grown past the showing off stage, which is nice. There was a detour to talk about grandchildren and how adorable they are.

Then we moved on to the main topic of conversation – our aging parents. How well are they? How old are they? Do they live independently? Are they in a home? Do they have dementia? How often do you visit? Every new person who joined the group had a story to tell.

I remember when I was a young mother how affirming it felt to meet someone else at the same stage, someone else who was getting up at night, someone else lost in the wonder and awfulness of it all. Now here I am again, bonding with strangers over horror stories, only this time about our parents.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


My current obsession is the project I’m working on about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It’s a mixture of memoir (which seems a funny word for writing about something that is ongoing, but I don’t know of a better) and biography. I have no idea if it will work. But I persist.

It’s such a mixture of past and present. I’m always struggling to decide what to include – how much of me in the present, for example. Are my feelings universal or am I just a bad daughter? Who should I protect and to what extent? Which details will interest readers and which only interest me?

The best part of the project is that I can switch between past and present – or recent past, anyway. When it becomes too painful to write about my mother’s ongoing deterioration I turn to a chapter about the more distant past. When piecing together my parents’ early years starts to drive me crazy I put that aside for a while and return to the present.

The chapter I’ve just finished covers from 1943 to 1953, which were the first ten years of my parents’ marriage, and include my birth. Now I’ve begun work on the next ten years. I wonder if they’ll be easier because I remember those years – or most of them anyway. Maybe not. I’ll soon find out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

G. K. Chesterton

In my July 7 & 14 New Yorker, in an article by Adam Gopnik about the writer G. K. Chesterton, subtitled, 'The troubling genius of G. K. Chesterton', I found this:

'Mercantile capitalist societies profess values that their own appetites destroy; calls for public morality come from the same people who use prostitutes. Meanwhile, the workings of capital turn the local artisan into a maker of mass-produced objects and every high street into an identical strip mall….Chesterton is the great critic of...homogenization, the levelling of difference in the pursuit of cash. He is the grandfather of Slow Food, of local eating...''

I wasn't sure whether to post this; I liked it so much, but Chesterton was such a disgusting filthy old rascist bastard. I agonised over it for a while.

Later in the article, Gopnik writes, 'if obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will - voices of tolerance and liberal democracy - we would be down to George Eliot.'

So here it is.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Editing is such a tricky business - both editing someone else's work and being edited oneself.

I know just how the writer of this heartfelt letter feels.

Thanks, Farmdoc, for this.