Books and stories seem to have always been part of my mental landscape. I’ve spent countless hours immersed in story worlds of adventure/mystery/action/history and can’t actually remember a pre-reading stage. I do remember being read stories by my parents well past when I was already in primary school, however. It was just one of those things we did as a family – my brother and I would sit or lie around of an evening whilst Mum/Dad read us a chapter from The Jungle Book or some other favourite tale. They would do all the voices of the characters and it was like our own personal radio play right there in the lounge room.Hippo with bird

Perhaps being read and told stories in this way as a child is what embedded the lure of story worlds in my psyche, making it such an intrinsic part of who I am. This connection resulted in books being read by me anywhere and everywhere. I’ve read in, on and – at times – under my bed, on the couch, on the floor, up a tree, in cars, trains, buses and aeroplanes, at bus stops and train stops, on an inflatable lilo, in a canoe, walking to and from school, in doctors/dentists/other surgeries, in hospital, at parties, on picnics, in a tent by lamp light, at the beach, and whilst knitting and eating (although not simultaneously).

I confess that this reading habit has resulted in a few awkward moments over the years. I’ve stumbled over kerbs and almost gone sprawling in a heap, missed my bus stop and had to bus back,  had library books confiscated by annoyed maths/science/biology/French teachers – and then had to find ways to ransom them back in order not to face paying library fines, glanced up to find people staring at me – waiting for an answer to a question I’ve completely blanked. I’ve missed meals, missed trains, lost hours – but gained so much more.

It was a logical extension of of all this to take to reading in the pool. In summer I use our backyard pool to do an hour of exercises most days. This involves 30 minutes of walking up and down (and reading) in the water, followed by 30 minutes of an aquarobics programme. Reading relieves the tedium of doing the exercises, makes the time pass surprisingly quickly and gives my arm muscles a minor workout holding the book clear of the water – it’s a win all round and a very effective use of my time.

As our pool is unheated – and not under cover – I use the local indoor pool in the winter months and have been doing so for about the past 10 years. But reading in the indoor pool inevitably generates a (surprisingly) large number of virtually identical comments from other pool users. Even though I try to avoid the comments by taking care not to make eye contact (after all, I’m reading and walking and in a pool – that’s quite enough, thank you!), there appears to be a compulsive need for people try to provoke some sort of response from me.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day I go or how crowded the pool is, it’s generally variations on the same theme: that must be a good book / what a good idea / how do you read at the same time as walk? / I don’t think I could do that /  goodness, when did they invent waterproof books? On average I get one question or comment per exercise session. That’s a lot of comments across 10 winters – from people who are seemingly endlessly entertained by the novelty of it all.

Funnily enough no-one commented during the period when I used an mp3 player to listen to audio books instead. Sadly my skill set wasn’t up to that level of technology for long, so peace was short-lived. I managed to kill the player by getting it wet, something I’ve never done to a book. I might stick to what I know and just start wearing a pair of  cheap earphones tucked into the spine of the book as props. 🙂

I must admit that I’ve never actually thought ‘there must be a German word for that’ – but that changed when I came across a copy of a highly entertaining book by Ben Schott this weekend. Courtesy of Schottenfreude I suddenly have words for a range of weird and unusual situations – and feel almost sure that there’s a word for being happy about that too. Amongst my favourites in the book is entlistungsfreude (the satisfaction achieved by crossing things off lists). Although this does bring strange little Miss Hawkins in A Five Year Sentence (Bernice Rubens) to mind and make me feel mildly anxious about the times that I write things onto lists just in order cross them off… But we’ve all done that, right?

Last Friday I really needed a word to encapsulate that moment when the world slips out from under you – and now I have leertretung (pronounced lair-treh-toong). Schott’s definition of this is to step down heavily on a step that isn’t there or, even more appropriately, void-stepping – which fits the bill perfectly.

It turned out to be quite a void-stepping sort of day, starting with the moment I clambered down my little kitchen ladder onto a step that wasn’t there. Technically it was actually there, I just managed to navigate right past it and indulge in a quick leertretung to get my heart rate up. Schott probably has a word for the sound I made as I hurtled to the ground – and for the one I made when I landed with a thud loud enough to bring the dog running, but I haven’t found them yet. I do know the Anglo-Saxon equivalents, though, and that’s probably good enough for all practical purposes.

Having fended off the worried dog and rejected her friendly are-you-okay face-licks, I pulled myself together in time to field a call from my mother-in-law. The news was that her lovely daughter was finally about to lose her battle against stage IV melanoma. She told me that Aj was fading fast and it would very probably be her last day with us. I don’t recall putting the phone down or walking to my study or dropping onto my desk chair to gaze vacantly and tearfully out the window, but that’s where I found myself a little while later.

We all provided what support we could throughout the day/evening, but there was really nothing anyone could do and Aj passed away at home on Friday night with her family nearby.

Is there a German word for coping with a sudden unexpected surge of sadness? Would knowing it make me feel any better about the loss of this vibrant, quirky young woman who has fought the melanoma monster so valiantly for the past two years? I think not. But knowing it might distract me for a brief moment. Perhaps void-stepping is descriptive enough, encompassing that feeling of disorientation and unexpected panic when the thing one expects to be there (a step, a family member) simply isn’t.

My heart aches for the loss this family is enduring. Aj was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. As a mother myself, I can only begin to imagine the complex layers of sadness, pain and regret at the loss of a child. They remain our kids even when they’re all grown up and have families of their own – and it defies logic for them to die before we do. I don’t have the right words – or enough words – to express this kind of sadness.

I’ve toyed with the idea of heading off on a writing retreat for some time now. They’ve become increasingly popular and are held in locations all around the world, in venues ranging from the exotic and luxurious to the more artistic and quirky. Going off on an organised retreat for a week or so could, I kept thinking, prompt me to get ‘that book’ out of my head and onto paper. Almost everything I’ve read about such events indicates that the no-doubt-amazing authors/editors running the retreats possess elusive gems of information or insight that simply make it all happen. Or so say past participants…

But every time I get to the point of booking I end up backing off. Clearly I’m either not bold enough to take that leap or am, essentially, ambivalent as to whether my hopes and aspirations are likely to be to be realised. So the idea goes back on the to-think-about-it-later pile… until the next time something brings it to mind.

Coming across this great cartoon by Gary Snider yesterday  was that thing. After I’d had a chuckle at things like the procrastination patio and the first draft furnace, I started pondering on why it is that I haven’t committed to a retreat, but keep thinking about doing so.

Over the years I’ve attended numerous professional development sessions, seminars, and writing/editing-related events and have often come away feeling slightly dissatisfied. I head back to work or home trying to lock onto the positives, but generally seem to end up thinking that I must have missed the point. Surely, I think, the meditation exercises and group-interaction and sticky notes and coloured pens really were useful in some way and I’m just not seeing it.  Why would all these facilitators utilise tools like this if they’re not useful? It can’t possibly just be to fill up time… can it?

Those thoughts then get overlaid with others. ‘But if you wanted a meditation workshop, that’s what you’d have signed up for…’ and ‘Really? Coloured pens? Again? What’s the point of that…?!’ As a result it generally doesn’t take long for any potentially positive aspects of these sessions to be eroded or eradicated. Would my reaction to a writing retreat be any different? And what could I plausibly achieve by attending one, whether locally or overseas?

Like many people who think about going on a writing holiday, I theorise that doing so would provide me with some time-out from my day-to-day life. It might make a space for contemplation and for reflection – something that writers all apparently need. This in turn could plausibly push my creativity buttons and, with luck, unleash a veritable flood of amazing prose. If I chose wisely enough, it might also provide me with guidance and advice from people who know the industry and who could help me to move my project along.

But sensible-me looks at this list and immediately starts to consider whether I actually would gain anything that might provide forward momentum for my writing. Do I really need or want to go on a retreat somewhere with a bunch of strangers? Would it turn out to be little more than an excuse to go on sightseeing junket, have pyjama parties and eat meals someone else has prepared? Would this make me write more – or better – or just be yet another (expensive) distraction?

Further down the track I’ve no doubt that a manuscript assessor and an editor will be essential, but sensible-me insists that the writing has to come from me – and that no-one can wave some kind of literary magic wand and make it all happen. So today she (I) came up with a bold alternative to ramp up my productivity. How about just going off somewhere on my own for a few days sometime? I could stay somewhere beautiful, evade chores and work for a week or so, have meals made for me and not have the distraction of other aspiring authors and scheduled retreat events to contend with.

Bringing my inner writer to the fore and giving her some space to get stuck into writing doesn’t depend on someone else or even on being somewhere – it’s about whether I can schedule my life in a way that allows her to come out to play, whether it’s for an hour in a coffee shop scribbling in a journal or for a week in a seaside shack or all-amenities provided resort (tempting!). This probably wouldn’t work for everyone – but since team sports aren’t really my thing, coloured pens and post-it notes drive me crazy and the idea of pyjama parties makes me shudder, sensible-me may have just come up with a cunning plan…

… and I totally have to get a copy of Gary’s poster – I think that it shows what’s inside every writer’s head!

From time to time I catch a glimpse of something or someone that triggers unexpected associations, often conjuring up odd and unusual trains of thought that stay with me from minutes to days. Sometimes this happens when I’m driving.

On the way to work I occasionally play traffic-tag with another vehicle, passing and being passed by it a number of times. Usually something makes the tag vehicle memorable. This time it was a little more unusual than average. Initially I didn’t realise that I’d somehow become part of a funeral cortege, at least not until I passed the glass-sided vehicle for the second time. Initially only part of my brain registered the unusual shape – and promptly went off to hunt through my internal database for a reference point to make sense of what it had noticed.

The hearse itself was quite tall at the back and had a lot of glass on display. The overall impression I was left with was somewhere between a Popemobile and a glass dome on wheels. The glimpse of a white coffin covered in flowers provided just enough extra visual input so that, by the time I passed the vehicle for the second time, the closest match inner-me had come up with was – of all things – Snow White.  Apparently that little part of my brain that hunts for associations and connections logged the glass bubble and floral tributes and my storage banks went straight to cross-referencing Disney movies.

snow whiteThe image of Snow White in a Popemobile-hearse, driving around Perth in search of her prince, stayed with me all day. It was quite a persistent little meme and was still lurking in the recesses when I found myself watching Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off on TV that night.  Having recently been diagnosed with both prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Connolly has produced a programme that examines a wide range of issues relating to death and funerals. The topic was handled surprisingly sensitively, although with his usual trademark humour – including a duet with Eric Idle.

The thing I found oddest in the programme was a drive-through funeral parlour. The idea seems to be that, instead of having a formal viewing of the deceased in a chapel – which I find pretty odd to start with, the body can be laid out in what is effectively a shop window. People can then drive up – as to a take-away food outlet – to view the deceased from the comfort of their vehicle. There’s no need to get out of the vehicle at all – you can just sit there, contemplate the display, and then sign the guest book before driving off. Next please. A tidy, hands-clean sort of approach, I guess.

drive thru funerals1

Connolly also attended a six-day international funeral directors convention & expo in Austin (Texas). He went along to have a look at some of the products that he might end up using at some stage. Coffins of every sort, from cardboard to oak, with or without silk lining and ornate handles and optional original artwork, were on display. They provided a real eye-opener as to just how much a bereaved person can be fleeced for by less-than-scrupulous vendors.

Then there was the mushroom burial suit – a full body suit that’s embroidered with threads infused with mushroom spores. These work with in conjunction with an externally applied liquid spore compound to decompose the body within the suit. What wasn’t clear was just how long it would take for the mushrooms to do their work. I rather like the idea of the body being recycled this way, although I did wonder about what happens to the residue – and to the mushrooms – afterwards.

And then there were hearses – big, small, showy, motorbikes with sidecars and… the Snow White Popemobile! It exists! I had started to suspect that I’d halfway invented the vehicle, inner-me elaborating wildly once it had latched onto the idea. But there it was, in amongst all the other snazzy vehicles. It didn’t actually have a glass dome – (inner-me did invent that bit) – but other than that it was fairly Snow White-ish.

Ford Cardinal-Hearse Coleman-Milne

I wonder if the availability of this style of hearse indicates a shift in how society is starting to view death. Perhaps it’s just a variation on the drive-through viewing option. I’m not sure how I feel about that, having been socially conditioned to avoid public displays of – well – pretty much any sort, really. But I can see that being ‘allowed’ to grieve – to acknowledge death and grief publicly – could help people to deal with loss and to move forward with their lives. It might also enable others to manage their response to the grief that friends and acquaintances experience, without feeling awkward or inappropriate.

I’ve been told a number of stories of how people will go out of their way to avoid contact with someone who has experienced the death of a loved one, almost as though it’s contagious. Perhaps having death on display, whether in a Snow White hearse or a drive-through funeral parlour, might start to move society away from this cultural death denial. It might allow death to be more openly acknowledged as part of life. On the other hand, it might simply be yet another example of a society obsessed with portraying itself as colourfully and noisily as it can at all times.

Either way, I do rather like the idea of Snow White being driven around town, actively seeking out her prince rather than waiting for him in the woods surrounded by sad bunnies and bambies with big eyes.


I wandered along to a jazz concert on Sunday afternoon, along with dozens of other music lovers. it was part of a very popular free concert series that showcases West Australian musicians of various genres. In summer the concerts are conducted outdoors at sunset and people bring along picnic blankets and snacks and relax with family and friends to the strains of whatever music happens to be flavour of the week. In winter, the concerts are held mid afternoon in the  theatre (dry, warm and comfy) and drinks/snacks are available at the bar.

We were super excited to find out about these concerts when we first arrived in Perth, 20+ years ago. As new migrants with limited financial resources, we were up for just about any entertainment that wouldn’t cost anything – so many hours were spent out at the beach, down at the river and on our bikes exploring the ‘burbs.


The free concerts were something new and we became regulars, never sure whether we’d be listening to sitar or guitar, jazz or soul, funk or reggae – but happy to be out and having adventures, getting up to dance and enjoying the relaxed ambiance inspired by happy people and good music.

Looking around this week I was surprised to see that most of the group was probably well and truly over 60, rugged up in jackets and with umbrellas to hand in case skies opened.  They were completely engaged, chatting in the queue, quaffing a glass of wine or cup of coffee before the show and or at the interval, going all out applauding and cheering the (excellent) musicians.

This set me to pondering and one question led to the next: where were the younger set(s)? Why are they not taking advantage of this opportunity? Do they no longer enjoy live music? Have they become sufficiently ‘cashed up’ to be picky as to what genre they’re prepared to listen to? Or have readily accessible electronics  made home-based entertainment easier and more inviting?

I guess as we morph from being students to adults, often with families of our own and certainly with jobs and responsibilities, our focus changes. We may start to move in different circles and, as time goes by, our interests inevitably shift. But in this process does our capacity to engage in and with life outside of our home/family/job narrow as we use it less? Do we slowly drift into patterns and routines that are comfortable and, in that process, start to view alternatives as ‘effort’ rather than ‘living’?

Either way I see it as a potentially slippery slope towards becoming old – not physically or chronologically, but mentally. To remain cognitively alert and socially relevant outside of our home/work context surely requires active engagement with the world around us. Join me in not going gently!