orange blossom_23aug1410 weeks ago I came across a 12-week online programme called Write your book in 12 weeks. It sounded promising – and it only cost $99. What a bargain!,  I thought, and signed up immediately. I waited with an-tic-i-pation for the first of the 12 weekly modules to arrive in my email inbox, confident that this programme would help me to pummel my notes into a good rough draft of my next book within three months.

But here’s the thing – and it’s scarcely new news: writing – or even editing content already mostly written (that’s me) – actually takes a bit more than $99, following instructions and scheduling time. Not exactly a revelation, but it still a bit disappointing to realise that 10 weeks out I’m not a lot closer to that first rough draft than I was at the start. It’s also a bit surprising since I’m usually pretty focused once I set my mind on something. So I guess that this isn’t (currently) something I want badly enough.

So what have I been doing instead? Well, I prettied up Epic Tome #1 a bit and finally sent it off to Flood Manuscripts for a manuscript assessment. That’s a big step all on its own – and I’m anxiously awaiting feedback as to how much rewriting I’m in for before I try sending it off to a publisher. That aside, I’ve been blogging. Yup, instead of editing/rewriting sections of Tome #2, I’ve been cobbling together regular slice-of-life posts as a way of regaining my joy in writing. It’s spontaneous, random, creative and moves me to think about the world around me differently. Coming up with topics each week can be a challenge, but it’s also fun. I head out to work, play, shop, walk and drive with one part of my mind paying that little bit more attention to the odd and the ordinary – and to my responses to them.

Things that made me smile this week: driving through rain puddles and creating giant sheets of water – wearing bright orange socks with my new red shoes – a bedraggled sunflower on a wintery morning – a girl with scarlet hair on the train – watching 100 school kids learning how to draw an emu – the smell of orange blossom.

On reflection, I don’t think it matters all that much that I’ve fallen behind on my 12-week writing programme. It’s still there, ticking away in the background, and I can – and probably will – pick it up again later on. I’m satisfied that I’m writing – and doing so regularly and with enthusiasm.

calvin-and-hobbes-on-writing

This is part of a strip that appeared between May and June, 1992. For the whole comic strip, check out http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2012/03/sunday-comics-calvin-and-hobbes-on-writing-a-short-story/

I wonder what other people do when they’re feeling unsettled? I usually go for a ride on my bicycle, peddling away any pent up angst or uncertainties, the wind in my hair and – with luck – no bugs in my teeth. Even a short ride usually leaves me feeling cheerful and more able to cope with whatever it was that sent me out on the road in the first place.

But winter in Perth can really put a spanner in the works as far as that goes. Days of drizzle and cold winds tend not to inspire me to gear up and head out – and somehow the exercise bike sitting in the corner of my games room doesn’t have much appeal as an alternative. Staring at the wall or the pool table while I pedal and the dog tries to chew my feet simply doesn’t compare to the open road.

So last unsettled week I just kept busy with work, chores and errands – until I found myself pulling in at a local cafe en route home one day. It being that time of day, I ordered something to eat, although I was slightly bemused to find myself out for lunch – alone and on a rainy afternoon. Neither of these things is my idiom – I tend to enjoy lunching out al fresco – which indicates warmer weather – and usually in company.

To add to my bemusement, my spontaneous solo-lunch venue selection was the South African shop a couple of kilometres from my house. This is not somewhere I’d lunched before, although I had been in for coffee and cake with friends a few times. So why here? Why now? And why did I feel so relaxed and comfortable about being there? Probably just a surge of nostalgia at the end of what feels like an endlessly long week, I thought.

Whatever it was, sitting there surrounded by sounds and smells from my childhood felt safe and comfortable. The background chitchat in a combination of English and Afrikaans was relaxing and the vetkoek smelled wonderful – and tasted even better. I’ve never tried making it, but vetkoek is essentially deep fried bread dough, drained and filled with some or other tasty filling. It may not sound too appealing, but I can assure you that it’s remarkably moreish, real comfort food. The outside is crisp and not at all oily and the inside is soft and fluffy, like hot bread. I chose a curried lamb mince filling (traditional) and enjoyed every finger-licking morsel of it.

The serious business of eating dealt with, I sat back with my latte and thought about how I was feeling. I’d arrived tired and slightly directionless and had ended up feeling as though I’d been wrapped in a warm snuggly blanket, looked after and cared about – even though, in reality, none of those things had actually occurred. The staff had made me welcome, certainly, and the service had been efficient and pleasant – but that was all. Nevertheless it was, well, nice to sit there – surrounded by hints from my past.

taste of nostalgia_august14I love Australia and wouldn’t swap my life here for quids, but tiredness and stress do strange things to people. No doubt I was experiencing no more than a sentimental connection to the simplicity of my childhood and to Africa, which is part of my core identity. But sitting there, with a taste of Africa still on my lips I felt at ease. As I gazed absently at the chalkboard  and started reading the names of places I’ve been to and through in the past, the words I-AM-FROM-AFRICA made me smile. Yes, I thought, yes I am.

 

mobile-phone-police-surveillance-feature-largeRather a long time ago a chap called John Stuart Mill asserted that there are some areas where governments/rulers appear to consider it best to mislead the public. These, he said, include “…the political religion of the country, its political institutions, and the conduct and character of its rulers.” He made this point back in 1867 and it’s abundantly clear that the political machine hasn’t moved on a great deal since then. There’s no doubt that it’s become increasingly media savvy to keep pace with technology, but it appears no more inclined to truthfulness – or what is nowadays referred to as transparency. One wouldn’t want to encourage informed debate and rock the political boat, after all.

Then, as now, governments simply don’t seem to believe that they can’t trust the public to make the right decisions on issues – unless, of course, they’ve been provided with the right information on the subject – by the right people… aka the government or someone who, in effect, speaks for the government. The sticking point here is, of course, that when governments choose what opinions their citizens will hold, they are, in effect, silencing the population and quashing the core principles of democracy.

JSM adds that rulers (governments) often inflict punishment upon those who criticize or who censure the conduct of government, which brings me to a film I watched today. The War You Don’t See is an indictment, not only of governments, but also of reporters and media conglomerates who collude with governments in programmes of public misinformation. Whether they do so actively (knowingly) or unwittingly (passively) makes little difference to the outcome.

Perhaps we need a JSM today, someone to remind us that we have a choice. Someone who will call attention to the need for active engagement in the world around us with words like these: “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.

Instead of JSM, however, we have the Internet. We have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We have WikiLeaks and Assange and Snowden. We have choice, a voice and the ability to share information locally and internationally. But for how long – particularly if we remain passive?

And so we come to what is being promoted by the Australian government as a necessary evil in a world stalked by threats of terrorism, namely data retention – and all that goes with it. Politicians at best loosely conversant with the Internet have been waving their hands and trotting out confusing and, quite simply, embarrassing poorly informed explanations on the issue all week. They’ve wriggled out of answering questions that look too closely at what is, without a doubt, an orchestrated breach of personal (individual) security.

Why is this information so essential to government agencies – and why are they out-sourcing the retention of the data to commercial entities (telecom companies)?  Radio National was asking these questions today too.

It looks overwhelmingly like a government trying desperately to reel in an unruly public – a public that is independently seeking (and gaining) information on a wide range of topics without that information being adequately mediated by the right people to ensure that the right opinions are formed… and the right people stay in government. The media is once again being utilised to manipulate and promote public fears, to link terrorism and data retention with ‘watch lists’ – using innuendo as an implicit threat to silence the tweets, discredit the whistle blowers, shut down the curious. The manipulation is overt, but the impact is insidious.

But I leave the last words to John Stuart Mill. “…an ignorant man … has at least a chance of being sometimes in the right. But he who adopts every opinion which rulers choose to dictate, is always in the wrong, when it is their interest that he should be so…”

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.