I’ll start the New Year off with words that aren’t my own – although they resonate with me very strongly.

May I get what I want / Not what I deserve / May the coming year not throw a single curve / May I hurt nobody / May I tell no lies / If I can’t go on give me strength to try… / Bring the old year out / Bring the new year in / Bring us all good luck / Let the good guys win…

I heard this song for the first time in 2005, at Swancon XXX. It was performed by one of my all-time favourite authors, Charles de Lint, accompanied the equally lovely MaryAnn Harris. The song isn’t theirs either, but they sang it as though it was – with belief and feeling and gentleness.

I was immediately captivated – both by the informality of having Charles and MaryAnn performing for a room full of fans, and by the song lyrics themselves. So much so, that this is my see-in-the-New-Year-song of choice every year.

When you see something wrong / Try and make it right / Pull your shadowed world / Into the bright sunlight…/ Bring the old year out / Bring the new year in / Bring us all good luck / Let the good guys win…

… and that’s what I wish you all for 2016, singing hey ya, hey ya, hey ya / hey ya, hey ya, hey ya…


As is the way of things, I was vaguely listening the wireless en route to work last week, tuning out the adverts, hoping for a traffic update and generally bopping along to whatever muzak the morning show threw in my general direction. Sometimes lyrics catch my ear and stick with me for the day, an earworm that interrupts me at odd moments as it plays and replays some part of a tune. This time I could blame the earworm on John Mellencamp – or on Jack & Diane, depending on how you look at it. Either way, the refrain of Oh yeah, life goes on… long after the thrill of living is gone… stayed with me long after the work day was done and dusted.

Thinking about it later I realised that every time I hear that song I reject the notion that life can become joyless, that it can become something so mundane and ordinary that it just goes on because it hasn’t yet ended. I view joyfulness – and enjoyment – as a skill, something that can be learned and then honed, be practised and taught to others. It’s a state of mind, a way of looking at both yourself and the world around you in a way that allows you to see the positives.

I understand that different people at different times have more or less capacity to cope with life, with personal and interpersonal problems, stress and conflict. Learning to be joyful is about expanding that capacity. Not necessarily by making more time for yourself or following some 10-step plan for a better life, although both of these may be valid options, but by focusing your attention on the present moment. I find that it’s about being IN that moment, being mindful of it and making the most of what can be found there. It’s about capturing what is found – however small it is – and holding it for just long enough to make your day feel worthwhile.

Joyfulness can be learned. I believe it can also be relearned – as long as you don’t let yourself believe in letting go of the thrill that is life. Today I noticed that our rosemary bush at the front gate has started to flower. It made me smile. That smile made me feel good about the day. Feeling good about the day helped me to be more tolerant, to find some pleasure in things that might otherwise have slipped my attention. Each time I do this, each time I find something to make me smile, it makes it that much easier to do so the next day. And the next.

My joyful – and lasting – moment today started with it being a lovely spring day. Since I was working from home, I chose to have lunch outside in the garden. This is a happy thing in its own right, but was enhanced by our puppy rushing over to say hello to me. Her tail was wagging madly and, as soon as I sat down, she dropped her very chewed bone on my lap. She then pushed the bone into my hand and stood leaning against me, gnawing on the gummy end in a very companionable (and sticky!) sort of way. Pure gold!


My best friend flew up from Brownies to Guides when we were about 11 years old. I wasn’t a fan of Brownies – the one time I went along they’d seemed to spend all their time doing what I considered frightfully ‘girlie’ things. Guides, on the other hand, apparently went camping and did lots of outdoor activities, which all sounded much more fun. So I joined up. The only downside turned out to be that I had to polish my shoes on Friday afternoons before going to meetings, but I soon learned to offset that by not polishing them on Friday mornings before school 🙂

In no time I’d mastered reef knots, sheet bends and that most useful of knots, the bowline.  I learned basic first aid and was taught how to raise, lower and fold a flag. We did indeed go camping and we also played endless variations of Kim’s game. In the version we played, 24 different objects were placed on a tray and covered with a cloth. The items were then revealed to the player for a limited time, say one minute, after which they were covered up again and the player was asked to list as many as s/he could remember. It was fun – and good training in observation and recollection.  We also learned what has turned out to be a most useful skill, namely Scout’s pace – a method of covering distance fairly quickly by alternating running and walking 50 paces. This gives one time to recover somewhat in-between bursts of running and is much more fun that jogging or running flat out!

One of the most interesting aspects of my time as a Guide was getting involved in the international pen pal scheme. Our troop established contact with a troop in Canada and a few of us started corresponding with girls of similar ages in Toronto. This wasn’t my first encounter with correspondence, as my sister was living in Angola at the time and I would occasionally exchange postcards with her. In both cases I learned a little about how and where other people lived and, as importantly, started to write for pleasure.

In later years, I began to keep journals, corresponded with friends via snail mail and email, wrote a lengthy work of narrative non-fiction and, more recently, a memoir. Last year I job-shared for a while and ended up with my other half (of the job share) as an office pen pal. We left descriptive and informative notes for each other so that we would both know what needed to be done. It was surprisingly entertaining and I found that I missed that more than any other part of the job when I left.

All of these writing experiences have been influenced by those early pen pal days, by learning how to express myself in ways that a reader might find interesting. I was therefore delighted to receive a card in the mail a few weeks ago, sent to me by a friend who also lives here in Perth. She chose to post a physical card rather than send an email or a text message. It was a lovely surprise, as was the follow up package I received a couple of weeks later. This contained an eclectic range of goodies, from a vintage magazine to a beautiful drawing of a teacup. The magazine includes a pattern for a knitted poncho and a recipe for a no-bake Pavlova. Win!

I’ve sent a physical reply (in the mail) – and have created this to augment it. Enjoy, dear Pen Pal 🙂


einesteinTo my mind, the word creativity carries with it connotations of originality, imagination and success. For those of us who don’t consider ourselves to have ‘an artistic bone in our body’, this feels self-limiting. Our inner critic tells us that we aren’t artistic, thus we can’t possibly be innovative or inventive, thus creativity is outside of our operational zone. This rather circular argument ignores the fact that creativity isn’t actually about being artistic. It’s about making something out of nothing, about having an idea and following it through, about implementing an existing idea in a new way. It’s about being prepared to try things out, about accepting that ‘trying’ is the first step to ‘doing’ – not the last.

Last weekend I took part in an all-day drawing workshop designed for absolute beginners, for those who – like me – believe they simply can’t draw. Over the years I’ve been to a number of writing/other workshops and, in most of them, the instructor has suggested that I silence my inner critic (MIC) and just get on with it.  Anticipating this, I asked MIC to be an observer for the day rather than a participant. She must have agreed, because I had the best day and learned far more than I expected to. I even tried sketching in charcoal, which turns out to be a very satisfying medium to work in/with. I felt very creative, very capable.

Later on I reviewed my sketches at home. Away from the supportive vibe of the workshop, I could see many more flaws in my attempts than I had in class. Clearly MIC was back in play and she was making up for lost time. Before all my confidence fled, I decided it was time for us to get to know each other a little better.  My goal was to try to establish how and why my perceptions of my creative abilities had been set and, in so doing, to figure out how MIC  could help rather than hinder me.

I started by listing the sorts of ideas that, broadly speaking, might be limiting my creativity and empowering MIC.  The first thing that leapt to mind was the pervasive belief  that creativity is inherently self indulgent. MIC does have a tendency to murmur to me that I should be doing ‘something useful’ instead of ‘messing about with mosaics’ (or whatever).  Then there’s the notion that creative pastimes require time, money and an appropriately creative environment. Considering that creativity is so broad ranging, this is clearly a furphy – but I’ve nevertheless bought into each of these ideas over the years as well. Another roadblock for many people at various times is the rather childlike need for external approval to validate the endeavour (whatever it is) – and I’m no different. However, the most ubiquitous underlying limiter I came up with is self-doubt. This is like a vitamin B12 shot for MIC – it feeds her and allows her to grow and expand her influence over what I do.

The source of self-doubt is complex, built up in layers over many years and even more experiences. This often makes it quite difficult to single out an originating point or, indeed, to know whether such an assumed point is accurate or imagined. MIC and I worked together on trying to figure this out. We eventually narrowed it down to (surprise!) my childhood, to my memories of drawings done by my mother and brothers. I remember these as things of beauty, an unreachable benchmark. I tried to draw like them and fell short, so I concluded that I couldn’t draw.

This outlook very probably shaped the way I’ve tended to approach creative activities ever since. Over time my belief that I can’t draw turned into a view that I probably can’t do other ‘arty’ things – or, at least, not do them very well. MIC and I agree that this is not an outlook that serves any useful purpose. It’s based on the half-remembered impressions of an eleven year old – a child who didn’t consider that it takes work to do something well, that her mother and siblings probably spent hours and hours sketching.

I haven’t tamed MIC (she is a rather unruly minx), but we’ll work together to formulate a better working model. We’ll try for one that promotes creativity rather than hampering it, perhaps by turning ‘Critic’ into ‘Critique’.


This week a friend and I managed to find a last minute booking for what was described as a “quaint, rustic cottage” next to a lake in Bridgetown.  We jumped at the chance and headed off for a few days of sorely needed downtime at the end of a very busy term. The plan was to rest, but also do some writing, photography, drawing and (most importantly) chatting.

I’d been itching to try out my new camera since my birthday, so as soon as we were settled in our distinctly rustic abode I set out to walk around the lake and find something photo-worthy. I soon came across a derelict footbridge (snap), a rose arbour that had fallen into disrepair (no snap, too sad), a very orderly row of fairly young gum trees side by side with a lone fig tree (snap, snap), and a rather palatial kid’s cubby house (snap). All of these were interesting, but none of them stirred me more than superficially.

Then I saw it – a huge river red gum, standing head and shoulders above all the other trees. It was glorious and immediately evocative of a much loved childhood story. Indeed, the first thing sprang to mind as I gazed up at it was ‘It’s the Faraway Tree!’ I could easily imagine Moonface, Silky, the Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot and the rest of characters that paraded through my highly imaginative early childhood hiding somewhere in its branches.

Bridgetown Faraway Tree

Bridgetown Faraway Tree

Our host had placed a bench under the tree and from that vantage point I could gaze up at the enormous trunk as I reminisced. I remembered wishing that I had a tree with a slippery slide built into it so that I could whizz down on a tasselled cushion. What fun that would be!

I found I couldn’t quite stop myself from glancing up at the top of the tree as I thought about the lands that drifted across the top of the Faraway Tree, just in case… Like the storybook version, this is a tree that cries out to be climbed, for children to adventure into, for artists to photograph and paint, and for arboriculturists to conserve. It’s quite magnificent and the childhood memories that it stirred up made me smile each time I looked across the lake at it over the next few days.

Although I’d remembered the names of all the magical characters in the Faraway Tree books, my memory referenced the human characters generically as the children. Out of curiosity, I looked it up as soon as a Wifi connection was to hand and the second or third ‘hit’ I got was a link to the Enid Blyton Society. This provided me with a plethora of information on all things Blyton, including the names of the children in the series (Jo, Fanny, Bessie) and some examples of the lovely illustrations and cover art from the early print runs.

I spent ages pouring over the covers and jumping between examples of some of my favourite early reading matter. Much to my delight I found a listing for the Five Find-Outers Mystery Series. I read these books with alacrity at much the same time as the Faraway Tree series, but subsequently never found the books again. In the intervening years I’ve asked numerous people whether they’ve read them, but no one I know had even heard of the series. Most people went so far as to ask whether I meant the Famous Five, Adventurous Four or even the Secret Seven! So the sense of vindication was actually quite ridiculously strong and decidedly childlike when I discovered that the Finder-Outers and little Buster the dog really do exist in Blyton-land and that I hadn’t made them up.

The combination of the real and imagined trees, the photographs I took and the information and images on the website has been like catching glimpses of a kaleidoscope of my childhood, of a fragmented land that seems to move further away each year. It’s brought them closer together and has made me want to climb more trees and to hunt for adventures – or perhaps it was simply relaxing for a few days that did that.

From The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton. Illustration by Dorothy M. Wheeler, taken from the first edition.

From The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, by Enid Blyton. Illustration by Joseph Abbey, taken from the first edition.