Clownfish to the left of me, goatfish to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle of a stunning coral reef which may not survive.
I’m snorkelling off Lady Elliott Island, a coral cay at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Below are handbag-sized clams with luminescent green lips and black sea slugs frosted with sugary sand. Every imaginable dance move is going on around me – flicking, swaying, shimmying, darting – a hyperactive ballet troupe, except the dancers are all fish.
Come to think of it, this reef has all the art forms covered: the Rembrandt blue starfish, the Ballets Russes damselfish, the Stravinsky-esque percussion of a million tiny mouths nibbling on coral.
Even football gets a look-in. I nickname a little black and white guy the Collingwoodfish (it’s actually called a humbug). Later I will discover there is another one (I kid you not) called the Chinese footballer cod.
Back on the beach I watch a woman from our tour group trying to cajole her young son into snorkelling. He’s shaking his head and whimpering. There’s scratchy sand in his fins. “Don’t you realise,” I want to whisper urgently to him, “this could be your last chance!”
Mass bleaching has affected two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef in the last couple of years, killing huge quantities of coral. Climate change is a major factor. The southern part, including Lady Elliott Island, has sustained less damage than the north. But a local ranger tells us there was worrying bleaching here last summer, halted only by the cooler currents that came with Cyclone Debbie.
Later our group bobs above the coral in a glass-bottomed boat. The boy who wouldn’t go snorkelling leans over the glass, spotting the fish and turtles mooching below us. With the encouragement of the ranger he pulls his goggles on and slides into the water.
Half an hour later the boy hauls himself back onto the boat, teeth chattering, eyes wide with the shock of pleasure. ‘I saw a manta ray!’ he tells us. ‘And Nemo!’
The Germans probably have a word for the grief you feel when you’ve not yet lost something, but suspect you soon will. As we fly back to the mainland over the endless blue, there are whales to the left of us, dolphins to the right. Here we are, stuck in the middle of paradise, and we’re running out of time.
For more info: ladyelliott.com.au
This column was first published by Fairfax on September 10th 2017.
Dear reader, your feedback is valuable to us, so would you mind completing a quick survey about this column? Need an incentive? You could be in the running for yet ANOTHER survey next time you read my column!
The world’s gone survey mad. I go to a symphony concert: the next morning there’s an email asking me to complete a questionnaire about my ‘experience’. I stop to buy some petrol; that evening the petrol station makes contact, wanting me to ‘tell them about my visit’. My campervan is serviced; by the time I get home they’re on the blower asking if I’m happy with the job. Worst of all, my friend is sent a complicated feedback form from the funeral home within hours of burying his father.
I’m no cleanskin when it comes to this madness. At the university I am required to hand out a long form after a short course so my students can immediately assess my ‘performance’ as a writing teacher.
Some things can’t be assessed by an instant survey. An Australian Youth Orchestra concert I attended recently would require a lengthy essay to express the thoughts and feelings that overwhelmed me in those two hours. Some of those feelings will take months to process.
Is this where we’re heading? ‘Dear Sister, please complete this short questionnaire to advise whether our phone conversation about your holiday plans has fully met your expectations. You could be in the running for a free hug from me when next we meet in person.’
I understand the theory. Feedback can lead to improvements (that’s why I complain about bad service.) Customer feedback surveys give consumers more power. But it’s all getting a bit silly. And remember, wages growth is stagnant. Maybe if we paid people better, the quality of service they provided would improve.
More importantly, by responding to all this knee-jerk instant feedback we run the risk of removing anything discomforting or edgy from what’s on offer, especially when it comes to culture. We live in an era of digitally-enabled grumpiness. Irritable online responses are the rule, not the exception. But if we modify everything to avoid provoking discomfort, we may end up with experiences that are only ever inoffensive and bland.
So don’t bother rating this column. Go watch some paint dry. I guarantee it will be more fun.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2017)
‘Wrangling Your Shyness‘ at The School of Life (Melbourne) – Saturday 2nd September
- A one-day course designed to help you understand and grapple with the symptoms of shyness/social anxiety.
‘Writing as Therapy‘ at The School of Life (Melbourne) – Thursday 14th September
- A three hour workshop introducing you to some of the therapeutic benefits of writing.
‘Creative Non Fiction Writing’ at RMIT University – from Monday 11th September
- A six week course (one night a week) introducing to some of the forms and techniques you can use to write ‘creatively’ about reality.
‘Feature Writing‘ at RMIT University – from Wednesday October 4th
- A six week course (one night a week) introducing you to the kinds of journalistic articles you can write and pitch as a freelancer.
‘Memory Vs Imagination in Memoir’ at Writers Victoria – Saturday October 28th
- How do memoirist negotiate the tricky territory of the remembered vs the imagined past? A three -hour workshop packed full of practical advice for memoirists.
Thirteen times: that’s how often I’ve packed up my personal diaries and carted them from one house to another over the years. That’s a hell of a lot of cardboard boxes stuffed with notepads full of stuff about me. Why did I do it?
Recently I joined a small gathering of women who had volunteered to read out random excerpts from their youthful diaries. At the event dubbed ‘The Symphony of Awkward’ we fell about laughing as we paraded our unedited former selves in front of each other. How quickly embarrassment can mutate into hilarity when it is shared.
All through those thirteen house moves, I had resisted opening up my diaries to find out who Sian was twenty, thirty, even forty years ago. Delivering her private words out loud, I understood my resistance: she was horrible.
Not all of the time, of course. Sometimes she was wise and curious, helpful or funny. Clearly she saw herself as a future Author because she used terms like ‘vignette’ and ‘narrative’. At other times she was arrogant, petulant, vain and condescending. Young Sian used phrases like ‘bedraggled little thing’ to describe people she had just met. She had a deep certainty about how the world should be and brooked no arguments. She was easily annoyed by small things, which she duly diarised in ridiculous detail. She was a hypocrite, publicly espousing one view and manifesting its opposite in her private writing.
Even whilst I was laughing at this opinionated young person, I felt slightly guilty for betraying my younger self. Her words were definitely NOT written for public consumption and she would have been mortified if she’d known her older self would humiliate her in this way. I felt compassion for her. She was even more critical of herself than of those she was observing around her.
Mostly, though, reading her words out loud at The Symphony of Awkward was deeply cathartic. I teach classes in ‘writing as therapy’, advising people to track their emotional lives in a daily journal. That way, they can get a sense of not just how far they’ve come, but also what they’ve managed to overcome.
I don’t regret carting those boxes of diaries around for all those decades. They revealed some good news: I am less self-critical than young Sian was. Together, we’ve done okay.
(This column was published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2017)
The traffic was terrible. But that was okay because I’d spontaneously taken the day off and driven to a bay beach. This is the sort of thing you can do when you work freelance and have no children. I swam out to the yellow buoy and back then lay in the sun reading a book set in Iceland. The author’s name was Laxness (is there a term to describe the phenomenon of an author’s name matching the activity their book encourages? Nominal behavioural synchronisia? There is now).
On page 17 of the book by Laxness there was a sentence that made me reach for my dark glasses to hide my leaking eyes: ‘On such a day the sun is stronger than the past’.
On this particular day, that statement seemed to be true.
On the way back the peak-hour traffic was terrible but that was okay because now I was all salty and calm from my unscheduled daylong holiday. At the traffic lights I pulled up behind a little red car. Because of the angle of the sun the back seat passengers looked like shadow puppets swaying behind the rear window.
A head turned and I saw in profile a long sharp nose, almost a beak, a bird-woman with the blurry chin line of the elderly. Staring at that shadow-nose I saw the woman’s arms reach out to hug a tiny form hidden behind a child’s car seat. Her movements suddenly became jolly – that’s the only way to describe it – a jolly kind of bouncing about in the back seat as those tiny arms poked out from behind the car seat and clutched at her.
When the two hugging forms separated, a third shadow form emerged from the gloom, peering backwards from the front passenger seat. The same long nose, the same jaw line, but tauter. The daughter of the mother and the mother of the child. Three generations of lucky beak-nosed shadow people all together in their red car, all feeling jolly in the peak hour traffic jam.
And in my van, behind the darkened glass of the windscreen, I took one hand off the steering wheel and put it on my breastbone and cupped the past where it hurt. I watched the light glinting off the rear windscreen in front of me and tried to remember just how strong the sun could be.
(This column was first published in the Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald on May 14th.)
Am I guilty or not guilty? And do I really want to know?
Recently I was invited to give an evening talk about my memoir ‘Shy’. At the end of the night a woman whose face seemed vaguely familiar approached me diffidently and said, ‘I know you. Well, at least, I did.’ The lines on her face mirrored my own, lines earned in five decades of ups and downs. ‘I’m Lucy’. *
Behind that middle-aged face I could suddenly see an elfin girl from my years at a primary school in the sand belt suburbs of Melbourne. Lucy had been my friend and also my competitor, though she might not have realised it. She was one of the cleverest girls in the school, and the fastest female sprinter. She was incredibly popular for a few years, probably because of being clever and fast. And kind.
Then there was a turning. Something changed and I don’t know what it was but suddenly Lucy was the most loathed girl in our year. I’m talking visceral ‘Lord of the Flies’ loathing.
Did I play a part? It’s hard to recall. Later on I copped a bit of this stuff too from mocking boys and smirking girls. I learnt a lot about human behavior from those tidal surges of approval and disapproval in the primary school playground.
I have often thought of Lucy since then, and of her older sister who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. Back then kids had vicious names for people like Lucy’s sister, names no one would dare to utter these days. Was Lucy’s sister somehow the cause of the turning?
Or perhaps it was because, like me, Lucy was shy. Perhaps the trainee bullies in our little community sniffed out her fear and took their chance to topple this girl? And did I play a part?
That night after my book talk I held Lucy’s hands and told her I remembered what she went through at our school, and this middle-aged woman wiped her eyes. It was forty years ago, half a lifetime, but lessons like that never leave you.
‘We must have a cup of tea together,’ I told her. ‘Will you email me?’
She hasn’t yet. And still I don’t remember. What part did I play?
* Lucy’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This column was first published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, April 2017.
My favourite new word is ‘listicle’. A blend of list and article, a listicle orders the world for us into neat numbers: ‘Five songs to sing in the shower’ or ‘Ten places to see before you die’. According to the New Yorker magazine, listicles are ‘the signature form of our time’. So in an effort to sound young and hip, I offer you my latest listicle:
Three reasons I know I’m getting old.
1) I finally understand what the term ‘bone tired’ means. When I wake in the morning my bones feel like they’ve been out partying HARD while the rest of my body has been sleeping soundly. Walking downstairs for my morning coffee I hang onto the railing like an elderly on an escalator. While my brain is happy to be up before eight, my tired bones would rather sleep in till midday. Every now and then my tired bones are scanned by an expensive machine. The medicos shake their heads and declare ‘wear and tear’. If my bones were tires they’d be un-roadworthy. I’m bone tired.
2) When I hear young people speaking they sound more American than Australian. I recall my grandfather complaining about this forty years ago. I also remember hearing Australian voices on the radio back then and thinking they sounded English. The Australian accent is constantly changing and how we speak dates us. No doubt when young people hear me on the radio my voice sounds quaint to them, a relic of the past.
3) When I open the folder that stores the recipes I’ve written down over the years, slips of brown paper fall out. Chemical analysis could tell us exactly which meals produced the food stains on those pieces of paper. But the fact that I originally wrote those recipes on white paper gives us all the information we need.
My grandmother wrote a lot of lists because she couldn’t remember things. Her house was littered with pieces of paper in varying shades of white through to brown, all covered with neat lists of work to be done, bills to be paid, recipes to be tried.
Maybe the listicle is ‘the signature form of our time’ because we can’t remember anything any more. A flood of digital information is drowning our memories, ageing us prematurely, and forcing us to resort to lists just to get through the day.
Now – what was this listicle about again?
(This column was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 2017)
The older you get, the less often you feel astonished. The shock of the new recedes and instead you see patterns and repetitions in every experience. Music sounds like other music. Mountain views are less breath-taking if you have climbed a lot of mountains. Last year, though, I spent a week in a state of perpetual astonishment – and I discovered it does funny things to your brain.
My friend and I had decided to travel to Iceland for a walking trip. We flew into Reykjavik and spent the next seven days driving and hiking through scenes that looked like a series of excellent Dr Who planet-scapes.
We climbed shale-littered volcanic mountains, skirting gingerly around holes from which boiling mud spewed at unpredictable intervals. We bathed in thermally heated rivers, lolling like pampered sprites in the warm water. We drove through vast fields of congealed lava that looked like the bilious vomit of a giant. We crept out onto a rocky ledge and watched as mammoth ice blocks crumbled from a glacier’s edge and floated downriver to the sea. Every day we found new sources of astonishment in the landscape.
Being perpetually astonished gives you a natural high, and being high leads to magical thinking. You start to believe you are the cause of every good thing that happens.
‘The weather will be fine for whale-watching tonight’, my friend predicted on a rainy day. It was. ‘We’re going to see puffins from the boat, for sure’, I promised her. We did. ‘Bjork will walk past us in Reykjavik,’ I announced. The Icelandic pop star duly strolled past us sporting an orange leopard-print jumpsuit, and we were convinced we had caused this event.
We were in the right place. Iceland has a proud tradition of magical thinking. According to legend, when the Norse founder of Iceland first sighted land from his ship he threw some wooden pillars overboard, believing they would float ashore at the place the gods wanted him to settle. His poor servants were sent off to search the coast, finally tracking down the pillars three years later in the bay that became Reykjavik.
On the day my friend and I were due to leave Iceland the magic evaporated. Our lift to the airport never showed up, and we almost missed our flights. Six months on I still miss feeling astonished. We’re already saving for a return trip.
(This column was published in the Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald on February 12th 2017)
Inside the tram it smelt like wet sheep. The floor was smeared with a cocktail of Coke, coffee and winter rain. We’d all had enough and were heading home. No one looked more exhausted by the working day than the man sitting opposite me. His face was a picture of weariness.
I looked away then looked back again. The shape of the face, the colour of the eyes. Something familiar from a time when all faces were new and therefore unlike any others. Those faces can stick in your memory for decades.
Memories are often inflected by vivid colour. There’s an orange memory: sunset, 1970, daylight savings, Black Rock beach, late summer heat, no wind. Coarse sand between my toes. Kentucky Fried Chicken grease between my fingers. A laughing boy in the water who, back then, embodied joy.
Andy was my first love. We were six, he had two brothers, and our families had barbecues and beach trips together. Andy made me laugh. He was a fast runner and a good reader and we competed with each other in both those things. (Maybe that first love does set the pattern. I still fall for funny fast-moving avid-reading competitive boys.) Andy smiled a lot and when he smiled joy spread through me like the taste of a Wizz Fizz.
In grade four Andy moved to another school and we lost touch. His circles were not my circles. He became an orange-infused memory, until that night on the tram about a decade ago. I could have said hello to him. We could have reminisced about Black Rock Beach and primary school spelling bees. I could have asked about his two brothers and whether he still loved reading. But I was too shy and he seemed too tired. So I looked away again.
Last week I went to a funeral. There were speeches about a funny clever guy who was good at sports, delivered by middle-aged men who looked a lot like my memories of Andy’s dad. Except that they were his brothers.
The day after the funeral I went to Black Rock beach. The sea was frothy and brown, the sky slate-coloured, and it was drizzling. The horizon seemed closer. Everything was so much smaller than I remembered. Nothing was the same. Not even me.
Now, I thought – now I would say hello on that tram. But now it’s too late.
This column was published in The Sunday Age on January 15th 2017
*Andy’s name has been changed to protect his family’s privacy.
Early in 2017 I will be teaching a range of different writing and self-development courses at RMIT and The School of Life. Here are the details and links if you’re interested in exploring any of these sessions – no previous experience required – all welcome.
RMIT WRITING COURSES
A six week course exploring the styles, forms and techniques of creative non fiction writing (essays, memoirs, columns, etc.)
A six week course exploring the different styles of articles that freelancers can pitch and publish (columns, profiles, reviews, opinion pieces, travel articles, etc)
A one-off day-long workshop intensive exploring how to focus on the ‘story’ you want to tell from the ‘situation’ you’re describing – useful for ALL kinds of non fiction writing.
TSOL SELF-DEVELOPMENT COURSES
A course that explores the emotional benefits of using writing as a way of understanding and asserting more control over the ‘story’ of your life.
A day-long workshop that explains exactly what shyness/social anxiety is (including the benefits of being born shy) and how we can manage the sometimes distressing symptoms of this common temperament trait.
2017-09-27 6:30 PM
2017-10-04 6:30 PM
2017-10-05 6:00 PM
2017-10-20 6:30 PM
2017-10-28 10:00 AM
2017-11-08 1:00 PM
2017-05-27 6:00 PM
2017-09-03 4:00 PM
2017-09-06 11:00 AM