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.
I can’t watch commercial television news these days. This is not because of the quality of the news coverage. I have a high tolerance for predictable reductive narratives in all sorts of things, TV news stories included. We all grow up on this stuff. We learn the scripts without even noticing them. We know who the good guys and the bad guys are going to be even as the news host is reading out the two sentence introduction to the story.
No, for me the problem is the puppies.
They’re stuck in drainpipes or floating down swollen rivers or left in a ditch the week after Xmas. Sometimes the puppies are kittens, or ducklings, or even guinea pigs. They’re always in trouble and it always requires a kindly human to rescue them from their plight. And they’re always at the end of the news bulletin.
The journalist in me is filled with a deep nausea about the predictability of their appearance after the weather forecast and before the titles. The creative writer in me is horrified by the cheap sentimentality of this narrative device. But as soon as the slow-motion footage begins – the puppy is re-united with its worried owner, the ducklings are reunited with the frantic mother duck – I am in tears.
No matter how much I steel myself for this approaching predictable curtain closer, the rational, cynical brain is overwhelmed by something much more powerful.
This is the only way I can understand my tears – and my recent decision to get myself a puppy for Xmas.
The rational brain fought hard. Lists were written of the pros and cons. The list of cons was much longer. The loss of freedom, the loss of sleep, the financial cost, the pee on the carpet, the ruined garden, the grooming and feeding and walking and worrying. The training that will be required. The barking that could annoy the neighbours. It was a long, long list.
The list of reasons to get myself a puppy was much, much shorter. In fact it wasn’t a list at all, strictly speaking. But if I told you which single four letter word was on it, I would be guilty of using the same pathetic and predictable narrative device that I can’t tolerate on the nightly news. So I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourselves.
(This column was published in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on December 11th 2016)
In the main street of a small town in northwest NSW there’s a street sign covered in hieroglyphics. The strange wedge-shaped strokes look like some ancient Sumerian script. ‘Stock Brands of the Liverpool Plains’, the title says. Next to the hieroglyphics is a list of names – ‘Known Early Squatters’ – and all but one are men.
As I wander the deserted town I notice all the names on all the buildings – lawyers offices, proprietary hotels, automotive repair shops – are men’s names. The women are silent and invisible in the public records of this town. Behind the scenes, though, the women have been making themselves heard.
I am here to speak at the fiftieth birthday party of the oldest regional book club in Australia.* Five decades ago an American woman blew into town, university-educated and newly-married to a local grazier. She was a big reader and quickly found some bookish friends in the local community. This American had planned to be a diplomat, until love intervened. She knew how to run a meeting.
A book club was formed with a strict but sensible list of rules. Membership would be limited to thirty women. Everyone would take a turn at hosting a meeting and reviewing the chosen books. In a booklet about the club’s history one inaugural member described herself living in ‘an isolated new corner on a property (with) no hours to spare.’ Then came a phone call from the brisk American (“you will always find time, if you really want to do something”) and a chance to pursue her ‘greatest love – reading and sharing of books and minds’. The spare hours were duly found.
At the first meeting Patrick White and George Johnston were up for discussion. Over the ensuing years the quieter club members were given gentle encouragement to overcome their fear of public speaking. When their turn came around, they discovered they could give impassioned presentations about literature. Five decades on, the club has discussed over seven hundred books.
The fiftieth anniversary party is held at the local golf club. Silver-haired women clasp my hands and tell me the group has given them nourishment, grace and insight. One confides, ‘The printed word has been the most stimulating part of my life’.
I have been invited to talk to them about how social anxiety can reduce people to silence. But there’s nothing I can tell these women that they don’t instinctively know. In this book club they have assuaged each other’s loneliness, stimulated each other’s minds, and eased each other’s fears. They have found their voices. I hope they’re still going in another fifty years time.
* The club members requested anonymity for their group. They have no interest in publicity.
This column was published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2017.
Last weekend i paid my second visit to the Islamic Museum in Thornbury. The first had been organised by my friend and fellow writer Fiona Scott-Norman. In a gesture of friendship she responded to a letter to a newspaper in which the museum’s communication’s director, Sherene Hassan, issued an open invitation to come and have a coffee at the museum. Via Facebook, Fiona gathered about sixty friends to join her for two separate visits – ‘Coffee With Sherene’ – and a lovely time was had by all.
We were given a tour of the museum by some of the volunteers and learnt a lot about the faith, history, culture and complexity of Islam. We shared stories and made new friends. I met a woman who has two aunts stuck in the Syrian town of Aleppo. Now every time i see a news story about the horror of war in that town i worry specifically about these two women i haven’t met but feel distantly connected to.
I was so inspired by our first visit that i gathered a group of about 20 friends and family members and went back for another coffee and tour with the incredibly generous Sherene. I would encourage everyone to consider joining the Facebook groups Friends of Sherene and going down to Thornbury one day to see this architectural marvel and its fascinating exhibits – and say hello to Sherene. Small gestures of friendship and respect like this can make a dent in the wall of racism that is building in our country. I truly believe this.
I’m back to work now after my wonderful winter travels and I thought some of you might be interested in the various creative and professional writing courses i’m running in Melbourne over the next few months.
‘Writing As Therapy’ for The School of Life
‘Refine Your Memoir’ for Writers Victoria
‘Non Fiction – getting to the heart of your story’ for RMIT Short Courses
‘Creative Non Fiction’ for RMIT Short Courses
Iceland is simply astonishing. Did i mention that already? Volcanic landscapes alternating with green green grassy fields. Startling waterfalls and hot rivers. Lumps of ice the size of a house floating serenely down rivers. You’ve gotta go there. But start saving now. It’s expensive.
I have been wanting to go to Iceland for a few years now. Something about the wild landscape, the small population size, the intriguing political history and the music scene, all combined to push it to the top of my travel list. So I persuaded my friend Kate to join me in a two week jaunt around the south of the island. We both spent the trip agape at the natural beauty. (We also saw Bjork get out of her car in the main street. But that’s another story.) I think it’s worth two separate postings – here’s the first. (More comprehensive captions coming soon)
After two weeks in Wales I was meant to go to Brittany. But the comrades in air traffic control in France went on strike so instead I headed to Rome for four days. Warm weather, history piled up under my feet, best coffee in weeks, and the bells tolling all day long. Didn’t want to leave. Next chapter – Iceland!
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