Sometimes it helps to have the tables turned on you.
One of my jobs involves mentoring writers. I try to help them polish their words into publishable stories. Five years ago a woman called Alison Jones approached me with the beginnings of a memoir about living with incurable blood cancer. I was daunted.
Would she have the stamina to finish this book? Would she find a publisher? Would there be a happy ending?
Cancer is terrifying and yet fear did not have a grip on Alison. She just kept writing, listening and polishing. She was indefatigable. Gradually what emerged was an astonishing tale of how one family survived an emotional earthquake.
I can’t remember who came up with the memoir’s title but I know Alison didn’t love it. In the age of short-n-snappy headlines, ‘The Jones Family Food Roster’ is a bit of a mouthful. But it encapsulates so much about this story.
After her diagnosis Alison’s Jewish community created a roster. While she endured a punishing treatment regime, friends and strangers cooked sumptuous meals for her seven-member family every day for a year. The Joneses were cradled by kindness and fed with love.
The treatment worked and Alison’s cancer remains at bay. Last year she finished her memoir and began hunting for a publisher. My mentoring role was over.
Around the same time, two people I love dearly were diagnosed with blood cancers. Suddenly I was immersed in the terrifying world Alison had just emerged from. But because of her book I had already been there.
Through Alison’s eyes I’d seen how intravenous chemo infusions work and I’d learnt what stem cell therapy was. I’d sat beside the beds of newly bald patients and I’d cooked tasty meals for them. None of it was new to me and because of that I was less afraid. And because Alison was surviving and thriving in spite of her cancer, I had hope.
The mentee has become the mentor.
This afternoon I will launch ‘The Jones Family Food Roster’, a bright pink and yellow-covered book published by Black Inc. Any profits Alison makes from her story will go straight to cancer research. My beloveds may well benefit from the courage and stamina it took for her to finish this memoir. Or yours.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in May 2019)
A few days ago I started a Festival of Yoni on Facebook, posting photos of this glorious woman taken over the last 6 decades. There was one photo in particular I wanted to find, but couldn’t. Maybe she has it, maybe our parents do, or maybe it’s buried beneath all the yellowing photo albums stored under my piano.
It’s a black and white photo of Yoni in her twenties, on a stage, arms flung wide open, singing. I wanted to find this photo because for me it sums up so much about my beloved sister.
Yoni has always tackled life with her arms flung wide open and with her heart taking centre stage between those open arms. And she always used her voice to make her mark on the world.
She has always embraced adventure – the years she spent living and working in Israel, the cutting edge theatre productions she was involved with, the mid-life punk band she started, the global jaunting with her friends and family.
There’s a story I love to tell about Yoni. We were in Italy together, Florence I think. I was 22 so she must have been 27. Two blondes wandering the piazzas, speaking English.
One day we walked past two guys and one of them said something loudly in a language I didn’t understand. The next second Yoni wheeled around and began shouting rapid-fire at them in the same language.
Turns out the guys were Israelis and one of them had insulted us, out loud, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be understood by these two shiksas.
Bad mistake, dude. This is Yoni Prior and she doesn’t take crap from anyone – and she speaks fluent Hebrew. Kapowee!
Yoni’s wide open arms have embraced everyone she cares about – literally and figuratively. She is always ready to help us, counsel us, feed us, entertain us, and make us laugh.
Twice in the last couple of decades she has picked me up off the floor, dusted me down and helped me resume my life when I thought that would never be possible.
Yoni and I have been close for a long time but we’ve been in almost daily contact for the past two years as we’ve tried to help our beloved parents who’ve been enduring a particularly gruelling old age. I don’t know how I would have managed without her, especially this year. But she’s always there, always with that quick, deep understanding of the emotional dynamics of any situation. Always listening, always caring.
I’m so very, very lucky to be Yoni Prior’s sister. I love her to bits.
Happy Birthday, my brave beautiful lifelong role model. May your arms and your heart always be flung wide open. xx
Which was your favourite protest banner at the recent student strike for climate action? Mine was the one that read ‘We’ll be less activist if you’ll be less sh*t’.
Some politicians reckon the kids should get back to school and leave the grown-ups to sort it out. Activism, they say, will lead them straight to the dole queue. I suspect what those grown-ups fear most, though, is that activism might lead to more activism – which might lead to change.
Back in 1990 I joined a delegation of nine young Australians chosen to attend a UN conference in London on protecting the ozone layer. The grown-ups had been pumping ozone-depleting chemicals into the stratosphere for decades and we needed them to stop before it all disappeared. At 25 I was the oldest member of the delegation. The youngest was a 17 year old schoolgirl in braces called Zanny Begg.
Together we wrote a speech pleading with the grown-ups to basically ‘be less shi*t’ about ozone depletion. Brave young Zanny stood up in front of hundreds of government representatives from all over the globe and delivered our speech. Then we all did interviews with the international media, pointing out that it was our generation who would suffer if governments failed to act.
Does this sound familiar?
Fortunately that UN treaty gained enough support to ensure that ozone-depleting chemicals would be phased out. And for many of the activists in our youth delegation, their London experience was the beginning of a lifetime of work for good causes.
One delegate called Bruce went to work in Canberra as a political advisor for the green-leaning Democrats. A Sydney delegate called Danny now heads up a successful solar electricity company in California. A Melbourne delegate called Adnan became a scientist and is now the Curator of Evolutionary Biology at Museums Victoria.
And if you’ve visited ACMI in Federation Square recently you might have seen a commissioned installation called The Beehive by a political artist called Zanny Begg.
No dole queues in sight.
The day after the global school strike for climate action the Secretary-General of the United Nations declared his support for the student climate activists. The Swedish schoolgirl who started the whole ball rolling, Greta Thunberg, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
My advice to the grown-ups: stop lecturing the kids and get on with saving the planet.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in March 2019)
Did you read that recent news story about the surgical trainee forced to work 70 hours straight in a Sydney hospital? When she told her male bosses she was worried her extreme fatigue could be dangerous for her patients, she was given a lecture about being ‘an emotional female’.
Women are in a no-win situation. If we admit fear or vulnerability we’re often chastised for being weak and emotional. On the other hand, if we don’t behave as if we’re afraid or vulnerable, we’re chastised for risk-taking. Here’s an example.
Over the past few winters I’ve been travelling solo up to Queensland and back in my small campervan. A couple of years ago I was heading south, free-camping in the bush. Each night I pulled over somewhere quiet and secluded, locked the van doors and slept soundly. Each morning I woke to the glorious sounds of the dawn chorus.
One night I fancied a hot shower so I booked into a caravan park. Around 2 am I was woken by a noise outside my window. Climbing out I discovered that the Eski I’d left beside the van had disappeared. In the distance three young men on bicycles were hovering outside the male toilets. I waited until they had cycled off into the night then walked down to the toilets. Peering under the door of a locked cubicle I discovered my Eski sitting on the toilet seat.
I didn’t fancy crawling under the door so I went back to the van to sleep. The next morning I headed to the admin office to speak with the manager.
‘My Eski was stolen last night here in your caravan park. I found it locked inside the men’s toilets. Can you please retrieve it for me?’
His face turned first white, then red. ‘Are you camping here all by yourself!?’ Then he launched into an expletive-laden lecture about why women shouldn’t travel alone, how foolish and dangerous it was, and how we were just ‘asking for trouble.’
I could have pointed out that I’d been camping safely alone in the bush for ages, that it wasn’t until I handed over money to stay in hiscaravan park that I’d had any ‘trouble’, and that maybe he should improve his security.
Why waste my breath? Instead I drove out the gate and back to the bush. I’ve never been lectured by the dawn chorus.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in February 2019)
If you can read music you probably know what accidentals are. They’re those notes that suddenly change to a sharp or a flat – or even a double sharp. They’re like musical booby-traps and if they catch you unawares you might stumble mid performance.
In the past year my mother and I have watched countless musicians taking accidentals in their stride. We’ve listened to chamber ensembles, orchestral players and soloists tackling the most challenging music ever written. Some of them have played pieces that I’ve played in the past. When I know a tricky bit is approaching my whole body tenses with sympathetic nerves. My mother probably feels the same.
We both used to play woodwind instruments – at music camps, in orchestras and in recital. She was an oboist and I was a clarinettist. We’ve both fretted over broken reeds and unreliable tuning. But other career paths beckoned and both of us allowed our skills to atrophy. Our fingers grew stiff and our reeds moldered away in airless boxes at the back of cupboards. Eventually we gave up our instruments, but we never stopped loving classical music.
My mother is in her eighties now and, like those dreaded accidentals, illnesses have been catching her unawares. Much of her day is now spent trying not to stumble. When she is suffering my whole body tenses with empathy. The thing that still gives her the most pleasure, though, is listening to live music.
I have become ferociously assertive on her behalf. I have phoned box office staff and hassled them about seating arrangements. I have berated taxi drivers running late to take us to concerts. I have harassed bewildered ushers about their disability access policies.
The last performance we went to was a chamber concert by some brilliant young students from the Australian National Academy of Music. They all played string instruments so my mother and I didn’t have to worry about tensing up at the hard bits. We could sit back and let the waves of nostalgia wash over us as we remembered hearing this music for the first time.
I’m not sure how many more concerts we’ll get to together. As staying alive becomes more exhausting for my mother, staying home can seem like a better option. But I’ll keep trying to entice her into those concert halls. These days, every note is precious.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2019)
I have had a lovely summer break, visiting friends and relations down the surf coast of Victoria and on the Mornington Peninsula. Back to work this week, teaching for The School of Life and mentoring my writing students. My next Sunday Age/Sydney Morning Herald column will be published on January 20th. Here’s a few snaps from summer 2019.
Here’s a weird fact: a couple of years ago the most popular new emoji on the interwebs was that little face with the rolling eyes. You know the one – contempt embodied in a yellow circle. It should come with the sound effect of a sigh.
I thought about this emoji recently when I heard an elderly man farewell a woman with the words ‘good girl!’ The three of us were in a lift together and as the silver-haired gent exited, the woman turned to me and rolled her eyes.
I was a champion eye roller when I was younger, and my ocular gymnastics were often provoked by language. I don’t mean ‘bad language’. Expletives have never worried me. I mean the kind of language that seemed like a relic of the patriarchal past. Men calling me ‘girlie’, for example, or ‘babe’. Bank tellers calling me ‘Miss’ when I was emphatically ‘Ms’. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand that times had changed. Power is embedded in language. Language constantly morphs as power shifts or crumbles.
So imagine how mortified I felt earlier this year when one of my students pulled me up for using the word ‘prostitute’ in a class discussion. ‘It’s sex worker’ she said, rolling her eyes. She was right. Some part of my brain knew that, too, and understood why the old word should be avoided. It‘s about respect and empowerment.
But language is sticky and somehow the old word had got stuck in my ageing brain and then slipped out.
It happened again recently, when another student asked me to use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ rather than ‘she’ when discussing their work. I understood why. One of the best things about 2018 has been the growing acceptance of the fact that many people identify as non binary – neither he nor she. But the following week ‘she’ slipped out of my mouth and they rolled their eyes. Just as I used to do.
Many of us will spend time this Christmas with elderly relatives and younger (possibly non binary) relatives. Not everyone will have kept up with the changes and mistakes will be made. Faux pas will be mistaken for micro-aggressions. Eyes will roll. Old dogs, it will be assumed, can’t learn new tricks.
They (we) can, but it takes time and patience and goodwill (to all people). Take care out there. 😉
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2018)
I don’t have any children (because we never get everything we want) but I love ‘em. I’m the woman who smiles at your bored child in the checkout queue. Not a crazy smile, just a hello smile.
Not long ago I was watching a group of kids playing on the grassy foreshore at Byron Bay. A bunch of them rushed down a steep concrete slope onto the beach, but one small blonde boy stopped at the top and considered the ramp for a long time. Finally, stepping gingerly in loose gumboots, he walked down the ramp onto the beach. Then he turned and climbed back up the slope again. Ignoring the calls of the other children, he trotted across the grass towards the top of a rock wall.
Jagged grey boulders were lodged unevenly against the edge of the foreshore park, a barrier against the ever rising tides. The boy took off his floppy gumboots and placed them carefully where they wouldn’t fall. Then he slowly climbed down, barefoot, over the boulders. I wanted to applaud. Bravo!
There was a mother there, watching and waiting as her son negotiated the treacherous rocks. Patience and trust. Is that what it takes to be a good parent? Bravissima!
Childless people like me are not meant to have opinions about parents like her. We haven’t been there.
Another beach, another small boy, playing with his father. From a distance they look picture perfect, the son digging a hole, the father crouching in front of him, staring intently at the activity. Closer up it looks different. The father is not watching his son shovelling sand. He is staring down at his phone, reading and tapping and swiping.
As I near them the father is shouting ‘no no don’t, just don’t, why on earth, can’t you, no don’t, you IDIOT!’ He’s shaking his phone, which has copped some of the wet sand. He turns and strides towards the boy’s mother, waving the phone under her nose and gesturing back towards the scene of the crime. Dobber.
As I pass them the mother is shouting at the boy. ‘You’ve been very, very bad, you hear me? Why are you so bad? What do you mean you don’t care?’
Don’t judge, Sian. You haven’t been there.
The wind blows most of her words away, but some linger. So bad. Don’t care.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in October 2018)
Have you noticed how popular the word cynicism has become lately? Over and over we hear journalists and commentators telling us that Australian voters have become ‘cynical’ about politics. The word is being used to describe our disenchantment with our elected politicians, especially in the wake of the latest Federal leadership battle.
Oddly enough, the same word is also being used to describe those politicians. ‘Cynical’ pollies, we’re told, have been deliberately misleading us whilst organising jobs, visas and other favours for their donors, mates and lovers.
Here’s the weirdest part – cynicism used to mean the polar opposite of these contemporary definitions.
In Ancient Greece the Cynics were people who believed we should live a virtuous life in harmony with nature. Cynics rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, sex and fame (Barnaby Joyce, take note). They believed greed caused suffering, and some of them even gave away their property and fortunes. One famous Cynic called Diogenes embraced asceticism by living in a barrel on the streets of Athens.
The philosophy of Cynicism was later taken up in Ancient Rome, where Cynics preached self-sufficiency and the pursuit of inner happiness.
But language never stands still and over the intervening centuries the word has taken on new meanings. The original Cynics must be turning in their graves to see how their idealistic philosophy has been obliterated by history.
I have a few suggestions. First, let’s stop reaching for cliches and start expanding our vocabularies. Let’s substitute some more accurate words for how we’re really feeling about Australian politics. The recent Canberra shenanigans have left many of us drowning in a sea of complicated emotions, including frustration, bewilderment, disbelief, disappointment, disgust, fear, outrage and despair. A more nuanced analysis of why we’re losing faith in our political leaders might help us hold them to account.
Second, let’s embrace the vision of the original Cynics. They were right; greed causes suffering. Happiness can’t be bought. Nature deserves respect. Dangerous human-induced climate change is the consequence of our materialism and our lack of respect for the natural world. The recent Liberal leadership debacle was largely caused by their inability to agree on how – or even whether – to tackle this problem. If our politicians embraced true Cynicism we might feel less despairing about the future.
And finally, the next pollie to tell a porky pie should be banished to a barrel in the streets of Canberra.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in September 2018)
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