There’s a scene in the Elton John movie Rocketman where young Elton is auditioning for a place in a music school and he gives a note-perfect performance of a piano piece he’s just heard for the first time. No sheet music, no preparation. It’s a kind of magic.
I’ve always had to depend on my eyes. Learning the piano as a child I had to look at the notes on the page, then at my fingers on the keyboard, then at the notes again, one painstaking bar at a time. Imagine my amazement when the blind pianist came to visit.
Ian and his flautist wife Roma were friends of my parents. They had all met at National Music Camp when they were teenagers, gathering together over the summer holidays to play in bands and orchestras. Roma and Ian lived in Mittagong, NSW but every few years they would visit us in Melbourne. After tea and biscuits Roma would lead Ian to our piano. Any requests? He would stroke the keyboard to find his place then launch into a note-perfect performance.
I remember looking at his fingers, then at his unseeing eyes, then his flying fingers again. It was a kind of magic. I was a shy child so I never asked all the questions I had for him. How come he didn’t make any mistakes? How did he remember those tunes? How many other blind people could play like this? Did they learn by ear or was there some other way?
My life has been littered with moments like these – curiosity stymied by social anxiety. Ian passed away a few years ago so it’s too late to ask him now. But sometimes the universe delivers. Recently I stumbled across an article about Roma and Ian in a National Music Camp newsletter. This is some of what I learnt.
Three and a half decades ago Roma and Ian helped to start up a National Braille Music Camp for blind and visually impaired students. Each year students would come from all over Australia and New Zealand to Mittagong, NSW. They would learn to read braille music, sing in choirs and play in bands and orchestras. Generations of kids have gone home with new skills and friendships. Some come back later and tutor at the camps, and Roma still helps out.
It’s not magic. It’s a kind of equality.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in July 2019.)
I’m peeling again. Great strips of grey bark flaking off me. Feels good. I’m born again, a naked lemon-scented gum tree swaying in the Victoria St Glade in the Forest of Northcote in the Community of Darebin. And there’s a dead woman feeding me.
She died in her eighties back in the year 2039. Luckily there was a flurry of aged care policy changes in the 2020s when all those dementing Baby Boomers started wandering the streets. By the time she was struggling to remember her own name there were a dozen local government-run aged care villages in the Community of Darebin. She spent the last few years of her life living in one under the Westgarth St Glade.
Hard to believe most humans used to live above ground, using up all that earth we trees could have had. Mind you, they weren’t thinking of us when they started digging down. There were just too many of them to fit on the surface. Then they realized they could try to stop The Warming if they lived ‘downstairs’ and planted more of us ‘upstairs’. They’re a bit slow, humans, and a bit selfish. But they get there in the end.
Apparently my human feeder hadn’t planned to live in the Forest of Northcote for the rest of her life. When she turned sixty she flirted with the idea of moving to a bayside Community. She loved the beaches. But by then The Warming was really cranking up and there wasn’t much sand left. So she stayed up here on higher ground. She must have been relieved about that when the Great Bayside Flood of 2031 happened. Dreadful business.
Anyway she had a pretty good time in her last few years. Solar minibuses took her on day trips to the Mornington Island (used to be a peninsula, apparently, until the sea levels rose and they had to build those bridges). In her underground aged care village they had a replica of the original Westgarth Cinema. The residents could watch movies from the 2020s insta-dubbed into any of the 37 languages they spoke. Young people from Community of Darebin Creativity Crews performed plays and concerts for them and helped them write their memoirs. And when the residents had had enough of culture they could potter in the Westgarth St Glade veggie gardens with the Sustainable Food Crews.
It’s also hard to believe that most dead humans used to be cremated. All that carbon dioxide – what were they thinking? Luckily by the time my feeder passed away they’d cottoned on to composting. She had the location picked out and she even got to choose what species of tree would be planted above her. Me!
From my top branches now there’s a great view of the Merri Creek Forest to the south and the pretty wind turbines on Ruckers Hill to the north. When it’s blowing a gale I wave madly at them and I like to imagine they’re spin-waving back at me. Then I return to digesting my human, one delicious atom at a time.
(This essay was commissioned by the City of Darebin in June 2019)
I’ve been teaching writing as therapy for The School of Life for five years, but I’ve been practicing it for decades. Since my teens I’ve found writing to be the best way to make meaning from my thoughts and feelings, and to manage my anxieties. Some people keep a daily diary as a way of making that meaning. Others might write a memoir, a poem or a short story. All forms of creative writing can help us shape narrative from the chaos of our daily lives. But how does it work?
Put simply, when we’re suffering it can be hard to think straight. When we can’t think straight it is hard to find relief from our suffering. Writing requires us to try to think straight, which in turn helps relieve our suffering.
Important note: it’s better if writing doesn’t become yet another anxious pressure we put on ourselves at the end of the day. Everyone has different needs, different requirements on their time, and different ways of doing creative and reflective work. Above all it should be useful and pleasurable.
My advice would be to try and write as regularly as possible, not just in a crisis, so that it becomes a habit. We can develop ‘mind muscles’ by being disciplined about reflective thinking.
Here are three good reasons to try writing as therapy:
1) Writing can help us distinguish our situation from our story (this idea comes from US author Vivian Gornick). The ‘situation’ is the plot or the facts of our daily lives: for example, ‘woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head’. The ‘story’, on the other hand, is the insight, the wisdom, or the emotional understanding we can elicit from that situation: for example, ‘totally didn’t want to go to work today – maybe I’d be happier in another job?’ Try writing about your day under those two headings: Situation and Story. Over time, the words you write under the heading Story will reveal much useful information about your emotional life.
2) Writing can help us get in touch with our dialogical selves (this idea comes from Australian psychologist Peter Raggatt). Let’s face it,we all have conversations with ourselves, debating everything from whether we should eat that second donut to whether it’s time to leave our marriage. Try giving names to some of the ‘selves’ having these conversations (in my book ‘Shy: a memoir’, for example, I named two of them Shy Sian and Professional Sian and in the book’s final chapter they interviewed each other). Have a go at writing some compassionate conversations between your dialogical selves.
3) Writing can be a form of preventative therapy. Journalling can help us forestall suffering by making sure we keep in touch with our emotional lives, giving us early warning of any problems on the horizon. It can also be a way of accentuating the positive in our lives. Try keeping a Gratitude Journal in which you list all the things that make you feel grateful, satisfied or happy in your life. You’ll be surprised by how long that list becomes.
(This article was first published in Milligram Journal in June 2019)
As a word nerd I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered the term ‘corflute’. It sounds like it belongs in an orchestra – the lovechild of a flute and a cor anglais, reducing us to tears with a Rachmaninov solo. But it’s something much less romantic.
‘Corflute’ is the name given to those big posters with the grinning faces of political candidates, and Melbourne’s suburbs have been plastered with them for months. There’s even been one propped outside my front fence. Lately I’ve been pondering the psychology of the post-election ‘corflautist’ (yes you’re right, I just made that word up).
If your preferred candidate lost their bid for election, should you take your corflute straight down as a concession of defeat? Or should you leave it up as a silent reproach to your wrong-voting neighbours?
If your candidate won, do you take your corflute down to avoid looking smug? Or do you leave it up as a symbol of triumph, like those Premiership-winning fans still wearing their team scarves months after the footy season ends?
If your candidate lost but your party won – or vice versa – it gets even more complicated. (I’ve noticed some of the winning candidates’ corflutes have been defaced with devil’s horns, but who wants to be reminded that Lucifer’s just been elected?)
And what should you DO with your corflute when you take it down? Should you hang onto it in case your preferred pollie stands again at the next election? What if you’ve changed your vote by the next time you line up for a democracy sausage?
It’s tempting to chuck your corflute in the hard rubbish pile and let someone else deal with it. But I’m all for re-using and recycling, so here are a few ideas:
– If your corflute was propped up with wooden sticks, those sticks will make handy garden stakes when you’re growing your own veggies in preparation for the coming climate apocalypse.
– If you want to try and prevent the coming climate apocalypse, you could plant a tree (or one hundred) and use the corflute as a tree guard.
– If you believe the election winners need to pull their fingers out and do more to prevent the coming climate apocalypse, turn your corflute around, write something clever on the blank side and take it to the next climate action rally. See you there.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in June 2019)
Time for a little update on the events and classes i’ve got coming up, in case anyone’s interested in coming along:
– My next Writing As Therapy class for The School of Life in Melbourne is on Saturday June 22nd (and don’t worry if you miss out on that one ’cause i’m doing another one on August 17th.)
– I’m also running a Writing as Therapy class in Sydney on Saturday September 21st.
– On Sunday September 22nd I’m running a workshop in Sydney on unblocking creativity and getting past writer’s block for Writing NSW.
– In September i’ll be running some writing classes for Mental Health week in various libraries around town (more soon).
– My next one-day Non Fiction class at RMIT will be on September 7th.
– My next Creative Non Fiction short course at RMIT starts on September 10th and runs for six weeks.
– My next Feature Writing short course at RMIT begins October 22nd (six weeks)
– On Thursday August 29th I’ll be hosting an In Conversation with novelist Lucy Treloar at Readings at the State Library, talking about Lucy’s forthcoming novel Wolfe Island.
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)
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