(This essay was first published in The Big Issue in April 2020)
It’s summer and I’m at a surf beach on the west coast. I had planned to have a quick swim and then walk the dog, me zipped up in my wetsuit, the two of us hermetically sealed in our solitude. But on the beach a family is sitting at a picnic table; a man, two women and two girls. As I walk past them the girls spring up from the bench seat and lunge towards the dog.
‘Oh oh oh, can we pat her?’ Jazzy is instantly ready for play, leaping around them and barking. ‘Oh, can we play with her?’
Dark eyes, mid-teens, tight blue jeans, but still children when it comes to dogs and the chasing of them. I laugh and laugh at their dancing game, grit kicking up around them, Jazzy swerving so the girls lunge and fall in the soft dry sand.
At the picnic table the two women in headscarves nod and smile at us, as the girls pick themselves up and come towards me.
‘What’s your dog’s name?’ The older one speaks in a rush. ‘We had a dog, he was a Jack Russell cross, we loved him so much, but we couldn’t look after him, mum said, so we gave him away to one of mum’s clients, but we miss him.’ And now they’re off again, chasing Jazzy to the water’s edge and back.
‘Are we holding you up?’ the older girl asks.
‘No, I’m just about to have a swim, you go right ahead.’ I inch my way through the biting waves, glancing back at the dancing trio. Oh, to be able to run like that still, to fall with impunity, to have teenage daughters to run with, fall with, laugh with.
As soon as I come out of the water they’re by my side again, telling me more stories about the Jack Russell, about puppy school, about their aunt who’s come from Turkey to visit them.
‘Where do you live?’ I ask.
‘In Victoria. Oh, you mean what street – no, what suburb?’ They look at each other, shrugging. They don’t know.
I play a guessing game. ‘The west? The east? Did you come over the West Gate Bridge?’ They don’t know where they live. They live at home, with mum and dad. That is enough.
In between quizzing me they speak Turkish to each other and I love how it rushes from their lips, all sibilant like the waves behind them. And then they ask me that question.
‘Do you have children?’
There is a pause – the first pause – in the conversation.
‘No’, I say eventually, but they are waiting for more.
Not here. Not today. Finally, I say, ‘Jazzy is like my child.’
Then on they go, telling me their names are Joozher and Azra, laughing about how, if you put their names together, you’d get something like Jazzy. They talk about the boys who break the rules at their high school, and more about their lost dog, and then somehow it is time for me to go, because I cannot keep them.
I walk slowly up the hill to the borrowed beach house, full of their beauty and openness and unknowingness, and with the fact that they are not mine.
Later in the evening I make myself walk down the hill to the pub, but it is a mistake. It is all and only families, clusters of kids being herded and fed, and nowhere for me to sit. I lean against the balcony railing and sip my wine and fiddle with my phone and watch the children, the easy chatting, the blurred lines between family units, and today it is too hard.
So I take my glass and head back to the beach, where I sit in the sand, gulping the wine and staring at the grey ocean. When the wine is gone I walk home fast, waiting to feel Jazzy’s sandy paws jumping at my knees.
We’re all in an upside down world. Outside life has moved inside. Easy has become hard. But sometimes reversals can be positive. I’ve been writing a list of things that used to be annoying but that are now comforting.
The tradies working two doors down from me, for example. Their blaring radio and incessant hammering used to drive me bananas. I’d slam doors and jam in earplugs, trying to shut out the cacophony. Now I go out into the backyard just to hear them cursing while they work. Something normal is still happening, I tell myself. Someone’s making progress.
Ditto with the garbage trucks Bin morning used to be a trial, woken before dawn by the crashing of bins and roaring of engines. Now I look forward to the garbos’ arrival. The rubbish is still being collected, I reassure myself. We’re not going to be buried alive in our own waste.
And then there’s exercise. I’ve always hated it – a necessary evil in a desk-bound life. I’d procrastinate all day about doing my laps or walking those ten thousand steps. Now I can’t wait to get out of the house and stride along the Merri Creek, marvelling at how birds can still sing in the midst of a pandemic.
My overstuffed shoulder bag is on the list. Years of scrabbling around in the bottom of a bag of detritus to find whatever I’m looking for. The bag is even more stuffed now, but the things in it are comforting – plastic gloves, tissues, a face mask, liquid soap, a water bottle, hand sanitiser, my phone, more plastic gloves. Self-protective items for a scary new world.
My overstuffed bookshelves were another irritant. Novels I read decades ago and haven’t touched since. Memoirs I’ve been planning to read for decades but haven’t opened yet. All of them gathering dust, taking up space, reproaching me. Now at last I know why I’ve hung onto them – for a moment in history just like this. Stories will keep me sane.
The list of unexpected comforts keeps getting longer. Junk mail deliverers. Overly-cheerful radio presenters. Even deadlines, those monkeys on my back, nagging at me to get back to work. This year I have a scary publishing deadline – six months to finish writing a book about the past. Thank goodness. Something to take my mind off the present. What’s on your list?
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2020)
I’ve been thinking a lot about grief. About all the fierce private griefs sheltering underneath the grand communal grief of COVID-19.
My neighbours whose darling dog is dying. My friend who has spent 3 years building up her brilliant music course and now it has all fallen apart – and one of her students is dying of the virus. My parents, separated first by dementia and now by a nursing home lockdown – which dementia renders inexplicable for my mother. My friend whose 3 adult children are all dealing with serious illness, and she can’t go to any of them. My many friends in the arts whose projects and livelihoods have evaporated in the space of a few days. Other friends and relations who may read this post and who are dealing with their own unmentionable sadnesses. And we are all so powerless to fix it.
All I can do is keep you all in my mind. Know that I see you and I love you.
Patience has never been my best thing. Suspense plots drive me nuts. I can’t watch murder mysteries because waiting to find out whodunnit makes me grit my teeth. Being stuck on hold on the phone makes me bite my nails. I can’t even play the card game ‘Patience’ because, well, it’s obvious.
There’ve been times when I’ve had no choice but to try and be patient. It’s an unavoidable part of ‘adulting’ – waiting for test results, or for the outcome of job interviews, or getting stuck in traffic jams. My nervous system invariably punishes me afterwards for denying it the fight or flight options it craves.
It’s always baffled me why the word for a sick person is ‘patient’. Some of my most stressful times have been as an impatient in-patient. Many doctors and nurses have copped my baleful glares as I’ve been forced to wait for their attention. And I’m not alone with this Patience Deficit Disorder.
Driving around this clogged city in recent years I’ve noticed more and more agitation amongst my fellow drivers. Horns toot if you don’t take off within a millisecond of the lights turning green. Impatient drivers flip you the bird as they overtake you – and the speed limit. And we’ve surely all vented at hapless call centre staff while we waited for someone to solve our problems with technology or bills or bookings.
This stuff is only going to get harder. Dealing with novel coronavirus is going to require superhuman patience from all of us. We won’t be able to do whatever we want whenever we want to. We’ll have to wait, or postpone, or cancel. We’ll have to adapt, and then adapt again. We’ll have to be slow and cautious rather than carefree and impulsive.
And we’ll have to be extra patient with the people around us whose worries are slowing down their thought processes. Psychologists have demonstrated that anxiety can impair cognitive functioning, making it hard to concentrate. We’ll probably all feel a bit stupid at times, because fear is chewing up our brain space.
Above all we’ll need to be patient patients. Medical workers and carers are going to be overworked and mega-stressed. There may be a lot of waiting ahead. So take a few deep breaths, grit your teeth (but don’t bite your nails) and hang in there, folks.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in March 2020)
Strange and difficult times we find ourselves in. Social isolation is going to be necessary – and hard. It is already impacting on my teaching, hosting and singing activities
As a result of COVID-19 my forthcoming ‘Wrangling Your Shyness’ workshop in Sydney has been postponed.
At this stage the Melbourne workshop is still scheduled to go ahead in mid-May but i will keep you updated. Ditto with my School Of Life ‘Writing as Therapy’ course beginning mid-April.
I am hoping my next RMIT ‘Feature Writing’ short course will still go ahead, either in person or online.
All my singing activities and concerts have been postponed for now.
And all meetings with my mentoring students will take place online for the next little while.
I will let you know as soon as i know whether my forthcoming public author interviews will go ahead as planned.
My Sunday Age monthly columns will continue – the next one will be published on March 22nd in the ‘M’ lift-out. I also have a short personal essay coming out soon in The Big Issue.
I am planning to hunker down for the next few months and work on my second memoir, due to be published by Text Publishing in 2021.
Sending my best wishes to everyone. Look after yourselves. Read some good books.
This too will pass. xx
As a child, my unattainable object of desire was a giant Derwent pencil set. I knew that if I could just get my hands on one of those big boxes, my whole life would be more colourful. It took four decades but last Christmas I finally scratched that itch and bought myself a set of 36 Derwents. I pored over those creatively-named pencils, wondering who’d first come up with Blue Violet Lake and Golden Brown.
Over the New Year, as my TV screen filled with images of bushfire-menaced towns, I had a new language to describe what I was seeing. Walls of flame in Straw Yellow. Skies stained Orange Chrome. Fireys’ faces streaked with Gunmetal. Trees and animals charred Ivory Black. These were the colours of climate horror.
Another youthful longing of mine was to tour New Zealand in a campervan. In early January I left my smoky hometown and travelled to the South Island. For the next two weeks I motored past rivers tinted Kingfisher Blue by glaciated rock particles. I hiked through rainforests under towering trees of Mineral Green. On the mountain drive from Lake Wanaka to Queenstown I marveled at the technicolour lupins lining the road, every shade from Rose Pink to Imperial Purple.
But there was no escaping evidence of the climate horror. The white tip of New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook, was dusted with Brown Ochre – ash blown over from Australia’s bushfires. Hiking to the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier, I discovered that this vast expanse of Chinese White ice has been shrinking rapidly as New Zealand’s average temperatures have been rising.
In the busy lakeside town of Wanaka I hired a kayak and paddled away from the tourist hordes, wondering if we were in danger of ruining this colourful planet. Humans – we’re a scourge, I thought, as I floated on the Prussian Blue lake. We don’t deserve all this beauty.
Back on shore I found a throng gathered on the footpath, everyone clapping along to some singing. Through the crowd I could see flashes of Lemon Cadmium and Deep Vermillion. Moving closer I discovered it was an Aboriginal flag hanging above a stage, and beside it flew an Ultramarine Australian flag. The Wanaka locals were holding an all-day singing marathon to raise funds for bushfire relief. For us.
Humans. Maybe we’re not so bad after all.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in February 2020)
I am very pleased to share the news that I have been offered a contract for a second memoir. It will be published by Text Publishing and I aim to finish writing it this year. More soon.
The TES (Times Educational Supplement) recently commissioned me to write this essay on shyness, published January 2020.
‘Come as you are, leave as you want to be!’ shouts the billboard outside the local grammar school. It sounds great, but it’s a false promise. No school – and no individual teacher – can fundamentally re-shape a student’s inherited personality. Different temperament traits can impact on students’ behavior and learning styles, and when it comes to shyness in the classroom, I have experienced the downsides first hand.
Shyness has afflicted me throughout my life. I was a timid young child but my fears became more acute and distressing in my teenage years. At secondary school I felt lonely, isolated and ‘weird’. My reluctance to speak up in class left me bored and frustrated. My teachers thought I was arrogant and aloof; one even told me so directly as she was handing me an award for Dux of Humanities.
As an adult I developed strategies to overcome my shyness in most professional situations, but in my personal life it has continued to cause me distress. To put it simply, being with other people has often made me feel anxious and hyper-vigilant. Over the decades this anxiety has impacted profoundly on my friendships and my love life. I will cross the road to avoid having to engage with acquaintances, and dating has always been an agony for me. I could never understand why it required so much emotional energy for me to interact with other humans, and why I felt compelled to hide my fears.
Singer-songwriter Morrissey describes the impact of these fears in his song ‘Ask’. ‘Shyness is nice’, he sings, ‘and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.’ When shyness leaves you feeling breathless, voiceless and friendless, though, it can be anything but nice.
A decade ago I was teaching vocational education, freelancing as a journalist and working up the courage to write a book about shyness. Deep down I was hoping to ‘come as you are’ to this book project and ‘leave as you want to be’: cured of shyness. I began my research by interviewing a number of eminent professors of psychology.
Shyness, I learned, is an inherited temperament trait on a spectrum stretching from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. If you are at the approach end (the non-shy end) you are naturally more socially confident. If you are on the withdrawal end you are more inclined to be fearful of people you don’t know intimately.
Temperament psychologists have observed evidence of these traits in babies and toddlers. Some will happily reach out their arms to strangers, while others cling fearfully to their parents when approached by people they don’t know. It all made so much sense to me. My older cousins still tell stories about how, as a toddler, I would hide behind my mother’s legs when visitors came to our house.
Given both my parents were shy, it’s not surprising that I was born way down the withdrawal end of the spectrum. Discovering that my shyness was inherited rather than a character ‘flaw’ was very comforting, and some of the shame I felt about my irrational fears began to melt away.
I also discovered that Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to make a study of shyness. In his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal (1872) Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’. As a shy person himself, Darwin had a sympathetic understanding of this state.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush,’ he wrote. ‘Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
According to the psychologists I interviewed, Charles Darwin was spot on. As we shy folk are growing up these fears of ours begin to manifest as social anxiety, at the heart of which is a fear of ‘negative evaluation’. We worry about what others think of us, and feel self-conscious in company. We may be reluctant to speak up in social situations for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Acute shyness can feel like a permanent state of performance anxiety, with the same physical symptoms – blushing, sweating, trembling and hyperventilating. For some people social anxiety becomes so extreme that it turns into a phobia, and those people avoid social situations at all costs.
No wonder the school environment had been so challenging for me. For thirteen long years I had been forced to spend many hours each day with large groups of people in situations where I was often literally being evaluated, both for my academic success in the classroom and for my social status outside the classroom.
Mind you, not every quiet student is shy. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, notes that shyness and introversion are not the same thing. According to the psychologists I spoke to, introverts are not necessarily anxious being in company. They might be quite happy spending lots of time alone or with just a few close friends. Solitude is not unwelcome. If you’re shy, though, you may long to have more friends and be included in more social circles but find it difficult to reach out to others for company or intimacy. This has certainly been my experience.
I recall my mother trying to encourage me take the initiative with my childhood friends. In my book about shyness I describe my reluctance to visit my classmate Sally who lived just around the corner from us. My anxious mind was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if she doesn’t want me there? My mother even resorted to bribery to try and persuade me to visit Sally. It rarely worked.
Speaking to other shy people for my research I discovered we had much in common. Writer Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic, described herself as having been a shy child.
‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake’.
Holden had vivid memories of being tormented by her fears.
‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying “no, no, no”. Everyone gathered around me asking “what’s wrong with her, Miss?” and the teacher took me to the staff room.’
Holden’s teachers contacted her parents and suggested she see a psychologist. ‘After six weeks the psychologist said “Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.”’
Holden reported feeling socially inept throughout her childhood. According to the psychologists I spoke to, though, research studies prove that shy people can do small talk as well as anyone else. But we are also highly self-critical and evaluate our own ‘performance’ in social encounters harshly.
In researching for my book on shyness I discovered that sociologist Dr Susie Scott has written a book called Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence. Dr Scott argues that this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. She puts the blame on ‘the illusion of competence’; the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.
According to Dr Scott, shy people are often perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations. While non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, she says, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable. This misperception of shyness as rudeness plagues many shy people, when in fact we’re often longing for social inclusion and connection. I have been told many times that I come across as remote in social gatherings, when in fact I’m usually grappling with anxiety.
I recently met a student who attends the same girls’ high school where I was educated all those years ago. She told me her classmates had done a research project in which they asked their fellow students how teaching could be improved at the school. The girls produced a booklet in which they wrote that some students ‘wished teachers could understand that they prefer to stay silent in class and just listen, because they learn best by listening’. Students are often ‘forced into answering a question, and when they feel they have to answer, or are preparing to be picked on, all their focus is placed on answering the question, and thus are no longer listening to the lesson’.
I have vivid memories of sweating with fear whilst waiting for my turn to speak in class. A friend of mine who is a psychology teacher told me she always gives her shy students more time than the outgoing students to contribute to class discussions. If they are worried about being negatively evaluated (as I was) they will be very focused on not saying the wrong thing.
The book I eventually wrote, Shy: a memoir (2015) is the one I wish someone else had written and handed to me when I was a teenager. Or perhaps I wish it had been handed to my schoolteachers, so that they were more understanding and patient with me. As Kate Holden’s anecdote demonstrates, pushing shy kids into situations they find frightening can make things even harder for them.
Imagine if, instead of trying to force all the shy kids to be extroverts, we talked openly about the positive attributes that often go with shyness? According to the experts I spoke to, Morrissey was right when he sang ‘shyness is nice’. Shyness is often accompanied by ‘pro-social’ attributes and behaviours, like greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty. Shy people are often good listeners, with a lot of empathy. There are plenty of non-domineering positives that go with having a shy temperament.
After my book was published I began teaching a short course called ‘Wrangling Your Shyness’ for The School of Life in Australia. The verb in that title was chosen very carefully. Wrangling is something we do to manage wild horses or other unpredictable animals. For me, dealing with the symptoms of my shyness has often felt like managing something wild and out of my control. Wrangling also implies that you shouldn’t try to tame it, but rather try to understand how it works, and learn to work with it.
The dictionary has another meaning for the word wrangling: to ‘have a long complicated dispute with’. I’ve been doing that with my shyness for fifty years now and it’s time to settle the dispute. I hereby call a truce.
These days we’re reluctant to let strangers into our homes. We hover behind security doors, peering warily at people who come knocking. The click-baity media feeds us a steady diet of stories about scammers, con artists and home invaders, fuelling our sense of stranger-danger.
Here’s the weird thing, though. Over the summer holidays many of us will allow strangers to colonise our homes. Courtesy of short-term rental websites, these folk will sleep in our beds, dry themselves with our bath towels and muck around with our TV remotes.
My place is listed on one of these sites. Each winter I go travelling and let strangers stay in my home while I rent the homes of other strangers. Have my tenants been as curious about me as I’ve been about my absent hosts?
Some pads are entirely soulless. In Reykyavik my tiny apartment was as sterile as a hotel room. No knick-knacks, no scuffed skirting boards, no clues about the owner’s character. Just the ghostly smell of cleaning fluids.
My temporary home in Cardiff, though, was chock-full of personality. The suburban townhouse was an amateur detective’s paradise. Tubs of plant food from last century and a rusty pair of secateurs – why did the owner stop gardening? Dog-eared picture books and bedheads covered in Pokemon stickers – where were her children now? Elaborate woodcarvings from exotic locations – was she a compulsive traveller like me?
I wanted to open her cupboards and drawers to find more clues, but I hesitated. What is the protocol? Where are the privacy boundaries when you’ve paid to camp in someone else’s home? If I opened her drawers, did that mean my tenants were probably opening mine?
A thousand years ago, when most of us lived in small tribes or villages, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Social bonds were cemented by the sharing of personal triumphs and travails. Once most of us started living in sprawling cities, though, it became harder to satisfy our curiosity about other humans.
No wonder so many of us are reading strangers’ blogposts (over 400 million people view more than 20 billion pages each month). And no wonder memoirs are one of the fastest-growing areas of publishing (UK sales were up 42 percent last year). We want to know how other people live. Reading these personal stories is the textual equivalent of rifling around in someone else’s drawers, but with the owner’s permission.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in January 2020)
Out in the Wimmera everything is enormous. Wheat fields march towards the horizon. The mammoth machines that harvest them are straight out of a Mad Max movie. The sky stretches further than any other sky I’ve seen, and humans are Lilliputian, tottering around under the endless blue.
I discovered the wondrous scale of things in the Wimmera on a recent jaunt to see the silo art up there. Giants with paintbrushes have been striding the landscape, stopping to paint delicate portraits on concrete wheat silos – or that’s how it looked to me.
Here in Australia we’re used to seeing giant things in the landscape. Our country towns are graced with gargantuan prawns, pineapples, bananas, cassowaries, guitars and gumboots. The boffins call these wacky installations ‘shire promotional grotesques’ and while they’re fun, many of them are also repulsive.
Up in the Wimmera, though, the giant silos are things of beauty, and the smallest details have the biggest impact.
On the silos at Sheep Hills, just east of Horsham, you’ll find the faces of two indigenous children rendered against a starry night sky. If you look closely at the eyes of the child on the right, you can see in them a reflection of the bitumen road scarring the landscape in front of him.
Further north, on the bottom of a silo at Brim, there is just a glimpse of a walking stick, the first sign of vulnerability in the elderly farmer depicted in monochrome. Her face is shadowed by a floppy sunhat but she is definitely smiling.
In Sea Lake there are three emus whose feathers shimmer in luminescent orange and red, backlit by an imaginary ‘shepherd’s delight’ sunset.
On the silo in Rosebery a man is holding a fearsome whip in one hand, but there is such tenderness in the way his other hand is stroking his horse’s head. And the working dog with the pricked ears on the silo in Nullawil looks smarter than any human I’ve ever met.
Then there’s the Murtoa Stick Shed, built to store three billion bushels of wheat during the Second World War. Nearly twice as long as the MCG, it’s a humungous hangar made of corrugated iron and mountain ash poles, and the acoustics were so good I wanted to sing an opera aria in there.
So here’s my tip. Get yourself to the Wimmera. Look up. It’ll take your breath away.
(This column was published by Fairfax in December 2019)
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