Was it when the German and the Kiwi did an after-dinner haka? Or was it when the Swede and the Brazilian did the lindyhop that I changed my mind?
I was on my first ever group tour, visiting the Indonesian island of Lombok. The thought of travelling with a group of strangers had always filled me with horror. What if I got stuck with people I didn’t like? I was used to travelling solo or with close friends – people like me. But going solo can be tiring and none of my travel buddies were available this winter. So I bit the bullet and signed up for a tour.
The travel company website talked about how to avoid offending the locals. For example, most Lombok people are Muslim so skimpy clothing is a no-no. Fair enough. I was happy to respect Lombok’s cultural differences. It was the differences I might encounter in our travel group that had me worried.
On our first night together I discovered I was several decades older than most of the other tour members. There were a dozen of us from all over the globe and most of these folk were party animals. There was a travel agent, an airline pilot, a couple of childcare workers and a computer programmer. What would we have in common?
Our Indonesian tour guide Ari was an extrovert and a joker, and he quickly learnt everyone’s names. But how was he going to manage this motley crew, all out of our comfort zones?
Over the next ten days, under Ari’s watchful gaze, we sat cross-legged with local women as they hand-made clay pots and reed baskets. We climbed terraced hills and drank coffee with Lombok farmers. We visited a traditional Sasak community and were offered herbal medicines. We passed piles of rubble left over from last year’s lethal earthquake and watched villagers patiently rebuilding their gleaming mosques. All the while our guide Ari hovered beside us, quietly translating, explaining the local history and demonstrating how to say thanks in the local language. Bridging the gaps.
Every evening after dinner Ari persuaded us to share something of our own. The Brazilian did the samba, the Swede danced the lindy hop, I warbled an aria, the Kiwi stomped a haka and Ari sang the Islamic call to prayer for us. And finally it dawned on me just how delightful differences could be.
When I was an ABC radio presenter the management mantra in vogue at the time was ‘try to use the present tense’. Reporting in the present tense, we were told, makes stories seem fresh and exciting. For example, ‘An artwork was sold for a million dollars’ sounds like yesterday’s news. ‘Artwork sells for a million dollars!’ sounds like it could be happening right now.
I had a running joke with my producer friend Sally. We tried to out-do each other in ‘freshening up’ imaginary stories. ‘Michelangelo paints ceiling and crowd goes wild!’ she’d say. Then it was my turn: ‘Elvis leaves the building and Elvis impersonators rejoice!’
Sally is one of those ‘social glue’ people. Friendship groups form around her. She used to bring her dog Teddy into the office and stern colleagues would melt at the sight of him. When she left the ABC she took the party vibe with her.
In her next job – media guru for Parks Victoria – she persuaded taciturn park rangers to share their best bush stories with the world. She once created a viral internet sensation by posting a nutty photo of a hairless baby wombat on the Parks Vic website (go ahead, Google it).
I haven’t thought much about past and present tense since I left radio. But recently I re-discovered just how very different they are.
Early this year Sally was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive lymphoma. While she endured months of fierce chemotherapy, Sally’s room at the Peter Mac cancer hospital became party central.
Dozens of friends and relations came to visit, marveling as Sally modeled her new beanies and told us stories about her amazing life. These stories happened in the past but they deserve to be told in the present tense.
‘Young Australian woman hitchhikes alone across Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror’. ‘Farmer’s daughter runs remote sheep farm with her sister and shows the shearers what’s what’. ‘Former sheep farmer writes children’s book about pet lamb caught up in live sheep export trade.’
Two months ago Sally’s story came to an end in a hospital bed surrounded by her loved ones. And overnight I had to start talking about my friend in the past tense. Every sentence hurts.
I would much rather compose a sentence about her in the future tense: Sian will never forget her fabulous fearless friend Sally.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in September 2019)
If you want to know if the grass really is greener on the other side, why not spend a day in a stranger’s garden?
For a while now I’ve harboured an escape fantasy from my day job. Telling stories for a living can sometimes feel like hollering into a head wind. It’s hard to know whether anyone can hear you. Sometimes I’ve dreamt of buying a mowing franchise. I could prune trees and zig-zag through overgrown grass and at the end of the day the results would be right there in front of me – smooth lawns and happy customers. But would the reality match the fantasy? I decided to find out.
Recently I spent an afternoon working with a bloke we’ll call Jim. He tells stories for a living too, mostly on the television, but when there’s a lull in that work Jim tows his trailer around the suburbs and sorts out other people’s gardens. This particular day the job involved cutting back a dense hedge that had grown to twice Jim’s height.
Before we began work Jim handed me some radio headphones pre-tuned to an ABC talk station. He had a pair on too. As he wielded various screeching chainsaws and I dragged fallen branches into the trailer, we both listened to people telling stories on the radio.
When the elderly owner of the hedge popped out his front door to see how we were going, he and Jim and I swapped stories about garden-wrecking possums. When Jim and I paused for a drink, Jim told me stories about his wife and children and I told him stories about my latest travels in the campervan.
When we finished trimming the hedge we headed off to the tip. As we crawled through the peak-hour traffic Jim and I passed the time raving about the best TV shows we’d seen lately and the clever story-telling devices their writers had used.
We got to the tip just after closing time and there was a woman locking the gate. Jim jumped out of the ute and told her all about the high hedge and the terrible traffic and the family drama that would ensue if we couldn’t drop off the green waste. Jim’s story was so persuasive she unlocked the gate again and let us in.
Driving home that night I decided storytelling wasn’t such a bad way to earn a living after all.
(This column was published by Fairfax in August 2019)
I have been travelling to warmer places over the past couple of weeks. I joined an Intrepid Travel tour group in a trip to Lombok and the Gili Islands. It was the first time i’d done an organised tour like this and i had a brilliant time. then i had four days at the Darwin Festival with friends, attending art exhibitions, concerts and theatre productions. Here are a few photos.
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)
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