Letter To A Fellow Dreamer

My absolutely favourite part of being a writer is the beautiful, inspiring, humbling letters and emails I've received from readers. Georgia, from the UK, has sent me this letter which she originally wrote as part of her English coursework, and she has kindly granted me permission to quote part of it here. I wanted to share it because she describes the relationship between author and reader so perfectly and with such eloquence. She says:

I do not know who you are, where you are as I write this, but it does not matter to me. For I have lost myself many times in a world that you created, and there was never any need for me to meet you. You were there though, when I journeyed across land and sea; my invisible guide from page to page, pointing out what was there to be noticed and shielding what would give away the ending. So I feel like I know you, as if the story can teach me anything about the author, the dreamer...

I can see myself in the future, standing barefoot on the bank of a river watching the churning water only centimetres below me, surrounded by wild and overgrown plants, trees waving at me in the wind. The sun will be shining on my back warming my skin and clothes and my hair tickling my chin. The only sound will be that of the water and of the calling birds above. I will be looking back at what inspired me to create my entwining fibres of vision, and I will see rolling dunes stretching to the red horizon. There will be a group of travellers alongside me, and we will be trekking across the shifting sand of a waterless sea. I will be smiling and gently rubbing the small red lump on the fourth finger of my right hand I will get from writing down all my ideas.

What does it feel like to have started off my roller coaster? I know nothing about you but your stories, and yet have complete trust in your mind and imagination, enough to call them my inspiration. After reading what you created I realised what I want to be; an author or writer of some sort, an artist of the twisted worlds that flood every person's mind. I look out of the window and see the movement of the living things; from the trees to the animals that fly past the glass and I wonder if the world you invented is as alive as what I observe in front of me now? Mine is.


Someone at Readings Loves Cicada Summer...

Readings, the best bookshop(s) in Melbourne, have picked their staff favourites for 2009. Very chuffed to see Cicada Summer has snuck in there!

Thank you, Readings.


Remember I said I was going on a yoga weekend and I was scared I wouldn't be allowed to read books? Well, I went, and I was allowed to read.

But I didn't want to.

Five Things I Loved About Yoga Camp

1) It was beautiful.
This was where we stayed. The ashram is surrounded by forest. Kangaroos and wallabies wander the property, magpies, parrots and kookaburras call, fairy wrens hop through the gardens, and a tiny but insistent frog tok-ked periodically from the pond. (We saw rabbits and foxes too.) The gardens are serene, the simple buildings look out over trees and gardens drenched by gentle rain. No TV, no phone, no radio, no internet. Just being there was refreshment for the soul.
2) The yoga.
Well, the whole experience was all sort of yoga, but I'm talking about the bendy-stretchy stuff. My favourite sessions were Yoga Nidra, where you lie still and someone talks you through deep relaxation and a kind of guided meditation. It was absolutely blissful (and two story ideas came to me while I was in a trance, hooray). Some people fell asleep. Okay, I fell asleep too, but only for a second.
3) The chanting.
I didn't know there was going to be chanting, and to be honest, if I'd been told, I might not have come. But it was great. We chanted mantras, and even though I didn't know what they meant, the experience of community singing or chanting is so powerful and joyous, it didn't matter. Group singing was always the part I loved about church, when I went, and this was just the same (albeit in Sanskrit). It's interesting that different spiritual traditions end up using the same tools - music, meditation, prayer, work - though they might label them differently.
In one session our teacher talked about the yogic tradition of using chanting to alter energy in the body, to create healing energy in the world, and I couldn't resist a private smile as I thought about the magical chantments of my Tremaris books. Maybe it's not so far-fetched after all.
4) Getting up at 5am
No, really. Okay, you'll just have to trust me on that one.
5) Karma yoga
This means housework. We didn't have to do much, just half an hour a day - mopping bathrooms or cleaning toilets. If we'd stayed longer, we might have helped in the gardens (they have an incredible vegie garden, and most of the meals we ate were grown on the ashram) or the kitchen, preparing the vegetarian meals. But it didn't seem like work, because everyone was doing it at the same time. The idea is that, if done mindfully, domestic work can be a kind of meditation too. And I must say, it was lovely to be somewhere that was uncluttered, and tidy, and scrupulously clean. It made me realise how stressful it is to live in the kind of mess that I'm used to at home. I need to re-think my attitude to housework - and enforce it on my family! This might be a work in progress...

In fact, there were more than five things I loved but I won't bore you any further. Suffice to say that I'm very glad I went, and while I won't be joining the ashram any time soon, I came away with a renewed determination to practice yoga every day, and some new ideas about how to enmesh it into my life. Thanks to Elizabeth for asking me to go with her.

Hari om!


If It Feels Like Summer...

... that's because it already is. According to my trusty Aboriginal calendar for Melbourne, we are into High Summer, which will continue until the end of January. The grasses are seeding (as my itchy eyes and running nose are well aware) and birds are feeding their young -- though I must say there seems to have been a decrease in magpie swoopage this year. Has anyone else noticed this? I don't think I've been swooped once this season (touch wood).

When I was a kid, summer was the season people looked forward to the most - warm days, beach holidays, Christmas, long days at the cricket. Now the arrival of summer is experienced with dread. Summer means bushfires, enervating heat, gardens baked crisp, skin cancer. We can't wait for it to be over. And summer seems to get longer every year, stretching from November all the way through March...

Just the way the first inhabitants of this country knew.


Reading Addict

I am a compulsive reader, and have always been. I gobble books the way some people gobble chocolate. I need to have a book on the go, and I need to have the next five or six books lined up waiting, before I can relax. That massive list of books I picked up at the library sale? I've already ploughed through five of them, along with a couple of (borrowed) library books, in the last week. That's not counting the daily newspaper, the weekend liftouts, some of The Monthly, and quite a few hours of net-trawling.

I can't eat without a book in front of me. If I find myself with a spare minute, I won't use it to wipe down the bench or tidy the toys; I'll read, diving into my latest book, devouring it greedily, eyes frantically scanning just to the end of this next chapter, then I'll do the ironing... (yeah, right).

I have a problem with reading. It's my drug. I can't live without it. Next weekend I'm going on a yoga retreat and my biggest fear is that I won't be allowed to read. Back in my travelling days, when I went to Rome by myself for three weeks, I spent a fortune on second hand books in English. I bought by weight, by smallness of font. I bought ancient classics in tiny type that I didn't even particularly want to read, in the desperate hope that I could eke them out longer. I couldn't. I couldn't help myself.

I read more, and faster, when I'm anxious or unhappy. I read to escape. I read when I need space. I read to switch off. I fall into a book as some might fall into a bottle of whisky. I recently finished Augusten Burrough's Dry, his memoir about giving up alcohol, and I was dismayed at the parallels. Of course, reading won't give you liver disease, but there are other costs. Reading is private; it's anti-social. My children resent my reading; they know that I'm not listening properly when I'm buried in a book. I can be sitting in a room with my husband, but I'm not there; I'm in Georgian England, or New York, or inside a teenage film buff's head. I wonder if I've read so much to avoid living my own life, if there are experiences I might have had in reality if I hadn't spent so much time reading about them.

Once or twice I've toyed with the idea of giving up reading - not permanently, but say, for Lent, or when I'm trying to break one of the girls of some annoying habit. You stop waking me up at 5.30am and I'll stop reading. For a week. Ho ho. It's never going to happen. I can't even seriously contemplate making the attempt. Is there such a thing as Readaholics Anonymous? I'm not the only one out there, surely? Or are you all in denial?


The Slightly Delayed Library Book Sale Post

For Alice and Evie
Stupidly I didn't divide these up between them but airily said, 'You can share.' How long have I been a mother, exactly? You would think I'd know better.
Elephant's Lunch, Kate Walker
Tashi and the Dancing Shoes, Anna Fienberg
Tashi and the Forbidden Room, Anna Fiendberg
When Anna Slept Over, Jane Godwin
One Night At Lottie's House, Max Dann
Scruffy's Day Out, Rachel Flynn
Tai's Penguin, Raewyn Caisley
What a Goat! Narelle Oliver
Up For Sale Rachel Flynn
The library was clearing out their beginner chapter books (Nibbles, Solos etc) and I snapped up all these. Perfect for Alice to read herself and for Evie to listen to (and help to read herself, a bit). Now I wish I'd taken a dozen more.

For Alice
Rowan Hood, Nancy Springer
The story of an outlaw girl in the forest, Robin Hood's daughter, and her pet wolf-dog. It could have been written for Alice, who longs to live in a forest with a wolf-dog. Today she made me read it all down the road to school and right up to the classroom door, where I had to stop in mid-sentence.

For Michael
Escape To Death, Hugh Clarke
This is about the Cowra Breakout. It was right next to an old favourite of Mikey's called Die Like The Carp on the same subject. He can read it in the bath.
On The Duckboards, Gwynedd Hunter-Payne
At first glance I assumed this was a Western Front book but when I got it home I realised it was about nursing the wounded of WWII -- not Mikey's favourite war. Oh well, maybe I'll read it myself.

For me
Seven-Day Magic and The Well-Wishers, Edward Eager
Because I am very fond of Mr Eager and his gentle, funny fantasies. I think I have them all now.
Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood
A Phryne Fisher story I haven't read yet. Woo! One for a rainy day (if we ever get them again).
101 Lies Men Tell Women, Dory Holland
Because I'm a sucker for trashy pop-psych books. However this one looks like it might be quite bitter and not light-hearted at all. I might quietly slip this back into the pile at the next sale.
Tiger's Eye, Inga Clendinnen
A memoir. Dancing With Strangers was mesmerising, so I'm looking forward to this.
The Silver Crown, Robert O'Brien
Penni picked this up for herself but when I told her I hadn't read it she forced it into my hands. It looks lovely, fairy-taley and magical.
A Midnight Clear, Katherine Paterson
Katherine Paterson is such a thoughtful, interesting writer. This is a book of Christmas stories which I might read aloud at the appropriate time of year (note to neighbours and shopping centres: November is NOT Christmas!)
The Endless Steppe, Esther Hautzig
I remember having this read to us at school. I seem to remember it was rather grim. True story of a family exiled to Siberia.
Second Star To the Right, Deborah Hautzig
Esther's daughter. Penni found me this. It's about anorexia. Grimness seems to run in the family.
Starry Nights, Judith Clarke
Penni says this is good, too. It's a beautiful cover, and I'm always up for a "haunting mystery."
Njunjul the Sun, Meme McDonald & Boori Pryor
I've been meaning to read this for ages so I was thrilled to find it on the table.

In short, an excellent haul! I promised myself to be restrained this time but I'm glad I wasn't. I did, however, limit myself to one green bag full. They fitted very neatly.


Ballet Books

Back when I was a lass, there were two kinds of books about the real world: horsey books and ballet books. (Oh yes, I suppose there were school stories too - the Abbey books, Malory Towers and so forth, but I wasn't a massive fan. Someone else will have to write about those.) I had no hope of ever owning a pony, but ballet was in my blood. My grandmother was a ballet teacher, my aunt was a ballerina, and I started ballet lessons when I was four and continued them even in the wilds of New Guinea. Maybe... just maybe... I might become a ballerina one day?

The Alien Onions have just given us a lovely post about horsey books, but they have balked at tackling ballet books. So here is my own (by no means exhaustive) list of favourites in that genre.

1. Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild

The grandmother of them all. Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are all brought home as adopted babies by the eccentric Gum who promptly disappears, leaving not much money behind for his niece Sylvia to bring up the children. Sylvia converts their great big house into lodgings and the sisters end up training to earn their living as dancers and actresses at Madame Fidolia's school.
I read this until the pages nearly fell out (they were certainly very thoroughly nibbled), and despite the fairy-tale ending, the subliminal message of the girls creating their own family and destiny ('No-one can say it's because of our grandfathers') still stands the test of time.

Needless to say there are loads of other Noel Streatfeild books dealing with similar themes, about children entering the world of the stage or ice-skating or films or tennis. The refreshing thing about them now is that the emphasis is not on being 'discovered', and instant celebrity, but on the need for endless practice and hard work as well as raw talent. Streatfeild also had a gift for writing well-rounded adult characters with their own psychological agendas, which makes for thoroughly enjoyable adult re-reading. Ballet Shoes For Anna, about some Turkish orphans (!) shipped to the UK, is particularly poignant.

2. The Sadler's Wells books, by Lorna Hill

I think I actually started these with Veronica at the Wells which is the second book in the series. There are heaps and I must admit I haven't read most of them. Though there is a ballet background, these are really romances, tracing the tangled relationships between Veronica (another orphan!), her horrible relations and the moody, temperamental Sebastian. Veronica has to choose between Sebastian's love and dancing - or can she have it all? Set in the 50s, the assumptions seem quite dated at first, but perhaps the world hasn't changed that much after all...

3. Ballet for Laura, and Laura's Summer Ballet, by Linda Blake

I nearly cried when I found this cover. I remember Laura's Summer Ballet so vividly - the ballet school temporarily relocates to the seaside, and as part of their end-of-year assessment, they have to prepare their own ballet. The pupils base it on a mysterious painting which looks just like Laura... This was my first introduction to the word and the concept of "choreography," which I found completely fascinating; I loved the idea that you didn't have to be a dancer, you could create dances for others to perform... (Shades of things to come, perhaps.) I also identified strongly with the shy, modest Laura (yet another bloody orphan, by the way!)

4. Ballerina, by Nada Curcija-Prodanovic

Okay, this one is pretty obscure, in fact I had to do some serious internet searching before I tracked it down. The basic story of the ballet school, and the feuds and friendships within it, was familiar territory by this stage, but this book had the distinction of being set in Yugoslavia, where vowels were apparently outlawed and no-one's name was remotely pronounceable. Perhaps this is why it's left less of an impression than the others on this list. Still, I'd love to read it again!

Having compiled this admittedly brief list, it becomes blatantly obvious why my ballet career never took off. With two parents very much alive, my hopes were blighted before I ever laced on a satin shoe.

Any faves I've missed? Any other ballet girls out there?


Melbourne Cup Day

We had a family sweep (no cash involved, just glory) and I'm slightly disturbed that Alice managed to pick first, second and third.

This follows her triumph on Grand Final Day (where quite a bit of cash was involved) when she scooped the pool in picking the winner and margin, and the Norm Smith medallist.

Hm. Maybe her grandfather's gambling genes have skipped a generation. Maybe we should teach her poker.


A Long, Sad Week

Michael's father died.

Michael is sad and tired. He doesn't want to talk about it. He lost his father a long, long time ago. To those who don't know his family history, he has to try to explain his feelings with the vague phrase, we weren't close.

I stand before the coffin with this small band of people, Michael's family, my family now. They are knit tight with love, bound by their shared experience of surviving hell together. Michael's sister speaks of their father's pain, of saying goodbye without ill will. We all weep - brothers, sisters, mother, grandchildren.

I'm angry and sad. I don't want to forgive. But I'm sorry, too, aching for a wasted, miserable life. Michael's sister describes their father as a "talented, sensitive man." He could be witty and charming; his intelligence couldn't save him from the pain he felt, or the pain he caused.

But his blood runs in my children's veins; he is part of us. His children and grandchildren are thriving, loving, deeply loved. In spite of everything, he has left something good behind. I watch Michael playing in the pool with Evie, her bliss at being with her daddy, and I grieve that Michael never knew this loving fathering, that he had to teach it to himself, and I'm fiercely glad that my children will have joyful memories in their hearts.

Love and pain, disappointment and hurt, rage and sorrow; and relief.

A long, tough week, saying goodbye.