Sparking joy, turning back time

Living in Tokyo for a week taught me that you can live comfortably with a lot less stuff.  In Australia, for example, our living room is the epicentre of activity throughout daylight hours but redundant once we trudge off to our bedrooms. In Tokyo, once the day was cleared away, we rolled out our futons. The living room became the bedroom.

This spacial awareness was renewed by a New York Times article on Marie Kondo. Ms Kondo is a declutterer who recommends you look at each of your possessions and ask, “does it spark joy?” If the answer is no, you get rid of the item.

In a burst of enthusiasm over summer I began throwing stuff away with a ruthlessness that would have been inconceivable without the ‘spark joy’ philosophy. As an author who stores scraps and detritus that might one day inspire a story, Ms Kondo’s guidance that paper never sparks joy was truly liberating.

As I shredded, I found a bag of cards from my 21st birthday. I paused the paper cull to flick through them. Then sat cross-legged on the floor and began reading them properly.

This personal time capsule contained friends, family and acquaintances from a decade long gone. There was an ex-girlfriend and a couple of unrequited crushes who all still own a piece of my heart.

There were names I didn’t remember. Not even a little bit. That felt wrong.

There were friendships that have endured all manner of change and challenge – and flourished – and those that have fallen by the wayside.

There were assessments of my young character and prayers for my future conduct. I hope I’ve lived up to at least some of them.

There was the name of a family member who died tragically the following year, leaving a wound that may never heal.

Best of all, there were faces I’d not so much forgotten but hadn’t considered for a long time. It’s International Women’s Day today and the perfect time to remember one of those faces, the amazing Ivy.

Ivy was a widow who lived on a sheep farm run by her son and his family. She hired me to tackle jobs she didn’t want to burden her busy son with — mainly mowing, pruning and splitting wood.

This fiercely independent, funny woman  particularly wanted me to prune a cyprus hedge that ran along her driveway for several hundred metres. When I arrived on the designated morning, Ivy was nowhere to be seen but I could hear the snapping of pruning shears.

Following the sound through her cottage garden I discovered 80-something Ivy wedged between a wire fence and the corner of the hedge, pruning with gusto. When I asked her why she hadn’t waited for me, she replied that there was a thorny japonica in that corner and she didn’t want me getting scratched.

It took me several days to prune the hedge and Ivy would insist on me stopping for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. Her cinnamon teacake and strong cuppa combos remain unsurpassed.

I always felt bad stopping work to eat cake but came to realise Ivy was paying me for companionship as much as gardening grunt-work. Looking back, I wish I’d sat and listened to more of her stories, rather than rushing back out to earn a few extra dollars.

We lost contact as my university studies became more demanding and I found full-time work. I learned Ivy had passed away and didn’t attend her funeral but, every time I pass her driveway (and that hedge,) it puts a smile on my face.

Her 21st birthday card is signed, ‘kind thoughts from friend Ivy’.

On International Women’s Day, in the freshly minted Year of the Ram,  I salute Ivy who befriended a boy 60 years her junior, made him laugh, protected him from thorns and made pots of tea full of smiles and stories. Thank you.


Warriors, worriers and the winding road

Japanese New Year traditions include the purchase of blank-eyed papier mache Daruma dolls. The recipient fills in one eye when they make a wish. Then, whenever they see the one-eyed doll, they are reminded to persevere, to fight on towards personal goals.

If the goal is achieved, the second eye is added. At the end of the year, whether goals are achieved or otherwise, the dolls are taken back to the temple they were purchased from, thanked for their service and burned.

My Daruma doll will finish 2014 with only one eye but that doesn’t mean it failed me. Maybe its lesson was to remind me to keep believing, keep working and focus on small steps towards the main goal. As the sign on the bakery wall said, ‘Look at the doughnut, not the hole.’

One eyed Daruma doll
One eyed Daruma doll

As the Thunder Road twists towards 2015 it’s a good time to review the year gone by. I’ve written a lot this year, probably more than I’ve ever managed before. I’ve spent many hours in schools, hopefully lodging a splinter or two of storytelling wisdom. I have a manuscript that’s teetering out into the world like a toddler taking its first steps. And another manuscript with a publisher, waiting to see if it slots into the complex 3D jigsaw that is a publishing schedule.

I’ve also made a return to journalism for the immediate future. Two employers came calling the day before an opportunity I’d been waiting on as an author evaporated. The universe can be less than subtle at times.

Over summer, I’ve set myself another goal, not quite the equivalent of NANORIMO but not unrelated, either. I’m writing quickly, as often as possible, about characters that danced into my consciousness and started talking. Listening to their banter has been great fun. Depending on how the story takes shape, and reactions from my intended crash-test dummies in the caravan park, I might even blog the chapters next year.

In the meantime, here are some of my reading, viewing and listening highlights for 2014:

Reading: I’ve spent countless hours in Westeros these past few years and can only doff my cap to Mr George RR Martin for his epic and detailed imagination. I’d been waiting to finish A Dance with Dragons before tackling Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North but ultimately couldn’t wait. I’m glad I didn’t. The Man Booker prize winner is visceral and confronting and worthy of multiple readings. I also finished Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Amazing stuff.

Watching: Am loving True Detective and The Walking Dead. At the cinemas I enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault in our Stars, both of which had their origins in YA novels.

Listening: Chet Faker’s Built on Glass; Coldplay’s Ghost Stories; new CW Stoneking and official recordings of the Springsteen concert I attended.

Thank you to everyone has read my work, listened to and hosted me at schools and libraries, and stocked my books this year. Those who have attended my workshops will know I rave on a bit about the importance of spell-check and proof-reading so I’ll sign off with my favourite typographical errors of the year, sourced from entries in a short story competition I judged in October:

  • “We were being pursued by Mongolian worriers.”
  • “The uninhibited backyard was overgrown with weeds.”
  • “Mum and Dad scarified themselves for me.” (Ouch!)
  • “I must be imaging things.”

There’s already a meme out and about but, inspired by these latest errors, perhaps I should adopt it for 2015: ‘Be a warrior, not a worrier.’


Post-Halloween jitters

Milestone achieved. I set myself a deadline to complete a hard copy read through of my latest manuscript by the haunting hour of  Halloween. (OK, I missed by a day or so but got there close enough that Pumpkinstein was still mournfully inhabiting our living room.)

Pumpkinstein has the manuscript jitters
Pumpkinstein has the manuscript jitters

So here’s the skinny. I’ve written what I think is part one of a trilogy. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written. I’ve already made inroads into part two.

But I’ve no idea if it’s any good.

I enjoyed writing it. And, maybe, cosmically, that’s all that matters.

I’ve constructed a universe that I’m still exploring and that’s great fun, too.

But the nervous wait has begun.  Self-doubt is part of any creative job but it is particularly rampant while you’re waiting for feedback on your work.

Will anyone else like it or think it has merit? I take nothing for granted.

But the pumpkin soup was fine.

Vale Gough Whitlam

I was lucky enough to go to university for free. It seems unlikely my children will be this fortunate.

I’m blessed to live in a country with universal health care.

I’ve seen the devastation wrought by dispossession from traditional lands (and songlines) and forced separation from families. Consequently, I’m a firm believer in indigenous land rights.

I didn’t grow up in a household that beatified the prime minister responsible for these changes. But I certainly grew up grateful for the social policies Mr Gough Whitlam mustered through the federal parliament.

Similar to the cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, my hope is that our current politicians might be inspired by Mr Whitlam’s lasting legacy and focus on the greater good, rather than mean-spirited ideology.

As Paul Kelly and Kev Camody wrote, even small changes can make a big difference.