Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hot, hot, hot--today (and yesterday and tomorrow!) in Melbourne

I'm not usually inclined to post such silliness, but really--this weather is absurd! It's 43 degrees in my kitchen! I was going to review some books, but I can barely think let alone write anything of any value. Maybe next week...

This sculpture is by the wonderful Australian artist Orest Keywan, who won the $30,000 Sulpture by the Sea prize in 2006. So apt in 2009!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A night with Leonard Cohen in Australia

To see someone like Leonard Cohen perform is to be profoundly moved not only by all that you see in front of you (which is so legendary as to feel almost unreal) but also by all that he represents--to those of us who love his music and his words.

I can play two songs only on the guitar--both taught to me by my dear friend Pia, who sat beside me last night at Cohen's A Day on the Green performance in Victoria. One is Joni Mitchell's A Case of You; the other is Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat. From the age I became aware of music that wasn't like that played on Playschool, I discovered my Mum's copy of Songs From a Room. Years later, when I travelled around the world at 23, The Future was one of the albums that provided a soundtrack to my experience. Listening to it now can bring back smells, sights, whole sensations of being somewhere utterly strange and new. I don't think Cohen played a part in my losing my virginity--at least, not in a direct sense--but I suspect he was lurking somewhere on just about every step leading up to that point.

The reason I am saying all this is because I don't know how to describe the effect of watching Leonard Cohen. All I can offer is a list of the ways his songs have been part of my life since I started loving music. He is also a lyric-lover's muso. I know there are those who think the words don't really matter, but to me they can mean everything--and when it comes to lyrics, no one is as poetic, as audacious, as filthy and ironic as Cohen. Few in this world have such a way with language.

Cohen in the flesh is as gracious, charismatic and disarming as you might expect, still making full use of those soulful eyes and that deep, rich voice. But it is not just this. Rarely do you have the privilege of being at a gig where the music means so much to the people watching. Therein lies the power of seeing Cohen live--it feels like an exchange full of the warmth of a shared history, of a shared understanding and, of course, an awareness of the brutal inevitability of aging.

It has been almost 15 years since he trod the stage, he told us--back when he was about 60, "just a boy with a crazy dream". In fact it has been almost a quarter of a century since Cohen was last in Australia, so if you have the chance to see him, take that chance. He plays with a phenomenal group of musicians and back-up singers, including his long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson--and he has the grace to let them shine. Always wonderful to witness that level of rapport and respect on stage.

Cohen also recited a couple of poems, including his devastating A Thousand Kisses Deep.

And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

Leonard Cohen

Go here to hear it in full, read by Cohen himself.
For a short interview on being a poet (or not, as he tries to argue), listen here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blogging along

I have to admit that I was basically oblivious to the blogosphere before The Divided Heart was published. In fact, to continue this confession, I was as guilty as the next Luddite of assuming that blogs were the domain of narcissists and ego-maniacs (is there a difference?) with way too much time on their hands.

That was before I discovered the possibilities for genuine sharing and positive communal musing that blogs provide. It has been a revelation to me to discover what an ideal forum it is for talking about the issues raised in The Divided Heart, and the book has benefited hugely from the support it's received through those networks.

The best of the blogs I have seen, epitomised it seems by those who are attracted to my book fortunately, are those that show a creative and thoughtful approach to living. If anything, the only fallout for me, personally, is feeling a tad inadequate by comparison to all the incredible people whose blogs I follow and who have been kind enough to follow mine. Talk about "the good life"! And by that I mean of the humble, nurturing Felicity Kendal/Richard Briers style, as opposed to the Paris Hilton buying 41-dresses-and-a-bikini-in-40-minutes-flat mode of existence.

I have just been saying exactly that to a freelancer from Mothers Matter (yet to have its own site), who asked me what the blogosphere offers mothers. (Let me know if you spot that mag in a maternity centre or library somewhere--I don't know if I've seen it.) She wanted to know if I think blogs are significant in helping mothers avoid isolation and providing a creative outlet.

So far I've managed to avoid stumbling across the kind of bitchy and rampant celebrity-chasing sites that give blogging a bad name. That was until Genevieve's great blog sported a link to the 2008 Weblog Awards. Phew! After a bit of surfing through that list, I was very happy to arrive home, back among friends whose blogs I can actually relate to (though there were a few sparky ones amongst them).

I remain blissfully unaware of blogging etiquette and so there's still plenty of scope for public embarrassment, but I've been enjoying the discipline of wrenching a few thoughts into some kind of coherent rant. Mostly, I love that people have found their way to this blog because The Divided Heart has meant something to them.

I have been overwhelmed by the care and intelligence that has gone into the letters I receive. Last week, I got an incredible email from singer-songwriter Mindy Sotiri (thanks again Mindy), who said she felt the book "had been written specifically for me to read at exactly that particular point in time. I caught myself nodding, and making small noises like I was actually having a conversation with someone else. And in a way I really felt like I was."

How lovely is that? I couldn't have begged for nicer feedback. Also fascinating (and I hope I'm not embarrassing her now) was Mindy's comment that: "The quest--or struggle--to create art and look after children suddenly seemed like a totally legitimate area of contemplation and discussion. Much more than just the ‘god I need more time’ bit of the motherhood package. And suddenly all those nights drinking beer and talking about this stuff with my women friends in similar situations, and all those ‘how did you do it?’ texts to my own mother seemed to be part of a larger, much more interesting picture."

It is part of a larger and much more interesting picture, and thank God I finally managed to convince a publisher as much!

Anyway, I have added one of those new-fangled "Follower" widget whats-its. Please add yourself if you feel so inspired. Hope I'm not the last to find out they're considered completely naff...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Therapy and the writing life

There are so many things I want to say in this post, but I’ll try to run a brief-ish list…

Firstly, there was a repeat of a wonderfully warm and generous conversation with Helen Garner about her latest book, The Spare Room, on Radio National’s Book Show this week.

Apart from the interesting discussion on the themes of her book, there is some of the best advice for writers here that I have ever heard, especially relevant to mothers, who are so tied to their domestic existence.

This advice is partly about the importance of daily practice, the process of handling the language to transform the material world into readable form. She mentions the worth of describing “objects”—respecting the work they can do to say so much about a situation—which I think is central to the power of Garner’s work.

But her advice also relates to something she says about writer Elizabeth Jolley—that ability to take “the tiny tasks of daily life and make something rich out of them. She seemed to have this wonderful way of connecting humble daily tasks with very deep meanings.”

Garner is one of those formidably shrewd writers whose pared-back prose offers readers the greatest possible respect by giving them just enough to make the necessary links. That’s what I find so exhilarating about her books.

Secondly, I’ve been wanting to say something about Leo/philosopher Damon Young’s typically witty comment on my previous post about loathing astrology because he feels it “impinging on my ambiguous, unwritten self-definition; my intimate freedom”. I asked him if he also feels this way about therapy (his answer: depends what kind of therapy).

But the reason I asked him this is because I myself have always had my own aversion to therapy and self-help books and the like (though this doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time driving my friend nuts with my constant self-analysis). In part this is because I feel the best and most effective lessons come from life, as long as you’re available to hear them; and also because, a bit like Damon, I think I have a secret fear that if I “resolve” all my inner workings there will be nothing left to drive my writing.

Of course this is a conceit. And funnily enough, I have never heard anyone else talk about this in relation to creativity (which only means that I’m not that well-read, rather than assuming I’d had some kind of original idea). That is, until last night, when I listened to this hilarious take on the subject of psychoanalysis, in general and in relation to writing, by one of my favourite authors, Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Intimacy, The Buddha of Suburbia...).

Podcast it (you guessed it—Radio National), plug yourself in, and you won’t even notice how long you’ve been washing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom you’ll be laughing so hard.

One last thing… sometimes I miss comments that have made on earlier posts. At the end of my post about Lionel Shriver, I discovered a lengthy and very thoughtful comment from Pamela Boll, the producer of Who Does She Think She Is?, written on Christmas morning, with the inspiring perspective of a woman who has been through the art/mothering struggle and emerged full of wisdom. You can check it out yourselves, but here is one of the many lovely things she has to say:

So, there you go—sometimes, in the middle of parenting, you feel that those little ones just want from you...and the wanting is hard. Yet, all along, they are also learning from you. They watch to see what absorbs you, what makes you laugh...what makes you love your life. They learn what matters. And if you are doing the work you are called to do—even little bits between the feeding and the crying and the diapers and all—then they will grow up knowing that to be an adult means to live one's life as though it matters.

What a great reminder… (Thanks also to Cinnamon Gurl and everyone else who responds so generously.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

New beginnings

This little doll is one made by a sensational blogger no doubt already known to many of you, Loobylu, aka Claire Robertson, who's had more than a few generous words to say about The Divided Heart, for which I am most grateful. She is one of those crazily talented crafty types who seems to have found the knack of living well and being true to herself, and yet is also wonderfully open about how tough it can be to maintain that balance (for want of a better word). Claire mentions my book in her latest post as one of the inspirations for her recent decision to start writing a novel, in the sense that it reminded her "that I had always wanted to be a part of that action". Without wanting to overstate my contribution to what I'm sure Claire would have eventually found herself doing no matter what, I feel really chuffed that someone might have found the book galvanising in that way--and that it might have played some small part in the work happening sooner rather than later. My only advice to Claire would be: be cautious about talking about the plot/themes etc of your book too early. I learnt the hard way that revealing too much to soon can have the terrible effect of killing it off. Having said that, I can't wait to see the end result when it arrives!

Talking of new arrivals, I spent yesterday witnessing the glorious birth of my new little (yet to be named) neighbour. Apart from my own, I have only attended two births--both of them the daughters of my wonderful friend, fellow community member and angelic songstress Emma Tonkin, who showed such grace under pressure--and used that voice to full and impressive effect. Never have a I heard vocal chords utilised so powerfully (as the nervous-looking women in the waiting room could testify to)! What can you say about an experience like this? It is a privilege beyond words, and the pride I felt in my darling friend, who endured what was (by any standards and especially for a second birth) a seriously gruelling, long and painful labour, brought me to tears. It was a reminder of the way birth takes us to our absolute limits, physically and mentally, and that no matter how much those in the room care and are working to be there for you, it is one in which you are ultimately alone--just you and your body (and your baby)--working through this enormous transition of becoming two from one. I was there to look after Emma's other daughter, Stella, so that she could see her little sister being born, and it was a pretty special day of bonding for her and I, too. (My kids were also pretty chuffed with the deal--my son spending the day watching movies with his best mate, and my daughter hanging out at the house of Ms Clare Bowditch, her favourite second mother, along with Em, recently returned from musical adventures in Berlin--read more here.) All round, an incredible day. It feels feeble to say thank you to Emma for letting me be part of such a significant aspect of life (her life and life in the biggest sense of the word), but I feel grateful in a way I can't find adequate words for.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Astrological lessons for the New Year

Yesterday, standing in my neighbour’s kitchen, I idly picked up a copy of Jan Spiller’s Astrology for the Soul. This is the kind of book that I find myself compulsively (if furtively) devouring, much like the women’s magazines in the doctor’s waiting room that somehow find me leaving my much more worthy novel abandoned in my bag.

It is a book not about star signs but about the ‘North Node’, a point formed by the Moon’s orbit around the Earth intersecting with the Earth’s path around the sun (I can hardly believe I’m explaining this). Anyway, the Nodes (there is also a South Node) influence a much greater time span than the astrological houses, i.e. star/sun signs. The North Node seems to relate to finding our life’s purpose and identifying what gets in the way of this. (Apologies to any astrologers out there that have already picked flaws in my explanation.) Whatever you think of astrology, it can provide interesting food for thought.

My North Node is in Capricorn (hello, all those born April 29, 1972—October 27, 1973), and straight away I read something that was a little too close for comfort:

Even in close relationships, these natives are better off maintaining a sense of their own authority—not compromising themselves to appease their partner. For example, I had a client with this nodal position who had tremendous creative energy and a real talent for writing—she was published nationally while still in college. When she married she stopped writing, putting all her energy into emotionally supporting her husband and children.

… Twenty years passed. When her children left home she was filled with resentment toward her husband, blaming him because she hadn’t pursued her writing career. Her husband had actually encouraged her writing, but she projected that her success would have upset him emotionally even though he encouraged her verbally. I had occasion to speak with her husband, and he truly did want her to pursue her career! It even would have helped financially. This story does not have a happy ending: The wife chose to continue blaming others for her sense of failure, which prevented her from actively taking charge of her own life.

... Capricorn North Node people too easily take on an exaggerated “mother” role in personal relationships. … In fact, no one requires the amount of “presence” that these folks tend to provide.

Ouch! That last line particularly spoke to me. Think that might be my first lesson for 2009. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to pulling back from my family and commanding space for my own interests, and as this suggests it is a tendency that risks breeding resentment of the most damaging kind.

Hence, my 5.30 mornings. Yep, three days in and I already love the expansiveness of these quiet mornings that I am carving out for writing, unswamped by other tasks. My darling friend Clare and I have a pact, taking turns to text each other on the dot, so there is no getting out of it. The only challenge is getting to bed early enough the night before (she says as it nears 11pm)…

Happy New Year!