What we do here

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There probably aren’t many capital cities where cows graze in the suburbs. These beauties are walking distance from my house and do a great job of keeping the grass down. I often walk past them on my walks in the Urambi Hills, which I’ve taken to huffing and puffing up every weekend.

There’s a bench up the top with initials scratched into it. Apparently B loves J. But B also loves L, so I see trouble ahead. Perhaps there will be more scratchings next time. I’ll keep you posted on B’s love life. That’s not the reason I walk up there, of course. We’re having a glorious autumn and I’m feeling the need to get out and about in it every weekend. Besides, it’s hard not to feel joie de vivre when you’re looking at this view.

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Canberra is a city that’s changed a lot in the almost 20 years that I’ve lived here. When I first arrived, at weekends I would think: “Where is everyone? What do people do here at the weekend?” (Answer: they were at the coast.) Now, there are so many things to do at weekends that it’s hard to fit in time to visit the coast.

The other weekend there was a Connect and Participate Expo in the huge old bus depot. The idea was for people to go along and find groups to join or crafts to learn or volunteerish things to get involved in. I really wanted to go, but my dance card was full. There were so many fun and interesting things to do at the same time that I had to turn a few down.

In the past couple of weeks, I could have gone to umpteen wineries, galleries, talks, walks, movies, gardens, classes, bookshops, markets. I could have filled two weekends with Heritage Festival activities alone. A person has to go to work, which takes up a significant amount of time, but here’s what I did outside office hours.

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Strolled along the breathtaking Yankee Hat trail in Namadgi National Park, past kangaroos lolling on the grass, and saw rock art on huge granite boulders. It’s a traditional Aboriginal meeting place and there really is something special about it. “Where spirits dance,” says the sign, and, yes, they really do. It’s an exquisite, magical valley and I can’t wait to go back.

Listened to live Argentine tango music at Smith’s Alternative, featuring Actual Argentinians who now live in Canberra, at which I learned the Spanish word for “more” or “encore”: ¡otra! If you play the bandoneon and want to join them, you’re in luck; they’re looking for recruits.

Ate tea and cake at the National Museum of Australia. Said hello to the pink caravan, which I’m very fond of.

Tagged along on a friend’s birdwatching tour of the Botanic Gardens and was blown away by how much he knows about birds. Learned to use binoculars properly and spotted spotted pardalotes. (There’s a comedy skit in there somewhere.)

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Went to a climate change rally at the conclusion of the  Bob Brown Foundation’s anti-Adani convoy. Thousands of people showed up, Paul Kelly sang and two Indigenous elders spoke passionately about their land, yet the whole thing rated only a short voiceover segment on the news. Hmm.

Walked in the cork oaks and the Himalayan cedars at the Arboretum. Went to look at the bonsai and, as always, felt a bit sorry for them. Beautiful but stunted! All that repressed potential! Browsed the excellent Curatoreum shop and bought books. (I’ll tell you about them next time.)

Attended a dance workshop at which a lecturer from Germany confirmed what we already knew about the benefits of dance. He also talked about polar bears and penguins, goulash and beer (it was a wide-ranging speech) and chaos, except for a while we thought he was saying “cars” or “cows”. Basically, his point was that experiential learning is as valuable, if not more so, than theory. I agree.

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Listened to a smiley, bearded young cellist play Bach at breakfast at the National Library of Australia, followed by a discussion with Helen Garner, whose book The Children’s Bach is one of my faves. I wish she still wrote novels.

Helen said she carries a notebook everywhere to capture conversations that she overhears. I do that too, although some sentences stick in your mind without being written down. When I was about 11 and lived in Yorkshire, my mum and I were out walking the dogs when two men rode by on horseback. One man said to the other, “I had that new piazza for tea last night.” Mum and I looked at each other and laughed. We hadn’t yet tasted pizza ourselves but we were pretty sure it wasn’t pronounced piazza.

Danced Biodanza on Mondays. Danced tango on Thursdays. Could have danced a different dance every night, if so inclined.

Had friends over for wine, cheese and shootin’ the breeze, at which it was revealed that someone had just sold a painting and been propositioned in a car park and someone else had once eaten enough corn flakes to get free travel on British Rail.

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When the national media talk about Canberra, they usually mean the federal parliament. When politicians talk about the Canberra bubble, they also mean the federal parliament. While I’m not for one minute downplaying the importance of the federal parliament, I’d like to point out that outside its walls there are 450,000ish people going about their lives in Actual Canberra and having a pretty good time.

I don’t always love living here. It’s ridiculously hot in summer and perishingly cold in winter. But when 46 per cent of the territory is stunningly beautiful national park, and there’s good food, good coffee, stimulating conversation and more cultural activities than you can poke a stick at, some days, as Salvador Dali said, I could just die from an overdose of satisfaction.

(If you’re interested in hearing about Canberra from the perspective of its traditional owners, listen to this excellent ABC podcast by Jonathan Green: Ancient places—Canberra. I had no idea that the parliamentary triangle was built on the bogong moth songline. I love that the ancient story of the landscape influenced the design of the modern city.)

 

 

 

 

Doing all right

 

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Do you take the lid off when you fill the kettle or do you use the spout?I used to be the former kind of person, but somewhere in the past decade I became a spout-filler. It probably happened because of being so busy. Corners needed to be cut, and spout-filling is marginally quicker than taking the lid off.

This is the type of question that my friend F and I ask each other whenever we get together. When we both lived in Sydney we would sit on the cliffs at Coogee and ask, “Why does this rock have a different pattern from that rock?”This was in the pre-Google days, and we didn’t have a geologist’s guide to Sydney handy. It was also pre mobile phones, so there was no way to phone a friend to get the answer.

Then we would stare out to sea and say things like, “Was that a penguin? Would penguins live here?”Or we would go for a stroll along the boardwalk and hear an unusual noise and one of us would ask, “Do birds sneeze?”4

When F came to visit at the weekend, we went for a lovely walk in the cork oaks and the Himalayan cedars at the Arboretum and somehow ended up singing songs from Grease. (Hey, I never said I was cool!) F said that as a kid she’d spend hours in her room singing along to her Grease album. “Did you sing into your hairbrush?” I asked. “No,” said F. “A Perkins Paste pot.”

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Genius! Then her street cred came crashing down as she confessed that she’d also owned the Xanadu album and sung along to that as well. “Wasn’t Gene Kelly in Xanadu?”she asked. “Gene Kelly???” I spluttered, wondering how on earth someone could think a dance legend like him would be in such a naff film. (Not that I’ve seen it. I do have some standards.) But that question we could answer straight away, thanks to the massive technological shift that’s taken place since we sat on those rocks at Coogee, not so very long ago. We just looked it up on our phones/cameras/televisions/encyclopaedias/street directories/music players/weather predictors/global networking devices.

When the internet was a baby, I read a book called Information Anxiety, by Richard Saul Wurman. It talked about people becoming overwhelmed by data, and I think it outlined strategies to understand and cope with all that information. But the way the book was written was really unsettling to me. It was so different from the books I normally read. You could jump in and out of it at any point. There were sidebars and little distractions all over the place. I found it hard going and felt a bit anxious as I  read it. There was too much to take in.

I had no idea of what was to come with the digital revolution: a life suddenly full of sidebars and distractions, a narrative that jumped all over the place, a sense of always being a bit behind and drowning in information. Everyone was busy and stressed and there seemed to be a global acknowledgement of anxiety and loss of self-esteem.

While stress and busy are definitely still around, and there will always be distractions, lately I’ve noticed a shift in the way we deal with the constantly increasing amount of information available to us. Have you noticed it too? Ever so slowly and quietly,  we seem to be finding a balance between real life and online life. We’re filtering.

I see people withdrawing from social media platforms that aren’t useful to them. I see people connecting online to share stories about real life. I see people posting pictures or writing articles or communicating just for the joy of it, not because they want to gain something or feel they should.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, people were saying, “Blogging is dead,” and mourning the loss of earlier online communities. This puzzled me because I saw blogging as a way of having a chat, telling stories. Surely people still enjoy that? Well, yes, they do. This is a small, unpublicised blog on a quiet internet backwater, but all sorts of people have found it and I’m both delighted and amazed that you read it.

Community still exists in the real world and it still exists online too. New connections are formed every time we comment or email online, just as new connections are formed every time we smile at or talk to someone in the actual world. The internet is just a medium for connection. I think we’ve just started to remember that.

It’s also just a big old encyclopaedia, a way to find answers. I don’t mean answers to the burning questions like, “Am I on the right track? Does so and so love me? What should I do next?” That’s still up to us, and our network of friends and family in the real world, to figure out. The internet can’t really tell me why I now fill up the kettle via the spout, but it can tell me the answers to all those questions F and I have been asking over the years.

Am I feeling this shift because I’m filtering and switching off and only using social media and blogging for nice interactions, or are you noticing it too? I’d love to know your thoughts. But I think we’ve come out the other side of something and we’re regaining our equilibrium. I think we’re doing all right.

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People get very het up about this issue. Kettle manufacturers are no help: one says to avoid filling via the spout, while another encourages it.
Leisegang bands.
It could have been a penguin.
Yes, birds can sneeze.
Gene Kelly was in Xanadu. (But I’m still not going to watch it.)

 

Things I learned last week

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When you can’t change the situation, you can change your approach to it.

I was verbally abused two days in a row by two dodgy characters that my neighbour had hired to do some kind of shonky repair work. My crime was to ask them to move their truck because it was blocking the driveway and I couldn’t get out. Apparently this crime was so heinous that they felt it necessary to shout all the things that were wrong with me. The next day they deliberately parked me in and shouted all over again. It upset me a lot. On day three I got up very early, while it was still dark, and moved my car before they arrived. Yes, they behaved appallingly and, no, I shouldn’t have had to change my behaviour when they were in the wrong, but I decided to go around the unnecessary confrontation rather than straight into it.

Delayed gratification is sweet. Chocolate is too sweet.

Just before Easter I realised that I have seriously gone off chocolate, which made me feel quite virtuous. See that halo shining? At the same time, a friend gave me a stack of cookbooks, mainly of the healthy, wholefood kind. Score! I’ve always pored over them whenever I’ve been at her house but could never justify buying them because I have a lot of cookbooks already. Now they live at my house and I’m very happy about that. Good things come to those who wait, apparently. (But also we’re supposed to seize the day. Isn’t life confusing?!)

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Running outdoors feels fantastic. It doesn’t matter what it looks like.

One afternoon last week I did seize the day and clocked off work early to go running/walking around the lake. (This is a big deal because I almost never run outdoors, probably from embarrassment, but really who’s watching?) The clocks have gone back and the evenings are dark, and I needed to carve out some time to be outside. And what happened? It generated cheer and red-cheeked radiance. Bless those little endorphins! I smiled at other walkers/runners/cyclists/dogs. I saw a lot of ducks and managed not to get duck poo on my trainers. The setting sun on the water was rather magical, and the trees were doing this:

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Then I went home and did slow yin yoga and felt halo-shiny all over again. I think that’s the way to get through winter without succumbing to the sads.

Never give up.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’ve been trying to walk to the Murrumbidgee from my house but keep coming up against obstacles: (1) a fence with no apparent opening, (2) thick fog and freezing temperatures, and (3) walking in the wrongish direction. Well, alert the papers because…ta-da…WE FOUND IT! “Women find lost river”. Wouldn’t that make a better headline than what’s usually on the front page of the newspaper?

Of course, the river was never really lost. We were just looking in the wrong place. Also, we gave up too soon. Life lessons one and two right there. A friend (who’s now as obsessed as I am with walking to the river from my place) suggested a walk this weekend, so off we went, up some nearby hills. I usually walk up the first little hill then take the track around the back of the bigger hills because walking uphill makes me grumpy. But this time we went straight up the unforgiving track. I was just thinking that a walk in the Netherlands would be my ideal hike when I noticed that my friend was even grumpier than I was.

Instantly I switched into camp leader mode and tried to jolly her along, delighted not to be the grumpiest hill climber for once. “We’re nearly there! The next hill isn’t as steep! The view from the top will be FANTASTIC!” She looked at me with contempt and a murderous glint in her eye: “There’s another hill?” So we did the turning-around-to- look-at-the-halfway-view thing, which allowed our breath and our sense of humour to catch up.

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Look at the big picture. Take the high road.

At the top of the hill(s) the view was stunning. “Do you see what I see?” said my friend. And there it was: the Murrumbidgee River. We saw how close we’d been to it the last time. We saw how our route had run parallel to the river but we’d been down in a valley and hadn’t seen it. We looked down from that hill with smiles as wide as the landscape. We took in the view from all directions, then we planned our next two walks…along the river.

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It’s never too late to make a game plan.

Some people make plans and apply strategies in life. Some people amble along and let life happen to them. I’ve been in the ambling along category for most of my life. If anyone had asked, I would have said I didn’t know how to strategise or compete and that most plans end up going in a different direction anyway. But this weekend, playing multiple games of Scrabble, I learnt something new: I do know how to compete and how to strategise.

I haven’t played Scrabble for decades, and I used to take pride in making the best/longest/most interesting words. I never looked at the board and thought, “If I put this word here, I might win praise for thinking up the word but I won’t get any double word scores and I won’t win the game.” This time, I looked at the whole board. I thought about how my moves might influence the other players. I looked for the opportunities. I put down short but high-scoring words and I kept winning. So it seems that, finally, I’ve learned the point of having a game plan and that it helps to have strategies in life.

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Small things make us happy.

A friend remembered what day it was and bought me a bunch of flowers. A dog was so pleased to see me that he yodelled. Another friend gave me a litre of home-made wine. (Yes, please. No, I won’t drink it on the way home.) On Easter Sunday we lit a bonfire and watched as golden sparks shot up to meet the stars, glittering without number above us. On the way home today, a shaft of sunlight through rainclouds made a rippled rainbow that flew like a flag over Lake George. Small gestures, small events, small moments that you just happen to be lucky enough to witness can add up to great happiness.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me, what have you learned in the past week?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around here

 

We went to the sheepdog trials.

“Away up! Right over! Back off. Come be-oind! Stop. Geddup. Stop. Geddup. Get ‘ere. Come be-oind!”

We sat in the boot of the car, out of the wind, and watched lithe little dogs hurtle across the field. They never stopped working.

“That little dog tried her hardest. She could honestly do no more.”

It was a good day out, though. We met some characters. One bloke came trundling towards me on a motorised mobility scooter, his wife and his dog walking beside him. His wife chided him as she realised his intentions.

“Don’t stop and talk to the girls. Don’t stop and talk to the girls. Don’t stop and … oh, never mind.” 

He stopped dead in front of me. “Gidday,” he said. “She’s just jealous.” And gave me a gappy smile. “Got any dogs in the competition?” I asked. “Three in the top 20,” said his wife proudly, “and he’s 81 years old!”

Sir George

The next weekend we drove in the opposite direction, down the surprisingly quiet Hume Highway to Jugiong, which is really taking off. If you’re on the way to or from Melbourne and you need a break, pop in to the Long Track Pantry for lunch. Or stay the night at the recently refurbished Sir George Hotel. (They didn’t pay me to tell you that. I just think they’re both quality establishments and a great example of what you can do to attract people to a country town.)

We wandered around the corner to find a row of shops selling homewares, gifty things and interesting recycled/salvaged architectural stuff. The front wall of the building was made of a concrete-like material just begging to be touched. It was honey coloured and warm in the morning sun. “Rammed earth,” said the owner of the shop when I asked what it was, and I decided then and there to have a rammed earth wall in the house I’m going to build one day, hopefully not too far away.

We drove on, along deserted back roads, to another town that hasn’t read the manual on how to attract visitors. It was rich in interesting architectural features, but we felt as we stopped to photograph them that there was a bit of an air of menace. We weren’t welcome. We quickly got back in the car and drove non-stop to another place, almost on the outskirts of Canberra, where you can find handmade chocolates and a good cup of tea and sit and look out over paddocks and relax.

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The weekend after that there was more driving, a last quick swim in the sea while it’s still warmish, then a catch-up with a friend before seeing to some family biz.

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They were the fun bits. In between, I’ve felt like Wile E Coyote, cartoon legs whirring in midair. Or I’ve been like a sheepdog: running, running, running, herding, chasing, turning in circles, rounding things up. It’s not just me. A friend said she feels like a hamster on a wheel and the wheel keeps getting faster.

On top of all the busy, there have been other challenges to face. I fell in a bit of a hole, mentally, a little while ago and I was finding it hard to climb out. I pretended everything was fine but it wasn’t. I really wanted to feel better but I just couldn’t. Then one night a friend came over and said, “We’ve got to scratch that record.”

He was right. That was the answer: getting the needle out of the groove, changing the song that was playing over and over in my head. That led to an extraordinary visualisation exercise that was hard to do but I trusted him and it worked. I feel better. I feel reconnected to myself, to other people and certainly to the world around me.

Since that night, that difficult conversation, I’ve been able to tackle two other tough situations. They’re not completely dealt with or solved, but it’s been liberating to start to address them, to think carefully and speak compassionately to the people involved and feel things shifting for the better. It feels incredibly adult to do that.

This weekend, thank goodness, was a quieter one. Apart from a walk around the lake and dinner with friends, I mostly stayed in my kennel. What a relief! Autumn’s beginning to put in an appearance, calling for long sleeves and an extra blanket on the bed. It’s time to tune in to the season and slooooow down.

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And that’s what’s been going on around here.

 

Odds and sods

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There’s no overarching theme to this blog post. Nope. Not a one. It’s a ragbag of bits and pieces I’ve been meaning to tell you and haven’t managed to cobble together coherently until now. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in it. Here we go.

When I stayed at a friend’s place at the coast the other weekend, I washed my hair in horse shampoo because it was all I could find. It was an alarming shade of purple but it gave me soft, flowing, lustrous locks and I’ve been wondering since why I bother buying expensive human shampoo. If there are any equestrians reading this, do you share your horse’s shampoo?? My next research project is to find out what was in it and compare it to what I use. If it’s the same stuff, I’m switching to horse shampoo. Secretly, I’m still hoping to turn into a palomino (tosses mane and paws at ground).

I went to see a great movie last weekend: Everybody Knows. It’s a Spanish thriller. Have you seen it? Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem were in it, so there was no way it was going to be bad. The drama was intense and absorbing, but I did have time to notice how beautiful everyone was. I don’t mean in the botoxed, straightened hair way that supposedly stands for beauty now. I mean passionate dark eyes surrounded by crows feet and frown lines, and thick, messy hair falling over high cheekbones. People had curves and paunches and looked tired. And still they were beautiful.

I couldn’t get over how dry the landscape was. It made Canberra’s parched paddocks look fecund. I can say three things in Spanish (apart from hello/goodbye/thank you). “Two beers, please,” (not terribly helpful, as I don’t drink beer, but I can order it for someone else). “What’s in the bag?” (could come in handy at airports and in lucky dip situations). “I am the tall woman who lives in your house,” (I learned that once to amuse a flatmate who spoke Spanish). I definitely want to learn more after seeing that movie.

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Can I introduce you to some bloggy people? They recently found me, so I followed them back and now I love checking in on them. No doubt you will too.

https://carolbaby.com/ writes about life every couple of days (impressive output!) and I really love her take on things. I’m usually too lazy/busy to comment on her posts but they always make me think/laugh/feel inspired/feel connected. She lives in ThePalace(Of Love) and works at SaltMinesLimited. See, you already want to read it.

Karen at https://somekindof50.com/ is much more sorted than I will ever be. She wrote a brilliant piece the other week on coping with loss. I wish I’d had it with me at this time last year. A recent post was a collection of 50 quotes, and this little group in particular spoke to me:

  • “I don’t have time to worry about people who don’t like me. I’m too busy loving people who love me.” Anonymous
  • “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot
  • “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt

This week she posted about reinventing yourself, or at least working out what you want. That’s the second time in two days someone’s brought that up and it’s made me realise that what I wanted last year is not what I want this year. A little brainstorming and clarification is in order, I think.

Last but most definitely not least in the bloggy introductions is Claudia, brought to you by the insightful and funny Julie Persons. Claudia tells it like it is and she’s good at wordplay too. You can find her here: https://theadventuresofclaudia.wordpress.com/ It’s my ambition to be as smart as her when I grow up.

Let’s talk cake. (How are you coping with the lack of linking sentences between paragraphs? Hope you’re still with me.) A work colleague turned 80 recently and I made him this chocolate cake. It was sooo good, even though I made the mistake of putting it in the fridge overnight (unnecessary and slightly dried it out). There’s no photo because I forgot and because it got eaten pretty quickly, but it looked just as good as it does in the recipe. It’s my go-to chocolate cake recipe now, and everyone should expect to get one on their birthday. There’s a shedload of sugar in it, but if you’ve made it to 80 you shouldn’t have to worry about things like that.

What have you been making? If you crochet, do you know about Annie Design Crochet? I like her patterns (a lot of them are free) and her use of colour. I’ve made three scarves as presents, using this pattern: indigo scarf. Next up is this: halo shawl. I bought beautiful hand‑dyed merino by Malabrigo, which I then discovered comes from…Uruguay. Hmm. I should probably find out where to buy Australian merino. My winter project is this: carousel blanket, which I’ll finish just in time for…er…next summer. Maybe I should make it in cotton.

Have you read this book by Malena Watrous: If You Follow Me? I’ve read it twice in four months. I don’t usually do that, but the characters felt like friends and I wanted to keep them by me. She’s super smart and funny, and entangled in a complicated relationship. She wants so desperately to fit in yet can’t follow the rules and often openly challenges them. Underneath everything, she’s grieving the death of her father and coming up to the one‑year anniversary. As am I.

“It never goes away,” a friend of mine said about grief and loss. “You just learn to live with it.” That’s not quite how I feel about it, although I acknowledge that it’s much less visible now. No-one sees it but me. Rather than learning to live with it, it’s as if I carry it with me all the time, like a tiny Russian icon shining red and gold in a dark corner of the heart.

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Figs are in season! Huzzah! Be quick! Run to the farmers market to get some, because the season is so short! I’ve been buying them in bulk and gorging. You may have seen me cunningly elbowing someone out of the way because they were being too slow in choosing apples and were obstructing my path to the figs. But I will neither confirm nor deny that.

At the farmers market there was a new stall selling flowers by the bucketload, which made me enormously happy. It was such a contrast to the measly, overpriced bunches that you can buy elsewhere. The man selling the flowers had just started out in the flower-growing business and was as excited and happy to talk about it as I was to buy beautiful roses from him.

I discovered via the lovely Pip Lincolne that Nick Cave has a blog where you can ask him questions! “You can ask me anything,” he says, and people do, and he writes openly, from the heart, in return. Someone asked him, “How do you deal with evil?” and this is part of what he wrote in return:

The transcendent spirit for good can be accessed with profound effect through the imagination – the creative force can act as a counter-agent to evil. We cannot eradicate evil, yet it need not paralyse us – rather we should take what steps we can, however small, toward the betterment of the world, and our place in it. This is the essence of creativity.

I try not to allow horror into this blog, but yesterday, after the shocking news from New Zealand, I found myself out in the garden looking up at the night sky for reassurance. The stars were clear and sharp, the moon a half slice of lemon. I was looking for the Southern Cross. As I craned my neck, there it was: that comforting, familiar constellation, like an anchor above me.

That’s it for now, m’dears. Go well. Take care. (Whinnies and canters off.)

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What the sign says

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Buckle up. We’re off! Yes, I know it wasn’t planned. Yes, I know we have other things to do. They’ll still be there when we get back. But we need to make some space between last week (with its tiring, unexpected blow to the solar plexus) and next week. Let’s go.

Look, while you’ve been swithering about whether it’s a good idea, we’ve already passed Bungendore. Now we’re driving into lovely Braidwood. The agricultural show is in full swing. The farmers market is on. It’s a bit busy. People are queuing for coffee. We’ll come back another day to mooch around and enjoy its 19th century charm.

We’re on the Kings Highway. With a name like that you’d expect it to be a grand, expansive thoroughfare. Instead, it’s a pretty ordinary two-lane road that winds down a mountain for 40 kilometres. People get angry on this road. They take crazy risks to get past each other, not realising that at some point we’re all going to get stuck behind the same three caravans. It never fails to amuse me that the spot that always causes a traffic snarl-up is called Government Bend. Pretty soon after that is when I start thinking, “Get me off this mountain.”

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But, see, we did get off the mountain eventually. We’ve just passed Batemans Bay, where fat-bottomed pelicans sit on top of lamp posts. We’re starting to lose the angry drivers. They’re all turning off down roads to the beach. And…deep breath as the countryside gets greener and the roads get quieter. Everything slows down as we cross the melodiously named Trunketabella Creek, past the shiny black cattle grazing on the floodplain. Their rectangular outline, with a fat belly and a leg at each corner, always reminds me of my old labrador. She liked to eat all day too.

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We’ve reached Bodalla. Have you noticed that all the towns start with B? (Actually, there were two that started with M, but I chose to ignore them. Poetic licence, dontcha know.) What a spot! Isn’t it beautiful? At one end of this tiny 1860s settlement is an imposing stone church surrounded by majestic bunya pines. At the other end is a church made of gingerbread. In the middle there’s a pub bigger than both of them. That about sums up early European settlement in Australia.

And in the paddocks—surprisingly—there are emus. “Yes,” says my friend D, who’s joining us for lunch. “You see them on the beach too.” If you’re wondering how they ended up in this part of the world, read this. It’s all very well to transport flightless birds to an island, but you can’t keep them there if they can swim.

 

Let’s have lunch. We could go to the Bodalla Dairy and eat nice cheese, but today I’d rather sit in the shaded courtyard of the Blue Earth Cafe and wolf down a bowl of herby, home-grown salad with dips and pickles and crunchy bits and every other delicious thing you can think of. The cafe’s for sale. “You could buy it,” says D, who has a much better business brain than I do. “Where would I live?” She suggests a caravan in the veggie garden. Ten years ago, maybe, or in another life. Right now it’s enough that we’re here, eating this good food in this beautiful place, appreciating someone else’s vision and hard work.

But food isn’t the focus of this trip. There’s something a few kilometres down the road that will really reinvigorate us after such a big week. On this last day of summer, we need to get in the water. Not the water at the long, golden beach where surfers catch the curling waves and ride them in. I’m talking about the flat, clear water at the edge of the turquoise inlet. I’m talking about lying on our backs and floating in the sunshine while kids snorkel by the rocks and shout, “Look! There’s an octopus!” I’m talking about swimming out to the shark net and feeling, even there, in the calm bay, the push of the tide coming in. I’m talking about total relaxation and surrender.

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There was a sign that I kept seeing at the side of the highway, on the way down to the coast. “Stop. Revive. Survive.” That’s what it said. And, yes, that’s what was needed.
Stop. Revive. Survive. In life, as on the road.

(With love and thanks to D, S and little P.)

Listening

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Are you a listener? I am. I didn’t plan to be one. I guess my status as a listener evolved over years of being a shy child. It’s not that I don’t like listening. I find people’s stories interesting. There are endlessly fascinating things to hear, to learn, when people speak. I’m often surprised by the things they tell me, their deepest secrets given up so easily.

Listening isn’t just about words, is it? Sometimes it’s about listening to the tone of voice and understanding the emotion. Sometimes there’s so much subtext, so much to notice beneath the words. I listened to someone speaking very confidently just the other night and thought that what they were really articulating was need and self-doubt.

I’ve been listening to the soothing sounds of recorded rain to get to sleep lately. For most of this week I’ve been hearing Fleetwood Mac’s gorgeous Songbird in my head as I’ve gone about my everyday business. Today I’ve enjoyed listening to Kate Bush’s crisp diction on the beautifully recorded Hounds of Love album. And the burbling, bubbling splutter of the coffee pot on the stove has made me smile.

As I started writing this, I realised that for 30 years my work has been about listening. This is probably a weird admission to make, but I do enjoy the challenge of playing and replaying a piece of audio, isolating different channels on the recording until I get exactly what’s being said. A colleague once told me I was the best listener they knew. In another job, someone called me “Lynx” (after the pointy-eared cat, not the brand of deodorant…I hope!) Someone even wrote me a letter once praising the quality of my listening.

It is a tiring occupation, though, listening. Last year, for example, I didn’t have the emotional space to listen to people. There was so much talking. It was exhausting. I had to switch off my listening skills and withdraw a bit. I still need to from time to time. That’s upset a couple of people.

And sometimes I want to do the talking but I don’t get the chance to or I feel out of practice or unable to say what I really want to say. Perhaps that’s why I write. It’s a way of telling the stories I want to tell or saying the things I want to say. After so many years of listening, it’s become easier to express myself through the written word.

Lately there’s been another kind of listening going on. I’ve been listening through dance. I signed up for another dance class, in addition to tango. It’s a kind of freeform dance, no set steps, just listening to the music, listening to the way the body wants to move to it. In our overly structured world, with all its layers of etiquette, it’s so freeing to step outside the expected patterns of behaviour and just dance. Sometimes it feels a little crazy to do that. At the first class I did occasionally think, “This is a bit bonkers!” But I still did it. The energy and connection in the room were rather wonderful. And almost no words were spoken.

That dance class led me to this exquisite short film. This is what it feels like, I think, when you listen to your own heart and express it in dance. So I’ll keep listening to all the stories people want to tell me, and most of the time I’ll love hearing them. But from now on I’m always going to make a little space for a different kind of listening.

Not lost in translation

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Is it raining cats and dogs where you are? It rains shoemakers’ boys if you’re Danish. In Dutch it rains pipe stems and sometimes cups and saucers. In Greek it rains chair legs and in Czech it rains wheelbarrows. Ow!

Perhaps you’ve got a frog in your throat. The French have a cat. Italians have a toad. Hungarians have a dumpling, which makes much more sense and is surely easier to remove.

We call a spade a spade. The French call a cat a cat. The Portuguese just say, “Bread, bread. Cheese, cheese.” I like that. I think I’ll start saying it.

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Do you tend to make a mountain out of a molehill? A Russian might make an elephant out of a fly. A Turk might turn a flea into a camel.

If you’re losing your marbles in English, you’re losing your goats in Turkish. In German you’d be missing cups in your cupboard.

If you’re going bananas in English, you’re going cucumber in Danish.

 

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In the British parliament there was some confusion recently when a Belgian delegate at a forum said that someone had sent his cat. Imagine the conversation:

British peer: I say! Chappie sent his cat to the meeting. Dashed impertinence!
Belgian visitor: No, no. It means he failed to show up.

While we’re on the subject of politicians, we might say they like to beat around the bush rather than give a straight answer. But in German you’d say they were talking around the hot porridge. In Spanish you might say there was a lot of noise and no walnuts.

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Perhaps you’ve put your foot in it recently. In Norwegian you’d say you stepped in the salad. Or maybe you’ve got your wires crossed. In Finnish you’d have crossed skis instead.

If you’re not cut out for something, in Icelandic you’re on the wrong shelf in life. If the horse has bolted in English, in French the carrots are cooked. If something seems fishy to you, a Norwegian would say there are owls in the bog.

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It’s time to let the cat out of the bag (or the monkey out of the sleeve if you’re Dutch). Sometimes I feel like a fish out of water. But in Spanish I’d feel like an octopus in a garage. I think that’s my favourite idiom of all. Imagine that confused octopus floundering around amongst the cardboard boxes and tools and bikes and camping equipment!

In Iceland if someone says, “I took him to the bakery,” it doesn’t mean for a nice sugary treat. It means they gave him a piece of their mind rather than a piece of cake. And since we’re in Iceland, wouldn’t a visit to the Blue Lagoon be the icing on the cake? (Yes, it really would. I’ve been there. It’s fantastic. Do go if you can.) But in Icelandic you’d say it was the raisin at the end of the sausage.

We all want an easy life. That’s the nub of it—or, as a Russian might say, that’s where the dog is buried. But some people really do have it easy. Some people just slide in on a shrimp sandwich, according to the Swedes. Most of us, though, just have to crack on and get the job done. Or, as the Dutch say, wash that little piglet.

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Don’t hold your breath waiting to win the lottery. You can take your little horse out of the rain. (That’s Portuguese for don’t hold your breath.) Pigs might fly. If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a bicycle. (Italian for pigs might fly.)

Possibly I’ve taken this too far now. Perhaps it’s all Greek to you. (German: I understood only “train station”. Dutch: I can’t make any chocolate from that. Icelandic: I come completely from the mountains.)

When I went on a ramble through cyberspace to research all these silly sayings, I also found two very sweet videos about concepts that we don’t really have the words for in English:

  • A Filipino word for a cute, adorable thing that gives you joy: gigil
  • A Japanese phrase for predicting love: koi no yokan

Now I feel like looking for more examples, but that’s a job for another day. Let’s not get carried away. Leave the church in the village, as the Germans might say.

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Hot and seeing spots

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Hello, hotties. How are you faring? It’s a bit much, isn’t it? I’m talking about the weather, obviously. Ooof, it’s been HOT! Heatwave records seem to be tumbling all over Australia. Every night the weather map looks like a band of molten lava across the country.

I’ve been thinking of changing the name of this blog to Slow, Wilted, Sweaty. Honestly, I’ve been as limp as an old lettuce. The bedroom’s been too hot to sleep in, so I’ve camped in the lounge room and spent lots of time looking at photos of snow in Sweden and wishing I was there instead of here. 42 degrees Celsius is no-one’s favourite temperature, unless you’re some kind of lizard.

Talking of which, I had to turn the water off to get some plumbing done. The mains tap is down a pipe underneath the courtyard, and when I peered down into it I saw little eggs, lots of them. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw many wriggly things too. Baby skinks! I had to relocate them to turn off the tap. Have you ever tried catching baby skinks with a spoon and getting them to travel up a pipe? Luckily it was such a hot day that no-one was around to ask me what I was doing: “Oh, you know, just encouraging skinks to take the spoon escalator up to ground level.”

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When I was a child and lived in England, there was a heatwave one summer which now seems mild by Australian standards. I think the temperature went over 30 for a while. But the most amazing thing happened: ladybirds took over the country. Really, they did. There was a ladybird plague. They were everywhere. I wondered whether it was my childhood memory inflating the numbers or whether there really was a plague, so I looked it up. The BBC says that insect boffins estimated the number at 23.65 billion! Nope, that’s not a typo. You can read about it here.

I’ve been thinking about why we like ladybirds but hate cockroaches. It’s to do with the shape and the spots, isn’t it? Ladybirds are rounded and cute and pretty. They’re cartoon‑like. We like their bright colours and patterns. They cheer us up.

To escape the heat this week, I went to the National Gallery to look at Yayoi Kusama’s infinity room, which is like being surrounded by a giant ladybird. It’s a patterned room in hot yellow, with black dots. In the middle is a mirrored box reflecting the walls and ceiling back at you. It’s fun and disconcerting at the same time because it plays tricks with your brain.

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When you walk up the steps and peer through a little window in the mirrored box, you see the most wonderful thing: bright yellow pumpkins with black spots reflected to infinity.

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Kids and adults alike were queuing to see these gorgeous, quirky pumpkins. As soon as I’d had my turn at looking through the little window, I wanted to go straight back to do it again. It’s truly delightful. It’s called The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens and it’s been bought by the gallery, which hopefully means it’s on display permanently. After I’d seen it, the 42-degree day outside seemed pale by comparison.

Weather gods be thanked, it’s cooler today and predicted to be that way for the rest of the week. We’ll all have a chance to catch up on sleep and get our energy back. I can stop looking at pictures of Sweden. I hope the cool change has made it to your house too. But even if you don’t need an air-conditioned art gallery to escape to, go and see the ladybird pumpkins!

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Shoelaces

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Do you meditate? Wait! Come back! I’m not about to go all esoteric on you. Let me ask a different question: do you have a tendency to catastrophise? I do. Catastrophising, thinking that something terrible will happen, is perfectly understandable. It usually develops because something terrible has happened, or perhaps there’s been a run of terribleness. The fight or flight response starts working overtime and the parasympathetic nervous system, the bit that calms us down, seems to go on holiday.

Here’s an example. A friend and her little dog came to visit. We left the dog in the house while we went for a swim. Then we came back for a cuppa and a nice chat. Everyone, the dog included, had a lovely time. But when they left, I went into the kitchen and realised with horror that a blob of ant bait that had been on the benchtop was no longer there.

My first thought was: “I’ve killed the dog!” She’s a little dog but she can jump very high. While we’d been swimming she’d patrolled the kitchen and sniffed out the honey smell of the ant bait. Then she’d jumped up, stuck out her tongue at just the right moment and slurped up the honeyed poison, ants ‘n all.

I rang my friend. No answer. I sent a text. No answer. I waited for what seemed like ages, then I rang again. Still no answer. So here’s what I thought: “The dog’s had a seizure in the car on the way home and they’ve gone straight to the vet. That’s why she’s not answering the phone.” Are you laughing? I hope so.

My friend rang about an hour later. “I was cooking dinner,” she said. “I didn’t hear the phone.” She rang the vet and found out that the bait wasn’t poisonous to dogs but might cause a bit of an upset tummy. Ms Dog, meanwhile, happily scoffed her dinner then ate my friend’s daughter’s dental guard for dessert.

I think it might be time to chill, don’t you?!

I used to own a sweatshirt that said “overthink everything” and I wore it around the house all winter. I bought it because it made me laugh but also it was a reminder to stop overthinking. Meditation helped. It gave me a way to step back and consider what was happening, rather than reacting instantly. Unfortunately, after a while I forgot to keep doing it. I stopped meditating and the overthinking/catastrophising came back.

Everyone’s an expert on meditation and mindfulness these days. It can be annoying, when you’re really strung out and busy, to hear yet another person telling you to meditate or be mindful. “I haven’t got time. I can’t do it right. It’s boring. I can’t empty my mind.” These are the things we all tell ourselves, even when we’ve meditated before and know that it works.

Since I started meditating again, I’ve been wondering: what is this thing called meditation?  You don’t have to sit cross-legged on a cushion to do it; you can be walking or lying down or staring out of the window.  It’s not really about emptying your mind either, although that’s lovely when it happens.

Here’s what I think it boils down to, the essence of meditation:

  • Stillness
  • Concentration
  • Noticing
  • Contentment

In the mornings, as I’ve been tying my shoelaces, getting ready to go out for a walk, it’s dawned on me that I’ve been completely focused. I’ve noticed everything about the action of shoelace tying: the colour of my shoes, the texture of the laces, the feeling of tying them. I’ve been meditating while tying my shoelaces!

Of course, once you start telling yourself in your mind how great it is—Hey! Look! I’m meditating! Whoo-hoo!—then you’ve broken the spell. You’re thinking again. But even those few minutes of seeing and not thinking are precious. They set you up for the whole day. You go into a meditative state at other times when you aren’t even trying to meditate.

The parasympathetic nervous system comes back from its holiday, packs the fight or flight response into a suitcase and puts it on top of the wardrobe until it’s needed. The big stuff seems less exhausting and the little stuff seems even more significant. Best of all, at any moment, out of the blue, you can find yourself wrapped in a warm blanket of contentment. Even when you’re just tying your shoelaces.

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