Monday, February 2, 2015

Shut up and Write

It felt like the first day of school for me this morning. Dressed in my Pilates clothes, I was off to my Shut up and Write group, then to Pilates, then to meet Farmdoc for coffee at our regular coffee place. This was my routine last year but I’ve had a long break over the summer holidays. Like my youngest granddaughters today was my first day back.

Have you heard of Shut up and Write? It’s a worldwide movement that began in San Francisco and is particularly popular amongst academic writers, but works for any kind of writing. The idea is to meet in a cafe with a group of people and a timer and just write. There’s opportunity for socialising but it’s amazing how productive you can be in the company of others.

We use the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks the time up into blocks. In the breaks between blocks you’re not supposed to talk about what you’re working on (though sometimes we do). Most people find that when they return after the short break they can get to a deeper level in their writing. That certainly happens for me.

We meet at 9.15, order coffee, chat for 15 minutes, write for 25 minutes, break for a five minute chat and then write for another 25 minutes. There’s usually a bit more chat at the end, sometimes another 25-minute writing session for those who don’t need to rush off.

We’ve experimented with different venues – a couple of different cafes and a meeting room in a hotel – but the cafĂ© where we meet at the moment suits us best. They know our coffee orders and don’t seem to mind us spending an hour or so taking up precious table space. They’ve also grown used to our bursts of chatter, stretches of silence.

The time we met in a hotel, the young male manager set us up in a room to ourselves around a large boardroom table, but then tried to engage us in conversation about what we were doing when we were clearly wanting to concentrate and write in silence. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d have been so intrusive and condescending  (‘We’re all working hard here, aren’t we?’) if we’d been a group of men. Just a thought.

The Pomodoro technique works so well for me that I’ve begun trying to use it at home too. In the five minute breaks I get up, maybe do a few stretches, maybe make a cuppa or get a glass of water, maybe do some chores.

These Monday morning Shut up and Write sessions set me up for the writing week. I use them for all sorts of things. This morning I spent the first block writing this. Sometimes I write in my journal. Mostly I work on my novel, which is what I did in my second block.

Conversations are short, we’re different ages and stages and working on all kinds of projects, but we have in common that writing is important to us. When I spot these people around town I feel connected to them but also to the life of the town. It's the beginning for me of a sense of community here in this new place.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

This Time Last Year

Here are some photos from a year ago, of a dinner our friends Annie and Janet made for us on the bridge at Onemilebridge:

Last Thursday twelve months ago was our last day in our Tasmanian house. We spent the day cleaning as the movers hauled our numbered and catalogued boxes into their truck.

Farmdoc concentrated on the shed while inside the house I moved from room to room, cupboard to cupboard, scrubbing, wiping, dusting. A friend came by to collect one last load for the tip and a few cast offs to distribute. Late in the afternoon the new owners arrived for a last minute inspection and to ask a few questions. The real estate agent who'd brokered the sale came too, bearing a gift. I barely lifted my head from my cleaning.

I can still feel the current of tension that seethed through my body. I was determined to leave the house as clean as possible for its new occupants. I wanted this young couple to have an easy start in their new home.

I think I was also hiding in those cupboards and drawers from the magnitude of the change.

We were leaving a house, a dog, a property, a village and friends. A life we'd built up over a lot of years.

Our decade at Onemilebridge had been important to us in many ways. And now it was over.

That afternoon, after we'd left the house as clean as we could, we drove the long way around to our next-door neighbour's house. For years we'd walked and driven through our sycamore forest or across the paddock to her place, arriving for dinner on our ATV or in gumboots. Now those paddocks and that forest didn't belong to us any more so we arrived as all her visitors did, driving up her front driveway.

We slept that night at her house and spent our last day in Tasmania gazing across at our farm, knowing that those familiar paddocks belonged to someone else now; doing some last minute chores, and having lunch with another friend.

That evening I flew to Melbourne while Farmdoc took the ferry across. Unexpectedly, our friends James and Iris saw us off, so that their dear faces were our last sight of Tasmania.

The morning of the 17th of March, a year ago yesterday, Farmdoc and I drove up the driveway of Daylesford Organics, the farm belonging to our oldest daughter and her family, in time for a welcome breakfast of pancakes and coffee. It was the beginning of the next stage in our lives.

I can feel now all the emotions that belong to that period - sadness, anxiety, fear, excitement - but I couldn't feel them then. I was numb. I think I stayed numb for months while we sorted our belongings and set ourselves up in our rented cottage.

Then, as we began the process of building a new house and a new life in a new community, without my even noticing it I started to thaw out. But that's a story for another time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vale Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger has died. He was 94, a great age in anyone's language, but I am so sad.

Today I am listening to that oh so familiar voice singing 'To everything there is a season...a time to be born and a time to die...' Of course I know that, but my foolish aching heart doesn't know it, so I listen and I cry into the lemon meringue icing I am making, and I think back to the first time I heard him sing.

I was thirteen and my aunt and uncle had taken me to see him perform at the Melbourne Town Hall. I fell in love immediately. With that voice, the tuneful alto soaring above the crowd as he cajoled a stuffy Melbourne audience, many of the men in suits and ties, to lose their inhibitions and to sing with him. With the sound of his 12-string guitar and banjo. With his genuineness. With his belief in the innate goodness of people, that we really could overcome.

I was hooked.

Every time I saved enough money for a record I'd tram into the city and think, 'this time I'll get something different'. But each time I'd put on the headphones in the booth and hear Pete's voice and succumb, adding another Pete Seeger LP to my collection.

But Pete returned the favour. He introduced me to other musicians: The Weavers of course, Woody Guthrie, and on and on down to the line, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen.

Pete Seeger kept me company through my awkward teen years. I'd shut myself up in my room, listen to his songs and feel less lonely, see that there were people out there who were good and decent and passionate about the planet and its inhabitants, that there was in fact a bigger world outside the confines of my suburban life.

There was even more to Pete than this, but I didn't know any of it then. That he built his own house, a log cabin, from instructions he found in the public library. His bravery in the face of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, preferring the risk of jail to naming names.

'A time to dance and a time to mourn.' For me now it's a time to mourn. And a time for giving thanks. Thank you so much, Pete. For everything.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Welcome Bee and Ra

I know, I know. Long time no blog. I’ve left you in suspense all these months. The last time I wrote we were weeping outside the locked gates of Eden. Did they cross Bass Strait alive? you wondered. Did they realise that they'd made a huge mistake, and do they now wish to return to the south island?

Well, yes and no. Yes, we made the move safely, all our possessions and ourselves intact. And here we are, close to our two oldest daughters and their families, ensconced in a rented cottage while across two paddocks our new house takes shape. So no, we don’t want to return.

We arrived to fanfare, goodie baskets and a welcoming committee.

The last couple of weeks back there and the first couple of weeks here were hard. I felt bruised. There was the physical work involved in sorting and packing all our possessions and then at the other end unpacking what we thought we’d need for the next twelve months, and storing the rest. But mostly it was the emotional work of closing a chapter in our lives. We’d been in Tasmania for over two decades!

I spent hours, while I should have been wrapping things in butchers paper, reading over my old journals. I burnt a lot of them. Right now I don’t completely understand why I did that and whether I’m going to be sorry later. It’s just that there were dozens, and they were full of whingeing about long-resolved problems. It seemed like I didn’t even know who that person was any more. I thought if I died (and this move felt like it might just kill me) then I didn’t want to subject anyone else to having to read that stuff. And those books took up so much room. Anyway, there are still a couple of boxes worth to go into my new study, and I'm constantly filling up new ones. It's a habit - or perhaps an addiction.

And now we love it here.

We’re here to cheer up and to cheer on, to help and to be helped, and to enjoy our daughters and their families. We are around to celebrate the small achievements and the huge ones, to bear witness to milestones. We're close to good coffee and a great community, and I'm near enough to my dad to be able to see him regularly.

It's been especially amazing to be part of the excitement of the launch of Vantastic, Kate's wonderful book.

How lucky are we? Don't answer that; I know the answer already. Very lucky indeed!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Recipe For Moving House

Take one reasonably settled existence. 

Add some hopes, some dreams, a dash of ageing. 

Throw together the past, the present, the future, some friends, some family, a pinch of mortality. 

Fold this mixture into a house full of possessions – furniture, books, china and cooking pots - and a shed full of stuff.

Wrap in butchers paper and pack in cardboard boxes. 

Pour into a 20-foot container.

Drive down the driveway, taking in all that you see

Adding slowly that this will be the last time 

Lock the padlock on the gate - with you keyless on the other side

Ship goods across Bass Strait and follow in ute.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Alzheimer's and Me

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Alzheimer’s. It began with a letter I wrote for the Mental Health Research Institute’s annual appeal. This is the photograph of my parents that is at the top of that letter:

Mum was in the very early stages of dementia then, but still very beautiful and vivacious, and my parents were still head over heels in love with each other. The full letter is here. Here are a few extracts from it:

About 300,000 of my mother's fellow Australians are living with dementia right now. Every six minutes a new sufferer is diagnosed. But we felt alone.


With Alzheimer's there's no kidney you can donate, no body part that can be amputated, no chemo to try. No drug cure. Nothing. Just patience and anguish. And then more the next day. And then again. And again. For years. With only death at the end.


It's predicted that without any significant medical breakthrough there'll be one million sufferers by 2050

If you'd like to donate to the Institute here's the link for that.

Then at the beginning of December I participated in a Dementia in Hospitals forum, a joint project of Alzheimer's Australia Victoria, and the Victoria and Tasmania Dementia Training Study Centre.

It was an interesting forum. The bad news is that nobody talked of a cure or even of a known cause. If there is a cure, it's at least five years away, and inside the brains of many of us baby boomers those pesky amyloid plaques and tau tangles are forming already. Tick, tick, tick...The statistics are terrifying and getting worse. It's strange how complacent people are about this. Denial, I guess. Ignore it and it'll go away...

The good news is that many dedicated and talented researchers are investing a lot of time working out how best to look after sufferers in acute care hospitals, which must be the worst, most frightening, places for them.

My speech was about my family's experience with Alzheimer's and in particular about how confusing and frightening hospitals were for my mother, and how hard we had to work to make the situation tolerable for her.

After all this I turned to a book called, The Alzheimer's Prevention Program, by Gary Small and Gigi Morgan

I didn't really expect a miracle. I suppose I was seeking a glimmer of hope.

The book is easy to read and well set out. It contains results from lots of studies and provides a recipe for healthy living. Remember that line, maybe from Laugh-In, 'Healthy mind, healthy body - take your pick'? Well, this book provides a template for both.

There are sections on nutrition, physical and mental exercise and reducing stress.

No miracles though, and no guarantees either. What the authors suggest is that by following these recommendations you can possibly postpone Alzheimer's by years. And if you can delay the disease long enough then maybe there'll be a cure, or you'll die of something else before it even manifests at all, or to any great extent.

Better than nothing.

For me the most encouraging thing I've read recently is that if the members of your family who have developed dementia have done so after age 65 then you are at no more risk than the general population. I felt a weight lift off me when I read that. I had assumed because my mother developed Alzheimer's in her 70s, then the disease was sitting at the end of my bed waiting for me. It still may be, I guess. I'll just have to get up earlier than it does and follow as many of the book's prescriptions as I can: eat a healthy diet, exercise my body and exercise my brain.

And then time will tell.

People who knew my mother always said I looked just like her. I was so proud of that. Now it makes me nervous that our similarity will be my downfall. Whereas before I used to seek ways in which we were alike, now I find myself looking for the differences between us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Sad Tale of Wombat Bindi (with Happy Ending)

 Wombat Bindi was sentenced to death. Not just once, but twice.

The first time was when a car ran her mother down and left the baby wombat for dead in her mother's pouch. That time Bindi was rescued by the people who found her and brought her to Iris and James at Albion Wombat Rescue.

Then Bindi developed severe and debilitating colic. She was sickly and in pain all the time. Nothing helped. 

The vet delivered the second death sentence. Bindi wasn't thriving. She couldn't go on as she was and there was no treatment he could recommend that would help. The most humane solution would be to end her short unhappy life before she suffered any more.

That's when Bindi was rescued a second time. Iris and James have lost animals before and they didn't think they could face the pain again. Besides, they'd fallen under the spell of this small creature and weren't going to lose her without one helluva fight. 

Iris trained as a nurse, and she knows a thing or two about animals too from long years of caring for them. Off she went to the chemist with a recipe for a colic mixture that she thought was worth a try. The pharmacist followed her directions and poured the mixture into a bottle labelled with the wombat's name.


It took a lot of patience on James and Iris's part, but contrary to all expectations, Bindi's health gradually improved. She began to put on weight slowly. She was still quite fragile and needed a lot of attention, but she was off the death list.

Bindi is now about a year old, thanks to her wonderful and devoted carers. She's not as independent as they'd like - still a bit of a Mummy's girl - and, though she spends her days outside, she still sleeps indoors in a cot. But she's healthy, with a glossy coat.

She's a good eater, still having one bottle a day and relishing her Weetbix. When she's indoors and she needs to wee, she signals to be picked up and held over the laundry trough.

She enjoys a cuddle.

She loves to throw all the cushions off the couch

 and burrow in.

And she loves the only mum and dad she's ever known.

I want to pay tribute to all wildlife carers, but to Iris and James in particular for their selfless care for the wild inhabitants of our planet, and also for their loving care of me when, like Bindi, I was losing my mother and in need of nurture.