The Thrifty Fictionista Feels Nostalgic…

“Out on the islands that poke their rocky shores above the waters of Penobscot Bay, you can watch the time of the world go by, from minute to minute, hour to hour, from day to day . . .”

These are the opening lines of the Thrifty Fictionista’s favourite picture book, one I have loved since I was a child: Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Telling the story of a girl and her younger sister spending their summer holidays on an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, it follows them as they explore the natural world around them. They swim, they sail, they laze in the sun — they even survive a hurricane that blows in one night.

I still love everything about that book: the beauty of the painted illustrations, the cadence of the sentences, every last carefully chosen word. I often wished, when I was little, that I could go on holidays just like the girls in the book, even though I lived on the other side of the world from Maine.

Like the girls in the book, I spent a lot of time on boats when I was a kid. My grandfather, who had served in the navy, was never one to be without some kind of seafaring craft, so my brother and I enjoyed time on a succession of yachts, one of which had sailed the Sydney to Hobart race multiple times, and later on an old Halvorsen cruiser. The sights, sounds and smells of moorings and marinas still make me happy.

What reminded me of Time of Wonder most recently, however, was something equally nostalgic, but completely unexpected. I was watching M*A*S*H with my kids (having got them hooked on that golden oldie after they had watched so many episodes of Brooklyn 99 I thought I was going to scream), and we came to the part of Series 5 when Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan gets engaged to Lt Colonel Donald Penobscott — and at the first mention of his name, there I was: right back in the middle of Penobscot Bay, exploring the Time of Wonder island and all its natural wonders.

At the moment, all I would like to do is dive between the pages of my old, battered copy of Time of Wonder and relive it all once again. Or even the shiny new copy I got for my own kids when they were old enough to read it.

But, since we’re in the process of building our house, that dear old book is somewhere in storage, along with many other treasured possessions of the paged variety. It has been hard not having my book “friends” around for the past nine or ten months, but now that build is drawing to close up stage I am itching to get my fingers on volumes I have wished for while living here in our tiny rental.

The Thrifty Fictionista could not do with out ALL her books, however — so old favourites and new have found there way up the 49 steps to our front door. Anna Karenina is here, rubbing shoulders with Lolita and Dorian Gray, and even The Once and Future King. There are books by authors whose writing I can’t live without: Helen Garner, Trent Dalton, Ed Ayres, Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, Anne Lamott. And there are cookbooks, of course, too, thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigella Lawson, Poh Ling Yeow and Annabel Crabb.

Before too long, however, it will be time for us to pack these few books that did wend their way up all those stairs into boxes and take them to our new house. In Time of Wonder the girl is a little bit sad about the place she’s leaving, a little bit glad about the place she’s going to. The Thrifty Fictionista, on the other hand, is a little bit impatient to get out of the place I’m leaving, and tremendously excited about the place I’m going to — not least because it will have a library.

There will be space for books, space to watch endless re-runs of M*A*S*H, space to cook and space to dream, and even space to wonder where hummingbirds go in a hurricane.

And I can’t wait.

The Art of Hoping

Nearly three hundred years ago, a young French nobleman by the name of Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues was encouraged by his friend Voltaire to publish an assortment of essays and other writings, appended to which was a collection aphorisms called Reflections and Maxims (1746).

Among these sayings was one I stumbled across the other day:

La patience est l’art d’espérer.

This short phrase translates, very simply, as “Patience is the art of hoping”.

Finding this shiny little gem of a sentence was helpful to me, particularly as I am currently working on two long term projects: building a house and writing a novel. Both of these ventures require abundant quantities of patience, not least because La Niña has been persistently wreaking havoc with the weather and head colds have been stubbornly interfering with my children’s health and school attendance.

For much of my life, patience has been a virtue that has often eluded me. I have written before about being stalked by the Grey Cat of Restlessness, which I freely admit is much easier to live with than Churchill’s Black Dog, but which also presents challenges of its own — especially when longer tasks are involved.

It’s not that I’m not prepared to do the work or put in the hard yards. Watching our new home slowly emerging beneath the scaffolding is exciting, and writing makes my soul sing even on the dreariest day.

But, like Inigo Montoya, I hate waiting.

I think that is why I appreciate de Clapier’s aphorism (number 251 of 700, no less) putting such a positive spin on patience. By highlighting the role of hope in being patient, it becomes far more aspirational rather than temporal.

I like hope!

As Emily Dickinson said: Hope is the thing with feathers. It allows us to take flight.

I like steadfastness, too. It allows us to persist.

In fact, I’m a fan of a whole raft of great qualities that can help you when things — especially creative endeavours like building houses and writing novels — feel like they’re taking forever.

Because even when things feel interminable, it is worth remembering that life is short, and ageing is a privilege.

Just ask Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, who died at the tender age of 31 the year after he published his collection of essays and other writings. Because he did it…he finished the book, and published it, even if he did so anonymously and he didn’t become famous for it until a century after his death.

The art of hoping allows us to persist, even when our patience cups feel depleted, or leaky, or empty.

Maybe especially then.

Because we never, ever know what is just around corner.

The most absurd and reckless aspirations have sometimes been the cause of remarkable success.

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Mind yourselves,

BJx

The Thrifty Fictionista Is Cranky

Readers, the Thrifty Fictionista is cranky.

Seriously cranky.

Not with herself, nor with anyone else currently living, but with Thomas Hardy — who died almost 100 years ago.

Why? I hear you ask.

The answer is simple: I have just finished reading Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the whole book made me fed up and furious.

I never even planned to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but it turned up in one of those brilliant bargain boxes of books the Thrifty Ficionista falls prey to every now and then, this time a Young Adult collection purchased for my elder daughter. I nabbed Tess before she got hold of it, thinking it would be an entertaining read — which, for the most part, it was — but I was not prepared for how angry the novel would make me.

Especially the ending.

Without spoiling the story (or its ending) for anyone who has not yet read it, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a novel exposing the sexual hypocrisy, entrenched misogyny, and overbearing patriarchy of the period in which it was written. Even though the book was first published in 1891, many of the themes and abhorrent behaviours depicted in it remain all too relevant today — and this realisation was a substantial contributor to the Thrifty Fictionista’s current crankiness.

I’m now faced with a dilemma: do I give the book back to my (early teenaged) daughter to read or not? Would she find some of the characters’ conduct as offensive as I did? Would she dismiss the behaviour I found so repellent as simply being fusty and of its time, or would she also recognise it — repackaged and more than likely digitised and/or broadcast — in her own experiences of the current century?

I can only imagine, given she has been raised by me, that my daughter would respond to Tess of the D’Urbervilles in a similar fashion to the Thrifty Fictionista. But does she really need to read a fictional account of how lousy things were for women back in the day? Or am I better off giving her books like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own or Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, which may give her the headspace and the tools to forge her own way as a woman in the world?

You see, getting cranky is a good thing.

It might make the Thrifty Fictionista uncomfortable, but it also makes her think.

Hard.

About what’s important. About what influences — fictional, historical or otherwise — I want my daughters to be exposed to. Even about the possible effects of reading the works of a novelist whose female characters generally appear to be subject to fates they can neither change nor challenge.

Honestly, I want my kids to get cranky if they read books like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

But — more significantly — I want them to focus on becoming the incredible human beings, and not being circumscribed by history or sex or gender or labels of any kind.

Most importantly, I want my daughters to understand life as Glennon Doyle describes it:

I am a human being, meant to be in perpetual becoming. If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths. My goal is not to remain the same but to live in such a way that each day, year, moment, relationship, conversation and crisis is the material I use to become a truer, more beautiful version of myself.

So: thank you, Thomas Hardy.

The Thrifty Fictionista read your book and is cranky.

But she’s also a whole lot clearer on what she wants for herself and for her children.

Rescued

Three years ago today, a small furry bundle of joy made her way into our hearts and lives. She was underweight, a bit skittish, and had been looking for a place to call home for some time.

From the moment we adopted her, Tauriel — our truly magnificent feline — has been an important part of our family.

I remember the day we got her well, and particularly recall her following cautiously at my heels as I showed her around the house she would call home. She was alert, interested, and seemed to trust me from the start.

Needless to say, I was smitten from the moment I saw her.

Even now that we have moved house, I still find it inordinately comforting to know that she will be there when I get home. Her previous life as a stray has resulted in her being a strictly indoor cat, but she is an adaptable sort, and I appreciate her presence in the house when no one else is here. It is lovely to find her waiting for me at the front door when I get home, or — now that the weather is getting colder — curled up on top of my doona.

She is never far from my side or my thoughts, and is a gracious and graceful companion.

I am grateful beyond measure for the morning three years ago when The Bloke, knowing exactly why I was awake so early, rolled over and uttered a single sentence that filled my heart.

“We can get her, if you want”.

I’m so glad we did.

Thanks for being the best cat ever, Tauriel.

Spicy Coughs & Spirit Animals

I started this blog in 2014, and I don’t think I’ve had a month when I didn’t post something in all that time — except for March 2022.

Last month, the dreaded Spicy Cough finally caught up with me, and I was stuck alone in my room for seven days. I’d managed to avoid getting it when the kids did in early February, but in mid-March COVID finally got its claws into me. How I got it I will never know: I’m double vaxxed plus boosted, I’d worn a mask everywhere I went, and I’d hardly been anywhere.

I didn’t think COVID had affected me too badly until I started to recover. Only then did I realise how crook I’d been, and as a result I am so grateful to be back doing normal things like working and shopping and exercising. I can run up the (many) stairs to our rental without puffing again. I can walk to the beach and back without having to rest halfway. Most importantly, after being contained in a small space and not being able to see the rest of my family for an entire week, I can truly appreciate living life to the full.

And I guess that brings me to the second part of my musings today: the tragic and untimely death of Taylor Hawkins, a man who appeared to live life to the full every day.

I have joked often, and publicly, that Taylor Hawkins is my spirit animal.

I never met him, of course, was not likely to, and now never will.

But in life, Taylor seemed to be sunshine personified, imbued with incredible energy and creativity, and ever ready to smile, laugh and have copious quantities of fun.

What’s not to like about all or any of those things, or to aspire to emulate them?

And who says it’s not possible to grieve, in some way or another, for someone you never met?

Not being especially well versed in such matters, I am now wondering whether I need to choose a new spirit animal for myself — but I’m guessing Taylor himself would say: no way.

His spirit will always live on, if we let it.

If we aspire to it.

If we let it shine like Taylor Hawkins did.

Everlong

It’s been a long time since I wrote about my Travels with The Professor.

Part of the reason for that is I have been grappling with the loss of my father: not physically — because he’s still very much alive — but mentally. On that score, dementia is a cruel disease.

For many months I’ve watched my father disappear. He has been increasingly vague, sleepy, repetitive, and occasionally disoriented. Then again, he has also been calm, appreciative, optimistic and unfailingly polite.

How wonderful, one might say. What a blessing that he is not aggressive or abusive, as can happen in such cases.

Well, yes.

But…

The Professor I grew up with — the person I know as Dad — was quite the opposite of all the things I have just described.

Except unfailingly polite. He’s always been that.

My Dad was one of the most intellectually engaged, rigorous thinkers I have ever had the privilege to know. If you asked his opinion about something — anything — he had a ready answer (or six), delivered with erudite precision. If we debated a course of action, he could see every last thing that could possibly go wrong. He was an early riser who had a hawk-like intensity and focus in everything he did — and he never, ever stopped doing, striding swiftly and purposefully from one task to the next.

Relaxation was not part of his vocabulary.

Dad was not always an easy man. He was strict, strong willed and someone I clashed with often. He was no stranger to anger, though incredibly self-controlled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who sensed rage simmering below his eagle-eyed exterior from time to time. He did not suffer fools gladly and certainly didn’t use seven words when a single carefully selected one would do.

He was competitive, but would probably not have admitted to it. Family gatherings, however, would often turn into contests to see who could drop the most deadpan, tinder dry one liner into a conversation, and watch it ricochet around the room.

And then Alzheimer’s Disease stole my Dad away from me. Dementia has robbed me of the man who I would turn to for rapid fire reassurance and quick witted responses. It’s still difficult for me to comprehend that person — my Dad — is gone.

It’s really, really hard.

But then, last Wednesday, my father — as he is now — came over for the afternoon and, for reasons that will probably be forever unknown to me, we managed to have quite a lengthy conversation, one that ranged over many topics and contained surprisingly few repetitions on his part.

It wasn’t quite the same as it used to be, and given the degenerative nature of his disease, I know it never will be.

And then it happened.

Towards the end of the discussion with my father, I offered an opinion and — lightning quick and just as bright — there was Dad, telling me exactly and precisely what he thought. His face, his posture, his demeanour were all suddenly, fiercely, sublimely, transformed.

Point, counterpoint.

It didn’t last long, but he was there.

My Dad.

Hello, I’ve waited here for youEverlong...

It’s heartbreaking to know that he is in there, somewhere beneath all that busted wiring and brain fog.

But it was so beautiful, so unexpected, and ever so precious, to see him again — and it is something I will cherish, knowing full well that it might end up being the last time I see him.

I will always, always love my father.

But I really, really miss my Dad.

It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

Strange Days

Today is the last day of Miss Malaprop’s school holidays, and as the hours have ticked by I have found myself thinking about that old song by The Doors:

Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down
They're going to destroy
Our casual joys
We shall go on playing or find a new town...

It’s been an unusual holiday, to say the least, and many of our activities were circumscribed by the date on which Miss Malaprop herself could receive her first Pfizer shot. Our casual joys have been destroyed by this pandemic — or, more accurately, by the choices I have made to keep my children as safe as I can, the best way I know how. After all, keeping them safe is my main job.

We’re doing our best to go on playing, because there’s absolutely no point in finding a new town when we are completely in love with where we live. We are incredibly lucky to live a short walk from the beach, and heading down there whenever the mood strikes us has kept an element of spontaneity in our otherwise contained lives.

The ocean is where I feel most at peace at the moment.

In a world that seems to be almost permanently tainted by anxiety, the sea is where I am free.

Floating in saltwater is one of the most calming and beautiful experiences I know of: my muscles relax more deeply and my mind quiets more quickly than when I am anywhere else.

And even though this has been a strange summer, I suspect some of my memories of being in the water in the past few weeks with my girls will endure.

I know my love for the ocean will.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

Christmas Crazy Trains & Cheeseball Hearts

Hot coffee amiright?

Hey folks…how are you all doing riding the Christmas Crazy Train?

The year is drawing to a close, and here in Antipodes that means we’re nearing the end of the school year too. Some kids have already finished, though mine don’t have their last day until next week.

For me, this week’s stops on the Crazy Train include/d a wedding (congratulations again to the blissfully happy couple), a presentation day for Miss Malaprop (who took out her class English award — hooray!) and The Bloke’s Office Christmas party. It’s been great celebrating milestones and achievements, virtually and occasionally in person. Despite being an introvert, I have genuinely enjoyed greeting familiar faces I’ve not seen since Lockdown ended and meeting new people, too.

It might just be me, but it feels like being in Lockdown for 17 weeks straight actually made my local community stronger. More connected. Definitely happier to see each other. And even far more likely to strike up a conversation with a total stranger (especially if it’s outdoors).

And I like it!

Not this year!

It could be that we’re getting better at reading each others’ facial expressions over the tops of face masks. Maybe we’re being forced to notice what other people are truly telling us when we look into their eyes. Or we may be more likely to talk about the things that really matter to us, being far more well acquainted with what they are having been denied them for so long.

Perhaps it’s premature (particularly given what happened here on the Northern Beaches last year), but I can honestly say I’m looking forward to Christmas, to seeing family and friends. I’ve ordered the Christmas ham and we’ve even sampled some of the local butcher’s turkey and cranberry sausages — and we don’t mind if we do that again, either!

December 2021 feels very different, not only because we are living in a rental property while our house is being rebuilt, but also because we’re making do without our usual utterly ridiculous colour themed profusion of baubles, lights, wreaths and other decorations. I’ve caught myself enjoying the simplicity of being able to walk around the house without crashing into festive ornaments (or, more accurately, obsessively rearranging them if someone has dared to move them).

So true…

The Christmas Crazy Train I used to ride made so many stops they made me dizzy. This year, with inspiration from one of my favourite writers, Trent Dalton, I am allowing my cheeseball heart to guide me — to figure out what’s really going to make me happy while keeping me and my family safe. If I can’t realistically fit something in, I’m allocating time for it in the New Year, because time is what I want to spend with people, particularly when we were unable to do that for so long.

And so, as I prepare for next week’s stops on the Christmas Crazy Train, which include a livestream of Marvel Girl’s presentation day and various other festivities, I’m letting that cheeseball heart open up and feel light.

Mind yourselves, and enjoy the ride,

BJx

Finding the Space Between

I love words.

They’re part of the holy trinity of things that make me whole: words, music, food.

These three things anchor my life, colour my world and fuel my existence. They allow me to express myself more meaningfully, feel more deeply, and to live more completely.

But, as The Bloke will tell you (and as he has even more frequently told me), sometimes I use words too much.

Especially with our children.

And, truth be told, I don’t always use my words in a pleasant way…but in more of a drawn out, repetitive nag.

Sometimes they even come out as a rant.

Or a tirade.

Or a garbled stream of complaints and admonishments.

My children are reaching the age when they either don’t need me so much any more, or when they firmly believe they don’t need me at all (and could I please leave them alone and perhaps also shut the door on my way out while I’m at it).

As you can well imagine, once you’ve thrown a bunch of elevated hormone levels into the mix, a politely phrased and modulated request to perform the most perfunctory of household tasks (the musical eqivalent of which would be Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending) can produce such unexpectedly snarling, snarky response (think Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Heads Will Roll turned up to at least 11) that I frequently and ever-so-immaturely find myself retaliating in kind.

Sigh.

Things came to a head for me last week (though, fortunately, heads did not actually roll) after an especially super-charged exchange with my elder child, and I did what any self-respecting woman in her mid-forties does, if she still can: I called my mother for advice.

And a bit of a cry.

OK — it was a lot of a cry.

Who says we ever finish growing up?

Except we generally do grow up, and sometimes our mums aren’t always there to listen or helps us find the answers, or to guide us gently to the truth at the heart of the matter — which probably has something to do with the fact that you’ve managed to nurture your child to this point, and now they have reached the stage of their existence where they have to complete that same process you guided them through all over again, for themselves. And that you’ve given them a safe place in which to express themselves and to try out all the wildly different versions of their new, expanding sense of self.

The real question, I suspect, is not about growing up or finishing anything at all.

Because — naturally, serendipitously — once I’d processed the truth bombs dropped by my teenager and the truth pearls bestowed by my mother, I happened to open a book and there was a quote from Rumi which stopped my breath:

And you, when will you begin that long journey into yourself?

When indeed?

And so, that’s what I’m doing.

I’ve chosen to be quiet, and to witness my reactions from within. I’m not asking my children to do things any more — they’ve heard my requests thousands upon thousands of times, and they know what my expectations are.

And when my expectations are not met, I am applying what I call Silent Theory. Not a frosty, passive agressive silence, but a moment of taking a breath and stilling the response which would have so quickly come to my lips and spilled out as sound the split second after my children didn’t do exactly what I wanted them to.

Who, I now wonder, was the child?

It’s extraordinary what you discover in the space between, if you choose to begin that long journey into yourself.

Mind yourselves,

BJx