It’s been ages, folks…I’ve been keeping a lot of balls in the air (which does make me happy), but it’s nice to find a moment or two on yet another rainy day in Sydneytown to tend my tiny patch of cyberspace.
Our house build is ever-so-nearly complete, and it has been truly gratifying to see my castle in the air take shape in solid form, particularly since my mental image and the finished product match.
Now, with the finish line in sight, my mind has turned to packing things up and turfing things out, to sorting out insurance and utilities, and to booking removalists and deliveries and cleaners and all manner of other bits and pieces.
It’s a lot, but it’s all good.
I’m at a point in my life where I am far better at making conscious choices about how I spend my time, and I was grateful today to find a few moments to read a novel at the hairdresser (instead of drafting interview questions for my next article), and to tap away for a few brief moments here (instead of packing yet another box).
It’s these small oases in time that allow me to fill my cup, and enable me to keep all the balls in the air.
I’m learning to pay attention to the little prompts from the universe which, by coincidence — if you still believe in such things — presented me with a picture of a beautiful wadi in Oman when I switched my laptop on today.
It feels like my patch of cyberspace is looking a little desolate: far more like a wonky pavement with weeds spilling from between the cracks than a verdant, carefully tended garden. That said, there is a good reason why I have neglected this space, despite my various attempts to nurture it over the years, and that is I’m trying to finish the first draft of my novel.
Writing is one of my great true loves. I love the feeling of sentences pouring forth from my fingers, pooling themselves paragraphs and flowing into pages of prose. I savour the feeling of selecting precisely the right words and placing them in a specific order to bring a particular scenario, emotion, or plot point to life.
But it takes time.
It takes time to enter the headspace of the character whose perspective you’re writing from, to inhabit their skin and to bring their inner life and backstory to the forefront of your own mind so you can produce a believeable, genuine response to what is happening in the story at any given time. And to achieve that, you need to possess a clear understanding of exactly where the tale you’re telling has come from and where it will end up — because you’ve had to create all that too, not to mention the world in which it takes place.
And sometimes you need time just to sit with an idea.
For the past two days I have been allowing a scene to germinate in my head. I’ve got some writing done, sure, but writing is not always about how many words you’ve got on a page. I’ve needed time to flesh out a new character in my mind, to understand where they fit into the action and how they relate to the other characters who already populate my world. I have needed time to figure out what they look like, how they move, and what makes them unique. And then I have needed time to turn my attention to the first impressions the character whose point of view I am currently writing from might have of them, and what knowledge these characters possess about themselves, each other and the wider plot of the novel as a whole. Only then could I map out how these characters might interact, and to decide what information I needed to hide or reveal to build suspense and drive the story towards its climax.
And that’s just for one small scene at the end of Chapter Thirteen!
Writing is hard, sometimes, no matter how much you love it.
It’s hard to find uninterrupted time to let the story unfurl in your head in the way I have just described.
It’s hard to admit you’re writing a novel in the first place.
It’s hard to answer questions about when your book will be finished, or where you’re up to, or whether it will ever be published.
It’s hard to silence the ever-present and insistent voice of my inner critic, who frequently tells me I am a fool for attempting to write a novel, or I’m arrogant to assume anyone would want to read it, or I’m any number of other negative things. (Then again, I’m yet to meet a writer whose inner critic does not persist in making a multitude of unhelpful comments and suggestions, usually at the most inopportune times).
It’s hard to keep believing in yourself and your story, knowing it might never make it onto the printed page.
But since I have started creating my characters and the world in which they live, I feel a strange sense of duty to make sure I see them through to the end — even if it means my patch of cyberspace suffers from benign neglect in the meantime.
As Glennon Doyle says, we can do hard things.
So I wish you well with whatever hard things you’re doing.
“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 their 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It didn’t last long, but he was there.
Hello, I’ve waited here for you…Everlong...
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.
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.
In which the Thrify Fictionista abandons her usual carefully considered annual Top 5 posts and crams all her thoughts about the things she has read, watched and listened to during 2021into one hot mess of a post entirely appropriate for the year that was…
Folks, I am so grateful for the gift of literacy. To be able to read — and hence escape between the pages of a book — is one of my life’s true delights, a pleasure that has only been heightened by being part of a protracted historical event. So, as of now, I’m putting on my positive pants and dismissing any further mentions of that pesky Pandemic in this post, and presenting to you in an order as yet unknown to me with the things I loved most this year. Books, TV shows, movies, songs and various bits of ephemera that caught my attention, held it, and made me feel. Because FEELING is what it’s all about, my friends.
I’m going to kick things off by recommending Craig Silvey’s book Honeybee, which just so happened to be the first book I read in 2021. It’s brilliant. So much so, I wondered whether I would read anything as good for the rest of the year (spoiler alert — I did, so please read on). Honeybee made me laugh, cry, shake my fist in both rage and triumph. I absolutely loved it, and reckon you should get a copy for yourself. Pronto.
Another summer holiday read I thoroughly enjoyed was Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. In addition to having a cracking storyline following the main protagonist, Kerry Salter, and generations of her First Nations family, this story is dramatic and darkly comic. I may have found it even more engaging because the country where the tale is set (despite focusing on a fictional town called Durrongo) reminded me strongly of a part of northern NSW where I spent a lot of summers during my childhood.
Shortly after reading these, I got stuck into watching Narcos on Netflix. I was very late to the party, I know, but after watching Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian I was keen to see what he could do without a helmet on and was not disappointed. Wagner Moura did a brilliant job of portraying Pablo Escobar and (being a non-Spanish speaker) I was not troubled by the fact that he apparently wasn’t so great at nailing the Medellín accent. Watching Narcos was an edge-of-your-seat ride combining politics, risky and highly illegal business, insurgents, excess and corruption, ever-present danger, families and cartels, the Colombian jungle, and a few blokes who were trying to stop the whole cocaine trade in its tracks, and I loved it.
By the time Lockdown rolled around again (I think it was the third one for us — the one that went for 17 weeks?), our whole family was looking for something to escape into, and when we weren’t snort-laughing watching back episodes of Travel Guides, which we also watched to take in scenery of anywhere but our own backyard, we got right into The Mysterious Benedict Society on Disney Plus. This was a show the entire family enjoyed, and the fact that a new episode dropped only once a week gave Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop a taste of what life was like for The Bloke and I when we were kids in the days before streaming services. We’re all looking forward to Season Two!
Speaking of second seasons, we also used up quite a few tissues earlier in the year watching Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds on ABC iView, which also prompted Marvel Girl to develop an app for older Australians with some of her classmates for a Praxis project at school. The entire family loved the show and The Bloke and I were really proud when Marvel Girl and her mates took out the top gong for the project it inspired.
During lockdown I also embarked up on a Couch to 5km project that was curtailed only by us having to pack up and move house, but heading out on a run gave me the opportunity to listen to tunes. Not surprisingly, the music I’ve been listening to this year has been far more gentle than I would normally go for. I got into things like:
Running Red Lights by the Avalanches, Rivers Cuomo, Pink Siifu
Balenciaga by New West
Strange Girl by Laura Marling
Smile by Valerie June
Move by Flight Facilities, DRAMA
I also delved back into some oldies but goodies like The Wallflowers’ One Headlight, Funkadelic’s Can You Get to That and U2’s I Will Follow. Troubled times call for familiar favourites.
On the reading front, I got through those seventeen long weeks with the help of Hilary Mantel and hertruly remarkable trilogy of Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies (both of which I re-read) and The Mirror and the Light. I am in awe of Mantel’s writing: sometimes her words were so beautifully, perfectly chosen that I would have to mark my place in whichever of the gorgeous hardbacks I was currently reading with the jewel-toned ribbon bound into the cover and simply close my eyes. Then I would go back and read the passage again and sigh (often quite audibly), and would then find myself hoping that one day I, too, will be able to write so succintly, so eloquently, so precisely, and also to elicit such feeling. Because — as I said earlier — it’s all about the FEELING, folks.
I had a similar reaction to reading Ed Ayres’ book Whole Notes, which is truly and utterly a MUST READ for any music lover. Unusually for me, I have embarked upon a second reading of this volume, which is part “call to instruments” and part memoir of becoming a trans man aged 50 (better late than never, as Ed says). Same goes for the brilliant Trent Dalton’s book Love Stories — but as any regular readers of this blog will know, the Thrifty Fictionista is a massive fan of Dalton’s work and it did not come as a surprise to me that I found myself wanting to stretch Love Stories out for as looooooong as I could, trying to make it last — it was that good.
What else did I enjoy this year? I binged all three seasons of Medici on SBS On Demand and found myself going down various Florentine themed rabbitholes on the interwebs for quite some time afterwards. Filmwise, I got a bit of a kick out of the 2020 movie Rose Island (or, in the original Italian, L’incredibile storia dell’Isola delle Rose), and I also enjoyed Hugh Grant in The Gentlemen.
The Bloke and I decided it was high time we introduced the kids to Daniel Craig’s Bond movies, and so far we’ve watched Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. I suspect Spectre will be on the menu soon (if my offspring are not devouring more episodes of Gilmore Girls, which they have recently discovered and have many questions about — including what a video store was — thereby making The Bloke and I feel somewhat antiquated, if not ancient). We also made the kids watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which looks massively dated but the jokes still hold up, for the most part. I tried to get them into watching Lupin (which I loved) but it only piqued the interest of the Paris-loving Marvel Girl, and failed to grab Miss Malaprop. That said, we all thoroughly enjoyed Hawkeye.
There are a couple of other things I don’t think I could have got through 2021 without — like watching episodies of 30 Rock on Stan, because sometimes all you really need is 20 minutes of madness and mayhem from Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey to lift your spirits. In a year where internet shopping has taken on a life of its own, I am still eyeing off a T shirt reading “Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks” in honour of Jenna Maroney’s alma mater, but I ended up settling for a 3 pack of Silent Theory T shirts instead (the Lucy style is great and the quality is top notch, in case you’re asking). Another internet purchase I loved? A drink bottle from Target that has the hours of the day printed down the side so I know where my water intake should be up to when. But I digress…
What else? What else did the Thrifty Fictionista love? Well, towards the end of the year I got right into reading Dave Grohl’s book The Storyteller, which inspired our New Year’s Eve feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken and French Champagne. And I finished up the year reading Hannah Kent’s Devotion, Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock and Anne Enright’s Actress — all of which were great, and made for a solid finish to a rather troublesome year.
And so, friends, here endeth the Thrifty Fictionista’s cultural ramblings through the year that was. I would love to hear what you watched, listened to and read during the past year than made it more bearable for you and yours. I hope you find some solace or joy in what I enjoyed.