Six Stack of Sunshine

Car ENVY

So The Bloke has new wheels…

So as I said in my last post, I started a new job not so long ago — and that has meant I have been spending more time in my car than I have in recent years. My car is silver, but is by no means flash. It’s safe and serviceable. It definitely has a lot more bells and whistles than other cars I’ve owned, though if you’d seen any of those, you’d know that wouldn’t be too hard.

The Bloke, on the other hand, acquired a new car late last year, a great white BEAST of a car. (Not quite a Beluga on wheels, but close enough.)

I can say, with certainty, that it’s the first brand new vehicle either of us has ever owned.  And I can also say that since he acquired it, my position on his Totem Pole of Great Loves may have slipped slightly…not to say that I’m out of the top spot, but…well, I’m watching this space.

I’m not jealous.  Not a bit.

Well…that may not be entirely true: I am a tiny bit green-eyed, but it’s not over the car itself.

Car STEREO

The Bloke’s old car stereo looked a bit like this…

What I will admit being ever-so-slightly covetous of is the sound system, with its touch-screen technology, its Bluetooth connectivity, its up to the minute compatibility with just about any other device that’s been invented already.

Now, I am well aware that I should not begrudge The Bloke his newfound sonic bliss — his last chariot (it wasn’t quite horse-drawn, but I’ll let you extrapolate from there) was so woefully ill-equipped in the musical department that when we headed off on holidays I resorted to taking our BOSE Bluetooth speaker, plonking it on the dashboard, and playing Spotify via my iPhone for as long as we were in range, then switching to whatever I had downloaded from iTunes. We may have had decent music for as long as the battery lasted, but clearly, the setup wasn’t ideal.

Even so, it was not without a twinge of envy that I slid behind the wheel of my own car the other day.  I may even have looked a little folornly at the stereo, before recalling that just about every self-help guru that ever was suggests that in such cirumstances, a little gratitude does not go astray. Even Benjamin Franklin, it seems, was on the old gratitude bandwagon (though given the fact that he has been dead for nearly 227 years he might even have been the bandwagon’s original driver):

We can complain that rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.

Thank you, Mr Franklin. Ever so ta.

My car stereo was already starting to look better.  In fact, I decided to have a good — and far more grateful — look at what I actually had: a fully functioning car stereo with six presets for radio stations, and capacity for not one, not two, but six CDs.

Bloody marvellous, really — though given I generally listen to indie rock-type radio stations most of the time I couldn’t remember for the life of me what half of the CDs I currently had in the car stereo were, despite strongly suspecting they were a rather, ummm….shall we say, eclectic mix? So I decided, on what turned into quite a slow commute work that morning, to find out exactly what I had on board.

Spolier alert…even I was surprised…

Car BONEY M

Boney M

CD 1, as it turned out, was none other than The Best of Boney M.

I kid you not.

But just in case your eyebrows have just shot skyhigh and you’re seriously concerned about whatever else I might have lurking in my car stereo, there is method to such madness — as this post I wrote about the Healing Power of Disco will reveal. Trust me: if you have a tendency to get a little cranky while in traffic, this might be just what you didn’t even know you needed.

Car SPEM IN ALIUM

Thomas Tallis

CD 2 was equally surprising: a compilation of medieval choral music that began with a sublime rendition of Thomas Tallis’ Spem In Alium, a 40 part Renaissance motet composed around 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each.

Some critics consider it to be the greatest piece of early English music. I just know it’s a piece of music that had a massively calming influence on my children (and, if I’m being totally honest, on me as well). Check it out on YouTube…you might be pleasantly surprised.

Car JAY KAY 2

Jay Kay of Jamiroquai

Not unexpectedly, having discovered music from the 1970s and the 1570s currently occupying two of the six slots in my car stereo, I appoached CD3 with some trepidation — and was relieved to find a bunch of funky tunes from Jamiroquai.

Hearing Jay Kay singing (not to mention imagining him dancing) immediately transports me to a happy, summery place in my head, full of golden light and good times. It’s great music to have in your car — particuarly given the unusual amount of grey skies and general downpour we’ve had in Sydneytown lately.

Car AWESOME MIX

Yeeha…mix tape!

Less perturbed now, I made my way to CD4 and discovered a mix tape (well, that should probably read mix disc?) of dance tracks I had thrown together at some point. Now, as everyone knows, the best bit about a mix tape is that you know — if you put it together — that you’re going to love ever last track on it.

This CD was about as far away from Thomas Tallis as you can get (it has songs from Sia, Robin Schulz, Watermät, The Weeknd, and all sorts of other stuff), but it was equally uplifting — and full of fun too.

Car SIGUR ROS 2

Jonsi of Sigur Rós

CD5 began quietly enough and built into the unmistakable wall of sound produced by Iceland’s Sigur Rós on their incredible Takk album.

I once read about how, while preparing for the final scenes in the 2007 movie Sunshine, Danny Boyle had Cillian Murphy listen to Sigur Rós at maximum volume, trying to create some sort of (obviously earthbound) impression of what it would be like to be in complete communion with the sun Murphy’s character was attempting to reignite.

I can readily understand the choice — the euphoria is clearly present in Sigur Rós’ music, along with positivity and a very real sense of power.

Car OK COMPUTER

Radiohead: OK Computer

And that brought me, finally, to CD6, which proved to be a rather battered and slightly skippy ripped copy of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Because it is a truth intergalactially acknowledged that no vehicle is roadworthy without a bit of Radiohead hanging around — I mean the first track is Airbag, so clearly no car is safe without a copy?

I’m not quite sure where I would be without songs like Let Down or No Surprises. And for me it is a strangely (OK, perhaps downright weirdly) comforting thought that cosmic forces aligned themselves in such a way that they not only produced life on this planet, but also contrived to bring the likes of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood into existence in the same place at the same time, to form a once-in-a-generation band with such a distinctive sonic presence…but that, I suspect, is a whole other blogpost…

So anyway — that’s what was in my car stereo. A few surprises, even to myself, along with a few old faves. And while the sound system in The Bloke’s new car is very nice, I am quite content (for the moment) with my old school CDs and my six stack of sunshine.

Without a Word

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Nijinsky as the Faun

I have been forever fascinated by how humans can convey the depth and width of their emotions without uttering a single sound. You may think it odd that someone like me, who relishes and cherishes the written word, would value such expression so highly – but, quite simply, I do.

I love watching people dance. I’ve written before about how my children do, too. And while I don’t mind a bit of a boogie myself from time to time, there are some things — ballet, for example — that I believe are best left to the experts. To those rare individuals who are disciplined enough to dedicate their lives to honing their skills and their selves to the point that they bare their very souls on stage.

On Saturday night I was fortunate enough to witness one such individual dance, when Alexandre Riabko took to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in the title role of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky.  It was a powerful, masterful performance, vividly depicting Vaslav Nijinsky’s life inside and outside of dance via a series of memories and hallucinations as he descended, finally, into madness.

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Descent into madness…Alexandre Riabko as Nijinksy.

Watching Riabko inhabit Nijinsky’s interior world, as other dancers recreated his recollections — of being the Golden Slave in Scheherazade, or of the Faun in L’apres midi d’un faune, or of Petrouchka, or of learning his ballet steps with his brother and sister  — was mesmerising. But as other dancers began to give form to Nijinksy’s delusions and as his complex relationships with his lover and employer at the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, and with his wife, Romola, visibly unravelled, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy.

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The Golden Slave…

The image of Nijinsky returning again and again to something like second position, arms outstretched, as though trying to find his centre and a sense of safety in the midst of his increasing confusion was heartbreaking, particularly when juxtaposed with the transformation of his memories of Diaghilev — performed with all his usual elegant line and length by Andrew Killian — from sensual lover and suave mentor to sinister impresario.

No footage of Nijinksy dancing is believed to have survived — Diaghilev, apparently, would not allow him to be filmed — but during the two and half hours he was on stage, Alexandre Riabko had me completely and utterly convinced that he was channelling the spirit of the man whom many regard as being one of the greatest interpreters of the artform to ever set foot on a stage.

I left the Sydney Opera House deeply saddened by the tragedy of Nijinsky’s tale — he never again danced publicly from the time of his final performance in 1919 until his death, after spending years in and out of asylums, in 1950 — but I was also, ultimately, uplifted by the sheer intensity, beauty and bravery of the performance I had just witnessed.

And I suspect that feeling — one of great admiration tinged with sorrow — would have stayed with me for the remainder of the weekend, had I not had the pleasure of attending a Greek Orthodox wedding with my family the following day.  My daughters had never been to a wedding before, and they were entranced by everything about the experience from the singing at the wedding ceremony to the table settings at the reception. But what really captivated them — and me — was the dancing.

Watching the wedding guests encircling the dance floor, every one of them tracing the intricate steps of a Syrtos, was every bit as mesmerising as the ballet had been the night before.  Here were women — some in sensible sandals, most in spectacular stilletos — and men following in the footsteps of those who had come before them. Here was a sure-footed groom, leading his radiant bride. Without uttering a single word, the dance spoke of tradition, of continuity, of community, of family.

And as the long line of dancers wound their way around the room, I found myself thinking of each of their bodies as a living link to the past, stretching all the way to the present and then onwards, ever onwards, as they danced into the night, celebrating with the newlyweds and wishing them a lifetime of happiness in the future.

syrtos

A long line of tradition and celebration…

Ivy, Oak and Ash

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Ollivanders…where the wand, as we know, chooses the wizard.

I’m writing this at my kitchen table, listening to a beautiful Ólafur Arnalds track he recorded with Nils Frahm. The music, with its high-pitched, bell-like tinkling, has an ethereal quality that sounds unmistakably like…Magic.

And then it occurs to me that this piece, relatively obscure as it is, has conjured up the memory of the opening bars of a much more famous musical score: John Williams’ overture to the original Harry Potter film, a movie filled with mystery and wonder, and more Magic than you could poke a stick at — particularly if that stick should be a wand.

Ah, Magic.

It’s such a powerful thing — such a potent, creative force.

Even though I know quite well that the Harry Potter novels and films are works of fiction, I also recognise them as works of wonder. Of a fantasy that I can — and do — quite readily buy into. And, as I’ve said before, I encourage my children to do so as well. I think that the late and ever-so-great Roald Dahl, who definitely knew wonder when he saw it, probably explained why best:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

 

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Hogsmeade Village, Hollywood style…please respect the spell limits.

For me there can be as much Magic in a well-crafted sentence as there in a beautifully realised fictional world — complete with its own myths and history. But when The Bloke and I had the chance to take our girls to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood during our recent trip to the US, we both knew this was a opportunity to see some real Magic.

And it was.

We explored Hogwarts Castle, drank butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks, bought sweets at Honeydukes, visited the Owlery, and browsed through the broomsticks at Dervish and Banges.

And then we went to Ollivanders.

Ollivanders, as all self-respecting Harry Potter fans know, have been makers of fine wands since 382BC. Being a Ravenclaw myself, I could spend hours discussing the importance of the Ollivander family in history of European wandmaking or introducing you to the finer points of wandlore but that, one suspects, would be better done at another time. The most important thing to know, for the purposes of this post, is that the wand chooses the wizard.

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Our Wands, each pointing to the Hogwarts houses we most identify with: Gryffindor, Slytherin and Ravenclaw.

Or the witch, for that matter. Because when we came out of Ollivanders, the wands had well and truly chosen: Ivy for Marvel Girl, Oak for Miss Malaprop, and Ash for me. Not surprisingly, my wand is lying beside me on the kitchen table as a write. It is beautifully balanced, it is perfectly weighted, and it feels like it was made just for me.

And that’s the truly Magic thing, isn’t it?

But there are, as I discovered once again that day in Hogsmeade Village, many kinds of Magic…

After our visit to Ollivanders, Miss Malaprop strode purposefully towards Gladrags Wizardwear, where she proceeded to demonstrate her own considerable powers as she persuaded The Bloke to buy her a full set of Hogwarts robes (Slytherin ones, naturally) complete with house insignia and wand pocket, and some for her sister (Gryffindor, of course) as well. How does she do it? I wondered, as I struggled to calculate the cost of purchasing two sets of robes, plus tax, plus the exchange rate, plus the inevitable excess baggage cost associated with getting two large bundles of heavy black fabric back home…and I knew the answer in an instant: Miss Malaprop was utterly certain that we would let her have them before she even entered the shop, because she knew that deep down, we wanted them too.

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Basic Wand Motions…I think Arresto Momento would be one of the most useful spells I could have in my kitchen.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than all of us. We all know that there is real Magic to be found in shared experiences, particularly when they involve mutually suspended disbelief.

I know it’s not real.

And my kids know that, too.

(Really!)

But there is much to be said for the transformative joy that is produced when you allow the fictional to enter the everyday.  It’s why my kids have the words Nox  and Lumos on their bedroom lightswitches.  It’s why I’ll tell them I would love one of them to play Quidditch for Australia one day. It’s why Miss Malaprop and Marvel Girl got their Hogwarts robes (or they will on Christmas Day, at any rate).

And it’s also why our wands, which individually and specifically chose us, sit in pride of place in the rooms of our house that we use the most.  Our wands are tangible reminders that our differences make us as strong as our similarities, that our words and actions are powerful and must be wielded well, that there is Magic in us all.

Ivy, Oak and Ash.

Always.

olivanders

Ollivanders: makers of find wands since 382BC.

Sonic Soothing

 

I woke up this morning and knew within a matter of minutes that my over-stuffed brain was not going to allow easy decision making today, crammed as it currently is with details (many and varied) relating to the projects (disparate and deadlined) that I am working on at the moment.

Robby Cavanaugh

Love this image from Robby Cavanaugh…

Don’t get me wrong — I like being busy; in fact I probably feel most alive when I know that I’ve got as many balls in the air as I can realistically manage, when I know I’m keeping those balls up there and am getting it done, when I know that if it was possible to press the cosmic pause button I’d probably stand there, smiling goofily, staring at all those balls of different colours and sizes, suspended in intricate patterns, precisely positioned on their sweeping arcs and curves.

But this morning, I knew that successfully juggling my day required some of my decision-making to be outsourced.

I’m not talking about massive, life-changing decisions, of course — but I am speaking of something that is still very important to me, something essential to each and every day: the soundtrack. And when your First Principles consist of words, music and food, and being true to yourself means aligning yourself with these, you attend to the basics first.

So I reached for the iPad and sound dock, and within a matter of seconds had settled on a playlist someone else, some random stranger (bless them), had put together.

Music surged forth from the speaker. I sighed with relief. Job done.

And I took a moment, then, to consider just how amazing that feat was — because it blows my mind that I live in a technological age on this planet where it’s possible, in the blink of an eye, to enter a musical wonderland of (literally) uncharted tunes, populated by singers and bands and artists I’m yet to discover, far away and free from the confines of commercial radio.

Thank goodness for Spotify.

Praise the Old Gods and the New for Pandora.

All hail the genius who came up with the miraculous algorithm behind Shazam.

Because this is where this age of hyperconnectivity comes into its own, where it really starts to shine: in the sonic spaces. Where you can be listening to Christine and the Queens in one minute, move on to Sigur Rós the next, mellow out with Matt Corby, then listen to a tune or two from Nils Frahm.

Where you travel the world on a soundwave, from France to Iceland to Australia to Germany, without even leaving your workspace.

This is the digital age at its best.

This is sonic soothing.

 

 

Sunrise

As you may have heard, Sydney was lashed by storms over the weekend. An East Coast Low brought torrential rain and fierce winds to our part of the world, along with king tides the likes of which we haven’t seen for many long years. Our little house survived unscathed, but only a few minutes’ drive away other dwellings weren’t nearly so fortunate: many near the lakes and lagoons were flooded; others along the beachfront were partially destroyed.

Today, however, the blue sky is striving to make a comeback, the sun is struggling through, and I’ve got some jazz happening on the stereo to blast away the remnants of what has been a very wet weekend. More specifically, I’m listening to one of the greatest jazz vocalists alive today: Kurt Elling.

Last Friday night, just before the downpour began, The Bloke and I were lucky enough to catch Kurt Elling in concert at City Recital Hall in Angel Place. I’ll be honest — I’m an unabashed Elling fan, and it was a bit of a dream come true to see him sing live.

Kurt

Kurt Elling…letting it fly.

And man, can he sing.

I don’t think I wiped the grin off my face from the moment he appeared on stage, singing his take on Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”, right through to his “Embraceable You” encore. And there were many moments along the way that made me nearly hold me breath, not wanting them to end — as a vocalist, the guy has some serious skills.

But one of the most interesting things about the night was the way Elling engages with his repertoire, reinventing pieces by imposing his own stamp on them — not only via the vocalese for which he is justly famous, but also by inserting his own lyrics into wellknown songs and turning them into something truly unique. Take Elling’s version of Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise”, for example, where he juxtaposes the original lyrics with ones of his own creation, inspired by the great Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. It’s creative. It’s clever. And it’s truly captivating.

And so, as storm-damaged Sydney cleans up after a wild weekend, here it is: sunrise, delivered by velvet-voiced virtuoso who really, really knows how to perform.

 

Bittersweet Symphony

BSS

Still one of the greatest songs ever written…

Winter arrived this week.

We woke one morning — I think it was Thursday — and discovered that Sydney’s seemingly endless summer had disappeared overnight. The world was suddenly a cold and windy place, rain-soaked and grey-stained, where clouds had settled themselves just above the rooftops.

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life…

The change of season often happens suddenly here, though perhaps I have been more aware of it this year because I managed to come down with the dreaded lurgy about ten days ago, when the days were still sunsoaked, and tried (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to keep working and to soldier on. The day winter arrived was the morning I awoke with the dawning realisation that the wretched thing has grabbed me in its claws again — this time, by the throat.

…try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die…

Well, maybe not die. Not quite.

BSS 2

Well, maybe not a million — but, like I said, being ill makes me slightly prone to exaggeration.

I will admit, albeit reluctantly, that illness does tend to make me slightly prone to exaggeration. I suspect that the main reason for this is that I, like many mothers, feel as though my family requires a great deal of convincing that when I say I feel unwell, I actually mean it. For example, one night last week, when I had finally stopped coughing long enough to fall asleep in the spare room (to which I had banished myself so as not to inflict the lurgy on The Bloke), I was woken at 2am by the light of a torch being shone directly into my eyes by my younger child, who proceeded to announce that she had a sore ankle.

Seriously?! 

Like the creator of aforementioned the dreaded lurgy, Spike Milligan, I sometimes wonder whether my headstone will end up reading I told you I was sick.

Since the cold snap hit, however, I have stopped trying to convert the non-believers in my house and have simply, and quite uncharacteristically, given into being ill. I have wrapped myself in blankets, drunk endless cups of hot tea, and surrounded myself with fresh lemons, a rather alarming variety of pharmaceuticals, a welcome selection of books, and The Verve’s Urban Hymns album.

The Bloke despairs of my love for what he refers to as “whingey Britpop”, but since I am as steadfast as I am eclectic in my musical affections, there are certain things in the life we share that he is forced to roll his eyes and endure. It’s not just that he doesn’t like what he refers to as “that awful music”. The bigger problem, I suspect, is that I have — as some wag once put it — three moods: skip every song on my iPod, let the music play without interruption, or play the same song on repeat for days.

In my defence, I tend to put entire albums on repeat instead of single songs: last week, for example, it was twentyone pilot’s Blurryface — because let’s face it, you need a little dubstep when you’re struggling to put one foot in front of the other. And this week, it was Urban Hymns, which is still think is one of the finest albums ever recorded (even if its moody atmospherics drive my dear and long-suffering husband demented).

…I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now…

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It’s amazing how other people respond when you start looking after yourself…

But here’s the thing, the (in my view) really weird thing: regardless of what I’ve been playing on the stereo, since I started treating myself like a person who wasn’t in the best of health, my family started behaving the same way.

To my utter disbelief, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop bounced out of bed each morning (while I dragged myself, coughing and spluttering, into the shower) and made their own lunches. And packed their snacks. For recess and for fruit break.

Three days in a row.

Who knew they could do that?!

And then this morning, after I had rewarded them for their helpful behaviour by ordering them both a hot lunch from the school canteen, they offered to make me breakfast.

Who are you, I was tempted to ask, and what have you done with my children?

Upon reflection, though, it’s not all that surprising that my kids stepped up when I needed them to. I am forever telling them to ask for what they want, say what they mean, and throw in a please or thank you and they can’t go too far wrong. What I had forgotten, in my desire to impress upon them just how awfully unwell I was feeling, was that I needed to do the same thing. So when I actually started taking care of myself, they started taking care of me too.

Yeah, it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life. And it’s going by faster and faster with every passing year. But today, I heard that symphony in my kids’ asking me if I wanted them to make me some toast, in my GP taking the time to listen to my symptoms sympathetically instead of treating me as yet another flu case, in a wonderful friend’s text offering to drop my girls at school this morning so I could rest.

It’s bittersweet, but it’s beautiful too.

And as well as being grateful, I’m on the mend.

The Other Side of Silence

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These woods are lovely, dark and deep…

I am — quietly — counting my blessings today.

Here in Sydneytown we are experiencing a gloriously golden run of autumn weather: blue-skied and sun-filled by day, crisp and starlit by night.

This morning I was fortunate enough to spend time with a dear friend, to enjoy quiet conversation, a couple of coffees and good company.

And now, back at home, I am taking time to dive deep into silence that surrounds me, knowing that when I resurface it will be with a sense of renewal.

I have written before about the importance of solitude in my life, of taking time out to make sense of all that is in my head and of separating my self from my mad mental chatter. But lately, I have come to realise (yet again) just how essential it is for me to spend time in quiet contemplation. I have learned that if I don’t permit myself the time and space to be silent and still, I end up feeling a little like the poet Emily Dickinson — “out with Lanterns, looking for myself”.

For me, contemplation is linked, as ever, to my First Principles: words, music and food. There is something akin to healing for me in the act of writing, of making sense of my thoughts by creating something with words on a page. Similarly, I find solace in listening to music and to the timeless rituals of preparing food for my family — in both of these things I rediscover the rhythms that make my life more manageable, more meaningful.

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Anne Lamott, telling it how it is.

Our lives these days are lived at such a frenetic pace, are filled with so many activities and events that it is easy to forget to unwind. To unplug.

We know that just about any electronic device we possess that suddenly stops working effectively will probably start working again if we reboot it, or let it recharge. But do we allow our selves this simple measure? Are we so focused on the future and driven by fear of missing out that we are forgetting to hit the refresh button on our lives? Do we remember to allocate time in our busy schedules for renewal? For revival?

The philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that “anxiety grows from thoughts we haven’t given ourselves time to have”, and I suspect he is right. He also speaks of “our disrespect for thinking: someone sitting in a chair, gazing out of a window, always described as ‘doing nothing’.”

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Ahhh yes…the shiny things…

When did we all become human doings instead of human beings, to the point that appearing to be doing nothing is frowned upon or even scorned? And when will we come to treat quiet contemplation as being essential to our wellbeing?

When will we make space for silence?

Because it is on the other side of silence that I find my place in this world, my moral compass, and — more often than not — I manage to catch a glimpse of whatever shiny thing I might otherwise have missed.

On the other side of silence, I find my self.