(Head)room of One’s Own

Virginia 1Last year I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, and I find myself still pondering her words today. Although it was first published in 1929, so much of what Woolf wrote rings true ninety years later: it is a feminist manifesto, delivered gently yet powerfully, bringing the place of women in literature and society into laser-sharp focus.

I’ve mulled Woolf’s words over. I’ve disappeared down various rabbitholes as her words and life have cropped up in other books I have read, most notably in Drusilla Modjeska’s beautifully written memoir Second Half First. I’ve read more of Woolf’s own works, including the brilliantly conceived and executed Mrs Dalloway. I’m planning on re-reading The Waves and To The Lighthouse, volumes I have not delved into since my university days.

And yet, despite all this investigation, I am still struggling with Woolf’s central premise in A Room of One’s Own:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I firmly believe Woolf’s statement to be true.

But what, I wonder, would she make of women’s lives in the twenty first century?  Ninety years after the publication of A Room of One’s Own, many things have improved for women in the western world.  Our access to education has improved, along with our employment prospects and our control of our own lives and bodies.

What I think women in the western world have lost control of, however, is our minds.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I would love to embrace this idea as a true representation of my self and my life, to punch my fist skyward and proclaim that my mind is entirely my own, that my freedom is guaranteed because I am not shackled by cerebral restrictions.

But I can’t.

Not quite.

I may have money I earn myself and a place to write (even if it is not an actual room), but do I have space in my own head?

There is just so much…stuff…to remember in any given day.

Remember to schedule a dental appointment. Drop off the dry cleaning. Pick up forgotten ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Replace a child’s gluestick for school. Sign permission slips for an excursions. Meet a work deadline. Return the library books on time. Change the bedclothes. Find light blue cardboard for a child’s project (no, not dark blue or royal blue or navy blue). Collect that undelivered parcel from the post office. Arrange a playdate before netball training and remember to buy oranges for the game. Pay the gas bill. Replace yet another gluestick (what, do they eat them or something?). Phone the electrician to get the laundry light fitting replaced. Feed the fish. And the cat. And the family. Buy a present for an upcoming birthday party. And a card. Take out the garbage and know which bin needs to be curbside on which day. Update the credit card expiration date on — wait, what was the password for that account again?

Virginia 2Our lives are so full, and are lived at such a relentless pace. We bandy around words and phrases like “mindfulness” and “mental load”, but do we ever have time to stop — let alone to imagine?

How can we write fiction if we have no headroom to allow the stories to form? How can ideas flow and characters develop and whole realms emerge from such cluttered minds?

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I know my own fiction writing is informed, in part, by the life I lead — regardless of whether I am writing a children’s picture book, a longer story for older children, or working on the young adult novel I have been aiming to finish for some years.

Much of the time, however, my fictional projects lie immobile, suspended in that spider’s web as I attend to the myriad minutiae of everyday life that encroach upon it from all four corners. And more often than not, my own innate need to create is ignored in favour of other, far more basic needs — not just of my own — and it is not until I sense my fictional worlds are hanging by a single thread that I make time to write.

Virginia 3Even so, I remain hopeful.

I would rather snatch a moment here and there to write a paragraph, to edit a word or two, or to scribble down a new idea than to fill my pockets with stones and walk into the nearest river.

I am learning, slowly, to prioritise my fiction writing, even if it is — by definition — not real.

Because it is real to me, and gives my life deeper meaning.

And despite her own untimely end (which I may comprehend, but cannot ever condone), I think Virginia Woolf knew exactly what it was like not to have room in her head. Even so, in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — I believe she would have continued to encourage women generally, and writers particularly, had she lived to see our present day and age, just as she did in her lifetime.

Money is one thing, I think she would tell us.

But the room of one’s own — that sacred space needs to exist in your mind as well as in your world.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

 

The Thrifty Fictionista Takes to Her Bed…

TF Adventure

I would MUCH rather be on an adventure than have the flu.

So, it finally happened.  I thought, when I got laryngitis a couple of weeks ago (much to the eternal — or perhaps infernal — amusement of my children), that I had done my time with lurgies great and small this Winter.  Or Spring.  Or whatever the damn season is, given that the temperature rocketed up to 34°C two days ago before plunging back to a wild and windswept 12°C.

Unfortunately, my own temperature has been vacillating just as unpredictably: influenza has me in its evil grip, and the Thrifty Fictionista has taken to her bed.  Still, rather than railing against the indignity of barely having the energy to get out of said bed, or boring you with my symptoms, I have managed to haul myself upright for a minute or two so I can tell you what has been keeping me sane for the past three days.

Books.

Books, books and more books.  And even though recently I have been reading things like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which I freely admit I could not read in bed as I found that a bit too disturbing), and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (which I highly recommend — both as a read and a concept), and Jane Harper’s The Dry (which is as fine a debut novel as you’ll ever read as well as providing an unflinchingly accurate depiction of life in small outback Australian towns), I have — as usual — a confession.

TF Kell

I do wish I had a coat like Kell’s…

The Thrifty Fictionista can’t read such things when she is sick.

No, when I am sick, I need magic.

And so, the past few days have I reached for my Kindle (which, with its amazing capacity to deliver whole books into my waiting hands without leaving my bed, seems like magic itself) and buried myself in V E Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy.

On Wednesday, I re-read A Darker Shade of Magic, because it had been quite some time since I had dipped into the world of Red London.  Or Grey London or White London, for that matter.  And given the flu made me feel like I was already well on my way to Black London, I found myself wishing for a coat like Kell’s — you know, the one that you can turn inside out and every time it’s a different coat — and for the ability to wield Antari blood magic.

As Hasari…I wanted to whisper.

Heal…

TF Spells

Oh, for a working spell, not days stuck malingering in bed.

But the flu had other ideas, so I kept on reading and followed the thief, Lila Bard (you just have to love a girl who would like to be a pirate, don’t you?), and the magician Kell on their adventures through the various Londons, saving cities and rescuing (or was it resurrecting?) princes.

On Thursday, I started reading A Gathering of Shadows, and was gratified to discover that it was considerably longer than the first book, as the damn flu showed no signs of abating even when hit with hard core antibiotics and a decent-sized helping of The Bloke’s best Spaghetti Bolognese. I love that Lila did wind up becoming a pirate — ahem, I mean a Privateer — and thoroughly enjoyed meeting her Captain, Alucard Emery, and I relished the magic and mayhem of the Essen Tasch tournament.

And now it is Friday, and I have just downloaded the third book, A Conjuring of Light, hoping that it will bring me just that: light relief from being stuck in this bed.  Still.

So, without further ado, I am going to get on with it, not least because I need to lie down again…but also because I am grateful for the escape.  For the distraction.  For the adventure.

And — mostly definitely — for the magic.

 

 

 

Operation Hoik: A Farewell to Stuff

We’ve been getting rid of a lot of Stuff, lately.

So much Stuff, in fact, that it requires a capital letter to write about it — and explains, in part, my hiatus from writing this blog.

I’d love to tell you that my latest purge was inspired by something grand like re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but no…lately I’ve been feeling like we have too much clutter in our home, that we are struggling to keep our house in order.

As any introvert could tell you (if they were actually speaking to other human beings that day), the thought of escaping to the woods near Walden Pond to live in silence and solitude definitely has its appeal.  But in this era of massive population growth and urban sprawl, it’s hard to find anywhere that could be described as silent or solitary…except Antarctica, maybe…and the climate there is not quite as hospitable as it is here in Sydney…

That said, Thoreau’s words have been rattling around in my head a lot lately:

thoreau-1

Not so much the bits about fronting the essential facts of life and learning what it had to teach, because having kids around gets you to do those things on a daily basis (and without needing to retreat to an isolated cabin and risk being mistaken for the next Unabomber).

No, the bit that has been reverberating in my brain has been I wished to live deliberately.

Because I do want that. And I want my children to understand what it means, too.

thoreau-3

The Bloke and I have been talking a lot lately about how basic items of food are starting to cost more than other…Stuff. (Yep, there’s that word again.) It seems it’s becoming cheaper to buy a bunch of kitchen gadgets or a pile of kids’ clothes than it is to get groceries. And it feels like we’re being encouraged to buy things — any things — faster than we can say “credit card debt”.

Inadvertently, and more than a little haphazardly, as the…ahem…shall we say “eventful” year that was 2016 rolled slowly but surely into 2017, I found myself borrowing a copy of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (though, to be truthful, I dipped in and out of that one) and being drawn into watching movies like Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. As January approached, it felt like there was something about the transition from one year to the next that required me to take a different approach this time around, particularly in the lead-up to Inauguration Day in the US, when I strenously avoided any kind of news coverage — despite the fact that American politics has little impact on me personally.

Except that maybe American politics do impact on me, and on my family, despite the fact that we are living quietly here in the Antipodes…not least because I suspect that the election of Donald Trump, along with Brexit and any number of other things that reared their heads last year, has thrown into sharp relief the differences between the haves and the have-nots across the globe. Obviously, the situation (both internationally and domestically) is far more complicated than that — and even to describe the dichotomy in such terms is, at best, reductive and, at worst, risks deliberately misunderstanding the precursory events of the past decades.

But, that said, I can’t ignore the overriding sense I have in response to all of this political…Stuff …that something has to be done, and done differently. And the following words from Juliet Schor (who I first saw on the Minimalism movie) probably go further than most to summing up my current feeling about the state of the planet:

I agree that justice requires a vastly more equal society, in terms of income and wealth. The question is whether we should also aim for a society in which our relationship to consuming changes, a society in which we consume differently.

So that’s what we’ve been doing: consuming differently.

As a family, we’ve been discarding and donating, clearing and cleaning, reusing and recycling, simplifying and stripping back, and — perhaps, most importantly — letting go. All four of us have been part of Operation Hoik, our plan to get ourselves and our home back on track and living more mindfully and meaningfully.

thoreau-2The Stuff in our lives is disappearing and, in its place, we’ve found the space to discuss what we really need, what we really want out of life. We’re making deliberate choices, and have snapped out of the trap of mindless consumerism.

It’s not going to fix the geopolitical problems of our age, change who is governing a foreign country, or stop a war.

But attempting to live deliberately does invite us to be more thoughtful, more considered, and — hopefully — more compassionate. And I think that I, and my family, and possibly the whole world, could do with a whole lot more of that in 2017.

And with that in mind, even though it is belatedly, I wish you a truly Happy New Year.

BJx

 

Head Full of Elsewhere…

RB1

Oh, that Grey Cat…if I actually had a cat like this one, I would have to call it Cillian (for obvious reasons).

Restlessness.

The untamable bane of my existence.

I’m not talking about physical restlessness.

Generally speaking, I’m not the fidgety, twitchy, can’t-sit-still type — unless I’m having a Squirrel Week, of course, and then I’m virtually incapable of staying put for two seconds together.

No, my Restlessness (and it definitely has a capital letter) is the mental kind.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a day dreamer and a night thinker…a girl with a head full of Elsewhere.

It’s not that my life is boring, or incomplete, or something from which I am constantly seeking to escape.  And I am not always away with the pixies.

But it does creep in, my Restlessness, like a sleek grey cat prowling after its prey, sharp-clawed and stealthy, yet as insubstantial as smoke. And try as I might to capture this evasive creature, or to pinpoint the source from which it springs, it forever eludes me: just as I reach out to snatch its silken ruff it will suddenly vanish —  leaving me, at best, with a wisp of a glimpse of its silvery tailtip disappearing from the corner of my eye.

RB3

The Grey Cat appears when you least expect it, on paws as silent as smoke.

In the past I fought that Grey Cat, seeking to stem the restlessness by studying (literature, history, remedial massage, law — anything), because I was not comfortable with how unsettled it made me feel. But I found that filling my head with knowledge does not take away the all-pervading sense of Elsewhere, when its steps with soft paws into your mind — nor does it diminish its allure.

So I travelled, following in the footsteps of my veritable gypsy of a grandmother whose wanderings criss-crossed the globe as she flitted from this country to that continent, living one endless summer after another. But I discovered that I was as easy with that lifestyle as she was, as happy a traveller, as content with my own company, and as ready to roll with the rhythms of life on the road. Elsewhere, it seemed, was still Elsewhere.

And I also found that no matter where I went, the Grey Cat came too.

Ah, Restlessness.

How I wrestled with it, struggled to make sense of it. I tried to tame it by writing it out, knowing and longing for the clarity of thought I possessed when it wasn’t taunting me:

My mind is unfettered, my thoughts unchained,
springing fully formed from my head
like Pallas Athena,
soaring skyward into the boundless blue,
blessed and bountiful,
arrows searing, sure and true.

 

But the Grey Cat — like many things made of shadows — is a wild creature, and it won’t be tamed by words or wishes.

RB2

It’s all a matter of perspective, really…

So I learned to live with my Restlessness. And, over time, I made peace with that mysterious Grey Cat and all its slippery ways.

I learned that having a head full of Elsewhere is a valuable thing when you need to consider something from a wide variety of perspectives.

I learned that all that day dreaming and night thinking can be a veritable gift when it inspires you to create an entire fictional world, fill it with characters, and bring them to life on the page.

And the Grey Cat?

Yes, it still stalks me, and pounces when I least expect it. But lately I have found that when it does, that elusive creature sometimes let me sit with it, in silvery silence, and allows me to meet its luminous, blue-eyed gaze.

 

The Other Side of Silence

Sh trees

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.

Sh Unplug

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’.”

Sh shiny

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.

 

 

Beyond the Bends

 

Pittwater

Pittwater and the Peninsula

This afternoon I took a lazy drive with my girls, wending our way up the Northern Beaches, heading beyond the Bends.

The sun is finally shining in Sydneytown after a week of relentless rain, and the temperature is on the rise too. Today we had no plans — just a vague idea about hopping in the car and driving north. And with The Bloke back at work and several more weeks of glorious summer ahead of us, that’s just what we did.

We cruised up the road, reveling in the beauty of the blue of the skies and the sea, taking it easy. One of the best things about summer holidays is not having to rush…

We stopped for lunch — burgers, because another great thing about the long summer break is getting to eat your main meal in the middle of the day if you feel like it — and then poked our heads into various shops before getting back into the car.

This time we headed briefly west, making the short trip across the peninsula from the beaches to Pittwater.  For me, it’s like taking a trip down Memory Lane…particularly when we drove past the holiday house that had once belonged to family friends when I was growing up. I found myself telling the kids that the first place I ever saw a koala in the wild was in their front yard, and then lost myself in a reverie of recollections as the road meandered down towards Clareville.

Christmas 2015 & Jan 2016 062

Summer skies…

The water was welcoming when we arrived, and the shade beneath the huge eucalpyts at the sand’s edge was deep.  We sat for a while, listening to the lapping water, watching the clustering cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon, searching for giant seed pods beneath the ancient trees. Time slows down during those moments…those lazy summer afternoons that new memories are made of…

Miss Malaprop fell asleep as we made our steady southbound journey home, while Marvel Girl stared dreamily out the window. And even now, as the first raindrops of that summer storm begin to fall, I still have a smile on my face.

Today, we had no plans…and it was wonderful…

On Solitude

Solitude 1Solitude.

To sit, in silence — sometimes to think, or to read, or to listen. And other times just to simply sit.

Today the skies are grey and the room around me is filled with the soft sounds of rain on the windowpane and the gusting of wind through the trees. My cabin-fevered children have finally chosen to occupy themselves with a quiet activity, and are painting ceramic plates together at their tiny table in the kitchen. The music of Ludovico Einaudi is providing a beautifully contemplative soundtrack from the stereo.

And yet I still crave that greatest and most elusive of gifts, solitude.

The American poet, novelist and memoirist May Sarton once wrote that “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

I agree.

C7kf3I1451964902Not just because in a life filled with the raucous laughs and hot-throated shouts of children I seek silence. And not because I fail to delight in my girls’ crazy, imaginative games, their freewheeling play, their lightsaber battles, their inevitably chaotic interactions.

I crave solitude because it is in that sublime and oft-missed state that I have time to listen to the universe and right the troubles of my soul.

Without the opportunity “to walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours”, as Rainer Maria Rilke put it, my life and my head can feel far too full.

But after time spent cultivating that inner vastness: then…then I can breathe again. It is as though I need to separate myself out from all that engages and entwines me to feel that I belong to it again — but on my own terms.

We live lives today characterised by an interconnectedness and immediacy that would have utterly baffled our ancestors, attuned as they were to far more organic, seasonal rhythms. The information age has provided us with a profusion of knowledge that can be accessed at speeds we once never dreamt possible. But what of true connection with the steady stillness within ourselves?

For me, some of the most powerful words written about solitude I have ever encountered were not found online, but between the worn and time-stained pages of a book I first picked up in Galway, Ireland during my first solo adventure around the world: a Blessing of Solitude written by John O’Donohue in his beautiful volume entitled Anam Cara.

Perhaps they will resonate for you, too…

Solitude 2May you recognise in your life the presence, power and light of your soul.

May you realise that you are never alone and that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.

May you have respect for your own individuality and difference.

May you realise that the shape of your soul is unique,

that you have a special destiny here

that behind the facade of your life there is something beautiful, good and eternal happening.

May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.