(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

 

Rescued

noI have been saying NO to my children for a very long time.

Despite my best efforts to be a mother who phrases things positively, explaining what I want them to do rather than what I would like them to stop doing, there has been one small, though significant thing I have been saying no to repeatedly — pretty much ever since they learned how to walk and talk.

No, we are NOT getting a pet.

No, not a cat.

No, not a dog either. 

No, not even a fish.

No. 

And it’s not like I haven’t had good reasons for saying no. In fact, both my girls can quote you, chapter and verse, the many and detailed reasons I have provided to them over the past nine years (since our last pet passed on) why we would not be getting a replacement four legged friend any time soon.

There have even been occasions — usually when they have been particularly persistent in their pestering for a pet of their own — when I felt tempted to start spounting the lines from Labyrinth Sarah uses to defeat the Goblin King.  Go on, I would think to myself, try me: “My will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great…YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME!

But the thing is, as it turned out that one small creature DID have power over me.

During the Easter holidays, I softened my hardline just a smidge: I finally relented and informed the girls that they would be allowed to get a small tank and some fish. They would need to be in charge of cleaning the aquarium, feeding and caring for their new finned friends. They also needed to work out how much everything would cost and stick to a budget when making their initial purchases — gravel, tank decorations, the fish themselves, the works.

And then, while we were at the pet store, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop just happened to venture down to the far end of the shop to a couple of cages containing animals who were up for adoption. They might even have “borrowed” my phone to take pictures of said creatures…or, more accurately, of one in particular.

We went home, set up the tank, washed the gravel, positioned all the plants and the hula hut decoration, got the filter and lights going and and began treating the water so it was ready for fish.

Later that night, once the kids were in bed, I found a series of photographs on my phone. They weren’t great pictures, because many of them had the bars of a cage featuring prominently in the foreground. But beyond the bars was a small, furry feline with tabby/tortishell markings, spectacular whiskers, beautiful eyes and an elegant tail that resembled a plume.

She was one year old. Desexed, microchipped, vaccinated. And she was a stray.

Next morning, I woke up well before the kids.  Without even meaning to, or realising what I was doing, I picked up my phone off my bedside table and began scrolling through the images of the small, furry creature who was most definitely not a fish.

The Bloke rolled over, wondering what on earth had possessed me to start checking my phone at 5:00am.

Ah, he said. I thought this might happen.  I saw her too.

IMG_0305

So, as it turns out, we returned to the pet store that day and came home not with fish, but with a small and ever so delightful cat we have named Tauriel.

And since we got her — or since I said YES — I have made some interesting discoveries.

I have yelled less. We have all been calmer, and made an effort to get along with each other better. We have tried to make Tauriel feel at home, and she was rewarded us with her madcap toy mouse-capades and her speed scampering up and down the hallway, with purrs and playful bites and with the joy only an animal can bring.

The many and varied reasons why we should not have got a four-legged friend remain, and will continue to do so, but after eight or nine years of saying NO, Tauriel appeared at precisely the right time for me to change my formerly made-up mind.

A rescue cat, is Tauriel. And even though we may have rescued her from an uncertain future, I suspect we all feel she has rescued us, too, and that we are as lucky to have her as she is to have us.

And the fish? Well…we finally got them too — and Tauriel takes great delight in watching Mahalo, Taco, Nacho and Mrs Norris swimming around in their tank. So do we.

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Hey True Blue

A fortnight ago we buried The Bloke’s cousin.

Glenn was 57 years young and taken from this world way too soon, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve come to appreciate the lessons of his life — lived to the full, replete with positivity and passion for the things he loved.

I didn’t know Glenn all that well, but whenever I did catch up with him he was always affable and ready with a story and a laugh. He gave anything a go, particularly if it had wheels. He thoroughly enjoyed being in the bush. He loved his family and adored his wife.

In the days that followed his funeral, we found ourselves coming closer together as an extended family, recognising in the various activities we were doing the things Glenn would have got a kick out of.  He would have loved The Bloke surprising us when, after a strenuous hike down to the bottom of Wollangambie Canyon, he pulled an inflatable dinghy out of his backpack so anyone without a wetsuit could have float on the cool, clear water.  (Well, to be more accurate, it was near-freezing water, but it was still at least twenty-seven kind of fun).

Later, around the campfire, we recalled the curly haired larrikin who was known at various times to have sported a beard as bushy as Ned Kelly’s. The air was full of the smell of woodsmoke, toasting marshmallows, and the sound of kids’ happy shouts. The howling of the wild dogs beneath the escarpment wouldn’t have send Glenn hightailing it inside like it did us, but once safely ensconced back inside we raised a glass or two of Bundy and coke in his honour and told stories about him crossing the Nullabor on a motorbike with a side car (allegedly filled only with a case of beer).

Glenn might be gone, but the tales — even though many of them are true — will only get taller now that he has. He might not be here to tell us we’re a bunch of rabbits, but we’ll know exactly when he would have. The irony of him being taken from us too soon when he was often rather more than fashionably late for everything would not have been lost on him.

And when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does from time to time, we will be able to recall the bravery with which he approached the end of his life.  I’m guessing we will always be able to find Glenn somewhere, maybe in the sound of the wind in the trees, or the sight of a stretch of open road, and we’ll hear him urging us onwards, ever onwards.

“That’s the go!”

glenn

We’ll miss you, mate.

A Friday Morning Coffee with Keef

KR 7

Today’s imaginary interviewee: Keith Richards

I’m never quite sure who’s going to show up for my peripatetic (and completely invented) brain-picking sessions with people I admire. After my last foray into imaginary interviewing — when I intended to focus on Virginia Woolf and ended up rambling on about the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius instead — I sat down one day not much later and made a list of people I thought I might like to “meet”.

I made two lists, actually, divided simply along the lines of life or death.

And armed with those lists, I quickly realised that it is much simpler to write about a person who is no longer gracing the Earth with their presence, particularly if they have been dead for quite some time.  In the era of #metoo (fundamentally important as that movement is), it is far more challenging to delve into the thoughts of a living person, particularly when they may or may not end up being outed as a sex pest.

KR 2

True. But you also see my sex pest problem…

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I turned up in my little patch of cyberspace this morning and discovered Keith Richards waiting for me.

Not really, obviously.

But after spending an evening this week watching Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, the Rolling Stones’ documentary about their 2016 tour which culminated in their historic Cuban concert, there he was.

Keef.

With plenty, as always, to say. And, one can only assume, probably not all that bothered about whatever acusation anyone would level at him — the man, as he freely admits, has lived long and hard, and outlived many it was readily assumed he would predecease.

KR 6

Good question. How do you play with your time?

I’m not what you’d call a diehard Rolling Stones fan. I don’t have a standout favourite Stones song, but harbour soft spots for several (depending mainly on my mood). I know better than to put myself in the middle of any pointless Beatles vs Stones battles, because there’s actually no contest: the world is a better place for having both bands (I stand firmly with the girl from the taco ad on that one…“¿Porque No Los Dos?” ). And I can’t say I prefer any one of the Rolling Stones over another: I tend to appreciate them collectively more than I do indivdiually.

And yet, I have to admit there is something undeniably intriguing about Keith Richards.

Unlike the 2015 film Under the Influence, which focussed solely on Keith himself, the Olé Olé Olé! doco is about the whole band, though it does shift (seamlessly, I might add) from ensemble pieces to individual portraits of the band members. The juxtaposition of these different points of view enhances both: the concert footage of stadiums seething with fans is made all the more massive, while the one-on-one sequences achieve greater intimacy and poignancy. As the band wends its way (via private jet and with police escourts) through South America, we glean insights from each member into the various countries they are visiting and how they have changed during the fifty (yes, fifty) years that they have been performing there, into life on the road, and into life itself.

KR 8

Richards in Lima, 2016.

There is a beautiful moment in the film when Richards can be seen, initially from a distance, sitting poolside at a clifftop hotel in Lima, playing an acoustic guitar. The pool is turquoise, his shirt scarlet, the sounds flamenco. There is no doubting his musical ability: this is a man who, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase, has done his 10,000 hours, playing everywhere from small pubs to gigantic arenas, or simply noodling away with an instrument and an endless succession of cigarettes, whiling away the time. Richards’ observation of Lima is that it has changed, markedly, since he first visited it in 1968: cities spring up “like tombstones” he says, as the camera pans out to reveal a skyline full of skyscrapers, resembling a cemetary more than one would like to admit.

Richards is a man who, quite clearly, knows how lucky he is — he seems, genuinely, to appreciate the trappings of fame he gets to enjoy, but he also appears to be acutely aware how fortunate he is to be doing what he loves (sorry, make that absolutely loves) for a living, and to be doing it with a bunch of blokes he has been hanging out with for five decades.

There is something that sticks us together. It’s nothing you’d ever catch us talking about. I feel I’m awfully blessed, really.

KEITH RICHARDS

KR 9

There’s a glimmer of it in here….

There is an occasional glint in his eye or a throaty chuckle that betrays the fact that he doesn’t half mind his own notoriety, either, but it’s nothing malicious — if anything, now that Richards is aged 75, these small glimpses remind me in some way of my own globetrotting gypsy grandmother who, at a similar point in her life, may well have had the same sense of mischievous glee in behaving in ways that were not generally considered to be age appropriate.

And finally, beneath all of this is a strong, unspoken sense that Richards knows just how lucky he is to be alive.

And that, for my money, is something worth remembering.

 

A Visit From the Philosopher Emperor

Marcus 1I find it hard to believe that it is almost March, and that this year I’ve only managed to get fingers to keys here in my small patch of cyberspace twice. I thought, when I began this post, that it was going to be about Virginia Woolf — but as you will see, it didn’t turn out that way at all.

Last year I threw myself into the effort of picking a Word of the Month each month and mulling it over, drawing out the meaning I found in it and making sense of how it fitted into my life. I considered doing something similar this year, but found myself unable to settle on a theme.

I did wonder, after watching Gladiator for the umpteenth time, whether I could focus on a list of lesser-sung qualities or pseduo-virtues, much like those offered in the film by Commodus to his dying father, Marcus Aurelius, but know myself well enough to realise I am not the sort of person to hold up ambition as something to aspire to. Ambition may have its purpose and its place, but I am much more likely to agree with Marcus Aurelius himself, the last of the Five Good Emperors, that wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance form the cornerstones of a good character. More to the point, I am also aware that many people have written about such ideals since…well, quite obviously, since Roman times.

I then began pondering whether I would write a series of monthly posts at all.  I don’t mind working under pressure and am generally unfazed by deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), but with a new school and work year offering a far more complicated set of variables than I have had to deal with in recent times, the prospect of a more fluid approach than that I had in 2018 had real appeal. After all, these are meant to the musings — rather than the rantings — of the Daydream Believer, and the prospect of committing to a  monthly post seemed a little, as Commodus might have put it, ambitious.

Marcus 2So, having unfettered myself from all sorts of strictures, I gave myself permission to meander down some old Roman roads, following the trail of the Philosopher Emperor and his wayward son.  Commodus, according to Cassius Dio (who witnessed his actions and antics firsthand), was “not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.” Ouch.

On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius is generally well remembered: he was the last of the Roman Emperors to be associated with the Pax Romana — a period of relative peace and stability through the Roman Empire which, almost miraculously, lasted for more than two centuries. Our old friend Cassius Dio says that after Marcus Aurelius died, the Roman Empire turned “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.

Before he departed this life, however, that old Stoic Marcus Aurelius had some things to say that are quite possibly as relevant today as when he wrote them, back in the second century.  “The soul,” he said, “becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”

These, history tells us, are some of the thoughts which coloured Marcus Aurelius’ soul:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

You have power over your mind — not outside events.  Realise this, and you will find strength.

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.

They’re not bad are they? It’s probably a shame that Commodus didn’t listen to his dear old Dad…but at least history has preserved Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Cassius Dio’s Roman History for us all to dip into whenever we wish to.

Marcus 3So that’s what I think I’ll be getting up to this year: delving into the thoughts of people who I happen to find interesting, diving into the depths and exploring topics and stories and ideas I find intriguing. I suspect that Virginia Woolf might get a look in somewhere — I know she tried to today, but Commodus must have had other ideas — and maybe Frida Kahlo, and Ursula Le Guin and goodness knows who else I happen to encounter.

It will be a twisting, turning, and somewhat eclectic journey, I’d imagine, but this — as always — is an open invitation to join me and whoever I visit along the way.

 

Touching Clouds

little things“Fog,” my then three-year-old daughter explained very earnestly to me as we walked along together one day, “is a cloud you can touch.”

It’s one of the many interesting things my younger child has informed me of over the years, but I remember it particularly well because I made a note of it on my iPhone, along with the date she said it.  Every now and then, when I needed to remember to smile, I would look back at that little note and it would lift my spirits.

And if I really needed to feel better, I would listen to a voice recording I had made of her watching the film version of The Gruffalo for the first time. That audio clip captured her little girl giggle, descending into breathlessness as she laughed so hard that no sound came out.

I am feeling rather nostalgic as I write this, because those two things are gone now: my iPhone died unexpectedly last month, and while I had backed up all my photos (thank the Old Gods and the New), I had neglected to include my notes or audio files in that all-important process.

not thingsAnd so, I am left now with just the memory of those things, and of all the times they made me smile.

I am reminded, time and again, that it is these little things…tiny fragments of memory, snippets of conversation, moments in time…that are not the littlest things in our lives at all, but the biggest. And those things, it turns out, are not things at all.

That, my friends, is my little thought for the day.

And my wish is that you, during your travels through life, may also find a cloud you can touch, and know it for what it really is.

 

Tempus Fugit

tempus 2

Time flies, as any wag will tell you, when you’re having fun.

But here in Sydney, as our glorious summer holidays are drawing all too swiftly to a close, my mind has turned to Virgil’s original words, written in his Georgics centuries ago.

Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.

Fast flies meanwhile the irreparable hour, as point to point our charmed round we trace.

VIRGIL trans. Rhoades

We have had a fortunate summer, sun-filled and surf-drenched, with barefoot days and balmy nights.

And while the clocks sometimes seemed to slow during the past six weeks, time — inescapable, irretrievable time — has slipped steadily, stealthily by.

tempus 1I mean it’s there, if I look for it.  I know I could find snippets of it between the pages of the dozen novels I’ve read since Christmas, or catch a glimpse or two between beach towels flapping in the breeze on the washing line. There’s probably a drop or two left in a wineglass on a windowsill somewhere, and a few morsels thrown in with the leftover salads in the fridge. I will no doubt discover a few more bits in with the various brightly coloured cards and plastic pieces of board games we’ve played during the heat of the day, or find some slipped into the pocket of one of my kids’ shorts with a couple of movie ticket stubs.

But now, at the end of my favourite month of the year, there is only a day or two left before school resumes for my girls — a new start for one, a familar return for the other — and I will admit feeling slightly nostalgic and a little bereft. The irreparable hour has well and truly flown, and I am reminded of my favourite childhood picture book, Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, about another summer, spent by another family comprising, as ours does, of a mother, father and two sisters, far away in Maine.

I know this feeling is universal and, ironically, timeless: Virgil wrote about it in the first century and McCloskey was still picking up the theme in the twentieth.

But I also know that there will be a certain heaviness in my heart and a lag in my step when we wend our way from point to point on our own charmed round this evening…down to the beach for one last swim as a family, and back home again for a BBQ and a quiet glass of wine.

That charmed round isn’t going anywhere — and I am well aware we are beyond lucky to live where we do — but it’s never quite the same once school has started again, and the long summer days have lost their laziness, and a perhaps a little of their loveliness.

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder — for wondering, for instance, where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

ROBERT McCLOSKEY

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