2018: The Year on Screen

So I can’t say I’ve done a huge amount of movie-going this year, and I still haven’t watched Season 4 of Peaky Blinders, which I know would have made my list had I got around to it…some things have to be savoured. Because Cillian Murphy.

Enough said.

But I did manage to see a few things that caught both my eye and my attention, so without further ado, here is Blue Jai’s Top 5 on Screen for 2018.

1. Nanette (Netflix Special)

nanetteThis incredible piece of writing and genuine human bravery by Hannah Gadsby was intended as her farewell to comedy, but became a significant part of a much larger global conversation about equality.

I have no idea how Gadsby pulled off doing her live show of Nanette night after night, but I do know it sparked a rare argument between me and The Bloke and moved me to write about my reaction to that event and to watching this tour de force, which I called We Need More Words. Because we do. This, in my view, and with no pun intended, is compulsory viewing.

2. The Bridge (Season 4)

bridgeAnother piece of viewing that resulted in its own blog post was the final instalment in the brilliant Swedish/Danish production The Bridge (Bron|Broen). There is so much I love about this show — despite it being Nordic Noir at its finest, with all that entails, I was so attached to the main characters and invested in the eventual outcome of their respective journeys (particularly after the brilliant final episode of Season 3) that I did not want Series 4 to end.

But since it as, I’m looking forward to watching this again. No, wait…let’s be clear: I’m looking forward to sitting down with all four seasons through again. If you’ve not seen it, please start at the beginning and stick to the original Scandi production instead of wasting your time with remakes. For me, The Bridge sets the benchmark for quality TV viewing.

3. Ant-man & The Wasp (Movie)

antmanGenerally speaking I include one sentimental favourite in my Top 5 each year, and this is 2018’s offering. I freely admit to being a sucker for any Marvel movie, and felt it my duty as a fan to include one this year as a tribute to the late, great Stan Lee.

The main reason Ant-man & The Wasp makes this year’s list, however, is that we have finally got to the point where we can see Marvel Movies (well, some of them) as a family — and this was our first shared experience of the Marvel Universe together. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop enjoyed the film so much that they went to see it a second time with The Bloke’s parents, who were as baffled by the storyline as they were by the girls’ massive enjoyment of it, but I’m chalking that up as a parenting win. Antman & The Wasp was a rollicking good time, complete with “that gigantic underpants scene” my kids found so funny. What’s not to love?

4. Arrival (Movie)

arrivalYeah, yeah…I know — this came out ages ago, but finally popped up on Netflix so I actually got to watch it, so it’s on my list for 2018.

That said, I found the concepts in this film so intriguing — particularly the treatment of time and language. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner both delivered solid, convincing performances, and I was genuinely moved by the decisions Adams’ character faces and ultimately makes. This is so much more than a “human meets alien” flick, and it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time.

5. The Last Kingdom (Season 3)

last kingdomAn unusual choice? Perhaps, but I’m as big a sucker for TV based on historical events (regardless of its accuracy) as I am for historical fiction.  The Bloke and I do struggle with — and snigger at — the voiceover that precedes each episode of this Netflix Original starring Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon raised from early childhood as a Dane during the time of Alfred the Great.

This, to my mind, is the strongest of the three seasons made so far, particularly in its depiction of Uhtred’s changing relationship with his childhood friend Brida and of King Alfred’s struggles as he faces his impending death.  The presentation of the idea of England — an as yet unrealised dream, intangible but still powerful — also drew me in. If you like a bit of drama with a few big battle scenes and plenty of long haired blokes running around with swords, The Last Kingdom is plenty of fun.

Honourable Mentions this year go to Black Panther, a movie that has generated a bunch of press for all the right reasons as well as being a fantastic addition to the Marvel Universe, to Salt, Fat, Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat’s fantastic Netflix series that is part travelogue as well as being a top notch cooking show, and to every single brilliantly written season of Brooklyn 99, my go-to pick-me-up comedy.

And now, since it’s the summer holidays, hit me with your best viewing of 2018!

2018: The Year in Books

OK folks…it’s that time of year when I present my top fives for 2018.

Today it’s books! So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books for 2018:

1. Boy Swallows Universe (2018) by Trent Dalton

Boy swallows universeYour end is a dead blue wren…

For me, it’s as unforgettable a first line as any of the great first lines in literary history: Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Lolita. I’ve already written a tiny bit about this book, which has become my new Favourite Book of All Time. Really. It’s a rollicking good read and exceptionally well written, with the added (and almost unbelievable) bonus of being based on real events from Trent Dalton’s childhood. There is something inherently Australian about this debut novel: Dalton captures the heat and humidity of living on the outskirts of Brisbane, and all that simmers beneath.

If you’ve read it already, I can highly recommend his Conversation with Richard Fidler about writing the novel. If you haven’t read it, I’m not going to say any more…other than to say I, quite obviously, recommend you get your hand on a copy of this and — hopefully — enjoy it as much as I did.

2. Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoThis sprawling family saga had me captivated from the start. Set in Korea and Japan in the early decades of last century, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is packed full of detail and emotion. Depicting a way of life and period of history I knew little about, I was swept up in the story of Sunja and her descendants. I found Lee’s treatment of the strange limbo occupied by the Koreans who moved to Japan, even after several generations, interesting and moving.

If you’re after a read that will deposit you in a foreign land and make you feel like you can’t leave until you know what’s happened to all the main characters, this is the book for you.

3. Danger Music (2017) by Eddie Ayres

danger musicThis autobiographical tale of teaching cello to children in wartorn Afghanistan follows Ayres’ earlier book, Cadence, which was written while he was still known as Emma Ayres, the hugely popular host of ABC Classic FM’s Breakfast program (and a particular family favourite of ours).

Ayres’ story of self-discovery, set admist the chaos of Kabul and the challenges of teaching children who deal every day with the twin threats of violence and loss, is a painfully but beautifully honest account of his transition to becoming the man he always was inside. The playlist at the end of the book is an added bonus for any music lover, but this book has something for everyone.

4. Bridge of Clay (2018) by Markus Zusak

bridge of clayOh, how long we all have waited for this book?! Not nearly as long as Zusak himself who, after the phenomenal success of The Book Thief, wrote and rewrote Bridge of Clay for years until he finally reached a point where he could release into our hands.

I was conscious, at different points of reading this brilliant novel, that each and every word was precisely chosen and placed…but that in no way detracted from the tale and my emotional investment in it. This was a book I tried to read slowly, to savour the writing, the characters, the whole shebang — but partway through I gave in and finished the rest of the book in one go, unable to resist the pull of the plot. This is a superbly crafted novel that is well worth your time, and one I spent days thinking about after I’d finished it.

5. Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama

becomingBecoming was always going to be a global blockbuster: Michelle Obama is someone many of us admire want to know more about. Here, in her own words, is Obama’s story of her upbringing, her education, her marriage, and her time in the public eye as First Lady of the United States.

It’s forthright. It’s interesting. It’s well-written. And as soon as I finished it, I was more than happy to pass it on to my elder daughter, who (despite being in primary school) devoured it as quickly as I did and enjoyed it just as much. If you’re after an autobiography to read this summer, not to mention a reminder of a time when the highest offices of one of our most powerful allies were not reduced to chaos and trivialising tweets, this is well worth a look.

Honourable mentions this year go to Ian’ McEwan’s Solar (2010), which may well be the most darkly humourous novel I have ever read, and Muhsin Al-Ramli’s haunting and heartbreaking book The President’s Gardens (originally published in Arabic in 2012) which, like Pachinko, took me to a place in time I have had little experience with but for which I now have a much deeper appreciation.

I also thorougly enjoyed Ailsa Piper’s travelogue Sinning Across Spain (2017), Helen Russell’s occasionally hilarious The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (2016) and delighted in Stephen Fry’s Mythos (2018), his elegant and downright funny retelling of the Greek Myths.

So there you have it! Hopefully there is something for everyone here…I’d love to know what you think and what you’ve read this year, so get in touch via the comments if you think I’ve missed one of your standout books for 2018.

It’s summer here, and that means time for books!

Festivities & Finish Lines

xmas 2Choosing my Word of the Month for December was an absolute no-brainer: it is, and could only be, CELEBRATE!

We seem to have a special investment in Christmas (particularly) and the Festive Season (more generally) here in the Southern Hemisphere.  Our Christmases may not be white, fur-lined or fir-filled as they are in all the traditional carols, but here they are blue-skied, sunny and trimmed with sand and surf.

More importantly, they represent completion as much as they do birth. There is a real sense of “we made it“… the school year is over, workplaces tend to shut down, and everyone gets swept up in a whirl of carol nights and Christmas parties celebrating the end of another year.

We all watch Love Actually for the umpteenth time, despite the fact our winter coats have long been stashed away.  Summer arrives, in all its splendour.

Stone fruits are in season — mangoes and plums, peaches and nectarines — and seafood and salads seem the obvious choice for dinner, particularly when paired with prosecco or a crisp sav blanc.

xmas 1And even though several people have commented to me recently that everyone seems so stressed at this time of year, but my own experience has been quite the opposite.  When I went to the grocery store the other day to do the last Big Shop before the Big Day, I was amazed by the number of strangers who smiled at each other and engaged each me and others in conversation — there was a palpable sense of Christmas cheer in the air.

So I wish you, and anyone who has followed the Blue Jai Creative journey this year, a Christmas worth celebrating this year. May it be filled with the things that warm your heart and nourish your soul, wherever you find yourself.

And me? I’ll be with my family, making Christmas last as long as we can until New Years Eve rolls around, enjoying long sultry days and balmy summer nights until we welcome 2019 with glorious starbursts of fireworks above Sydney Harbour.

We’ll be drinking white wine in the sun.

xmas 3

Mandala People

Mandala 1November, it seems to me, is something of a forgotten month.

Not that it means to be, of course. Here in the Great Southern Land, November kicks off in style and ceremony, with all the pageantry (and absurdity) associated with the Race That Stops the Nation.   But once the Melbourne Cup has been run, all the celebratory elements somehow disperse, disappearing into the seven week slog towards the summer holidays and Christmas.

November, however, is not a month to be underestimated.

I have learned this, the hard way, in years gone by — and that’s why it seemed apt to made Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for November the most challenging I’ve selected all year: INTEGRATE.

Because it’s time, people.

It’s time to put all the pieces together.

At the year’s outset I wished my nearest and dearest (and anyone who happened to stumble across this small patch of cyberspace I call my own) strength and ease. And as time went one, we explored a different theme together each month, focusing on a specific concept. I invited you to connect and reimagine. To set your intention and find momentum. To seek alignment and focus. To know and understand your habits. To appreciate the value of honesty and perseverance.

Now don’t panic…I’m not about to start spouting stuff about “journeys” or “spiritual awakening” or “discovering your destiny”.

And please — feel free to insert an eye roll or three here. Seriously.

Mandala 3If you’ve read any of my posts during the year, you’ll know that’s not really my style.  Life is far too full of unexpected twists and turns (of both the totally awesome and not-so-crash-hot variety) for me to seek refuge in fluff and bunkum.

That said, nothing’s going to stop me from having the temerity to add the Mandala as a Symbol of the Month for November.

The mandala, despite its recent and frequent appearance between the pages of apparently calming colouring books, is an ancient symbol with its roots in Buddhism.  For Buddhists, the mandala represents nothing less than the whole universe — and if you’ve ever seen Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala, you will know how well this symbol fits with the concept of integration. It is incredibly beautiful (not to mention meditative and downright humbling) to watch as the monks use grains of coloured sand to form intricate patterns and pictures, working harmoniously together and producing a single unified whole out of many intricate and interconnected pieces.

Mandala 5If you haven’t had the privilege to see a sand mandala being made, you can watch one being created here. For me, it’s almost like watching a life unfold, which is why I believe it to be such an appropriate symbol for integration: it’s what we do, all our lives.  We take the pieces we have within our reach and we arrange and rearrange them until they fit in a way that looks and feels right for us.

In Jungian psychology, dreaming of a mandala represents the dreamer’s search for completeness and unity — those important, intangible things we are all searching for. We are all familiar with the niggling sensation when the pieces aren’t quite fitting together properly, or that the colours are somehow clashing. But we also know the feeling — the utterly glorious feeling — when they do fit, perfectly, and the colours seem to sing.

We are Mandala People.

All of us.

Anyone who is running a business or raising a family or generally trying to succeed in life is a Mandala Person. We are all trying to bring together — to integrate — all the separate parts of our existence and striving. We are all working on our own internal mandalas, making the picture as whole and complete as we can.

mandala 4It’s worth remembering, at this point, that the word integration comes from the Latin word integrus, meaning renew or restore. Each day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to bring all the pieces together, to restore our faith in the knowledge that every last grain of sand we add to our own internal mandalas counts.

Each day is a new beginning until, of course, we reach the end of our days. And once again, the sand mandala provides us with an exquisite reminder of our own impermanence: in the Buddhist tradition, as soon as the final grains of sand are added to complete the mandala, a lama takes his dorje and runs it through the sand. The bright colours fade into grey, resembling ashes or dust, and the sand is swept into an urn. The sand is then poured into running water, so that the healing powers generated by the mandala’s creation flow on and are extended to the whole world, so that it may be re-energised and healed.

Each grain of sand ultimately becomes part of something much larger, just as we are all small — but important, and individual — parts of a much larger whole.

So this month, and every month, I invite you to embrace the spirit of integration. Know that you, like everyone else, are a work in progress. That the only person who knows how the pieces really fit together for you, is you. That it’s perfectly fine to take your time — indeed, to take a lifetime — with the process of putting it all together. That every day is an opportunity to restore and renew.

We are Mandala People.

Mandala 6

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Still the Best Policy

honesty 3Honesty. 

I picked it as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for September, because here in the Great Southern Land September coincides with the arrival of spring. As I’ve said before, I think that this time of year is great for making resolutions — for me, September is about fresh starts and new beginnings.  And coming hot on the heels of last month’s examination of habits, I thought a decent dose of honesty would not go astray.

Honesty is something I associate with one of the Big Ones: TRUTH.  We all know that truth is up there with love, and beauty, and all the other things that Julian Sands’ character yells out the window in A Room With a View…not that I can recall even half of them now.

And honesty is a direct path to truth.

Except when it’s not…

Sometimes it’s a twisting, turning, back-tracking path, completely lacking signposts yet somehow full of potholes and pitfalls.

honesty 2It can be difficult to be honest, particularly with ourselves. Sometimes it’s easier to believe our own internal rhetoric, even when it’s untrue. Perhaps you’re a person who consistently underestimates the time a task will take to complete and, as a result, frequently fails to meet deadlines. Maybe you’re someone who takes on new things even when you’re at maximum capacity, and know that something else (usually you or those you hold most dear) will suffer as a result. Or, quite possibly, you might be the type who gives in to that invasive voice in your head telling you that if you do five minutes less on the treadmill no one will ever know. (That same voice is equally insistent about eating the second cookie, by the way…)

It’s not always easy to look yourself or someone else in the eye and speak the truth: doing so requires a combination of courage and compassion. But I believe we benefit greatly, both personally and professionally, when we bring honesty to the forefront of our dealings: with friends and family, with clients and colleagues, with everyone we interact with.

So this spring, I invite you to approach yourself, your life and the many and varied people in it with new honesty.

Turn your face the morning sun, and to thine own self be true.

honesty 1

Every Single Day…

habitSome time ago, I was reading a book by Gretchen Rubin when I came across this phrase: The days are long, but the years are short.

These words resonated with me — not least because at the time that I read them, I was the mother of two pre-schoolers. My days seemed to be filled with repetitive, mindless tasks that revolved around keeping my children happy, healthy and (by obvious extension) clean, and that work — because it definitely is work — was often relentless and mind-numbing. The days were long (and the nights could be even longer), but the years were flying by with alarming rapidity.

Don’t get me wrong: being a parent is — without question — the single most rewarding role I have ever taken on, and this post is not about to descend into an extended diatribe about just how hard those long days and nights can be. (Besides, in my experience, even when a child has behaved absolutely diabolically while awake, that same child can somehow, miraculously, completely restore your faith in and love for them once they are soundly asleep — particularly if they stay that way for an extended period.)

No, the reason I recall that maddening yet magical part of my life is because I chose HABIT as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for August.

What now? Parenting is a habit?

Not at all. But I have been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, which tackles habits and habit formation head on, and brought to my mind the wisdom of the ancients, specifically this observation from Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Now that my children are growing up and increasingly self-sufficient, I would prefer not to think about the tasks I performed with increasing Aristotelian excellence when they were smaller, save to say — as a random example — that I reckon I could wrangle just about any kid into a five-point harness car seat while blindfolded. Possibly even one handed.

habit 2Aristotle’s adage did make me think, however, about the things that I repeatedly do now — because these, my friends, are my habits. Sure, there’s all the obvious basic personal hygiene and basic living habits like showering daily, cleaning my teeth morning and night, eating a decent breakfast, that sort of thing. But what else, I wondered, do I do every single day?

Well, I read…and I write…and…if I’m totally honest I probably check my social media accounts…

I mean, what do you do every single day?!

And that brought me to another one of Aristotle’s little gems: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

When we know ourselves, we know what repeatedly do. We recognise our habits, good and bad, and know which of these we want to cultivate with further repetition and which we want to eliminate. One of my friends, for example, makes a habit of keeping a gratitude journal, of taking time each evening to record what she is grateful for every single day. She also encourages her children to say what they’re grateful for too, and even if they don’t yet write it down she’s hoping, by repetition, to help instil the same habit in them.

Another friend makes herself a properly brewed cup of coffee every single morning. For her, this is a good habit: not only is it something that she enjoys drinking, but she also enjoys the ritual of making it. For her, it is an important act of self care (not to mention the fact that it provides a caffienated kick-start to her day). And that’s where self-knowledge kicks in too — my friend also knows that drinking coffee all day long is not good for her (or anyone), so she relishes that morning cup all the more.

Needless to say, the same combination of repetition and self-knowledge can assist in a business setting, too. Religiously checking your business bank balance won’t improve your cashflow, for example, but billing clients regularly, offering multiple methods of payment and chasing your debtors often will all help. It’s about knowing what you need to do, and repeating the necessary actions to make those things happen.

So I ask again: what do you do every single day?

Does it match up with what you know you could be doing every day?

Because, just like when I wrote about eudaimonia and human flourishing, I think those ancient Greeks were onto something. Sure — for a modern take on it, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book (she really does unpack the whole habit bag, even if I did get slightly annoyed about her frequent references to wearing yoga pants all the time), but I think — as usual — what we’re all aiming for is what human beings have been aiming for for thousands of years. And yes, the Greeks had a word for it too:

 

habit 3

So I wish you well with all those things you do repeatedly this August, and with the habits your self-knowledge asks you to cultivate in the future.

Sophrosyne here we come!

Purple Nails

purple nails

Not my hands, but you get the general picture.

I found myself sitting in a nail bar in a suburban shopping mall the other day, snatching a few moments of time for myself following several screamingly busy weeks I had scheduled down to the last minute. The washing was on the line, drying beneath yet another blue-skied day in this bone dry, drought-stricken land. The kids had been deposited at school, one dressed for a regular day and the other for an excursion. The overseas guests who had stayed with us during a whirlwind visit had been dropped safely at the airport following a quick trip to Taronga Zoo ticking all the tourist boxes: kangaroo, koala, even a spotted quoll.

“Pick a colour,” said the nail technician, brandishing brandishing wheels of fake plastic nails painted an unimaginable variety of shades in my direction.

I attempt to comply, but I am tired. Weary. Nearly undone. Decision fatigue has set in, and instead of selecting a tried and tested shade of something sensible I find myself searching for my favourite colour — a rich, deep blue shot with pewtery grey. The colour of my bridesmaid’s dress at my wedding, a dozen years ago. The colour of the sea after a storm.  As you wish…

I find it, or something vaguely resembling it, and sit silently in my chair as my fingers soak, letting the sounds of the technicians’ murmured conversations wash over me. They are speaking a language I don’t understand, pausing every now and then to give me and the women around me simple instructions in English. Hand in the water. Out again. This I can do, in my depleted state. This is why I am here.

The technician begins applying paint to my nails.

“OK?” she asks.

I look down, and instead of a comforting shade of grey-blue twilight I see a slash of purple.

Vivid, vibrant purple.

I shrug, and find myself nodding. My simple act of self-care has gone slighty awry, but I’m too tired to care.

In the week that follows it dawns on me that I am not in possession of a single stitch of purple clothing. I also realise that the particular shade of purple my nails are now painted attracts attention. That my fingertips now convey the impression of an extroversion I can feign but do not feel.

purple boy

My new favourite book. Ever.

I retreat into myself, into the solitary pursuits that I savour — reading, writing, day dreaming and night thinking. Here I find the acts of self-care that actually restore me, and I notice one morning that my purple nails do match something after all: the cover of the book I’m reading, Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe.

I am captivated — catapulted into a world that consumes me, into writing that overwhelms me to the point that I am forced to acknowledge that I might just have a new favourite book of all time.

Boy Swallows Universe.

Girl swallows book.

Later in the evening, only hours after the nail technician has finished polishing my freshly painted purple nails to a bright sheen, I’m dropping my younger child at a birthday party. A small blonde-haired boy, about four years old, is beginning to wail: it’s his sister’s big day, and he’s feeling left out.

“Hey, matey,” I crouch conspiratorially in front of him, “I had my nails painted today, and they’re not a normal colour. They’re not red, or pink, or anything boring like that. Do you know what colour they are?”

He eyes me suspiciously for a moment, still sniffing, but the distraction is working.

“Bet you can’t guess!”

He stops crying and grasps my hands, turning them over to reveal my purple fingernails, gleaming in the dusk and the light of the bright sunshine of the smile that is now plastered across his tear-streaked face.

“You’re funny!”

Yeah, I reckon I probably am.

Funny as in ha ha sometimes, and funny as in a bit weird at others. But I’m OK with it, and I’m OK with my introversion, and my need to let the words pour out of me, and with knowing that my solace comes from solitude, and that I come from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, and despite all that — or perhaps because of it — I’m even OK with my purple nails.