Tuesday, 30 December 2008

High summer

Five pm on a day between Christmas and New Year’s days: 38 degrees centigrade. Sweat drips at the slightest movement. Laundry bakes on the line. Bare feet toast on the paths. Long daytime naps are taken. The sky seems enormously blue and filled with billowing clouds like swirls of heavy cream. It would seem like a romantic metaphor except that you can only think of how you could keep the cream from going rancid.

You try to feel virtuous at your environmental soundness in not having air-conditioning. Does spending an hour grocery shopping in air conditioned comfort then having the car air conditioner on to keep the milk from spoiling count in one’s cosmic environmental footprint? The ceiling fans seem to only circulate warm air. You could dry your hair under the warm draughtiness. Tasks are allocated according to likelihood of heat exhaustion. No soffits today and it might even be too hot to lay flooring. Paint dries as it is applied. Will the council accept weather as a justification for lateness?

Storms blow past intermittently in the valley and increase the moisture and heat: patches of red and dark blue on the weather radar. This is Christmas in Australia.

South Africa beats Australia in cricket on our own turf for the first time in 16 years. Truly nature seems against us.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


Did I ever mention that I live with a very talented man and am related to a number of other very talented people, some of whom have really useful skills? I have been despairing at the notion that at this late stage of house renovations, impending Christmas and general expense that we would have to get a new computer. My brother-in-law came up with the idea of a USB port to internet router adapter and liberated one from my other brother-in-law with whom he shares a flat. Mr Blithe found the Mac open-source software driver for the adaptor on the web, installed it in about five minutes flat and we are back in action almost exactly a week after frying vital pieces of our computer.

Our other problem is a little more intractable: we have a swarm of bees that has taken up residency in the walls of the new living room. If I had time, I would write a story about the plagues of Marburg. Instead, I will be attempting on the advice of both a Department of Primary Industries-recommended apiarist and my beekeeper brother to persuade the bees to leave (or perish) by dint of strategic application of petrol. The thought of drenching the beautifully repaired and painted walls of our new living room with petrol fills me with fear, but so does the idea of the tongue and groove walls exploding in a few months under the weight of wax and honey. It would be a sweet yet tragic end to our building saga. As always, I will keep you informed.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


I realised today that it has been several weeks since I’ve spent time with the Jaeckels. The poor things made it all the way to Australia: four months across the ocean via Batavia, surviving storms and incompetence and the everyday dangers of ocean travel. And now they sit becalmed in Moreton Bay, abandoned by their creator and activator. What must they be thinking? What hand of nature has forestalled them?

On the plus side, I’ve been studying pictures of Brisbane in the 1870s and trying to get an idea of what they would see when their ship finally enters the Brisbane River and begins its twisting journey upstream to the city. Surprisingly, they will see hills already covered with houses, substantial warehouses on the river and at least one bridge across the river. It will seem the ends of the earth to them, but not the end of civilisation. That will come once they have disembarked, spent some time in the city at the German settlement at Nundah, made their way upriver to Ipswich and then struck out on foot. Then they will feel the loneliness and isolation. There will be other travellers, but there will also be mile after mile of deep forest, strange bounding animals, an astounding number and variety of insects, snakes, a burning sun, heavy rain, only the supplies they can carry themselves and a beginning understanding of how hard and long the work will be to create a new life.

Fortunately what won’t be added to their burden is the effort of my writing. That I must do myself.

Monday, 15 December 2008

The hand of nature

My natural inclination towards slow blogging is not only reinforced by family life, work and house renovation but apparently now also nature has joined the fray. After a busy final week of school before the summer holidays, I was frantically scrubbing my bathroom last Thursday evening in preparation for a Christmas gathering on the following afternoon. Assurances by people that I had no need to tidy the house for the party merely showed how unfamiliar they were with my housekeeping. A storm was predicted and I had carefully shut down the computer in preparation. The storm was unimpressive, the rain merely a 5mm splatter, but either our shed or very close to it was struck by lightening. The flash and immense immediate crack of thunder were accompanied by a long sizzle, a sudden cessation of power and a few exclamations from me along the lines of “drat, bother” and so-forth. After about half an hour, I contacted the local electricity company who at first were unconvinced by our loss of power. Approximately twelve hours later, they managed to track it down to us and eleven other houses in Marburg that lost power due to an “area fault.”

Twelve hours without power are not anything major unless of course you rely on electricity to power the pumps that provide water to the house. Or if you are not partway through a pre-party house clean that requires water. Or if you don’t have fridges full of party ice and food preparations. Or if perhaps the weather is not unbearably hot and you are lying sweaty in bed wondering how to host a party without water or electricity and smelling, shall we say, less-than-fresh. At four am after further calls to the electricity company assuring them that we still did not have power in spite of their recorded messages that “no power outages are reported in the Marburg area,” the power was restored.

I barely had time on the Friday to check the results of the power failure. The safety switch in the shed had been tripped so I reset that to get the party fridge going again. Various household electrical items were flashing to get my attention so those were dealt with. I did notice that the modem seemed to not be working. Then I tried my email and it was clear that the modem had been toasted. Trauma but no time to dwell on it.

Mr Blithe ordered and picked up a new modem on Saturday (yes you can pick up VOIP ADSL modems in Brisbane on a Saturday if you are prepared for a drive) and your partner seems about to have a breakdown. Then we discovered that it wasn’t only the modem that had been fried. The surge had blown up the modem, then two ports on the router switch, then the internet port into the computer.

So the short story is, we need a new computer that can talk to the outside world. The long story is that I can still blog thanks to the kindness of my brother-in-law who spent five hours last night setting up our modem and phone systems and loaned us a laptop so that we can access our internet. The only glitch is that I need to use the old computer to write (owing to age and obsolescence issues on the laptop), then save it onto a zip drive, transfer it to the laptop and upload it from there. But hey, I’m here and nature is again circumvented (if that’s not tempting fate).

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Cornice opinions

Many things are charming about the Queenslander house: the building raised off the ground to allow air circulation; high ceilings; simple large rooms that flow into each other; horizontal or vertical tongue in groove flooring, walls and ceilings depending on the specific era; all-wood construction; architectural details such as multi-paned windows, window seats, dado rails and for some periods, carved ventilation screens above doorways. Everything is about coolness and the flow of air.

I never before realised how much of the charm depends on a good paint job. These are not walls and ceilings you can simply paint with a roller. If you were experienced, you could perhaps spray paint them. Or if you are me, it is painstaking hours up a ladder with paintbrushes of varying widths painting the ceiling and cornices one colour and the walls another. I now have an opinion as to whether the bottom edges of cornices should be the ceiling colour or the wall colour (yes really, I have become that obsessed – be very afraid).

I read in some design magazine that you can incorporate different architectural styles in an extension by continuing the paint scheme from the original part of the house. The cottage we bought has slightly higher ceilings (3.2 metres or 10 ½ feet) than the original house and quite different windows. So we elected to at least paint it the same colours and style so that the houses flow into each other and hopefully become one house. This means solid-coloured walls (pale daffodil yellow in the public rooms), off-white ceilings and what seems like acres of gloss off-white trim.

Another thing I had never realised until recently was how many parts a door or colonial archway has. Each door can take an hour of careful application of gloss paint to architraves, door itself and innumerable “fiddly bits” whose names I don’t know. Where the dining room wall and window were in the original house is now an archway that echoes an archway that joins the dining-room to the kitchen. This new archway opens to a wide hallway that was once a decaying bathroom in the added house. The builder built the connecting hallway and the basic arch. Mr Blithe carefully added the trim and components to make it a matching archway to the original. My task was simply to paint it. It is amazing what a difference gloss trim can make. Now the houses are coming together.

A few weeks ago I was despairing at the thought that I was still painting, at my paint-ingrained fingernails and at my constant odour of eau-de-methylated spirits. I mentioned it to a friend who was surprised as she said to her that it seemed as if we were galloping along. Then I ran into the painter (not literally) who painted the entire outside and the inside of the original house. He asked how the painting was going as he knew that we were trying to do it ourselves. At my comment as to its difficulty, this man who has been painting for more than forty years, sympathised “Yeah, any ceiling nine foot and over is a bugger.” I felt immensely cheered. I’ll be even more cheered when it’s all completed.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Non-theoretical chaos

“So now that you’ve got a job, I guess you’re shelving the book for now.”

I looked at the speaker in surprise. Well yes I am tired, yes I am grumpy, yes I look like some sort of deranged generalissima mother hen herding her chicks maniacally around, but the thought of putting the book away had not even entered my mind.

“I’m almost finished so why would I put it away? And really, it’s only a part-time job,” was my response. I think they thought it was self-evident (see above description of my behaviour and appearance).

I’m not sure how things will go with adding another thing to the chaotic equation of this household, but I am determined that the book will not fall victim to it. After all (she tells herself optimistically) this house project will soon be completed and I may become a normal human being again. We might rediscover a social life, unearth old friends, do some gardening, occasionally watch television again (or talk – I hear that’s a nice thing too).

I’ll let you know how it all goes.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The curse of pedantry

About a month ago, the hills around Marburg were splashed with blodges of purple. Everywhere you looked you could see jacaranda trees in bloom. Despite being listed as a noxious weed by Ipswich City Council, the jacaranda remains popular. Google “jacaranda Australia” and you will quickly discover that South-east Queensland and Brisbane in particular are noted for their jacaranda trees. And of course, there is the famous Grafton Jacaranda Festival in New South Wales.

I had originally thought that I would weave something about jacarandas into the Jaeckels arrival although they will be arriving a little earlier than high flowering season. On doing a little research, I found that the jacaranda arrived in Australia from Brazil in 1879. It was brought to Grafton by an enthusiastic local seed merchant, H.A. Volkers. I haven’t been able to track down if he was the original importer of seeds or if he simply popularised them in northern NSW.

Noxious weed or not, they have become iconic plants in Australia with stories woven around their flowering, common references to “purple snow” and use of their name to denote Australianess e.g. Jacaranda Wiley Press. This is spite of the fact that they are common in India, Africa, warmer parts of the US and their native South America.

Reluctantly, I have decided that the Jaeckels won’t be welcomed to Brisbane by flowering jacarandas. Even if they had spread north to Queensland, the tree can take many years to flower and practically I can’t imagine that they would be around in the early 1870s. I’ll have to find some other exotic and more historically accurate trees to represent their new life.

I will however, leave you with a few photos of the huge old jacaranda behind the former principal’s residence at the state school just because it is beautiful and pedantry shouldn’t excessively inhibit aesthetics.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Label it and it exists

According to this weekend’s New York Times, Slow Blogging (caps are essential in this) is in fashion. It is defined as a purposeful movement akin to Slow Food where writers attempt to be thoughtful and reflective rather than simply firing off the first thing on their mind.

It must be so because the article is in the fashion and style section, not the technology section. Like all phenomena, it assumes reality by being named. If you google “slow blogging” you will see an amazing number of posts linking to the article or mentioning it. Interestingly for an article about slow, thoughtful commentary, many of the googled responses are Twitter updates alerting people to its existence. Proof of something perhaps?

I am by practice, if not necessarily by philosophy, a Slow Blogger though not the slowest of slow. Apparently two to three posts a week is considered slow, but some bloggers post only once a month or less. I wonder though, if like many things philosophical, or things identified by trendsetters in the media, if it is not simply a reflection of people’s lives. Many people whose blogs I read are wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful people whose blogging is not central to their daily lives. They have jobs, families, wide-ranging interests -- things that contribute to them having something to say that also keep them busy and not firing off posts multiple times per day.

The NYT acknowledges a technological component to this movement. People interested in immediacy and drawing attention to the thoughts of others have shifted to Twitter, Flickr and Facebook because traditional blogs are “glacial” in pace to use. Yet if there were not thoughtful pieces of actual content on the web, what would these people tweet? You only have to listen to people on their mobile phones in public to get the answer to that. No thoughtful content or background is truly needed for people to fill the air with nothing.

Monday, 24 November 2008

We interrupt our broadcast…

I’m not keeping a careful tally, but I assumed a few months ago that I would easily reach a total of 300 posts on my blog before Christmas. That goal has clearly fallen by the wayside as blogging has slipped a little lower on my agenda. When I set out to write today, I realised that I have a number of unfinished pieces begging to be published. So I do promise that I will try to draw together some fragment of intelligent thought to finish writing about:
- living without electricity in the Rosewood Scrub;
- the huge storm of last week that sent water washing through Marburg, brought down telephones and took off rooves, but somehow left us dry and with uninterrupted broadband (not that it helped my blogging). NB: perhaps even with pictures;
- the ever-lovely jacaranda, our purple snow of spring, that would not have been flowering in the hills and valleys when the Jaeckels arrived in Moreton Bay in the 1870s (and why);
- small-town-itus in a good incarnation;
- progress on the great house saga;
- progress on the less-great, but still interesting novel;
- anything else that comes to mind over the next week.

Stay tuned, or at least, check in occasionally.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


I wish I could tell you that I have been silent because I’ve been off doing great things or in the grip of some serious illness, but I have been silenced by a common cold. Literally in this case, as I entirely lost my voice over the weekend and have been squeaking and croaking since it returned. I feel really knocked for six by it, which surprises me. I haven’t felt like writing, or working on the house or doing anything other than lying down. Sadly that’s not been an option.

It’s been raining heavily the last few days which is wonderful for our water supply, but not for the spirits or the cold. Perhaps it’s just the influence of the illness, but I am convinced that the rain has come down more heavily whenever I have needed to go out, run errands or fetch the children from school. Where is the “Sunshine State” when you need it? I mean, I actually have that on my license plate so I should be entitled to it. Mr Blithe refused the other license plate option offered by the authorities “Queensland: the smart state”, pointing out that he had seen evidence of the sunshine. And you wonder why some people look at us askance. Or perhaps you don’t wonder.

Anyway…hopefully back to normal operation in the next few days. One of the few things I have been doing is typing up my manuscript and I am up to 20,000 words. So far I am managing to translate my scribbles in my notebook complete with arrows and stars indicating comments. I’ve used the wide-ruled margins on almost every page to write amendments, notes to myself, and plot directions. It’s been a lot of fun going back to the beginning and seeing the story develop. I do think a writing programme for the computer would be a useful way of tracking characters and developments. I’ve had to edit earlier bits so that they fit in with later plot developments. For example, one of my characters had a baby that was subsequently written out of the plot as it didn’t fit. The power of the pen is lovely. Especially when you feel so out of control in the rest of your life.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The blame n’ shame game

I blame it entirely on my friend Vivi. She had the gall to write in her blog about the recent Wordstock Festival 2008 in Portland, Oregon. Even worse, she mentioned an impressive New Zealand author, Rachael King. So of course, I had to go look her up. After all I have to support half of my ancestral heritage. King has a website which is about her books and writing and a page of links to sites that she likes. And then I was sucked into the vortex of time-wasting that is the internet. I wandered through a few sites before becoming mired on goodreads.

A significant amount of time later: dishes and children unwashed; unfolded laundry piled high on my bed; wet swimsuits still lying on the laundry floor; school lunches unmade; manuscript not typed; trim unpainted; I was creating an account and setting up my bookshelves. Then I went surfing amongst other’s shelves and investigating who else in my neighbourhood has fallen into the trap. It was great.

All I can say is “Don’t go there.” But if you do, be sure to ask to be my friend. I’m there in my Blithe persona and it turns out that I read a lot of science and speculative fiction which is odd considering that I write historical fiction. My shelves are still a work in progress but I’m trying to get just a few other things done so please be patient.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Good pain

While I’m not a subscriber to the no-pain-no-gain school of thought, there are some pains that are more bearable than others. My left hand is aching from typing up the manuscript and my right hand is aching from painting. However, both pains are indicative of things actually getting done so I don’t regret them.

I had forgotten that my left little “pinkie” hurts after a lot of typing. I guess it really has been a long time since little other than words were my stock in trade. And my painting arm has never been professionally inclined. Mr Blithe was surprised the other day when I mentioned that I have never worked as physically hard before as I have on this house project. Having grown up in an urban environment, physical labour wasn’t much on the agenda. Mr Blithe grew up on farms and orchards where most days were full of hard physical work. Even the children worked on the farm when they weren’t at school. In many ways his upbringing was much more useful, or at least more practical than mine.

Owing to the aching muscles and joints, I’ll keep this brief, other than to say that there is actually an air of excitement on Blithe Hill. Things are getting done which is good because deadlines are also drawing near. A deadline is always a good motivator though!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Scattering thoughts

Every Saturday I draw a breath and think back on the previous crazy week. I don’t know what normal is any more. The good thing is that many projects are coming to a head. The bad thing is that many projects are coming to a head. There is constant pressure to be doing something as there are so many things that need immediate attention. I guess it’s all part of being grown-up (something that I have resisted for a long time).

Last night the children were at a disco at the school followed by a sleepover here with a friend followed by an overnight scout camp today. This was after a week full of regular activities. I am actually against over-scheduling for my children and I. Imagine if I wasn’t.

The house is at the point where people can see that it is a house and not a barn. Sleepover guest last night exclaimed “Your house is so big and you have so many books.” For some reason that vindicated all the months of pain. Not that I hold a large house as a value in itself, but we have lived on top of each other for a long time and it is marvellous to finally have places in the house where you can’t hear everything else going on. The girls slept out on air mattresses in what will be Mr Blithe’s and my new bedroom. We are now some of the few people who haven’t slept out there.

In answer to those who have pointed out the spots of paint on my knees, elbows, hands, glasses… I have been painting all week. It’s been a joy transforming our living room with into a white and daffodil yellow space floating above the valley.

When I haven’t been painting or ferrying people around or any of a myriad of other activities, I’ve been trying to finish up my book. The Jaeckels are at Moreton Bay and I’m trying to work out where to finish the first book. Do I get them here then start the next book with their new life? Do I get them to Marburg first? One option would be to keep telling the story then try to break it up into the separate books later.

And a question – like all writers, I enjoy having new readers. My alter ego, the stylishly named MDRA, posts on the myMarburg blog . Do you think I should add Two Tree Hill as a link or as a blog that is being followed? Do I want to extend my current elite group of readers (yes I mean you)? Will I actually get any more readers or will I just have to write more tactfully and carefully on this blog (no more rundowns on local committee meetings or commentary on local issues)? Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The burden of being good

Quite a few people are now aware that Marburg won the 2008 Friendliest Town in Queensland award. There is a billboard on the Warrego Highway proclaiming this fact, a sign on the community hall and now a banner stretching across the main street of town which ironically is only visible if you are leaving town. Another irony is that the image selected for the banner is that of an emu (which looks ready to peck out an unwary visitor’s eyes) when the emu farm is one of the more controversial zoning issues in town.

All this lays quite a burden of expectation on us residents as well as having a distinct whiff of hubris. Are we offending the rules if we honk an irritating motorist? Do we have to say hello to people? Is one compelled to smile and wave at people even if the car is so full of arguing children that one’s head is about to explode? Are there extra expectations of friendliness if you are an office-bearer of a community organisation?

My dilemma was compounded on Sunday. Driving my family to church, I followed a singularly irritating driver over Tallegalla. I don’t have any problems with people who drive slowly through the hills. The views are spectacular and there are some sweeping curves. I do have a problem when people who aren’t even doing 60 kph (on an 80kph road) brake for these curves. To make things worse, the car then gave way on a corner on which they have right of way. And gave way for an extended period of time.

Mumbling apologies to all gods: tourism, community and otherwise, I honked and was glared at in return by the motorist who subsequently pulled to the side of the road. I’m sure that it is especially bad karma to be rude to people on Sunday when actually driving to church. But at least I wasn’t in Marburg.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Curiosity never killed this cat

Sitting quietly (for me) through the AGM of the historical society yesterday, I kept thinking of Studs Terkel. I don’t know what other people were thinking about. The local councillor sitting next to me was jiggling his leg so vigorously that the historical floor was shaking. My often chatty neighbour was looking out the door. Some people were looking at the photos that blanket the walls while others might even have been paying attention. AGMs are not the most exciting of occasions and this one didn’t even have a whiff of contention to enliven things. The executive was returned unchallenged, even myself as a lacklustre and often tardy (when I remember the meetings) vice-president. Thank goodness for the efficient, competent president, treasurer and secretary.

Anyway, the local councillor as patron of the society likes to raise ideas at this meeting about projects for the coming year. It’s worthwhile to pay attention to these ideas because they are a good indication on what council would consider spending money. This year he talked about researching the official boundaries of the Rosewood Scrub and doing up a map to be posted outside our building. He also talked about continuing an on again off again oral history project to tie in with the Cobb and Co. historical route from Ipswich to Toowoomba.

I’m not particularly interested in the Cobb and Co. route, which tends to be of the historical plaque school of history. But it is fascinating that oral history is now considered such a standard, ordinary thing that even local government in Queensland sees it as “good history.” Which by a circuitous route brings me back to Studs Terkel who died October 31 aged 96. Though criticised by some as simplistic and maudlin, Terkel was famous for believing that “The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit. It’s only a question of piquing that intelligence.” He was curious, he listened and he wrote. His work gave credibility to history that drew on the lives of everyday people.

My favourite story that he tells is one that I heard him telling on National Public Radio in Minnesota. He was talking about how he likes being old because he can speak to people at bus stops and they don’t brush him off. He recounted how he asks women if they are feminists. When they (usually young women) vigorously disclaim it, he asks them if they have their own bank account, if they work, if they are able to choose whom they marry or divorce or if they use contraceptives – all things gifted to them by feminism. Though the thought of a sprightly old man accosting young women with this question is amusing, it highlights his point that people don’t know how they have got to where they are, that they live in ignorance of the lives of people in the past and they don’t appreciate what they have. I think the desire to fight against this is ingrained in every historian.

In his obituary in the New York Times, he summarises his own method as being “So I think the gentlest question is the best one, and the gentlest is, ‘And what happened then?’” It’s a good reminder for me as I think about how a local historical society can “do history” and also as I start a new research project in my other (non-writing) life. Terkel’s great skill was breaking down walls by listening to people and asking the right questions. He was eternally curious and he wanted his epitaph to be “Curiosity never killed this cat.” It’s a good motto.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Do you ever get the feeling that some things in your life have to happen in the “in-betweens” -- those times when you don’t happen to have something urgent that has to be finished right then? I often find this to be the case, especially with a family. Doubly so if you are renovating an old house and triply so should you be as foolish as to try to do anything else with your life.

It’s only nine weekends till the end of 2008 and the deadline for completion, which means seven more weekends to work on the house before the council effectively closes shop for Christmas. The new landing for the back step is finished and I weather-sealed it this weekend. The rotten floorboards in the living room and bedroom have all been replaced. The soffit boards were undercoated on the weekend and will have to be top-coated by me then installed by Mr Blithe. I can paint but I avoid anything that involves a nail gun. Apparently my dislike of firearms extends to devices that shoot nails at high speed into things (there goes my carpentry career). Things that involve nail guns and heights are even worse. Bags of insulation await installation and a myriad of small jobs need completing. After soffits, insulation and re-hanging the relocated front door, the next big task is flooring and of course, more painting still to be done. I am embarrassed to tell people that I am still painting (another career path gone).

Between the house and unwell children, my writing and blogging has suffered. I’ve been trying to write one passage for about a week now. This morning finally settling into the swing of it, I was disturbed by a sick Blithe Girl needing sympathy. Other mornings it has been Blithe Boy waking up in the early morning brilliant light and urgently needing someone with whom to play Lego or cars. On a positive note, I do finally have a title for the book and if I can get through this one passage, the ship can arrive in Moreton Bay and life in the colony can start for the Jaeckels.

In other in-between moments, I’ve also been following the path of the Spirit of Mystery as it sails from Cornwall to Melbourne. You may have seen on the news that British sailor Pete Goss and his crew are attempting to recreate an 1854 journey from Newlyn in Cornwall to Melbourne, Australia. Like the original crew, Goss is sailing a 37 foot wooden Cornish lugger and he and his crew will be navigating by the stars.

The history is fascinating. Seven blokes in a pub in an 1850s Cornish fishing village talking about the gold rush in Victoria and deciding that as they owned a fishing boat, they should simply sail to Melbourne (as you do). There’s a blog of the current trip and a tracker to follow their route. Take a look – you too might be fascinated.

Thursday, 23 October 2008


Right now the weather is almost too glorious to describe. After a couple of days of wind, the sky has been cleared of clouds and stretches blue from horizon to horizon. Driving to do my shopping this morning I saw one tiny cloud to the west. By the time I returned it had moved to the north. Like a tiny beauty spot on a face, it emphasised the perfection of the sky. Down on the ground the jacaranda are flinging their flowers of incandescent purple-blue to the sky and the bees are intoxicated with the golden pompoms of the gum blossoms. You could see every fold and shadow of the distant ranges lined up worshipping the sky.

I find it hard to be at the computer when the weather is so wonderful. I want to be doing something, anything – running without getting tired; finishing the book; creating a magnificent garden; finishing the house; doing something just because I want to.

I think that others must be feeling the same. I shop at the local IGA because I like the gentle drive through the hills, past the cemetery garlanded now in purple and into what is essentially a small rural village. You see people and chat. Even the checkout people discuss the weather, their kids and the rocketing price of vegetables (except the teenage boys suffering from excesses of hormones and angst who try to get you through before you can possibly address any comment to them). Today, a friend of mine was telling me about how as a lad, he and his friends would sleep out at the creek in winter:
It had to be winter so the snakes weren’t around. We’d sleep on cornbags (you wouldn’t even know what one was dear) and go swimming in the dam in the middle of the night in the buff. You know, the water was warm. I hate cold water but the dams would keep the heat and we’d only get cold when we got out.
I think he was whistling as he headed off towards the chocolate aisle.

Monday, 20 October 2008

It's all about me

Well yes it is – it’s my blog after all. But I noticed recently that I’ve been posting less historical snippets and more personal musing. Perhaps it is because I am at the stage of my book when I am actually writing. I still look up the occasional fact or detail, but mainly I am just writing and trying to finish telling the story that is inhabiting my head. I don’t want to post excerpts from the book so I am reduced to talking about writing which I read recently is an unattractive feature of wanna-be writers.

I realised last week that this is actually some kind of addiction. I was typing away, transferring hand-written material to the computer and editing as I went. I always jot little notes to myself in the margins to remind me of things and I came across some notes that set me scribbling. After a few minutes I had laid out my plans for the Marburg trilogy of books. So for those unbelievers, you now have three books of which to doubt the existence.

But I do promise to try to incorporate less navel-gazing and more rich and fascinating historical detail – when I have exorcised the Jaeckels at least temporarily.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Contentment and regret

A friend of mine has been musing on regret recently, thinking about how her life might have been, might still be different. It’s hard to know how to respond because we all have our regrets. It’s the extent of the regrets that differ. Some are trapped entirely in a world of “might have beens.” Others fight daily to be happy with where and who they are. I know there have been times, long times even, when I have wallowed in misery. Other strange creatures seem, at least to outsiders, to be naturally gifted with contentment.

It’s strange how one can be contented and yet still wonder how things might be different. And contentment is not a permanent state. The children who bring only delight with their tousled red-cheeked morning hugs and smiles that light up their faces can make you want to run a thousand miles in the evening. Much loved parents can drive you insane. Writing can be a joy or a burden. Would it be trite to say that it’s part of being human?

Walking this morning in the cool bright light of early morning, a sharp breeze raised goosebumps on my arms while in front of me the sun was reflected in dozens of glinting mirrors of water. The grass rustled with wind snakes and small birds swooped out of the grass almost at my feet. The combination of cool breeze, green hills, the early haze promising later warmth and the light combined in a feeling of joy. I was happy to be alive and I was almost entirely content.

Mentally I was listing what made me happy and what didn’t. If someone asked me whether I was content with my life, I would say “yes.” Still, there are pangs when I read of the successes of my academic cohort. I don’t begrudge them that new job, that promotion, that most recent journal article, that write-up, but I sometimes just miss being someone – having a position, a name on my door, somewhere to go. Emails arrive from Hong Kong, New York, Portland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, anywhere else and I wonder briefly about having planted myself so strongly in rural (okay – peri-urban) Queensland. Nostalgia sometimes flourishes for being able to walk out the door and be surrounded by the urgencies of urban life rather than having to make a plan, carve out the time and go there.

Then I wondered if we had to be something other than content to achieve things? Would I write if I were 100% content to be just a wife and mother? Would I volunteer if I thought where I lived was perfect? Would I take on a huge renovation challenge if I were satisfied to live in a two bedroom cottage? It all circles back to being human and our urge to change things and do things differently and better. For me, as a historian and a person, the challenge is how to acknowledge that the future rests on our past and to make that constructive.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Axis of chaos

I think that many writers are magpies or perhaps squirrels in the way that we listen to things, read things and tuck them away for later. Often I have no idea how or when I will use something that I have seen or heard, but I stash it away mentally or physically if it is a book or an article. Sometimes I think that it may be useful. Other times it’s just something that I find interesting.

Months or years later it comes floating to the surface when you need it. Or perhaps the memory of having placed it somewhere comes to the surface and you spend hours trying to track it down. Right now it is particularly hard to find things in our house. I have a natural inclination towards messiness and adding building to the equation makes finding things almost impossible. This week I was trying to find my Anne of Green Gables series for Blithe Girl and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I know where it was until the point when I had to move things to make room for the clothes that had previously been stored in the laundry that has now been demolished. This morning I spent a good half hour searching for the floor cleaner because I had a clear picture in my mind of where it had been until demolition started, but no memory of where it might have been moved. Clearly I don’t mop my floor often enough.

I do however have a place where I put things related to my writing. It’s a clear plastic box with a difficult-to-open lid that is securely stored under my desk. Anything I want to keep that doesn’t otherwise get filed in the filing cabinet or already have a designated place gets stored in there. So far it has survived the depredations of children, mice, building and my own personal axis of chaos (or should that be axes of chaos?).

When I was writing this morning however, I needed the words of a German hymn and simply had to reach out a hand to pull out a copy of a hymnal. When we were in the United States we stumbled across a wonderful Mennonite Church in Saint Paul. It managed to be both simple and sophisticated in faith and worship. Most of its members had travelled and worked widely yet they held to an ideal of a simple life and faith. Burnt by our experiences of the politicisation of American evangelicals (here read right-wing attitudes) we felt at home in this congregation. One of the mementoes of that time is the Hymnal: A worship book, sub-titled “Prepared by Churches in the Believers Church Tradition.”

Many Mennonites still understand or read German even if they don’t speak it and the hymnal is full of wonderful old hymns brought from Germany. Looking for the right hymn was simply a matter of leafing through the book, finding an appropriate title, checking the words and checking the date of publication. Anything dated before 1900 could easily have been sung by a Protestant German, even if they weren’t Mennonite. For once things went smoothly and one of my characters was able to be musically farewelled.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Monday the 13th

It was a scorchingly hot day. The sky was a cloudless blue and the only sounds were the slapping of waves against the ship and the creaking of ropes and sails. Michael turned and …

Cue Nokia ring tone, shatteringly loud in the early morning silence.

“I’m on Edmond Street, how do I get to your place?” It’s the truck delivering the newly milled six inch hoop pine floorboards. I hastily fling on some clothes, comfort the newly awakened Blithe Boy and take him outside in pyjamas and gumboots to wait for the truck. It shouldn’t have been long, but it was a while. I managed to swig the last few mouthfuls of coffee. The truck trundled up our driveway for a few metres and stopped. Rolling backwards, it headed to the end of the road, planning to turn in an easier driveway. Minutes later it is stuck in the neighbour’s (level) driveway. It’s the turn of the next neighbours along to get out their ute and pull the truck free so that the immediate neighbours can go to work. Three of nine houses on the street are barricaded behind the truck.

The truck slowly makes its way back along the road. I meet it and we agree to simply carry the wood up the driveway together. We pant uphill with Blithe Boy trailing us wanting to be picked up. One tattooed gentleman complaining about his sore muscles from the Wii Fit that his wife insisted on buying and the shipping company for making him use the big truck for such a small load, one dishevelled and disoriented woman whose mind is somewhere between Batavia and Brisbane on the high seas and one slightly sulky and suspicious toddler staggering up a damp gravel driveway. Then we pant downhill to get the paperwork that I forgot to put in my pocket and back uphill piggy-backing Blithe Boy.

By seven o’clock all is calm once more. I’ve stopped gasping for breath and I now want a discount on my door-to-door shipping.

I look at my half-finished sentence and decide that it’s just not meant to be today. I wonder briefly if J.K. Rowlings has the same problem and whether a nanny would object to the driveway. I go off to rally the children school-wards.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Time’s a’wasting

Any writer will tell you that time is something that can simply be frittered away and scattered to the wind like petals after rain. Write using a computer and there are so many additional ways to allow time to dissipate. Add broadband and the possibilities are endless. Add children to the mix and sometimes you wonder that you get anything done at all.

Why this musing on time?

Well I’m very good at wasting it…

Also... a friend pointed me in the direction of Scrivener the other day. Scrivener is a Mac-based software programme for writers. I’ve seen it reviewed elsewhere and thought that it sounded interesting. My friend is testing it out at the moment and I’m hoping for a review from a trusted fellow writer.

I’m not suggesting that such software is time wasting. In fact it may be a valuable timesaver. After all, I already have problems keeping track of some of the details of my writing. Did I give that character a child? How old was x when I introduced him? When and where did y and z meet? Computer software can solve such issues very quickly and enable you to keep track of all those piles of notes. I think though that you may need to use them from the beginning of writing as retro-engineering your story into the appropriate format might take a lot of work.

Reading over the specifications for the software I noticed that a new feature had been added since I last looked – a page layout feature “which is important for screenwriters who judge time by a minute-per-page.” I read this over and wondered if it was a minute per spoken page or a minute per page written? In a week where I have miraculously written several pages in spite of one day where I managed two paragraphs before the demands of the day crashed into me, a page per minute written sounds impossible.

I’m not sure whether to panic or scoff so I am simply turning my thoughts to the demands of this weekend. The annual Black Snake Creek Festival is upon us although today’s rain may have other ideas. I am meant to be on the school food stall tonight so if you want to catch up with me I’ll be the one trying, and failing, to tally up your tab in my head.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Old friends and writing lessons

One of the few things I had time to do in Sydney was to catch up with an old friend over dinner the first night. Dinner ended up stretching out over quite a few hours as my lift home was sidetracked by my new niece’s arrival. With my siblings all temporarily home from overseas and living with my parents, their home is like Grand Central Station with no departing trains, down to random overnight guests sleeping on mattresses on the only floor space available in the living room. Washing machine, telephone, fridge and stove are on continuous cycle.

Before descending into/adding to this chaos, I wanted a few moments doing something just for myself, hence the dinner with a friend – let’s call him Knox. I’ve known Knox since I was a gangling teenage uni student, earnestly studying Chinese history and language with a desire to change the world, but no real plan for doing so or even an idea of where to start. I met the future Mr. Blithe around the same time. At the time, Knox was studying genetic anthropology and supplementing his income by the much more lucrative sideline of paediatrics. He, the future Mr Blithe and I became great friends and he was one of our wedding attendants. Over the years we’ve enjoyed many meals, films and long-distance phone discussions. He’s a bit of a Luddite and doesn’t have email so chasing him down can be hard. I think that it’s part of being an emergency consultant – sometimes you just don’t want to be contactable.

Anyway, Knox is a fountain of knowledge and insight on many topics, but especially the topic of children. He has no children of his own, but plenty of opinions and perspectives that come from seeing families in crisis mode. His single most useful piece of advice to me has been not to patronise children as they always sense and resent it. This ties to my mother-in-law’s observation that adults expect children to behave much better than they do themselves.

Maybe it was just being apart from my children, or maybe talking to Knox about children and families, but remembering his advice has helped greatly with my writing. I’ve been struggling a bit with tone and approach. I have a story in my mind that I want to tell, but I was concerned that I might be writing in too “grown-up” a style. What has helped has been to simply focus on writing as honestly and simply as I can. Children don’t need to only have bare narration of adventure and action. They can understand and appreciate emotions and complexity. Great children’s literature deals with big questions and doesn’t patronise the readers. I might end up writing great literature, but I can take these lessons to heart.

Monday, 6 October 2008

The success of failure

October is an anniversary month of sorts for us. A year ago, we signed the contract on our new house. It was another five months before it was moved onto our land and we have now been working on it for almost eight months. In the larger picture of time and other people’s building projects, it doesn’t seem that long. In the smaller picture of myself and my family, it seems forever. Today, in an odd coincidence, both the builder and the house removers are back. The house removers came after two months of nagging by me, and promises by them, to weld on a final missing cross-support on the stumps. The builders are here to “re-engineer” the back stairs to make them comply with the building code to which they should have originally been built.

After painting for a good proportion of the weekend, I am letting everyone do their jobs and keeping out of the way. There’s only about one and a half rooms to go with the painting so progress is being made. I’ve ordered and am waiting for a further supply of floorboards to finish replacing those infested by borers. I met someone the other day, an English someone, who pointed out that 85 is not really old for a house except in Australia. My response was to say that it is a wooden house in a tropical climate teeming with things that snack on houses between real meals. 85 years is a long time for wooden houses here.

I was complaining to Mr Blithe that I hated calling building supply places as it really isn’t my area of expertise. He pointed out that it has become my area of expertise. I don’t think it is one that will get used much in the future. I’m not planning to do anything building related for a very long time. I did realise yesterday though that had I received the grant for which I applied earlier this year (learning about setting up a bookshop in a rural area), I would not have had the time or energy to be working on the house. So in the grand scheme of things, failure can work out. However, reading a Neil Gaiman book in spare moments this weekend, I found a quote along the lines of “a town without a bookshop, is no town at all.” By that definition there are a lot of “not towns” in Queensland including our own. And it is likely to continue that way for the foreseeable future. (By the way, Gaiman’s American Gods is astounding. I found it hard to get to sleep last night after finishing it. I don’t know how anyone can imagine stories like he does – the complexity, humour and sheer weirdness of his tales are amazing. I am in awe and just the tiniest bit jealous).

I can look back and feel frustrated that our house is not yet finished or I can think about the fact that we are within sight of the end. Our list of things to complete is down to a handful, albeit a difficult and complicated handful and we will eventually have doubled the size of our house having hopefully only stretched, not broken, ourselves financially and emotionally. We have eleven weekends to go before the deadline. This then is my life at the moment: writing, the children, painting the house, blogging, doing housework badly, reading when I can squeeze it in.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Travelling thoughts

When I am flying I find it very hard to read. Theoretically it should be easy. Here you are in cushioned seats (I won’t say comfort because I flew a budget airline and the seats were “cosy”). You can’t rush around doing things and you are trapped in one spot so it should be perfect for reading. I can however, only manage the lightest of reading. I think that it is the sense of being compressed into a small space with many other people. There is so much going on that it is hard to get any head room for thinking. On my way down to Sydney, I ended up simply plugging myself into my iPod and closing my eyes. There was a large family party in front and behind me who communicated over the seat-tops throughout the flight while simultaneously entertaining their two year grand-daughter with a Wiggles DVD on a portable player without headphones. Not that I will criticise anyone for doing whatever it takes to keep a two year old occupied, but it didn’t leave any mental space for anyone else.

Now trains are a different story. Same space, same sense of many people conducting their lives too close to you, more mobile phones (and there is nothing like a mobile phone conversation for exposing the banality of people’s lives), but somehow the sense of rushing through space, the world sliding past the window gives you room for thought. I love trains.

As I often do, when I go to Sydney I fly into Newcastle and catch the train south rather than flying into Sydney airport and taking the train north. It’s further by train but about the same price and time, the airfare is significantly cheaper flying into Newcastle and I just like it. Newcastle airport is a shared commercial/air force airport so commercial planes line up with jets for take-offs and landings. Leaving Newcastle we had to wait for three trainer jets to land. They then taxied slowly past us with glassed-in cockpits open. I don’t like the military, I don’t like small planes, but paradoxically I love the sight of fighter jets. Perhaps it is their kinship to birds. Living near Amberley airbase, sometimes looking out from our hilltop I can’t tell whether the black wheeling formations in the sky are distant birds or F-111s until the sound reaches me.

Newcastle is also a small airport. You get to climb down the stairs and amble across the tarmac to a single small terminal albeit one equipped with excellent coffee and free wireless internet. What more could a person want? Then you catch a bus to the heart of Newcastle winding past row after row of freighters lined up for loading. Painted on their bows are the names of every maritime nation. You end up at a train station on a harbour. Waiting for your train you can watch these huge freighters heading seawards and beginning to wallow in the waves of the entrance. You remember that there is a whole world out there – a world of ships, planes, commerce. Now the ships are huge container vessels, but their path to the world is the same as those original traders and settlers who found their way to such a distant port.

Then you get on the train and travel from one suburbia to another. In between are the vast spaces of river and forest that remind you why settlement in the Sydney area was so difficult. Even today with expensive shacks clinging to the sides of the Hawkesbury River it is still a wild and lonely place. The sun drops below the horizon and the furred hills are dark outlines above the silvery grey water. You can sense the loneliness and vastness and you are glad for your bubble of banality speeding through the darkness.

Perhaps that is the difference between planes and trains. In a train you actually sense that you are travelling instead of being transported in a small room between two larger rooms. I wonder how travel will feel in the future? Will we have any space for thought and reflection, let alone any time for reading?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Travelling south

I flew down to Sydney last Friday for a family party. My parents had their 40th anniversary two years ago and turn 70 next year but this is the year when all of my siblings are in the country at the same time. We are not a party family, nor much for large gatherings, so it was a big deal. Sixty adults and a good dozen children gathered at a friend’s house for lunch. The forecast was for a perfect day of 25C. By 7.30am we were sweating and starting to crisp up as we set up the gazebo and tables. It was much hotter than forecast, a fiercely bright day of ferociously blue skies and burning sun. Guests reclined on the grass under the trees while children undaunted and sunburnt rearranged the gravel of the driveway.

It was a good day. My parents were thrilled that all those people gathered for their sakes. Both of them spoke and both cried a little. The Powerpoint presentation worked, the food was plentiful, cold fruit punch flowed and friendships were renewed. We remembered loved ones who had long passed away and friends that could not be there.

A new grandchild arrived the night before adding to the excitement and incidently temporarily stranding me.

It was a good trip. It was good to go and even better to return which is how things should be. I had time to think, to read, to sleep and even time to write. And it made my parents very happy. It’s nice to know that even as an adult you can occasionally do that.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Of storytelling and poetry

On telling stories with a little help from Judith Wright:

South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter;
low trees blue-leaved and olive; outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crab-apple,
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in for warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer
will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler roses,
thrust its hot face in here to tell another yarn-
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey.

…Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No one is listening.
South of my days’ circle
I know it dark against the stars, the lean high country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

This is an extract from one of Wright’s most famous poems. Born in 1915, her descriptive poetry of Australia has become part of the canon at least partly because she was one of the earliest poets to celebrate the Australian landscape in its own right. I’ve had her “Selected Poems” in my bookcase since school days and only now am reading them properly, trying to get a sense of country and place for the Jaeckels, in the same way as I am reading Dutch colonial literature to get a sense of place for Batavia. The best aspect of this writing thing, you have a good excuse for reading (as if I ever needed one).

I'm also trying to work out how to weave "Seventy years of stories he clutches around his bones/Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey" into my parents' story. It's odd but potent imagery and I can't decide whether to use it or not.

If you don’t mind pointing your browser to a socialist website, there is a lovely obituary to Judith Wright here. She died in 2000.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Telling family stories

Mr Blithe pointed out last night that it doesn’t look good. One minute I’m moping around then not a word from me for days. The good news is that I’m still here. The bad news is that I’ve been really busy and my writing and blogging are going to be intermittent for a while longer. My parents’ significant anniversary and seventieth birthday party is looming and in a fit of uncharacteristic enthusiasm (at least for this point in my life), I volunteered to make a Powerpoint presentation of family history for it. This party has become a PARTY – something requiring great organisation and telephonic to-ing and fro-ing over the kilometres. My mobile phone has been ringing with questions such as “How much crème caramel do I need to make?” (or should that be cremes caramels?); “What else do you need?”; “What kind of salad should I make?”; “What can I give them as a present?”

As for the presentation, there isn’t one yet and I am flying to Sydney on Friday for the party on Saturday. I’ve been wading through masses of family photographs. These are well-travelled photographs. Some have come from the New Zealand of my father’s childhood, others from Sydney. Many are photos sent home over the years by my parents to their parents, trying to chronicle for them the growth of their grandchildren in faraway Asia.

Some photos were airmailed from Taiwan to New Zealand, kept in albums for years and then given to me when my grandmother died. I have one album marked on the cover with my grandmother’s writing that contains all the photos sent to her over the years. She kept it with her in the nursing home so that she could remember her family. My father left New Zealand in 1964 and hasn’t been back permanently since then. His history there is old history.

Other photos were taken in Malaysia or Hong Kong or Tajikistan or the United States or Taiwan. I have a picture of my eldest meeting her grandmother for the first time at Minneapolis airport. My daughter is red-faced and spotty and you can’t see that I am covered in hives in an allergic reaction to something at the hospital (birth perhaps?). I remember it though.

There are graduation photos and wedding photos. People joining the family and people leaving. Progression from the family motorcycle of my childhood through various cars all remembered. One image of our ute and I instantly can remember sitting on the bench seats in the covered back squabbling with my siblings. My parents had it good. We had to rap on the glass between us for them to even notice us let alone adjudicate our fights.

How do you choose just a few images to represent lives? I’ve narrowed it down to seventy-four and I know that there are many gaps. Seventy-four pictures have been scanned, cropped, rotated, sharpened, colour-corrected, tidied up and resized. Many have faded in their travels and in tropical storage. Some were taken with a camera that perennially grew mould in the lens in the tropical humidity. Still they are the images of our family’s past even to the crackles and spots (and that’s just the pictures).

Now it’s time for me to work out how to tell the story for all those people gathered this weekend. People who don’t have the gathered weight of family knowledge. People who share the knowledge but remember it differently. Story-telling is important and I have a couple of days to get it right, or at least satisfying to me.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The lowdown on low

Children difficult (or is it me?)… house unfinished… father staying to paint and comment on my life… school holidays looming… crisis of parenting confidence… surprise party in Sydney to prepare for that is no longer a surprise… a gazillion photographs to scan and turn into Powerpoint presentation for aforementioned party… arranging for builder to come back… trying to get house removers to respond to emails and phone calls... tired… grumpy… cynical… 15 minutes of writing over two days…

Weather delightful… house at least getting painted… friend reading the post about Batavia and bringing a pile of Dutch East Indies literature for me (who’d have thought that I’d be reading Dutch colonial fiction?)… my father coming 800 kilometres to help me paint… a neighbour realising that I didn’t sound cheerful… a few new readers… children… well let’s not go there.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Not a normal year

In a normal year, winter means cooler temperatures, less rain and subsequently a pause in such gardening activities as mowing the lawns and digging out weeds. It’s a time for contemplating your garden, planning for the future and catching up on other jobs. This year the winter was unusually cool so we haven’t had to mow for some time. This is good because our mower has been out of commission. And we have hardly had a moment to even think about gardening.

Getting the mower sorted out coincided with my father’s arrival for a week to do painting so the garden actually got some attention. I spent Saturday afternoon pruning and clearing the front garden. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done anything in the garden. Actually that’s wrong – I remember planting the bulbs although not where I planted all of them and certainly not what all of them were. The garden surprisingly looked very respectable for Blithe Boy’s birthday party on Sunday afternoon. Several of the guests rode in on horseback so we even got a little bonus grass trimming in a neat circle around where they were tied. It seemed remarkably bucolic to have guests arriving via horseback. The rest of the guests eschewed historical verisimilitude and came by motor vehicle rather than by German wagon (yes I have always wanted to used those words in a sentence thank-you).

Today, the lawn looked magnificent. Unfortunately I can now see the prickles that have colonised it over the winter and have spent the morning pulling them up. It is such a nice change from painting. I find pruning and weeding very therapeutic. There’s something about getting dirt under your fingernails, the sunshine and fresh air and the triumphant heap of weeds that is soothing.

In a normal year we try to maintain the yard in four rough zones. There’s the house zone that is a constant battle to keep prickle free. Any delusions I had about organic maintenance of prickle-free areas have disappeared in the reality of the constant battle against encroachment of weeds from neighbouring farms. The house zone has flower beds and even a formal rose garden that is looking somewhat neglected. The second zone is the rest of the top of the hill that shades away into a line of conifers before disappearing into the fields. The third zone is approximately half of the former front paddock. Eventually I want this to be a gravel garden of the Beth Chatto school with a more formal layout at the top end descending into an orchard area then the flat grassed area at the bottom of our driveway which is one of our only flat pieces of land. Mr Blithe thinks of it as a potential cricket pitch. The reality of keeping a gravel garden a garden and not a gravel waterfall on our sloping land is a problem yet to be tackled. A girl has got to have some dreams. The fourth area is the remainder of the front paddock that we have planted with a few crow’s ash and is mainly wild grass. Mr Blithe likes to mow meandering paths through the tall grass to create a hillside walk that connects all the tree plantings.

Somewhat sunburnt and tired from the weeding, I am now focusing on not feeling guilty to be here writing while my father paints. My rationalisation is that I wouldn’t normally be painting at this time of day, but being obsessive and being brought up Protestant does have its downside.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A carboniferous era

A modern phrase that troubles me greatly is the ubiquitous “carbon footprint.” I hear it everywhere and often on the lips of people who can’t actually define what it means. I booked an air ticket to Sydney for later this month and the airline offered to offset my carbon – for a fee of course. I was much too busy working out how to avoid the plethora of other fees that the airline piles on top of their quoted “cheap airfare” to look at how they actually proposed to do this.

Perhaps one reason that I so like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s is that he shares much of my doubt. A few months ago he neatly defined carbon footprints as “the measurable totality of your environmental impact, or, to put it more simply, what your way of life actually costs the planet.” Thanks are due to him too for his phrase "carboniferous era."

He and I are in agreement that understanding the impact of your personal consumption on the environment is vital, but we also share unease at the glibness with which this phrase trip off people’s tongues. Part of it, Klinkenborg explains is that “the phrase sounds conscientious. You feel as though you’re reducing global warming by saying it.” People seem to use it as an excuse to continue a lifestyle of consumption while assuaging guilt by throwing more money at it. Klinkenborg argues that two things that humans do “most instinctively are manipulate language and create markets, and those two instincts converge when it comes to carbon footprints.” And that is the main source of my unease -- that people are profiting from sounding green without necessarily doing anything that directly benefits the environment.

So why I am pondering carbon footprints, or rather, why more so than usual? The last few days, the air has been heavy with woodsmoke. Our neighbour has been burning off cleared scrub from his gully and the westerly wind has been blowing it straight in our front windows. I was thinking about how it must have been when settlers were first clearing this land. The valley must have been constantly full of smoke, perhaps for years at a time as they painstakingly chopped down trees, dragged away stumps and burnt the remainder to obtain land clear enough for farming. Most were small-cropping and dairy farming so the land needed to be pretty clear and flat. An immense amount of physical energy went into simply getting ready to farm. Did this change the local climate? It certainly changed the physical environment. Marburg and environs went in a very few years from deep forest and thick scrub to pastures and fields dotted with houses.

The irony in this case is that our neighbour is an award-winning environmentalist who is clearing land in order to revegetate it. Talking to him recently, he spoke about how people laud the amazing ability of trees to store carbon while they don’t consider the size of the carbon footprint created by planting trees. There’s a large bulldozer burning diesel for days as it clears the land, there’s the carbon released from the burning of cleared branches and trees. More carbon is released when the land is deep ripped to allow for planting. There’s carbon released from using a tractor and a petrol-driven tree planter. Has anyone compared the amount of carbon released compared to the amount stored? I wonder. The end result though is positive: soil protection, prevention of erosion, creation of wildlife habitats, preservation of native flora, aesthetics plus carbon storage.

A further irony is the effort required today to return land to some semblance of its original. Those migrants who so painfully clearly the land would never have imagined similar efforts going into replanting forests. And I wonder what they would think about it?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

A new measure

I have a favourite writing pen. Fat and turquoise blue, it is emblazoned with a Queensland Government advertising logo. Mr Blithe obtained it for me, knowing that I would like it. I like its weight, how easy it is to hold and its soft cushioned grip. I feel defiantly old-fashioned to be sitting at my dining table on an op shop chair, using a pen to write on paper. How retro. But it is quiet and quick. No waiting in the early morning semi-light for a computer to boot up. No whirs and beeps to disturb sleeping children. I simply pick up the pen that I stash in a spot hidden from family depredations, pull my thick notepad out from my “Mum’s-absolutely-not-to-be-touched” workbox and get to work. I have nothing against computers, no Luddite tendencies, no idealism about what constitutes “real” writing. It’s simply about practicality and actually getting some writing done.

Today my pen ran out of ink. I had another one identical to this, but I have either put it in too safe a spot or not put it in a safe enough spot. I looked at my pen in dismay. It ran out of ink in the middle of the sentence, right when Blithe Boy wandered in looking for me. I had a moment of disorientation. What could be wrong with my pen, why was Blithe Boy awake and what had I been writing only a moment before?

And then I realised something. I only use this pen for writing my novel so I have a new measure. Whenever people ask how the book is going, I can look at them and say “One pen’s worth so far.”

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Writing my life

Making resolutions and being resolute are clearly two different things. I’m doing fine on plans that I have some control over, but other things are more difficult. Writing is still not coming easily but the story is moving along. I realised today that I had hoped to finish it by last Christmas and that this year’s festive season is already looming. The Jaeckels are having a brief interlude in Batavia before continuing their trip. As I try to get more exercise walking early a couple of mornings a week, I spend most of the time mulling over the storyline (when I’m not staggering along, trying not to collapse in front of any of my neighbour’s houses). Perhaps this is why my story is coming together, because I actually have some time to think about what is happening in the story and what I would like to happen. I like to imagine that I am writing a better book by taking the extra time, but that might just be pandering to myself.

I read a lot more children’s literature now than I used to pre-the emergence of literate children and I have noticed that the best books are plot-driven. Many are as carefully and elaborately plotted and written as adult fiction (and in some cases much more so). These kind of well-plotted and written books are a kind of bridge book – books that children and adults can read with equal pleasure. Examples that I have recently read have been Lili Wilkinson’s Scatterheart and Garth Nix’s series The Keys of the Kingdom. Coincidently both authors are Australian and it’s been an unexpected pleasure to learn so much from Australian writers and to simply enjoy their writing. I’ve been meaning for weeks to spend a bit of time thinking and writing about Wilkinson’s book because her plotting and story structure are so good.

I’ve noticed that serious issues aren’t avoided in these books. They are woven into the story as they are woven into our lives. But they are dealt with in ways appropriate to the target ages of the readership. My book (for which I still don’t even have a working title) is aimed at young readers, but it is one that I would like adults to enjoy as well. So I have been mulling over ways to make that happen.

One of my other resolutions was to do with the house and some of that seems out of my control. Painting proceeds apace, but so does the calendar. I worked out that if I continued at the same rate, it would take me another four months (that I don’t have). We’ve fixed up some of the things the council wanted, but they are holding firm on the stair issue. Somehow we have to re-engineer both new stairs to have 75cm wide landings at the top. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating and definitely trying my tolerance, if not my sanity.

Amidst all of this, everyday life continues and my final resolution was to enjoy it and not to let all these other concerns strain over into family life. If I’m successful on any of the above, you’ll read it here.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Being resolute

In Australia I always think spring is a better time than the New Year to be making resolutions. New Year’s Eve falls in the middle of a long summer, after the end of the school year and all the fun and tensions of Christmas. The school year comes to an end in a flurry of activities, then there is a tiny pause in which the children explode with anticipation over Christmas. In our family there is also a birthday between the end of the school year and Christmas. There’s Christmas itself, delightful in the parts involving immediate family and sometimes less so in extended family, and often a long drive down to Sydney. I am often cranky and tired (even more so than usual). It’s no time to be planning major life changes or even minor adjustments.

Spring on the other hand is a season of promise and anticipation. One eases out of the coolness of winter with pleasure at the balminess of the spring air. If we’re in luck we have September rain, blossoms, grass and the promise of a less-dry summer. We haven’t yet hit the unrelenting heat of January and February when winter seems illusory. The world seems a nicer, more hopeful place.

Every year around this time I decide to turn my life around. I’m going to be more organised, more pleasant, more patient, less irritable, healthier, fitter, tidier, more satisfied with my life, do more in the garden, grow my own vegetables, watch less television, clean the house more often, read more erudite books, avoid junk food, finish off projects – simply be a better human being all around.

This lasts for a few weeks and then I fall back into my slovenly ways. So this year I am determined to simply focus on a few things. I want to finish the book, finish the renovations, remember to enjoy being with my family and squeeze in a small amount of exercise. The rest will have to wait.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Driving into spring

It’s officially the third day of spring and for once the calendar and the weather agree. Today is gloriously blue and white and golden. The breeze carries the smell of blossoms and the potential of rain. The birds are chirping and busily preening and the snakes are on the move. Yesterday as I came over the blind crest on our road there was a long almost coppery shape sliding over the gravel that darted back into the grass at the car’s arrival.

I drove over to Forest Hill today ostensibly on a boring errand taking the errant starter motor and battery of our ride-on mower to the auto electrician. Really it was just an excuse for one of my favourite drives. You swoop down the highway to the turnoff, then immediately are in the middle of wide fields garlanded with a band of bare hills along the horizon.

Forest Hill is a tiny town in the middle of the fields anchored by its railway line and two pubs. Every time I go there I wonder what it has that Marburg lacks. Even on a Wednesday morning there are people wandering the streets and stopping for coffee. Well, for starters it has places to get coffee. I wonder though how it manages to sustain these. According to my neighbour, it’s only been in the last five years that the town has crept out of its post-farming somnolence. Perhaps there is hope for Marburg after all. It does have proximity to the university at Gatton and a large hinterland from which to draw, but we have all of Ipswich and surrounding areas. I like the balance they’ve achieved in Forest Hill as it remains small, but charming and obviously successful. People make the five kilometre detour from the highway just to stop, wander and have a short break. The need to exit the highway has been presented as a difficulty for Marburg, but Forest Hill seems to have overcome this over time.

I like to come back home the back way through Laidley, Grandchester, Rosewood then finally home. It makes for a 70 plus kilometre loop, Marburg to Marburg, but it’s a wonderful drive. You head first through the broad fields of the Lockyer Valley then skirt Laidley and start to climb over the Little Liverpool Range. The blacktop winds through red dirt and shallow cuttings ashimmer with shadows cast by the ranks of green, grey and silver trees. You pop out of the trees into tiny valleys carved into a paddock or two with old sheds leaning against the slope. For a moment your throat tightens with the loneliness and isolation that early farmers must have felt, trying to carve a living out of this unsettled and unsettling expanse of forest and dirt. Then it’s back into the trees and hills. There’s the slow S–bend through Grandchester, crossing the railway then watching for wandering chickens from the old house on the left. Then the run into Rosewood and a sharp turn northwards over Tallagalla and onto the home stretch.

Every time I drive this route I think about how easy it is for me. I take the children to school then am home for lunch. Coming along the Rosewood Road I had to slow down and go around a cart pulled by two horses. It’s not a common sight any more. I slowed to 20kph and detoured carefully (horses have right of way in Queensland). By the time I turned into our road, I couldn’t see the horses in the distance. I thought of farmers in their German wagons and was grateful for my sturdy old station wagon.

The motor vehicle really has saved the country in a way that city dwellers can’t quite imagine. I hear people talking about how the future will be increasingly carless – that the idea of driving around will become obsolete. And I wonder if anyone has any thoughts as to how that will be accomplished outside urban areas?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Languages and internet quirks

For some time now I have been receiving German language spam on the email account associated with Two Tree Hill. I’m trying to decide if this is a sign of success or just symptomatic of the world widespread of rubbish. I am offered “online bestellen,” “Original qualität,” “100% wirksam”… and the sad thing is that this kind of Germanglish has propagated. Fortunately the spam filter is extremely effective and I only see these when I occasionally check my spam folder for “real” messages that might have been shunted in that direction. Oddly enough Mr Blithe seems to get mainly Spanish spam on his account. I have yet to work out that one.

When I tell people that I am writing a book about German migrants to Queensland (and believe me, it’s not something I tend to tell a lot of people) they assume that I speak German. I think that it would be very useful but it’s not something that I have time to do now. I can just imagine putting off writing even longer just so that I can improve my original research.

Language need not be a barrier though. I’ve never forgotten the first history course I ever took at university. The lecturer handed out a heavy photocopied book in Dutch, the journal of a Dutch explorer for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company or VOC). At our looks of shock and protestations of not being able to read Dutch, let alone 17th century Dutch, he merely smiled and suggested that we get started. And it was amazing what we could work out from the material. His idea, I imagine, was to get us to overcome fear at tackling original documents. It seemed to work. I haven’t been afraid to at least try to look at historical materials since that point.

On the subject of writing though, I’ve got the Jaeckels as far as Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. Most migrant ships did not stop on the way to the colonies, but there are records of occasional port calls into Java. I imagine that a ship full of paying passengers might easily want to stop to take on supplies and water. A savvy ship owner could also use the opportunity to profit by carrying mail and special orders from Hamburg to Batavia and Batavia to Queensland. The VOC had a lock on trade to Batavia until Java passed into British hands in 1811. After that point the port was open to trade. The photograph below shows the port in 1870 much as the Jaeckels would have seen it (had they not been fictitious). You can see the strong Dutch influence and get a sense of how someone crossing the ocean in a ship might have been relieved and comforted at such signs of civilisation so far from home.

Friday, 29 August 2008

From the mouths of children

At breakfast one morning this week I was steadily chewing my muesli and wondering whether I was a pessimist, a realist or a depressed optimist. Between chews and admonitions to “sit still,” “eat your breakfast,” “don’t put your fingers in your juice” – the usual cadences of breakfast with a young family, I decided that I am probably just delusional. Life gets busy and I tell myself that after this event, or that deadline or some other date, things will quieten down and I’ll get back to blogging and writing more. At times things have been so bad that a friend offered to “ghost blog” for me, fancying the notion of being Blithe’s Ghost. Every time I think that I will have a moment for literary pursuits, some other thing comes up. Now I’m managing another blog for the Residents’ Association, pulling together some things for a family event, rushing into town to buy camping equipment for Blithe Girl’s first overnight camp…There’s always something to do. If I am going to write I am going to have to do it in spite of all the other things that come up. My conclusion is that if you want to write, if you really want to write, then you will find the time somehow. Or you will just wait until your children have grown up and left home and you’re trying to write in between the other things that will inevitably rush in to fill the space.

Wrenching my thoughts away from such early morning philosophising, I realised that Blithe Girl and Merry Girl were discussing their own literary efforts. Blithe Girl is on chapter two of her book and is concerned that she is only now introducing the villains. Merry Girl is also composing a story. An animated discussion was under way as to appropriate font size and selection because “the story is more interesting if you have a good font.”

I had never considered this aspect of my book. In fact, font isn’t an issue at all because it’s scribbled in my notebook. Now I have to think about it. I realise intellectually that good design is part of a good book, but they have the issue nailed. Perhaps I should just get them to type up and layout the book.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Ode to quietness

I think I’ve turned into a country bumpkin, or maybe just gently rusticated. I had to go into Ipswich today to do some shopping and was surprised at the traffic and general bustle. I learnt to drive in Sydney traffic and always laughed at people who didn’t like to drive in traffic. Now I get tense if I have to stop at more than one traffic light. And don’t get me started on parking lots. I particularly hate those. I will actually drive around searching for on-street parking rather than even enter one of those grimly echoing concrete parking mausoleums. I think I’ve seen too many crime thrillers where dreadful things happen in parking stations.

When we moved to Marburg, you could drive through North Ipswich into downtown along a quiet curving street. Just a few years later, there are four or five sets of lights, a new shopping centre and traffic everywhere. There are still plenty of trucks coming off the highway which makes for an interesting blend of shopping traffic and transport. The mayor is thrilled at the retail dollars flooding back into the CBD. I’m happy too, as long as they stay there and don’t start to stream westwards. Similarly, I’m happy for the Ripley Valley to develop as long as it means suburbia moving that direction. I wonder how long Marburg has as a country village. In five or ten years will we see acres of rooftops from our hillside? Will they install traffic lights in town? Will we be a “lifestyle” acreage block on the outskirts of suburbia?

Driving home, I could feel my shoulders relaxing as the hills came into view. Driving along at 100kph with B-doubles and highway traffic doesn’t worry me at all. It means I’m heading home. Then you see the emu farm, pull off the highway, taking seriously the sign that suggests taking the turn at 40 and slide through a cutting into downtown Marburg. In the middle of the day, it is almost abandoned. A few people have made a start at the pub, someone has pulled up for a newspaper and some milk, a dog scratches at the side of the road. Coming over our crest, a few birds circled, dust from the road billowed and the breeze picked up our neighbour’s new flag and tossed it skywards with a flash of red and blue. Otherwise all is quiet. And that’s how I like it.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Restless dreams

I slept badly last night and dreamt of snakes, websites and painting. It is clear what is on my mind. Today is the official launch of the Residents’ Association and the historical society websites. It’s a small event up at the school at 10.15 (come along if you’re in the area). I have a small role to play in my non-Blithe persona. I’ll be the one with a small boy clinging to my leg or hip. Maybe not a professional look but I recently read an article on Gail Kelly, one of Australia’s most successful woman CEOs, who described attending a job interview at the first bank she worked for when she was changing careers from teaching. Her dad had wangled her an interview with a major South African bank and she couldn’t find anyone to look after her baby triplets. Her mother looked after one at home, one was deposited with the receptionist and she did the interview holding the third. She got the job and started her rapid upwards move.

I have pre-lecture nerves. What if the website is down? What if the laptops aren’t working or can’t find the projector? Silly concerns. If any of these things happen we’ll just have coffee and cake and enjoy the company. And if no-one comes, there are 45 schoolchildren to demolish the cake.

The snake winding through my dreams was our newly resident, or perhaps newly visible, carpet python. It appears to be living somewhere in our roof and likes to venture forth around midday, slithering off the roof and into the pittosporum tree next to the office window. I hear a small flurry of birds, then perhaps a tiny creak and look up to see its length stretching across the gap. As soon as it is in the tree it disappears, its startling yellow and black markings effective camouflage. I worry about the guinea pigs. How will I explain to the children that a python ate their pets? I have to hope that there are enough rodent alternatives at the moment to keep it occupied while I think of ways to fortify the cage.

And painting, it continues ever onwards. I’ve temporarily run out of prepped areas to paint and have to go back to sanding and scraping. The hallway now matches the old house. It’s hard to believe it was once a horrible green bathroom. The house seems to be organically growing outwards as areas get painted. Now the connection and hall are part of the house and the area lying beyond seems to be the extension. I hope that the effect will extend to all of the new area – that it will seem to be a part of one whole and not something tacked on the back of the house. Meanwhile I need to go make sure that the last of the paint is off my hands and out from under my fingernails before I start waving them around in front of people.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Variations on the cold

It’s been cold recently. Nearly every night for the last fortnight we’ve had the fire lit. The children have suggested several times that I should also light the fire in the mornings. I might be tempted if I didn’t have too many other things to do including getting them to school. Instead I just suggest more clothes. I follow the same suggestion. Right now I am in pyjamas and a sweatshirt, followed by dressing gown and a padded coat. Parents at school drop-offs are wearing all varieties of gear. Some prefer the beanie and glove look, others stubbornly cling to open shoes and light clothes (a rather blue and shivering look), while others drag out their eighties big woollen jumpers (myself included).

The frosts have been heavy in the valley and in the sunken bowl of Ipswich. There are reports of people having to scrape ice off their cars early in the morning. Several days my kitchen hasn’t warmed above the low teens centigrade.

The garden has been lovely. The cold seems to have intensified the colours and increased the blooms. The pelargoniums (Gardening Australia reports that they are back in fashion because of their drought tolerance and people are increasingly referring to them by their proper name, instead of the common mislabel of geranium) are intense spots of colour, the roses had a brief fling of blossom. We’ve had yellow and white jonquils, grape hyacinth and now the hyacinths proper are pushing up mounds of colour and scent. The winter fields are heavy with grass from the earlier rains. Instead of green, there are now stretches of silver and old gold. The wind presses the grass into deep ripples of light and movement across the hillsides.

By many standards, this isn’t really very cold, but it is Queensland. We revel in warm summers and mild winters. People move here from southern states to avoid the cold. We live in raised wooden houses with lots of windows. There are cracks in the floors of old houses like ours that let in whistling gales. This kind of weather is not supposed to be. But it is and like most things we just cope with it and hope for warmth. In a few months people will be complaining about the heat and humidity.

It has been lovely in the evenings with the fire lit. Everyone congregates in the kitchen and dining room. Blithe Girl does her homework at the dining table, the others read in front of the fire while I cook dinner. We often have the radio on and we seem to be enclosed by a circle of light and warmth. We could almost be a model old-fashioned family right down to squabbles, family roles and the passing cow mooing outside.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Reluctant royalty

After recent weeks I have been dubbed the official “Painting Queen” by my family. The irony is that I am not crazy about painting. I am even less keen about the work that precedes it – the scraping, sanding, hole filling and sugar soaping that is required before one can even start thinking about painting. I’ve noticed that most people who volunteer to help with painting (not a huge selection so my conclusion are not statistically significant) turn up ready to paint and turn up their noses at the prep work. A notable exception is my mother who valiantly sanded, washed and painted many windows when she was here.

My list of work-related injuries is mounting, but I haven’t yet fallen off the ladder. The injuries are limited to scrapes, bangs, bruises, pulled muscles and what looks like a permanent French manicure but which is really encrusted white primer under my nails. In a sign of our increasing seriousness, we bought a second ladder. Mr Blithe can then be fitting trim and fixing ceiling gaps while painting continues unabated. This particular ladder has a panel affixed to one side that lists all the things one should not do while up the ladder including the following dire and comprehensive list:

“Do not use this ladder if you tire easily or are subject to fainting spells. are using medication, drugs or alcohol, are pregnant or physically handicapped.”

Blithe Girl pointed out that if I were using drugs or alcohol, I probably wouldn’t be reading warning labels. I might even be sitting above the second step or resting my feet on the paint holder! I personally like the injunction against people who tire easily. What if you are already tired from months of renovations? Will they provide a suitable painting contractor?

The sad thing is that we have been painting for a long time and still have so much more to go. However, last night I remembered that it took the painter about two weeks of solid work to paint our then existing house so my track record isn’t too bad. Completed are the laundry, toilet and nook. The hallway and joining section are all undercoated. All the trim is finished in these sections. I don’t think you realise how much trim there is in an old house until you have to replace most of it. Merry Girl is especially pleased that the “mouse-keeping-out-boards” are installed in the hallway (what we would call skirting or kick boards).

Between painting and multitudinous school and other activities I have intended many times to sit down and write but have been ambushed by exhaustion and lack of time. The Residents’ Association and the Historical Society are launching their websites next week and we are rushing to tidy up the site and get some of our advertising up. Somehow, I have volunteered to mock up several of the advertising banners. That’s the big push for this week. I’m also meant to be doing the “guided tour” of the site at the launch and have to work out what to say. The mayor and assorted dignitaries will be there and I’m wondering if I should sneak my house completion documentation to them. I’m sure the building branch of council would accept the mayor’s signature on a paper napkin with smears of icing, aren’t you? After all, I am royalty.