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?