Features of virtue

Exploring the common virtues of award-winning feature writing to analyse how journalists make us feel something when we read their work.

The below article first appeared in the Walkley Magazine on Friday, June 24, 2022.

It’s a funny thing about virtues. Once you see them you can’t pretend they don’t exist or that they don’t matter. And when you see that they are missing altogether the realisation can land like a blow across the head, leaving you disorientated and disturbed, casting about for your moral compass. I blame journalism for this. Australian journalists in particular, but not exclusively. Why? Because it is journalists who, through bringing the full force of their considerable writing and reporting skills to the issues that define a society, help us to see who we are, how we got there and where we are heading next.

I did not reach this conclusion lightly. I’ve worked as a reporter for 20 years; I’ve taught journalism to tertiary students for the past decade and I’ve devoted the past eight years to writing a doctoral thesis and publishing a book: Emotions and Virtues in Feature Writing: The Alchemy of Creating Prize-Winning Stories. My book is based upon a deceptively simple question, which is: how do journalists make us feel something when we read their work?

To figure out the answer I first took a deep dive into the archive of the Walkley Award-winning longform category, which, since the Walkleys began in 1956, has morphed between being a separate prize for features published in a newspaper or a magazine, to a dedicated feature prize, to its latest incarnation as ‘Feature writing long (over 4,000 words)’.

I take it as a national badge of honour that the Walkleys had a prize for feature writing a full twenty-two years before the US Pulitzers gave their equivalent award to Jon Franklin for ‘Mrs. Kelly’s Monster’, a story about a woman living with a brain tumour and the operation she underwent. More than forty years later Franklin’s story rightly remains a triumph of form and function, delivering readers a devastating final blow with his narrative nous.

But nearly twenty years earlier, Australia’s Graham Perkin, won the 1959 Walkley for his feature about a girl who had open-heart surgery. Perkin’s described her lungs as ‘animate, off-white objects like supercharged dumplings that slide from view into the outraged privacy of the chest, then pulsate into sight again past the rim of the surgeon’s incision’. Glorious imagery that lights up the page every bit as brightly as Franklin. Yes, in Perkin’s case, the prevailing patriarchal attitudes toward women were on full display, with him noting how, without surgery, the girl would ‘have been unequal to motherhood, incapable of strenuous exercise and inadequate for a normal life’. But I still hold that Perkin’s writing is equal to Franklin’s. Perhaps even more impressive, considering Perkin wrote his article before the birth of the so-called ‘New Journalism’, when, with much fanfare, American writers such as Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Gay Talese used fictional techniques in their articles. But, as Wolfe made clear in his 1973 essay on the topic, there was really nothing ‘new’ about New Journalism. Australia’s own heavy-weight of journalism, the late Evan Whitton, wrote that ‘Since this [new journalism] was invented by Caius Suetonius Tranquillus about 120AD’, he ‘preferred the term neo–journalism’.

As my book is about virtues it is fitting that I open with a confession. When I undertook my doctoral thesis in 2014 as a 46-year-old single mother of three school-aged children I was less fuelled by virtue than the hard-headed reality that I needed to get my ‘licence to drive’ — a PhD — in order to get a full-time job in the world of academia. Based upon my journalism experience I had been teaching the craft as a sessional, and then as a part-timer on short term contracts. Years earlier, before getting my first job as a reporter in suburban newspapers, I had completed an Honours degree in History, which left me with the quiet conviction that the skills needed to tell the stories of the dead and the living were not dissimilar. I knew enough to know that a PhD would consume me and I took the sage advice of an academic that if I was going to dedicate three years of my life to one topic I best make sure it was on something I loved. So I chose feature writing. And not just any feature writing. Walkley Award-winning feature articles. I wanted to soak in writing that had been judged by journalists as among the best in the nation.

So where to begin? There were limits to how much I could pour into a PhD or a book. Thankfully, John Hurst, the author of the unofficial Walkley Bible, The Walkley Awards: Australia’s Best Journalists in Action, had already documented features up until 1988. So that is where I began for my PhD, in which I examined 23 Walkley-winning feature articles from 1988 (which was also the year in which the Walkley Awards combined with the news and magazine feature award into the ‘Best Feature’ category) to 2014. I ventured even further for my book, including examples of international, multimedia journalism, such as Hannah Drier’s 2018 Pulitzer prize-winning article, ‘The Betrayal’, that included embedded recordings and animations as well as a ‘Twitter film’ to convey her story about the plight of a boy in the United States who was caught up in the notorious MS-13 gang.

My journey began with me immersing myself in stories such as Michael Gawenda’s 1988 feature about Australia establishing its own war tribunal; Helen Garner’s gut-wrenching insights in her 1993 article about the death of two-year-old Daniel Valerio at the hands of his mother’s defacto; Gary Tippet’s 1997 article about the Indigenous man, Tony Lock, ‘the gentlest of axe-murders’, who killed his childhood abuser and Kate Legge’s 2002 profile of a family court judge and the devastating consequences of one of his decisions.

Did I underestimate the emotional storm that these stories would plunge me into? Absolutely.

I’d naively thought I could nonchalantly place myself in the hands of gifted writers telling honest stories that transported me into worlds where crimes went unpunished, where children were beaten and killed, where Indigenous Australians were abused and discarded and where our ability as a nation to refuse to see how our government policies were causing real harm to real people. I was wrong. And the moment I understood that the storm was the point, I began to appreciate how each story was a boat captained by a writer who I had to trust would get me back to dry land. Safe, yes. But also changed by the journey. I started to see and feel, sometimes subtly and at other times with the force of a wave dunking me, how the journalists used their writing and reporting skills to leave me awash with emotion. I saw how they pulled different narrative levers, shifting between first, second and third-person voice, constructing vivid scenes, inserting electrifying quotes and seeding their stories with forensic details.

Slowly, I began to have my suspicions that there was something else at play between these pages of award-winning prose. These writers were conjuring virtues. At first the pragmatic journalist in me rebelled. Surely that was sentimental tosh on my part? But I looked again. And again. And there they were. Threaded through the narratives were virtues such as courage, empathy, honesty, resilience and responsibility. And beyond this there was a sixth virtue, ‘phronesis’, which the fifth century philosopher Aristotle described as the ‘master’ intellectual virtue. Phronesis is often defined as ‘prudence’ but it is more accurately described as ‘practical wisdom’.

Now let’s be clear. The society that Aristotle lived in, one in which power was held securely by a select group of men of a particular race and social and economic standing, one where women were considered either dangerous or simply too dim-witted to be any use outside of breeding, is not one to aspire to. His world is not ours. But his notion of virtue, this idea of the master virtue of phronesis, captured me. So I borrowed it and bent it and stretched it to see if I could make it fit my idea of what journalism — at its best — could be.

This is how I came to argue the concept of phronesis, of practical wisdom, and of how it encapsulates two, seemingly conflicting sides of what it means to be a journalist. Firstly there is the pragmatic imperative of reporting the facts, and secondly, there is the knowledge that journalism can change hearts and minds and influence society.

In my book I argue that phronetic journalism is journalism that strives to make a difference to society through providing readers with the opportunity to consider important issues and perhaps even change their world view. I began to map the virtues that illuminated stories about courage, justice, truth and hope.

Within my small sample of 23 features I found the articles touched on these virtues:

  • honesty (in all 23 articles)
  • responsibility (in all 23)
  • resilience (in 20)
  • empathy (in 19)
  • courage (in 15)
  • phronesis (in 14).

Among the stories that, sadly, remain all too relevant is Bonita Mason’s 1997 article written for HQ magazine, The Girl in Cell 4’ about Janet Beetson, a 30-year-old Indigenous woman who, in 1994, died in custody for want of heart medication. Mason’s story marked ten years since the announcement in 1987 that a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in the justice system would be held, delivering its findings in 1991. When Janet Beetson was found dead on the floor of her cell on June 3, 1994, she was the 61st Aboriginal person to die in custody. At the time of writing, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology released in December last year, a total of 489 Indigenous people have died in custody, including four in youth detention.

When Garry Linnell wrote his story, ‘Hope Lives Here’, which won the 1998 Walkley for ‘Best Feature Writing’, it was because no other journalist wanted to. So he made it a part of his routine to drop into the cancer ward, ‘6-East’ at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital until he became ‘a part of the furniture’, speaking with doctors, nurses, parents and children. From its haunting opening paragraph, cast in the second-person voice so that the reader is transported into the mind of a grieving father, the defining virtue of Linnell’s story is courage. The courage of parents with a terminally ill child, the courage of the medical team caring for the patients on the ‘6-East’ ward, and finally the courage of the children themselves. It is a triumph of a piece that reminds us of our ability to stay the course, to support those we love, and to look, unflinchingly, at what we do not want to see.

But perhaps among the most striking stories are those that remind us of our failings. Of how we can ignore our humanity for the sake of political expediency, profit, personal gain or indifference.

Affecting stories such as Paul Toohey’s 2014 investigation into asylum seekers, or Russell Jackson’s searing article about the treatment of Indigenous footballer Robert Muir during his years playing for St. Kilda in the VFL. And then there is this year’s worthy Walkley winner, Andrew Quilty, for his investigation of accusations of war crimes against Australians in Afghanistan.

So my journey continues, beyond my PhD, beyond my book. Those early days rummaging through the Walkley archives at the New South Wales Mitchell Library, have led me to being a part of a Deakin University team, working with the Walkley Foundation to help digitise the winning entries. The hope is to make these examples of the nation’s best journalism available to the Australian public so that we can all have a stronger appreciation of why an honest story, well told, remains one of the best keys to unlocking who we are and who we aspire to be. And in the meantime, I can be reassured of many more stories to read and research, as Australian journalists continue to strive to shine a light into those dark places that we need to see.

Dr. Jennifer Martin is a senior lecturer in journalism at Deakin University. Dr. Martin has more than 25 years experience working as a journalist in print, radio and online and is a past winner of the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prize. Her research interests include the role of emotion in literary journalism, the role of women in society and the history of journalism in Australia. Dr Martin has been teaching journalism, with a focus on feature writing, for the past 14 years and is dedicated to helping prepare the next generation of journalists for the task of telling honest stories and holding power to account. Her book, Emotions and Virtues in Feature Writing: The Alchemy of Creating Prize-Winning Stories is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Email / LinkedIn / Twitter: @DocJenMartin

Folk Who Really Exist:

For those who have just joined us, I’ve arrived safely in North Sydney and am about to head out into the weather for dinner…

I added one complimentary umbrella and a lovely black and white knitted cap with a crocheted flower and I headed out into the storm for what I was assured was the short walk to the Lobster Pound Restaurant and I was Quite the Picture. Which lasted five seconds until I was nearly blown sideways by the wind and had to forge my way along the ‘10 minute’ walk to the restaurant. Grey, dark, windy and wet. And it got wetter. And wetter as the rain had learnt to multi-task and sweep in under the umbrella. It was only luck and the extreme politeness of Canadian drivers that I wasn’t drenched by the deep puddles in the road. Seriously these drivers stop all the time for everything and everyone. I don’t know how they ever get anywhere but I’m grateful. So after trudging, head down, I made it. There was the big sign.

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And a really run down looking building with a smaller sign telling me that the restaurant was around the back. It was. And it was closed. I did not accept this. It shut at 8pm the sign said. It was 7:30pm. I knocked. No answer. I walked away but my brain would not let this go as I gazed down the street and realised I didn’t know what was down there, how far it was and it was bloody wet and my boots were beginning to get wet. So I kept going back to the door and peering in. Like something out of a Dickens story. If his subjects of choice were well dressed middle-aged aged women who think they are still in the heart of Melbourne’s never sleeping restaurant district of Brunswick Street. I had mascara on. In the rain. There was a woman talking but she didn’t see me on account of she was clearly fighting with someone. This didn’t stop me flapping my arms harder to catch her attention. On my third return she drove out in a huge ute – they are all huge – and didn’t even glance at me. Why should she? She’s a local who knows better. I’m beneath her gaze. So I called the restaurant. Because there was no helpful black plastic phone. And the soon to be known as The Venerated Leslie said that no, they closed at 8pm. It was now 7:40pm. Yes, but the kitchen was closed. Oh. Ok. I walked away. I came back. I called again. ‘Do you know somewhere else I can eat?’

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I saw her through the glass and she came out and started telling me where was good, what was open. And breaking the news that they were only open Wednesday to Sunday so I’d missed my chance to eat there, ever. Then, behold, more valiant than any Mountie (not that I’ve seen one yet – like the puffin, this breed eludes me), appears Richard The Chivalrous Chef. ‘I tell you what, you come inside and I’ll cook you something but it will have to be “Chef’s Choice”’. He looked at me, a sad but valiantly fashionable and utterly useless creature and said ‘You’re too much of a lady for me to send you into town – it’s a bit rough down there – come in, you can pay me by donation – how’s that? Are you allergic to anything? What kind of food do you like?’

No. I eat anything. Whatever you give me is fine. Do you have wine? The malbec sounds lovely, thank you.

So then I got this:

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That is blackened halibut, a lobster claw because Richard wasn’t sure if I’d get to try it in Nova Scotia and I had to. Mashed potatoe with julienned vegetables and a salad with maple dressing – which is the only way I want to ever eat salad, ever again. It was beautiful. I have never taken a picture of food because I like to think I am better than people who do that – yes, yes, I know, I’m a vile person with a really weird bag of measuring sticks and now you know. And now I’m not. I’m at one with the rest of the human race, again, and I could not be happier. Look at that food! Look at that lobster claw. Oh! And then there was Snow Crab. Did you know there are lots of different types of crab? Well there are. Leslie and Richard told me and Snow Crab is Leslie’s favourite seafood of all the seafoods. And this is a woman who has run a restaurant with Richard in Vancouver for 17 years before moving here with her husband, a local, seven years ago. And Richard’s favourite seafood is the Moreton Bay Bug and I’d just been telling Leslie about it and she never knew this about her husband – oh glorious evening of insight and revelation and gustation. And the Snow Crab was delicious. Flaky and sweet and really – it was better than the lobster. I asked about the music jam night at the newly opened Theatre Pub in town and if it was worth going. Richard said, by this time he’d had a chance to work out that I may dress pretty but tough really doesn’t throw me, that I’d be fine but he wanted me to  know what I’d be in for. ‘You’d be the centre of attention with your accent , they’d all buy you drinks but there’d always be the one idiot yelling out if you knew Crocodile Dundee. Hang on, I’ll call them and see what’s going on.’ So he did and found out no-one had turned up because of the rain.

I learnt from Richard and Leslie these things:

They have two styles of cooking, one for tourists and one for locals. The locals like their steaks well done and it drives Richard mad because he uses really good steak. The tourist menu is superb – the bountiful seafood, then there is ‘Korean style steak’ – okay then! It’s an eclectic mix of what Richard loves to cook from his decades of experience in big city restaurants.

This is, or was, a fishing and mining town – Leslie told stories of how there used to be really big families, 12, 13 kids and how kids as young as nine went down in the mines. This is a tough town that has always worked hard – when coal was booming and the oceans were teeming with fish and when the mines closed and fishing dwindled they kept working hard, just for less return. Like our own Silver City the locals refer to outsiders as ‘from away’ – Leslie is still known and will always be known as ‘from away’. They don’t have kids and Leslie said if they did they’d be taken away because ‘you have to feed them right?’ The restaurant is their life and Richard proudly tells me that, like Crocodile Dundee, he bagged himself the gorgeous blonde tourist and brought her home. We both look at Leslie who smiles and we nod. He did good.

Then Richard refused to take what I wanted to pay, telling me this wasn’t Melbourne. We haggled. We split the difference. I’m ashamed at how little it was. Then he drove me home with a packet of his mother’s choc chip (gluten free) cookies because I did not have room for dessert. Of course he did. So that was my first night in North Sydney.

Did you try the phone?

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Sigh. Meet Constance.

The Inn owners in this part of the world – of my sample two – are, in my vast experience, unjustly proud of and invested in the plastic black phones they have nailed to their doors. ‘Pick up phone to contact Inn Keeper at Any Time’ the teensy business cards taped to them proclaim. So, in Charlottetown I did, only to be assailed with more static than trying to find my beloved 3CR on the AM dial. Warning – every blog is an exercise in vanity but we’re about to take a detour into the big leagues so look away now. It’s 855AM if you’re wondering and when I deign to be in Melbo I do a half hour show, Communication Mixdown on all things media every Thursday at 6pm with the long suffering and ever gentle and infinitely talented John Langer. I love it. I think it makes me a better person and I reckon anyone who listens to community radio is better than anyone who doesn’t (okay so I still have a way to go in the better person stakes but at least I see it – that counts right?). I think Subscribers are Good Citizens Giving Community a Voice. And I’ve been known to shout this or say it in a Very Serious low tone to those who I think need to hear it. Because Neil Gaiman once said saying things quietly is more effective than shouting – I thought Terry Pratchett told him that but when I tried to source the quote I couldn’t find it so look out – this could be fake news.

So the phone. No. It did not work in Charlottetown. Which was a grand lark because no-one locks a door there or anywhere in Nova Scotia that I’ve found so far. With one exception, but I’ll get you there. This has been verified by my lovely Gospel Singers Allison and Gerald who stayed in a big old house in downtown Lundenberg (a town I would later have to  flee because the jewellery and treasures and food were so good I knew I’d be broke if I stayed) and, when they asked for the keys they were told ‘…keys, yes, well, no-one has been in the house for two months but if having a key would make you feel better I’m sure we can find one for you?’ This was a fully furnished, kitted out home. Gerald looked at me and said what we were all thinking: ‘Surely there are bad people in the country, right?’ I nodded with the wisdom of a well-travelled woman: ‘We know this, we watch netflix’.

Here are some of the houses in Lundenburg. Imagine them now. Unlocked and waiting for you. Yes, I named them. Don’t judge me.

 

 

So I waltzed into this three story mansion in my soon to be beloved Charlottetown and after doing the obligatory ‘hello? Anyone here? – I proceeded to explore. I mean what could go wrong? Not like this was every Spooky House Horror Plot ever. I did take comfort that I was not a virgin, it was not Spring Break and at least it wasn’t my boyfriend’s parents lake house but still – clearly, I’m a woman with a taste for danger. Or just an insatiable, entitled busy-body who adores old houses and wanted to make sure I was going to get the Best Room. I was in danger of death by dust in some spots or tripping on broken fireplace tiles or being entangled in really heavy drapery.

The other thing is these magnificent old beauties need constant care. How these timber homes survive this climate – snow must slay them – is clearly only achieved by doing as much work as possible on them when the weather breaks. But this Dame Hillhurst has excellent bones. And the rooms – all the linen, all the crystal – which made me decide I really wanted to stay here. And I’d need help with my Lovely Luggage – which is not so much Lovely as Outrageously Loud. I call my cases,  ‘The Zsa Zsa Gabor’. Think bright sky blue with a screaming stylized Paris skyline. I’ve been told that my luggage is ‘more gay than the Gays’ by a man who is an authority. So proud. But Luggage pride aside I went and knocked on the next mansion, as you do. Picking up another black plastic phone and behold, someone answered. And asked me if I’d tried picking up the black plastic phone at My Mansion. When I said yes, they really could not understand why it didn’t work. This was a mystery. We both pondered this. Finally they realised there was a real person of flesh and blood wanting to give them money and appeared, apologising and, as compensation for the best half hour of exploring I’ve had since I was a kid, I got upgraded to a king room with a brand new modern bathroom with a bath so deep it looked a bit dangerous. From there it all went swimmingly, breakfast was two mansions down and there was a photo of Paul McCartney on the wall because that is where he too enjoyed a lovely fruit parfait and a ham and pear and cheese panini – or perhaps bacon and eggs, done any way Sir Paul would like them. And he’d like them.

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It so is.

 

So that was then and this is four days later…I arrive at A Boat To Sea. Four hours in a storm, alive but to be honest pretty tired and bedraggled and that shaky feeling that you try to ignore after being rather scared for quite some time and having to deal with it because you have to. And I have found the only place in Nova Scotia with a lock. A very fancy multi combination gold lock that I would have found really comforting two days ago but not tonight, not now. Standing here just wanting to Be Inside Out of the Rain. But no mind, there is a black plastic phone. I pick it up. Nothing. Zip. Not even the obligatory static. And I knock. Nothing. And I can hear voices. Voices talking loudly no doubt about things that are dry and not outside and bedraggled. What other subject is there? Surely they are laughing at me now. Then the woman who I would come to know as The Lovely Jane opens the door. And asks me in quick succession ‘Why are you standing out here all alone in the cold and the rain? Why didn’t you pick up the phone? It gets straight through to me!’. I look at her. She looks at me. ‘I did. It’s dead’. Now you know those people who are really graceful under pressure? One day I would like to be one of them. I know I have managed it on occasion and this comforts me. But usually I just come across as cranky or simply dead inside. I did a good job in that moment of Being Dead Inside. Jane then thought she’d help by saying she’d been trying to contact me. ‘How?’ By email. To my travel agent. But Jane had not considered trifles such as time zones. No. She was worried I had thought I’d booked for North Sydney in Australia. People really do this. I’m not surprised – her prices for this waterfront position in Our North Sydney would have Australians weeping with joy. But the best case of mistaken destination was the man who flew all the way from Holland only to land in Nova Scotia in the midst of a blizzard asking which way to the Opera House. Yep. Wrong Sydney, Sport! The thought of him standing there with his togs and his board shorts looking at This Weather pleases me more than it really should.

But back to the soon to be Lovely Jane. ‘Email? It’s Sunday morning in Melbourne’. I tell her, with cold fish eyes that would later sparkle like the sea on a Summer’s day at Jane’s attention. But not today. Then I was ushered in, Jane, Bless Her, took my hand and hung onto it for quite a long time – which reminded me I was a part of the human race and she most probably had fresh towels and linen and was that a fire I could hear crackling? And look at these beguiling lamps. And there –  ‘The Captain’s Room’ – this one right here – is mine. With that huge bed, that lovely shower and ALL the crystal, lamps, dark wooden furniture and busy busy wallpaper I have come to expect – with armchairs, big, stuffed armchairs. All was well.

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I got my gear, briefly said hi to the Nice Couple Staying Upstairs, Valerie and Michael, who were headed down the road for dinner to a place Jane said was superb: the Lobster Pound. And I said I’d be down shortly. Then I got in the shower. Water pressure, hot. Then I unpacked. I love a good unpack. I hang things. Properly. On wooden hangers with clasps for skirts. I organise my Smalls. Then I dressed. I Made an Effort. I like to. Especially in far-away towns with main streets that look more like Stratford-Upon-Avon in South East Gippsland than in England. It makes me laugh at myself and I like to think it’s a nod to the women I come from. My Gran, my Great Aunts, Doss and Lil – I’ve mentioned they were milliners – well they also sewed up a storm and always dressed exquisitely, usually in clothes made by each other. So picture it. Long black shiny boots, gorgeous black pin-striped 40s style firm fitting skirt which is teetering on the edge of tight soon to make the dive (who knew eating more energy than you used meant you stored it in the form of padding?) fitted long skirt with a series of zipped red panelling at the back. Waistcoat. Double breasted. And my Good Winter Coat that is a triumph of tailoring. I know because Ken, who run the wonderful Radio Springs that you must never visit because it is a delicious secret and I don’t want it to get too popular, told me so. And believe me – he wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it. He’s a Renaissance Man who used to be the projectionist at the Nova and now runs a B&B in Lyonville which has its own private cinema. Don’t go there. It’s mine. Let’s continue…

Leaving and Remembering Arriving.

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The Lovely Jane of A Boat To Sea.

I remember in High School writing an essay that was out of chronological order and it peeved Ms Murphy something shocking. These posts may be doing the same thing to you as I toss time around like Mum’s ‘green’ salad (iceberg lettuce, sad tomato and cubes of Kraft cheese). A note to my students: this is probably the blog equivalent of burying the lead except I’m brazen enough to try and pass it off as ‘creative choice’. No, it is just messy and if I’ve got sense and time I’ll neaten it all up nicely for you at a later date. But until then let me take you back to North Sydney, which I visited after my overnight stay in Toronto, after my three days in Charlottetown and got storm-bound:

I woke at 5:30am to the sound of rain on the roof of Jane’s A Boat to Sea. Yes, I just like saying it. You would too if it had been your safe harbour from this magnificent storm that has kept me from puffins and had me sneaking around the house this morning taking photos of ALL the lamps. And I gave up. There are so many.  So many delicious contraptions designed to pool puddles of light extraordinarily ineffectively but utterly beautifully on their limited radius. But I’ve fallen for them all. I love the ritual of turning them on – trying to figure out their arcane workings – this one a beaded pull, this one use the centre knob and click to the right three times – sorcery! And just when I work it out two of the teensiest tiffany lamps masquerade as candle holders – pretenders! But they’re young. Tiffany lamps, carved, brass, glass, china – they are all here. I wonder if Daleks evolved from them – no, that’s pepper shakers, I sorted that dilemma out years ago with my best friend over coffee – but a sub-genus perhaps? And yes, I know I must look mad, creeping about in my silver velvety Peter Alexander pjs with white piping trim, grinning, with my obscenely big iphone. Not fooling anyone with its leather book cover, nope. Rampant consumer of latest gadget because my old phone chose the day before I got on the plane to die. But these beauties must be captured and shared with you. And if you are very very good I may even post a photo of not one but two chandeliers – yes, an upgrade – that I found in one run down old dame of a building in Annapolis Royal after eating the Best Roast Beef Sandwich with it’s own gravy boat. But for now, let there be light:

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Lift Off

 

Don’t forget what it felt like. Don’t forget how your eyes filled. You sat in your chair and you looked out of the window at the tarmac with what? With disbelief? With relief? With bones aching with the wonder that I deserve this? With aching sadness that I would even think that I didn’t? Here I am. On a plane. To Canada. For a conference. Going somewhere for no other reason that someone thought I had something interesting to say.

I held my champagne and realised here – here I am – sitting smack bang in middle of the plane with the wings on either side of me, their white tips curling up to the sky like commas and me its quote. I’m the quote. I’m the fucking quote. Not the comma holding the bitch together, hoping I make sense. I am my own quote. Here. In the sky. Happy. Mine. Don’t forget.

I have not told you I am sitting in Business Class.With an empty seat next to me. I’m practising saying this without justification. It is killing me. But there it is. Okay, a small justification – or an absolute one. The combination of a very dear friend who is a travel agent, an absolute bargain of a fare and the at-the-time-scary-but-it-all-worked-out position of organising the trip before I got my new job and after I’d left my old one.

IMG_0005A window between forms and expense accounts and grant applications. An assurance from my accountant. If I feel that what people really want are long winded descriptions of luxury then sure, I’ll oblige. Suffice to say the flight attendant said: ‘You’re Terrific! I’ve told the others about you. Anything we give you, you just love – you’re so happy.’ Well yes, I am. Thank you. Pass the tissues.

*Postscript: I found the best reason ever to travel Business Class. Apart from the space, the food on real plates with real cutlery, the never ending supply of champagne and the array of bedding option ‘would you prefer a gel memory foam pillow in case your head gets too hot on the normal pillow?’. Why yes I would, thank you. The best reason is to make your mum cry on Mother’s Day. Yep. I rang Mum from Nova Scotia and she wanted every detail and she got it and then we were talking about the conference and All The Things I Have Done and then she was very quiet and finally said ‘good on you Jen’ and I realised she was weepy and then we both were and then Mum said she’d ‘go and clean the fry-pan, that’ll bring me back down to earth’. So she did. Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Would you like some Gospel with that?

Enter…the Gospel singers. Just when I thought life in New Sydney couldn’t get any more interesting amidst Jane’s porcelain Dachsunds and Siamese cats and Tiffany lamps galore I’m presented with Allison and Gerald.

They arrived yesterday evening after having dinner down the road at the Black Spoon and are tired after their travels and landed soft at  A Boat to Sea, where they stay each time they pass through this way on touring.

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Seaside at North Sydney.

They are the duo Infinitely More and this clip of them singing ‘On Flanders Fields’ will break you if you have a pulse. It is what Gerald suggested to me to watch when I ask if I could listen to their music online. Gerald put the poem to music and tells the story of how him and Allison were making the long drive to a gig when he googled and found that someone had taken their song and used it to create a video tribute to a woman whose husband had died fighting in Afghanistan. He tells me it is one of the things he is most proud of, and humbled by.

Jane tells me there a few guests that she really looks forward to seeing and that this couple are among them. And here they are, Gerald framed by the white painted bevelled door frame (can timber be bevelled or is that just glass?), and Allison standing in Jane’s dining room. I notice that Allison is swaying, almost imperceptively but it is there, following an orbit the rest of us can’t see or perhaps hearing music that the rest of us can’t hear. She reminds me of the percussionist, David Shephard, that I met at a great little restaurant in Charlottetown called Local 343 – he sat next to me at the bar and began drumming out his own tattoo on the bar with his fingers, tapping his feet in time.

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This is the self-portrait done by Jane’s mother and she also painted the dachshund painting – which the porcelain counterpart is gazing up at. Of course he is. Note the Tiffany lamp. This is not the only Tiffany lamp in this house. They breed like rabbits when you close your eyes.

But back to Our Gospel Singers – Allison’s hair is a deep, warm red and her skin is – I want to say milky and I will because it is, dammit and yes, her cheekbones are superb. I am not responsible for life presenting me with a beauty that clichés want to cling to for dear life and proclaim ‘over here guys! This one! I’ve found her, bring your mates, all of them –Yep, you heard right – she sings too – bring a keg, we’re going to need it!’

But I’ll do my best not to sink the woman with them so that you can get a sense of how strongly she holds herself, back straight and head held high – how she holds her place in the world quietly, without apology. Within moments of meeting them both Gerald has told me to go the Black Spoon and order the Cajun Seafood Pasta, that they are about to record their 8th CD, that he has written plays, and that they have around 50 songs that they have to cut down to about a dozen.

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The corner of my room. I told you about the lamps.

He tells me all of this in a voice that I enjoy immediately – it is low and rises and falls with his words and he speaks quietly, which lets me feel he actually does want to hear what I’m saying. I’ve felt this with my muso mates – the best of them like to play in the real sense of the word– which means listening and hearing and inviting other voices to delight in what can be made together. A perfect recipe for good conversation and good music – and a lovely tonic to shore yourself up against a storm front that has us huddled indoors searching for dry wood for the fire.

The three of us talk about writing, a conversation we’ll dive into deep over breakfast the next morning but for new we laugh at the awful, brutal task they are facing where they’ll have to ‘kill their darlings’. I suggest that perhaps they can hold those songs safely, somewhere to be released on another CD but straight away Gerald looks panic stricken and says ‘but I’m writing more and those new songs will replace those old ones’, and I see the poor, hard working, things, washed downstream on the river of his creativity, cold and alone. We give them a moment of silence and consign them to the Great Abyss of Creative Injustice.

Then I remember I’m not on my beloved Brunswick Street and this little seaside town likes to go to bed early after dinner and I do not want to caught out standing in the rain like I was last night, being told the Lobster Pound and Moore restaurant shuts at eight o’clock and arriving at 7:40pm was not going to cut it (another story that I will tell you – it ends so deliciously well and tells you all you need to know about the hearts of people out this way). So I leave.

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North Sydney sea.

I go to the Black Spoon. The waitress laughs when I tell her I don’t need a menu and order the Cajun Seafood Pasta. And it comes to me laden with lobster, scallops, fish and ringed by a perfect circle of mussels. I thought I was full. I really did. Soup for lunch. No bread. But then there is this sorcery. The sauce, true to Gerald’s description, has a ‘kick’ and, with my first glass of white wine since I arrived in Canada (up to now it has been strictly a single malt, malbec kind of place) I fall into heaven, willing myself to forget the waistline (takes seconds) and even finding room for a caramel lava cake pudding – because, to bastardise a book title given to me by that lovely fellow guest, Michael, who I have promised to tell you about – I am right and I am not an idiot. Cheers!

Don’t let me forget to tell you:

About Mary MacGillivray and Cian O’Morain of the Brigh Music and Tea shop in Charlottetown, my first stop in Nova Scotia and how we swapped songs over lemonade tea and how I walked away with a CD that combines Irish Traditional music with didgeridoo – of course it does. For those of you who aren’t steeped in this stuff, it is called Meiteal and is by Seamus Begley and Stephen Cooney – who is an Aussie – oh yeah! And according to the Irish Times this album ‘tore through the rule book’ – how unlike an Australian.

 

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A Boat To Sea.

Don’t let me forget to tell you about Jane, the owner of A Boat to Sea. I need you to know about her cottage perched on the edge of the ocean, and that, until recently, she has always owned four English Setters and four Siamese cats – ‘I don’t have children and they were my babies’. Don’t let me forget to tell you about her late husband David who  was a mathematician who decided to become a vet and who died of throat cancer.

Or how the local Cape Breton farming boys would prefer to sleep in so their cows’ hooves looked like elves feet and, because they stayed in manure soaked barns their legs splayed and how her husband invented a brace that attached the poor things to a tractor that lifted them off the ground and helped them to walk again.

And how her husband had a skin graft from his wrist to graft onto his tongue and it had hairs growing out of it and they laughed about it in the end of his days that Jane said ‘were terrible, but thankfully, short’.

And how she grew up in a place with a close family – parents who were loving and three siblings who she was the eldest of and who she told that she would like them even if they weren’t related. And how she had a childhood where she roamed all day – kicked out of bed in the morning by the bell and home again for supper. How she grew up in a house built by her father that he lived in until the day he died. Or was that her grandfather? He had the old hunting lodge which was where they lived on Deer Lake. And how the neighbourhood changed when the Asian immigrants came and how it was a hard thing to feel like a stranger in your own town. And how she moved from there.

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The view from Jane’s sitting room window.

 

And how she came to Cape Breton and saw a man in his garden and she spotted a Bird of Paradise flower and she’d never seen one before and she asked if she could see it. ‘I just wanted to touch it’. Then he said he’d just go get his ‘calipers’ and she thought that was the most wonderful word, she’d only ever called them ‘clippers’ and he gave her cuttings and she thought this is the kind of community she wants to be a part of.

And how her deed is a ‘water deed’ and how she has reclaimed the sea. She has reclaimed the sea (that really is worth shouting at you) by building garden and terracing her land. When I tell her the next day that I wonder if she is some kind of Goddess whose power it is to hold back the tides she does not disabuse me of the notion (as she prepares my gouda cheese omellete with vegetables and ham – have I mentioned that?) but quietly nods and says ‘some years I lose the battle’.

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Of course there are silver napkin holders with teensy vases to hold daffodils and bluebells on the breakfast table. We weren’t raised by wolves, Darling.

And don’t forget how she deliberately forgets the day her parents died because she doesn’t want to have those sad days marked forever. And how seven years after her husband David died ‘a knock came on the door and and I fell for this man like I have not fallen for anyone for the longest time’. And while she was seven years younger than Her David, which she said worked well because ‘he let me grow up’, this man is 12 years younger than her and she describes him as  being ‘dynamic, he’ll do anything’.

We got this explanation after Michael, a wonderful fellow guest who will get his own section, promise, asked her if she liked reading. She does. But her Sundays, her precious four hours off, when she would ‘love’ to sit down and read a book are now filled with this man’s love. He has swept our North Sydney Sea Goddess off her feet. She has just bought a speedboat. And she is learning to kayak.

She tells me she has two sisters in Western Australia and a brother somewhere far flung on this side of the world whose name I didn’t quite catch and she has holidayed in Tasmania recently and she adored MOMA.

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Yes, Jane’s magnificent sign!

Her mother taught herself to paint after her kids were grown and she shows me a self portrait that hangs in the lounge room. As I’m appreciating the loveliness of it Jane tells me her mother was an absolutely honest woman, almost to a fault and that there is another self-portrait that is ‘brutal in its honesty’ and Jane has that hanging in her own place, just next door and down closer to the water.

And no, I’m not curious enough to rug up and risk life and limb to violate her privacy by peering in windows to catch a glimpse – we’ll save that caper for the as yet unwritten short story or novel. In that scenario I’ll be rude and reckless. Here, in real life, I’m polite and very cosy, thank you very much. I also love the idea that Jane keeps that painting for herself. Sorry, but Jane is truly charming, and her mum has a special something:

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Jane’s mother’s self portrait that hangs in the lounge room of A Boat To Sea.

Beginnings

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Why write?

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On the road to North Sydney, Cape Breton.

Because I said I would.

I haven’t written about anywhere I’ve been yet. Not leaving Melbourne, not my flight, not LAX airport, not Toronto, or Charlottetown or North Sydney where I am presently staring out at a stormy sea that has deprived me of puffins. But that is a grief that I’m not prepared to talk about yet. Too soon, too soon.

I’m a reticent travel writer. I’m doing this because there simply comes a time when you have to put your words where they belong and where, in my case as a teacher of journalism, I keep telling my students to put them – on the page.

Before I flew to Canada for the International Association of Literary Journalim Studies conference in Halifax (starts Thursday, I’m on a panel – there aren’t enough words to encapsulate that panic so let’s not even go there) I banged on to my classes about travel writing – good travel writing like the beautiful prose of ‘Kingdoms of Stone’ by  Doug Hendrie and bad travel writing that is, well, everywhere.

I made them write the worst travel writing they could in class and the awful thing was that most of them could have been published on any travel blog – they were that good at being bad because it is what we read all the time. So then came the ‘teaching moment’. Avoid clichés, I said. Give your readers something they don’t expect, I said, something that will surprise and delight them, something that will take them where you are.

In a gift store in Charlottetown I saw a journal that had, written in pink cursive script (there’s a clue that badness is afoot) ‘put your heart beats on the page’. I stopped. And felt my stomach clench. I could not think of anything worse. Why share? No. I like telling other people’s stories, stories that they know I am telling and that they want told – or sometimes, it is true, after talking with me (in a professional capacity – I would never, ever do this to what I call a ‘real person in the real world’) they don’t want them told. And that is even better because that means that they have something that they need to be held to account for and, with careful research combined with blunt questions I can usually open them up like a can of worms and Do Some Good.

That is how the journalist in me thinks. I do not want to bleed on the page, thank you very much, I faint at the real sight of blood and the thought of haemmoraging my life, with all of its boring minutae and crippling insecurities and overblown conceits that come with being an incarnated walking flesh monster onto the screen is not my idea of fun. Or yours I’m reckoning.

So this blog will not be that. It is not a confessional. It is about being picked up out of my ordinary life and going somewhere and seeing things that I don’t expect, that surprise and delight me and take me out of my head that I live in far too much and that plonk me down, fair and square, where I am and tell me, very loudly: ‘This! Look at this. Now. Because if you don’t it will be gone.’ And I want to ferret it away safely somewhere. Here.

Also a disclaimer: this blog probably won’t be in order because although I like to kid myself that life follows an orderly pattern despite all my best efforts, mine just doesn’t. I read this beautiful Guardian article on Nick Cave (who I have a love/hate relationship but whose ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Into My Arms’ soared me along a storm lashed highway in Cape Breton) and he said this which I give you as my ‘get-out-of-linear-narrative-jail-free’ card:

“The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience…I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.

So now that I have established myself as an insufferable wanker who will write what she likes by invoking the Untouchable Spectre that is Nick Cave, let’s begin.

Absolutely Unapologetic Celebration of Things and Folk I adore.

Tis the season. Time to yoke the Yule grab the antlers and ride the scarlet beast in sideways down the slippery holly-strewn luge of festive funk, knocking your Santa hat sideways and, eggnog in hand, screaming ‘Rudolf Rocks’ – standard five bonus points for making the littlies cry.

Okay – this time of year.
One thing we can count on is it stirring the pot. It’s the time of year when the heat gets turned up on the “we are all in this together and hang on just why are we all together?” mojo that families are experts at burying under the panaceas of distance, platitudes and indifference that keeps most blood ties at least loosely knotted most of the time.

For a real sense of danger just add a suburban postcode, a few collective midlife crisis (wonder what the collective noun is for that? Hmmmm….give me a moment to ponder) a batch of growing kids, a financial downturn and the obligatory river of grog. Best of the festive season to you and yours!

But as crazy as it gets – and anyone who knows Cook County knows we’re no strangers to the crazy – I am enjoying a big bask in the Seasonal Love swamp and thought I’d share it with you.

Marcus’ sister Pen is down with her two kids – Seth is two and Tuhina is four. They saw my big boys and it was on, them climbing all over them, getting piggy backs, playing hide and seek, getting thrown all over the place. Just like Marcus did with them. Just like his Uncle Jim and Uncle Bertie did with him. Glee. Bliss. More glee. And today my Miss Nine has run up the driveway to keep a pre-booked appointment with Miss Four.
“Tuhy said we had to bounce on the tramp today”.

A seriously gorgeous Tuhina.

Keziah, Tuhina and that is Atticus holding Seth.

Then there was the big gathering last Sunday gone. Marcus was home briefly between Sydney trips and his Mum invited her younger brother over. Now Rae and Michael’s parents divorced when Michael was two and they lived with their Nana for about five years until their dad remarried. Rae has always said it speaks volumes that she had six children and Michael had seven. Family matters.

So I’m walking up the driveway with my Atticus, 11, and there they all are – sitting on the veranda, running in and out of the house. At least 30 of them – tall, big shouldered men and kids of all shapes and sizes being tended by the women folk. And that was with heaps missing.
Atti looks at me and says “Do you mean I’m related to everyone here?”
Yep.
“Cool”.

Ain’t it? Even after more than 25 years around these Cook’s and nearly 20 years of being ‘one of em’ it still spins this one-of-two-daughters out. I sat with my sis-in-law Karen and watched our kids play stacks on (yep, it’s a theme) and we quietly raised our glasses and drank to us and where we had landed. Now Karen. I could write a blog, perhaps even a book on her. But all I am going to share now is that this woman who I used to play with as a little girl, can navigate the hidden trails between my silences and my shouts as surely as Vasco De Gama. For Christmas I gave her a necklace that says ‘Hope’ – quite simply, she fills the tank.

Then there are the quiet moments. The unexpected moments.
Coming home to find a note from Mum that there is a plate of corned beef in the fridge and….this makes me teary, $200 under the plate from my step-dad, Alby. This is because they caught me at a vulnerable moment the night before when they came over unexpectedly. They asked how Marcus was going on his big job. And I’d just got off the phone and it wasn’t good. Payment was being delayed. Again. And despite hubby’s assurances my wife-tank was empty after putting on usual ”hang in there honey, we’ll get through this” game-face. And although I do know it will be okay, it always is (really, please don’t call or fret, we ARE fine, honest – really! It has already turned – it always does) they could tell that in that moment, sitting at the table, I was not okay. And Alby? He’s one of those men – you know the kind. Stern, proud, would rather crack a rib then show emotion. I adore him to the other side of the black stump and back again. His quiet strength saved my mum and made her smile. So that corned beef sandwich I made my son? Best ever.

Then Rae, the Matriarch of the Cook Catastrophe, also dropped in – how do they know??
And so that night when I went up to say hi she’s there, wine in hand, waiting for me on the veranda.
She’s utterly exhausted from having all the grandkids all the time but she really wouldn’t have it any other way. But amidst the madness she sat with me and we slipped into that quiet banter her and I have and we talked about her firstborn, the man I wed and as the words washed over me the wife-tank began to fill. Then Pen came out and said ‘that sucks about Muke’. Yeah, it does. But what doesn’t suck is being flanked on either side by people who love him most. That, my lovely ones, seriously rocks.

Ah. My heart just reminded me of my eldest son’s graduation. Grade Six. I know. I find the notion quite absurd but the sentiment? Let’s just say standing there watching your baby tell you that his favourite memory of school was riding the dodgems with his little sister and that he wants to get a job he loves (so he can make more money than Bill Gates) is magnificent.

Zeke graduating.

But Marcus was away. And I knew that it would be a bit (read terribly) sad without him. Fate was having fun gutting my usual army of familial support. Mum was away, Rae was out, Aunty Miranda left for Perth. But Marcus’ youngest brother Nat was home.

The first time I met Nat I sat on the lounge room floor with him and helped him fire up his whirly-gig helicopter thingy. He was perhaps six years old? That’s about right. Or not quite six. Anyways, he was little. But he’s not now. At all. And Zeke adores him. And he said he’d come to his graduation with me. Poor bloke didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Actually I think he did – which makes it all the sweeter of him that he came along.

Walking up with him and the kids – and nearly dying of laughter at Nat’s absolute agony at being pulled into a ‘family’ photo – worth every cent of the $15 for the expression on his face – I was quietly proud.  Standing next to my husband’s brother, my children’s uncle. Not the usual kind of family. But my family. The best kind.

So this all got me thinking. About those who make it better. Here’s some treasures from my black velvet bag that I’ve taken out and held up to the light.

Best advice was from my friend Benita who told  me ‘no’ is a complete sentence. And sent me texts to make sure I was following her advice.

My darling friend Stella who holds my heart so gently – and when I forget and put myself unwittingly in the middle of all kinds of wars (some real, most imagined) she quietly takes my hand across a cafe table, squeezes it and reminds me who she is.

And my Mallee Root (yes, it’s a nickname, you work it out) who I met for lunch after the longest time apart and we laughed and laughed until our sides hurt. Mainly at how completely unsophisticated and utterly un-grownup we were despite the years. And we decided it was exactly the way we liked it.

My Duska who despite a schedule from hell came to mine armed with “Galaxy Quest” for pizza and a daggy nite in while my hubby was away. She left and I felt as if I’d had a complete system reboot – God the power of laughter and a friend who knows your soul trails.

Then there is hot chocolate and Nadia who, pausing between sips, mulled over her thoughts for a while and said. “I don’t know how to say this and I hope it doesn’t sound like an insult because it isn’t. But when I think of you there is this savage affection you have when it comes to the way you talk about your children. And your friends. You love them but you REALLY love them. You’re like a lioness. And I love that.”
I was very very proud and couldn’t speak. But that was okay. Because that is what hot chocolate is for.
And then there is the singing and music nite and our beautiful Elizabeth and Mandy – the first with her hugs that truly set the world to rights and the second with her strong, calm strength and wicked smile.
And Andy – our travelling singer who calls me “possum” and every time he does I just stand there grinning like a teenager. Very cool.
Marty drew this. Very cool indeed.

And Marty. Mr Armstrong who never doubted for a moment that I could play the harmonica. Or the guitar. And that it was an excellent idea that I did. His advice? “Play it like you mean it”. So I did. And they turned out to be words to live by. We did our first acoustic set together this year. And I remember standing there singing amidst the ridiculous fun and thinking “who would’ve ever thought?” Dreamed, yes. But thought? No. Dreams are good. As I said afterwards – again! And again! Sometimes things are just too special for words. Which is why there is music. Play it like you mean it. And I do.

Dean kicking back between sets at the Balaclava Hotel

Then there is Dean – him who I call Rock God – the bloke I play with in Fallen Angels – this man just calmly accepts that yeah, cool, I’ll nail that vocal and hell yeah I’ll play the tambo too. He’s even letting me roll up his mike cords – yep, seriously. Faith. Gotta have it. Glad I got it. More please.

And the women folk. Those mums who despite the slights and stings of a suburban existence that can strangle you with superficiality and drown you in a world of judgement manage to shrug it all off and smile at me with open hearts and arms. Kindness, sweetness and laughter. These things matter. To me. A lot. 
Yep, the black velvet bag is full.
Just one more.

Marcus, coming home after a week – well weeks – of hard grind and slog building his dream piece by piece against all kinds of odds. Carving out a life for us. After hugging the kids he puts his arms around me. And holds me. 

And whispers quietly into my ear “It’s going to be great”.
I just bury my head on his shoulder and think “It already is”.

Merry Christmas All
xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Oh and that collective noun? A toss up between ‘a spray tan of mid-life crises’ or ‘a porsche/audi (insert car of suitable stauts) mid-life crises’.

The Black Velvet Bag

I keep a black velvet bag tucked quietly away for keeping special treasures – beautiful, strange, surprising – things that make me go ‘Mmmmm!’ It’s there for when I forget that I can write. It’s where I hoard the words of encouragement, of praise lest they get washed out with the tide of my own self-doubt.

I have told my creative writing students – actually I’ve told all of my students – that they all need their own black velvet bag. Because writing can be lonely. Because when it is just you and the pen or the screen your own demons can think now is a find time to waltz you around the floor of your own insecurities.

So my black velvet bag is there for when I forget that I can soar.
When thinking the best of things feels like lugging a load of wet laundry up a hill on a rainy day.
When I can’t be bothered finding the candles to put on the celebration cake let alone a match to light the damn things.
When I feel I wouldn’t have the energy to blow them out anyway.

But over time it’s become more than just a little scrap of something to turn to for when I am swamped with creative chaos. I find myself searching for it when I think I’ve forgotten certain things that I need. You know, those times when reality does its level best to show you that loving and celebrating and expecting bliss to jump out from behind a corner is fool’s talk.

That’s when I’m glad I have a little pocket of hope trussed up with a golden cord.

Don’t ask me where I hide it because it changes and quite frankly I never quite remember where I put it but I know it is always there when I need it. Because that is its job. And I’m pleased to say it seems to take its responsibility very seriously indeed.

Lately it’s been washed up on the shore between my soul and those precious moments when I lie in bed in the morning and haven’t yet opened my eyes.

But then there was today. Stuck in traffic on the way into uni. Amidst the cars nuzzling each other under a bright blue just-rinsed Tuesday morning I saw this in my mind’s eye.

My friend had shown me a picture of his daughter the night before. She’s three and a bit (and maybe a little bit more) and yes, she is a piece of Heaven sent to walk amongst us. I could tell you about her beautifully complex nature – her seriousness, her curiosity, the way every emotion and thought dances across her face so fast it’s like watching the wind blow clouds across the sky. And, how, when she’s used to you being around her, she’ll talk.

Well talk isn’t quite the word. She’ll un-dam the stream of thought that tickles her sparkly synapses and let it flow so that you’re immersed in a string of delicious wordles (that, learned friend, is pronounced similar to ‘wombles’ – yes, I just made it up but it kinda comes close to the half-and-then-more-than-that sounds and phrases she threads together like beads) that confound and delight.

But of course she wasn’t speaking in this pic. She was smiling at the boy standing next to her, who is all of one year older than her (is that a lot when you’re three? I think it’s the equivalent of three of adult years). He had his arm slung over her shoulder.

He was looking at the camera, big grin splitting his “Look- at-me-I’m-a-boy-and-me-and-her-built-this-REALLY-REALLY-big-cool-thing-out-of-Lego-and-it’s-a tower-a-real-tall-tower-and-mine-is-the-blue-bit-there-and-the-red-bit-there-and-the-green-bit-she-did-and look-at-it – it’s so-so-so-so BIG” face.

And her?

Well the expression is priceless – she’s looking at him with such a gorgeous, confident, “yeah, I know we’re great, we did this, we ARE the best, EVER and hey, I NEVER doubted it for a second! Damn straight you’re lucky to know me!”

Ease. Grace. Strength. Beauty.
In one glance.
Perfect.

So yes, that image is in my black velvet bag and now it lies there gleaming like a diamond – burning with its own fiery heart. And wrapped around it, always, will be the look on her dad’s face as he showed us the photo. Have you ever stood next to someone when they swell with love? They fill with it and you get to bask as their heart glows gold.

Now this is an old-fashioned, archaic kind of a word but I’ve reached for others and this one keeps getting hooked on my line so I’m going to use it. Here goes. Humble. I feel humble in the presence of it. And privileged. I tend to hold my breath hoping to make the moment last longer.

So it got me thinking what else lies in my black velvet bag. I’m going to write a list. For anyone who knows me you know I adore a list. The sheer abecedarian nature of it – the neatness, the flow! Lists ROCK!

And it also got me wondering – what’s in your black velvet bag?

Tell me. I must know. (And don’t anyone dare quote Princess Bride to me just because you can!)

And yes, I know by asking this I’m clearly breaking my own rather bizarre and self-defeating rule of “I may write a blog but I don’t really want anyone to read it cause that would be scary and strange and altogether too much of a ‘look at me’ kinda thing”. I know. And now you know. If you didn’t already. But there it is.

So until you show me yours I’ll content myself with tipping the contents of mine onto my lap and foraging through the jewels that lie there. Oooo look! Bright, shiny things!

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