A One-Off Inscription.

There is more truth than most people realise in the jokes about authors killing people off in their books.

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Yesterday I signed a paperback copy of my latest book for my best friend. I have written something personal and unique to her and our friendship in her copy of every one of my books.

Yesterday’s effort was by far my favourite.

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You should understand that this is not a promise I’m willing to make to just anyone. Anyone who has read ‘A Poet’s Curse’, for example, will have worked that out very quickly.

Jokes are frequently made about authors putting people in a book and killing them, but most don’t realise just how satisfying and therapeutic that can be.

Oh, we change the name and some minor details, but the important thing is that we know who we’re finishing off, even if the rest of the world doesn’t. And you know, it is important to conceal the true identities of our victims because, in the end, nobody wants it to backfire or get ugly.

I have, in fact, had a number of people ask me if a particular poem or story was about them. Rather than confirming or denying anything, I’ve gone the “self-examination” route. Each of them received the same answer: “If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you to take a long, hard look at yourself and how you treat people. It might be time to do some repairs.

As an author, I can have my macabre little cake and eat it, too. And as an extra reward for good behaviour, I get to keep my best friend. Bonus!

One Door I Won’t Slam Shut.

A reflection on the experience of being completely, utterly rejected.

In the course of my life, I’ve had – as we all have – friendships and relationships that have faltered, grown distant and faded away.

A couple of times, I have had someone say to me that they never want to talk to me again. Once, and only once, it has been my decision to completely shut off contact. On those three occasions, I have had no difficulty slamming that door and leaving it that way. Nobody does a door slam like an INFJ, after all.

Last night, I read the equivalent of those words again. “Nice knowing you. I won’t ever talk to you again.”

It’s different this time. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could slam that door.

What I really want to do is reach through that door, grab her and pull her back through it. I want to hug her, and see for myself that she’s okay, and tell her I love her. And I can’t do any of those things.

I’m locked in by her decision. She’s 16 and has asserted her independence and her right to do whatever she wants. Check mate.

As with many of the decisions she has made lately, I have no choice but to wait and see what happens. I do hope that she will come to understand exactly what it is she has asked for – sooner rather than later – and decide that it’s not what she wants at all. In all honesty, I don’t know if that’s realistic or not.

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I am not her mother, but as her “other mother”, I have lived with her and loved her as my own since she was nine years old. Any influence I may have had over her or her decisions in the past is well and truly a thing of the past. She is quite obviously able and free to decide who she wants to have in her life. What she doesn’t realise is that my care and concern for her do not shut off simply because she wills it, as though it were some kind of emotional tap. She doesn’t get to decide that the time we spent together means nothing. And she cannot stop me, or the rest of her family, from loving her, missing her, or worrying about her.

Rejection is never an easy thing to experience. It really, really hurts. Even so, I know that my hurt is nothing like what her mother is experiencing— it’s a mere fraction of that.

Today has been an emotionally messy day in a succession of similarly messy and fraught weeks. I know we will get through this somehow. I have to keep telling myself that.

Like everything else life has thrown at me, I will face this head on. Maybe I can’t change anything, but I will not let this drag me down and defeat me.

Expect more poetry, though. It’s the only therapy I can afford.

Mother’s Day, 2018: A Tribute To My Mother.

My mother was the most influential person in my development and career as a bookworm. 

Today is celebrated as Mother’s’ Day in Australia and many other places around the world. My mother passed away in 2011, but today I want to pay tribute to her as the most influential person in my development and career as a bookworm.

IMG_0035I inherited my love of books and reading from both my parents, but it was Mum who put the consistent effort in to enabling my reading habit.

I surprised my mother – and probably everyone else, now that I think of it – by being able to read when I was three years old. In a manner entirely consistent with how I would behave for the rest of my life, I picked her up on skipping words and sentences when she was reading to me. I can understand her doing that – I’ve read the same book to kids a bazillion times, too, and it does wear a little thin. Back then, though, I was probably morally outraged as only a three year old can be when they’re getting shortchanged on a favourite story. When I read back to her the story as it was written on the page, Mum thought I had merely memorised the whole thing. So she chose a new book for me, and I read that one to her, too.

From that time on, Mum was always enthusiastic and active in encouraging me to read widely, and spent many Saturday afternoons driving me to the library so that I could borrow enough books to keep me going for two weeks.

By the time I was ten, I had read all of her Agatha Christie books and many of my grandgather’s Perry Mason and James Bond books, and I had well-loved copies of the Narnia Chronicles and the “Little House” books on my own shelf.

It was then that Mum let me read the old copy of Anne of Green Gables that her own parents had given her. I clearly remember reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island sand saying to her, “I’m going to go there one day.”
“You have no idea how far away that is!” she replied.
“I don’t care. I’m going!” was my response.

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I finally did go to PEI and visited Green Gables in 2015, and I wished that I could have told Mum and shown her my photos. I believe she would have been genuinely happy for me, and proud that I had achieved something I had wanted to do since that young age.

I know my mother was proud of me for following her into teaching, and I know she would have been proud as punch of the fact that I became a writer, too.

My career as a poet and author, though, would have been far less likely to happen without the love for books and reading that Mum and Dad modelled and mentored for me, and for that I will always be thankful.

My first book was not born until almost five years after Mum graduated to heaven. I couldn’t write about her passing for several years afterwards, because it was too raw. When I did finish the poem that I wrote for her, I shared it with my father and siblings so that they could share my memory. If they hadn’t loved it, I wouldn’t have published it. They did, though, and it enabled me to share part of that last day of her life to which they were not witnesses.

Since ‘July 19, 2011’ was published in ‘Nova’, it has touched and encouraged many people who have lost their mums – and dads, and others close to them. When people tell me that my poetry has touched their heart or affected the way they think about something, that’s when I feel the most fulfilled as a poet. I’m really proud today that Mum’s poem can have that effect on someone else. Although she is gone, her legacy lives on, not just in my memory and my heart, but also in my writing.

It’s impossible to not miss my mother on days like today, and not a day passes that I don’t think of her.  So, for Mothers’ Day 2018, I want to share the poem I wrote for her with you. I hope you enjoy it and find it meaningful.

 

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Writing About Family and Friends.

Authors: keep your writing from causing problems with your family and friends.

Writing about family can be fraught with danger. The last thing you want to do as a writer is offend or alienate your family, especially if things are already fragile in some way.

 

That poses a challenge: what happens when there’s something you desperately want to write about? For starters, writers should know to always, always change names and details.  If possible, don’t mention names at all. Even when writing about positive feelings or experiences, people who aren’t used to putting themselves out into the public eye might hesitate to have something written about them and published. A great idea for a story or poem should never be pursued at the cost of an important relationship.

 

When I do write something about friends or family, I make sure they’ve seen it first, and I tell them I’m going to publish it. That way, they can’t say they didn’t know.

 

For example, I recently wrote a poem after two completely separate events: one was the wedding of my nephew, the other was a conversation with a friend who had recently lost her own nephew in tragic circumstances.  The poem, titled My Child, does not mention anyone by name, nor does it mention those particular situations. It is an expression of my feelings – and my friend’s feelings – for those whom we have loved, held, and helped to raise.  This is what I sent to “my children” and to my friend, well over a week before I posted it. That same text is what I posted on my writing blog where I published the poem today. Poem My Child

 

The other alternative, of course, if you feel you must write about something or someone, is to disguise the situation and details enough so they don’t know it’s about them. I’ve written plenty of poems about broken friendships, people in my life who have been determined to cause me trouble, and others who really deserve some special treatment from Karma, but it’s always been presented as me facing an invisible, unnamed challenger or enemy… or a certain black cat named Friday who metes out justice to people who really deserve it. It is not possible for anyone to identify who I was writing about at the time, and that’s a very good thing.

As a writer, it’s important to protect oneself. The last thing you want is something coming back to haunt you.

 

And if you’re a friend or family member of a writer,  remember that age old piece of advice: Never annoy a writer, or they might put you in a book and kill you. It’s true. 

 

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International Women’s Day, 2018

Why We Should Celebrate International Women’s Day.

As I was driving to work this morning, a caller to my favourite radio station was critical of the fact that the station was observing International Women’s Day as part of the day’s programming.

“What’s it going to achieve? Do you think you’re going to change everything in one day?” He spoke politely, but went on to dismiss the value of this, and every other, “touchy-feely day”.

While my initial instinct was to dismiss him as a sexist pig, his cynicism challenged me to consider that there might be many folks out there, and possibly not just men, who doubt the benefit or validity of such an observance.

This is what I would like to say to those with that mindset:

Observing International Women’s Day is definitely not going to change everything on one day. That’s not what anyone is expecting.

It is a chance to celebrate the changes that have been made, and to remember those who worked so hard to introduce them. It’s not even exclusively about gender equality – so many women have made significant advances, even when it was still almost entirely a “man’s world”. Think of Marie Curie or Ruby Payne-Scott making significant scientific and mathematical discoveries that have had a huge impact in many other areas of society. Think of Rosa Parkes and her courage that inspired so many. Think of the countless women who have worked for freedom, or justice, or civil rights for all people, not just women.

It is a day to remember that the rights and freedoms I have as an Australian woman were fought for by many – not just the suffragettes. Nurses at the battlefields of major conflicts, teachers, doctors and medical researchers, writers, women who raised their sons to respect them and therefore other women, lawyers, filmmakers, journalists— they and countless others have contributed to the privileges I enjoy in the 21st century.

It is a day to remember my own mother, grandmothers and aunts who worked hard to provide and care for me, but also to teach me and demonstrate for me what it means to be a woman of strength, confidence and integrity. It’s also a day to think of my sisters, cousins and friends who encourage and stand beside me when life is hard, because they model those same qualities for me time and time again. They remind me of not just what I am, but who I am.

It is a day to consider what legacy I pass on to my nieces, my students, and my readers. What do I want them to learn from my example? I want them to know they are enough. Strong enough, good enough, beautiful enough, deserving enough, talented enough, smart enough, and worthy enough. They do not have to take any else’s bullying or abuse. They do not have to accept other people’s bad behaviour. They are under no obligation to “measure up” to the yardstick of anyone else, male or female. They can make of their lives anything that they decide upon and set their mind to. They can face challenges with courage, and they can overcome whatever would seek to undo or defeat them.

These are the women I write of in my poems, blog posts and stories about women of strength and beauty.

That, my friend, is what this day helps me to achieve, because it sharpens my focus on those things for a time.

So, happy International Women’s Day 2018.

I hope that you will think of it in terms of gratitude and humility. I also hope that every woman will use it to both be inspired and be inspirational.

My Favourite Escape.

When life takes an unexpected turn, there is no better place to escape than into a book.

What a week!

It was the first full week back at school with students after the summer break. New students, new classes, new schedules, new demands.  Not only was I ready, I was keen! I was determined to get through the week without falling in a heap.

The first day was great.

Then, just after recess on Wednesday, I got a call from my local medical clinic. My elderly father was unwell – again – and was on his way to hospital in an ambulance. Everything stopped except my mind: Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end? Must let the others know. Must tell the boss that I have to leave work. Must keep breathing. Can’t breathe. Okay. One thing at a time. Call the boss. Explain. No – don’t fall apart now. You don’t have time. 

I got to the hospital half an hour ahead of Dad because I work in town and the ambulance had a 45 minute trip, plus some road works to negotiate. I completed the necessary paperwork for him, and sat down to wait.

Waiting rooms suck on a major level. You sit there, surrounded by other people’s pain and misery, feeling alone and fearful, and trying to keep everything under control in your own overactive imagination – it’s quite some challenge.

reading-wonder.jpegSo while I sat and waited, I took refuge in a book. It didn’t stop me from looking up every time an ambulance rolled in, wondering if that was Dad being wheeled in. It didn’t stop me checking my phone and answering messages and questions from my siblings. But it did give me somewhere to go.

For the six and a half hours that I sat by Dad’s bedside in the Emergency Department, with medical questions answered and initial treatment under way, I escaped back into the book whenever I could. Dad knew I was there, but he wasn’t up to conversation. Reading someone else’s story kept me from focusing on my own, and it kept me from being overwhelmed by the flood of emotions that threatened to sweep me away while witnessing the pain and distress of my increasingly frail father.

After a somewhat tearful journey home, I thought I might be exhausted enough to fall asleep as soon as I got to bed. Nope. No such luck. Yet again, it was a book that came to the rescue. It didn’t put me to sleep, but it did relax me enough to be able to rest.

Taking refuge in a book is something I have often done in the troubled times of my life. Over the past couple of years, that has taken the form of both reading them and writing them. There are times, though, when I can’t write because the pain and fear is actually too close to think about at that level of depth. Wednesday was one such day.

Thursday was a blur of medical consultations, visits with various physical therapists, and further tests for Dad. Thankfully, at the end of all of that, I was able to bring him home again. It will take time for him, and for me, to recover. There will, undoubtedly, be further moments when I feel the need to make the world around me stop by escaping into a book.

Today, I’ve tried to catch up on the things I’ve let slide over the last few days. I haven’t quite managed yet to pick up all the threads again. I use Buffer, so my Twitter feed has kept on rolling, but many other things, including my writing, are at a standstill. Social media has only had the occasional cursory glance. I’ll get there – but not today.

For now, I’m thankful that Dad and I both survived the week, and that things are starting to return to normal.

And to the authors who continually craft such brilliant stories for me to escape into: thank you, from the bottom of my heart.  Your gifts mean more to people than you realise.

 

 

 

My Father’s Childhood Memories of Christmas

Today, I took the opportunity to ask Dad what Christmas was like for him when he was young.

I spent some time in the car with my father today, and as we travelled the presenter on the radio was asking people to call in and talk about family memories and traditions at Christmas time. This was a great opportunity to ask Dad what Christmas was like for him when he was young, so that’s exactly what I did! 

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My father grew up in Holland during the Depression and World War II. His family were not really poor, but neither were they rich. My grandfather worked very hard to provide for his family, and both he and my grandmother managed their resources carefully. 

The house was usually not decorated much for Christmas, but they did have a Christmas tree lit with candles. Dad also remembers the large fir trees that were put up in the churches, almost as tall as the roof.  Some were lit with electric lights, but most were lit with candles. As many churches were built of wood, this was a cause of many fires. I can understand how the sight of such a big tree, lit and decorated, in a church would imprint itself on the memory of a young lad. 

Christmas was a time when family would visit and often put on Christmas plays for one another. It was usually the children, but sometimes grownups too, who  would act out  the story of the first Christmas or plays about Sinterklaas and his companion, Swarte Piet.  A play like this was usually the only observance of the St Nicholas tradition in my father’s family, although for some Dutch families, Sinterklaas is almost as big a celebration as Christmas itself. By the time Dad was a teenager, it was more common for people to listen to stories or plays on the radio than to perform them at home for their relatives.

 

Gifts were generally not exchanged by adults, but the children received a book as a gift.  Dad also remembers that this was the time of year when children of a certain age – probably 11 or 12 years old – were presented  with a Bible of their own by the Sunday School of their church. 

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I can’t imagine how strange their first Christmas in Australia must have seemed to them in 1951. Even then, it would have been such a world away from how we celebrate Christmas now. Commercialism and materialism have seen to that.

2013-12-24-19-07-20.jpgHaving just turned 86, Dad celebrates Christmas on the other side of the world in the heat of summer, with trees illuminated by LED lights, a plethora of Christmas movies and ‘Carols by Candlelight’ concerts on TV . Family is still a focal point for all of us – my grandparents’ values have been firmly imprinted on us in that way, even if we do indulge in giving and receiving gifts that are generally luxuries. Dad, his sisters, and their families are spread across this enormous continent, so visiting happens via Skype and phone calls, while photos and news are shared on social media. 

I do like to think, though, that there is still a sense of wonder at a pretty Christmas tree being lit up at night, and I hope that people stop to hear and reflect on the story of Christmas that goes beyond reindeer, presents and “being good”.

 

Movie Review: ‘Wonder’ (2017)

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Today I accompanied my school’s Middle Year students on a trip to the cinema to see ‘Wonder’, a new film based on the bestselling book by the same name about a boy who has facial differences.Jacob Tremblay plays August Pullman, alongside Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson who play his parents. The stage is set when the Pullmans decide that Auggie should start 5th Grade in a mainstream school, having been homeschooled by his mother until then. Mandy Patinkin plays a very wise and empathetic school Principal, Mr Tushman.

What a sad world we live in when a kid gets less attention walking through the city or a park wearing a space helmet than he does when wearing his own face. It’s human nature, I know, but that doesn’t make it okay. This film challenges that “default setting” in a very compelling way.

Auggie’s teacher, Mr Brown, challenges the kids to ask themselves: What sort of person am I?
This movie challenges every audience member to ask themselves the same question. How do I deal with difference? What does my face tell them? What kind of friend am I? What monuments do my deeds leave?

The audience feels sympathetic to Auggie long before they see his face. When he says, “I know I’ll never be an ordinary kid ordinary kids don’t make others run away from playgrounds” it’s like a punch in the stomach that leaves you winded.

As the movie rolls on, we also see that the “regular” kids like Auggie’s sister, Via, have their own challenges with acceptance and friendship, even without the extra challenges that some kids face. Over and over, this film reminds me again just how cruel kids— and people in general— can be, in so many ways.

The journey of discovering who is real and who is not is often painful and traumatic. Together, Auggie and Via realise that they are each other’s best friends, and lean to rely on each other for the support and love that they need to get through each day.

The development of genuine friendship reminds us that looking past the surface to really see someone is what makes a crucial difference to anyone, but especially those who are so aware of that surface. There is also a painful reminder that even the nice kids can make mistakes when they focus on appearances instead of who someone really is.

This movie delivers so many powerful lessons about accepting others and even more about accepting ourselves. In both cases, we need to learn to live according to the precept established by Mr Brown in Auggie’s first lesson in 5th Grade: “When you have.a choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

It sounds simple— perhaps too simple. But is it?

The hardest part may be in finding the willingness to step out of our comfort zones and open our own minds to each other and the possibilities that our differences bring.

Everyone old enough to understand the difference between kindness and judgement should see this film.

On Realising How Awful I Look. 

A day with family, holding a brand new baby, can make you see things from a new perspective.

I spent most of today with family, welcoming my new great-nephew to the family. It was a day full of love, laughter and baby cuddles… and lots of photos. 

Holding my beautiful baby boy made me overflow with all sort of love. Seeing my 86 year old dad holding him made us all more than a little emotional. Another picture of four generations – my dad, my brother, a niece and a baby boy – is a wonderful blessing that many families don’t see. 

I have also observed multiple times today how awful I look. That has been my first reaction to every photo I am in. 

In addition to chronic pain and depression, too many months of anguish, stress and anxiety have taken their toll. I have cried every day for at least 250 days. I have feared and I have despaired. And it shows. 

BUT I have also survived. It doesn’t really matter how crapful I end up looking. I’m stronger than everything that has tried and still tries to bring me down.

My heart and soul have bled onto pages and screens, but my words have touched, encouraged and inspired people on the way. My writing have been praised, and my books have won awards. 

So when you look at me or see pictures and think I don’t look so great, you just remember that I’ve earned it.

Ten Ways We Can Start To Change the World For Our Kids. 

When I was 20, I pledged to never buy another women’s magazine.

Even then I was frustrated by the unrealistic body image they consistently communicated to women.  It wasn’t long before that extended to the “cool” publications like Cleo and Cosmo, which I had convinced myself were different because they provided helpful articles on makeup, health and other issues relevant to younger women.
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Okay, so I was deluded about that, but it didn’t last long once I observed that these magazines also projected false and unrealistic body images that neither I, nor most of the young women I knew, could ever hope to meet.
 For longer than anyone can remember, our western society has had  an unhealthy fixation on looks. We’ve been getting it wrong since long before Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves based entirely on her portrait and promptly divorced her the minute he met her in person, citing as his reason the fact that she looked like a horse.
And it’s only getting worse. Chlidren as young as five or six are no strangers to the words “cute”, “handsome” and even “sexy”. Pre-teen kids have body image issues and the eating disorders that go with them. Peer pressure and bullying are daily realities in every school and friendship group that our kids belong to. Marketing is aimed at wearing the right clothes, having the right look, and doing what everyone else does. Social media can take those problems right into kids’ own homes. And it happens to boys every bit as much as it happens to girls.
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When does a kid ever get a chance to be themselves?
 
All of this leads to one challenging question: How do we swim against the stream when the current is so strong?
My answer is that we need to invest differently in people.  We need to model much more healthy and constructive behaviour, and encourage others to do the same.
Let me say straight up that I don’t have kids of my own. I have, however, been very active in helping a lot of friends and family raise theirs. Our house has, quite literally, been a second home for more than a handful of teenagers over the years. I’ve also been a teacher, youth leader and mentor for almost thirty years. It’s this accumulated experience upon which I base these comments.

 

I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does.
But I do have a few ideas about how we can start.

 

This is my starter list:

10 Ways We Can Change The World For Our Kids

  1. Don’t put kids or other people down. Ever. I can’t stress this enough. Never tell kids, or anyone else, they are stupid, useless or worthless. Criticise a behaviour if you need to, but do not make it about the whole person.
  2. Stop buying into what the media tell us is ideal. Choosing not to surround yourself and your kids with unattainable ideals helps to take your focus off how far short we fall. This decision had a significant effect in my own life, so I am speaking from experience here.
  3. Stop commenting on how people look. Whether someone looks beautiful, tired, or exhausted, don’t say so. Don’t comment on whether someone has lost or gained weight – in this case especially, you can safely assume that they already know. Just don’t comment on anything external. Chances are, the less you comment on it, the less you will think about it. And the more you think and talk about those things, so will your kids.
  4. Instead, comment on things that have intrinsic value. Statements such as “I love it when you smile like that!” or “You did such a good job of that! Well done” can make such a difference to someone because they emphasise one’s value rather than looks. Saying “I really appreciate your kindness” (or any other value) reinforces that behaviour as well as encouraging the person who hears it.
  5. Discuss celebrities differently. Instead of saying “I wish I looked like that!”, discuss the positive qualities of a person or the character they portray. There will doubtless also be opportunities to discuss negative behaviours and messages. Be honest about the consequences those behaviours carry for real people, even if they’re made to look funny’ popular or “cool”.
  6. Don’t comment on your kids’ or your own health, weight or fitness. Make an effort to do something about it instead of commenting on it. Model behaviours for your kids that help to establish habits that will help you as well as them – provide better food, go for a walk, go to the gym together or take up a hobby together. It doesn’t have to cost more to be better for you.
  7. Discuss feelings and values in a positive and purposeful way. Not every feeling or experience shared will be positive, but honest discussion lets kids and young adults know it’s okay to not always feel great about things and teaches them ways to handle different emotions and experiences. This encourages self-awareness, but more importantly, it builds honest communication and relationship that both they and you will value enormously.
  8. Make an investment of time, more than money, in people, especially in your kids. It won’t matter to kids what they have if they feel unloved or undervalued. Take an active interest in each one and find out what matters to them.  Building a strong, loving relationship with your child is the best gift you can ever give them. It will bear fruit in every other relationship they have.
  9. Celebrate worthwhile achievements. “You did it!” should be more valuable than “You’re so pretty!”
  10. Be realistic and constructive about disappointments and failure. Make sure they know you care about their disappointment and hurt. Don’t tell them it doesn’t matter, because it does matter to them – at least for now. In time, they will be ready for you to help them see the bigger picture and refocus their efforts and priorities.
We can’t expect to change the whole world. However, we can influence the way they see themselves, and we can influence the way our own kids see, experience and respond to the world they live in.  

And there’s no better time to start than today.