Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Family (Page 2 of 3)

A Famous Five summer

As a child, I read English books. I went on adventures with the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Five Find Outers, regaling mum with tales of long hot summers, camping on lonely moors, bathing, exploring castles, and picnicking on boiled eggs, tongue, ginger beer and treacle tart. Mum would always sniff at the end of my tales and say:

'That's all very well, Elizabeth. But the summer is never like that in England. It rains all the time.'

At the time, it felt like having iced water poured over my back. I imagined that along with the freedom of a different era – an era in which teenagers camped, travelled and adventured alone – the weather was also a fictional creation of Enid Blyton's. In my fifty first year, I can finally say mum was wrong. They do have summers like that in England. And this is one of them. The newspapers are calling it a heat wave but that is a weak description. I am therefore calling it a Famous Five summer. As I've climbed over stiles, cycled down Cotswold lanes, and eaten cream teas, I have found myself transported back to a simpler time.

Sadly, as well as having no idea about the English weather, emigration also deprived me of some other basic knowledge namely that the word Cotswolds, means sheep enclosure in rolling hills. I got the first hint of this when having dinner with friends in Essex.

I had no definitive answer to this. I'd seen advertisements for Cotswold cycling holidays and it had sounded idyllic. We had booked a cottage in Blockley, a village nestled in a tranquil valley between Moreton in Marsh and Chipping Camden. Realisation came quickly. Along with a valley, there must, of course, be hills. To go anywhere, we had to cycle upwards. Added to which, the cycle hire company had delivered us bikes with bald tyres, worn gears and dis-functional brakes. We cycled into Chipping Camden determined to rectify this situation, only to find the proprietor was nowhere in sight. Now being impatient, and not a great fan of being ripped off, my husband started to sort through the bikes in his yard. I doubted this was the right thing to do. When the bike owner turned up, his pursed lips and heightened colour confirmed my suspicions. Andrew was not deterred. After a short exchange, the bike guy (a young man with a distinctly Polish accent) realised this cocky Aussie wasn't going to back down.

'Hang on.' He said, raising a finger. 'I'll have a look in the shed.'

'You should have waited,' I whispered in the man's absence. 'He won't help us now.'

I revised my opinion a moment later when the bike man wheeled two gleaming, almost new bikes across the yard.

Cycling was easier after that. Though I still had to stop for breath when riding home from the supermarket in Moreton in Marsh and the road took us through the aptly named village of Borton on the Hill.

Fortunately, my primary school geography made rapid sense of the shading on the map. Some routes were hillier than others. But we did some lovely rides – to Shipton on Stour and Stow in the Wold, Hidcote Gardens, getting lost, stopping to check the map, punctuating the day with coffees and cream teas. One day, we took our bikes on the train to Oxford. The Oxford tour guide was a portly fellow called Joseph with a passion for his subject. He presumed a great deal of knowledge and seemed primarily interested in showing us famous film sites, but he was entertaining, in his custard coloured corduroy trousers and cardigan. It was worth paying for a slice of his eccentricity.

There is something magical about an English summer. The days so long, the streets and gardens bursting with blooms, the hedgerows alive with bees, butterflies and summer berries. I enjoyed listening to the Blockely Church bell ringers on Thursday evening, going to the pub, buying pork pies and cooked beetroot in a bag, the ever present smell of pollen, damp earth and sheep, and of course the Enid Blyton weather. I wish I could have stayed longer in Blockely.

 

 

Railways and taxis – our second week in The UK

Week two has been dominated by the words rail travel. Having arrived at Andrew’s work destination, reality showed what the map had already indicated – we were staying well and truly outside of London. The hotel, Runnymead on Thames, being situated on the banks of the River Thames somewhere between Egham and Staines. It wasn’t on my agenda – I had London museums I’d wanted to visit – but with Windsor Castle being a short easy train trip, I decided to make it my first day’s destination.

I am always amazed, despite not having lived in the UK since I was five years old, at how familiar England feels. One of Andrew’s American colleagues told me I’d have to catch a cab to Windsor. I knew this wouldn’t be the case. I walked for a mile or two along the banks of the Thames and caught a train. Disembarking at Windsor, I wasn’t surprised to find myself slap bang in the middle of a quaint English prosperity. I wandered the shops. Took a tour of the castle (apparently the Queen likes to spend her leisure days at Windsor). I don’t blame her. It’s not a bad spot for a weekender. Though, I doubt she makes use of the free Wifi at Pret a Manger.

The next day, I had organised to meet a friend in London. I knew Alison from the SaysomethinginWelsh forum and we have spent many a happy Skype hour conversing in Welsh. We have, on occasions, resorted to English but for the most part our relationship has been conducted in the Welsh language. This day in London was no exception. We met at Holborn Station (texts and organising emails largely in Cymraeg), picnicked in a garden close to Lincoln’s Inn, visited an old Chapel and visited the John Soame’s museum with only the occasional beth yw y gair am – what’s the word for? To interrupt the flow of our conversation. We have so much in common both having ties with Australia and the UK, daughters with similar health problems, a love of reading, and writing and, of course, underpinning it all our love of the hen iaith – the old language. It was a magical day, made all the more memorable by the museum guide who approached us just before closing time. Excuse me, he said. Ydych chi’n siarad Cymraeg – are you speaking Welsh? Ydy! We replied. We spent a delightful quarter of an hour speaking Cymraeg with him as the museum staff locked up around us.

The next day involved a two hour trip down to Christchurch, to see my Aunty Jean in her care home. She didn’t know me. She hasn’t known me the last three times I’ve visited. I go for the sake of my uncle and his wife who oversee her care. It is always sobering to see people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. As ever, I was struck by the grace and kindness of her carers.

It is so easy to get around the UK by train (albeit expensive) and I must have been getting a little over confident because the next day disaster struck. We started out easily enough. Bought return tickets from Egham to Chelmsford with quick tube trip to Camden Market planned enroute. England was experiencing a heat wave (Andrew had read in the Melbourne Age) and the day was indeed stifling. But we had fun wandering around Camden. The markets go on forever. We could easily spent a full day there. We settled for a couple of hours, going on to spend a delightful evening in the company of old family friends in Essex.

Coming home, we left Chelmsford a little later than intended, reaching Liverpool Street Station only to miss the last train to Waterloo. Night buses. I knew there were night buses. The trouble was, anyone that could have helped us had long since departed. The station was now in the hands of a set of surly security guards. They were herding everyone out the streets. The taxi queue was a mile long. My pre-paid British phone credit had expired. Andrew’s Aussie account wasn’t working. And no one knew anything about night buses. We faced a long night walking round the city (my suggestion), finding an over priced hotel (without the aid of phones or internet), or joining the taxi queue. At this point, Andrew sidled up to the man in charge of the taxi queue and ‘happened to mention’ our destination. One of the listening cabbies ears pricked up. I saw the pound signs in his eyes.

‘I’ll take you,’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘It’ll be jumping the queue so walk along the road now without making a fuss. My cab’s the blue one over there.’

We did as we were bade. Needless to say it was a long silent journey back to Egham. We spent an unmentionable amount on taxi fares. We were dumb, is suppose – dumb Aussies in London. I should have checked the times of the last train home. But this was London. A world city. Brimming with international tourists. Who’d have thought it would pull on its night cap at half past twelve in the morning.

 

Red Shoes

I remember the first time I heard Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Red Shoes. I was a child, home sick from school, and, day time television being what it was in the days before videos, DVDs and iTunes, I had pulled out a pile of EP records. Among them I found a copy of The Red Shoes. We had other fairy tale records. I listened to them often. Not so The Red Shoes. To this day, I remember the sick jolt of horror in my stomach, the heroine's severed ankles, the shoes filled with blood, dancing and dancing.

I have since developed a passion for red shoes.

I got my first pair of red shoes at the age of six. We were living in Brahma Lodge, at the time, in a rented house, on a dusty dead-end road, down-wind of the abattoirs. We hadn't been in Adelaide long and we were still struggling with dust, flies, corrugated iron fences, nose-bleed hot summers, and magpies that swooped unawares. My new red shoes were a splash of colour in the otherwise relentless trying-to-adjust trudge of our family life.

I wasn't allowed to wear my new shoes to school. I had to wear short socks and brown English school sandals. No one else wore socks with their sandals in those days. No one. Infact, no one wore Clarks sandals. Or carried a brown leather satchel. Even in a suburb full of British migrants, I was the odd one out.

I'm not sure if this caused me to run away. I expect most children run away once or twice in their lives. In my case, I announced my intention to leave home, forever, ran around the corner, crouched behind a bottle brush tree, and waited for mum's frantic search to begin. It didn't. I skulked home an hour later to find mum seemingly unaffected by the loss of her eldest daughter. At bedtime that night I confessed my disappointment.

'I knew you wouldn't leave,' mum said, 'not without your red shoes.'

Apart from that one pair of red shoes (looking back they must have been on sale) my childhood footwear can only be described as sensible. Over time, my English school sandals were replaced by the Roman sandals, the Adelaide school sandal of choice, though mum bewailed their lack of support for my developing arches. Party shoes were purchased in a sensible match-all black. I acquired cheap plimsoles for playing in on the weekend (goodbye Wellies). And eventually a pair of Levi sneakers. At this stage, I think you could safely say I had successfully morphed into your average Aussie teenager.

I didn't wear red shoes again until I was an adult. Actually, I was barely an adult. At the age of twenty two, and pregnant with my second child, mum took me shopping for a birthday gift. I came across a pair of embossed red, leather, slip on pumps. I wanted them, with a longing akin to Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale. But they wouldn't go with anything and…with a mortgage and another baby on the way…I needed to be sensible.

'If you want them,' mum said, get them. They are your birthday present' (by this you may deduce emigration had brought a degree of prosperity).

Mum gave me the red shoes on my birthday. They were supposed to be worn for best. When did the idea of best shoes go out of fashion? We no longer think in those terms in our throw away society. For me, the turning point was those red shoes. I wore them every day. On every occasion. Even when they didn't match my outfit. When they wore out, I bought another pair, and another. Since then, my life has been marked by a need for red shoes.

When we came to Melbourne I noticed everyone wore knee length boots. But…they were expensive and with three, followed by four, growing mouths to feed, I couldn't justify the cost. It would be fifteen years before I lashed out on a pair of knee high red leather boots. I currently have two pairs of red boots (one short and one and one long), a red pair of Doc Marten shoes with buckles (I never did abandon the Clarks sandal look) and a pair of Joseph Sieber red sandals (bought on sale). My long red boots have been re-souled twice. I am constantly on the lookout for a replacements – shoes, sandals and boots. Maybe that's what Hans Christian Anderson was on about? This endless, slavish, dependence? If so, I'm guilty. I can no longer live without red shoes.

 

 

A week of small things

Someone once told me that having children is like fighting a bushfire. As soon as you get things under control on one front, you turn to find a fire has broken out elsewhere. This seems to me an apt analogy. I found myself sharing it with a friend on the phone last Sunday evening. Having only just caught up on the daughter ICU news, she was surprised to find us in Brisbane preparing to celebrate our grandson’s first birthday.

Despite the arrival of his grandparents, Charlie saw no reason for festivities. With his top, front tooth bulging beneath his gums he expressed all the grizzling, snot-nosed, interrupted naps and arch backed frustration you would expect in the circumstances. He didn’t want cuddles thank you very much. Or for Mum and Dad to spend a night away in a city hotel. He didn’t get a choice. The hotel was booked and Jack and Ness were looking forward to sleeping past five thirty in the morning.

Andrew and I were left holding the baby.

Fortunately, our grandson is cute, charming and, possibly, the most gifted child in Australia and Andrew and I are besotted. Every grizzle, every angry glinting eye, every Jatz cracker hurled through the air, seemed to us a marvel. After the anxiety of the preceding week it was a blessing to be immersed in the small things. We nursed, sang, cut up food, changed nappies, tickled knees, dosed with Panadol and spooned down bowls of yoghurt like a pair of grinning Cheshire cats, knowing the task was only temporary.

Half way through our all-star, singing, dancing grand-parenting routine we got an SMS from the other kids.

‘How’s it going grandparents? Still got the touch?’

To which I replied: ‘Seriously hampered by an inability to offer the breast. It was always my first and last resort and it rarely let me down.’

Being plunged into the world of a toddler brought back a number of other memories. Some would call them life lessons. I offer a small list for your consideration.

  • Half past five is too early to rise
  • Leaves, twigs, pebbles and pavers are wonders
  • Tummies are made for tickling
  • Where’s Spot? works a kind of magic
  • One years olds have their own language
  • Hurt, delight, rage and frustration all mixed up in a babble of sound
  • They cry real tears
  • In the middle of the night
  • Their hair is all soft and downy
  • Reaching out with chubby hands
  • Your heart is softened
  • Even after all these years
  • You find it is still soluble

Happy first birthday Charlie.

 

A reflection on the letters ICU

You have heaps to write about. A new bike, travel plans, a trip to the Apple Store, the reasons you favour red shoes over all others. Yes, I know, important topics. They will one day be explored. But this week has been given over to a three letter acronym – ICU.

Your journey began last Friday when your daughter was scheduled for spinal surgery. It would be a big operation you were told and, as with all surgery, there were associated risks. You brace in the preceding weeks, light candles, journal about your hopes and fears, ask trusted friends to hold you in prayer, then you set off for the hospital ready to watch and wait.

The surgery will take two hours the surgeon tells you on admission. Please make sure your mobile phone is switched on. He will call when she is in recovery. You head down to the cafe. Marvel that a hospital canteen can be so unhealthy. The staff in their uniforms ploughing through great mounds of chips. You write a blog, check your Twitter feed. Two hours passes. You check your phone. No missed calls. The same half an hour later. After three and a half hours, you head to the hospital reception.

'Is my daughter in recovery yet?'

'No, they tell you. Still in surgery.'

You wander the hospital corridors. All those safely journaled fears come bubbling to the surface. At four hours, you find yourself in the hospital chapel staring into the stained-glass face of Jesus. Once you would have raged against the the possibility that things might be going wrong. You'd prayed. Why didn't God do what you'd asked? Years down the track and at a different place in your faith journey you know bad things happen to good people all the time. Today, one of them might be happening to your daughter.

In the filtered light of the chapel windows, the call comes. The surgeon says your daughter has lost a lot of blood during surgery. Four litres. You wonder how much blood a body needs. They have managed to collect and transfuse the blood but your daughter will need a night in ICU. The procedure has gone well the surgeon tells you, his voice gentle. This is nothing to worry about.

You try not to worry sitting in the ICU waiting room. And when you see your daughter wheeled past in a tangle of cables, monitors and and oxygen lines. You try not to worry later on when you are allowed to visit her. You look around the ward at people suspended between trauma and recovery. Most of are old, their bodies twisted by illness and time. You wonder how your daughter has ended up in such a place.

You learn a great deal in ICU. As one night turns into three, you realise so much can go wrong. Kidneys don't take kindly to blood loss. When they fail, there is nothing the doctors can do to start them again, only manage the symptoms and wait for the body to remember its lines. You pray. Though, you scarcely know where to begin. Though, once or twice you do inform the Almighty that you don't much like the way things are unfolding. Yet, for all your disappointment you know ICU is a privelege, the possibility of such care beyond the reach of over half the world's population. As three nights turns into four, you consider the likelihood of missing your grandson's first birthday celebrations in Brisbane over the weekend.

Then, on day five it happens. The creatinine levels start dropping. The nausea and dizziness ease. You notice your daughter is smiling again. You wait, trusting this is the tide turn. That all those assurances the doctors gave you were in anticipation of this moment. You are not disappointed. Your daughter is wheeled up to the orthopedic ward. She is walking, eating, her kidneys are filtering. Leaving the hospital after visiting hours that night you walk past the hospital chapel. It is in darkness now. Only a single candle to mark its purpose. As you stand in the flickering candlelight, you know Jesus is there even when you can't see his face.

 

Handling feedback – and some thoughts on perspective

The wait is over. I've received back four marked-up manuscripts from the members of my writing group. They put loads of ticks all over the pages. Used phrases like fully realised …. couldn't put it down …. great historical detail … holds together well, good pacing … written beautifully. But I didn't see any of that. At least, not on my first frenzied read through their comments. All I saw were the words:

Main character's story arc isn't working.

Not working. I went into a tail spin. Had a small (cough, spectacular) meltdown down. Shoved the manuscripts in a drawer. Decided never to speak to my writing buddies again. Somehow got through my Welsh class without weeping. Went to work, trembling. Sick to the stomach. Found it hard to concentrate. Tried to be philosophical.

'It's only a novel,' I told my friend Glen on our late afternoon desk shift. 'I shouldn't get so upset. I mean there are people without fresh food or water, living in war zones, facing death daily.'

'And this is much worse,' he replied, grinning.

'Yes!' I said. 'It is!'

'I'm giving up.' I told my husband that evening. 'No one else has this much trouble writing a novel. Maybe, I'm just not good enough.'

'Really?' He said. 'That's not my understanding.'

'And what do you mean by that?'

He shrugged. 'All those writers I read about in the newspaper struggle to get it right and have crises of confidence. I get the impression it's all part of the process.'

He was right, of course. I'd come so far. And two of the characters' were definitely working. I only needed to re-work one of them – albeit the main one. Maybe I was over reacting? I decided to do some cognitive work on things. Found myself writing down words like, failurefool to try and … wasted ten years of my life. I took these thoughts to my man in a cardigan. 'That's pretty black and white view, he said. 'What else have you done in the last ten years.

Actually…when I thought about it. Quite a few things. He made me name them. I include the list for your edification.

  • I started writing with four teenage kids in the house.
  • Add in the three, consecutive year long AFS exchange students and we were a household of seven for a few years
  • We had a serious back injury in those years
  • Watched four young adults turn into adults
  • Lived through three sets of engagements and weddings
  • Had a seriously sad teenager who kind of made her presence felt
  • This involved multiple medical personnel in cardigan appointments
  • Did three long overseas holidays
  • Worked part time
  • Took my Welsh language skills from lacklustre to proficient
  • Started teaching Welsh
  • Sold the family home and moved house
  • Adjusted to living in a new suburb
  • Learned a great deal about writing… and life

See what I mean? Written like that it was a pretty black and white to call those years wasted.

Now, in addition to asking my writing buddies to look at my manuscript I'd also contacted a paid manuscript assessor. She was having knee surgery so was unable to give me a quote straight away. By the time she was able to get back to me I'd already received my writing buddies' feedback. We decided it was a waste of money to have her fully assess this draft. I would make the necessary changes and send her the next draft.

Next draft? Note the shift in my thinking.

I pulled the multiple copies of my manuscript out of my drawer. Read the notes and markups again. There were huge sections that needed very little change. Small sections that needed huge changes. I transcribed each comment onto one manuscript. Went on retreat. Came home more grounded. Started summoning the strength. It takes a great deal of emotional energy to write a novel and there are absolutely no guarantees at the end of the process, apart from personal satisfaction and the knowledge that you have grown as a writer and as a person. Starting out, each fresh change will be a battle as I undo what I'd hoped was permanent. But re-drafting is part of writing, I'm learning, and, if I take it slow and keep the Little Red Engine in mind, I can do it.


At least … I think I can.

 

A little wisdom from Family Guy

Next week, I'm going to finish the complete re-draft of my novel. That's presuming I don't go under a bus, over the weekend, suffer a sudden loss of memory, or get summoned home by the great Library God on high. I've got a final chapter to write, a week's long service leave booked, and a husband going hiking in Tasmania.

Monday afternoon, I anticipate writing the long awaited words, The End.

Though, in fact, it will only be a beginning. I will have pull the manuscript together, tidy it up and send it out to readers and then, commence the next round of edits. But before that, I will take stock of my achievements. It has, after all, been a long process.

How long? I'm not going to tell you. But I started with four children living at home. They are now all gone, three of them married.

That long! Yes, I'm a special case.

But before you agree, let me offer some provisos.

First, my three children married young and in quick succession (there's a blog in that surely).

Secondly, I had never written a novel before (apart from three chapters of a horse book in year five). In fact, I hadn't written fiction for a very long time. Not since a disastrous short story in year nine in which I pinched the boat in a painting idea from C.S Lewis' Voyage of the Dawntreader and tried to write something touching about salvation. The teacher begged me to re-write. Yes, it was that bad. I refused on religious grounds – religion in this case being another word for laziness. I scored a measly pass (generous teacher) and never tried my hand at fiction again until…I turned forty and started wondering where my life had gone.

My early drafts were a mess. I didn't understand point-of-view or over use of adjectives. I didn't know about narrative drive, proper punctuation or even story structure. I had a particular fondness for over extended metaphors. Despite this, I had some early encouragement. From Sally Muirden, who taught Year of the Novel, at the, then, Victorian Writers's Centre, from Peter Bishop at Varuna, who short listed the novel for a manuscript development award, and from Alison Goodman the kind soul who agreed to asess my work. These people were incredibly generous. But that didn't change the impact of their words.

It needed work. Serious work.

Now being a first time novelist, I thought this meant lots of tweaking. Even after I took my novel to TAFE and learned about story structure, with Euan Mitchell, I was still trying to nip and tuck without altering the basic shape of the thing. It took winning the Bristol Short Story Prize and being rejected by a respected Melbourne publisher to bring me to my senses. Even then, I dug my heels in, until Nick Gadd, my then TAFE tutor, offered a few home truths about the situation.

I was shattered. He and the publisher were suggesting a total re-write. Like, you know, a throw-the-cards-up-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-fall type of affair. Apparently this is what you are supposed to do at the end of a first draft. It is rarely a matter of tweaking and polishing.

I was in a bad place at the time. Kids on the run, kids getting married, people needing my attention. I had to take a break. Try and work out whether to give this re-write a go or chuck the whole project in and start something else. I got stuck in that place for quite a long time – friends wearied of hearing me go over and over the same old stuff – until one day my good friend Denis took the bull by the horns and said: I don't think you can chuck it in Liz, so you may as well get on with it.

I'd like to say it got easy after that. But it didn't. That's where this segment from Family Guy comes in. You see, I never had a sly-voiced, fork tongued friend like Stewie to undermine my confidence. I had my own hissing voice in my head. You're a fool, wasting your time. Your friends all think so. No one else has taken this long to wrote a novel. You can't be a real writer. You're having too much trouble. You may as will give up and knit booties. Or…didn't you used to be good at cross stitch?


 

Now I took these thoughts to my medical man in a cardigan and we did some cognitive work on things. But the self-doubt didn't go away. I had to start writing with those snakes hissing and coiling in my head. That's when I discovered Bird by Bird (thanks Anne Lamott) and post card sized assignments. Every morning, I'd wake with a clench of dread. I'd tell myself all you have to do is set the scene. All you have to do is write that piece of dialogue. All you have to do is imagine how your character is feeling.

I also read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Did all the exercises in the book – like all of them. Morning Pages became an essential part of my routine. Every morning I'd light a candle inviting God into the process then I'd write long-hand in a red leather bound notebook about, well…everything and anything, over and over – all the rubbish in my head.

At some point I'd arrive at what I was going to work on that day. I'd blow out my candle and head to my computer. You can write a whole novel that way. I almost just did. And, once I hit the mid-way point, the negative voices began to fade. I started to enjoy myself, to wake each day with a surge of anticipation. To feel that this project may in fact be worth finishing.

Worth? Now that's an interesting word. How do you measure the worth of a thing? A publisher's rubber stamp of approval? Well, that would be nice. However, I am not falling into that trap again. I'm going to measure my manuscript's worth by the self-doubt I've battled, by the blind faith I've mustered, the knowledge I've gained about writing and myself, and by the friends I've made along the way. With these things as my yard-rule, I can never fail. But that doesn't mean I won't be giving giving old Stewie a final whack on the head when I finally write: The End.


 

Hanging out – a week in so many words

You've had a momentous January. First, ten days of bronchitis during an extreme heatwave. Second, a week at the beach with a rowdy family group. Whilst there you relax. Clock up thirty years of marriage. You return home and the reality starts to sink in. You haven't been to the gym for two and half weeks. You haven't touched your novel either. Or kept up with the whole social media thing. Added to which, you've eaten way too many Celebration Meals.

You attend a church meeting Monday night. Welsh class starts back on Tuesday evening. You also have your brother staying with you. You know that for missionaries coming home is always confronting. You also know that Sydney Road is nothing like Main Road, Blackwood. So much ink, he tells you with a shake of his head. When did that happen? You try to listen and be sympathetic. You talk about his work. His plans for the future. You have your own ideas but you try to be tactful. You fail. You can't sleep because of this. You go to work exhausted. You are pleased to meet your new job-share partner. But it's hard getting your head together. You deliver books to a local aged-care facility and leave without returning the keys. Drive back. Read the roster wrong. Forget about the afternoon staff meeting. Your new job-share partner asks about your life. She says I get the impression your are a creative person. You think, that's a very generous assessment of the situation.

Despite your inefficiencies, the two of you cover heaps of ground. You feel wasted but you manage to converse in Welsh at the SSIW Google Hangout that evening. Your brother makes a positive comment about your language acquisition. You make excuses about how rusty you are. But deep down you're ginning like a gate at the compliment. You're on the bike by seven o' clock the following morning. You make loads of decisions regarding work processes. You manage to read the roster correctly. And turn up for your desk shift. After work, you catch the train to Flinders Street. Do some shopping. Cycle home in the cool of the evening.

At home, two excited dogs run to greet you. That's right, your daughter's dog is staying for the weekend. You make the mistake of letting the dogs sleep in the house. You wake up around one o' clock to a volley of barking. You fumble for a light, the keys. You put the dogs in the garage. You wake up early, worried about them in the heat. You have washing to do. The dishwasher to unstack. You sigh, remembering all those Celebration Meals. You decide to do an extra BodyStep class. You're hopeless. Someone has to help you adjust your step. You mutter something about having had a break. You shop. Cycle home. Unpack the groceries. Hang the first load of washing. Chop some rhubarb. Unstack the dishwasher. And then you do what you always do. You write something. And once you start writing you realise you're tired. It's been a big week. You drink some coffee. Hang a second load of washing. Unstack the dishwasher. Bring the bins in from the street. You survey the summer parched garden. And promise yourself a lazy evening.

 

Our great big family wedding anniversary

Back from a week of sand, sun and poor phone reception, surrounded by the people I love most in the world – my brother and his family back from Malawi, Africa, the kids and various partners, our first grandchild (who possibly is the cutest baby in the world) and a good friend who joins us on most family holidays. We had fifteen people at the height of the week with a contingent opting for the comparative serenity of the local caravan park. Despite debates, daily planning meetings, big dinners, a shared bath room, and regular, hush-baby, sleep times, it somehow still managed to feel relaxing.

While on holidays, Andrew and I celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

A bit of a strange way to spend such a significant anniversary, you might think. Yet somehow apt, seeing as I spent my first wedding anniversary in a hospital maternity ward having recently given birth to our eldest son, Jack. With four children, three exchange students and a couple of other young women who also bunked in with us on separate occasions, they have been significantly child filled years.

Andrew and I went out for lunch to celebrate, of course, and there was an exchange of cards and gifts, as expected. But the big surprise was Jack facilitating an impromptu, Denton style, interview on the eve of our wedding anniversary. We talked about the highlights (all present in the room) and the difficult times, how, looking back, those difficult times were all quite normal, and yet they didn't feel normal at the time. How sometimes we were just hanging in there because we said we would, at others because it all made sense. How various health problems have been taxing over the years, yet, strangely, this has also strengthened our marriage. How the four years we spent in Fiji expanded our view of life. How immensely proud we are of our children, how raising them has been our commonest interest, and how glad we are to have put the time and energy into building those relationships. How happy we are to have moved to Coburg. Yet some nights Andrew still looks around the empty dinner table and asks, so, where are the children? How the years have gone by as if in the twinkling of an eye. How the next thirty are going to present significant age-related challenges. That we are currently trying to work out new common interests and how, somehow, in the midst of it all, God has been present to us.

At the conclusion of our 'interview,' I asked my brother, Ian, to pray for us. He said, he thought the children should also be part of that blessing. So, they were, right there in that living room, with tears and choked voices and with ordinary, not-so-awkward silences, and in their prayers, we tasted the fruits of our thirty married years.

 

The week that was and the week still to come…

This week I've spent the week on the sick list and through the barking, snuffling, feverish experience they call viral bronchitis I have learned two important truths about myself.

  1. I am a slow learner. No matter how many times I catch a virus I always approach it with the same mix of blind, stubborn, denial, determined to soldier on despite any prior evidence of military bearing. I go to work, on Panadol, infect half my colleagues and end up in a pick-up-sticks heap the following morning and all the while in the background my poor, long suffering husband is saying: you're sick Liz, take a break go to the doctor's.
  2. I am an extreme pessimist. No matter how many times I recover from a virus I always suffer it with the same last-dying-breath attitude. In dazed, disbelief I wander through the week convinced, despite all medical assurances, that for me there is no hope of recovery.

As you can imagine, with these two attitudes in operation, I always need twice the recovery time of other population members. This week has been no different (so much for cognitive behavioural therapy). However, for once, I don't need to stress about the need for additional recovery time because we are going on holidays. Now, when I say holiday I don't mean me, Andrew and Biskit the dog. I mean a family holiday with all ten of us in a hired house at Port Arlington.

Yikes, I hear you say and, well, my thoughts exactly. We will have two opinionated academics in the house, a son and son-in-law that relish an argument, a teething baby, his sleep deprived parents, a daughter who left home at the age of sixteen and, frankly, hasn't regretted it, two teenage boys, a family friend who likes a drink, or three, a social worker (always analysing) and a physiotherapist (checking our postures), ravenous seaside appetites, sunburned noses, big noisy dinners, various theological and political hobby-horses, and a lifetime of niggling habits and petty annoyances. What's that? You'd like to come along. Be my guest. But seriously, I may need a holiday to recover from my post viral holiday.

Fortunately, despite these significant traumas, past and anticipated, I am now almost recovered from my virus. So almost recovered, that yesterday I was able to spend a few hours working on my novel. This may seem like cheating, seeing as yesterday was supposed to be a library day. You will note, however, that I said almost and a few hours added to which, the doctor said, don't go back until fully recovered.

The upshot of these few stolen hours is that I've now almost finished the complete re-write of my novel. And I have to say, writing the second half has been much easier than the first, blood-from-a-stone half of the experience. Why? A return of early promise? Or simply a greater willingness to press delete? The jury's out on that one. But it reminds me of a an analogy Kate Morton once drew in an interview. She said at first writing a novel can be like dragging a kite bumping along the ground, until it is up and airborne, then it can almost feel like the kite is flying itself.

Now, I don't know that my novel will ever fly as high as Kate Morton's but I do know that this draft is a hell of a lot better than the last one. Fortunately, I also have writing friends willing to critique my work and a trusted manuscript assessor ready to take my payment, which means I should be on track to start submitting by mid-year.

<insert trumpet fanfare and great excitement in the publishing community>

But first, I have to survive the family holiday.

At this point, please note, if you are a burglar and reading this blog, Biskit the family dog will not be coming on holidays with us and, despite his fluffy, Sorbent soft appearance, he is an exceptionally good guard dog (not). Added to which, we will have a big, rugby playing Fijian house-sitting in our absence. Oh and, by the way, I won't be blogging from Port Arlington (I find it hard to write under the influence of minor tranquillisers).

So, I'll see you when I've recovered from my post-viral, family holiday.

 

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