DOWN TIME

Nearly the end of February. Almost March. Is is just me, or is the year going by in a flash? I am so busy right now that I barely have time to scratch myself, but I can tell it’s Autumn. There’s that golden slanting early evening light; dew on the windscreen in the early morning; apples and quinces on the neighbourhood fruit trees; boxes of sauce tomatoes at the greengrocer’s; belladonna lilies in my garden. Soon, it will be ‘down time’, the season for putting the garden to bed, making soup, knitting and reading. My favourite things. But not just yet. There’s still work to be done.

Work is actually study, the practical part. After doing the study component of a Cert III in Aged Care (almost all online) last year, and then waiting three months for the lifting of restrictions on students in facilities, I have finally started my placement.
Mine is in the home and community care sector, so I’m going into to people’s houses with the care workers as they attend to personal care (that’s washing, showering, grooming, dressing) and assisting with everyday activities like helping the clients to eat, making a cup of tea or making the bed, bringing in and folding washing as well as some heavier housework.
There are mechanical hoists, electrically assisted beds, wheelchairs and other devices to master; personal routines and preferences to learn; and of course in the age of covid, stringent hygiene measures to maintain (I have a backpack full of PPE, including disposable blue booties, gowns and face shields like something from a forensic crime show). Each client and each home is different; I have met lots of lovely people, and some very nice dogs.
I’m exhausted.

Thus my reading has time dwindled. And not just time. My brain is so full of new information that I am strictly into entertainment at present. I found a new Rivers of London book at the library and it’s been fun to immerse myself in the weird world of the supernatural crime novel. As usual, Aaronovitch has great fun with his cast of characters, human, fae and divine in this, the 8th book in the series.

Peter Grant, police officer and trainee wizard, has finished the long-running investigation into the Faceless Man; he and his partner, Beverley – the river goddess of Beverley Brook – are expecting twins; and he’s on a faux suspension from the Met so that he can investigate odd doings at tech genius Terrence Skinner’s Serious Cybernetics Corporation from the inside while posing as a security expert. Wry humour, geek and pop culture references, a homage to Douglas Adams (totally lost on me, but it didn’t matter one bit), lots of explosions, those tricky genius loci and a bit of tech history about the achievements of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage… False Value is fast moving, funny and occasionally confusing, but who am I to complain about an insanely complicated plot? It’s fun. Which is just what I need right now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

 

 

 

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SOLASTALGIA

I bought Sarah Wilson’s new book in January, and I’ve been digesting it since.
I read her earlier title First, We Make the Beast Beautiful a few years ago and have re-read it and recommended it to others since then. That book was an intimate and often painful look at living with bipolar disorder, as well as an informed discussion of anxiety in general. This time, Wilson looks at anxiety again, but through a larger lens.  As in her earlier work, there’s some raw stuff around mental illness, relationships and fertility, but Wilson expands her horizons and her ambition. She calls on her readers to fully engage in This One Wild and Precious Life.

But first, she takes us through the sense of despair and disconnection, the ‘itchy’ feeling that we’re not living life right. The state of shock from the constant bludgeoning of global crises. Eco-anxiety. Covid anxiety. Inequality anxiety. Trump anxiety. It felt good to read how other people also struggle in these overwhelming times. How, like me, they ruminate (fruitlessly, endlessly). The runaway train of climate change makes us wonder why don’t we all rise up and do something but we worry that it’s too late, anyway.  We grieve over our world’s increasingly toxic politics, with such increasing polarization that large swathes of people are unable to share a common reality. Here in Australia, there’s the weeping sore of relations with Indigenous peoples; injustice and inequality and sexism and racism; our government’s shocking treatment of refugees. The scandals of the aged care sector. Covid. Bad news just keeps coming.

The book is not all bad news, however.  In a deliberately messy and personal way, Wilson shares the ways in which she attempts to reconnect with what’s good and joyful in life. Don’t worry! She’s not trying to be a lifestyle goddess, Instagram perfect, shiny and tidy and linked to athleisure wear and supplement sites. The clue in the title is the word ‘wild’.
Hiking is her thing. Mountains, preferably. Wilson likes to set off with a minimum of gear (and I noted – with mild alarm, being the safety frump that I am – usually without water), phone tucked into her bra and maybe a snack in her pocket. She walks. She pushes through discomfort. She often hires a car and drives to a national park or wild place where she camps, alone. Being in nature, she finds, is what best reconnects her with herself, and with her true purpose.

Wilson also encourages readers to buy less, use PT, walk or ride, get used to discomfort, embrace a “full fat” spiritual practice (not unicorns and rainbows), light up their minds with reflection, art, music, poetry and literature and engage in activism. She says that if only 3.5% of the population will engage in  sustained non-violent protest, things will change.
I am sure it’s meant to be a hopeful, positive and inspiring book. But I think for me it just highlighted my impossible balancing act, the trick of honestly believing that we’ve stuffed it up; that we will be not be able to turn the ship of capitalism and consumption around in time – or at all.
And at the same time, enjoying the belladonna lilies, the ripening quinces, cups of tea with friends, and slices of cake, and my beautiful husband and son…

I tell myself that people have lived with and through wars and disasters and plagues for as long as we’ve been upright and human. I try to imagine my young parents in 1939, my grandparents in 1914. Medieval landscapes emptied by the Black Death. And so on. You know.
But I have a background ache for the world I knew, or thought I knew. A world with orderly seasons and only occasional floods and heatwaves and fires, with koalas sitting in their old gum-trees, and fern gullies, and soaring forests of mountain ash..
You know.
I now know the ache has a name. In her book, Wilson references the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who has coined a word for the emotional distress or grief caused by environmental change. It’s solastalgia, and it can be explained as ‘the homesickness you have when you are still at home’.

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MY TWO BLANKETS

Australia Day…or Invasion Day, Survival Day, Day of Mourning? I’m in the ‘change the date’ camp with this one.
And then there’s the  block-headed and deliberate leftie-baiting with the day’s honours. Margaret Court! For all she’s one of the rare women awarded a big shiny gong, she is an even worse choice than last year’s low, Bettina Arndt.  Religious and political conservatives and their News Corp minions must be rubbing their hands with glee, for they can now have fun with all the politically correct outrage. It’s all so predictable, and I’m just as liable to indulge a bit of confected outrage myself. Whenever I see an Australian flag in someone’s yard, I think, “White supremacist”!

Anyway, the date. 26th January. After frowning and shaking my head over the morning’s newspaper, I’m ignoring or perhaps abstaining from Australia Day. I’ve just come back from a walk in the Botanical Gardens.  Last night’s heavy rain had freshened everything; as I walked under the huge old oak trees, the breeze shivered the leaves and little showers of raindrops spattered down. Snobby gardeners may sneer at colourful municipal mass bedding, but the display of multicoloured coleus looked spectacular.

People of all ages, were out walking, running, strolling, ambling or powering along. Some were obviously there for a leftie alternative to the official Australia Day celebration.  But streams of older folk with yoga mats were heading towards the flat area around the rotunda for some kind of class and kids were hopping like fleas around the playground. Dogs – all kinds, from greyhounds to those little white things that look like animated fluffy slippers – did their own canine versions of meet and greet while I constantly exchanged “good mornings” and smiles with my community.

And I came across the storywalk. It’s a Mount Alexander Shire project – a book, page by page, fixed to stakes to be read as you walk along. My Two Blankets is an award-winning picture story book by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood.
A little girl moves to a new country. Everything is so different and foreign; the very words people speak sound so hard and strange. Fearful, she clings to her old blanket, her old words, for comfort. But a little girl she meets in the park makes friends with her, and begins to teach her new words. Her world changes. Now she has a new blanket; she has two blankets.

All that communal greeting and smiling and tail wagging must softened me up, because – soppy old me –  I read the story, stake by stake, page by page, and was moved to tears.

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DUCK DUCK GOOSE

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IN AMONG THE WEEDS

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NOT READING, KNITTING

Not drowning, waving? No, not reading, knitting.

 

 

My Aged Care Cert III course involves an awful lot of reading, of course. Online, mainly, but we also have a massive and technical manual called Long Term Caring. What I mean is, at present I’m not reading for pleasure or relaxation or to keep up with the latest in literature. Now that the library is open for borrowing again (click and collect!) I am going through their knitting collection like the proverbial dose of salts. Look at this monster tome!

And since I mainly knit mindless stocking stitch, I often divert myself by looking at a screen. Lately, it’s been Midsomer Murders, Deadwood, Glitch (it was filmed in my home town, how come I never watched it before?), The Barchester Chronicles plus my weekday addictions, Mastermind and Antiques Roadshow. Knit, purl, knit, purl…

I also like to watch cooking shows, especially baking.  Anna Olsen is my favourite because she is (1) so wonderfully deft that I think she could make a croquembouche in her sleep (2) Canadian and (3) has drawers (!) for her sugar and flour. Yes. The recipe calls for sugar and she just glides a drawer open and shovels it out. Sometimes I watch her with the sound off, for maximum soothing effect. I bet at those times my blood pressure is sublime.

As well, there are all sorts things my husband brings up on YouTube. Comedy shorts (I love Michael McIntyre), trains (ranging from the dramatic and life-endangering epic of a young man illegally riding freight trains across Mexico  to a locomotive scooting along the Broadmeadows line in Melbourne), card games of many varieties and all sorts of random and interesting stuff from the whole wide world.

Which somehow brings me back to reading. I suppose I will start reading again because after all, I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life. But at present, there are fewer prompts. Now that I no longer work at a book shop, I’m not constantly exposed to the new and the tempting and the must-have. I don’t feel compelled to keep up with my well-read colleagues. My Monday night group of friends is not meeting and book group is in recess.

I guess I’m having a fallow patch. I’m just (gasp!) not interested.

And it’s OK.

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A RANDOM SHELF AT THE JUNK SHOP

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FUNNY PECULIAR

Michael Innes was really John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (1906-94), a Scottish-born Oxford don. He wrote over 40 detective novels featuring Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir John Appleby. The books are – like their protagonist – clever, witty, erudite, psychologically astute, and full of philosophical musings, literary quotations and allusions to art and culture. They are also both funny peculiar and funny ha-ha.
Or perhaps I should just write ‘weird’.

I was first introduced to Michael Innes by my mother, who painstakingly (this is before online book searches) collected all 42 Appleby novels and short story collections. I read one or two because she enjoyed them so much but at the time, I couldn’t appreciate them.

It was to do with expectations. I thought I was going to read a book in which – put simply – there’s a murder or some other serious crime, and the detective investigates and brings the perpetrator to justice in some way. I expected a detective novel to be believable, or at least to be able to suspend disbelief as I read. I expected clues, leads, investigations. Characters, relationships, motivations.  That sense of place, too. I love to visit the California of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone.

But age and lock-down have changed something, and now these whimsical and funny-peculiar novels are proving addictive.

I’ve just read five in a row.
Death at the President’s Lodgings was an early book, and almost a straightforward Oxford-don murder mystery with a great deal of Oxford-don-type learned conversation. A Private View is a romp set in a London of artists and models and poseurs, spies and forgers and a crusading vice-obsessed Members of Parliament, which ends in a car-chase and shoot-out in a quarry on a ducal estate.
Appleby’s End, which is my favourite so far, is a surreal tale, with deaths but no murders, set in a snowbound rural England complete with aristocrats and common folk equally bizarre and eccentric in their behaviour and motivation. (Prize pigs turned to stone. A woman who thinks she’s a cow. A long dead Victorian mystery writer  seeming to predict the future.)
I’ve illustrated this post with a few of the different covers.
The Long Farewell featured forged Shakespearean documents, a bigamous academic, a beautiful amnesiac barmaid and larcenous American collectors.

And I can’t even begin the describe fever-dream that is The Daffodil Affair because it’s one of the silliest books I have ever read. Just let me say… a failed Utopian community in the far reaches of the Amazon, presided over by an evil genius who’s kidnapped a whole London house, a carriage horse and a whole lot of  psychics in his quest for world domination.

I suppose the determined unreality of the Appleby books is rather a problem if you consider that people are getting stabbed, poisoned, shot, blown up etc etc in such a jolly manner. And that the sexist, racist, xenophobic and class-bound attitudes of the time do raise their ugly heads.

Just one more thing. The writing. Deeply unfashionable, I suppose, or just plain old-fashioned. Takes a bit of patience.  Lots of word-play and cleverness, lots of  description complete with abounding pathetic fallacies, heaps of adjectives, and those evil adverbs.
But – what fun, and what pleasure – all these beautiful word pictures.

Just one example.
It’s from Appleby’s End. Appleby and his soon to be wife-to-be Judith Raven are floating down a river sitting uncomfortably on top of a sinking, wrecked carriage. And it’s snowing.

The river was narrowing again. Now etched in moonlight, and now altogether shadowy and obscure, there floated by on either hand delicate alders and stout, gesticulating elms. Willows, pollarded and rime-covered, overhung the river like frozen cascades; and presently a line of poplars, aloof and towering, cast great bars of shadow obliquely across the water on which snow softly fell. The carriage as it floated smoothly through this wintry nocturne rotated slowly on its axis, so that the whole scene was like a chill kaleidoscope in white and black and silver and grey. 

Just an additional note. J.I.M. Stewart was for ten years  Jury Professor of English at Adelaide University (from 1935) and there’s often a little nod to Australia in his novels. Apparently he didn’t think much of us. In 1940, he thanked his funding body for its financial support for lectures in Australian literature, but said, “unfortunately they have neglected to provide any literature.”
He talked instead about D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo.

 

 

 

 

 

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SMALL OBSERVATIONS FROM A SHORT WALK

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STANDING AT THE EDGE

In late summer twenty seven years ago, I stood at a tram stop. With fifteen minutes or so to wait, I decided to pop into the nearby bookstore. It  specialised in New Age and spiritual and religious books; I wasn’t particularly interested so why I picked up this particular book, I have no idea. But as I began to read I experienced an uncanny sense of recognition. This makes sense.  I may well have missed the next tram.  I still have that book.

It’s Seeking the Heart of Wisdom by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield,and an introduction to the practice of vipassana or insight meditation. I bought it either ‘at the right time’ or ‘just in time’, depending on how you look at it. I wasn’t doing well in early 1993, and exploring Buddhist philosophy and practicing meditation helped steady me. Back in 1993, it was all totally new to me; over the years that I’ve acquired a small shelf of books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. I don’t meditate regularly, but there are aspects of Buddhist philosophy that support me daily. I still read Seeking the Heart of Wisdom every few years, and I have other titles by both authors; the funny, wise, Jewish-grandmother Sylvia Boorstein is a favourite, as is Pema Chodron. And here is a new book and a new writer. Timely, or perhaps (again) ‘just in time’.

Joan Halifax – Zen priest, Buddhist teacher, anthropologist, writer – examines what she calls ‘edge states’.

Over the years, I slowly became aware of five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate and courageous life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive. Yet if these precious resources deteriorate, they can manifest as dangerous landscapes that cause harm.

The five states that Joan Halifax identifies in this book are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect and engagement. I’m sure nearly everyone would nod and agree – “All good!”

But Halifax writes that manifesting these qualities can be like walking along the high ridge of a mountain. The view is sublime, but if a person loses their balance and slips over the edge, any one of these qualities, these ‘assets of a mind and heart’, can become  harmful and cause suffering.

An example is altruism. Unselfish service, selfless acts, self-sacrifice… these are admirable, inspiring and in fact necessary if communities and families are to flourish. Just think of mothers! And volunteers of all descriptions and kindly neighbours and good Samaritans and those heroic people who jump in to dangerous situations to save lives. However, Halifax explores the darker side, ‘help that harms’ or pathological altruism.

There are a few varieties. In one, people ignore their own needs. They may end up feeling resentful, overburdened, guilty and frustrated – and thus not in great shape to keep altruism positive.

In another, altruism is rooted in a need for approval, a desire to ‘fix’ people, hubris, even an urge to power over others. Halifax gives the example of international aid gone wrong, where Westerners think they can change the world but don’t actually take the time and effort to find out what people need and want.

There’s lots in this book for me to think about. And also to do.  Roshi Joan speaks from her own experience  – working in prisons, hospitals and clinics, with dying people and their families, in the civil rights movement –  and provides guidance and practices to help foster calm and compassion in difficult circumstances. As I move into the aged care sector, I will likely need this book.

 

 

 

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