Snatches of Songs

There are snatches of songs that come to mind at different times. Sometimes these are situational based prompts, providing a familiar kind of comfort. At other times, the mind seems to throw up surprising references that require a bit of further reflection.

If I stay up late, for whatever reason, and feel a bit sleep-deprived the next day, one of my favourite song snatches is from Late Last Night by Todd Snider:

Well could you try to keep it down, I was up kinda late last night?
Now I’m feeling’ like I usually feel after I feel alright
I don’t want hear another word about mornin’
I can’t take the light … 
Well could you try to keep it down I was up kinda late last night?

For those moments when a big decision is required but the whole thing feels a bit overwhelming? Try Little Decisions by Paul Kelly:

Little decisions are the kind I can make 
Big resolutions are so easy to break
I don’t want to hear about your big decisions

Sometimes for no particular reason at all, Anna Begins by Counting Crows reappears as an ear worm to hum:

… kindness falls like rain
It washes her away and Anna begins to change her mind

But it isn’t only lyrics that come to mind. Sometimes it is a tune, such as Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Or Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodwin. Just writing it out makes me start to whistle. And perhaps not tunefully. But that doesn’t matter!

I like to have musical references in my fiction sometimes too. In a flash fiction piece I managed to work in a reference to The Honeymoon is Over by The Cruel Sea which still makes me smile when I think of it.

What musical moments come to mind for you?

[Photo: servants bells at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta]

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Scratchings At The Heart

Driving home tonight I listened to a podcast interview with a clinical psychologist. Dr Chris Blazina had completed a study on the relationship between men and their dogs. One of the findings was that for the majority of the middle-aged men who participated in the survey, the relationship they had with their dogs was one of the most safe and trustworthy relationships in their life.

This was in part a reflection of how, in general terms, men may have a smaller group of friendships and people that they are willing to confide in when compared to women of a similar age.

But it also highlights the importance of dogs in people’s lives. A couple of men had called in and left voicemail comments about their relationship with their dogs which provided further insight. John, a farmer, had sadly lost his working dog, Ned, after many years of faithful service. He spoke not only of the usefulness of dogs in a working sense – along with the frustration when they act of their own accord when they believe they know best – but of the sense of loneliness when that constant positive presence is no longer there.

Another caller was a carpenter who had a young border collie called Pip as a working companion. Pip made the workday better, helped with handling stressful situations, and was great at breaking down barriers with customers and other tradespeople on work sites. Tradies felt a bit freer to play with the dog, or speak to her in a high-pitched voice which they normally wouldn’t use.

The study confirmed the important role played by dogs in our lives and relationships in general. Losing a much loved companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a friend, loved one or the end of a relationship. Animals also play an important role in enhancing our relationships with the people that matter in to us.

Our lives are richer on many levels for being shared with our companion animals.

Scratchings at the heart was one man’s description of his relationship with his dog.

[Photo: dog in bathtub at Gunning, NSW]

Poem: Ode to Spring

It must be spring
The jasmine’s out
And all the bees
Are buzzing about
The sun is bright
And wouldn’t you know
I think I can hear
The garden grow
I close my eyes
And what do I see?
Acres of blooms
All around me
Freesias and pansies
And daisies too
Jonquils and roses
To name but a few

And then it begins
With the slightest twitch
My poor old nose
Begins to itch
First just a little
Then quite a lot
My vision shrinks
To the size of a dot
I distract myself
Looking up at the light
And give myself
A hell of a fright
The sneeze when it comes
Knows no bounds
I lose myself
In a wall of sound

The dog jumps up
And leaves the room
Frightened no doubt
By the sonic boom
And the cat leaves too
Giving one last glare
Before she struts
Into the spring air
I sniffle and sniff
Then dig deep
For a tissue to mop
The tears that I weep
I curse myself
I must be insane
To always forget
That spring is a pain

Inspired by writing group prompt of ‘pain’.

[Photo: flowers from the garden]

A Winter Bird Walk at Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens with Carol Probets

A visit to the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens is one of my favourite immersive experiences. I have been there several times over recent years and have enjoyed different aspects of the extensive gardens throughout the seasons. Sometimes I head over for a wander with a specific purpose in mind, such as looking at Australian flora or to enjoy the beautiful autumn colours. At other times I will just go and have a walk and see what I find.

Each season there is the opportunity to join in a bird walk with birding guide Carol Probets. The walk involves an early start (8 am at the garden gates) and provides a rare opportunity to explore parts of the gardens before the usual opening times (9 am on weekdays, 9.30 am on weekends). There are a wide variety of plants and paths throughout the garden to explore, and on a frosty winter morning, there was a lot of bird activity.

New Holland honeyeater

New Holland Honeyeater

Carol led the small group through the Proteaceae section, which was very popular with the honeyeaters. There were quite a few New Holland Honeyeaters flying about and perching atop tall, bare trees to survey the area. There were also quite a few Eastern Spinebills enjoying the nectar, as well as Little and Red Wattlebirds in the area.

Eastern spinebill

Eastern Spinebill

We headed through part of the rock garden and near the bog garden where there were some very busy White-browed Scrubwrens fossicking through the undergrowth. Several Crimson Rosellas were picking through the lawn throughout the Brunet Meadow, and a male and female Satin Bowerbird perched on a table and chair setting before joining the rosellas on the hunt for treats through the grass. A kookaburra looked on from a nearby branch before spotting something and flying off.

Eastern yellow robin

Eastern yellow robin

As we walked towards the conifer species section, we passed by the remnants of a bower with flashes of blue and yellow. The bower wasn’t being maintained as it was not breeding season, but it was protected by hedges. An eastern yellow robin appeared and seemed to pose on lower branches for a spell, then our attention was caught by a mixed flock of birds high up in some gum trees. Carol identified a Golden Whistler along with Lewin’s Honeyeater and a White-throated Treecreeper. There were also Brown and Striated Thornbills flitting about the branches.

White-browed scrubwren

White-browed scrubwren

We returned to the Visitors Centre for morning tea and a general discussion about birdwatching. This included the chance to review some of the bird and field guides along with a discussion of some of the apps that are available to help identify birds and enhance the experience. Guidance was provided on setting up binoculars along with tips on how to spot and identify birds in general. Carol spoke about bird behaviour along with the challenges of identifying birds as their feathers change throughout the year and can also vary in different geographical areas.

Kookaburra

Kookaburra

It was a perfect winter day for enjoying the gardens and the abundant birdlife in the area, and Carol is a generous and very knowledgeable guide. I am looking forward to my next visit to the gardens, and the next, and the next!

[Photo: red-browed finches spotted bouncing around the lawns]

Flash Fiction: Trapped

It had come to this. Thirst had hounded them all for days until the ceaseless circling of the roped off waterholes created tracks deeply rutted by their hooves. All of the usual spots had been blocked, barricaded with old fencing wire and tin. In desperation, one or two brumbies had charged and stomped, aiming flying kicks at the covers, but there was no reprieve. Smelling the water but not being able to drink was torture.

Two dry nights were spent warily watching the last waterhole. On the third night, some of the brumbies were on their knees, trying to inch closer to the moisture contained within the maze of fence runs. With a frenzied whinny one entered the compound despite knowing there was no way out. The gulping sounds drew the others in, no longer able to resist the trap.

This piece was a writing group challenge to write a piece of up to 150 words inspired by the word ‘Trapped’. It was based an image that had been rattling around since I had listened to a podcast about Eric Rolls and the Pillaga, months before. I couldn’t shake the image of the brumbies from my head, so the only solution was to write it out. You can find the section about brumbies around the 14 minute mark of the podcast.

[Photo: horses on Norfolk Island]

Tai Chi at Eastwood on a Saturday Morning

Pigeons swirl about as music guides scores of people through gentle movements, conjuring ancient rhythms in smooth concerted actions. A mix of ages and nationalities united perhaps by the need to connect with something deeper, yet not alone. The rustle of jackets, bright glimpses of velvet satin.

It is hard not to be entranced by the motion, the coordination, the gentle sway of limbs. A sense of calm, reconnection; something personal performed in a public space. Ritualised movement in dappled winter sunshine with white cockatoos crying overhead.

Fans are used in some of the movements, the sharp flick of a wrist unfurling brightly coloured designs. Various leaders move amongst the large group to demonstrate actions or provide individual support to some of the participants.

The sense of tranquility is tangible, and people passing by on the way to somewhere else often pause to take in the scene, to stop for a brief moment to take in the atmosphere. Some people take photos, and others take short videos. It is enough to be here and to enjoy the moment, to marvel at the measured sense of calm rhythm and to witness something that has been a tradition for generations upon generations of people.

In a world in which the rate of change seems to be increasing exponentially, it is something else to simply enjoy a slower pace for a moment or two, even if it is vicariously.

[Photo: Tai Chi at Eastwood Mall]

Writing Groups: Every One Is Different

It is well known that the writer’s lot can be a lonely one. Regardless of whether you are an occasional scribbler or someone who dedicates their working life to the task, it is seldom a group activity. In order to grow and develop as a writer, it is helpful to put on a brave face and go forth to find other writers.

The first writing group I joined was a well-established group in the central west. The meetings were structured, with writing news, the sharing of success stories around publications and submissions, mini-workshops and a session on critiquing work that had been prepared based on a prompt provided at the previous meeting. Feedback was also provided on work in progress if requested.

As is usually the case, there was a wide range of experience in the room, from published authors and a particularly prolific and successful bush ballad poet to new writers. The group was very supportive and even though I felt self-conscious, the group helped me develop my own writing style. It was also beneficial in learning how to present your work when sharing, to read it out clearly and with confidence, even if the piece was still a work in progress.

I did find the critique work challenging. It wasn’t just learning to be able to listen and take on critiques of your work but to be able to assess the work of others and to provide useful feedback. Liking a work isn’t enough in these situations: it is far more helpful to the writer to be told what worked well, what created ambivalence, and what jarred for the reader.

Since then I have experienced a couple of different writing group styles. I prefer an informal organisation, by which I mean a group that isn’t run as a writing group with not-for-profit reporting requirements. This requires administration and seems to take time and energy away from the writing. What I also like are groups where writing takes place. You might think that’s a given but it isn’t. There are groups where critiquing takes the focus, which is good, but I like it to be balanced somewhat with writing practice.

For me, that’s the gold of a writing group. Maybe it is due to the link with writing comprehension pieces in primary school where everyone had paper, a pen and their imagination. Once the topic was provided, the scratching commenced. Scratching on the paper, scratching of heads as ideas were coaxed into existence. A particular joy is the sheer variety of ideas that emerge from a single writing prompt, even from groups of people that have written together for a while. Sometimes there are eerie similarities in a writing prompt session or echoes of an image or idea that appear across the work of usually disparate writers. Being able to share these rough and raw pieces of writing, if you choose to, provides a jumping off point for extended pieces in the future.

Having the chance to meet fellow writers is an interesting experience, which can be exhilarating on a number of levels. It can genuinely foster growth in writing style, and open your mind to possibilities beyond what you might have come across if you remained chained to your desk at home.

Do you belong to a writing group?

[Photo: old typewriter]

Green

Green is my favourite colour. It is the colour of the leaves on the trees in my garden, the hue of the grass at different times of the year. It is the colour of new growth: fresh shoots signifying a change of season, the promise of the scents of spring.

It isn’t always new life. Sometimes it is the colour of fallen leaves, gum leaves with their seemingly infinite variety of shapes, some with bumps and modules along the veins of the leaves. They still carry their scent, a tang of evaporating bush oils.

Satin bowerbird

Satin bowerbird at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens

There is the mottled green set in a pattern of scalloped feathers on the undercarriage of a satin bowerbird, either on females or the younger male birds up to the age of seven years, give or take, when their feathers take on the dark plume of blue-black satin.

Pine tree frond

Pine tree frond

Pine trees, tall and straight, are easily characterised by the green needles. Look closer on the trunk to see brown whorls and curling bark in contrast against the green foliage.

Old shop tile at Portland

Tile on old butcher shop at Portland

Polished green tiles in a country town reflect the passing cars and pedestrians. They have raised textures, a bulls head and a rams head. The building once housed a butcher shop, the tiles marked the trade.

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Brush Farm at Eastwood, softened by greenery

Green is the ivy that curves with thickly cloying tendrils around the fenceposts before skirting along parts of the fence line. It sneaks into available space, softening the hard edges and drawing the eye. For that is what the colour green does.

What’s your favourite colour?

[Photo: green outlook at Lake Pillans, Lithgow]

Working With Words: Amanda Hampson, Author

When visiting a friend up north a couple of years back, she pressed a book into my hands and urged me to read it. The book was The Olive Sisters by Amanda Hampson and it was a most enjoyable read. Hampson has published several books, and the most recent is The Yellow Villa, set in France. She recently gave an author talk at Katoomba library and I was able to go along and listen as she spoke about her writing life.

One of the highlights of her childhood in a small town in New Zealand was library day on Fridays, and it was here where Hampson developed her love of books, working her way through myths and legends and adding Agatha Christie novels and true crime stories over the years. The desire to be a writer was clear to her from an early age, and she thought that a career in journalism would be the starting point.

Hampson moved to the UK and lived there and later moved to Australia. Whilst in the UK, she travelled extensively and visited France regularly, having developed a passion for all things French from her mother. It was during this time that Hampson began to write. This included short stories and articles, and two non-fiction books were published.

Her first published novel, The Olive Sisters, was written over a period of about five years and is a story told across two generations. It deals with the sense of isolation and loss of prestige that can be experienced when giving up city life for the country as part of a tree change. This had been inspired by her partner’s struggle with the change in status and loss of identity following a similar relocation.

Two for the Road was her second novel, set in the macho tow truck industry, and it is entertaining to read of some of the challenges she encountered in researching the industry as background for the novel. Uplifting, escapist reading was one of the motivations behind Hampson’s third novel, The French Perfumer; this provided a contrast to the focus on dark news which was also reflected in the literature at the time. This novel is set in the 1950s during a period of optimism and gracious fashion.

Hampson opened the floor to questions, which included one about how to resist the temptation to move from what you are currently working on to the Next Great Idea. She responded by speaking about the creative destructiveness of moving between projects and consequently not finishing anything. Jot down ideas, by all means, but don’t let it distract you from what you are currently working on. Another popular question for authors is around the writing process – what does this look like? Hampson said that when she begins a novel, she commits to writing 500 words a day at a minimum. Some days that is much easier than others, and once the creative flow takes over the word count increases, but having this minimum amount as a starting point helps to get words on the page.

Amanda Hampson’s website can be found here – it has extracts from her novels along with insights into her writing process. There is also an interesting article on her writing life on her publisher’s website.

[Photo: painted laneway at Hornsby, next to a bookshop]

On Ignoring the Shoulds

Recently I’ve felt heartened by reading a couple of blog posts about the pleasure and benefits of ignoring, even temporarily, the endless list of ‘shoulds’ in a day. These occur often without much conscious thought, or so it seems. We are conditioned to move from one task to the next, and there is usually something that requires attention or input. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: having a focus helps to create a sense of purpose, and there is something quite satisfying when a task is completed and can be moved off the real or mental to do list, even if it is only a temporary reprieve before it needs to be done again.

But there is something quite freeing in making the conscious decision to stop. Stop from moving from one task to the next. Accept that there is probably a better way to spend your time and yet still choose not to do it. Just sit and stare out at the garden, lose yourself for a while in a book or TV show, potter about and do small tasks that don’t necessarily appear on a list of things to be done but feel good to do anyway.

Like most people, I can usually think of plenty of things that could or should be done if a spare moment happens to materialise. But lately I’ve been choosing not to do it. Well, not right now anyway. There is a kind of satisfaction in recognising that whilst I could be doing whatever it is right now, I’m choosing not to. Instead, I’m going to sit in my favourite chair with a book that isn’t on my reading list and read a bit. Or stare out at the trees. Or watch clouds change shape. All of those shoulds can wait.

When was the last time you ignored the should-dos in your day?

This post was encouraged by I Really by Real Life of an MSW and A Day of Rest by Ann Coleman, whose blog posts arrived just when I needed them!