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!

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Cafe Culture

Are you able to work in a creative sense in a cafe? I can sometimes. A lot depends on what I’m working on and whether the sounds and smells around me are overwhelming. Some cafes are really noisy, others have a low background hum spiced with fragments of conversation which can be wound into possible future stories or just provide an interesting point of reference. People are largely unguarded in a cafe – they might be catching up with friends or having a conversation on the phone. Yes, even those one-sided conversations can provide a spark of interest for the eavesdropping writer.

One of my more memorable cafe experiences happened in a small country town. The promise of coffee and raisin toast lulled me inside, along with the cafe’s description as an emporium. After I ordered I had a wander around the cafe which had various shelves, book cases and tables set up with preloved goods. It was one of those places where you would probably see something different each time you visit.

There was a clutch of women at a couple of tables at the front of the cafe, and in the absence of any background music it was impossible not to hear the conversation between the group. I was writing up some notes on some things I’d spotted whilst roaming around the village, but within a short period of time the conversation caught my attention and I felt the need to jot down some of the things that one woman in particular was saying. It isn’t something I would normally do, but I felt like she may have been putting on a performance for an outside audience and it was too good to ignore.

I started to type up some of the phrases that the woman was saying. The trick was that as she was speaking, the woman was also bouncing around the shop, touching this, inspecting that. There were other people in the cafe but they were all women who seemed to know each other and weren’t particularly bothered by her antics.

I was jotting some of the colourful phrases down when suddenly she swooped towards me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was doing.

‘Don’t mind me, love, I’m a bit nosy.’

Fortunately I had seen her approach and had managed to flick to another screen. Unfortunately it was a browser window which featured an in-depth article about a murder that had taken place in the town. My claim that I was just reading up on some local news probably didn’t ring true, but she tapped my shoulder and moved on to the next thing of interest.

I wasn’t being deliberately misleading or intrusive. Being able to catch turns of phrase or unguarded moments of conversation is good training for a writer’s ear. Often we speak in a kind of shorthand, or sentences drift off. There can be a lot of murmuring or hand gestures or facial expressions which don’t necessarily translate into the written word. But the cadences and rhythm can be picked up and this can help to provide an authentic tone to a future piece of written dialogue.

It isn’t unusual to be sitting at a cafe and working on a laptop or device. I’m not saying that the person that looks focused on something in front of them is recording your every word and gesture. But you might be inspiring them to some authentic writing in the future!

There is an entertaining post from Pauline Conolly about writers and cafes which you can find here.

[Photo: hot chocolate with home-made marshmallow at Paragon Cafe, Katoomba (before it closed) – one of my favourite scribble spots]

A Good Day Out

There is something that truly delights me about seeing birds when I’m out and about. This is easier at times than others, but I seem to spend a bit of time looking at the canopies of trees, patiently waiting to spot birds which are flying about and twittering above. I have learned to stand very still and to watch for branches being pulled about by birds on the hunt for nectar or insects.

There is a special kind of delight that I feel when I spot a bird that I’m not familiar with. As I am still relatively new at this bird spotting game, this happens fairly often. It can be frustrating to hear but not see a bird (and my ear for bird calls is very much a work in progress), or to see one flit by but not know what kind of bird it is. When I can, I will take a photo but again this can be an exercise in frustration as there are many blurred shots of wings, beaks and bird bums which really don’t help in identifying the complete bird.

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Wattle blooms to brighten a winter day

But then there are days when it comes together. I took a drive down to the Evans Lookout recently at Blackheath. I have been here before on sunset, and it was such an amazing moment when the sheer scale of the Grose valley was revealed that it took my breath away. Although it was an overcast day, I thought I’d take a look in daylight and revisit the view.

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Grose Valley views from Evans Lookout at Blackheath

The view was spectacular, with the shifting clouds creating vistas speckled with light and dark shadows. Throughout the valley, I could hear the ting of bellbirds way down below. Back at the car park, I was getting ready to get in my car when a small bird caught my eye. It was bouncing about, moving across the dirt path and bitumen with agile bounds. I followed it a little way and managed a photo or two before a car came in and it seemed to vanish. I started to drive out and saw a clutch of three birds, so I pulled over and grabbed my camera.

These birds were a delight to watch, dancing about with jaunty flicks of their tails. The lookout is a popular spot and they were not at all phased by me or my car. It was a treat to watch them bounce around, searching for insects.

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A rockwarbler in-between hops at Evans Lookout

The next part of the challenge is to then identify the bird. One of my most used reference books is Birds of the Blue Mountains, but I had to flick through a field guide to identify the little birds as rockwarblers. These sweet birds are the only bird endemic to New South Wales, and they are usually found in areas where there is sandstone.

Just around the bend, I had to pull over again as a bird was on the road. Another bird that I wasn’t familiar with. I walked back and spotted it in a tree and took the photo below. It was a grey shrike-thrush, known for its beautiful calls.

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A grey shrike-thrush spotted near Evans Lookout

Spotting and identifying these birds bring a joy and satisfaction that is hard to convey. And it definitely makes it a good day out!

[Photo: rockwarbler hunting through leaves at the lookout]

Creative Challenges

I have learned to accept that my writing tends to ebb and flow. In an ideal world, I would diligently write every day or most days at least, and if I didn’t write then I would edit or research or plan the next writing project. There are times when I can be disciplined around my writing, then other times life crowds its way in and a day or two slips by, then a week. I have to scratch my head to think about when I last wrote something in a creative sense.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast interview with author Hedley Derenzie. Derenzie had been in a very dark place and had attempted suicide when feeling overwhelmed with grief, loneliness and disconnection. Her road to recovery was long and difficult, but one of her lifelines was a return to her creative path. Derenzie is a writer, but writing had not been a consistent presence in her life for some time. In a moment of inspiration, Derenzie committed to writing 2,000 words a day for a month. There were rules around this commitment, including the need for the day’s writing to be inspired from the events in the previous 24 hours which in turn encouraged reengagement with the world during her creative pilgrimage.

I have just started reading Write Way Home: Writing My Way Back To A Meaningful Life. This is the result of not only that month of writing and experiences, but reflections on what reengagement with creativity can mean. And it isn’t necessarily just for writers; Derenzie encourages connecting with those creative outlets which we love, but which tend to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, or when it is realised that they will not result in employment or income generation. It isn’t the outcome that matters here, it is the action and that sense of joy and engagement that creativity brings to each of us.

About a month ago I decided that I would write 250 words a day. This is my minimum goal and it can be in any format. It can be a personal piece, something creative or a blog post. The words can be a continuation of a story in progress or something entirely new. It isn’t the output that is important, it is the activity. It is early days, and I didn’t have an end date in mind, but I wanted to see if I could keep up what feels like a small commitment to write each day. So far, I’ve made it, even if it is sometimes the last thing I do before I call it a day. And I do feel more engaged, and my mind is finding a creative rhythm of sorts.

Do you set yourself creative challenges?

[Photo: close up of some creative craft adorning a tree in front of St Hilda’s Church at Katoomba]

Portland: The Town That Built Sydney

The industrial history of Portland is intrinsically linked with cement. It was the site of the first cement works in Australia which opened in 1902 and operated until 1991. Cement from Portland was shipped around Australia, and it played an integral role in the construction of Sydney in particular throughout the twentieth century.

The first European in the area was a surveyor called James Blackman who surveyed roads in 1820 through this part of Wiradjuri country. A lime kiln was built on 61 hectares of land selected by Thomas Murray in 1863, and in 1883 the railway arrived. The village of Portland was gazetted in 1894 and the name Portland is attributed to the limestone-rich Isle of Portland or for the Portland cement making process, depending on the source.

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The Glen Museum, located in a recently restored building which had been an early hospital at the Portland Cement Works

In 1902 the Portland Cement Works opened in the village. The Commonwealth Portland Cement Company Ltd had been registered in 1900 by Dr August Wilhelm Karl Scheidel on behalf of the New Zealand Mines Trust. Dr Scheidel designed the cement works and supervised their construction. He was regarded as a pioneer in industrial relations: he insured his employees against accidents, introduced eight hour work days at the site, and provided an ambulance service and accident ward which was shared with the town. Support was also provided for the construction of a hospital, built in 1913.

Recruitment of overseas labour in the early years was necessary due to difficulty in securing local labour, and it gave the village a cosmopolitan air. By 1912 the works were producing about 40% of Australia’s Portland Cement. Maximum levels of production were reached in 1928.

The works were nearly self-sufficient including water, coal, electricity and railway resources. The cement factory was a significant employer, and some families provided generations of workers. During the Great Depression there were massive layoffs and up to 80% of the workforce lost their jobs.

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Rear view of some of the remaining buildings of the Portland Cement Works

The old works site is classified as a historic landscape of approximately six hectares. It was the site of one of Australia’s most successful lime quarrying and cement manufacture enterprises, generating a product that was integral to the construction of many important structures in the state. It provided raw material from its own quarries “and a place for the long-term, large-scale production of world quality cement, using a succession of both local and imported machinery and labour.” (Source: NSW Office of Environment & Heritage)

Throughout New South Wales, Portland is significant in that it is one of the rare long-term single industry one-company towns. This relationship can be seen in the layout of the town and its civic amenities, including workers cottages, concrete roads and swimming pools. The scale of the operations, including powerhouse, boiler stack and various workshops provide significant links with industrial heritage.

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These cement silos were recently painted by Guido Van Helen and have become a popular tourist spot in Portland

The Portland Cement Works site is being progressively cleared for redevelopment under The Foundations Portland NSW. The proposal includes ecotourism, shopping centre, activity areas and artist precincts. It will be interesting to watch the site continue to evolve into the next phase of its development. Recently this has included the painting of murals on old cement silos by Guido Van Helten.

It is encouraging to see signs of life in an old industrial town – what does the future hold once the industry has moved on, technological changes take place and the workforce moves?

[Photo: part of the administration block in the Portland Cement Works precinct]

Poem: Mr Nobody by Anonymous

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr Nobody.

‘Tis he who always tears our books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr Nobody.

He puts the damp wood upon the fire
That kettles cannot boil;
His are the feet that bring in mud,
And all the carpets soil.
The papers always are mislaid;
Who had them last, but he?
There’s no one tosses them about
But Mr Nobody.

The finger marks upon the door
By none of us are made;
We never leave the blinds unclosed,
To let the curtains fade.
The ink we never spill; the boots
That lying round you see
Are not our boots, – they all belong
To Mr Nobody.

With thanks to the Poetry Foundation – it was a joy to track down a poem I remember from my childhood. I think Mr Nobody is still out there somewhere!

[Photo: craft shop window display at Lindfield with lots of buttons in the background]

Kandos Railway Station

The railway station was the nerve centre of a country town, both exit and entrance, export and import, off to adventure or homeward bound. People came to collect parcels or despatch goods, meet friends and relations or say goodbye, go on holiday or leave for school, enjoy the hubbub or look at the train. For trains, like brass bands, with their power and rhythm, touch a warm collective memory.

Colleen O’Sullivan, Discover Magazine, Nov 2017

I came across the above description of a country railway station in a small article in a local tourist magazine for the Blue Mountains and Central West of NSW. Like many small stations, Kandos has not been in use for passenger services for a long time, but there has been a spate of activity in the last year or so.

The station was opened as Candos Station in 1914; it was renamed Kandos the following year. Candos is believed to have been made using the initials of the first six directors of NSW Cement, Lime and Coal Company, which owned land near the railway line. There were a couple of other towns with similar names in New South Wales and South Australia, and so a name change was arranged.

Initially, the station was operated without a station master. In 1918, three swagmen took possession of the station on a Saturday morning, threatening anyone who approached the station until they were arrested by police from nearby Rylstone. The following year a station master was appointed.

There was a sense of pride taken in the presentation of stations, with staff establishing and maintaining gardens to brighten the platforms. In 1925 the station was specially commended by the area commissioner for tidiness and cleanliness. By 1927, the line was upgraded and Kandos was the fourth highest-earning station in the state, after Newcastle, Lithgow and Darling Harbour.

More recently, the Kandos Museum has taken over the lease on the old railway station and is in the process of relocating its collection. Late last year funding was granted to reopen the railway line between Kandos and Rylstone to establish the Kandos-Rylstone Rail Heritage Precinct. This will see the line repaired and upgraded and will provide opportunities for tourists and heritage lovers to visit the area and enjoy the history along with heritage train rides. In the future, this may connect up with the Lithgow State Mine railway.

Whilst the days of the railway station as the hub for small towns has largely passed, it is great to see community efforts for rejuvenation and repurposing of the old stations come to fruition.

[Photo: Capertee Railway Station, on the Gwabegar railway line towards Kandos and Mudgee]

Moments of Zen

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast about zen moments. The podcast was also about cat burglars and included an entertaining collection of stories about cats who like to bring things home, including gloves, other people’s underwear and cooked legs of lamb.

But it was the zen moments which resonated with me. These were predominately ordinary actions or repetitive tasks which induced a sense of calm in people. The moments themselves varied quite considerably, and included the untangling of masses of electrical cords or looping up a long length of rope following abseiling, to the act of weeding and creating a sense of order by putting laundry away. The common element was focusing on the task at hand and finding a simple pleasure in creating order or establishing a working rhythm. A sense of calm was created in the mind and these tasks which might otherwise be seen as irritating or time-consuming instead contributed to a sense of well being.

Apart from the ordinariness of the actions, I was struck by how individual these responses were. What created a moment of calm in one person might seem inexplicable to the next. Perhaps it was the mindset applied to the task, or simply a sense that the task had to be done and approaching it with calm acceptance was better than to greet it with resistance and irritation.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when the feelings of zen-like calm fail to materialise but it is nice to know that there are instances in which they can appear, regardless of the mundanity of the task. For me, it is the repetitive, endless chores of washing up and hanging out laundry that come to mind, along with the sense of order that follows putting things away. Perhaps it is because there is little required of the mind in those moments apart from repeating actions that have been carried out so often they require little concentration and provide time in which the mind can be satisfied in the motions.

What creates a zen-like moment in your day?

[Photo: a single cloud skipping across the sky, also known to induce a zen-like moment]

Challenging the Boundaries between Art and Nature

There is something wonderful about having a sculpture exhibition in the area, and recently I went along to explore Sculpture at Scenic World at Katoomba. From mid-April to mid-May, 38 sculptures were on display along the winding boardwalk through the Jurassic forest. The location provides an amazing backdrop to some incredible sculptures, and the exhibition prides itself on having a 0% ecological footprint. There is much collaboration between the selected artists and Scenic World to manage the creation and installation of the works.

Access to the boardwalk is via the scenic railway, which was originally used for coal and shale exports. I had forgotten how steep the incline is (52 degrees – claimed to be the steepest passenger railway in the world) and it is a short but invigorating ride down into the valley. The layout of the exhibition along the boardwalk invites reflection and it was a delight to meander along and take in the wide variety of art installations.

One of the first pieces, Blind by Andrew Townsend and Suzie Bleach, is part of series using the figure of a horse to explore themes of the human condition. Forest Emoji by Aldo Bilotta explores the evolution of language. A number of the pieces resonate with the immensity of time and space. A recurring theme is sustainability and waste: several sculptures feature repurposed materials.

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One of the black cockatoos created by Barbara Hamilton as Casuarina Dreaming II

An example of this is Casuarina Dreaming II by Barbara Hamilton which features discarded umbrellas and recycled bottles fashioned into black cockatoos. Hamilton wanted to raise awareness of these endemic birds, who are relatively quiet when compared to the rowdy sulphur-crested cockatoos. The habitat for the glossy black cockatoos is under threat. I am fortunate to see them flying through the upper mountain skies with their distinctive, creaky calls.

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Close-up of some of the beautiful glass balloons featured in Up! by Kayo Yokoyama

One of the works which delighted me was Up! by Kayo Yokoyama. This was inspired by a desire to transform a temporary object into a semi-permanent one to capture a moment. And there is something joyous about balloons, associated with celebrations and happy times. For Yokoyama, sagging or deflated balloons remind her of sadness. There is a universality to the memories and emotions linked by balloons, and I loved this piece.

Humour is evident in some of the blurbs which accompany the sculptures. For example, the description of Mega Pixel Power Plant by Tom de Munk-Kerkmeer advises that the creation is a close relative of Instaneous Gratificaticus and that perhaps it originated from the Silicon Valley area. The fruit resembles the sweet and rather addictive Licorice Allsorts.

Environmental awareness and climate change are recurring themes. Overconsumption is displayed clearly in Freya Jobbins’ #OTT. The link between memory and sculpture is touched on through several of the works, including memories of lost forests in a ghost tree exhibit. There is a stunning nod to both nature and a community’s ability to recover and regenerate following bushfire in Anastasis by Caitlin Hughes.

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Choking Hazard by Rochelle Quantock: bright toy bricks bringing an element of playfulness to the serious issues of sustainability

A wide range of materials are used, including wood, plastic, light bulbs, ceramics, umbrellas, bumper bars, crocheted and woven plastic bags, stone, steel, bottle caps, glass, porcelain, sticks, souvenir koala bears and salvaged hard rubbish. Some of the sculptures used sounds or mirrors to offer different sensory viewpoints.

Sculpture at Scenic World is an amazing annual event, with several of the works staying in my mind for quite some time afterwards.

When was the last time sculpture snagged your imagination?

[Photo: a glimpse of the stuffed toy roof in #OTT by Freya Jobbins]

Flash Fiction: Red Mood

She thinks of it as his red mood. Alcohol hurried it along but lately it had become so regular that it no longer needed a big drinking session to bring it about. That scared her more than she could say. In quieter moments, when she used to be able to knit as he watched tele of a night, she’d find her mind searching for a rhythm in his actions, a discernible pattern that she could learn regardless of the workings of his mind. Something that she could gauge with markers along the way so she could change tack and unpick the knots that only he could see.

He cried the first time. Huge bawling sobs which jarred her out of the fog of pain. She’d crawled across the kitchen floor, stockings slipping on the polished lino then sticking where her blood had sprayed. With a trembling hand, she’d reached out, unsure of how he would react. Everything that had been certain before was skewed. He’d grabbed her, holding her so tight that she winced which only made him cry more. His head in her lap, her fingers tight in his dark curls. The hair now is long gone with just soft wisps edging his scalp, leaving nothing to hold onto anymore.

Lately, after years of nothing more than a rough passing shove or a sly meanness in his words, the blows had started again. With the children gone, returning for ever briefer visits with her beautiful, bold grandchildren, she offered to volunteer in the town. She’d always helped out at the annual show and fundraisers, but with Theo spending more time at the pub or helping his friends with endless projects, she started working at the op shop.

The other women made her laugh. For years they’d admired her careful needlework and she was asked to show a couple of the younger women, still in their fifties, how to do it. There was coffee and cake and gossip. At first, Rita used to stiffen, feeling almost prudish as they spoke openly about their sex lives, their husbands, the joys and disappointments of their children. She kept quiet, realising that everything was fair game. It took her a while to catch the surreptitious glances cast her way when they spoke of the aggression of their men whose lives were winding down as their physicality faded in a town that had lost its livelihood. She felt relief, briefly, knowing that she wasn’t the only one. Then she realised that they knew.

Rita called in sick for her next shift, too shamefaced to return. But Theo heard her lie and had asked with rare interest what was stopping her from going. She nearly told him, and part of her wanted to yell and scream at the disgrace he had brought upon them both. All those years ago she had known at the moment of impact that he had broken more than her nose. But she hadn’t realised that the breakage would keep on splintering for the rest of her life.

At the next women’s gathering, during a rare lull in the conversation, Rita cleared her throat. She kept her eyes down, her voice so soft at first that it was like something she was whispering to herself. But slowly, she spoke a little louder, not daring to look up. The words took on a rhythmic flow. It was the story – her story – that she had carried for so long, a litany of her life with Theo.

They let her speak, even Marcie who constantly interrupted and talked over everyone. As Rita spoke, condensing decades of hurt, pain, and confusion into a few sentences, she began to feel lighter. The burden wasn’t gone, but it felt less all-encompassing than before.

When she’d said enough, there was still silence. Rita looked up, her cheeks aflame with a sense of disgrace that was never far away. Marcie reached over and took her hand, and Rita was startled to see the tears on her cheeks. ‘Stupid old bastard, that Theo.’ Then the room was alive with laughter and tears and she was no longer quite so alone.

Inspired by a call for pieces inspired by red and published recently in The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal in April 2018.

[Photo: smoke clouds billowing towards Katoomba]