Sunday, September 28, 2014

A hug for the third wheels:

One of the challenges of extended singleness that’s not often discussed is the idea that you are no one’s special person.

I realise, even as I write, that this seems glaringly obvious.

But there is a subtlety to this idea that I’ve not seen explored in the singleness discussions that I’ve encountered. There can be a loneliness to being alone, sure. That much is obvious. But there is a unique, entirely other kind of loneliness to being alone when everyone around you has their one person – that person who is their responsibility, their care, their focus. It's the one they check in with, the one whose opinion they will defer to, the one whose schedule they will shape their lives around.

It is lonely to have nobody, but it is another kind of loneliness to be nobody’s somebody.

As nobody’s somebody, you become the dispensable variable in relational equations. It is you who might have to change your intended meetup time to fit better with what your girlfriend’s boyfriend wants. Your sister might need to pause in the middle of a deep and meaningful conversation with you to take a call from her husband at work. Your plans with a friend will fall through because her toddler is teething. If you don’t know your guy friend’s new love interest, chances are you won’t know your guy friend for much longer, either. You will grow accustomed to being the third person, or fifth, or seventh in gatherings where all the other attendees are pairs.

All of this is good and fine. It’s healthy, even. It’s sanctifying and humanising to be reminded that our own needs are not paramount. It is good to be adaptable, and to learn to hold things loosely. It’s good to know that others’ lives don’t carry the same freedoms that singleness does.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt to be reminded that everybody you care about most is aligning their lives closely to another person’s, moulding their days and hours and moments to fit another’s, but that person is not you. You are loved by many but not at the top of anyone’s priority list.

Is it selfish to mourn that a little? Is it greedy to even notice? I don’t think so. It is a genuinely difficult thing to be nobody’s main priority and to have a multiplicity of primary priorities yourself. It’s even harder to talk or write about it without seeming small-minded and petulant. But the sorrow is real, I think, and it is okay to acknowledge its existence.

What’s more important, though, is to acknowledge how significantly you (me, we) are loved in spite of the fact that we aren’t anybody’s significant other. We are surrounded by people who care, and if their care must be broken into pieces and scheduled around parents and children and spouses, that does not make the love any less genuine; it just makes it real.

And in reverse, we can treasure the opportunity to pour our own unfettered love into the lives of others, with all the freedom and creativity that the unattached life gives. It brings its own challenges, this season, but there are also some very cool pluses. We need to remember those in the moments when the other stuff aches.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Answers to all the questions and a tale to tell": an interview with Darren Groth, author of 'Are You Seeing Me?'

As most of you already know -- because I flailed about it from here to instagram and everywhere in between -- I really enjoyed reading Darren Groth's recent release, Are You Seeing Me? 

From the back of the book:
Justine and Perry are embarking on the road trip of a lifetime. It's been more than a year since they watched their dad lose his battle with cancer, leaving nineteen-year-old Justine as the sole carer for her disabled brother. Now, the twins' reliance on each other is set to shift. Before they go their separate ways, they're seeking to create the perfect memory. For Perry, the trip is a glorious celebration of his favourite things: mythical sea monsters, Jackie Chan movies, and the study of earthquakes. For Justine, it's a chance to "free" her twin, to see who she is without her boyfriend, Marc -- and to offer their mother to chance to atone for past wrongs.
This sums up the story beautifully. I suppose it's not the done thing to also add sentences to the effect of: 'a beautiful emotional story that somehow manages never to descend into melodrama,' or 'finally a love story that's more about familial love than the romantic type,' or 'characters you'll wish were actually real so you could give them a big hug (if they were up for it of course).' These are the kind of postscripts I'd tack on if it was my job to write a blurb for this book -- which tells you what a good thing it is that this isn't my job.

Are You Seeing Me? is set partly in Brisbane and partly in Vancouver, Canada, echoing the author's own background. Darren Groth is a Queenslander now writing from Vancouver, where he lives with his wife and thirteen-year-old twins. Recently I got to chat with Darren about his work.

Before talking about the text itself, a process question because I'm fascinated by the processes of creativity and the rituals (or lack of them) that creators employ. What does your writing process look like? And how long did it take to write AYSM, from idea to final draft?

My process is pretty organic. I'm not a huge planner of a novel -- a lot of the details reside in my head and unfold on the page. I tend to start with a simple idea or scenario which, through the thousand and one questions that result, ends up becoming a full blown story.

With AYSM, it began with an idea close to home for me: a set of twins -- one with a disability, the other without -- left on their own after their father's passing and their mother's departure many years ago. From that basic premise, the questions commenced: who are they? Where are they at in their lives? What happened to the father? Where is the mother now? Eventually, I had answers to all the questions and a tale to tell.

The first draft of AYSM took almost a year to write. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be the first of many. Final draft would come after six previous! I think it turned out for the best, though.

I'd agree with that.

The relationship between AYSM and your own family story is quite clear. When did you first realise you wanted to write a book like this? Did you wrestle at all with finding a balance between following the story you were writing versus exploring the story you are living?

I knew soon after the release of my previous novel, Kindling, that I would do AYSM. I wanted to write a book that would be a gift to my daughter and explored the idea of a young woman trying to find her own way while caring for her brother. As you mentioned, there were plenty of touch-points I could bring from my own family's circumstances -- not enough that you would call the work "faction", though. Historically, I've tended to do that with my novels: I'll use compelling narratives from my own experience, add lots of made-up stuff, give it all to caracters I create, and then see where it ends up.

This makes perfect sense. And I suspect we can't help but imbue our fiction with some of our own history, even if we are writing in worlds completely different to our own.

Have your children read the story? Did they offer any feedback?

My kids are thirteen; neither has read the story yet. My daughter will read it one day -- as it's dedicated to her, I hope she loves it. She's more into The Hunger Games and The Simpsons at the moment. My son, due to his ASD, may never be able to read AYSM or Kindling (the book that was my gift to him). He has progressed very well over the years, though, so never say never!

It's very important to AYSM that both Justine and Perry have a voice. It's not solely Justine's story; neither is it solely Perry's. Did you always intend to tell the story like this, even from its inception? And did you encounter any special challenges in writing a story with two protagonists?

For a while, I entertained just writing AYSM from Justine's perspective. Not far into it, I understood Perry needed to be heard, too. He was actually far easier to write than his sister. Justine is far more nuanced than Perry and required a lot more care during editing to ensure her voice was consistent and authentic. Putting Perry on the page involved a greater amount of research (everything I now know about earthquakes, sea monsters, and Jackie Chan movies, I owe to him), but he was a dream to author.

The editing and crafting shines through. Justine's character is gently deep and manages to authentically straddle the sometimes awkward divide between youth and adulthood.

Speaking of divides, the book, with its dual settings of Brisbane and Canada, has a very strong sense of place. How important to you is this sense of place in what you read and write? Is it always as significant within the text as with AYSM? How does being an Australian living in another country help (or challenge) you as a writer?

Place, when done particularly well, is like another character. One of my favourite reads of all time is I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti, and the backdrop for that -- a remote rural town in southern Italy -- is remarkable and plays as much of a role in proceedings as any of the protagonists. If my sense of place in AYSM is half as good as Ammaniti's then I'm rapt.

Regarding living in Canada as an Aussie, I think it offers a different stimulus to my work than I otherwise would've had remaining in Brisbane. As Justine herself might put it: no better or worse -- just different.

Beautifully said. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and background on this important story. Good luck with all your future work!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The season of love:

I got to spend most of this past week down south with my precious friend Meaghan as she prepared to marry her true love handsomeface manperson. It felt like such a privilege being behind the scenes of all that pre-wedding busyness -- and then to actually walk down the aisle ahead of the bride's sister and niece and then the bride herself.

Wedded bliss might signal the end of our epic Meaghan-and-Danielle weekends (usually an annual occurence), and I will undoubtedly grieve the subtle shift of things, but at the same time, I'm rejoicing for her and for the great man she has married. Lives change all the time, every moment of every day, but it's very cool to get to watch and observe one of those new chapters as it begins. (Plus, pretty dresses and 1938 Fords were involved!).

Added to all that was the fact that so many wonderful people came together to celebrate Meaghan and Geoff, and we -- the guests -- took advantage of the cool company to catch up with friends and family we see only too rarely. Love was in the air, and not just wedding-love!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Are You Seeing Me?"; one of my favourite reads of 2014 so far.

I've been in something of a heavy duty reading/writing/creating slump since July. But this week I read Darren Groth's Are You Seeing Me?, which was a completely spontaneous purchase on National Bookshop Day, and I loved it.

For a summary, check out Goodreads. In the meantime, here's a hastily-scribbled impressionistic list of reasons why I think this book is great:

1) it's beautifully-written. From the get-go, the prose is lovely -- gentle, literary, but never over-written. Here's a taste, from page 37, as twins Perry and Justine step out into the Canadian sun for the first time and stop to take a selfie: "The snap is more than money -- it is perfect. Our eyes are ablaze. Our grins are starlight. Despite the fifteen-hour flight and lack of sleep, we have been captured at some sort of fission point; the release permitting the very best of our past, present and future to burst through for a nanosecond. As I stand there, spellbound, breathing the gluggy Vancouver air, the photograph materialises in other places, other times..." On top of that, it's a good story. It's possible to have great words but a bad tale; happily, this is not one of those books. It works.

2) it's contemporary YA literature that manages to avoid cliches and tropey-ness. First off, there's not a love triangle in sight. In fact, there's only a glimmer of romance and what's there is honest, real, and not composed of pink-tinged warm fuzzies. Secondly, there's very little space given to what the characters look like or wear, or their appraisal of others' appearances. The story isn't about school or work or rivalry or the boy next door (none of which are wrong, all of which have been done a thousand times before). Finally, at 19 years old and functioning as the primary carer for her brother, Justine is the exact definition of YA: a young adult. She is wrestling with responsibility, decisions about the future, relationships, the way others perceive her brother's disability. Her experiences are ones readers will relate to no matter what their age.

3) Perry and Justine live in Brisbane, and there is something so I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I-like-it about reading a book with links to a place you know and love. It's a feeling akin to belonging, or even ownership. Having looked out onto the same bridge, same river, same bookstore cafe that the characters are also seeing makes their story that much more real, more tangible. And for me, it brought up all my fledgling feelings of Queensland patriotism, which have taken eight years to generate.

 4) it punched me right in the heart. My little brother has down syndrome, so I get what it's like to walk through life with an answer waiting on the edge of your tongue, ready to explain away anything that people find unusual or unsettling. There's 17 years and three other siblings between me and him, but the others all live away and I live right next door, and that feeling of the two of us out to face the world is something I can relate to deeply. Sometimes I have dreams of disasters happening and the one person I always try to find in the midst of the tsunami or the earthquake, the one person I have to reach to make sure he's safe, is my brother Tain. I could understand Justine's fierce love for her brother because I feel that for my brother, too. At the same time, I felt a little envious of these characters. Perry -- who narrates part of the story -- is articulate and expressive. He's able to explain himself clearly. He has defined tastes and interests, special skill sets, and knowledge that can impress others. There is no external sign of his disability. Though people might be startled or feel uncomfortable because of the way Perry responds to situations, he can also blend into a crowd. No one can look at him and, simply by evaluating his physical characteristics, make assumptions about his abilities, his personality, his worth. I envied that in Perry and wished momentarily for some of those things for my brother. This was a new experience for me, but at the same time it reminded me that things always look different from the outside looking in.

5) finally, it inspired me to love better, which is one of the best things a book can do.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The warrior virtue.

I got home from work today and just wanted to cry. It was nothing particularly to do with work and nothing particularly to do with home. I just felt tired from the inside out, and it suddenly caught up with me. Everything I had to do felt too difficult and too awful, and the few things I’m looking forward to over the next little while all seemed so wrapped up in other things that terrify me that it felt/feels impossible to separate the yay from the unyay in order to really enjoy them.

While the physical reality of this hit with a fresh intensity, the vibe wasn’t exactly new. I’ll admit it: a certain sense of cynicism has crept into my soul lately. I didn’t notice it happening. I didn’t intentionally stamp out the flames of optimism. Suddenly I just realised: I’m not such a hopeful person anymore. I’m more skeptical. I’m more doubtful. I have less of a sense of anticipation about the future. And every time I watch the news, I regret it.

 I used to be Pollyanna, but these days I feel more like Daria. Without the funny bits.

 As it turned out, my teaching appointment was cancelled for the afternoon, and I was able to collapse onto my couch instead, shutting my mind to the million other things I’m supposed to be doing this week. I put my iPod on shuffle, and Mumford & Sons’ Thistle and Weeds came on. It’s not my favourite of their songs, so I hadn’t given it as much attention as some of the others that caught at me from the very first listen. Today, though, the words made me stop:

Plant your hope with good seeds / Don't cover yourself with thistle and weeds

I was arrested by this image of hope as a garden, a garden that requires cultivation, energy, pruning, and watering. I thought of how cynicism and snark can spring up like thistles and weeds, and how once the weeds take over a patch, it’s so much harder for the good seeds to grow there.

Then came the chorus:

But I will hold on / I will hold on hope.

Hope is such a small word. A slight word. A simple word. I equated it with Pollyanna before, and sometimes I suspect that is how we think of it: as the sunshiny stuff of children’s stories from last century. But there’s a reason the image of the anchor has come to represent hope: hope is the weight that can keep the soul from being dragged away by the rips and currents that yank it off course. Hope strains under its own strength. Hope pulls, hope catches, hope preserves, and hope keeps alive.

Hope saves us from shipwreck. Hope is fierce. It has guts, and it has muscles. Hope is the stuff of warriors.

Last week, I got a text from a friend I rarely see or talk to, but who is one of those steadfast, true, and excellent people in my life. She reminded me that the last time we’d caught up was for New Year’s Eve. We danced and sweated our way into 2014 in my tiny Housie living room, and we talked about Woody Guthrie’s New Year’s resolutions from 1943. The one that stood out to her was the call to action, Wake Up And Fight. The one that leapt up and smacked me on the nose was this: Keep the Hoping Machine Running.

I loved it so much that I painted it on the front of my moleskine planner. That way, I’d see it daily all through 2014. But after my friend’s text, I saw those words anew, with a jolt. My hope machine hasn’t been running at full horsepower. In fact, I think I’ve let the fuel tank run low. My little hope machine has been coughing by on mere fumes. Time for some jumper cables, I think.

Considering hope as this thing that can be fed or starved, fuelled or run dry, may seem oddly contradictory. After all, we can’t just magic our way into joy or click our red-shoed heels and find ourselves there. So is hope fake?

I can’t believe that it is. Jesus notched its importance up there right alongside faith and love. And through humanity’s long history of messes and flaws, it has been the thing telling people to walk on. So it makes sense that sometimes we have to tell our hope itself to hope on, too. The Psalmist literally told his soul to keep hoping. And Dory did the same thing when she sang that magical phrase, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”

If hope is a garden, we must weed it. If hope is an anchor, we must cling to it. If hope is a machine, we must keep it running. Just keep swimming.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Books for 10 and 11 year-olds (kind of):

Book recommendations are quite a personal thing. You know a friend would love a certain book because she's totally into dystopia, but you also know it would keep another friend up all night freaking out. One friend might be fine with a few cuss words here and there, but it would totally spoil the reading experience for a different friend.

The recommendation lines are drawn even more finely when it comes to sharing books with kids. This one might be a perfect read-alone for one particular ten-year-old, but to another, it's just too much sorrow and might only work as a read-aloud with time to pause in order to discuss issues as they arise. A book may have some wonderful themes and ideas, but the occasional violent imagery upsets some parents. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sharing books.

I was not a discerning reader when I was ten. I read anything I could lay my hands on, and I don't think it messed me up too much. But there are definitely things I probably shouldn't have read when I was quite so young -- or maybe I've just turned all mother-hen in my relative old age? Because I am much more cautious in my approach to throwing books at kids than I was in my approach to catching said books when I was a kid.

All of which is my really long-winded way of saying that a book that's great for one kid may not be so for another. It might be too mature for one and too young for another; you know how it goes. That being said, one of my favourite ways to engage with books and find great new things to read or share is in talking about them. And recently I've had a few people ask me for recommendations for grade five/six readers. Which can only mean... BOOKLIST TIME!

I have erred on the side of delicacy here, which means that these are books meant for young readers. You may be fine with your eleven-year-old reading The Fault in Our Stars (at this point, I wouldn't be), but there won't be anything that grown-up in my list. The ones I am sharing, though, are books I've engaged with predominantly as an adult reader -- which tells you they are good books (to me, at least) because their appeal and quality is enduring regardless of age. I've split the books into two segments based on the fact that one friend requested some lighter, happier reads. Again, such distinctions might be arbitrary; what one reader finds heavy, another reader might consider fluff. It's all relative, and many serious books can be written lightly and gently, so feel free to make up your own mind. Regardless, all of these books are ones I consider fairly gentle, even though many of them tackle difficult topics. Categorisations are hard!

Feel free, also, to throw your own recommendations at me. Inspired by swellvalleybloodpulse's snappy instagram book reviews (check them out; they are like delicious little bookish word-poems!), I've taken just a few words to describe each text:

Slightly lighter:
  • Collins, Suzanne -- urban fantasy, a kidnapped little sister, giant talking cockroaches, and high adventure underground in The Underland Chronicles.
  • DiCamillo, Kate -- small town USA, dogs, preteen years, unsual characters, and single parents in Because of Winn-Dixie.
  • Hirsch, Odo -- mysteries, adventure, a cast of lively characters, everyday life, and beautiful turns of phrases in the Hazel Green books, the Bartlett books, the Darius Bell books, and FrankelMouse.
  • Holm, Jennifer L -- the great depression, Florida Keys, family belonging, and ingenuity in Turtle in Paradise.
  • L'Engle, Madeleine -- family, fantasy, time travel, connection, and allegory in A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Peterson, Andrew -- family fantasy, mythical beasts, an epic journey, and lost jewels in On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.
  • Sachar, Louis -- everyday coming-of-age with fantastical elements, tall tale, racism, bullying, buried treasure, and family in Holes.
  • Spinelli, Jerry -- being different, social acceptance, school life, creativity, and wonder in Eggs and Loser.
  • Stead, Rebecca -- moving into the teen years, middle school, family relationships, agoraphobia, spying, and a twist in the tale in Liar & Spy.

Slightly heavier:
  • Avi -- the medieval period, Catholicism, hierarchy, the Black Death, and minstrel life in Crispin: the Cross of Lead.
  • Bauer, Michael Gerard -- Brisbane setting, local community, family relationships, PTSD in The Running Man.
  • George, Elizabeth -- the Middle East during the time of Christ, parentless children, disability, faith, and conflict in The Bronze Bow.
  • Kerr, Judith -- world war II, Germany and France, nominal Judaism, belonging, coming-of-age, and family in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
  • Palacio, RJ -- disability, social acceptance, friendship, family, and multiple POVs in Wonder.
  • Serraillier, Ian -- world war II, refugees, families separated, Poland during the German occupation, all in The Silver Sword.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The day of wreckening.

I would say I'm sorry for the terrible pun up there in the post title, only I'm not. Bad puns make the world a better place. So, too, do bad art projects.

I say 'bad' not because there is some inherent morality attached to the Wreck This Journal project I've been doing with my students, but because discussions of art are so often about good art versus bad art, about achievement versus failure. The 'good' or 'bad' of art is generally a question of quality or aesthetic value, and it finds its meaning in the finished work of the piece. Of course, in reality, the meaning is also ascribed to (or taken away from) the art mostly by its observers and critics. It has meaning and value to the artist who lovingly (or angrily or frustratedly or carelessly) laboured over it, but it gains its social and artistic value primarily from others.

For nearly two years, my students and I have been working on wrecking our own journals. It's not something we do every week or have a fixed timeframe for working on; we pull them out if the more typical school business of English and history are done, or if we need an injection of randomness in our day. Using Keri Smith's Wreck This Journal as a guide, we'll flip to a page and then follow its (sometimes bizarre or vaguely uncomfortable) instructions in our own tacky exercise books. Sometimes we come across a page we've already done, and we challenge each other to complete the same exercise again, but differently.

I think I've mentioned before that the kids were wary of the journal-wrecking approach when we first started. I heard a lot of "Am I really allowed to do this?" followed by, "But what if it looks lame?" These days, they are wrecking pros. They will smear glue all over a page without a second thought. They will substitute an "ugly" piece of paper when the "pretty" ones are all gone. They will scribble madly over something already completed. And each time we add another half-dozen pages to our books, we look at the fat, awkward, warped shape of the volume with satisfaction.

The coolest part of the Wreck This Journal project is that the emphasis falls more heavily on process than on results. There are very few realms of life in which this happens. Results are what we find important, and we tailor our processes in order to achieve optimal results. It doesn't work like that with Wreck This Journal -- the creative play is the end goal; perfection is off-limits -- and if the result is something that makes us wrinkle our nose, we shrug and move along. Working to achieve something is healthy and good. But sometimes it is just as healthy to play and make for the joy of playing and making, entirely divorcing the process from the results.

Which could be kind of a metaphor for childhood or something, if only I wasn't too hungry to really sit down and think it through.


  • Asea -- yes! That's the copy of Winter Book that you sent me! I figured that this cold season was the perfect time to pull it out again. I love revisiting books seasonally :)
  • Emily Dempster -- your life sounds so full and happy right now! I'm delighting with you in all the cool stuff that's going on!
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