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!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Because I do (Vol. II)

Here, have a collection of incredibly disparate, random things I'm enjoying and appreciating this week. I'm calling it my list of...

Things I do like (today): --

  • Sunshine -- I feel a little as if I've been in hibernation, but today the sun is out in full glorious force and I am determined to take myself down to the bay and soak in its warming loveliness.
  • Camp Nanowrimo -- July is Camp NaNoWriMo: all the fun of National Novel Writing Month with less word pressure and more marshmallows! For the record, virtual camping is the only kind of camping I really like, and this sort in particular is the best. This is my first year participating in Nano Camp, and I'm mostly here because my infinitely more go-getting friend Laura convinced me to take part. During NaNoWriMo in November, the rules are simple but strict: write a 50,000 word novel (or 50,000 words of a novel). Nano Camp is a lot more flexible; you get to make your own goals. My main intent was to pull out the novel I wrote during Nano a couple of years back and actually finish it. I had reached 50,000 words but not "The End," and there were some plot gaps and sequencing issues I needed to go back and fill in. All breeze and bluster, I cheerfully filled in my Nano Camp goal of 20,000 words, which is what I figure this novel needs to reach completed first draft status. As it happens, we're seven days into Camp Nano and I've written all of 600 words. However, I have been spending time revisiting what I've written, rereading it in full (which I hadn't done since I'd finished), and making notes as I go. The exciting thing is that I still love my characters. Well, there's one I'd like to smack across the face, but he deserves it. And there's another that deserves so much more than what I've given him in this story. There are sentences that I cringe about, but that's par for the course. The cool thing is the story is still there and I don't completely hate it. I'm relishing this chance to spend a little more time making it somewhere closer to better.
  • Force 10 International -- I randomly caught a news article last week talking about this Brisbane-based company. What they do is create flat-pack housing that's designed to be built quickly by non-professional labourers and is especially created to withstand nature's worst, in the form of cyclones, tornadoes, flooding, and termites. There is so much good that can be done with a resource like this. I'm super-impressed. Also, any company whose name calls to mind an Alistair MacLean novel has to be at least half-cool.
  • Rhett & Link chat to John Green -- this week on Ear Biscuits, Rhett and Link chatted to author, vlogger, and social change inspirer (let's let that be a word, okay?) John Green. People love to rag on this guy, possibly because he's successful and people respect him (always motivation for some internet sledging, I find), but after this interview, I found myself liking and respecting him even more. John Green is neither the antichrist nor the second coming, but he is someone who consistently exhibits a lot of wisdom and grace in his thoughts and actions about life, creativity, and making the world better.
  • Hamish & Andy's South America Gap Year -- my favourite real-life broship is back on tv for another season of Gap Year and I'm happy. I'm in the middle of writing a post entirely about Hamish and Andy, and if I can overcome my ultimate fangirl embarrassment, I'll have it up at some point. In the meantime, if you're unfamiliar with Hamish and Andy, just imagine Frodo and Sam with none of the hobbitness or the angst, all of the silliness, and a generous helping of dorky Australian. Then imagine them exploring/doing/eating all the craziest things that South America has to offer. Yes, it is a recipe for joy (and occasional squinty eyes when one of them is eating something gross and you can't look away).
  • Beauty basics -- it's winter, which means most of my beauty regime is about not drying out so much that I resemble an old leather boot. At the moment I'm appreciating the Dirty Works hand cream, the Olay Regenerist revitalising hydration cream (a sample size that came in this month's BellaBox and which has totally won me over), and the ever-great Burt's Bees lip balm with acai berry. With the lack of heat and humidity, I'm also loving not having to wash my hair every day, and the VO5 Instant Oomph Powder is my new favourite thing. I actually was inspired to try volumising powder after watching a men's hairstyle tutorial (don't even judge me), and this stuff is so good. Breathes new life into second-day hair, which, for someone with thin hair like me, is super handy.
On that very girly note (I hope I haven't scared away the 18.7 men who read this blog): what are you digging this week? If we had an hour to meet for coffee, what current favourite things would you tell me about?


  • Asea -- "It all comes down to the choices I make. I choose not to have a car or house because I want to be in grad school, and that means a very limited income right now. I choose to embrace the freedom of being single and child-free and use my time to travel. I choose to study a thing I love and do a job I like, rather than go for the super stressful career that eats my soul. Being a grown-up really means making all the choices, and living with their consequences. And, honestly, I really like most of the choices I have made, and I definitely like where they have taken me." This. This is so great.
  • Meaghan -- YAY! I'm glad someone got my incredibly vague reference! And you're so right: you cannot unhear her say it once you know her voice! 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"It's time we stopped talking about what we're going to do when we grow up. We ARE up."

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but whenever I think of adulthood -- or what I once thought it would be -- I remember a project we were tasked with in primary school. On a piece of paper segmented into four rectangles, we were meant to draw projections of our future selves. The future self that stands out the most is me as a woman in my twenties or thirties. I am wearing a shockingly attractive canary yellow skirt suit (most probably influenced by Princess Diana, I’m thinking) and a matching pair of yellow patent leather pumps. My heels are high, my hair is long, and my handbag (also yellow) swings out from my hip, suggesting that here is a woman who is going places fast. I don’t know what I imagined this future woman doing, but it was important and it involved an office. Yes, an office, little baby past-Danielle. Most likely on the twenty-third floor. With a snappily-dressed personal assistant who would carry that handbag when I needed both hands free for doing important business stuff. You know it.

Oh baby little dreams, you know what I think of you? I think: HA HA HA HA HA. (And not just because of the canary yellow, which was never going to look good on anyone except Lady Di.)

I have never worn a skirt suit in my entire life. I have like three items of clothing with actual lapels and the closest thing to a suit is a pseudo-biker jacket. I have also never worn high heels. Ever. The intense surgery I had on my feet as a baby took care of that. Of course, they’re the same feet I had when I drew the picture, but maybe while I scribbled, I was thinking puberty was going to miraculously give me princess feet. Puberty didn’t give me princess anything.

 It’s more than that, though. The idea of wearing power suits and working on the twenty-third floor of some swish high-rise is a bit terrifying. I still wear pink hi-top sneakers. I have a penchant for ugly cardigans. Sometimes the Captain Planet theme song gets stuck in my head for no reason at all. I am so far from being the poised businesswoman dressed head to heels in Pantone #14-0848 (Mimosa) that occasionally it hits me: I might be letting my big-dreamer younger self down. Or, perhaps even more terrifying: I worry that I still am my big-dreamer younger self, masquerading as a grown up and telling myself I’ll be the power-walking hair-swisher some day.

 I think, though, that the more honest truth is that my definition of adulthood has changed. I don’t see myself needing to attain the executive office because adulthood is more than that and less than that. I’m rewriting my definition because I’m an adult now but I’m not the adult I thought I’d be. Which sounds like a terribly backwards Gen Y method for coming up with anything, and not in a good way. “Let’s do this thing and see what it becomes and then let’s call it what we think it looks like.” Flaky, I know.

But my total failure to become what I thought I’d be reminds me that I actually no longer want to be that person. Who knows if I ever did? For most of my childhood and teens, I resisted the entire idea of growing up, putting my foot down against the unwished-for intrusion of hormones, responsibility, and the inevitable decline into life as the kind of boring person who would rather talk than play. Eventually I reconciled to the idea of adulthood, but I subconsciously filed away certain new parameters under which such a state of being would be attained. Now that I have attained said state of being (mostly through no other virtue than that I recognise that it has happened), I realise that once again I’ve failed to master any of the steps I thought were required. Or if I somehow reached them, they turned out to be far less impressive than I’d hoped.

For one thing, I thought that an aura of busyness was the glamorous external proof of a gloriously adult life. Double-booking events? So mature. Having something on every evening? Seriously cool. Having to schedule phone calls with your own sister? Man, that is Adulthood with a capital A. Actually, it’s not. It’s the curse of our age, and being busy says nothing about age or maturity; it says you either have too much on your plate, or you’re a bad manager, neither of which are particularly fantastic. I have been tear-your-hair-out busy, and it doesn’t make me feel more adult. It just makes me feel tired.

I was sure, too, that adults always know what to say. No matter what comes at them, they can answer with a gentle laugh or a sympathetic frown. Adults don’t regret the things they say. They certainly don’t drive home after parties replaying cringeable moments in their heads. And they find a way to say yes to everything, mostly because they are good at everything, so nothing is ever a problem. (Nope. No. No. No).

Similarly, I thought adulthood means curbing your enthusiasm and being mildly interested in things rather than a rabid fan. Adulthood also means growing out of the things you once loved. Not just some things, but all of them. Of course, when I believed this initially, I had forgotten about the existence of Batman. So there’s that.

Adding to the enthusiasm thing, all adults are supposed to closely hold the secrets of the universe within their psyche. They are neither openly enthusiastic nor insecure. They also keep a lot of thoughts private, which makes them seem aloof and mysterious and cool. Try as I might, I don’t tend to hold my own secrets very closely (behold, evidential artefact #72: this blog). I’m intrigued by the humanity of humans, by this bizarre shared experience of being people in this world together. I believe in openness and honesty (with discretion, at the right time). I care about authenticity and genuineness. I think we have a lot to offer each other, and we do that by sharing. Yes, I still find the mystique of mysteriousness to be ridiculously compelling, but I’m learning that it’s not necessarily any more adult than being a (mostly) open book.

Of course, my original view of adults also held that they have all the answers. They know what to think and they know when to think it. They are sure of what they believe. They are sure they are sure. I was actually like this once, and it was a really confidence-boosting time to be alive. I had so many answers and so few questions! I was interesting! Self-assured! Articulate! Actually, I was probably quite smug and self-satisfied and if you encountered that version of me, I am genuinely sorry. I don’t have all the answers any more. I major in uncertainty, and sometimes this frustrates me. Whether this is a failing of adulthood, a failing of myself, or not even a failing at all, I don’t know. But sometimes I feel that uncertainty is a healthier place to rest. Clinging certainly in the uncertain places, finding peace with my own lack of answers/resting in the wisdom and grace of others, fits far more closely with the Judeo-Christian worldview I hold to. It’s a belief system that acknowledges neediness and turns it into strength. Its leader shrugged off divinity to embrace the weakness of humanity. He calls to “all who are weary.” Less answers means more need, closer communion. You don’t have to be inherently awesome, but you will be awesomely loved.

Most of all, adults don’t talk about being adults. They just are, and they don’t need to analyse or examine it because they’re good at it without thinking. They don’t look at the chicken curry bubbling in a crockpot and think, “This is adulthood!” But I, who cannot adult without recognising my adulting, relish the small things that remind me I’m a grown up. Buying a clothes airer, for example. Pulling apart the plumbing under my vanity unit and putting it all together again. Having obscure ingredients in my pantry just when I need them. Realising I would rather stay in some nights than go out every evening and that’s a choice I get to make. These little rites of passage are, of course, as arbitrary as the wattle-coloured handbag and the fancy job. But I’ll take them, because adulthood isn’t my childhood fantasy any more; it’s reality, and I find I rather like it.

Finally, adults certainly don’t say “the end” at the conclusion of their stories, because that’s a thing left over from fairytales, and adults have outgrown fairytales.

(Myth: BUSTED).



  • Cora Lynn -- lovely to get a comment from you! It made me grin; I love strong book opinions/feelings :D
  • Emily Dempster -- well, I do hear you there. If you can't go all out with roses and lace on a romantic book, then when can you?
  • Jasmine Ruigrok -- ooh, I had totally written my blog post from the perspective of someone who's just like "OOH BOOKS PRETTY!" but it added a whole new level thinking about it from the perspective of someone who designs book covers themselves. Some cool insights, thank you!
  • Jessica -- I am so with you on not wanting to see a photo representing the character. I'd much rather see no physical depiction of the character and get to form my own opinion of what he or she looks like based on the author's words. But if there is going to be a picture -- art, not photo!
  • Meaghan -- thank you, milady!
  • Rachel Lyn -- thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment. Totally with you on the minimal cover preference/no people pictures thing!
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