fourw-twenty-sevenMy copy of FourW twenty-seven arrived the other day, and I was really pleased to see ‘A daughter’s dream’ – one of the songs from Lullaby & Lament: A Song Cycle – published inside its pages. FourW is an annual anthology of poetry and prose produced by Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga. David Gilbey and the rest of the Booranga team have done a fabulous job with this year’s edition, and I particularly love the cover.

‘A daughter’s dream’ is one of my favourite songs from the cycle, and the lyrics are about my father’s death. He died alone, in a hospital room on the Gold Coast, while I was in Armidale. I was planning to visit him the next day, and if things had turned out differently, I would have done all the things I dreamed about in this song:

 

A man, he is dying

in a room all alone

his body decaying

his thoughts not his own.

 

His daughter is dreaming

in a town far away

of the things she will do

of the things she will say.

 

She will tackle her fear

she will look death in the face

she will sing to her father

she will do it with grace.

 

She will wipe down his body

she will kiss his soft cheek

she will place his hands gently

on his chest, as in sleep.

 

She will do all of this

and then she will weep.

 

Two weeks ago, I moved into ‘Writing HQ’ – a 100-year-old house in central Armidale – where I am in walking distance to most things I need, and where I have a backyard that goes on forever. This is the view from my back door, and one day that red-roofed shed will be my writing studio:

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I can’t stop looking at this magnificent garden, which goes on for much longer than the photo shows. Most days I feel like I’m staying at a retreat somewhere, like Varuna or Bundanon, but then I remember that this is actually where I live. I feel very fortunate. When the previous owners renovated the house 18 years ago, they were wise enough to design things in such a way that the garden can be viewed while cooking, washing the dishes, sitting at the dining table, having a shower or even brushing your teeth. I love it!

The garden is full of birds and birdsong. Next door, an elderly Russian birdwoman coos and calls to the birds each morning before she feeds them apples and oranges, placed carefully on sticks near her feet. Sometimes, if the birds are lucky, they get cashews. When I hear her cooing outside, I always think of the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins.

I have landed in a good place – a haven from the outside world – and I think I’ll stay here for a long time. I’ve been reading about Sunday Reed’s garden at Heide, and also enjoying the poems of Rumi and David Whyte. A print-maker friend from Uralla recently gave me a blossom print for my new house which includes these words by Rumi:

Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.

Rumi’s words couldn’t be more fitting for the situation I now find myself in. But amidst the house hunting, buying and moving, and the unsettled months I had in Uralla, my creative pursuits have been sidelined. It’s time to steer the ship back in the right direction. I’m hoping to find a publisher for my second memoir, ‘Yahtzee and the Art of Happiness’, so I’m going through the manuscript one more time before I send it away – heeding the lessons I’ve learnt from working with editors such as Judith Lukin-Amundsen, Anne Reilly, Jo Jarrah and Kristy Bushnell. ‘Yahtzee’ is a good, strong memoir about pregnancy and birth choices – written before Wild Boys – and I’m proud of it.

Also, the instrumentation for the song cycle I’ve been working on with Christopher Purcell is nearly complete, and I’m really looking forward to hearing how those songs have developed. In the meantime, I’m going to continue writing my own songs and I remain inspired by the late Leonard Cohen. Halleluja.

 

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… I had to spend my first day as writer-in-residence wandering around downtown Wagga waiting for the exhaust specialist to replace the front and rear muffler on my car.

… I walked around the Charles Sturt University campus and was attacked by noisy miners on several frightening occasions.

… a rabbit-shaped rock outside the verandah fooled me every morning.

… I went downtown and had a haircut which caused me to avoid all mirrors for several days (it’s not such a bad thing to avoid mirrors – at my son’s school, instead of a mirror above the hand basin they have a sign which reads: You are beautiful).

… I had to give a reading at the Historic Council Chambers straight after my haircut, but the audience were so appreciative that I almost forgot how bad my hair looked.

… I caught up with Joan Cahill who I once met at Varuna – I bought her newly published collection of poems and was surprised (and pleased) to see my name in a poem titled ‘Hubris Halved’.

… I felt alone and lonely and happy to be alone – and recognition of these feelings came upon me at various times throughout each day.

… I bought a $3 saucepan at a second-hand shop in Wagga, and later realised it was from Baccarat’s stainless steel range and worth $150 new (this discovery helped me feel a little better about my haircut).

… I went to the Write Around the Murray festival in Albury where I gave a memoir workshop, spoke on a panel discussion and met some wonderful writers – like Sue Gillett, Benjamin Law, and Biff Ward.

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… I followed some tracks that ran along the steep hill behind the cottage and came across the largest kangaroos I’ve ever seen.

… I joined David Gilbey’s book group one evening and drank wine and ate delicious cheese and heard many interesting things about The Turn of the Shrew by Henry James.

… I read through a memoir manuscript that I wrote years ago and realised how very hard that time of my life was.

… I treasured the moments the sun shone on the verandah.

… the contracts were finalised on a wonderful old house I’ve just bought in Armidale.

… I heard some sad news about a friend’s daughter which put all my problems into perspective.

… I read through past copies of fourW and loved many of the contributions – especially the work of Alison Eastley.

… on my last day, I gave a memoir workshop and was astounded by the wealth of talent in the room.

… I remembered – once again – that I am a writer.

Thank you Booranga!

 

For the next two weeks, I’m a writer-in-residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga. The drive from Uralla was very long. I mostly followed a flat straight ribbon of a road that ran past glowing fields of canola crops which gave the landscape a strange, surreal Wizard of Oz look. Many creeks and rivers were overflowing from the recent rains and parts of the road were covered with water as well. David Gilbey, president of Wagga Wagga Writers Writers, welcomed me on arrival and I am now comfortably settled in the writer’s flat. Tomorrow, I’m heading off to the ‘Write Around the Murray’ festival in Albury, where I’m giving a memoir writing workshop and appearing on a panel discussion – ‘Mother Lode’ – with Biff Ward, Benjamin Law and Sue Gillett. I’m really looking forward to both of these events and also to attending a host of other sessions at the festival.

The writer’s flat in the old Booranga House is simple and spacious, and the acoustics in the kitchen are wonderful. The best thing, though, is the side verandah, where I enjoy the morning sun while I have a coffee. It’s a good place to stare absently at the bush and the rocks and listen to the birds. I am slowly shaking off the demands of normal life.

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There’s a black cat – “Puss” – that lives under the verandah on my side of the house. Although Puss is a very shy cat, she has gained some notoriety over the years, and has featured in a number of poems by visiting writers. Sandra Treble and Kate Dunn, also part of the Booranga team, care for this black cat with a lot of love. Anyway, Puss reminds me of my own black cat – Sooty – who died last September. I wrote a song about Sooty’s death for Lullaby & Lament: a song cycle. Here are the lyrics:

 

A first lesson in death

Death lies on the road

in the shape of a cat,

in the glare of the headlights

life ends, just like that.

 

A boy weeps loudly

like never before,

a mother cries softly

as she opens the door.

With her parcel of grief,

her parcel of death,

her thoughts all jumbled,

she is filled with regret.

 

Yes, it was only a pet,

it was simply a cat,

but the weight in her arms

is heavier than that.

For her boy, lost in tears,

a first lesson in death.

 

She cradles the cat,

still warm in the night,

calls her boy to her side:

‘Come, say your goodbyes.’

Black Cat, how we loved you,

we teased you and hugged you,

we fed you, we raised you,

and now we farewell you.

 

Yes, it was only a pet,

it was simply a cat,

but the weight in her arms

is heavier than that.

For her boy, lost in tears,

a first lesson in death.

 

Death lies on the road

in the shape of a cat,

in the glare of the headlights

life ends, just like that.

 

 

Two days ago, an article in The Australian – ‘BackTrack project saving kids from lockup’ – featured the work of Bernie Shakeshaft, founder and manager of BackTrack Youth Works in Armidale. The article, which raised important points about keeping kids out of jail and working on alternative solutions to incarceration, mentioned how Bernie and the team at BackTrack commonly ask young people who join the program about their hopes and dreams in life. ‘It takes them a while to answer,’ noted Bernie, ‘because they’re not used to hearing that [question].’

The story of BackTrack and the emergence of Bernie’s hugely successful programs in Armidale and further afield are documented in my memoir Wild Boys: A Parent’s Story of Tough Love (UQP), and Bernie’s comment about ‘hopes and dreams’ reminded me of a chapter in Wild Boys called ‘The Scent of an Idiot’, some of which I’ll share below:

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Wild-BoysExcerpt from Wild Boys: A Parent’s Story of Tough Love (pp. 11-12)

One day, as Bernie and I sat together on the concrete ledge outside the shed, I’d asked him what the boys were like when he first met them. He shook his head and grimaced: ‘They were the wildest bunch of hoorangs you’re likely to come across!’

I laughed at his pained expression. He found his tobacco and rolled a cigarette, his habitual way of settling in for a chat.

‘There were some damaged kids in that group,’ said Bernie, his voice low. ‘It was almost too late to start with them. Hard-core kids, on the edge of going inside for violent bashings, already identified as hopeless troublemakers, a lot of them living away from home. For sixteen years they’d heard the only thing that matters is getting a school certificate, only to be told: “It’s all bullshit. You guys aren’t going to get there.”’ Bernie gave a scornful huff. ‘The schools hadn’t worked on the strengths and dreams of those kids.’

He paused for a moment to light his smoke. ‘It was like getting a bag full of wild cats and letting them out in one room where they couldn’t escape. The schools kept saying I had to stick with the rules … that the boys weren’t allowed to smoke or swear.’ Bernie whistled through his teeth. ‘For Christ’s sakes, you send me twenty of your wildest boys – all full-on swearers and smokers and blasphemers – and tell me to enforce the school rules? It was wild!’ He grinned, his face alive with the memory. ‘We had knives pulled in the welding shed, and just as soon as you’d be finished with the knife incident, the boss-man from the college would be yelling, “What the hell is that kid doing up on top of that three-storey building!” The boys would show up black and blue, on the piss and smoking bongs. Not all of them ended up here at the shed – some did well, some not so well. One of them died, another’s in jail.’

‘It’s hard to believe the boys were like that.’ I thought of Thommo with his quiet dignity. ‘Was Thommo that wild?’

Bernie rolled his eyes and groaned. ‘He was the craziest! He and his mates were riding bikes into poles and dropping garbage bins on each other’s heads from the highest roof at school. Whatever someone did that was dangerous, Thommo did something double-dangerous. Thommo wouldn’t just jump off the third storey of the building – he’d want to jump through three sheets of glass as well. Taking it to extremes. Crazy self-mutilation stuff.’

We sat quietly for a moment.

‘I did a lot of that as a kid myself,’ said Bernie. ‘Hardly a bone in my body I haven’t broken – from having no fear or need for self-preservation. Dealing with those kids rang a lot of bells for me because, all those years ago, I would’ve been one of those wild cats let out of the bag.’

 

Holy heck … what a busy time it’s been! In April, I attended my formal graduation ceremony at the University of New England, where I was one of only ten PhD graduates who got to wear a flowing red gown and black beret. We certainly stood out in the crowd, and it all felt very exciting and Harry Potterish. Although I officially became Dr Pastor in January this year, the ceremony really helped to bring about a sense of resolution to all those years of hard work, and I’m so glad that three of my four children and a few friends were there to see me graduate.

Also, in May and July, Christopher Purcell and I organised two ‘Red Rug Sessions’ at Black Dot Music Store in Armidale. Black Dot owner, Tony Elder, regularly hosts informal concerts by local and visiting musicians in his store, and the ‘Red Rug’ sessions are well attended by the local community. Tony sets up comfy chairs and lounges around a shaggy red rug, dims the lights, and people sit back and listen to the music. There’s even a lucky door prize where the winner receives a jar of Tony’s delicious homemade chilli sauce. Chris and I thought the intimate atmosphere of Black Dot would be the perfect venue to premiere songs from our current collaboration: Lullaby & Lament – A Song Cycle. This project, for which I’ve written the lyrics and Chris has composed the music, features songs that relate the joys and sorrows of human life. At the first Red Rug concert, we ‘tested the water’ with four songs from the cycle along with a number of other songs that we’d written separately. The Lullaby & Lament songs were particularly well received … this collaboration rocks!

RED RUG SESSION 25 May 2016

For the second concert, Chris accompanied mezzo-soprano Ruth Strutt (Opera Australia) who sang twelve songs from the cycle to a record-breaking crowd at Black Dot. Hearing the songs performed by a singer of Ruth’s caliber was such a treat … and I feel very fortunate to have Ruth on board with this project. I also thought it was a positive sign when someone pressed $35 into my hand after the concert and said: ‘Put this towards the cost of a recording.’ Sure! Then, at the end of the night, a friend gave me the lucky door prize (which he had just won) … Tony’s ApricHot Chilli Sauce! All in all, the Red Rug sessions were a wonderful experience, and Chris and I hope to do another one towards the end of the year. But first, over the next few months, Chris will be finishing the instrumentation for the song cycle, and then we’re hoping to receive some funding to record Lullaby & Lament with Ruth Strutt when she’s next in town. Exciting times, folks … exciting times!

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LANTERN PARADE 2016

Yes, that’s me and my youngest son and a few of his school friends carrying the snake lantern in the annual Uralla Lantern Parade. Rob Stanley, a local photographer, took the photo. I love the strength of the image. We look like we’re walking into a new future, and that’s how I feel after moving to Uralla – a little town just south of Armidale on the New England highway. I’ve finally settled in after a pretty challenging move (over the past few months, I’ve learned that change may be a wonderful thing, but it’s also friggin’ scary for a while!).

In the first month, when it was all feeling like a big mistake, my son and I wrote a list of all the things we liked about Uralla – just so we (mainly me) had some positive things to focus on. Two of the things that made it onto the list were ‘horses’ and ‘the sky’. Uralla has a lot of horses, and there are two that live in a paddock behind my back fence. I feed them apples every day, and even after three months, I still marvel at the velvety softness of their noses. The sky also astounds me on a daily basis, and I can’t remember a time where I’ve ever paid so much attention to the changing nature of the clouds through the day or the clarity of the stars at night. So beautiful … I feel blessed to live in a town that enables me to enjoy such simple pleasures.

As for writing, I’ve finished all the lyrics for the ‘song-cycle’ project that I’ve been working on with a local composer, and I’m now planning my next literary adventure. In the meantime, I’m reading about Sunday Reed and Joy Hester and the creative circle at Heide, and also learning about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood – particularly William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oh, may there always be groups of artists who inspire each other!

Some welcome news … the wonderful team from Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga have invited me to be a writer-in-residence for two weeks in September later this year. I’m really looking forward to spending some dedicated writing time in such a beautiful rural location … apparently the writer’s flat overlooks the Charles Sturt University’s winery, grapevines and olive grove, so it’ll be almost like going to Italy! I’m also really keen to meet the local writing community, give a workshop and some readings, and explore the region. Thank you Booranga!

 

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Here’s a poem from my 2013 visit to Bundanon … 

 

Yesterday, while brushing my teeth, I heard a noise outside.

From the bathroom window I watched a crow

desperately trying to get into the Dorothy Porter studio;

tapping its beak on the glass, hurling its body against the door.

Later, wanting to know what all the fuss was about,

I walked across to the studio.

Nothing but an empty room.

But as I stood inside the white-walled, wooden-floored space,

I began vocalising to the sound of aahh,

and, because of rich acoustics,

my voice was unexpectedly beautiful –

as sweet as bird-song.

No wonder the crow wanted to break in.

 

Australian crow

I’m in the middle of moving … housesitting various places and living out of a suitcase while waiting for a bathroom to be completed in a lovely light-filled cottage in Uralla, a village fifteen minutes away from Armidale. Being caught in limbo land like this is a little challenging, but I’m trying to remember that change is a wonderful thing and that opportunities are flowing with change. It’s true. Lots of opportunities are arriving into my life – creative projects, work ideas, travel plans – and I’m also meeting some wonderful new people. About a year ago, when I was stuck in the editing wilderness of Wild Boys, I wrote a song called ‘Caravan Dreaming’ – about longing to escape in an old caravan I bought for my son’s 19th birthday. In a way, that dream has come about – all I’m missing is the caravan. I’m certainly living the gypsy life, and being temporarily homeless is teaching me some important lessons.

Speaking of songs, I’ve now completed the lyrics for fourteen songs for a ‘cradle to grave’ song-cycle collaboration that I’m doing with a local Armidale composer. Only two more songs to finish and I’ll be done with the writing. My collaborator has also been hard at work and has so far set eight of the songs. I’m really enjoying working on this project – it’s very exciting to hear my words set to beautiful music. Actually, it’s mind-blowing … and I just love it! The other day, I heard six new songs that my collaborator had set over the Christmas break, and it was one of the top experiences of my life. More! More! I’m already planning the next project … collaborating is addictive!

Meanwhile, sales for Wild Boys are going well. Over the last few months, I’ve been promoting the book through a series of guest talks at local clubs in the New England region – such as Rotary and Zonta. People from all walks of life seem interested in the book – parents, educators, school counselors, social workers and truancy officers – and that’s a wonderful thing, too. Finally, below is a photo from a performance of ‘homespun songs’ that I did with Chris Purcell and some other friends at a Buddhist gompa on a friend’s property late last year … such a special place to sing.

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Vajra Ling Gompa, December 2015