Cottage Living

It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago, I was happily living in a caravan & tent set-up in the middle of a paddock. Or that a couple of weeks ago, I was homeless, and struggling to remember who I really was. Time flies past, and a new normal asserts itself, and the past is suddenly a distant memory.

Okay, not that distant.

Have you ever stopped to consider what a miracle of modern life plumbing is? I mean, really, it’s freaking amazing. Water comes into your home, and just sits there, quietly, waiting for you to turn on the tap. And then? BAM! Water! And turn on the other tap, and BAM! Hot water.

Hot. Freaking. Water. At the turn of a tap. How amazing is that?

And, showers? Showers are like heaven. Seriously, when was the last time you stood in the shower and truly appreciated the range of human accomplishments that have taken place to make that experience a reality?

And let’s not even get into the wonderousness of having an indoor toilet. And electric lights. And, oh my goodness, MY OWN BEDROOM.

Seriously, I haven’t felt this way about having my own room since I was 15, and I finally stopped sharing a room with my little sister. I feel an overwhelming urge to make a “Keep Out” sign for my door. Possibly with a skull and crossbones.  But I refrain, because, as it turns out, a Mum Look is equally effective.

More effective, actually. I don’t remember my little sister being at all cowed by signs.

But, moving on. Since my last post, a lot of people have asked me to share some pictures of my little cottage. And so, without further ado, I give you…

Jo’s Amazingly Awesome New House
Now in Pictures!

That's my little cottage, looking all farmy and flat.

That’s my little cottage, looking all farmy and flat.

There's nothing quite like having cows a few steps outside your door.

There’s nothing quite like having cows a few steps outside your door.

"Good morning."

“Good morning.”

The kitchen (Ignore the dishes stacked on the sink!)

The kitchen (Ignore the dishes stacked on the sink!)

The dining area

The dining area

The lounge room (or living room, for those with an American bent)

The lounge room (or living room, for those with an American bent)

The library  Okay, fine, it's just the other side of the lounge room. Whatever.

The library
Okay, fine, it’s just the other side of the lounge room. Whatever.

The boys' bedroom

The boys’ bedroom

The playroom (I cleaned all the Lego off the floor for this shot)

The playroom
(I cleaned all the Lego off the floor for this shot)

My bedroom (It's MINE, see, ALL MINE!)

My bedroom (It’s MINE, see, ALL MINE!)

I also have a desk. Trust me, it's exciting.

I also have a desk. Trust me, it’s exciting.

So, that’s the house. What do you think?

Oh, wait. I forgot one thing.

How about that view?

How about that view?





Filed under Random Stuff

Drop the balls, Stay on the tightrope

Photo by Flickr user Nicolò Paternoster

Like most of us, my life is a constant juggling act. I’m a writer, mother, teacher, worker bee, friend, sister, daughter, confidante, mentor, community member, and probably a whole host of other titles that don’t immediately spring to mind. I have a lot of balls in the air, and I keep them there through sheer force of will — and a willingness to forego sleep when necessary.

That’s normal. That’s life. We all do it.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last six weeks — particularly over the last week — it’s that sometimes you need to let all the balls fall and focus on staying on the tightrope.

We’re all walking one of those, too. Sometimes it feels like rolling hills. Sometimes it feels like you’re on the razor edge, barely keeping your balance.

That’s where I’ve found myself over the last six weeks.

Six weeks ago, my dog died. Her name was Ninja, and she was a good girl. I loved her dearly. And I had to make the difficult and heart-breaking decision to end her life. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the end, it wasn’t a decision at all. It was just something that had to be done. But I’m the one who did it. That decision, and the aftermath of helping my boys through their grief, felt soul-destroying. Grief vied with guilt. Sadness vied with shame. I carefully put down a couple of balls, put a tearful smile on my face, and took another step forward on the tightrope of life.

Five weeks ago, all three of us succumbed to a terrible bout of Influenza B. I’d like to think that it was just “one of those things”, but it’s hard not to feel that, without the added shadow of grief hanging over all of us, we would have avoided it. Or, at the very least, shaken it off more easily. As it was, Master Eight had a mid-level fever for eight days straight. Master Four had one for five days. And I was shaking and shivering for four.

By the time we finally recovered from the worst of it, we were all wrung out and exhausted. Fortunately, some of the wonderful members of my community provided cooked meals for us each night for a week. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have had the strength to prepare food.

Three and a half weeks ago, both boys had recovered and returned to their normal lives — albeit with a bit less spring in their step than usual. But I hadn’t recovered. My fever had gone, but I was still exhausted and pale. I developed tremors in my hands, and a wracking cough. My throat was swollen and sore, my arms and legs ached. I was pretty sure I was dying. Okay, not really. But that’s how I felt in my more melodramatic moments. My doctor diagnosed tonsilitis, and prescribed antibiotics. They made me so sick I could barely get out of bed. But I just dropped a few more balls, plastered an unconvincing smile on my face, and took another shaky step forward on that damn tightrope.

Three weeks ago, after a series of tests, I was diagnosed with glandular fever, aka mono. There is no treatment for glandular fever, save bedrest and stress avoidance. I dropped quite a few more balls, taking the doctor’s advice to do the bare minimum required in every aspect of my life. I started getting B12 shots weekly to boost my energy — or, at the very least, take the edge off the extreme mental and physical exhaustion I was feeling — and bunkered down to wait it out.

One and a bit weeks ago, things got worse.

It was Saturday morning. Master Eight went to pour himself a drink. But when he touched the fridge door, he got an electric shock. It was strong enough to make his hand hurt, and leave him feeling tingly all over, and “a bit weird” for quite a while. And it freaked me right the fuck out.

Thinking I’d play it safe until I worked out the problem, I went to turn our power off at the main power board. Since we were living in a caravan on a block of land, that meant going to the house next door to access the main power. I grabbed the handle of the cupboard housing the power board, and got an electric shock. Strong enough that I felt my heart jump, and I had trouble breathing. Strong enough to really scare me.

And so I packed up the boys and we left. We drove away from our home — a home that had suddenly turned dangerous — and went to a hotel until an electrician could fix the problem. I tried to make it seem like a fun adventure for the boys, but I was scared and uncertain, and it didn’t take them long to pick up on it. I forced myself to smile, to downplay the fear I’d felt in what should have been our sanctuary, and hoped it wouldn’t take long before we could go home.

The next morning, my landlord contacted me to let me know that all electricity to the property had been disconnected pending a large and costly repair. With the electricity off, that left me not only without power, but also without water. And while camping without power or water may be fun for a short time period, it’s no way to live. It’s no way to raise children.

It’s no way to avoid stress and recover from glandular fever.

And that’s how I found myself homeless.

I could have raged at the heavens, screaming that it wasn’t fair. But I didn’t. I could have felt afraid, or angry, or resentful, or distraught. But I didn’t. What I felt was ashamed.

There’s a whole lot of stigma attached to the word “homeless”, and even though I found myself in that position through not fault of my own, I was filled with shame. There I was, a strong, independent woman of 38, the mother of two children, completely and utterly powerless to provide a place for my children to live, play, and sleep.

I had money in the bank, and friends who wanted to help. I had people offering to put me up for the night — for as long as it took me to find a place to live. But as much as I appreciated it (And I did. A lot.), there was a part of me — and not a small part — that took every offer of help and seamlessly translated it into a feeling of helplessness. I felt incompetent. Incapable. Unable to provide for my children.


The shame made it hard to think; hard to plan; hard to breathe. I couldn’t move without doubting myself. I threw myself on the mercy of the community, reaching out to everyone I knew, because it was my only option. But every time I explained that my children and I had nowhere to live, I knew I was being judged. And I cried rivers.

The boys sensed what I was feeling, and they suffered. More because of my emotional uncertainty than because of the circumstances, I think. Master Eight was weepy and anxious. Master Four reverted to talking in baby talk and needing to held all the time. They argued constantly. They clung to me. And every time I hear the word “Mummy”, I cringed. I hate that I felt that way, but it’s the truth. It was so hard, so very, very hard, to keep putting one foot in front of the other on the razor-thin tightrope, keeping those last few balls spinning and spinning while I tried and failed to pretend I was smiling.

I had to let the balls fall and focus on the tightrope.

On Wednesday afternoon, I sent the boys to their Dad’s house. I stopped pretending I was in any state to teach anyone anything. I made a conscious decision to avoid social media (although I hadn’t updated anything since the Saturday when my life fell apart). I withdrew from all social contact except the few friends who stayed so close I couldn’t avoid their offers of assistance. I dropped all the balls.

And a miracle happened.

Through the magic of social media, someone I didn’t know told me about a cottage that was for rent. Wednesday afternoon, I contacted the real estate agent looking after the property. An hour later, I met her at the cottage. It was perfect.

Absolutely perfect.

If I’d sat down and written an itemised list of everything I wanted in a house, this cottage would have met every single bullet point.

Two hours later, the agent called me to say my application had been approved, and I could pick the keys up in the morning.

I had a home.

I was no longer homeless.

Relief washed over me. It tasted like hot apple pie and new beginnings.

I was only homeless for five days.

It felt like an eternity.

And it gave me a great deal of empathy for anyone who finds themselves in that situation. Through a series of fortuitous events, and the benefit of living in a highly supportive community, I found a home for my family. But when I was in it for those few days, it felt inescapable. It felt hopeless. It felt like failure.

So I’ve made a vow — one which I am putting in writing right here and now, so I can’t forget it. Once I’ve finished moving in to his new house, and when I’ve once again picked up all those balls I juggle, I’m going to find a way to make a difference — even if only a small one — to other people who find themselves in a similar situation. I don’t know how, or what, or where. I just know why.

And, in the meantime, I’m going to get my children settled into their new home, I’m going to try to get some bedrest and avoid stress and recover from this illness, and I’m going to count my blessings. And while I do that, I’ll keep singing the refrain that has been stuck in my head for a week and a bit.

“Closing Time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
— Semisonic (Closing Time)



Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

The now and then of books

file0002103651804Master Eight is fascinated with hearing about “the olden days” at the moment. Sadly, the days he means when he uses that phrase are the days of my own childhood. I keep trying to tell him that, no, it’s my parents who grew up in the olden days, but to no avail. As far as he’s concerned, my childhood is closer to the age of the dinosaurs than to the present reality of his every day life.

A few months ago, I told him the story of the day I was born.

“My mum, Nana, started feeling funny,” I said, “and had pains in her back. My dad was worried about her, and decided to call the doctor to check if he should be doing anything. But they didn’t have a phone at their house, so he had to run down the street — in his pyjamas (this elicited the laugh I expected) — to the pay phone and call the doctor. The doctor said: ‘Son, your wife’s having a baby. Take her to the hospital!’ And a little while later, I was born.”

Master Eight listened in rapt attention, giggled in the right places, and nodded along. When I finished telling the story, he looked confused for a minute and asked, “Why didn’t they have a phone in their house?”

I explained that, back in those days, not everyone had a phone in their house, so they had to use pay phones. He still looked confused, and then his face filled with understanding. “Oh!” he said. “And his mobile was out of battery!”

I think that moment, more than any other, made me realise exactly how removed his childhood is from mine — he lives in a world where not having a landline is fine, but not having a mobile phone is inconceivable. A world where not being able to look up information immediately from the comfort of your phone or laptop is an alien concept. A world where communication takes place instantly or never — there is no in between.

Since then, I’ve noticed it more and more in the books we read together. Sometimes when I’m reading him Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton or Norton Juster, he looks at me and asks why people didn’t just use their phones. Or why they didn’t just google in the information.

I’ve spoken to people who feel this disconnect makes those older stories incomprehensible to children of today, or who avoid reading stories that will confuse young readers. Me? I take a different view.

Every gap in understanding that results in a question about technology is a window into a conversation about the way the world has changed, and a brainstorming session on how the world of the future will look. And, let me tell you this. If it turns out half as wonderous as my son imagines, it’s going to be a bright and shiny future.

I hope I’m here to see it.

(This post was inspired by Owen Duffy’s The books I loved as a child have lasted — but the world has changed.)


Filed under Life With Kids, Reading

Random Thoughts

A few months ago, I promised I wasn’t going to disappear from the blogosphere. Well. Technically, I haven’t. In that I’m posting right now. (That counts, right?) Life is way busier this year than expected, and I’ve had a few ups and downs that I won’t go into now. But rest assured that I’m still alive, still writing, still parenting, and still being my generally awesome self.

Oh, and still writing my newsletter. (Did you sign up?)

But for now, I give you some random thoughts that have been going through my head lately.

1. If a vampire transforms into a bat, what happens to all that extra mass? I mean, it’s either going to be a really, really big bat, or it’s going to be a normal-sized bat that weighs as much as an average human, and therefore can’t actually fly. I’m not sure which option is more comical.

I just... can't... get airborne...

I just… can’t… get airborne…

2. I’ve just started advertising to run a 6 month long writing course for beginning writers, designed to take students from “I have an idea” to “The End”. It’s super exciting, and I’m hoping to have at least half a dozen people sign up. Putting the course together meant spending a lot of time thinking back to those early days in my own writing journey, and making a list of everything I wish I’d learned right at the start. It was interesting to note that, of all the writing classes and creative writing workshops and library-run writing events I attended as a beginning writer, few (if any) of them touched on the elements of novel writing that I really needed to know.

3. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend a day living like a sitcom character? Never saying goodbye or hello; not engaging in small talk unless it somehow moves the story forward; never having to wait in line for anything unless doing so allows for a not-small-talk conversation; skipping effortlessly from scene to scene without having to live through the commutes, inanities, and boring bits in between; and, most importantly, having a soundtrack announce your arrival in every important locale.

4. We recently adopted a new dog to join our family, which has been an adventure all in itself. She’s a 4 1/2-year-old Ridgeback x Boxer, and is absolutely beautiful. Her name is Ninja. And she’s scared of the dark. (I’ll leave you to have your own little giggle at the irony of that.) I’ve never had two dogs before, and I have learned many valuable things. Such as, it’s impossible to get angry at one of them without both of them sulking, and fitting two dogs and two children (and myself) into a 5 seater sedan for a six hour journey is…. interesting.

My four children. A couple of them just have two extra feet.

My four children. A couple of them just have two extra feet.

5. Writing for Writer Unboxed is infinitely more stress-inducing than I expected it to be. Before I write my post each month, I find myself falling into a pit of Imposter Syndrome and struggling to get out. But stress is good for the soul, right? (If not the heart.) My recent post was about using profanity in writing. You can read it here.

6. I’m turning 39 in a few months, and have reached that point where I look in the mirror and realise I’m older than my parents. That is, I’m older than (or the same age as) my parents were when I moved out of home, which is the way I always imagine them in my mind’s eye. It’s sobering and scary. When my parents were my age, they seemed to have everything figured out. They owned a house, they’d settled in a town they wanted to live in for the rest of their lives, they were financially stable, and happy in themselves and their lives. Sure, they’ve changed jobs and moved towns and bought and sold multiple houses since then, but they’ve always seemed to be “together”. So when I look in the mirror and realise I’m their age, and I own next-to-nothing, have no life plan, my finances are a jumbled mess, and I alternate between feeling like an Awesome Harbinger of Awesome and a lowly imposter with no real world skills, it leaves me feeling like I’m failing at life.

7. And then I remember that I’ve got two wonderful, sweet, caring, frustrating, healthy, energetic children, two loving dogs, a roof over my head, creativity running through my veins, and the best friends a girl could ask for, and I remind myself that one person’s “together” is another person’s “trapped”; that one person’s “haphazard jumbled mess” is another person’s “creative connected life”. And then I feel better. (With thanks to my BFF Pauline for reminding me of this when the voices in my head get a little too persistent.)

I hope you’re enjoying your haphazard jumbled mess, or your togetherness, or whatever brand of living you prefer. In parting, I leave you with the words of my four-year-old son last night.

Make my shadow stop copying me!


Filed under Random Stuff

2015: Sign me up, Scotty!

Happy New Year!Celebrate

About this time every year, I sit down and write a blog post detailing my goals for the year. This year, I’m going to break from tradition and not do that. Why? Because my overall theme of 2015 can be summed up in three simple words:

Be More Awesomer.

This is going to be a big year for me; a great year. A year of Adventure and Authenticity and Awareness. Yes, a AAA-rated year. And while I have my own smaller, bite-sized goals, I don’t need to share them to make them a reality.

(Look, I’m getting all grown-up-ified.)

There are some exciting things on the horizon for me, and I’m looking forward to sharing them all with you — and, of course, to continuing to share the occasional foray into writing about parenthood, social justice, and world events.

But, for right now, let me stick to my announcement of the day. I am incredibly excited and proud to say that I am a new monthly contributor for the amazing Writer Unboxed — a blog that has been named one of the top websites for writers by Writer’s Digest for the last eight years in a row. It is a HUGE honour to be there, and I am alternately overwhelmed with joy and positive the writer-police are about to show up at my door and demand to see my credentials.


My first post went live today. Click here and have a read. I talk about ants, naked druids, and flash fiction. And then I roll out a year-long Flash Fiction competition. I’d love to see you over there, and would love it even more if you’d participate in the contest.

But wait, there’s more. (And no, it’s not steak knives.)

With so many exciting things on the horizon, I’ve decided that it’s time to take the plunge and set up a mailing list. If you enjoy my writing, are interested in what I’ve got going on, and would like yet another way to keep in touch, I’d love it if you would sign up for my newsletter: Words and Stuff.

“But, what’s in it for me?” you ask.

Well, aside from all the stuff I just mentioned, here’s a brief FAQ:

Do I really have to do this? I mean, my email inbox is always so full…

No, of course you don’t. Signing up is completely optional But I guarantee that if you do sign up, you’ll never regret it. (Not a guarantee.)

You’re not going to email me every day, are you? Because that would be super-annoying.

Really, who has time for that? I’ll be sending out a newsletter twice a month.

Give it to me straight: You just want our email addresses so you can sell your mailing list to some big multi-national telemarketing conglomerate and use the proceeds to buy yourself an island paradise, don’t you?

Uh…. I don’t know what planet you live on, but I’d love to come and visit. No, I won’t give or sell your details to anyone else. Even if they offer me an island paradise in return.

Will your newsletter include the same stuff as your blog? I already subscribe to The Happy Logophile.

No, my newsletter may touch on some of the same things, but it will be an entirely different animal. Possibly a bat. So if you want the whole picture, stay subscribed to my blog (or subscribe now — there’s a button just over there on the right sidebar) as well as signing up for Words and Stuff. And, while you’re at it, you may also want to follow me on Twitter and/or Facebook. Let’s share the love, people.

So… a newsletter means I get Free Stuff, right?

Actually, yes. Each edition of my newsleter will give you exclusive access to a piece of my short fiction. It’s quite a while since I’ve posted any fiction on my blog, and I know you’ve been missing it, so consider this the carrot to encourage you to sign up. (Sadly, I left the stick at home.)

This all sounds too good to be true! How do I sign up?

I’m glad you asked. Just click here and fill out the sign up form. It should take about 5 seconds (unless you’ve forgotten how to spell your name).

Thanks for all your support throughout 2014. Let’s have a great 2015, my friends!

What do you have planned for this exciting new year?


Filed under Opinion, Writing

A Lone Gunman, Racism, and Australian Pride

Monday morning started just like any other. I woke up, had some coffee, and cooked breakfast for my children. I had a headache — the remnant of the World’s Worst Hangover that I’d suffered through the day before — but I was awake and alert and happy. I sent a few emails to friends, and lurked around social media for a while.

And then, suddenly, my timeline was full of pain.

A gunman had taken up to 20 people hostage in a Sydney cafe. The news broke with the picture that was everywhere. The picture of two hostages holding a black flag with arabic script against the window of the cafe — a cafe that was, conveniently, directly across the street from the Channel 7 news room.

Sydney Seige

As I read the news, and stayed abreast of what was going on, my heart was in my mouth. I sat in front of my computer, tears streaming down my face, fear coursing through my veins. And so I did what many others were doing. I took to social media to share my thoughts and my hurt.

I’m terrified. I’m terrified for the hostages in the Martin Place siege, and for their friends and family. I’m terrified for the police responding to the siege. And, most of all, I’m terrified about the impact this attack will have on every Australian, particularly Muslim Australians, regardless of how it turns out. May this situation be resolved without loss of life, and may all Australians remember that hatred is not a cure for pain and anger, but a fan to its fire.

The day stretched on, and nothing changed. No, that’s not true. Nothing changed at the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place. But the media had a field day. The flag was identified as an ISIS flag. Then it wasn’t. Then it was an extremist terrorist flag. Then it wasn’t. The speculation about Evil Islamic Terrorists hit fever-pitch in media channels. Radio hosts claimed to be talking to people inside the siege. Police maintained that they hadn’t yet made contact with the hostage-taker. And Murdoch’s ridiculous newspaper (and I use the word “news’ in the loosest possible sense), The Daily Telegraph, released a special 2pm edition with the headline: “DEATH CULT CBD ATTACK”. All of it was conjecture. None of it was helpful. And, in my anger and frustration, I took to social media again.

Just to clarify, the fact that a crackpot plastered a flag (not, as has been reported, the Islamic State flag) on a window after taking people hostage does not actually mean that ‪#‎sydneysiege‬ is part of a religious or political war. There’s no current proof that the crackpot responsible is even Muslim. The police are still saying they don’t know who he is. But I can assure you, the moment you put an Islamic flag on a window, you guarantee yourself widespread media coverage. Regardless of the religious beliefs of the crackpot in question, he is holding people hostage. And that’s the important part.

May the siege end without bloodshed, and people remember to hold true to their values and not allow false information, assumptions, and ignorance to push them towards hatred.

Randa Abdel-Fattah wrote a great article about exactly this media frenzy here. Go and read it. (But stay away from the comments if you value your sanity.)

By mid-afternoon Monday, I was a mess. I’d been crying for hours, imagining the trauma the hostages were facing inside that cafe. Imagining the life that led the hostage-taker to the precipice he was standing on, when the idea of taking people hostage at gunpoint, knowing that he would likely end up dead and reviled at the end of it, seemed like a good idea. Thinking about the society we live in, and the world at large, and the pain that would follow this attack.

I was watching when the first three hostages escaped. I felt the same relief as the rest of the nation. But I also felt afraid. Afraid of how their escape would affect the microcosm of the cafe. Afraid of what the gunman would do now.

But, three hours later, nothing had changed. Nothing except the conversation.

The police knew the identity of the man responsible (who I refuse to name here), and posited that he was acting alone, and not a member of any extremist group. The flag had been categorically affirmed as a general statement of Islamic faith, and not an evil portent of doom. And the chat on social media was largely full of grief, pain, and support for Muslim Australians. I added my voice to the throng.

Let me take another opportunity to remind everyone that regardless of this “lone wolf” crackpot’s race, religion, or beliefs, he is not a representative of everyone of that race, religion, and belief system. He is not a representative of every man, or of every Australian, or of every member of his nationality or religion (as yet unconfirmed). Don’t let anger at his actions influence your feelings about any person other than him. Don’t let fear overcome your reason. We are stronger than that. We are Australian.

And then, the most remarkable thing happened.

Social media exploded with the hashtag #illridewithyou.

On seeing a Muslin woman on a train sadly remove her hijab for fear of hate-fuelled “retribution”, an ordinary Australian woman  started this hashtag. The message, clear and simple. Do not be afraid to be who you are. Do not be afraid of backlash. And if you are afraid, I will ride with you.

The message was tweeted and posted and shared something like 120,000 times in the first two hours. And it’s been gathering momentum ever since.

The siege wore on. I tried to sleep, but my brain and my imagination were having none of it. I tossed and turned and tried to read and couldn’t concentrate and finally got back on the computer. Five minutes later, it was all over.

More hostages escaped from the cafe. There was a burst of gunfire. Police stormed the building. Another burst of gunfire. And then it was done.

The ‪#‎sydneyseige‬ is over with three dead, including the crazed crackpot who started all this. My heart is heavy with the knowledge that the families of these people — yes, even the gunman — will be grieving today and for many tomorrows. I feel, also, for the hostages who escaped; their lives will never be the same. May they find peace and healing. Thanks to the ‪#‎nswpolice‬and all emergency crews who brought this event to a close. Let’s remember to band together in this difficult time, to refuse to let the seeds of hatred grow in our hearts, and to continue to build such beautiful community initiatives as‪#‎illridewithyou‬.

Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson

Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson


Katrina Dawson was a lawyer and a mother of three. She died heroically, protecting the life of her pregnant friend.

Tori Johnson was the manager of the Lindt Cafe. He died heroically, struggling with the gunman in an attempt to disarm him while the other hostages fled.

They were real people, real people killed senselessly, real people who died bravely in the face of the kind of terror we just don’t see in Australia. They are True Blue Aussie heroes, and will forever be remembered as such. In the days that have passed since their tragic deaths, tributes have flowed in to Martin Place in their honour. They live on in the hearts of all of us. Vale, Katrina and Tori.

New Idea Magazine

The floral tributes keep growing in Martin Place as people stop to reflect and pay their respects,

In the days since the siege ended, I’ve struggled to rediscover my equilibrium. Struggled to come back to terms with the world, and to stop feeling the slow bleed of my heart. It’s not easy. It’s been a tough week. And a tougher one on the people involved. But there’s one thing that’s helped me through this time.

The solidarity shown by Australians across the country. We, as Australians of all races, religions, colours, and creeds, have come together in person and on social media to support each other, and to show solidarity with our fallen heroes. I’ve read great posts like this one, and watched #illridewithyou get global recognition. I’ve seen Australians at their best.

I’ve cried.

I’ve smiled.

I’ve found my feet again.

And I’ve been proud. We may not have it all under control — just today, an MP derided the #illridewithyou campaign as left-wing nonsense all about “hating whitey” — but we’re on the right track. We’re on the right track.

Today, I am in mourning for the lost lives of Katrina and Tori. But I’m proud, so very proud, to be Australian.

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on Earth we come
We share a dream, and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian.


Filed under Opinion

WU UnCon: A Conference of Connection

WU UnConIt’s ten days since I arrived back in Australia after attending the Writer Unboxed UnConference in Salem. Ten long days, and I’m only now posting about it. Why? Because if I’d posted sooner, my whole post would have consisted of a disjointed list of unrelated adjectives interspersed with exclamation marks and the occasional unsubstantiated claim that the UnCon changed my life.

But now, ten days later, I feel I’m ready. I’m ready to say that it was a phenomenal, transformational, life-changing, brain-expanding, emotionally-charged hot-pot of creative energy and connection, built around a series of inspiring, enlightening, and incisive workshops.

Or something like that..

Actually, I’ve pondered long and hard about how to share the experience of Salem with you. And as I’ve pondered, I’ve consolidated the things I learned in a deeper and more meaningful way. And thus, I’m ready to share.

I could tell you about the amazing workshops I did — particularly Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”, Donald Maass’s “Writing 21st Century Fiction” and John Vorhaus’s “The Comic Toolbox” — and the ways those workshops have improved my writing and expanded my thinking.

But I won’t.

UnCon Group 2I could tell you about the deep connection I felt with the other writers I met there, many of whom I knew as icons and names online, and the long-lasting bonds that formed during those five days.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the dinner we had as a memorial to Lisa Threadgill, my dear, dear friend who passed away earlier this year, and how laughing and crying with other people who felt her loss so keenly reopened old wounds and yet helped them heal so much cleaner.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about hanging out in a bar at 1:00am on the first evening with a group of people I’d only just met, drinking picklebacks (the most revolting shot I’ve ever tried), and then asking the bartender for his shirt.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the Poker Cabin, and how it felt to be playing poker of an evening after a long day of brain-expanding workshops and conversation, and the surreal feeling of sitting next to an inspirational (and possibly super-human) NY literary agent as I confidently bluffed my way to a winning hand.

But I won’t.

UnCon GroupI could tell you about sitting at dinner on Friday night, after the UnCon was technically over, and collaboratively building a back-story for our surly waitress using all the techniques we’d learned from Don Maass during the full-day workshop we’d just attended.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about Bob Stewart.

And I will.

Before the UnCon, I knew WriterBob Stewart as a name and an icon on the Writer Unboxed FB page. We interacted once or twice, in an oblique way, and I admired his dedication and persistence, but I didn’t know much about him. As the time for the UnCon grew closer, I learned more about him. He was much older (75, I later learned), and had some health issues. He was an accomplished playwright, journalist, and novelist. And, above all that, he was funny and kind and a good and genuine human being.

WriterBobOn the Saturday before the UnCon was due to start, he was bitten by his cat. Due to other health complications, the bite got infected, and he ended up in hospital. The first thing he did was message Therese Walsh to find out if it was okay if he arrived at the UnCon a little late. Which, of course, it was. He checked himself out of hospital early, and flew to Salem, and arrived on Tuesday afternoon.

I spoke to Bob briefly. Just enough to say hello, and I was glad he could make it. But he was there — real, and solid, and not just an icon and a name. He participated in groups, and stayed for evening sessions. And Wednesday evening, after everything was winding down, he complained about feeling a little funny, returned to his room, and passed away.

We found out on Thursday.

I wasn’t having a great day on Thursday. I finished the day with an amazing session that hit me like a brick wall and made me question the validity of everything I’d ever written in my life. Then, mired in self-doubt, I found myself flicking through the memorial book that had been created for Lisa Threadgill. A book that was full of my words. A book that brought all the grief and pain I’d felt at her passing back to the surface. And so there I was, weeping in the lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, when Therese approached and told me about Bob.

WriterBob Stewart. A man who spent his last days exactly where he wanted to be — with a community of writers he’d only known online, in a beautiful little hotel in Salem.

And so I found myself, on that Thursday evening, telling the other attendees that our evening plan had changed. That instead of a discussion of craft, we would be sharing a toast for Bob, and hearing some of the pages from his latest work. And as I told them, I found myself breaking the news of his passing over and over and over.

Some people cried. Others told me stories. One person looked like she was going to faint. Another told me that he’d lost a number of family members recently, and then excused himself to find somewhere private to sit and reflect. And through it all, I hugged and comforted and listened and was present.

UnCon Group 3But once the toast was said, once the memorial was underway, I couldn’t be present any longer. To coin my own phrase, my heart was a new helium balloon floating through a cactus forest. The slightest brush — skin against skin, mind against mind — would break me. I had too much grief, too much emotion, coursing through my body. I had to escape. And so I fled the room. Quietly. Hoping not to be noticed.

But I was.

John Vorhaus*  — a man equally funny and wise — saw me going and followed me out. He rejected my claims that I was ‘fine, just fine’, and he sat with me, and we talked. We talked about loss and grief and self-doubt and pain and all manner of things. We talked until my skin no longer felt electrified, until I no longer felt I was going to explode, until I felt grounded again. And during that talk, during that conversation, he said a phrase that resonated with me both then and now, and defines the UnCon experience for me.

“Cherish your emotions’.

When JV said it, he was referring to the grief and shock I was feeling — that we were all feeling — in the wake of Bob’s death. But it means so much more to me.

he entire UnCon for me.

Cherish your emotions.

Think about it for a minute. How often do we truly cherish our emotions? Conversely, how often do we feel shame or guilt about our emotions? How often do we attempt to hide them/ To wall them away, or move on from them, or pretend they’re not there? What would happen if we truly cherished our emotions — accepted them, not as being bad or good but just as being. How would that feel?

UnCon Group 4How would that inform our writing?

How would that inform our lives?

Cherish your emotions.

It ties in to what Lisa Cron said about specificity and back-story. It mirrors Donald Maass’s talk of finding emotional resonance between our lives and our character’s experiences. It touches on Meg Rosoff’s discussions of voice. But, more than that, it is a model, a mantra, for life.

And so when I think about Salem, and about WriterBob and Lisa Threadgill, and about the close connections I forged, and the games of poker I played, and the fun and hi-jinks I was part of, and the way I got lost every freaking time I walked out of that hotel building, I think of that phrase.

Cherish your emotions.

And when it all gets too much for me, when the homesickness for an event that lasted only five days and yet a lifetime threatens to overwhelm me, I take a deep breath and cherish my emotions. And then I write.

* JV has a new book coming out. I’ve read it. It’s brilliant. And you should totally go and buy it right now. Tell him Jo sent you.


Filed under Opinion, Writing