history

A family reunion

Originally published at my RedBubble portfolio, 2010.

A family reunion: reflections

2010-01-02

The visitors’ centre is busy today.
Children rummage through boxes of plush toy horses.
History books line the shelves.
Tall boards detail the local identities.

There is one face from history that intrigues me.
Something familiar about that man’s profile.
A century-old photograph enlarged and grainy.
Captions and paragraphs detailing the life of a convict and gambler.

He settled this place long ago.
He raised a family there.
Spent his wife’s inheritance.
Left her for another woman.

The guide laughs at the old gambler’s life.
It’s one of those amusing biographies from an era long-past.
“Let’s talk about…” The guide points to a different board.
Where a heroic settler is remembered for his greatness.

This other man, the gambler, his profile is tucked in the corner.
It’s not the centrepiece.
His house is in a lonely part of the island.
A tiny little poster mentions his family.

Tell me more. I want to know.
My grandfather steps up to the display.
He looks up at the image of the gambler and adulterer,
the convict who abandoned his wife and children.

I see it then. In the face of my grandfather.
In the face in the black-and-white photo.
The same shape. The same brow.
The same jawline. The same expression.

That old gambler. He may have been an historical quirk.
A joke to the guides at the park.
A man who lived a life of debauchery and crime;
but I am his descendant.

A direct line inherited in my blood.
In the blood of my grandfather.
This old gambler. I was born into the same family name.
I have the same jaw and brow.

The old gambler and convict and adulterer.
What does it mean to carry these bloodlines?
Does it even matter a century later?
The Australian dilemma.

 

 

Written January 2010.

A few years ago, I attended a family reunion on an Australian island (Churchill Island) that was settled by my great-great-great-great grandfather (not entirely sure how many generations ago!). As most of my ancestors came to Australia as free settlers, it was something of a shock to uncover a convict past. This man who was stereotyped by the visitor centre as a drunkard, gambler, adulterer and all-round dodgy-guy was a direct ancestor.

My most distinct memory of the day was seeing my late grandfather looking up at the photo of our ancestor and seeing the family resemblance: they may as well have been brothers or twins.

[Edit, May 2016: I hasten to add that while my grandfather may have borne a physical resemblance to his great grandfather (however many generations removed) he by no means emulated the lax morals of our convict ancestors… I also now would reconsider my use of “settlement” narrative in regards to my later studies in Indigenous Australian history, as “invasion” may well be a more fitting term.]

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NaPo struggles

A short update – I haven’t forgotten NaPoWriMo but I sure dropped out of the race way too quickly this year. I did write a lengthy explanation post that topped out at 7,000 words (good heavens, if only the poetry came that easily for me). Upon reflection, though, I felt that the post was best left as a private journal entry rather than a public post. The thing is that, despite all my good intentions for creativity and productivity and churning out some sort of art that will make my mortal existence feel worthwhile – I am battling some big (metaphorical) demons in my life. Processing some deep trauma, transitioning to a new phase of life and leaving behind my comfort zone to find a new space, along with all the underlying challenges of being a mental illness sufferer – which is hard enough without it being overlaid by unnecessary interpersonal dramas.These things take up a remarkable amount of my energy to the extent that some days all I can manage is to make sure the kids and the cats are fed and safe. Anything more, like writing or art, is a bonus, but definitely not my first priority.

(more…)

NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 17

Friday, 27 November 2015

It’s time to panic! I’m learning to associate my US-based friends’ social media posts about Thanksgiving (both for and against the occasion) with end-of-nano panic. We don’t have a Thanksgiving. I guess our similar holiday is Australia Day in January, which usually marks the end of the summer holidays, and sparks debate about the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous Australians by English invaders, versus calls to just shut up and enjoy walking around in Southern Cross-emblazoned paraphernalia. Though there were attempts by Christian political lobby groups in Australia to start a day of national thanksgiving and prayer. I’m not sure if that ever really gained much traction outside of evangelical circles.

I entered my story text so far into the word count validator and lost 578 words from my story. There’s a huge discrepancy between the word count statistics in Microsoft Word on my lap top, Scrivener on my PC, and NaNoWriMo’s official counter. As my winning or losing is determined by the Nano website’s official counter, I have to re-calibrate my Scrivener aims according to my best guess of Nano’s difference. (Nano usually seems to subtract roughly 70 words from my scrivener account.)

I have today and Monday left available to me to write. Saturday and Sunday this weekend are going to be so busy that I will likely not have any time. People keep saying, “Surely you’ll find time on the weekend, if you’re motivated enough.” Those people clearly aren’t stay-at-home mothers morphing into hair and makeup artists for their daughter’s two ballet concerts over two days and a separate full dress rehearsal in a suburb about half an hour away. At literally exactly the same time my son has a bunch of commitments – namely a birthday party and a church end-of-year celebration for the department in which he volunteers – so that I have the interesting dilemma of needing to be in two physically disparate locations at exactly the same time. If I were the main character in my NaNoWriMo story I may have that ability. But for now my real life is looking a lot like that logic puzzle where the boatman has to carry a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river without leaving them alone in a predator/prey situation.

It’s hard to focus on my story. I’ve had so many social interactions over the last two weeks that my introvert levels of exhaustion are very high. I love catching up with friends. I had no time to write yesterday, either, as I was out for a coffee (which was positive, so don’t get me wrong there, I appreciate friends who drag me out once in a while to talk about the deep stuff of life). At the same time I realise that because so many of us are asking really hard questions about life, faith, our collective dissatisfaction with controlling religious leaders in our lives, and fears of some that if they don’t get out soon they might one day find that they’d given their life, money and allegiance to a cult. Who knows? These are important questions and I think everyone needs to face them at some point in their faith journeys, but my impulse now is to start dialoguing on spiritual abuse forums to learn the warning signs from those who’ve already been there, when what I really, really need to do is to write almost 10,000 words within the next eight hours, get Nano done, so I can recover, and maybe even have some time to start confronting that most Wonderful Stressful Time of the Year, Christmas.

I have come down with yet another severe cold, which includes a really painful headache. My head is pounding as I type and my sinuses are beyond blocked. If I keep clenching my teeth I’m going to have to put in my mouthguard. The coffee grinder broke so I’m now reduced to using a mechanical hand grinder that makes me feel like I’m playing hurdy gurdy (which is okay, I guess, because I just imagine that I am like Anna Murphy the singer and hurdy gurdist in this song… Why yes, she is singing in Ancient Gaulish).

My story is at that disjointed stage where I’m just throwing in any scenes I can imagine. I’m not even bothering to connect them. I can do that later if I need to pad out the story. I look forward to getting this first draft completed so I can excise all its crumminess and get to the good stuff. A lot of people have requested to read my story and I massively appreciate the enthusiasm, but the reality is that I’m writing this first draft for me and my eyes alone. I don’t have the cognitive freedom to write it as creatively as I need if I’m spending the whole time worried that someone else might read it and see how terrible it is – it is in no way representative of the best of my writing. However, on a second draft edit it might manage to make the grade where I’ll look at possibly providing copies to my in-real-life friends (the ones that are sympathetic enough to understand that I’m really just developing my writing craft and that I don’t have the luxury of editors).

I’m looking forward to finishing Nano, and getting back into painting and drawing. December is always a hectic time of year. I can’t believe it’s almost upon us, and that my kids are finishing their first year at new schools (last Nano season I wrote a bit about why we left their previous school and home schooled during 2014, see here). Changing them to nonreligious schools has proven a fantastic choice for them and I’m just so glad that it’s mostly gone well for them. There were lots of hiccups along the way and new social dynamics to negotiate, but I can say with a lot of relief that neither of them has been bullied or beaten-up. Nor have the warnings of their previous school’s principal proven correct in any sense when he said, when we left, that non-Christian, government-based schooling was a factory of atheism that would force our children to give up on their faith. On the contrary, my kids have grown more confident in the knowledge that they choose to self-identify as Christians, while learning that their classmates come from myriad religious belief systems to which they are devoted at varying degrees of intensity (my kids now count Muslims, Sikh, Mormons, Catholics, Agnostics and Atheists from a huge range of ethnic backgrounds among their schoolmates). I realise just how more reflective it is of real social life in Australia. It’s so multicultural here in Melbourne that you either learn how to navigate the varied landscape of religious and philosophical worldviews – or put up the blinkers and pretend that everyone who isn’t exactly like yourself is “bad.” I love that just by changing schools the kids have been able to learn that “others” are more like us than they are different, and that differences aren’t bad, they’re what makes life interesting.

Anyway, enough progressive proselytising, it’s time to go back to my story… which, like my previous paragraph, seems to be morphing into a bit of a commentary on how we marginalise people because of external differences. In my story the bird-people were historically being jerks to the lizard-people but now the bird-people are starting to confront their deeply-embedded prejudices and realise that all the peoples must unite if there’s ever to be a restored pathway to travel between the inhabitable planets in their solar system… how my story went in that direction I’m really not sure. It’s going way off the original plot plans, that’s for sure.

Current word count: 41,144 / 50,000 words

Today’s writing soundtrack: a compilation of Native American shamanic music. I’m not sure I even like it. I’m also not sure how it ended up on my youtube suggestions, but there it is. I might switch to Gregorian chants soon. The birds singing out in the garden blend seamlessly into the music.

NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 1

Saturday, 31 October 2015

It’s the last day of Nanowrimo planning. I awoke feeling pretty horrendous. I can never anticipate when my anxiety and depression are going to hit but in the last week I had my first severe anxiety attack since last Christmas, followed by days of a sharp increase in my depression symptoms. For people who aren’t familiar with how this disease works, basically it makes normal, everyday activities about a thousand times more difficult than they need to be.

However, I pushed through and it was worth it. The kids had their weekly swimming lessons and it was strangely quiet. Here in Melbourne, Australia, today marked the beginning of the week-long Melbourne Cup Carnival. My personal opinions about horseracing and its attendant animal welfare concerns aside, and to put it all in context, the first Tuesday of November each year marks the running of the 3,200 metre VRC Melbourne Cup, first held in 1861. Much of the most recent centuries of Australian history are inextricably intertwined with horses and the Melbourne Cup is huge. It also constitutes a public holiday in Melbourne and in at least some parts of the state of Victoria. I don’t know of any other city that has a public holiday dedicated to horseracing. Because of this, often people take the Monday off, too, gaining a four-day weekend in the process. A lot of people take it as an opportunity to go camping. Since my kids switched to public (government funded) schools they no longer get the Monday off (to their dismay). But it did mean that they were the only kids in their swimming class today which resulted in a lot more personal attention and practice than normal.

After swimming we got dressed into our Hallowe’eny finest – for my daughter it meant her black cat and full moon t-shirt, for me my HP Lovecraft-inspired dress, and for my husband and son it meant, well, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. As always. We drove down to South Gippsland in coastal South-East Victoria, which has the unique distinction of being where I and my children were born, not to mention where most of my family still live. (!) Today’s stop was the town of Korumburra, and the Coal Creek Historical Village, for their annual Hallowe’en event, where we met up with my mother and sister. I haven’t been to Coal Creek since I was a teenager and I had many fond memories of it. It was really thoroughly enjoyable to return – it looks like they’ve done a lot of work to it and if you’re ever in South Gippsland it’s worth seeing if you can get to one of their special events.

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I love Hallowe’en, and I freely admit that. I know there are very reasonable laments that it’s merely some Americanised and opportunistically capitalist festival that’s been forced upon an unwilling Australian culture. But I think there’s more to it than that. For starters, a lot of Australians (myself included) have Celtic ancestry, and Hallowe’en lines up with the Northern Hemisphere’s Samhain – an ancient Celtic festival marking the thinning of the veil between the worlds. For Aussie Celtic neo-pagans it falls on roughly the same time as Beltane, the bonfire festival marking the beginning of summer (though technically we consider December 1 the beginning of summer). I think in some ways our Australian versions of Hallowe’en appear to be a blend of both – though it would take me a while to try to explain on what evidence I base that assertion. As a frustrated wannabe Goth, I do enjoy the visual imagery associated with the event.

However, after spending their entire lives thus far in the Pentecostal community, Hallowe’en has an interesting and largely negative set of associations for my husband and children. My son was only willing to attend after I repeatedly assured him that we wouldn’t participate in any genuinely occult activity and that we were taking a stroll around to see interesting costumes and the historical park. I felt this was a positive and safe way to highlight for the kids that these events are not a matter for fear. I fully respect my children’s choice to not participate in occult, and think it’s really important they can express that. At the same time, I think that often the Pentecostal fear that there is “a demon behind every bush” as I once heard it phrased in church, easily becomes a debilitating kind of prejudice towards things and people that look different. The reality is, a bunch of families at a community event where people get to dress in fun costumes, ride an old steam train and eat good food is not a matter for fear, and I don’t want my kids avoiding the broader community out of an understandable but misguided fear fed by their paternal side of the family’s somewhat marginal* set of religious beliefs.

*In Australia, the statistics show that the most common religions are Catholic at 25%, No Religion (Atheist, Agnostic, or similar) at 22%, and Anglican at 17%. Pentecostals, while representing a fast-growing segment of Australian Christianity, consist of less than 2% of the Australian population. It’s interesting marrying someone who was raised entirely within that system, and noticing that moment he realised that his religious views were not normative, as he’d been led to believe, but really quite fringe in relation to the rest of the surrounding culture.

After the Hallowe’en event we headed into my hometown Leongatha for dinner with my mother and aunty. We went to an old favourite Chinese restaurant, the Orchid Inn, which I’ve been to more times than I could possibly recall. Once upon a time the restaurant was owned by one of my father’s university classmates, and we would regularly eat there on smorgasboard and karaoke night. I have a lot of happy memories of birthdays celebrations and meals in that place and it was nice to return. I enjoyed a great and filling vegan-friendly meal of tofu, Chinese vegetables and fried rice.

It was the first time seeing my mum since her recent trip to England and Wales, and she gave me a book she bought there, Supernatural England: Poltergeists, Ghosts, Hauntings edited by Betty Puttick (2002). It looks absolutely fascinating and reminds me of this interesting website I found recently, Legendary Dartmoor. I love “true” stories of the uncanny and unsolved mysteries and I look forward to reading it.

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Screenshot: Let the writing begin! Nanowrimo 2015, Day 1.

Screenshot: Let the writing begin! Nanowrimo 2015, Day 1.

It’s day one of writing and already I’m facing my first hurdle, a mere one-and-a-half sentences into my draft: do I want to write in first person perspective, or third person? I have changed my minds on this point multiple times over the last fortnight of planning. Normally I write from the third person: I like the sense of distance it gives in making it clear that my writing is not intended to be autobiographical. It’s interesting as an aspiring writer to realise that often my first person creative writing has been mistaken for autobiography by those who know me in real life, but don’t realise I write for fun and as a way to explore the perspectives of others. I also like that third person allows for moving between different characters’ views of the events of a story.

However, I find that third person is a bit too distant, because I find that I can’t delve too far into the the mind and motivations of my characters without becoming self consciously embedded within the story as the omniscience and omnipresent narrator. I also love the flow of stories like Interview with the Vampire, which feels first person – though technically I guess it’s a third person narrative depicting basically two scenes: most of the novel is one scene in which a vampire discloses his life story to a journalist. Dracula too is first person, but the perspective is shared between characters and the story is pesented as a collection of journal entries and letters. I really like that kind of immersion in a character’s psyche.

I find that having a writing space conducive to creative writing is easier said-than-done. Because today is a Sunday, the children and husband are at home, and it seems to me that I can’t write without someone looking over my shoulder. I am a very guarded kind of creative: I simply cannot do a first draft of anything, whether written, painted or drawn, when I feel that I’m being watched. However, my Scrivener files are all on the big computer in the shared living space of the lounge room, and anyone walking past would be able to see what I write. So I’ve now locked myself in my bedroom with my laptop, and will write from here for today. Later I’ll transfer the files across to Scrivener – and just hope that my plot isn’t going to be so complex that I need to refer to my Scrivener notes.

Time to begin.

Essential Nanowrimo supplies. Apart from writing materials, that is.

Essential Nanowrimo supplies. Apart from writing materials, that is. Having herbal teas to try to avoid Nanowrimo-induced caffeine overload.

Current word count: 28/50,000 words.

Today’s writing soundtrack: Ravenhead by Orden Ogan; Schock by Eisbrecher.

Monday, 2 November 2015

It’s a typically gloomy Melbourne spring day and not particularly conducive to wanting to write. It’s grey, damp and chilly. The house always has this messy, cluttered feeling after the weekend. My compulsion is not to write but to clean. But I know that cleaning, as important as it is, can also double as procrastination. I need to take advantage of the fact the kids are at school today – tomorrow is a public holiday – and churn out as big a word count as I can manage in the next six hours!

The first person versus third person question became surprisingly difficult for me, so I ended up writing a page’s worth of the story in both perspectives. I loved the first person perspective for my story but it felt too limiting by reducing the story to the thoughts and experiences of a single character. Third person it is… Though if any of you have read the hilariously awful Atlanta Nights you’ll know that the collaborators didn’t quibble over stylistic problems like third versus first person narrative – that book has it all, bewilderingly changing midway through chapters.

Current word count: 882/50,000 words.

Today’s writing soundtrack: Polaris by TesseracT

What I’ve Been Reading Online

It’s October which means the happiest time of the year (in my humble opinion) is coming up: Hallowe’en and NaNoWriMo. I just love having that month to revel in fun and joyful and creative things. It’s a time where I allow myself to pursue my interests – something that as a stay at home mum isn’t always easy.

Hallowe’en in Australia is nowhere near the proportions of significance that it reaches in, say, North America, but for as long as I can recall it’s been one of those optional occasions on the calendar where those of us with a Gothic leaning can celebrate all things spooky. However, cue marrying a then-strict Pentecostal Christian and it was goodbye Hallowe’en for several years. As I have shifted away from the extremely strict, black-and-white religiosity that tries to control every aspect of worshippers’ lives, I’ve found myself able to relax and just enjoy Hallowe’en, the way I enjoy the old The Addams Family tv series and atmospheric black metal music like Aquilus.

Another angle on Hallowe’en in Australia is that here it actually lines up with the Pagan celebrations of Beltane, whereas in the Northern Hemisphere coincides with Samhain. And the imagery and concepts surrounding Samhain are more like what Hallowe’en is about. Not to mention that pumpkins are not a seasonal vegetable here at this time of year. But all hand wringing over dates and propriety and spiritual warfare aside, I think it’s a bit of fun and quite frankly am far beyond quibbling over church debates as to the One True and Correct Way to Respond to Hallowe’en. Which, of course, my old church friends will likely see as evidence of my slide into heresy but, hey, that’s their problem.

Nanowrimo is, as I have repeatedly mentioned, an annual writing event that takes place in November. For all thirty days of November, the challenge is to write an original first draft of a 50,000+ words story before the clock strikes midnight, local time. I entered (and “won,” that is, submitted a 50,000+ word manuscript to Nano’s word counter) in 2013 and 2014. In late October and early November, every bit of brain space, energy, creativity and writing ability is poured into Nano. As a result, if I share any blog posts during that time they’ll probably be Nano-related. In the last two years I wrote regular updates on the Nano process. I had positive feedback about these and so I will attempt to do that again this year. Look out for them (and hit the follow or subscribe button so you can watch my progress!).

I’ll add that I’m fully cognizant of the solemn critiques and negative views on Nano. It’s a predictable sociological phenomenon that any “movement” will usually spur a counter-movement (take any political movement and you won’t need to look far before finding a group of people indignant and certain that the movement is wrong). There is a whole lot of despair that Nano doesn’t produce high level literary authors, though there are the occasional notable success stories like Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, the first draft of which was written for Nano. Now, quite frankly I don’t feel the need to explain or defend why I love Nano to those who disagree with it or lament that it only gives hyped-up and over-caffeinated wannabes the sense that we are writers. I literally do not care if other people don’t enjoy Nano – simple, don’t do it. I thought it was an insane concept when I first heard of it too, especially as I’d just come out of a two-year honours research stint that resulted in a measly 18,000 words. How could I, who scraped together 18,000 words in two years, possibly think that I could write 50,000 in one month? But I will say that for some of us, that fast pace is thoroughly enjoyable as a one-off, a challenging and messy bit of creative writing fun with tangible goals and the support of a lovely online community and a way to link up with other local writers through Nano-organised regional events. The reality is that after years of university, having set deadlines fires up my writing powers in a way that my hectic and clinically depressed day-to-day existence doesn’t. Many of us Nano participants are people who live and breathe writing, or we would if we could, but sometimes real life steals from that. We can’t all have the luxury of a home office and blissful hours of pre-dawn writing, as wonderful as that would be. Nope, my pre-dawn routine is hauling myself out of bed and chauffeuring reluctant kids to school and then spending hours on all that housework stuff that comes with being a stay at home parent and not to mention trying to eke out an income as a struggling artist. In November I get to say to the family, “Hey, don’t bug me, I’m writing,” and yet for them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that this madness only lasts a few weeks before normalcy resumes. And as for the rest of the year, other writers who take themselves very seriously and perhaps deserve to, still don’t get to decide whether or not my daily routine meets their expectations of literary adequacy. Whether I return to my Nano manuscripts or not (and personally I always do) is not their concern. Just sayin’. As for me, I would rather be a voice of encouragement, spurring on my friends and complete strangers that read my blog to attempt to explore their creativity – whether they one-off write a Nano novel and get the t-shirt and the inherent gloating rights that come with it, or if they “only” wrote 500 words, that was 500 more than they had written before, or they suddenly decide to paint despite not having touched a brush since it was a required subject at school, or they do one of those complex adult colouring books and make a pretty mandala, I don’t care what it is. I just love seeing people pursuing the life affirming, the creative and the opportunity to challenge themselves. Even if they never go anywhere with it. Surely the world would be a kinder place if we poured our energy into life affirming creativity rather than, I don’t know, never trying anything lest the worthier gatekeepers of literary success get all offended that mere commoners dared to put pen to paper.

The arts should not be the privileged domain of the highly educated and highly organised. As an Arts / Humanities graduate, I am a firm believer that Arts is intrinsic to expressing our humanness. Why should the unprofessional hobby writer be scorned for their efforts? Further to that, Nanowrimo doubles as a charity, supporting literacy programmes for underprivileged schools. Those of us who compete are able to buy the merchandise and donate to the charity and do so knowing that some of that goes towards teaching kids to read.

Phew. Anyway, while I’m busy being a Wrimo in November, I won’t be writing as frequently on wordpress. To keep my readers occupied, here are some interesting links to online articles I’ve been reading.

ASTRONOMY

VEGETARIANISM & VEGANISM

  • Skool of Vegan on Instagram – a webcomic exploring the reasoning behind veganism.

HISTORY

MINDFULNESS

  • A BBC article called, “The slow death of purposeless walking.” I wholeheartedly agree with the movements for slowing down and unplugging and letting the natural world catch our attention.
  • On the topic of the social movements for slowness, if you haven’t heard of it, check out the work of Slow Food who seek to counteract the high intensity pace of modern life and call us back to eating thoughtfully prepared, culturally relevant and holistic foods as part of a lifestyle of mindfulness.