Train conversation, overheard.

We sat in front of a lovely family on the train from Canberra to Sydney. Two little girls and their father, travelling up from Jindabyne (if I remember rightly) via Canberra. Somewhere they visit regularly. Somewhere they enjoy because they were planning a trip back down pretty soon.

They were super prepared for the four hour trip. They had packed food, play dough, movies (with lots of pink in them), and brand new puzzle game books. And Dad was fantastic, treating his girls with respect, chatting with them, joining in on their games. He also had a fair bit of sarcasm in his makeup, but that made the conversation all the more fun to listen to.

At one stage I remember Dad saying ‘This is quite a strange trip, isn’t it? The train is running on time, and the pies are actually hot!’ I was really glad the train was running on time, seeing as we had to catch a flight and we didn’t have vast quantities of time to make the connection. I’d been praying about that for weeks, so maybe God was just being gracious. We enjoyed hot sausage rolls as well. DS had found that if you bought a hot sausage roll, you could use it to soften the butter so that it could be easily spread on the cold banana bread.

Around the middle of the trip the youngest girl, Charlie, suddenly came up with a fervent question, ‘Are they ultrarares Dad? Dad. Dad, are they ultrarares?’

It took some time to figure out what she was talking about. But the final answer was: shoes. Were her shoes ultra-rare? That’s what she wanted to know.

One of her friends had told her that shoes that had flowers and sparkle-lys and small eyes were rare. Ultra-rare. And she needed to know, were her shoes ultra-rares?

Because as her dad could see, her shoes had ‘flowers and sparkle-lys and small eyes’ (I really don’t know what she meant by small eyes – they were sitting behind us and I didn’t want to turn around to find out). And so they must, they simply MUST be ‘ultrarares, Dad!’

Dad wasn’t sure what to say, other than to whisper to the big sister, Annabelle, could she just say yes, the shoes were ultra-rare, whether she thought it or not.

And then he had a brain wave.

‘I know how to figure this out,’ he said, ‘have you ever seen any shoes that look the same as yours?’

‘No’ said she.

‘Then that settles it. They are rare shoes. They are ultra-rare.’

‘Yes! They are ultrarares!’ she said in triumph, followed quickly by ‘Annabelle’s shoes aren’t ultrarares – see! They don’t have flowers or sparkle-lys they’re not ultrarares. My shoes are ultrarares, but Annabelle’s shoes aren’t.’

And then the conversation could move on from shoes. And everyone (except possibly Annabelle and her boring shoes) was happy.

The pursuit of happiness

When I was growing up the biggest dream I had was to get married and have children. I truly thought that I would have either four or six children and I would home-school them. That I would be the most amazing natural earth-mother that ever there was.

Well I was super fortunate (can I say #blessed?) to meet my man in high school and to get married shortly thereafter. We had one child and while I loved being a mum, the whole motherhood thing wasn’t quite as effortless for me as I thought it would be. After the second baby I was done with pregnancy and babyhood. No more kids for me. And anyone who knows me now laughs with me at the thought that I would be home-schooling. I am very grateful for my kids, don’t get me wrong! I love them deeply and I like them as people too. They taught me so much, and one of the big lessons was that I was not emotionally able to stay at home and look after children all my life.

After a bit of a struggle with depression I chose to go to university and study. I loved it! Uni was my thing! I enjoyed the learning, enjoyed the study (and the built in breaks) and I did well. Academic life suited me and I started to dream of an academic career. I looked back at my heroes – people like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien whose lives revolved around the research and teaching, and I loved robing up for the graduation ceremonies and being able to pretend I was somewhat of the same ilk.

So once again I had found what I wanted to do with my life! I wanted to stay at uni all my life and teach and research. Chemistry was my thing. I knew what I wanted and I went for it. I would tell people that I was a ‘stay-at-home-mum with a career woman hidden inside’. Finishing off the PhD was difficult – there was a huge emotional toll in presenting 3 years worth of work for examination.  But I managed, and after that, well, I knew I wanted to work in research and in teaching at university level.

I started to push for a long-term position in a university, preferably the university in Hobart where I live. I traveled to Sydney four times a year for four years in order to get experience in a different university from the one I where I studied and graduated. I applied for funding to start my own research group and waited nine nail-biting months to find out that I didn’t get it. I looked at positions available at the university here in Hobart and found there were none.

I started to understand that realising my goal of becoming a tenured university lecturer would require from me sacrifices that I was unwilling to make. I realised that I would have to uproot my family and travel, probably overseas. I would have to say goodbye to the home I loved and my husband would have to say goodbye to his secure employment and we would have to gamble on getting funding in the university system to support my research. It took a while but in the end I felt like the sacrifices were too much and I let the dream of professorship go.

But I had built my identity on that dream and I wasn’t sure then what my identity was. My identity had changed from stay-at-home-mum to academic and now it was changing again. To what?

That was when I turned to writing. I started to dream of earning a living by writing novels. I started to research what was involved in writing and to read wonderful writing books like ‘The Art of Slow Writing’ by Louise DeSalvo. I read about how it is important to write a daily journal if you want to be a writer (check! I’ve done that since grade 10) and how important it is to read, and read widely (another big check – reading is my love). I read about how good it is to take notes on what you’re reading (something I had wanted to do but hadn’t given myself permission). Once I called myself a writer and started to collect notebooks and pens and sticky notes and to set up my office downstairs so that I had ‘a room of my own’, I felt like a writer. I decided I was a writer. I had a new identity.

It is very tempting to say that finally, FINALLY, I have found the thing for which I was put on this earth. But, you know, I don’t think I have. I have found something that I really enjoy doing, something that makes life feel a lot more fun. Writing is a puzzle piece that was missing from my life and writing has made my life more full and joyous. I hope that my writing gives others encouragement and joy, and when my novel finally gets published I hope it speaks to people’s lives. But ‘the thing’? My new identity? No, I don’t think so.

All my identities have been what I have been put on the earth to do. Including the identities I haven’t mentioned so far like being a sister, a daughter, and a friend. It would be easy to look at C.S. Lewis and say that he was put on this earth to write his wonderfully clear books but that would be disrespecting his life as an academic, his input into his students, the lectures he gave, the support he gave to his brother and his other friends, and the husband and step-father that he was. The same with Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings has lived on after him, but writing that great work was only one piece of his life. He had work and family and church. There were many things he was put on this earth to do – not just write.

The psychologist Dr Bruno Cayoun says that our identities change throughout our lives and if we accept that, and stop expecting things to stay the same, then our lives are much easier. All my life I have been looking for the job, the position, the identity that was “me”. I would go for something and enjoy it for a while and then something would change and I’d say, ‘oh, actually, it looks like that’s not “me” after all.’ And I’d go looking again.

Now as I look back I see that all of it – the mothering, the studying, the researching, the teaching – all of it was and is part of “me”. Who I am is changing all the time as circumstances change and as I grow and mature. My identity has changed as I’ve grown and that is a good and right thing to happen.

And I think that what we do is not as important as how we do it. That our character is more important even than our identity. So, my take home message today for me is that I will keep doing what I’m doing – keep mothering, wifing, lecturing, tutoring, dancing, churching and writing. I will work on my character as I do all that. And I will keep trying to be what I’m put on this earth to be. And hopefully I’ll find joy in the changes, the growth, and in every part of my identity.

Leftovers night

This is the third post written while I was away on my big break. Enjoy!

Food has been interesting in this little shack. The kitchen consists of a fridge, a set of shelves, a bench with a sink in it and various pieces of electrical hardware. There’s a microwave, a convection oven (the type that sits on the bench), a sandwich press, a kettle, an electric frypan, and an electric hotplate that can be used with saucepans or frying pans. So there’s everything you need but you can only use one appliance at a time. Any more and the fuse will blow. So there’s a few logistical issues. In addition, you can’t use more than one thing at once because there is simply no bench space for any more.

Tonight DH is making toasted sandwiches with a breadboard balanced on the draining board to allow enough bench space for chopping and buttering. The first night we were here he was much more inventive – he popped down to the supermarket and bought chiko rolls, a bag of frozen stir fry vegetables and some noodle salad. (Chiko rolls are a purely Australian food that should taste absolutely disgusting but for some reason are delicious! A bit like dim sims but completely different. DH says they could be a long dim sim dipped in batter.)

Yesterday, after eating fish and chips for lunch, we didn’t need anything heavy for tea so we decided to go with toasted cheese, ham, (and for him, tomato) sandwiches. And tonight, it’s leftover night! So dinner consists of leftover stir fry veg. Leftover noodle salad, and toasted sandwiches. We are living like kings here! We also have leftover banana cake, leftover shortbread, and crisps and chocolate and jellybeans and we’ve decided we need matching his and hers hip flasks so that we can easily bring whiskey for him and gin for me to make our favourite drinks.

While we’re on the subject of how shack-like the shack is, let me introduce you to our bolt-hole for the four days. The first time we saw it, we drove past thinking it was a shed on someone’s property. Then we saw the name written on the side and realised that it was the property. We have stayed in smaller places, but only as rooms in a motel. Actually, now I come to think of it, this place is around as big as the granny flat that we originally lived in 22 years ago when we were first married. And this place has a wood-heater so it is much better!

The rooms are lit by single light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The floors have a variety of coverings, from beautiful polished floorboards in the bedroom, to vinyl held together by duct tape in the lounge room to cork tile patterned vinyl in the kitchen. The view outside is absolutely gorgeous but the windows that you would like to look through are tiny and you can only see the view while sitting down. Standing up you look at the grass. In the tiny lounge room are two dressers, a table and four wooden chairs, and three easy chairs. One of the easy chairs (the vinyl covered one) we have given up on because it is so uncomfortable that we just don’t want to sit on it. It is made for people with shorter legs than ours. I am using the wicker rocking chair and DH, when he feels like reading, squeezes himself into the material covered easy chair with wooden arms. It does not look comfortable but if he lifts his legs off the cross bar by putting them up on a wooden chair then he is moderately ok.

It felt like going back in time when we let ourselves in and saw what we had let ourselves in for. So much so that I was concerned that the toilet could have been outside. But no, there is an indoor bathroom that hides behind the kitchen door. It has a bath, a shower and a loo and it has a washing machine but I’ve been told that it shreds clothes, so no washing this weekend. I wasn’t even thinking of it, washing is not what I go on holidays to do.

The truly wonderful thing is the high quality queen sized bed. The importance of good sleep cannot be overemphasised on holidays and this bed is delightful to sleep in. Everything else can be handled with equanimity if you can sleep at night, I have found. Not that much handling is really required. There is everything that we need here and more besides. It is warm and quiet and, importantly, away from everything else.

It’s a lovely little place and we have made ourselves comfortable. Very comfortable, in fact. There really isn’t much more you need for four days, though I’d find cooking in the kitchen a little more stressful in the long term I reckon. So leftovers tonight is a good way to go and tomorrow we will pack up and clean thoroughly (so as to encourage Ratty to eat RatSack for his dinner) and head home to luxury and to work. We are more than grateful.

An Easter Wedding

Two of my daughter’s school friends got married on Saturday. They were just slightly older than the age that DH and I were when we got married. So it was a pretty special reminder for us. We’ve known the bride since kindergarten and we’ve known the groom since late primary school.

DD was a bridesmaid so we had a special window into the preparations. We’ve shared a few ups and downs and had a pretty good look into what it is like to be on the other side, the parent side of a young wedding. I shed some tears when the bride walked up the aisle. I’m sure it will be even more emotional when it is our own children getting married.

The groom and groomsmen looked very smart, handsome, even. The bridesmaids were all gorgeous. The bride was beautiful! Her shoes were to die for. OK the dress was amazing but so were the shoes. I love shoes.

bride and groom

One incredibly neat thing was that the girls made up their own bouquets – the flowers were bought from a wholesaler but the girls chose the blooms and greenery that they wanted and made up their individual bouquet. They also did their own hair and the bride did their makeup and they worked together and got themselves all ready. And they looked beautiful. Don’t you think?

bridesmaids and groomsmen

And that was the thing about this whole wedding. It was gorgeous, professional, delightful. But it was mostly put together by the family and friends. The reception was held in the groom’s family’s hay barn. The families and bridal party had worked so hard to carpet the ground (no floor, just carpet on top of the ground), to string fairy lights all around, to make decorations for the tables. The minister was the bride’s uncle, the (funky and talented) band was the bride’s brother’s band, the (incredibly detailed and gorgeous) cake was made by a friend. The parents of the bride and groom were running around all day making sure we had drinks, food, plates, cake.  It was all so beautiful but all so full of love, full of family, full of community.

cake

I’ve been to weddings where the stress of making the wedding a perfect day has been so full-on that no one enjoyed the day – the joy was lost in the pursuit of perfection. This wedding was not perfect but it was so full of joy, so beautiful. I am sure that everyone there enjoyed it. The bride and groom certainly did. It was a memorable celebration of a life-long commitment. A joining of two families. A day to remember.

I have to say, one slight imperfection of the day was that the reception venue was filled with wasps. Everywhere. The family had been laying wasp traps and each trap I saw contained about 100 wasps, but there would not have been enough traps in the world to get rid of the swarm that joined in with the festivities. Someone found the nest while we were waiting for the bridal party to finish their photo shoot but that was a little too late to help us.

The little boys were chasing the wasps around with bits of wood and trying to stomp on them, and one little toddler was trying to catch them like they were butterflies until her mother said something to the effect of, ‘Darling! Come over here, sweetheart! Leave them alone.’ through clenched teeth, trying not to let her panic show.

We could not eat without waving a couple of wasps off our plates between mouthfuls, and DS had to poke a couple off his plate with a knife because they were stubborn and didn’t want to leave. Once we had stopped fighting the wasps for our food it was actually quite interesting and informative to watch them chop bits of meat off the scraps on the plates and carry them away. To see whether they had bitten off more than they could carry or not. The fun of fighting with wasps stopped me from having seconds of the most excellent food but I would say that the wasp diet is not highly recommended…

As far as I know, no-one got stung, so that was good. Almost miraculous, considering the amount of wasps present as uninvited guests.

The party finished with some pretty amazing dancing, including all the bridesmaids spontaneously performing the whole ‘Thriller’ dance (with the brides mother!) and some sitting around a campfire chatting. It was a long day and we were all exhausted by the end of it but it was wonderful. A joyous celebration. Reminded me of our own special day. I hope we can make our kids weddings just as beautiful and joyful.

Before the wedding I had a quick chat with the bride about the stress and frustrations of wedding preparation. She asked me about our wedding: ‘was it a good day?’ I told her, ‘it was the best day of my life.’ It was! I’ve had brilliant days since but our wedding day still is at the top of the list. I was hoping and praying for the same sort of day for Saturday’s bride and therefore I was totally thrilled to hear in her speech, ‘Today has been the best day of my life!’ I know that this is just a milestone along the journey of their lives together. It is not the beginning, just a step along the way, but I’m so glad it came off well in the end, that it was a joyous and love-filled day and I pray for them both a joyous and love-filled long life together.

Learning by doing

You probably expected to hear more from me in this blog since I started spending all Fridays writing. And I expected to write more. And I have been writing, it’s just that instead of writing my blog, I’ve been writing my novel. Have I told you all that I’m writing a novel? It’s pretty exciting because it’s something I’ve wanted to do probably all my life. But like all good things, it’s taking a long time and a lot of work.

I wrote a full draft last year, from beginning to end, then I worked on it a bit, correcting things that I saw needed correcting, and making it as good as I could get it. I got to the point where I wasn’t willing to spend any more time on it if it was rubbish so I gave it to some well trusted people to read – just to see if it was worth going on with. They were encouraging (thank the Good Lord), and gave some helpful advice, and I have taken note of the advice and I’m trying to incorporate it. I’ve opened a new Scrivener document and I’ve started again, writing yet another draft.

It’s harder this time – I want the novel to be excellent (or at least a lot better than it was in the last draft) so I’m trying to improve everything that I can. When I was first writing, I just reached inside my head for the story and wrote it down. In a way it was like reading a novel – it just wasn’t written yet – and I could write at any time – at my desk, in a cafe, even last thing before I went to bed. If it was rubbish, that was ok, I knew I would be fixing it later.

But now it is later, and I need to make sure that the writing is not rubbish. I am finding that I need a lot more brain power to write this time. I read each sentence critically to make sure it says exactly what I want it to say. I’m trying not to start three sentences in a paragraph with the same header words (unless, of course, it’s for effect). I’m trying to fill in the holes that need filling and to change the scenes that my test readers said didn’t make sense.

I want my writing to be good, so I have researched a fair bit to find out what makes a novel a good novel. I have read a lot in the last couple of years about novel writing – about the dos and don’ts, about character arcs and themes, about adverbs (don’t use them, unless you use them well), about planning (very important so you don’t get lost) and not planning your novel (so that you can follow where the story goes without being stuck to a rigid plan), about the rules of writing and how to ignore the rules of writing and so on. It started to get very confusing – my take on it all is that there are rules that you can follow to make sure your writing isn’t horrifically bad, but if you follow the rules slavishly your writing will be horrifically bland.

Character arcs was one thing I really couldn’t get figured out when I started. I had read that each character in the story had to have an external issue to work on (kill the dragon, for example), and also an internal issue (daddy issues or some such thing). I could see how important that was for the main character but I couldn’t figure out all the character arcs for the other characters. I was concentrating so hard on the MC and getting her story straight that at first the others were just there to help her work out her story. I understood, in principle, that every character in a book needs to be a full-bodied character with their own story happening right alongside the MC and that your book is a bit two-dimensional without that. But I just couldn’t think it all through, I couldn’t make it come together.

But over the last month or so, as I’ve worked on this draft, it’s become very exciting. The characters have started to take on lives of their own. I’ve realised that Robbie (who I thought wasn’t very important) is going to have to face his own mortality, and that Jan (who is very important but not the MC) has issues about living in a small town that I had no idea about when I started. Novelists write about this, this coming to life of the characters, I can’t believe it’s happening in my story. It’s so cool!

So now I’m trying to dredge out of my little brain exactly what I’ve read about character arcs and how to write them and I think I might have to do some more research. But while I research I’ll keep writing because it seems that this novel writing thing only happens as you write. It’s one of those ‘learn by doing’ situations.

Sometimes I get scared that I will never finish the book. That I will keep polishing for ever and ever and it will never be good enough to be out there for people to read. Sometimes, when I read about the business aspect I find there’s a whole new level of fear to go through – I need to find editors and cover designers, I need to work out contracts and legalese to make sure I’m not getting ripped off, and probably a whole host of issues I haven’t even seen yet. And then there’s the fact that if I ever want to make money from writing, and I do, then I need to publish at least five books before any money happens. FIVE times this! Five!

So I spiral into panic.

And then I remember. Quietness and confidence, repentance and rest. I need to trust that this is what I am supposed to be doing. I can leave all the outcomes in God’s hand and just do, each day, what I have been called to do. It’s about process, it’s about living in the moment. And it’s about the fact that I really love writing. If it takes five years to finish this one book then that’s what it takes. I just need to keep going with what I am called to do each day, day after day, and leave the rest up to God.

And can I encourage you, if you know there is something you want to do, then do it. Enjoy the practice. If nothing else, you’ll learn a heap about yourself as you go, and you might even achieve something that you’ve always wanted to achieve. There was a little song I learned as a kid:

Practice makes perfect

Practice makes perfect

I guess if I practice then better I’ll be

I’m off to write some more…

That locked in feeling

I’m having a little problem with my car. She’s a lovely car, very reliable, totally fun to drive and I don’t want to say anything against her really but I think maybe she loves me too much and is being over protective.

You see, although I have very politely asked many times for her to stop, she will still lock the doors whenever I start the car, locking me in. I think she is concerned that someone will car-jack me at a traffic light or something but I feel that’s unlikely to happen.

Also, once the doors are locked, they are very reluctant to open again. I click the button and I hear the mechanism unlock but then the door immediately locks itself once more. At the moment, when I wish to get out of the car, I must wind down the window (that’s manual by the way, no electric windows in this car – which may be a good thing the way things are going) and find the lock with the key and turn it to unlock the door. The lock catches inside the doors broke years ago. They just flap uselessly.

And I have a fear that the driver’s door will start to act like the passenger door. That one sometimes can’t even be opened with the key. It immediately locks again as soon as you release pressure on the key. If that happens on the driver’s side then I will be reduced to climbing out the window Dukes of Hazard style. That will not be graceful!

So I can tell you what DH will be working on this weekend!

Now unlocking through the window is a reasonable work around and most of the time it’s ok. But I have to admit that this morning when I turned up to work and parked and found myself locked into the car again, I almost decided that it would be easier to spend the day in the car. Almost.

I think that like most people, my ability to handle small frustrations like this is totally dependent on how I am feeling about everything else in my life. If life is going smoothly and I am not feeling overwhelmed then I can handle the little things, I can laugh at the little things, they are small pebbles in the road of life and I am glad to have them happening because they give me something to write about. But  when I am having an off day, when I have not slept well and my head hurts and I have a busy day ahead, then these little issues become pot holes at the very least, jarring me, shaking me up. And sometimes they are pebbles in the shoe, constant small irritations. Or they are mountains in the road. Enough to stop me from moving forward.

The car locking mechanism has been playing up for a few weeks now. No-one has had the time to work on it and I haven’t worried about it. It’s been an intermittent problem and I’ve been fairly intermittent in how I’ve responded to it. Some days it’s been amusing, some days irritating, and mornings like today it’s been almost enough to send me back home and back to bed. (The day got much better, BTW).

Many of the letters in the bible start with the words ‘Grace and peace to you’. If you know you’re forgiven and loved, if you are surrounded by that grace, then you can extend peace to those around you. You are able, from your place of forgiven-ness and unconditional loved-ness to respond peacefully to these irritations that come your way. If you know the supernatural peace that comes from knowing that there is a plan, that you don’t have to be in control of every circumstance, then you can extend grace to those around you and allow others to be irritating within the cushioning that comes from the grace.

I think it’s like breathing in grace and breathing out peace. Then breathing in peace and breathing out grace. And laughing at the little things, the imperfections in life. Because this side of eternity there will always be imperfections, even if it’s something as small as an overprotective car.

So for you my readers I pray ‘Grace and peace to you’ and I hope you pray the same for me. And I hope that after tomorrow I will be able to jump out of my car easily again and will never take it for granted!