Synchronicity – endings and beginnings

May 28, 2016

Synchronicity

Another end of term, another section of life completed, compartmentalized and put away. This time a good term, a successful chunk of time. Which led me to this end of term three years ago, which was anything but the end of a good time. It was a miserable rainy cold day, an appropriate bit of pathetic fallacy as the storm clouds had been fierce and intense for some time at that particular vile and vituperous work place. It was a good place to be out of, and the over-whelming feeling was one of profound relief.

It was an odd time, a very strange weekend, for literally had I stepped away from that pit of vultures, removed that poison from my life, than my father died. Yes, literally the next day. On the other side of the world he had a heart attack while driving and hit a telegraph pole, wiping out the power in the area for some time, and killing himself. It was interesting timing on many levels, as it was also my long dead, much missed mother’s birthday.

Farm1

You cannot ignore such coincidences, such synchronicity in the universe. It does seem as if there is a higher presence of some sort, a game master playing with us, making us stop and think, stop and wonder. Indeed it made me think as I winged my way home across the hours and miles to bury a father I’d not always loved, not always found easy. In the aftermath of his death there was another curious moment of synchronicity – only known to a few but spotted by one such person and relayed to me. My father’s accident was reported on the local news, as you might expect. But it followed an item about the demolition of a hotel in the middle of Hobart, where a woman had fallen to her death in the late 70’s. Yes, that woman was my mother. The news people would never in a million years have known the connection between the two accidents, but there it was. Both parents died in accidents many years apart, but there they were abutting each other in death in a news bulletin.

And now there is some peace in the world. After three years I only think fondly of my father, but fortunately at the time I was able, along with my brother, to bid him farewell in our own way. We went to his house, stood on his river bank, drank his champagne, ate party pies and as an eagle soared above us in the fading light, said our farewells.

farm night

My beloved eldest daughter was with me during the whole Tasmanian death days. It was appropriate: she was the grandchild most fond of John, most able to dote on him and make him laugh, able to call him ‘foolish’ without a storm front moving in. She helped clean and sort the detritus of a long life, a life of hoarding and not a lot of order. Oh my, did we find a lot of wine, pills and bullets! When we left we thought it was the end, the house, after being in the family for 50 years, would be sold and an important part of my life would be incontrovertibly over.

But the universe has stepped in again and now my daughter lives there: yes, the one who came to help, who perhaps felt the same love for the place I have always had. My tall blonde, fierce, Amazon daughter has settled there on the river bank with her fiancé: her English man, who is ten years older than her, a man who can turn his hand to all sorts of things, a remarkably useful fellow, who is devoted to her. What synchronicity is here, I hear you ask? Well, her mother met an Englishman, who was ten years older than her, remarkably useful in an intelligent and handy sort of way, and settled in a house on a riverbank in Tasmania many years ago.

P&T - dec 2015

I sit here this morning a world away from my own riverbank, from John’s and Phoenix’s riverbank and marvel at how the world turns out. Three years ago the world spun off its axis for me. Things shifted and changed and although I could not see it at the time, it has turned out to be very much for the better. I am in a much better work-place: one where I am valued and appreciated by students and staff. One of my lovely year 11s yesterday brought me chocolates and a card and thanked me, telling me I had rescued them. It was one of those sweet moments in a teacher’s life.

Farm-July13

My father’s house, which had been my grandfather’s house is now my daughter’s house. And I can only be pleased with that. We live, we die and others move the world on and so the house that Hector bought is the house that Phoenix will take to the next level and sooner or later fill it with more than baby chickens and German Shepherd puppies. A house that was the happiest place I ever spent with my father will now be a happy place to spend time with my darling daughter (when I eventually get back to my own river bank…) (Pix from Private Collection)

An English Teacher’s Lament

May 21, 2016

An English Teacher’s Lament

Tis but a little poem today

Because most of my words have flown away

No words

 

This morning I have not enough words

For although the world remains absurd

Nothing startling has fallen from the bough

To urge me to write just now…

 

Instead, in land of exams and data and marking do I dwell,

I must admit it is a living hell

No time or space to set the imagination free,

For the kiddies or for me…

 

There is no time to think, no time to rest

Must teach to that fucking stupid test

Make sure we all do our best

To avoid the ire of the Ofsted pest,

Before the exam boards do their thing

And shift the ground boundaries again.

 

Swiftie globe

Perhaps there is finally nothing left to say on a dull or cheery Saturday

Or is it this just a temporary stay? (Images from private collection)

English Summer-time and the Weather is Stupid

May 14, 2016

English Summer-time and the Weather is Stupid!

Last week we had several days of wonderful sunshine, in fact several days where it got progressively warmer and we had a BBQ-worthy weekend. And as Aussies abroad that was what we did – burnt some snags on a patio sized Webber. And enjoyed them very much. It wasn’t quite home, it wasn’t thin beef BBQ sausages, there wasn’t a keg of Cascade somewhere with blokes gathered around it, but there was tomato sauce and salad and fresh rolls and the odd drink (Pimm’s I confess: something British that I do quite like).

BBQ

This week we’ve had temper tantrums from the Gods of weather – sunshine and rain, heavy cooling rain. It’s just like growing up in Hobart: you never know what to wear, you need your brolly with you every day; you’re too hot or too cold, never, like Goldilocks porridge, just right. It was one of the best things about living in the NT for so many years, the utter reliability of the weather. Hot and dry for half the year, hot and wet for the other half. Brilliant.

Does the warm weather cheer people up, does it make you feel better? The moment the sun pops out for an extended period here people descend on the parks and beaches in droves and yes, they do parade their whiter than white, paler than pale flesh far too early and so suffer the ensuing pinkness for several days. Picnics in the parks are one thing, but bathers and exposed sun-scared flesh as well? Really…

The sunshine here reminds me of the stereo-typical trope of the English and their mania for talking about the weather. Indeed the man at my local shop where I buy my weekend papers and croissants engaged me on the weather this morning. It’s a step up from nodding acknowledgement, to ‘good mornings’ to today’s: ‘it’s a bit odd this weather we’re having’. Face-book fills up with comments about the warmth, just as it does about the rain and the snow when it happens. It is true, the English do love a chat about the weather, about as much as they love a queue.

sunshine

The sunshine and warmth does not cheer up the kiddies. Oh, no: it simply gives them another reason to moan and complain about life, and then if it’s Friday afternoon and you’re fed up and know you’re going to fail your GCSE’s it gives you an even better excuse to sleep. They sit in class, sweating, fanning themselves with hand-fashioned paper fans, guzzling their water, moaning – we can’t work, it’s too hot, open the windows, Miss, how can you stand it? I look at them with amusement and faint pity and think, and sometimes say: Well, my dears, twenty years in the tropics gives you a sort of immunity – a tolerance for heat, no, in fact it gives you a love of heat and warmth, and anyway, this is NOT hot. And indeed it is not, it is only 23 degrees, hardly heat-wave, hardly fainting in the street from heat-exhaustion. But the English, especially the teenage English, love a good moan.

I have mixed feelings on the sunshine, on summer creeping in, on the longer days. It is lovely when it warms, when the evil icy tendrils of winter recede, when the short days lengthen and the darkness evaporates. It’s nice to go to work and come home in the light. It does lighten one’s spirit.

picnic

Summer is lovely. It’s wonderful in our old farmer’s cottage in France, where it really warms up and the countryside hums with the sounds of summer, of crickets and cows and weekend markets and street cafes for lunch; where I can spend all day in our walled garden reading in the sun, doing virtually nothing for as long as I want. Summer is a good way to end the school year as the weather warms and even returning to the fray as summer fades is fine too – you begin in a happy place – provided your exam results were good enough!

country

But, oh does the warm weather make me homesick! Indeed, ironically, far more than the winter. Come summer and I just want to go home, to be in my house, on my river-bank, having BBQ’s on my verandah, gazing on the water, appreciating our gardens, enjoying the fading light of the long summer day sparkle on the river; visiting my daughter on the Huon. Yes, summer does my head in – it’s always been my favourite season and now it is the season that tortures my soul, bringing joy as the light and warm fill my spirit, but a wistful sadness that I am not where I want to be, that I am not at home.(Images from Private Collection)

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

May 7, 2016

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

If you live in the English speaking world there are a couple of things you cannot escape at the moment – one is the US juggernaut that is Donald Trump, the other that it is 400 years since William Shakespeare popped his clogs. The differences are startling – one was the master of words, the other mangles them on most outings. One lives forever in the heart of poets and romantics, and perhaps one could venture that the Donald has an equally romantic impact on some Americans who long for some version of the US that isn’t the current one.

Today I will spend time with the Bard. The truth is I spent a great deal of my working life with the Bard – as a secondary English teacher you have no choice, especially in the UK. He is everywhere; he is God of English; the truth, the light and the way. Indeed I exaggerate dear reader, but despite all sorts of anguished cries from the young ones in schools across the world, it is impossible to deny his importance on language, on how we speak today and how we make sense of our world.

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Is he loved and enjoyed by the kinder in the classroom: well, on the whole not a lot. He seems rather to be endured that enjoyed and sadly that makes teaching any sort of Shakespeare a bit of a challenge. Over the years I have grown to hate, loathe and detest Romeo and Juliet. It is not a text for 13 and 14 year olds in year 9, yet persistently that is where they first encounter it.

Students notoriously cannot cope with the language; they lose the plot and story in the jungle of words that make no sense. Stopping to read the annotations and explain everything does take the pleasure out of reading the text. There are a couple of traps there – one is that you do not need to know the meaning of every word to understand what is going on and the other, most significant point is that Shakespeare’s plays should not be read by semi-illiterate, resistant students in freezing or stuffy classrooms. No, they should be watching a performance, seeing it live, experiencing the Bard that way.

Several years ago I had one of my many desperate bottom set year 9s – we were doing Macbeth, which was some relief from the tedium of R&J but still, as you can image, it was a trial. But my school was a stroll from the Globe Theatre on Southbank, so we took the whole of year 9 off to the theatre for a schools session. It was remarkable – the players were much more than merely players strutting and fretting their stuff upon the stage signifying nothing. They did their job: they brought the whole thing alive and on returning to the classroom we were able to have the sort of discussions about the play that helped them understand it and appreciate it. The significance of live performances, of action befitting words, of words made meaningful by actors who understand the nuance and wit of Shakespeare cannot be under-estimated.

SS3

Today with the new changes to the curriculum the students are expected to read whole texts again, instead of the key scenes nonsense. And while I agree with the whole text being important, the point about drama is still missed and the opportunities to get students to performances is limited – mainly by schools constrained by budgets that cannot afford such luxuries, either to go out to the theatre or have troupes come in.

Students need live performances to get what’s going on: their unworldly vocabularies, coupled with their limited reading skills simply mangle Shakespeare and deny the magnificence of the writing and the action.

I thank the many and wonderful film makers who have done their best to bring the wonders of the Bard to the screen so we can at least give some feel for how the stories really do go along. You cannot go past either Lurhmann or Zeferrelli for Romeo and Juliet; Polanski’s Macbeth may be a bit dated but it remains one of the best; The Tempest with Helen Mirren is brilliant; A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline and Calista Flockhart is wonderful, as is Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. You can’t go past the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew and you should compare that to the wonderful 10 Things I Hate About You, with the lovely late Heath Ledger.

This brings me neatly to my next point, about the enduring nature of Shakespeare. His plays are continuously produced and performed across the world; his stories are made into modern films, accessible to a younger audience; his stories are remade for modern times. Look up the different versions of Macbeth – Japanese, set in a kitchen, on a rubbish dump. And of course Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres is a reimagining of King Lear.

Why is this? His stories resonate because despite being mostly about noble people – or as my university lecturer famously said about Antony and Cleopatra; ‘it is a great play, about great people, doing great things, in great places’ (the 1963 film Cleopatra owes a great deal to the Shakespearean play A&C) – they are stories about human nature: greed, ambition, desire, pride, foolishness, deception, lust, love. We recognise these things when we see them on stage, we see ourselves or people we know. We watch with horror as characters cannot escape who they are. We watch with joy as problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after.

SS-folio

And the language is wonderful. He did have a wonderful ear and as we know was quite inventive. His words and phrases are part of our everyday speech, our idioms come from him; our expectations about romance come from him; Freud looked at his plays as a basis for his theories.

It is well to remember as we celebrate and laud this man, who has stood the test of time, that he was writing for the common man and woman. The theatre was the television of his day and he wrote the equivalent of dramas and soap operas – he catered to the masses. Perhaps that’s part of the secret of his immortality – he spoke to the ordinary man, he wrote the sorts of things that they were interested in. His sonnets are things of beauty and cover all manner of topics too.

So, is William Shakespeare God of English, should he hold such a prized place at the heart of English school curriculums?

R&J

You cannot dispute his influence on theatre, on language, on literature. He is not the only immortal we have (Chaucer, Marlowe, etc), but he is one of the most significant. He should be taught in schools, but perhaps we need to reconsider when and why. This year I have finally enjoyed Romeo and Juliet. Why? – I hear you ask. Simple: it was with A level students who can talk about the text, interrogate it, appreciate it, read it with meaning and nuance, find new things in it. My girls weren’t just getting through it, or reading it for exams. Wonderfully and reassuringly they were enjoying it. And with their enjoyment so came new insights and a new appreciation of the text and of good old William himself.

Shakespeare is our Titan of literature but we do him and the hapless kiddies no good by forcing him down their throats before they are ready for him. Yes, it’s that old educational concept of ‘readiness’ – when the student is ready the learning is good, and easy and fun and lasting. My fear for Shakespeare is that too many are turned off him because they meet him too soon and never find the joy and magic in his considerable works. (Images from Private Collection)

Exam Season: hints for home support – helping the helpless!

April 30, 2016

Exam Season: hints for home support – helping the helpless!

In the jolly old UK as summer tries to get out of bed and rise and shine it is the dawning of the insanity that is exams season here. GCSE’s start pretty much now. A-Level practical subjects have been running for a bit.

For thousands of year 11s Tuesday – thoughtfully after the bank holiday weekend – will be their iGCSE English Language exam. This two hours on Tuesday afternoon is worth 40% of their mark. So, many of them know exactly how many marks they need to get their magic C or better. Providing the moderators don’t downgrade their internal mark and the examiners don’t shift the grade boundaries up again. Which, as many of us know, happened last year.

Pal's pals@GCSE

Passing exams in this country is a bit like playing Russian Roulette – you never really know who is holding the gun and which barrel is loaded and pointing at you. But this year is the last year that year 11 students will have as little as 40 – 60% of exams to pass for English, and other subjects. Next year the world shifts back to the dark ages and we enter the abyss of 100% external exams. (All hail Michael Gove who knows more about education and learning than anyone else on the planet.)

Those of us who know anything about learning know that this is a recipe for disaster, just like starting school at increasingly younger ages, and the relentless desire to test, examine and measure. Next year brings a whole heap of trauma to parents of the youngest and the oldest, not to mention to the poor child and the hapless teacher who now has ridiculous targets to meet based on something that has yet to be tried, let alone tested.

Let’s return to this year – to students needing to pass, to parents who want to support them. Yes, it’s not all down to the teacher!! Ten years ago I published an article in an Australian magazine offering advice to parents to help them help their year 12 child survive and thrive during their final year at school. It was based on personal experience and most of the advice holds up today. So, here are the more relevant parts of that article.

Co-operative Relationships between Home and School

Ask any teacher and they will tell you that when parents, child and school are all working towards the same goals then success is invariably guaranteed. Teachers are highly focussed on achieving the best results for each student in their care. Expect them to know their subject area inside out and have a very clear view of your child’s ability and possible final grade.

If you want regular contact for any reason then let the school know. With e-mail it is easier than ever to have on-going contact. Schools prefer it when you get in touch before a problem arises. Usually issues can be worked out quickly and positively.

Being Informed

The best way to help your child to be as informed as possible. This seems too obvious but many parents ignore Information Evenings, course handbooks and never attend parent-teacher evenings. Make sure you are talking to your child about their subjects. Get in touch with teachers if you are concerned or think they need to know something. Look up courses on-line. All exam boards have sites accessible to the public. There is a plethora of web-sites about all things educational – texts, exam techniques; Youtube has tutorials on everything you can imagine

Health and Well Being

It doesn’t matter how clever your child is if they get sick or suffer any range of anxiety induced disorders then their year will be a nightmare. This is where you can practically support your child. Make sure they eat properly, get enough sleep, keep playing sport and don’t spend every minute studying or, at the other end, socialising such that they never complete assignments.

Stress is a major part of education now, especially during exam season, both for your child and you! Try to keep the house calm. This is not a good time for divorce or too many temper tantrums from younger siblings. It’s helpful if all family members are aware of the challenges and support the chosen child. After all, it will be the younger ones’ turn soon enough!

A wise parent keeps an eye open for substance abuse. During stressful times crutches are used and your child may be suffering more than you realise. Remember to keep an eye on all electronic devices – shut them down and remove them for specified times of the day, otherwise there will not be any sleep and there may be other disturbing things going down. Watch for changes in behaviour, mood swings, weight loss or gain. If you are worried speak to someone at school, your doctor and of course your child. Don’t ignore it.

Your exam stressed out child may struggle with his/her humanity and manners. Be kind, don’t shout at them (too much), take the rudeness/sullenness as a cry for help and take them to Nando’s and a chat. At all times this year keep the communication channels open!

classroom

A balanced approach to school and life – make a study plan!

A student who maintains a balanced life for the year is in the best position to succeed. It isn’t necessary for them to give up seeing their friends, going to the movies, playing sport. In fact, given the proliferation of mobile phones and access to the Internet you haven’t a hope of stopping them communicating with each other. Your best bet is to discuss limits on non-study/school activities. You know your child – do they need a tight lead or a loose leash?

Help get them organised. Don’t assume that the school has taught them about good study habits or organising their time. Talk to your child, point out that a structured approach to life means that they can get their assignments in on time and still watch Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead and spent sometime on-line for part but not all of their day.

We can help our children in so many ways. Cook them their favourite food, do their washing, ensure they have a private, quiet space to study. Read The Crucible with them, proof read their essays, listen to their oral presentations. And when specialised Maths is too much, despite the fact that Dad is an engineer, private tutoring is an option. The essence is to be extra aware of your child’s needs this year.

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Encourage your child to –

Keep up to date with assignments

Seek help when they need it – that’s what teachers are for!

Change subjects early if the need arises

Be organised – draw up a study time-table

Eat sensibly and keep playing sport

Get enough sleep

Have realistic goals

Have a fall back position if the first choice of course or Uni isn’t possible

 

What can you do?

Know what options your child realistically has

Have a contact at the school who knows your child – let them know you care about your child’s progress

Feed them loads of fresh nutritious meals

Watch their health – physical and emotional

Help them organise their time

Get extra academic support if they need it

Keep the home as harmonious as practical

Allow them to opt out of home duties at a suitable time for your child

Keep the communication channels open all year

 

Make a Study Plan

  1. List all the activities your child is involved in
  2. Include sleep, meals and travel time (use it!)
  3. Break the day into appropriate time spans
  4. Week days and weekends will differ
  5. Allow for free time/TV/Socialising
  6. Allow enough time for study for your child –some need more than others
  7. Allow for breaks and exercise
  8. Make sure it’s flexible and workable

dragon -grad

Exams are nasty evil things but passing them is more essential than ever. If you want a good future for your child, one where they are socialised, intelligent, productive members of society then, as a parent you need to put in the effort too. Don’t leave it all to the school with their afternoon sessions and holiday classes. As a parent you need to be involved. It’s your child, after all! Good luck J (Images from Private Collection)

Anzac Pride

April 23, 2016

Anzac Pride.

One hundred and one years ago a collection of young, brave and shockingly naive young men set foot on a foreign shore to protect our home shore. Yes, many of them paid the ultimate price and sacrificed their lives for ours on that skinny strip of sand in Anzac Cove in 1915. But their sacrifice made us into a nation. We may have been united under Federation a few years earlier but it was Gallipoli and WW1 that made Australia into a nation. You may consider that romantic foolishness but it is part of our mythology and I am happy to subscribe to that.

Today I want to consider what that means for Australians. There are no Anzacs left. But we cannot forget Anzac Day – April 25 – and the way I am commemorating it today is by looking at our cultural place on the world stage. Forget politics, forget economic power-house but cast your eyes around music, performing arts, literature and you’ll find an awful lot of Australians at work, doing us proud; doing our Anzac tradition proud.

Koala

Once upon a time in order to make something of yourself you had to leave Australia (and or NZ, if we’re being truly Anzac-y today) and establish yourself OS – usually England but latterly the USA. Thus in the 1960-70s luminaries such as Germaine Greer, Clive James and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage to you) left home seeking more than was to be had Down-under. These people have established loud and large personalities on the world stage, and regardless of their politics or yours they clearly established Oz as more than a place for convicts and surfers.

In Hollywood we had a few who had their toe in the waters early on, but their numbers were few. Errol Flynn, Peter Finch, Rod Taylor, but not Merle Oberon – oh, no, she was never ours. It was all smoke and mirrors to disguise where she really came from. Her exotic skin and luminous beauty hailed from the sub-continent and a sleazy beginning, not from obscure and far-far away Tasmania.

Many of the rock and rollers of the 60s and 70s got as big as they could and tried their hands OS but most returned bloodied and bowed. Who broke through: The Bee Gees (but they were British in the first place); The Easybeats had one colossal hit (Friday on My Mind); Helen Reddy (I am Woman); LRB were quite successful for quite some time; Air Supply did very well; Rick Springfield left Zoot and was a huge hit in the States; Olivia Newton-John was one of our biggest stars – she is forever Sandy in Grease, isn’t she? Peter Allen married Liza Minnelli to help things along, but he was an amazing performer. But our failures were greater.

But things changed, as they often do and slowly but surely there were more of us on the big screen, on the radio and various music channels, TV shows; winning prizes in literature. We were taking major roles, not just character parts; we were headlining tours, filling theatres. Our accent stopped being a problem. We arrived. Being Australian is not embarrassing, we have lost our cultural cringe. We have stepped up to our Anzac heritage in more ways than those young men could possibly have imagined.

 

Who are our world players now?

We have Oscar winners and actors who command some of the biggest salaries in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman may have ridden off on Tom Cruise’s coat-tails but she has stood on her own for years as a fine actress. Cate Blanchett is simply gold – everything she does is amazing – perhaps she is our finest actress ever? Chris Hemsworth and Hugh Jackman earn small fortunes and are two of the best looking men in Hollywood, and reputedly the nicest guys too. We have a string of excellent actors: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Naomi Watts, Rebel Wilson, Elizabeth Debicki and the wonderful Eric Bana. If we go Anzac, we can include Sam Neil and Russell Crow, who did bag an Oscar and was stunning in Gladiator.

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Kylie rules as our music queen these days but AC-DC are still going strong and as popular as ever. Why else the upset about Axl Rose joining the band? INXS were absolutely huge, as were Crowded House (yes, NZ again but this is about Anzac Day). Yothu Yindi owned the world there for a few years. Neighbours and Home and Away still run home and OS. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was one of the best movies ever and is now a West End stage production. Jason Donovan still performs regularly and Adam Hills has his own comedy show on UK TV. Ozzies pop up all over the place and these days, because of the amount of talent and ability we have you may not instantly recognise them. This is a good thing – we are as good as the rest.

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Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan are our stellar writers. Both have won the Booker – Carey twice. Both write of our experiences and all manner of things that show that any notion of inferior literature being automatically associated with Australia is a notion that belongs in the dark past. Other writers have international impact, including Christos Tsiolkas and The Slap that sold phenomenally and was made into an excellent TV series. The Rosie Project has been an international hit and of course Eleanor Catton, from NZ, was the youngest ever Booker Prize winner with The Luminaries. Don’t forget other stars like Markus Zsusak (The Book Thief), Tim Winton, David Malouf and Thomas Kenneally who wrote many wonderful things but notably Schindler’s Ark which was made into a harrowing film.

This Anzac Day don’t dwell on the less acceptable side of our nation, the treatment of refugees and Aboriginals; ignore the vile exploits of Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart and their ilk. Ignore the idiot politicians, the division in our society that doesn’t need to be there at all. Remember our fallen soldiers, on that memorable day so long ago, so far away, and all the others who have fought for us, to make us into a great nation. We may not be as good or as kind or as clever as we should but we do have a great deal to be proud of and it is timely to be aware of the good things we are and do.

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We have come a long way since April 25, 1915, and indeed we have a long way to go, but we can pause and be proud of our cultural giants. We are no longer lone men riding the outback, surfers or convicts: we are world players. We compete. In fact we really punch above our weight. (Images from Private Collection)

Dreams – gateways to well-being

April 9, 2016

Dreams – gateways to well-being.

The quest for a life well lived is all around us. I sometimes think the constancy of memes with lovely pictures and philosophical truisms from Buddha and Ghandi and Einstein, etc, etc is designed to keep us distracted from the escalating evil and nonsense of the world. It’s a way for us to deal with all the things that make us feel like crap: Panama papers, increased pension payments, idiot politicians, on-going wars, humanitarian crises and a new term where failure lurks, and some ‘expert’ who knows jack-shit about education is waiting to pounce with their latest diktat about what teachers need to be doing.

Well-being isn’t just about physical health, although we can’t under-rate that. It’s about the whole person: the mind, body and spirit interface. Well-being is at heart your ability to know yourself and heal yourself. It means listening to your body, trusting your intuition, knowing what works for you in all parts of your life. So many of us have given up trusting ourselves that we end up miserable and unhappy with wretched lives.

road to ...

There are many pathways to well-being – meditation, retreats, education, action. But one of the simplest ways back to yourself, to enhance well-being, is through your dreams. Laugh not: dreams are the window to who you really are. Freud, for all his lunacy, was onto something – dreams are the gateway to the truth, to who you are and how you could be living your life. Freud said that dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious.” His theories on many things have been rejected, but some of his thoughts on dreams still have relevance. He suggested that during dreams, the preconscious is more relaxed than in waking hours, but still alert so images in dreams are often not what they appear to be, and need deeper interpretation if they are to inform us on the structures of the unconscious. He also floated the idea that one simple symbol or image presented in a person’s dream may have multiple meanings. He went onto divide dreams into three sorts, but the one that is most useful in our quest for well-being is the symbolic dream which requires deeper interpretation.

Yes, we all dream: some of us simply don’t recall them and/or aren’t that interested in what happens behind closed eyes. You just need to know how to tap into all that wonder and magic tucked away inside your head, deep in your subconscious, buried in your dreams.

Many years ago during my first degree I majored in Psychology as well as English and the very best part of my degree was the third year Psych unit on Dreams. It was magic. We skated across Freud and Jung and learnt how to retrieve and interpret our own dreams and I am here to tell you, dear reader, that you too can do this and cast a bright light on your own deepest feelings, fears and desires. This will tell you more about yourself than any other sort of pop-psychology ever can!

dreams book

Dreams are our sorting-house. Dreams help us solve problems and find solutions. There are many stories of people finding solutions to areas of their life and work in dreams. I blogged on this aspect of dreams some time ago. If you are open to your subconscious, and able to catch and keep your dreams you too can solve problems and understand yourself on a whole new level.

We dream several times a night, usually on a 90 minute cycle and usually during REM sleep. If you awake after one of these periods then you are likely to remember your dreams. Often in the morning you will wake with several threads in your head, making little sense. But this is because you are recalling the trails of several dreams, not just one. But dreams do not necessarily make sense, they’re not neat well structured stories popping out of your brain’s type-writer. They are messy and confused and sometimes scary. But they are all about you. Some facet of your life, your day is in there. Your head, your dreams: you are the star.

 

How do you access your dreams and their message?

1.You have to practice – you have to actively try to keep hold of your dreams, you have to train yourself to remember them. Once you have the knack of capturing fragments you will find that usually the full dream follows. It’s a bit like hooking a fish and then reeling it in – slowly, steadily, stealthily.

2.Keep a dream journal – this is the only way to capture dreams and interpret them sensibly. Get yourself a lovely little note-book and keep it beside your bed. As you wake, before you get out of bed, keeping your eyes closed, try to recall your dreams. Usually they come in fragments, but that’s fine, it can be enough. Usually there will be little sense when you begin but you must persevere.

3.Note your recurring symbols – people, places, things – this tells you a great deal and your own symbols are far more important than a generalised book of dreams full of symbols: for example, my baby girl always means joy, if my mother appears then I know things will be all right, if I am on the water then I automatically feel okay and there can be no danger.

4.Note your feelings during the dream and especially on waking – this part is the key to understanding yourself – take the feeling from the instant of waking, then examine it later in the day – does that feeling stand up – why did you feel like that? Feelings can be warnings, don’t ignore them.

5.Keep your journal regularly to build a picture of what you dream about – are there patterns; do you have reoccurring dreams, do the same people re-appear? Be aware of key dates in your life – do your dreams reflect these times?

5b.The only way to fully interpret your own dreams is through building up a regular picture over time so you understand and know your own dreamings, your own patterns of making sense of your world.

dream journal

After a while keeping hold of your dreams will come naturally to you. You will find too that as you write down your dreams (or tell them to a sympathetic soul) that they make sense. A brief interrogation of your dreams, your subconscious, will tell you all sorts of things – what you are worried about, what you fear, what makes you feel good, how you can solve problems. It’s a neat trick to go to sleep with something bubbling that you can’t quite fix in your waking life and let it do its thing there at the back of your mind, your deep self looking after your day to day self.

 

Here’s an example of a dream from this week and how I came to its meaning.

I am on top of a large shelf, it is broad and very high up. I am a bit uncertain about why I am there, especially as I’m not keen on heights. In the corner my beloved sleeps in a comfortable bed. But I am working – directing people below to do things, fetch things for me. Mostly books it seems as I am reading beautifully illustrated stories and then arranging them on a high shelf opposite where I am on my high ledge. I was worried about getting down as it was so high but when I wanted to return to the ground I got down all by myself in a couple of easy steps.

Hm… I thought when I woke up, what was that all about? I examined who was there, only my husband who was safe and tucked away: the people below me were faceless but benign. I seemed to be working and happy in my work, but it wasn’t a place I knew – and I have particular places that represent work, so I knew it wasn’t one of the ‘real’ work places of my dreamscape. Then the feeling came to me: I was fine, I was on top of things – literally and then of course, metaphorically. This is clearly a good message and was quite reassuring to a person juggling quite a few things.

bed

Your dreams are as Freud said, the road to your self: to your deep self, your true self who, like a friend tells the truth when they are drunk. Your dreams tell the truth about yourself when you are asleep. Tap into this vast reservoir of knowledge, wisdom and wonder and you will find many ways to live a better, more authentic life. You will be more buttressed against the evils of the world. Your well-being will be enhanced. (Images from Private Collection)

Reading Takes You Many Places – Forgotten & Reclaimed

April 2, 2016

Reading Takes You Many Places – Forgotten & Reclaimed

In the midst of holidays one should be in the midst of reading but I am struggling with books these days – not a confession a writer and English teacher should make! However, as I re-opened To Kill A Mockingbird last night I was reminded of many things, not the least being what a fabulous book it really is and why I do not want to read Go Set a Watchman.

Moreover I was taken back to a previous time of reading. To a place I barely remembered but on beginning the novel I found myself in a sparse room in Larrakeyah Lodge on Myilly Point in Darwin, on one of my first trips into Darwin from Nhulunbuy. Larrakeyah Lodge had many incarnations – then it was a hostel type accommodation for visitors from far flung parts of the NT – usually teachers on PD courses. Then it became the student accommodation for NTU, and now it is gone – well it has been gone for many a long year, in the name of progress and expensive town-houses. But I remember lying on my single bed in my stuffy room reading into the night, reading about an equally hot and stuffy place, troubled by racism, trying for justice in an unjust world.

Illywhacker

So I got to thinking that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. If I think about Peter Carey’s Illywhacker I am instantly transported to my verandah on Klyn Circuit in Nhulunbuy, sitting in an old cane chair, behind the privacy of the cannas and tomato plants reading one of my favourite books of all time. I am hot and sweaty, but still and happy as I read and sip iced water and escape to Bacchus Marsh and a 137 year old liar. If I recall Oscar and Lucinda (also by Carey) then I find myself poolside in a Bali resort, my baby boy splashing at the edges of the pool with his father, while I’m on a barge with a glass church in outback Australia.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner is a modern Australian classic and something about Melbourne, not just the setting resonates in my head as I read. I suspect I was there for the first reading of the novel. But I read it again when I was in hospital just after having Pallas. Indeed her name came from the novel – a small section where Pallas-Athena was mentioned and the name hooked and took and so our baby, who very nearly became Paris, ended up Pallas-Athena, all from reading in Darwin hospital in the quiet time between sleeping and feeding.

Monkeygrip

If I think of The English Patient then as well as the locations of the novel – pre-war desert and war riven Italy – I am in Shanghai at the time when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese. Re-reading the novel takes me there, as does any thoughts about Schindler’s Ark – so many rats in the book, so many rats in the school!

As you would expect I read a great deal at uni – well you have to with an English degree. Two sets of reading stick in my head. DH Lawrence’s Women in Love and The Rainbow. I loved those books – dense and intense, full of fecund images and words and when I think of reading them I am at ‘the farm’ – a family place in the deep south of Tasmania, on the banks of the wide deep blue Huon. Then it took some time to get there; there was no internet of course but also no telly and only a scratchy radio. I’d set the fire and read for the weekend, late into night, barely able to tear myself away from the intensity of the relationships in the books. I had a boyfriend who promised to visit me there. He never did, but like Ursula and Gundrun I believed in the centrality of love and passion in my life.

At the end of every year at uni I read The Thorn Birds. It was a guilty pleasure, but one I indulged for several years. It was summer, exams were over, the sun was out and the cricket was on. I’d set myself up on the banana lounge, slather myself with sun-cream and settle for a day of indulgent reading, another story of passionate love but not so intense writing. I figured a bit of pulp fiction was deserved after the year of reading academic and classic fiction and writing less than wonderful essays.

venice

And I did read Death in Venice when we went to Venice and it felt the right thing to do. I certainly recalled the large cold rooms of HMC (Hobart Matriculation College) as I re-read the slender volume. But it was quite wonderful to sit on the beach that von Aschenbach had sat on to gaze upon Tadzio and be reminded of his desperation, his unrequited but deadly passion. So now when I think of the novel I am again in Venice and it’s a beautiful place to be.

When I finally go home a large list of books will take me to France, because that seems to be my main reading place these days, not just books for study but a bit of Agatha Christie, Geoffrey Eugenides (you must read Middlesex) and the wonderful Night Circus. Of Mice and Men will forever take me to classrooms and a variety of students, as will Macbeth and bloody Romeo and Juliet.

bookcase

Books are transport machines – inside them you are in different worlds in different times, exploring, experiencing, imagining. Outside, the where you were when you were reading is another place you travel to as well – a place where you remember who you were, what you were doing and feeling at the time of reading. Who’d have thought a book was better than the Tardis? (Images from private collection).

Easter Message: Sacrifice, what have you done lately?

March 26, 2016

What does Easter mean in an increasingly non-Christian world? What is the message you take from this long weekend? Is it only about a break from work, an excess of chocolate shaped like eggs and bunnies (or Bunyips at home), that still manages to confuse us. How does a man dying on a cross equate with chocolate, eggs and bunnies? No, it still remains a mystery.

choc bunnies

As you know I gave up God and religion some time ago but I’m not sure that I’ve given up Christianity, the ideas promulgated by Christ. Here is a neat summary of the best bits of his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:1-12) found at http://thirdway.com/love-jesus/key-teachings/

The pity is that so many Christian religions and too many ‘Christian’ people I’ve worked with over the years do not subscribe to these views. It’s probably as well to remember that Jesus was a radical, he was preaching against the status quo, he was seen as a trouble-maker, an outsider. Something tells me he might not like how his message and his person have been hijacked by organized religion. Perhaps Allah feels the same about what is happening in his name at the moment?

So, Easter, Jesus, holidays – what is the essence here in a modern world? As we know many pagan festivals were hijacked by Christianity in order to take hold in people’s lives. Thus Easter occurs in the Northern Hemisphere at the beginning of Spring. Honestly so much about Christianity and other bits of the world make sense when you live in the Northern Hemisphere. What does Spring signify – new life, new growth as we emerge from the darkness and cold of winter. There is more light, there are buds on the trees, bulbs blooming in the earth; the world is coming alive again, readying for re-birth. How handy that Jesus dies at this time of the year, so he is linked to this idea of re-birth, of life renewing itself again and again. In Oz, this bit of the puzzle doesn’t make sense, but over here it is abundantly clear. Eggs = life; bunnies = new life. Jesus = the chance to be reborn. See it does link up. Very handily too, as a cynical youth mused in class the other day, that Easter is about chocolate so people can give it up for Lent and then buy shit-loads for Easter. And do it again and again, every year. He was not that aware of the real meaning of Easter at all – seeing only the raging commercial side of it.

But I want to turn away from chocolate and cynicism for a moment and think about this idea of sacrifice; that Jesus lay down his life for us, to take our suffering so we could more easily pass into the Kingdom of Heaven, where we all want to ultimately be. Regardless of whether you subscribe to that or not, I want to consider sacrifice. We see the crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice: that a man knowingly and willingly gave up his life for others. This is not unique but it is pretty special. This is what happens in war – men fight in foreign places (usually but not always), knowing full well that they might die, that they are fighting for us, so that we will be saved.

Sacrifice is both big – like Jesus and soldiers and small – like us. Like you and me. Consider your own life, what sacrifices have you made? For your career, your health, your family. What have you actually given up for the greater good? Because that’s really what sacrifice is about, the greater good.

fencing

Being a mother, a parent is a major area of sacrifice. Many women give up their careers, or put them on hold, never quite regaining their place on the promotions ladder. But the wonder of your own child, the joy of your own family cannot be measured. We sacrifice career, sleep, our figures, our sex lives, sometimes our sanity but for the vast majority of us, it is worth it.

Being successful in life, in your chosen career also involves sacrifice. We study hard, don’t go out on the town, get by on a meager existence in some hovel or another, work in some desperate part time job to get our degree, to qualify. We watch other people out and about, having money already, not being limited and restricted in their lives as we slog our way through our degree. But the sacrifice is worth it – we have a worthwhile qualification, we have the best chance to have the career we want and the life we want.

Doctor Jac

Sacrifice here is medium term pain for long term gain. We reap the benefits of our sacrifice and our lives are usually much improved for it. The same is true for athletes who perform at the highest level – intense work and sacrifice while they strut the world stage at their magnificent best. Achievement, awards and accolades born of hard work and sacrifice.

Short term pain is something we find much harder. Giving up smoking, alcohol, dieting – sacrificing the small things of life for healthy changes seems much harder and many of us fail here. But if we can get into that zone where we see that sacrificing trivial and often damaging pleasures will lead to a long term gain then we can sacrifice these things for the greater good – for our own health.

History is littered with those who have sacrificed their lives for their beliefs, for saying things that went against the status quo, that upset acceptable wisdom. We admire this in people, the strength of their convictions, that they would rather be outcast, suffer abuse, or accept the final sacrifice – death in the name of the cause. We think of people like Nelson Mandela who sacrificed his freedom for so many years, of the suffragettes who starved themselves for the right to vote.

The troubling side of sacrifice is creeping into our work places. More and more employers are expecting their work-force to give up the rest of their lives for work, for their career. The idea of the 8 hour day, the 40 hour working week is being eroded – well the concept seems completely dead in this country! In surveys we find that teachers routinely work 60 hour weeks, nursing staff are regularly expected to work unsociable hours that do not match with a family life; young doctors are on strike because of the excessive hours they are being asked to work, and less pay and poorer conditions. There are many other professions too, which is deeply worrying. Why are so many of us being asked to live a life based on work? Why are people expected to give up their friends, their hobbies, sporting pursuits, their families for work? What sort of a world do we have if people are expected to sacrifice their lives for work – for a boss who will very quickly turn on them and leave them on the street the moment they under-perform or displease the powers that be in any way.

Sacrifice has many faces. Christ on the cross taking away the sins of man, so we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven; martyrs dying for their beliefs, soldiers at war, women sacrificing their careers for family; people sacrificing their family for work, giving up smoking for your health. But giving up chocolate for Easter is not really one.

chox

What about you, then, what sacrifices have you made to make your life, or those you love, better? Be they big or small, a personal sacrifice to help others is never wasted. This is my Easter message. Go in peace. Enjoy your chocolates too! (Images from Private Collection)

Chocolate – I still love thee: let me count the ways…

March 19, 2016

From time to time I revisit posts from the past – today is one. When the world is upsetting and things go a bit pear shaped, there’s always chocolate… so as you parade the aisles at your local supermarket deciding what to purchase or not this Easter, consider a few points about the benefits and joys of chocolate, and make sure you get some for those you love and for yourself.

Chocolate – do I love thee: let me count the ways…

Valentine’s Day is behind us, Easter is to come – both times celebrated with chocolate. If you’re the tiniest bit Catholic and guilty it’s Lent and the time to give up things and many people (mostly women, I bet) give up chocolate. So be it, I am not so inclined. Why should you give up one of life’s simplest and purest pleasures because of some out-dated notion? Anyway, most people I know take up the forsaken ‘sin’ as soon as Lent is over, so what is the point, exactly?

Let us consider the benefits of chocolate. It is now established beyond doubt that chocolate, especially dark chocolate helps you to feel good – it excites all those chemicals in the brain that keep you feeling happier and calmer. It does, in fact, help depressives. Some chocolate every day keeps the Prozac at bay.

Chocolate is not in short supply, nor does its harvesting damage the planet. So you can indulge without worrying about the Ozone Layer, the melting of the polar caps, drowning polar bears or water levels rising.

Chocolate doesn’t have to be expensive. Sure, you can spend a fortune on expensive Belgian chocolates and some exclusive hand-made brands (yes, you can tastes the difference), but you can just as easily spend less than a dollar/pound on your daily/weekly indulgence. At the moment Malteaser bunnies are 3 for a £1 – now really, that is a bargain.

chox

Chocolate is a one-size-fits-all sort of present. Very few people are unhappy to receive a box of chocolates for their birthday or Christmas. And if they are, then someone they know will help them out. It’s hard to offend someone with chocolates. Always recommended for dinner invitations.

Chocolate addiction is not a crime that blights our society. Too much chocolate does not incapacitate you, incline you to violence, kill your liver, or induce you to hurt others. At best it makes you chubby: possibly it hastens diabetes, but I don’t believe that for a moment.

Chocolate comes in many forms, to suit many situations, permutations and perturbations. Chocolate bars, shells, oranges and a plethora of confections. Chocolate biscuits cannot be overlooked – the queens being the Gaiety and the TimTam- all others are shabby wannabes. Chocolate cakes of too many varieties to list. Chocolate ice cream, of course. Hot chocolate to sip by the fire. And if you must be healthy then dip your strawberries in it!

mars cake

You can and should eat chocolate everyday. You can eat it any time of day in any quantity. But the best, I think, is at night, your little treat at the end of a long or enjoyable day – a morsel of what YOU like best.

My advice is to have a bar of Toblerone or a box of Ferrero Rocher, or a bag of Crème Eggs, or whatever you love best, hidden away somewhere from those in your family who have to eat the whole packet at once. Then you can, in quiet moments in the evening, have enough to make you feel good, but not guilty, and feel the reassuring texture and taste of chocolate warm and melting in your mouth. It’s guaranteed to give you good dreams. (Oh, but do clean your teeth properly or you’ll need to surrender your mouth to the dentist too often. Re-read  an older blog on the ‘joys’ of dentists if you need convincing.)

 


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