Reading the signs

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I’ve been trying to write something about fairytales, the primeval forest in Europe – ancient and untouched. A wild place that still lives in the old stories: Hansel and Gretel, Snow White.

I quit my job as managing editor of an architecture magazine to focus on writing. To get by I’ve been working part time in a call centre, it’s an OK job, but I get sick of repeating the same lines a hundred times a day. On Wednesday a man told me he had no idea why they bothered hiring me, they should have just got a robot. I’ve been told I have no fucking feelings, that I should be ashamed of myself, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Not my fault I have to stick to company policy.

What I’ve written so far is big and sprawling, too many points of view, a strange shift from first person to third, way too many adjectives. It’s humid today, too hot. The outside walls of our apartment block are being done up and the workmen are yelling and crashing metal around. I can’t concentrate, and I don’t know what to do next. There’s so much research to do, so much I don’t know.

I walk into the city to go Christmas shopping. Retail therapy, it’s a thing. There’s a shop up the road from us that’s half florist half Aladdin’s cave. Shelves of vintage crockery and test tubes, a moose head, buckets of flowers, an ancient French military uniform, top hats. A basket of little glass vessels, each holding a slither of script. I’m on the lookout for signs today and “off he walked into the forest” seems significant. So does the statement “brilliant author!” with “but –––)” on the back. But –––) what?  But the doubt, but the shame.


Brene Brown is my hero, in her TED talk about shame  she says:

“There’s a great quote that saved me this past year by Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of people refer to it as the “Man in the Arena” quote. And it goes like this:

“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly” 

… That’s what life is about, about daring greatly, about being in the arena. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.” Shame is that thing.” 


It’s the but –––) that holds you back, the “but I’m not good enough, but I can’t do it, but I’m not talented or pretty and besides I have nothing to say.” You get stuck on the but –––) side of the paper. And on the other side there’s the self actualised statement, the living, the doing the brilliant author! in the arena, the one writing, maybe failing, but covered in dust and sweat and blood.

Image: Lettering by the wildly talented Carla Hackett.

So I continued on into the city. In the park a man sitting on a bench told me I looked gorgeous. He had a box of little rolled up papers he was giving away for coins. I wasn’t in the mood for being chatted up, but I was on a mission for signs, so I gave him a dollar and chose one.


It seems like good advise.

Then I bought my sister’s  present (Eeep! Yay!)  and came home, made a strong pot of tea, opened my draft and started cutting out adjectives.

The moment

Jeannie PhanI’m snorkelling in the salty soft water of a coral island in the Great Barrier Reef. All morning: sea turtles, an eel, a million fish of all different colours. In the deep water off the edge of the reef a mother humpback whale and her calf. I’m suntanned, soaked through with sea water for days. I dive down, following a giant brain of coral, it’s own microcosmic world of predators and the pursued, of a million years of evolution polished into this moment when I’m flying and the world is sheer beauty. My head spins from holding my breath and I glide upwards. I’m in the middle of a school of tiny blue fish, sparkling like fragments of water, I’m flying through light.

Image by Jeannie Phan via Booooooom

Eyes as Big as Plates

Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen: Eyes as Big as Plates

Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth‘s series Eyes as Big as Plates is super quirky and strangely, strikingly  beautiful. “Ritta writes “Inspired by the romantics’ belief that folklore is the clearest reflection of the soul of a people, Eyes as Big as Plates started out as a play on characters and protagonists from Norwegian folklore” The series is a collaboration with “sailors, farmers, professors, artisans, psychologists, teachers, parachuters and senior citizens.”


I hope when I’m old I get to dress up in natural materials and pose in a river. The lady above is so lovely. I think she’s  going to be my beauty icon from now on.

Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen: Eyes as Big as Plates

Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen: Eyes as Big as Plates

Via It’s Nice That . Go to Eyes as Big as Plates for all the outrageous loveliness.

It’s nearly Christmas!

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 2.41.27 PMI like my legs. I have  a gammy knee that means I’m extra good friends with the physio, and a propensity towards a sore ankle (I first injured it when I was so engrossed in a magazine I feel down a flight of stairs at the station, and it’s never been quite the same. Thanks for nothing, Vogue Living). But other than that, my legs get me around ok, they don’t mind going for the odd run, and they’re nice and bendy for yoga. I have no illusions about them. I don’t imagine people are saying “gosh that lady over there has nice legs.”

My favourite ever pair of jeans was a stretchy, high waisted Sass and Bide  pair  that held everything in in a reassuring kind of way way. I used to wear them every day. I was waiting at the station  once and saw a pair of legs reflected in the window of the incoming train: not overly long, not necessarily skinny,  but definitely nice. “Gosh that lady has nice legs,” I thought. Then I realised it was me. Sadly, the entire seat wore out of those jeans. They’re beyond hope. I haven’t been able to find a replacement. They’re still sitting in my cupboard though, I’m not quite ready to get rid of them.

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It’s no replacement for the best pair of jeans in the world, but the Sass and Bide website has a handy little workshop at the moment where you can assemble some pretty pictures into a christmas card and send it to whoever you’d like. I made some, it’s quite fun. Also, for every one sent they’re donating $1 to Barnardos Australia.

The house my grandpa built


At first, briefly, Africa dismayed me: a whole new continent. The familiar contours of my anxiety.

Nairobi, Kenya. The highway from the airport to our hotel. Light through dust and throngs of people walking along the side of the road. There is a very well dressed lady standing in the middle of a huge pile of dead chickens, groups of men are playing checkers with bottle caps on the side of the road. Tiny, run down houses and muddy stalls.

My dad spent his childhood in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. My grandfather was a missionary. He wasn’t born religious, one day in the 1950s he was watching  a film about the crucifixion, and the actor playing Jesus had looked directly into his eyes, and although his lips didn’t move he said I did this for you. So the hard labouring, ex-serviceman young husband retrained as a minister, and he and his wife took their young family, including an ill, paraplegic son and and a three year old, to Africa.

I’ve always felt slightly embarrassed whenever I’ve had to own up to my family’s stake in the sheer arrogance of white colonial imperialism. When grandpa died, I went to the nursing home in Haberfield to collect his things. They had stripped the mattress but I could still rest my hand in the dent where his body had been. I collected his clothes, his wedding photo, his battered bible. He left Mum and Dad some money and instead of letting it be subsumed in the endless grocery/credit card payments cycle,  they decided to spend on a holiday, of sorts – a family trip to Africa. Continue reading