Reflections On Childhood Wardrobe Adventures

(Thoughts prompted partly by the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture by V. E. Schwab, which you can read here; also by attending the book launch of Leaf Stone Beetle by Ursula Dubosarsky & Gaye Chapman, published through Dirt Lane Press).

***

Even before I read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, I always suspected there were doorways hidden in wardrobes. As a very young child I had recurring dreams about the secret passageways inside the walls of my house, which you could access from the built-in cupboards. As with many of my childhood dreams, the lines blurred between what was dream and what was reality, for me. In the same way that I was utterly convinced I could fly if I just tried hard enough, I knew that the secret passageways were there. I was so sure that it didn’t even occur to me to check while I was awake – I just knew. (Luckily, this same rock-solid certainty ensured that I never bothered to jump off the balcony to test out my flying skills).

Playing hide and seek by clambering up to the top of my parent’s closet (nose full of the smell of Mum’s clothes), I found tucked away in the back of the top shelf a short sword – an actual, freaking, curved-blade-in-a-leather-scabbard sword. This was an utterly unexpected find in our comfortable, quiet, suburban house – and yet not unexpected at all, because of course secrets are hidden in cupboards. Dad was probably a secret king of a fantasy kingdom and one day of course I would inherit the throne – there was probably a magical prophecy to that effect. I would probably get my own unicorn.

(Turns out the sword came from Afghanistan via carry-on luggage on a plane to Australia 20-something years previously. The 1970s were a very different time for airport security.)

***

I had a cubby on the top shelf of my own bedroom cupboard where I used to go to enjoy the view of the world from ceiling level – the next closest thing you could get to tree-climbing inside of the house. Hidden inside the top of the doorframe was a little wooden ledge that stuck out maybe a couple of centimetres, and here was where I stashed all of my tiny found treasures. And it is amazing what a four-year-old would consider to be a treasure; a lost button, a chipped blue-glass marble, a fuzzy silver ball from an early-90s craft kit, some sequins, old coins… etc.

I was thirteen years old when I first went to Bali, and I remember being absolutely captivated by the little offerings of woven palm and flowers left everywhere, on doorsteps, windows, alcoves – ordinary, everyday objects imbued with wordless magic. I knew nothing at all of faith or religious devotion or ritual in those days, and these little parcels of colour and scent held a powerful and mysterious fascination for me. They moved me, in a way I couldn’t explain to myself then and still can’t really articulate now.

I have always been unashamedly materialistic in this way: even before I had read Tolkien, I always knew that tiny objects (which are really tiny symbols) can hold great power. I can’t help it; I like stuff. Stuff holds stories, just like houses do. I am terrible at throwing things away, because I get attached to the most ridiculous junk. Recently I’ve discovered that there is a legitimate interior decorating trend called ‘maximalism’, which I’ve totally embraced. As a messy person by nature, it’s a somewhat accidental embrace, but I’m leaning in to it. Even if there was a door to Narnia inside my cupboard, I’d never find it through all of the stuff that’s in there.

***

It’s a different cupboard now; my childhood home is three bedrooms ago. I still hide tiny treasures about the place, but these days they are more often in the form of words scribbled down and tucked away, little shiny secrets that I get to hoard for myself.

Since my partner and I have our own place now, Dad told me it was finally time to clean out the last vestiges from my childhood wardrobe. I spent a day or two becoming tipsy and nostalgic with my Mum and some white wine, over boxes of old primary school workbooks and diaries and laughably terrible drawings (a visual artist, I most certainly was not). When the cupboard finally stood empty, recycling bin overflowing and a few too many boxes of things I couldn’t bear to part with stuffed into the boot of my car, Dad and I stood in my old blue bedroom and I told him fondly about my Secret Childhood Stash, having totally forgotten about it for the last two and a half decades right up until that moment.

He looked at me with a curious expression, and then reached up above his head into the cupboard (with the height I never inherited) to feel blindly along the inside lining of the doorframe. I didn’t say anthing, but I reached out, and into my two cupped hands he placed all of the shrapnel treasure of childhood, all still there, still waiting.

What a gift.

***

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How I Got Here: The Long and Winding Road of My Career

I have, as really many people do, an odd sort of background to librarianship.

Let’s go back.

There was a good year or two of my life that was lived inside of a personal essay that I never quite wrote about the conflict between art and science and which side of the fence I thought was ‘right’. Once you get a little bit older you realise that, well, neither side is purely right and as a matter of fact that fence was largely imaginary to begin with.

It was my grappling between science and religion in the burgeoning stages of of my personal atheism that led me to believe that art was the true path – I literally drew a diagram of this, which I wish I could find, but it was something like:

sketch

Religion was up in the clouds, all wishy-washy and unanchored to anything and vague.

Science was too specific, down in the microscopic dirt, with fundamental laws about particles but no bigger picture, no essence.

And then there was art, there was creativity, which seemed to draw these two together to make them larger than the sum of their parts. It’s true: my English major literally saved my academic career. I’m not sure I could have completed a degree in pure science.

And now, a decade out from my University qualifications, in a move that could perhaps have been predicted by some people but certainly was not by me, I have found myself in a University library, pointing to a stapler and answering fine queries from oblivious undergraduates (oh how the cycle perpetuates, there I am, a ghost of myself transposed ten years into the future and meeting myself), but also, if you step back, teaching people how to find, how to know, how to learn, how to synthesise, which is almost the same thing as pure creation, or at least the opening steps of the dance of it.

There are many things about my current life which I never could have foreseen but which at the same time have a certain inevitability about them. For example, blog posts written at 1am after a reasonable amount of chardonnay find their parallels in the essays I used to write the night before the due date, finishing at 4 or 5am after 4 or 5 cups of coffee. Some things do not change as much as we think they do.

And that’s how I got here.

I Can’t Keep Quiet

A couple of things making me think.

  1. Friend comments that I really should start blogging again (thanks Nick!)
  2. Red wine.
  3. This:


So here is something that I truly believe. In these dangerous times, if you have an ounce of creative instinct in you, it is unethical not to create. Make good art.

This joy in protest, in the face of ugliness, this beautiful resistance. This harmony in the face of being torn apart. Personally this is my favourite act of protest that I have seen. What could be greater, what could be more glorious than this?

(There’s something ancient and undeniable in song. When you open your mouth and your throat and your everything and it comes pouring out like the purest fucking thing you’ve ever experienced)

What if this is opportunity? There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. What if this could be how the light gets in?

How dare I stop writing? Even for a moment. You have to write like you’re running out of time, because what if you are? Hard times require furious dancing.

And what if it happens here, what if this insane wave of neo-liberal-fascism comes to my country? It’s already stirring. If it can happen in America it can so just as easily happen here (let alone all the places around the world that are in even greater suffering), and the planet these days is just one big place, anyway, what’s an ocean or two in separation?

I gave up on this stuff for a while, I burnt out, I thought we got what we deserved, I stayed (relatively) quiet. Fuck you Tony Abbott.

… You know what? No.

No one deserves this.

That’s not good enough. Try harder.

We (earth, people, us, the pale blue dot) are better than this.

Time to re-ignite.

~

Cause I can’t keep quiet,
a one-woman riot.
I can’t keep quiet
for anyone.
No. Not any more.

 

Popping the Hamilton cherry

I recognise that I’m late to this party, but tonight I finally sat down and listened through the Hamilton soundtrack.

… Hoo boy.

I was going to write a thoughtful blog post about storytelling through musical theatre and the cleverness of weaving a tale through not just words but melodies and beats, but let’s be honest, I’m great at deconstructing prose but I’ve always found musical analysis harder to pin down and express.

(I’d rather be divisive than indecisive, drop the niceties)

So instead I’ve given it a modicum of thought:

Hamilton is Valjean, Burr is Javert, Eliza and Angelica are clearly Cosette and Eponine, Phillip (I think) is Gavroche, oh and I think Washington is Enjolras?

… And now I want to watch a hip-hop version of Les Mis.

But there’s a lot about writing in there, writing like you’re running out of time, and this morning I read an article about how Harry Potter changed the world (or changed people) a little bit, and now I’m like, you know what? I want to do that. That’s what I want to do. I want to make something that makes it. I want to create something great.

(And look, I don’t know much about American history but it seems like Hamilton was pretty much a professional shit-stirrer, so at least I know that’s a career option.)

The Delights of the Australian Christmas

Of the many different aspects I enjoy about Australian Christmases, one of them is the pleasing and oddly ironic contrast of listening to Frosty the Snowman with a background sound of fiercely shrieking cicadas in 35 degree heat.

Here’s my annual posting of Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun.

Merry Christmas, and here’s to 2016!

‘Emo’

Okay, I recognise that there was a legitimate ’emo’ moment in the first half of the 2000’s, but really, could there be any more of a stupid and inane description of music?

What kind of music isn’t emotional? Music made by ROBOTS?

#FridayNightInsights

#Wine

“Poetry was coming true.”

This passage is Virginia Woolf writing about moments of intensity she experienced after her mother’s death:

“I remember going into Kensington Gardens about that time. It was a hot spring evening, and we lay down – Nessa and I – in the long grass behind the Flower Walk. I had taken The Golden Treasury with me. I opened it and began to read some poem (which it was I forget). It was as if it became altogether intelligible; I had a feeling of transparency in words when they cease to be words and become so intensified that one seems to experience them; to foretell them as if they developed what one is already feeling. I was so astonished that I tried to explain the feeling. “One seems to understand what it’s about”, I said awkwardly. I suppose Nessa has forgotten; no one could have understood from what I said the queer feeling I had in the hot grass, that poetry was coming true. Nor does that give the feeling. It matches what I have sometimes felt when I write. The pen gets on the scent.

My first memory of understanding a poem was a bit like this. It was either my first or second year of high school, so I would have been about 12 years old. The teacher read the poem aloud to the class; it was ambiguous and we couldn’t figure out the context. The classroom was a sea of mildly confused faces. Then she read it out a second time, and as she reached the end of the final line (I remember what it was: “I am first to go.”) the realisation hit me with an almost physical blow. I inhaled a little “oh!” of surprise and pressed a hand to my mouth and my eyes started watering.

The context was a hospital; the ‘I’ of the poem had finally decided to obey the wishes of their loved one, and leave them to die on their own and keep their memory intact.  I realised all of this in an instantaneous moment, like a magic-eye puzzle suddenly materialising in my brain. And yes, my reaction in the dead silent classroom and everyone’s baffled eyes swinging towards me were mildly embarrassing. But the teacher – I can’t even remember her name or what she looked like – as soon as I made a sound her eyes locked on to mine like bam, a shooting laser beam of empathy and connection. A wordless understanding forged through words.

Virginia Woolf speaks to me again:

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there  is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

… And now I have an inkling of where my love of semi-colons has come from.

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