Snapshots from a Mash Up Year.

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it has been over a year since I took a blog break.

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 it was not meant to be so long but life has its own purposes, it seems to me, within which my will and desire are no more than receptive or resistant pawns.

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for instance, I wanted to write about India. I had  just returned from a week that felt so full it might have been three; filled with connections, rich impressions, raw contrasts, the forging of unexpectedly deep friendships. I was looking forward to writing it out, needed to get it out of my head.

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even now, weeks later, pieces of India are floating in my mind, floating through the present like vivid dreams.

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travel always unsettles me when I am on the move, makes me restless when I return. Perhaps that is why, despite all the traveling I have done, I am a reluctant traveler. I have what I have come to regard as the gift of being able to be content where I am, wherever I am (mostly), which means paradoxically that any departure is a wrench, even one I chose to make.

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it is a truth universally acknowledged that home becomes piercingly sweet on the verge abandonment. And part of me secretly fears I will never be able to come back. Yet I go. I always go…

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(in a way this is the absolute truth- you can never go back- the you that returns has changed, the place you come to and all the people in it have changed.)I always go because I know the discomfort is good for me as a human, good for the writer in me. Humans are not at their best when  content and comfortable. We get lazy, selfish, myopic. Restlessness, discomfort, provoke me to think deeply, to question things, to write …

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even so, I am not one of those who yearn to travel endlessly, never arriving, the journey being the point. For me, travel must end to have a point; to make its point. Beyond the joyous, cacophonous clamor of return, there awaits a sweet, lovely desert of time filled with preferably mindless routine within which I can write. The blog was to ground all the restlss energy roused by travel and usher in a new era of monthly blogs in 2015.

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of course any journey is as much an inward  journey as an outer one, and connects with other journeys.

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and travelling to India carried me  back in time to my first midnight arrival in India all those decades ago, young and travelling with a faithless, funny boyfriend. We were babes in the wood, he following my impulsive lead. I remember how we reeled from that dense darkness outside the strange darkness of the blacked out airport, the wall of rain-wet faces in the monsoon night, the avid eyes, the steamy, spicy heat.

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but I returned from India to Brisbane to the end of a year and all the frenzy that involves, including my daughters’ exams, the imminent return of my partner to Australia after a long separation, the rush of borrowing and sorting out PhD material to take with me to Victoria, packing up and saying goodbye to friends. I wanted to write the blog but large and small things got in the way. The good the bad and the ugly interposed. The minute but transcendent distracted me. Amidst all of it, almost translucent moments of joy and inspiration fluttered like glimmering, ephemeral butterflies or motes of light, waiting for me to settle, to quieten and make space; to stop long enough for them to alight …

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sample of a typical day, post India: It is early. I have been up for some hours making notes for my PhD, sitting at the big square kitchen table in my little underhouse apartment in Brisbane, while it is cool. Now I resolutely push aside a book on auto ethnography, which I want badly to finish before I head to Victoria so I need not carry it. There are only a few pages left and my bag, already test packed, is just over acceptable weight. But I need to get organized for the day ahead which includes lunch with one of my fellow students, a drink in the afternoon with an author friend and I am to cook a pizza dinner for another friend, her girlfriend and two sons that night. I brought all the stuff yesterday so the pizza is easy, but I need to get a bottle of wine. Also Adelaide has a late podiatrist appointment I have to remind her about. She has her last exam today so there is no room in her for anything until that is over. I have woken her and she is sitting in bed eating a warmed croissant as she does some last minute revision. Showering, I remind myself to finally pick up an antique globe of the world I bought weeks ago then remember I have to remember where the docket is.

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maybe I packed it with my notes for The Red Queen, dammit.

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I am thinking reluctantly of going through the pages as I dress, when I get a phone message from friend asking me to dinner with her partner and Sean Williams who is up for an Avid Reader event at which I will also make a brief presentation the next night. I tell her regretfully that I can’t make dinner but will see her at the event. I am to talk about my Christmas recommendations : The Rosie Project, The Arrival, The Itsy Witsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and the incredible The Bone Clocks … I make a mental note to refresh myself before by leafing through a few pages of each again today, so I can do them justice. She says she can’t make it to the event; she is flying to New Zealand for Christmas, how was India. India, I sigh, and tell her I will tell her when we will catch up in the New Year.

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i decide to search my PhD notes on the table in the hope that I will also find the globe receipt. I don’t, but I discover the print out of an email from Kirsty Murray dated 2013 and realize the trip to India had its roots in 2013 – that final year in Prague. I pour my second cup of tea, luke warm now, and too strong, and sipping it, think about Kirsty and the delicious masala teas we drank in India, the first served in a bookshop in a small shot glass clasped in the arms of a silver monkey.

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Adelaide emerges in a flurry from her room, the cat a little dark shadow at her heels. Waving her off in the moist, hot flower-scented air, I think how impossible it is to separate out one event out to write about. To write about India I must write about Prague and Brisbane and Apollo Bay. The story of my trip to India began in the midst of last year with me slowly packing up ten years of life in readiness to change countries, and ended at the tail end of this year when I landed back in Brisbane. But was that the end? What about my plan to visit Kirsty so she can teach me the complicated masala tea making process? Isn’t that part of it, too?

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a text message pings, distracting me: it is a bulletin from the sister of a long time friend, who has endured the twentieth operation on her brain after the latest shunt failed. Scarring is making it difficult for doctors to manoeuvre, the message says. I have been keeping anxious tabs by text and feel guilty that I have not thought about her this morning; as if I have failed some vigilance that keeps her safe. I remember that her ex called late last night. He had sounding scared, upset. I have a feeling I said something derogatory about him to him, thinking he was someone else, thinking I had misheard the name – is that right or did I dream it, I wonder?

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another text comes in, telling me the same news in other words. I am receiving texts from both my friends’ sister and daughter; having intermittent almost simultaneous conversations with both. It strikes me that they always text around the same time. I imagine them leaving the hospital together in the chilly morning in Melbourne, drawn and quiet as they split to go their own ways, or maybe changing shifts at the hospital, one going in and the other going out.

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 i am tapping out a request for a time to visit her when my computer pings. It is a poet friend in the states facebooking the news that he is sending me his latest book. (Facebook is now a verb, according to the latest scrabble dictionary- I don’t like that bastardization of language, I think, but maybe I ought not to be so narrow. Maybe it is a good thing that English vocabulary is growing rather than shrinking. Maybe it is not the beginning of newspeak. Or maybe it is.)

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inexorably, yet again, India retreats from the forefront of my mind.

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it is not lost – images of that short, vivid journey have been floating up constantly during my final weeks in Brisbane, muddled together with memories of all the events that have filled this first year back in Australia, the latter stirred up by my preparations for the journey towards the reunion in Apollo Bay with Jan and this interim period that will straddle two years.

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it’s funny how the time we impose on existence is thwarted by our own minds. Experiencing one journey we inevitably think of others. Walking through one city, we think of another visited years before. Hearing a person laugh, we remember a person weeping … To write about the now, one must draw on the past and access the future.

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for instance right now, as I work on this blog, I remember having a drink with Nick Earls to celebrate the end of the first year of our PhD at UQ the day before I left Brisbane, only minutes before a super storm that made headlines even overseas, thanking him for providing me with a musical term that describes the merging of memories, this concertina-ing of time – that would give shape and a title to this blog; This mash up up of a mash up year.

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that last night in Brisbane, I made some notes by candlelight, the power having been knocked out by the storm (dinner had been salad and sandwiches rather than pizza, and we took turns imagining a modern world suddenly and forever deprived of electricity). The various apocalyptic scenarios float enticingly through my mind as I reread the email Kirsty had sent the year before asking if I would like to take part in a collection that would involve both Indian and Australian creators and deal with gender issues by way of speculative fiction. If funding could be got. The email mentioned Margo Lanagan, Justine Larbalustier and others whose work I admire. I note in its margin a few thoughts for the blog to be- that I had agreed to participate in theory, but only on the proviso that I would be allowed to gracefully and guiltlessly withdraw if I did not have the time to do justice to the project.

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i forgot about the project – filed it in the back of my mind – since Kirsty was hunting funding and times were progressively tougher in the arts hence my decision to do a PhD and widen my scope for earning a living beyond royalties and advances.

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it is a risk I do not regret because I believe in taking intellectual and imaginative risks. (The biggest risk you make as a writer is simply to tell the world firmly and unconditionally that this is what you are. Mostly you say it before you quite believe it, but the more you say it, the more real it feels. The truth is that the only one who really needs to believe it is you.)

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choosing photographs for the blog, I think that going anywhere is as much an inner journey as an outer one and all journeys are part of the great journey that is life, which is perhaps why each journey is a reminder of others.

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for instance, arriving that first evening in New Delhi to an escort arranged by the High Commission who whisked me miraculously past a packed arrival hall and long snaking queues, collecting my baggage before ushering me out to a driver and car, I could not help but think of my first midnight arrival in India, all those decades ago when I was young and back packing overseas for the first time.

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i was frightened of what I had got myself into, I told Kirsty later in the tour on one of the interminable car rides required to negotiate the labyrinths that are the cities of India. She answers that she is never frightened of things and I believe her. She radiates courage and fearless sunny boldness. I was dazzled by her confidence, her bravery, all which seemed to be expressed by her wild halo of light-filled curls. Indeed she attributes much to that hair, the undeniable glory of it. She talks as if it is an enchanting animal she was gifted with at birth; as if it has a life of its own. Smiling, shrugging, she tells me that, when she was a girl,  old ladies always wanted to pat it and pinch her cheeks. She used to hold her hands over them to prevent it.

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i marvel at what it must have been like to be so beautiful that it permitted anything. Mind you she was no mere angel. Some of her stories involved blood curdling childish initiation rites. over which she presided with demonic, gorgeous majesty. I would have been the child glamoured into eating a raw egg, I think, for her approval.

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she often implied she is enormous when she spoke, and of course we both are compared to the slight, velvet, soft Indians who traveled with us. But she is not large in flesh. She is large in spirit.

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most of all, she is, as all of the people I met on that wonderful tour, her stories. The thing I loved most about India was the stories told by my companions, Kirsty and the Indian writers and illustrators and who traveled with us for periods. Not the writerly stuff we talk about at schools and in universities and bookshops, not those polished answers we offer to journalists, but the stories about their childhoods, about their lives as women with partners, children, families all laid out for me, like measures of delicate old sari silk.

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it is their stories that endure, weeks after the trip ended. Not just the details of them but the voices telling them, the laughter, shared warmth they generated. The way they connected us. Some are indelible, like the story Kirsty told of the visiting game she played as a child, unbeknownst to bohemian parents. Sitting in the dark, dark night surrounding my Apollo Bay house, writing this while everyone sleeps, the sea pounding primally on the shore, I remember the delighted horror I felt, imagining her, a small golden haired child knocking on the doors of the houses of strangers, introducing herself.

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listening to me read what I had written this morning, Adelaide said: I like the descriptions of the people best. I like seeing how you see them. You should have more of them. But stop philosophizing so much. And have some more about Brisbane.

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in this moment Brisbane seems as far away as India and my mind goes to last year in Prague, to the roots of our move to Brisbane. It was about the time I finished the first draft of the screen play of Greylands that I began to immerse myself in sending for and filling out the million and one forms required to apply to do a PhD at the University of Queensland and a scholarship, and other forms to arrange the special circumstance invigilation of exams and auditions required for Adelaide’s attempt to gain entrance to the Queensland Academy of Creative Industries. It was about then that Kirsty wrote in elation to say she had got the funding. I congratulated her, preparing myself glumly to withdraw from the project.

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but before I could organize myself to write, there were a flurry of cc’d emails between Kirsty and Allen and Unwin and Zuuban in India arranging who would do what and which Australian creator would be paired with which Indian creator – then Kirsty sent me the website of the New York based illustrator she proposed to match me with. Curiosity made me tap in the website url and one glimpse of Prabha Mallya’s work hooked me. I could not resist the chance to work with someone so gifted.

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so I elbowed out the time to write a short story- Fortunately I had an idea or it would have been impossible. The story went back and forwards throughout the weeks and months that followed, the pictures growing in detail and complexity as I shaved away words. Like all great illustrators, Prabha added her own threads and between us, playfully, other threads were teased out and woven in. Sentences and paragraphs were cut and condensed in between packing boxes of books and the evolution of various alternate plans in case one or other of us did not get accepted in Brisbane.

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about the time the graphic story was being knitted up into the collection, Adelaide and I received our acceptance letters and soon after, crossed the world leaving Jan to send the cat after us, finish the final packing up of our apartment and follow a month later, by which time, I hoped and believed, we would have a place in Brisbane.

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we spent a couple of blissful weeks in Apollo Bay recovering from jet-lag, had a late but lovely low-key Christmas with family in the early days of 2014 and flew to Brisbane with four cases to take up a kind offer of a bed for three nights, from Kerry Argent. I knew her work as an illustrator but had never met her until she arrived at the airport to collect us, a tall, too-thin, intense pixi of a woman with a funky crop of spiked ginger hair and a matching sense of humour.

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 it as Kerry who drove Adelaide to start school two days later. We arrived just in time to for her to rush downstairs and put on the uniform I had paid for from Prague, before she had to start. Her schoolbooks had been purchased for us by Nikki, the laughing. pink haired mother of a year 12 student at the school and partner of a brilliant interviewer I had met only in cyber space. We met for the first time when Nikki drove the books over to Kerry’s place but it took only one more meeting, over coffee to thank her for the book pickup for us to plant the seeds of what has been a lovely, laughter filled friendship. Sitting in the Bay Leaf in Apollo Bay giving this blog a final buff and polish, the Allen and Unwin advance of Eat The Sky, Drink The Ocean beside me, I realize I miss her and our coffee shop talks. Her practicality, too. It was Nikki, when I secured our little inner city under-house rental, who produced and expertly wielded the power-tools that enabled the assembly of the Ikea stuff we had bought. (I gave her a copy of the Indian version of the book).

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Kerry’s invitation to stay on until we found a place as long as we were ok to share a room, had allowed us to wait till we found the right place to live, and it occurs to me suddenly that her warmth and kindness to strangers set the scene for a year in which we were the recipient of much kindness and good will. The fact is, it was hard to leave Kerry’s place, filled with books and paintings and featuring a workroom where the artwork for her current book was laid out enticingly, a front door that looks from the top of a steep hill to the not so distant city, and a back door that over looks a wild garden bordered by immense trees, the domain of a busy family of bush turkeys and a young family of kookaburra who sit on the clothes line to survey them. Even after we left Kerry’s, with an extra couch she insisted she did not want, and Greg Rogers enormous magisterial red velvet chair which she had passed on to me to keep in trust, we returned often, for meals and laughter, to see the next stage in the gradual completion of The Itsy Witsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, to watch Hercule Poirot or Doc Martin and to play Scrabble with her and various friends and the latest inevitably idiosyncratic overseas student boarder.

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the simple truth is that it was a year I could not have survived without friendship; the friendship of new friends and old friends and friends of friends that became my friends.

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it was Kerry’s friend, wicked, funny Stewart, who gave Adelaide the piano on which she composed all year, and another of her friends, tall lean, intense Nigel, who tutored Adelaide in essay writing and book analysis and often helped cook the marvelous meals we ate at Kerry’s. Another friend of a friend, a librarian, had allowed us to use her address to send the great stream of boxes from Prague, before we had an address of our own. And there was Min, who had once been the sweetly engaging head of a fan site until her partner Paul finessed a meeting between us as a surprise birthday present to her, setting the stage for a long distance friendship, until I moved to Brisbane where she lived. Now we go to movies regularly and Min and Paul have more than once filled in when I was out of the state lecturing, when Adelaide was performing in a recital. Two other new friends, a young successfully self-publishing brother sister writing team poised to be republished by Hachette next year, kindly lent Adelaide a keyboard.

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the friendships are a good part of the reason I love living in Brisbane. The hot, heavy, lush weather, surprisingly, is another.

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odd now to remember I thought I would hate Brisbane. I had dreaded the heat and I had bought that ugly BrisVegas myth – but Brisbane is first and foremost a university town- To name only three, there is my own lovely University of Queensland with its lakes and ferocious birdlife, its fountains and sandstone walks, its five libraries, QUT with its lovely easygoing library and friendly staff, and Griffith University with its conservatorium right in the delightful arts precinct. There are some fantastic book shops and verywhere I sit, people have books and are reading or clearly taking notes. People walk a lot, run a lot, ride pushbikes a lot. There are community farms and farmers’ markets and wildlife refuges. There are ferries that glide up and down the river delivering you to the university, to the heart of the city, to the State Library in the Art precinct, to outer suburbs. The busways are great transport solutions, though they do have a tendency to skip the odd timeslot and get horribly busy at peak hour, not to mention being expensive, but you can work around it all from the inner suburb where we live because if all else fails, you can walk.

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mind you, there are the hills and the heat – but you can work around them, too.

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i was firmly planted in Brisbane by the time Kirsty wrote to say the collection was about to be published in India, and that she had magicked up funds enough to transport us there and to cover our accommodation with some help from The Australian High Commission, if I was interested. I was impossibly busy, still parenting single handedly in Brisbane, Jan being delayed in Prague, wrestling with academic language for my PhD, trying to work on The Red Queen. But an invitation to India is impossible to refuse.

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when I left Australia, Adelaide again in the care of my mum, it was heating up in Brisbane both in a real and political sense, it being the eve of the G20, and over 40 degrees. About the same time the Indian PM landed in Australia to take part in the summit, I was touching down to winter in New Delhi, where it was rather nippy and I regretted not packing a coat.

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here we go, I thought, and tapped Touchdown in Delhi to Jan who was in Prague making his preparations to fly to Australia, and to Adelaide, in Brisbane revising for exams.

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i was worried because Kirsty had not materialized in Singapore at the airport as planned, to travel the rest of the way with me. Of course I know that travel is full of loopholes and unexpected byways and pitfalls, any one of which Kirsty might have encountered, but I did worry that I had muddled some instruction and she had been stranded because of me. As it transpired, her plane had landed late, and she had missed the connection. As a consequence, she flew in at 3 am on the same day on which we were collected at 9 am by our driver and driven to the High Commission to launch the book before a sea of bussed in school children, followed by a press conference luncheon and finally, elsewhere, a book shop panel.

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there were four internal flights, too, that had to be fitted in interspersed with meals and long drives. Time seemed to collapse in on itself and my experience of India was interspersed with snapshot memories of the months during which I had been falling in love with Brisbane – the hot, damp air that is so good for skin and so bad for hair, the wild drama of its storms, the colour of the brief light at sunset, the way there are always clouds, the explosions of flowers webbed by enormous orb spiders, the warm midnight winds. I thought too of the friends I had left behind in Prague, trying to imagine their lives there, which I had once shared. There, it was getting cold, for winter was still coming.

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one day I looked at my twitter feed where Kirsty said she has been tweeting about our trip and read: I am hoping 2015 will be a year in which we get something new from firecatz. Firecatz is me. But in general people are not asking as insistently, as acrimoniously, as indignantly as they once did and Penguin- lovely Penguin (now Penguin Random- and what does THAT really mean, I wonder) are being patient. The pressure is blessedly not on which might account for the longing I feel. A part of me was looking forward to the period after Christmas, when I set aside a period to work exclusively on The Red Queen. But whether it is the kind of time I will need to finish it – that solo time when nothing is required of me so that I can go very deep in my imagination – whether it is enough – is another thing.

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it seems but the blink of an eye– the turn of a page, since I was in India, (in Prague). I reach home and a few days later force myself to unpack so that I can repack for the trip to Victoria, aware that Jan is approaching the day when he will fly to Australia after more than ten years. I feel vaguely anxious that there will be visa problems at the airport; that the new online paperless visa will not register. There is something about Australia politically these days that scares me. The rhetoric of politicians is so small and grasping. There is no vision in it, no statesmanlike reach or nobility of spirit, nothing to make people strive to be better. Under that rhetoric, our borders have calcified; become a hard and shiny carapace.

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two days later, getting ready to leave to go out to uni to borrow some books, I check the phone for news that Jan has landed. There is nothing though he is due to have touched down at Tullamarine two minutes ago, Melbourne time. My brother is to collect him and has promised to text.

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‘do you have my nail scissors?’ Adelaide says, then before I can answer, ‘Found them!’

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i am sorting papers, what to take, what to go and what to throw, assailed by the pungent oily fug of the portable typewriter I hunted down in order to write to Ursula Le Guin, because my hand writing is torturous and anything less than a real letter will not do. (It is possible, perhaps, that the little quest for it was a failed procrastination, since I found what I wanted very quickly, nevertheless I am committed to writing to her on it) It think the smell is rather fishy and wonder vaguely if the ink is made from squid oil. Then I think it can’t be and wonder where the thought came from.

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then I think how I wrote my first book on a typewriter, and when I cut and pasted, really cut out bits of the text and actually pasted them in different places…

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‘bye,’ says Adelaide cheerfully. It is her last exam – music. I marvel that she is not nervous, though it will be three hours long. Somehow she never lets school get to her. She concedes its important but does not feel that it is a matter of life and death, as so many students do. I have the impression she is actually looking forward to the exam as I wave her off. Is it because she knows what she knows, or because it is the last exam or is it because it marks the end of this inspiring, demanding, tough school year?

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Tell me when you get through customs, I text to Jan, to prompt a response. Thinking: he must be here by now. Thinking: the last hurdle…

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 looking back, it seems but the click of a shutter between my return from India to Brisbane, and then from Brisbane to Victoria; A shutter click between my departure from Apollo Bay with Jan and a five year old Adelaide, ten years ago, and my return to my beloved house by the sea ten days ago, with Jan, a carsick 16- year old daughter and a neurotic cat. A shutter click between 2014 and 2015

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how fast it goes, I think: life.

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it is almost exactly a year and a month since I last posted a blog, and, sitting at my desk in Apollo Bay gazing at a dark blue sea frilled with white caps, I am outside of the life I lived for 2013, in Prague, and the life I lived for most of last year and will return to this year, in Brisbane. For the first time in many months, I feel able to take stock. Perhaps that is why I lay awake most of last night, thinking and remembering, planning, worrying a little…

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mostly, in this blessed hiatus between the active portions of one year and the next, in this place that will always be my Wood between the Worlds,  it feels to me as if things are settling.  Jan is finally in Australia and Adelaide did well at her new school last year, having received an A in Theatre, a B in loathed math- the latter a triumph of tutoring and determination. We have a little home I love to return to in Brisbane, a web of friends and I am looking forward to continuing my PhD, beyond confirmation …

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to writing more and better. (my mantra)

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6 Responses

    1. Maureen says:

      There is a startling honesty in this blog post, Isobelle, which is both refreshing and very brave. One day you, or someone else, is going to write a very interesting biography of an unusual but fulfilling life.

      I am in the states about to finish up two months of travelling and am preparing for my own year of writing more and writing better, of claiming for myself the title of ‘writer’ with conviction. Reading this post came at a pertinent time.

      I think I agree with Adelaide, it is your character sketches that breathe so much life and so much beauty into this post, but there is wisdom in the philosophizing that she will understand better one day. And then, there is a clear love for words which I love as a fellow writer. Though sometimes, on my uglier, less charitable days, I too might wish for more of certain words from ‘firecatz,’ I still know deep down that the words wouldn’t be true ones. Part of the magic of Isobelle the writer who is also inextricably tied together with Isobelle the person, is her need to make sense of a sometimes senseless, sometimes achingly beautiful world, a process which leads you down many a rabbit hole. But without being Alice curiously tripping down the rabbit hole you wouldn’t be you and a part of me thinks your words would be less original and true without the deep holes you fall into.

      • Darling Maureen, how sweet these words are to read. I have just hacked my way through the thorns of ignorance that have grown up in my long absence from this lovely site Min made for me, because I want to do a final post for the mask auction and i have decided to put it here, rather than on the archived auction because that way I can direct people to it, but also work in this space, which I prefer. I hope your year of writing is doing well. I am working on The Ice Maze, having just gone through The red Queen editing it for its paperback incarnation. That has taken several weeks and I feared penguin would not let me do all I wanted, but they have, to my relief. But I think it will not be until next year that I am beginning to write seriously again, post Adelaide’s year 12 …

    2. Not Eric says:

      I find myself in awe of your processing abilities.. so many things, people and projects! I wonder that you even have time for that lukewarm tea 😉

    3. Emma Kirsopp says:

      A really beautiful post!

      Its so nice to be able to further connect with your amazing writing through this site.Thank you for being so generous, as always (and your hand writing really isn’t that torturous!)

      Best of luck with your resettling into Australia, and also with your PhD.

      • thanks so much, Emma. I am girding myself to begin posting again. I want to do a final post for the Unmasking the wild auction first and getting back onto the site and answering messages is refreshing me on all the quirks and perks of the design 🙂

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