I call my journal 'H' and I start each entry with, 'Dear H'.
What did H stand for? Well, it stood for Heironymus. I chose that name because I liked the paintings of Heironymus Bosch when I began journaling (I was 18 or so) . Eventually I got tired of writing that name all the time so I began with just 'Dear H.'
And I still do it. The first thing I usually tell H is what kind of weather we're having. That's often how you greet someone socially. You sit down and say, 'Goodness, this has been the driest summer we have ever had.' You compare notes about the temperature, the lack of rain and what that is doing to the garden, discuss the likelihood of rain, and then maybe do a rain dance or an invocation to the rain Gods to hurry up and make it pour.
Then I get onto the stuff I want to write about, what is bothering me, or what happened yesterday, or that morning - things I reckon my friend H might be able to help me sort out.
H is a great listener - and it's a he, by the way. He listens without judgment, he offers neither praise or criticism, empathy or understanding. He is just there, a constant presence, a daily solace, a source of comfort, just like an old friend, someone you can be yourself with: no pretense, no show of strength you don't possess at that time, no false hopes or bravado. You confide and let it all hang out.
For me, this 'expression without limits or reservations' is the greatest value of my journal H. It is probably the only place where I can be totally honest, can say whatever I want, and know it will go no further than the page unless I want it to.
And there were so many pages that didn't make it into either of my books because the entries were raw, personal, vulnerable, or ranting and raving, rude and aggressive, or just plain boring.
Sometimes I look back on my journals and think, 'Did I actually write that? Gosh that's good!' Or I'll read the words of my early-twenty-something self in disbelief because I cannot believe that person was me.
My friend H has been a lifelong companion. He has traveled the world with me, lived in lots of different places, been shifted here and there in boxes and crates and now resides in my upstairs loft in quiet comfort.
H is a friend I look forward to seeing every day and I make time for our visit together. Usually around 4pm we sit down with a gin, or a beer, or a cup of tea, and we have our chat, discuss the day, and nothing interrupts our time. The phone goes to answer machine, the cat is fed so she doesn't start shouting for dinner, and H and I have our 'quality time.'
(Would you like to start journaling? Come to my Introduction to Journaling Workshop on Saturday 28 March 2020)
This is a photo of my journals.
I show it in my workshops when we're talking about journaling as a regular, long-term practice. Some of the writers nod knowingly as they have similar piles of notebooks at their place. Others will say, 'Oh gosh. Is it worth my starting a journal now? I should have begun journaling years ago.'
First of all, 'should' is not a good word to use: in fact my counselor, Jane McPherson, who supported me during my breast cancer journey, and who features in my book Welcome to the Amazon Club, always told me, 'Should equals shit' which shocked me at the time (because I said 'should' a lot) but I now understand it to mean, among other things, 'you feel you ought to have a go at something but you probably won't.'
I am here to tell you that the practice of journaling is something you can take up any time. It doesn't matter if you are just coming to it at the age of 80, or you're 20 and plan to document your life. I started at the age of 17, at high school, and continued regular journaling right up to the present day with a few gaps here and there.
And I can honestly say, hand on heart, that being able to confide to my journal the anguish, anger, fear, sadness, and trauma of my breast cancer was one of the best therapies I had at the time. I could write exactly how I felt without fear of recrimination or criticism or judgment. If I was having a bad cancer day, my journal understood, whereas sometimes people around me didn't always get it, despite their best intentions and kindness.
My journal was my best friend, my confidante, someone I turned to at the times of deepest despair, or during the heights of hope and joy.
And of course you can always turn your journals into books. Many people do, and I did with both of my books Welcome to the Amazon Club and The Pink Party. Using your journals in this way creates compelling reading. One of the most common responses from readers of both books was, 'I couldn't put it down. I just had to know what was going to happen to Jane next.' Amazon Club in particular was a real 'page turner' because of its day to day, journal-style.
Even if you never turn your journals over to the public eye (and that in itself is a process requiring careful thought because one of the main values of a journal is it is so intensely private), keeping one is worth doing and it can be life-changing.
In my Introduction to Journaling workshop on Saturday 28 March 2020 we'll be looking at how the practice of regular journaling can enhance creativity, encourage self exploration and discovery, and - believe it or not - improve your health and well-being!
Now, ain't that sumthin'!
We've all heard that old maxim 'practice makes perfect'.
Maybe your Mum said that to you when at age 13 you were struggling with an out of tune violin, trying to learn the latest piece for the school orchestra and even though the squealing and shrieking of a bow without enough rosin was driving her to the brink of insanity, she still had the supportive motherly nature to reassure you that you'd get there in the end.
'Practice makes perfect!' she said, quietly closing your bedroom door and going to the far end of the garden to pull weeds.
So can we apply this maxim to our writing?
Yes of course. Write, write and write some more - and read, read, read some more. By reading the work of others we can learn a lot about style, voice, structure, character and all of those dynamic elements that make for a great story. By writing lots we can hone our skills.
This morning is the first of my life writing workshops - we're looking at the day we were born, our parents, what was going on in our family when we entered the world, and we'll be telling stories about ourselves up to about the age of 5 or 6.
I start off every workshop with some 3-minute exercises to 'warm up' the creative part of the brain - and as this wonderful quote from Natalie Goldberg states, 'No matter what, keep that hand moving.'
Believe me, I put the writers through their paces and this morning we'll be doing three or four of these snap exercises. Here's one for you:
'Tell me about an awkward moment you caused for your parents, a faux pas you committed with the innocence that is so particular to the very young.'
I will use a story from my own life as en example. From a very young age my Mom took me to church with her on Sunday mornings. On this particular day I would have been about 6 and, as usual, Mom took me with her to the communion rail so she could take the sacrament and I could receive a blessing. Of course the occasion of communion is a solemn one, nobody says much apart from the priest who speaks softly, and so my little voice had a resounding resonance of high-pitched wonder that reverberated throughout the church when, watching Mom drink from the silver chalice, I said, 'Mom, is that booze?'
Practicing your writing with these short three-minute life-writing exercises can be a good way to build up some discipline and habit. It only takes three minutes, five, or ten maybe, and you'd be amazed at how the writing builds up over time.
I'll provide more '3-minuters' for you in upcoming Blogs so stay tuned! And if you'd like to join us next Saturday 22 February for the life writing workshop and be put through your writing paces, please book in today!
Writing about the day you were born can be tricky because we have to rely on the stories - and truth - of others.
Unless, that is, you've had some kind of regression therapy that has taken you back to the magic moment you emerged into the world.
In my first life writing workshop on 15 February, we'll be looking at the day of our birth, the stories handed down by family about that auspicious occasion, what was going on just before, or after, and what might have been happening in the family during the weeks preceding our debut to the world.
There's no doubt that in the telling, a bit like Chinese whispers, facts are embellished, or neglected and forgotten - but dig deep enough and you'll uncover some interesting truths. For example, a friend of mine found out, as an adult, that on the day she was born, contrary to what she'd always been told, her Dad had not been at her Mum's bedside as she gave birth. Instead he was down at the pub, drinking beer and watching football. The tale he'd always told, about witnessing his daughter's birth with such overwhelming emotion, was completely false and he'd been so drunk after an afternoon of beer that his mates brought him home laid out over the back of a pushbike. Why had my friend's Mum never revealed the truth?
The story I've always heard about the hours before my birth was this: Mom and Dad were living in Seattle, Washington USA and it was high summer in July. They'd been to a picnic with friends, returned home and Mom got stomach pains. She thought it was due to some watermelon she'd had at the party when in fact, it was me. I was born without a single strand of hair on my head.
Smooth as a watermelon skin.
In my workshop we'll be looking at our parents too - what are their stories?
My Mom was adopted, and never knew her birth parents. Her brother, my uncle Bob, was adopted too and decided to investigate his heritage. He offered to research Mom's as well but she declined, saying her adoptive parents had been so wonderful she had no desire to learn of others.
We'll also look at our names: why did our parents choose these particular ones for us? My siblings and I are all named after ancient ancestors on Mom's side: old sea captains and local folk who lived in Mom's hometown of Fernandina Beach, Florida. The family saga is a fascinating one, imbued with delightful southern humour and no small dose of engaging history.
So join me on Saturday 15 February as we delve into some of those stories of the day we came into the world, tales of family and maybe a few skeletons to rattle in the cupboards, writing about truths that are indeed, stranger than fiction.
What are your writing goals for the new year?
Finish the romance novel languishing in the bottom drawer ... tackle the blank pages of the gorgeously bound journal you bought last year and have been waiting for just the right moment to fill ... start pounding the keys for a thriller or supernatural horror story...
Whatever it may be, the advice is simple: get writing.
Is it that easy?
Sure it is - and with the renewed energy and enthusiasm that infuses us at the start of a new year (and in this case, a new decade), starting may be easier than ever.
If you're wanting to do some life writing, join me for my life writing series in February - three Saturdays in a row of inspiring and motivating workshops with a small number of other writers (up to six) that will get you thinking about, and writing, those important life stories.
If you're needing some help to get started on an idea or project, then I can offer you my 25/45 special, with 45 minutes of conversation for just $25. We'll talk about your project and think of some ways to get that writing under way.
Summer weather and holidays offer time out to ponder, look up and look down, relax and recharge, so be sure to keep your notebook handy and jot down those thoughts and ideas as they filter through the sunshine, warm gentle breeze, and sounds of waves on the sand. Best to capture them at the time, because they might only knock once or twice, and then they'll pass you by, heading off to find someone else who will listen ...
Connect with other writers over long leisurely lunches, cafe coffees, BBQs in the garden. Spend time talking, bouncing ideas around, comparing process, what works and what doesn't. You can't beat the supportive camaraderie of other writers hanging out together.
Establish a good writing routine now and stick to it. I work best in the mornings and find it's helpful to renew my writing routines each year during the warmer summer months when the sun rises early, so when winter comes with its dark mornings, I'm already in the habit of getting up and at it.
Most of all, find that joy in writing, the excitement that comes with creating and sharing. Sure, it's hard work, and sometimes it feels like little more than that, but the rewards are great. When you're creating, you're doing what you love - and what can be better than that?
Go for it. It's a new year and a new chapter.
Objects and items from our lives that have meaning for us can provide inspiration for some great life writing and we'll be looking at the power of 'life souvenirs' in my series of life writing workshops in February.
I wrote in an earlier blog about Susie, a doll my Mom had when she was a child. Susie accompanied Mom through her entire life and kept Mom company in private hospital care during the last months that she was with us. When I look at Susie, who now resides with me, a flood of memories come back about Mom.
I recently watched a series of documentaries entitled 'Titanic: Stories from the Deep' which featured various artifacts recovered from Titanic and the stories behind them.
Thousands of items have been salvaged from this luxury ocean vessel and pride of the White Star Line that struck an ice berg in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic and sank in the early hours of 15 April 1912.
One of the most impressive was the recovery, conservation, and restoration of a set of the ship's massive whistles. The two forward funnels were each fitted with a set. The whistles were like organ pipes and steam operated, giving off a sound that was somewhat melodic and very loud. Apparently when at sea, the whistles were tested every day at noon and were used in port when tugboats were maneuvering the ship.
Of course everyone wondered if the whistles would actually work again and after some serious restoration by professionals, by golly, they did.
At a public event in St. Paul Minnesota in 1999, in front of a crowd of thousands, the whistles blew again, twice, for the first time since - most likely - that fateful night in 1912 when Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea. They will never sound again as the stress on them could cause irreparable damage.
With all of the poignant and tragic history surrounding the demise of this great ship and the deaths of over 1500 people aboard, listening to the sounding of the whistles was an emotional experience even for me, sitting in front of my TV.
It was a mournful cry from a once magnificent ship, a voice of pain and anguish from the bottom of the sea, the sound of the ship now long gone but never forgotten in the annals of storytelling. It may have been one of the last sounds people heard that terrible night, so many of whom lost their lives in one of the world's greatest seafaring tragedies.
My Mom's Susie does not carry the weight of a tragedy like the Titanic story, but nonetheless it holds many memories for me and has been the inspiration behind much of the writing I've done about my Mom.
And you don't need a life souvenir the size of those gigantic whistles either to inspire your writing.
Something as small as a gold ring or a silver hat pin may do.
“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.” - William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
You see? Even William Shakespeare had something to say about self-doubt and the threat it poses to our creativity. American writer Suzy Kassem goes a step further saying, 'Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.'
Are you getting the message? Don't you want to look in the mirror and see the King of the Jungle looking back at you?
Doubting our ability to write is a real downer and it can plague and hound us relentlessly, making us wonder why in the heck we ever chose to write a single word and spent more than even a millisecond of our precious time bothering.
Doubt is that wicked little critter that hangs out on your shoulder while you're writing, whispering its evil notions into your ear: 'Hmm, are you sure that's good enough?' or 'People are going to think that writing is stink. Why are you bothering? You'll make a fool of yourself.' And before you know it, all of this mindless wittering has undermined your confidence, courage, inspiration and motivation and you slouch away from your writing desk in a blue funk, beaten and demoralised.
Our doubts are generated by many things and I'll deal with three of them here and suggest what you can do to combat them.
1. Lack of confidence: keep writing and don't stop
Even the most experienced writers get the wobbles every now and then. It comes with the territory. As with most things, the more you do it, the greater your confidence will be. Remember when you were learning to ride a bike? You kept falling off and crashing into things but you persevered and voila! One day you took off into the sunrise of a new day on wheels. So keep writing, don't stop. The more you write the greater your confidence.
2. The wicked little self-doubt critter: kick it out the door
That's the one sitting on your shoulder. You can almost see it when you look at yourself in the mirror. Sweep it off like a piece of lint, onto the floor and then kick it out the door. We don't have time or space in our writing lives for the nasty little naysayer. Shut it down. Don't listen.
3. No one will want to read my stuff: yes they will
I say, 'who cares?' Write what you want to write because in the first instance, it's always about you: write what interests you, what attracts you, what piques your curiosity. Explore a topic or your own emotions, research an historical time and place or your own family closet of rattling skeletons. The world is overflowing with beauty, richness, glory, sadness, violence, love, hate, joy ... and I would almost bet money on it that people will want to read what you have to say.
Another great way to dispel those feelings of doubt is to hang out with other writers who have probably experienced the same thing. My Write-Ins provide a relaxed and reassuring space to talk to things through, share and support each other and of course, do some writing.
Maybe you're sitting around with friends and family and you're telling then how you sailed around Cape Horn in a 32 foot sailboat and the waves were towering over the mast and the rails were under water and you thought to yourself, 'This is it - I am not going to survive.'
Your audience is riveted, hanging off every word as you describe the wildness of the seas and the shrieking banshee-wind, the heaving and pitching of the boat, the drenching sea-spray and rain, and all the while the sun was trying to break through the roiling black clouds above.
Inevitably, someone will ask, 'Why don't you write a book about that sea voyage?' You shrug your shoulders, and say, 'Who would want to read about that?'
A story about survival against the odds? Are you kidding? Of course they would!
Now we don't all have such stories to tell, but we all have one: the story of our life, how we came into the world, what we did, and sometimes, how we're about to leave it.
We're all curious about other people's lives. We like to read about the rich and famous and how they came to be that way; we like to know how people survived ordeals like being lost in a barren desert for a year or stranded on a blizzardy mountain top for a week. We want to know how people overcame traumas and challenges, like a diagnosis of cancer, the loss of a beloved parent, recovery from a serious life changing accident.
And sometimes a life story isn't about such things. There is interest in the every day, how a life is lived, the joys, sorrows, happiness and sadness that walks alongside us each day. American writer May Sarton wrote about her life in her Journal of a Solitude, reflecting on the day to day over the course of one year (her 60th), and it is one of the most compelling and poignant insights into a woman who was intensely private, craved solitude and the beauty of nature, and yet was tormented by loneliness.
So why write about your life? Think about publication if you have a story of personal challenge, success, failure, or adventure - why not aim high?
If you don't want to publish your story, then write it just for family as a legacy for future generations - this is a valuable gift.
Writing about your life can be 'good therapy', it can help you make sense of things you did or said or thought, why you chose the path you did, and in this way it's a private thing, writing you don't share with anyone. It's just for you.
And remember: you don't have to try and tackle your entire life all at once. Take it in bits. Begin with one part of your life that springs to mind. It might be the year you spent in Africa on extended safari, experiencing the wild animals, or it could be just one day, the one where you went to the circus as a ten year old with Auntie Margie and Uncle Peter and the clowns terrified you and Uncle Peter snapped at you and said, 'Harden up kid!'
Writing about your life is always worth it. It's never wasted effort.
... and if you need help getting started, contact me for a $25/45, guaranteed to kick-start that life writing idea.
My writing mentor, Mrs. M, took no prisoners when it came to my excuses for not writing.
This was a challenge for me as I was in high school at the time and had plenty of other things I wanted to do, like going out with friends, swimming at the beach, shopping ... having fun. So there were many times when I resented her being pushy, telling me that in order to write, you actually had to write (surprise surprise) and writing was a discipline.
And of course in those early years I quite fancied myself as someone famous, dashing off a few devastatingly fabulous erudite and awe-inspiring lines here and there, making heaps of money and receiving endless adulation for my creative works that were admired by millions. I once told Mrs. M that I could only write when I felt moved to do so. And she laughed her head off and that was that.
Mrs. M came at writing from the perspective of a newspaper journalist and indeed she was often writing articles and letters to the editor in her later years. To her, it was all about completing the work and to do that you actually had to sit down and do it, and then you had to be prepared to accept feedback, good and bad criticism, and rewrite and rewrite until that piece of writing shone brilliantly like a newly minted silver coin.
Back then we didn't have computers and laptops so I typed up my work on my Mom's portable Remington typewriter. I would then submit my pieces of writing for her critique and they would come back to me scrawled over in red pen. I would go away and re-work it, bring it back, plenty of red pen but maybe less than the first time, and so it went on until that piece of writing was as good as it could possibly be, and then it went off to a newspaper or a magazine where it sometimes hit the mark, but most often, not.
Mrs. M was trying to instill in me the discipline to write in order to actually produce something, and then the stoicism to weather the storms and challenges that inevitably come: the rewriting, the polishing, the sending off with such hope, the dashing of those hopes against the rocks, and then riding the crest of a wave when you have a success that feels like the best thing in the world.
So writing is the right thing to do. Keep at it and don't give up. Those teenage years spent in the company of my mentor Mrs. M are almost a lifetime away from where I am now but I can still see her in my mind's eye with that red pen, hear her voice as she discussed the writing and the changes she was suggesting, encouraging me to go back and try again.
When I last saw Mrs. M she was in a private hospital and very unwell. I spent just a few moments with her. It was hard because i knew I would not see her again.
The last thing she said to me was, 'Write lots of books.'
A writer I knew once said, "Workshop smurkshop. Who needs them. Workshops are a waste of time and money."
I use the past tense 'knew' meaning that I don't know him any more.
OK, pretty definite opinion there and when he told me this, I'd been to a few workshops myself. Some had been great, others not so flash, but I always got something of value from them. We had quite a heated argument and in the end, he grudgingly admitted that he'd only ever been to one writing workshop, one about poetry, taken by someone who was actually a visual artist, and there were only three other people there sitting in a cold, dingy space in a pottery studio surrounded by drying clay pots and figures that watched them critically from their corners for the entire workshop.
One of the absolute best workshops I have ever attended was facilitated by the delightful and simply wonderful Margaret Mahy. She didn't come dressed like in the photo here but floated in wearing one or her capes, I think.
The workshop was about writing for children, and I have never been talented in that area, but I wanted to be in her presence. So I was somewhat of an interloper, surrounded by other writers who were really good at children's fiction .. and here was I, totally lost but just thrilled to be in the same room with this incredibly talented woman that was our national treasure, Margaret Mahy.
I took along a copy of The Three Legged Cat - not only one of my favourite picture books of hers, but indeed one of my fave kids' books ever (right up there with The Velveteen Rabbit) - which she very graciously signed for me and although I didn't write anything that made any amount of sense to anyone in the workshop (although I did make Margaret laugh at one of my descriptions of a little boy's pyjamas) I came away enriched.
Of course with Margaret the workshop was full of flights of fancy, imaginative colour, flair, plenty of fun and laughter and you knew you were in the presence of someone who truly knew her stuff, loved children and knew what made them tick.
Even though I was not a writer for children, I came away inspired, motivated, keen to carry on with my own projects, and I made connections with two other writers that I enjoy to this day.
So while workshops are for learning, writing and experimenting, they are also about inspiration, ideas, connections, fun, humour, sharing, finding out that you can actually write about things you never thought you could, discovering talents you didn't know you had, and above all, coming away refreshed, invigorated, and ready to take on your writing with fresh energy and creativity.
So I hope you'll join me for my workshop on Saturday 19 October, The Building Blocks of Story. I can't guarantee I'll be dressed like Margaret Mahy in her colourful finery, but I can assure you that you'll have fun, you won't be surrounded by old pots, and you will do some great writing!
I've attended enough breast cancer support groups to know that there will be people there you don't know, have never seen before, they are strangers to you and yet by the end of the meeting, you feel like old mates.
It's the kinship of common experience.
It doesn't really matter if it's a cancer group, or a writers' group because the intent is the same: the support given by and shared with your peers.
It's the sharing of stories, the narrative of challenges faced and overcome, the brightness of hope that glimmers on the horizon, the open and honest exchange of tips, ideas, information, things that worked and didn't, roadblocks overcome and slips and slides weathered with aplomb.
You just can't beat sitting down with someone who knows how it is, has 'been there' with their nose stuck up against the rock face, trying to figure out how to get round or climb over.
If I've had that experience, and have found a way past it, I can share it with you, and chances are you may have had that same issue and can tell me how it was, or perhaps you'll encounter it in the future and when it happens, you'll think back and remember, 'Aha! That worked for her, I'll give it a go.'
I'd like to invite you to come to my writing place on 5 October and join other writers for a good chat, do some writing, raise some issues, sort some common problems, and generally support this writing craft that has us hooked. It's a love/hate thing, this writing, it can drive you to despair and distraction, but then it can uplift, invigorate, and delight.
Let's sit down and have a chat about it because the writer's life doesn't have to be a lonely one. There are lots of us out here. We just need to get together, have a cup of coffee, couple of biscuits, talk things through and keep each other jogging along.
My Mom loved books and we had plenty at home, all of the time.
Those we owned snuggled up in their bookshelves and guests from the library perched here and there during their visit, on table tops, chair arms, kitchen counters, and other places where they were safe from water, dirt, the fireplace, and the cat who liked to sit on them.
Mom taught us not to read with sticky fingers, nor were we to 'break the spine' by folding back the covers and under no circumstances was it acceptable to fold down page corners to mark your place. Books were treasured items.
'Somebody wrote that book, you know,' she would say. 'That is someone's creation. Treat it with respect.'
I had books from a very early age, picture books that Mom read to me at night, like Dr Seuss' Cat in the Hat, books about whales and stars, and I loved the smell of them, the smoothness of the pages, the black type of the fonts and the brilliant colours of the illustrations.
I remember the pictures of Captain Hook and the alligator that swallowed the ticking clock, and he knew the creature was coming because he would hear the ticking. I can still hear Mom reading to me from Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, she did the southern accents perfectly. The ticking alligator and the thought of getting stuck to the tar baby were deliciously nightmare inducing.
Growing older, my sister and I found our groove with books, seeking out those we enjoyed in the old second-hand shops that Mom routinely scoured, searching for antiques and treasures. We coveted Agatha Christie, racing each other to examine the sagging shelves in these dusty old shops for the slim treasures to add to our collection.
As Mom's Parkinson's disease advanced, books still provided her with companionship, as they always had, until one day I came into the house to visit and she said she couldn't read any more.
'I can't get past a sentence,' she said. 'I get stuck on the first few words.'
We read to Mom after that but it wasn't the same for her. The joy of reading the written word for herself, holding the book, being immersed in the story, and having that joyous relationship with the book, was gone for her and I think that may have been one of the greatest losses that Parkinson's visited upon her.
These days, we can download books, read them on our phones, listen to them on audio, and it's all wonderful because it means as writers we can really get our stuff out there ... but you know, I still think there's nothing like 'the real thing'.
Call me old school and old fashioned, but I reckon Mom brought us up right when it came to books (and most other things too, by golly) - I love to read, I love the feel of a book in my hands, and I still cannot read a book with dirty fingers, crack the spine, or bend down the corners of pages to mark my place.
You know how you can whip a tea towel at someone, especially if it's wet from drying the dishes, a quick flick of the wrist and that towel snaps against a vulnerable part of the body - usually exposed skin is best for maximum effect but that snap of pain can be felt even under clothing.
When we were growing up, my sister and I used to do the dishes every night after dinner. I always dried and so I perfected the art of the tea towel snap. Of course the tables often turned and I was on the receiving end of defensive action: one of those ghastly 'burns' where you grab someone's arm with both hands and twist the skin. My sister was quite adept at this.
Yesterday I was reading Anne Lamott's Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. I had some music playing in the background, I was just kinda hanging out. One of the chapters in Anne's book made me think about how we are hardwired to survive and to keep going. Even when we are old, or sick, and failing, we hold on to life, even if it's just for one more bite of ice cream.
It made me think of my Mom in the weeks before she died. She spent most of her time in bed but did still enjoy being taken out for some sunshine and flower-time in her wheelchair. She couldn't really say much but made it very clear when she wanted her 'sweet treats' - a can of Coke with a straw was a particular favourite, or a small tub of vanilla ice cream that we'd bring in for her.
So I was remembering this and then the iPod shuffling through its playlist kicked into See you later alligator by Bill Haley. It was like a snap of that tea towel. That's how grief can be sometimes. It snaps at you, out of nowhere, it stings, it catches you so off guard all you can do is cry. And that's what I did.
It was the song that did it. For several months before she died, Mom was still able to converse with us and every time I visited, we said good bye the same way.
'See you later alligator!' I'd say.
'After 'while crocodile,' she'd reply.
And we'd give each other the 'secret signal' of our love for each other (to this day, only me and Mom know what this is and if anyone ever says they can communicate with her on the 'other side', I would get them to tell me what the 'secret signal' is, then I'd know for sure it was Mom parting the veil) and I'd end my visit.
That's how grief can be. It lashes out and stings you so hard you cry with the pain of it. The startling speed of it is so surprising it makes you catch your breath. Other times it's like that slow burn your sister used to give you when she'd had enough of you flicking her with the tea towel. It grabs hold and slowly burns.
Mom has been gone now for almost nine years and I suppose I can say that grief's tea towel snaps are less frequent than they were. But the sting and the pain is as acute, singular, and painful as ever. The slow burn is an ember that flares up now and then. Both can be triggered by songs, pictures, the smell of Chanel No. 5 that was Mom's favourite, things she loved that I now have and so grief is woven into the fabric of my life now, into the everyday. It's part of me.
I often start my journal entries with a description of the weather. It acts as a kind of trigger for me, a way in to the writing of the day's activities and thoughts. And let's face it, we all have stories about experiences - good and bad - with weather, so climate can be a rich source of writing material.
Looking out at the Hauraki Gulf over the last few days I've seen a patchwork of white-capped waves, winds gusty and ruffling up the water just off the beach. We've had intermittent squalls of heavy rain with a driving cold westerly wind that has brought snow down south. The weather has real, raw, scary energy to it.
My Mom was raised in Florida and very early on developed a healthy respect for what she called 'weather', meaning 'bad storms and such.' She held such weather in equal measures of respect and a kind of meteorological fascination mixed with sheer terror. If 'weather' was approaching our place, she'd say, 'Weather on the way! Ominous nimbus!' and she was always tuned in to the hurricanes that routinely came ashore in her neck of the woods, the American south.
'Looks like that one is heading up into the Carolinas,' she'd say with the authority of one who knew about such things.
I can relate to the storms of Florida too, having spent a lot of time there. The raw power of those thunderstorms is something to behold: grey black clouds boiling up into the heavens, bringing fist-pummeling thunder, hurling rain and sky-cracking lightning along with winds that would sweep away everything including the cat.
When Mom was growing up, her Mom would gather everyone together into the basement area of the old hotel they used to run (the famous Keystone Hotel in Fernandina Beach) when a storm was coming. They would sit there around the table until the crisis had passed. Sensible.
My brother recalls one time he was out in the open on a Florida golf course and a 'thunder-boomer' rolled in. He felt the hairs rising on his arm right before a lightning bolt hit a tree close by with a percussive force that knocked him down.
Our house in Murray's Bay on Auckland's North Shore sat up on a cliff on Churchill Rd with a great view down the Gulf towards Auckland city. A good sou'wester would roar up and the house would 'cop it' as Mom used to say. Across the front of the house, facing the teeth of any gale from the south or west, were three very large windows, 'quarter inch plate glass' as Mom would tell you. When there was a good blow, these glass panels would literally bend and move with the gusts.
When this happened, Mom would retreat. If it was dark, she'd go to bed. 'Those windows are breathing,' she would say. 'I'm out of here.'
I remember placing my hands on the windows once, and they were indeed breathing in and out with the winds of the storm.
I have inherited my Mum's respect for wild weather but rather than retreat to my bed, I prefer to hang out with it, listen and watch - except for one particular time a few months ago when a thunderbolt hit close to the house. Betsy cat was sleeping in her chair and the noise made her leap up and we both ran into the toilet which seemed like the safest place to be.
What weather stories do you have?
You've heard that old adage, 'write what you know', and there are differing opinions on whether that is good advice or not.
Some writers say 'yes indeed!' and others toss it right out the window, saying it restricts you as a writer and you'll never venture past it into the unknown, because writing is a voyage into those unfamiliar waters. They say, 'take the leap!'
My sister and I grew up in Seattle, Washington, until I was 7 and she was 10, then we moved to New Zealand. We were often thrown together with only each other for company, sometimes due to the Seattle winter weather which was rainy and cold and encouraged indoor activities, and when we came to a foreign country where we didn't know anyone for quite some time.
We both had vivid imaginations and often amused ourselves on those cold, wet Pacific Northwest days by making up stories, or acting out scenes from our favourite adventure and action TV shows. Sea Hunt was often the 'go to'. We adored the hunky devil-may-care Lloyd Bridges. Our bunk beds became the ship, the carpet on the floor the ominous depths of the sea, and shoe boxes tied onto our backs with string were our 'aqualungs.'
When we came to New Zealand, the first thing my parents did was drive all around the country in a small car, looking at potential places to settle. We spent hours in the car each day, and every evening, my sister and I would hop into the beds of yet another strange motel and tell each other stories or make up a song. Every day had a different topic. Sometimes it was wild west, other times it was sea adventure, or my sister's favourite, ghosts and horror. The object was to make up a story or song and tell or sing it.
The stories and songs were based on what we knew ... and then some. Our knowledge of the sea came from Lloyd Bridges and real life white-knuckle sailing adventures on Dad's boat (in Seattle), and our experience of the wild west from shows like Rawhide.
I knew how to tell a story about a family straggling along in a covered wagon on the dusty prairie, I knew about gunslingers and showdowns at high noon and how cowboys brewed up coffee in dented old pots on the fire, ate beans and drank whiskey in the saloons. My sister knew all of this too so I had to come up with a twist, a flight of imagination, that would engage her interest. I had to venture into the realm of uncertainty, into exploration, into creativity, sail into the unknown waters, to find that special something.
So what I think about 'write what you know' is yep, you can start there but let the writing take you where it will, into the world you don't know.
If you need to find out something, look it up.
If you feel nervous about venturing into a foreign landscape, grit your teeth and take the plunge.
Because writing is about going to the places you don't know, and finding out. It's about exploration and daring, using what you know as a springboard into those deliciously exciting places that await your discovery.
'We have to cultivate the habits of curiosity and paying attention, which are essential to living rich lives and writing.'
So says Anne Lamott in her book Almost Everything: Notes on hope.
And how right she is. How can you write if you're not curious about something? And how you can write if you don't pay attention to what's going on around you?
Curiosity leads as to introspection. What makes us tick? Why do we do the things we do and think that way? Why did one of your friends say, in the middle of a good fun knees-up, drinks flowing and laughter echoing around the room, that she was going to climb Mt Everest when you've only known her to tackle a mini sand dune at a west coast beach and she hates the cold?
Was she serious or just joking - and why would she be either of those things?
One of the best ways of paying attention for me is to stop what I'm doing, clean my glasses so I can see properly, and sit down to look out of the window. The weather was stormy today with intermittent lightning flashes and growls of thunder and bursts of full on rain.
When I sat down, the sky was brighter, the worst of the storm was over, and the sea out my window was flat and dull green like unpolished greenstone, the sunlight catching the bright white wings of birds floating on the waves while the skyline was dull and flat grey like a stage backdrop. The birdbath on the lawn was overflowing and a blackbird was enjoying a good old time, flapping about and spraying diamond-glistening droplets of water everywhere.
I probably won't write about what I saw today, apart from here. It was more about my stopping to look to see what was going on, to wonder why the weather was behaving that way and to feel the joy of the bird having his extravagant and indulgent bath.
As we get older we seem to lose that 'paying attention' thing and our time is spent on those busy everyday things like looking out for the kids, driving the car, fixing food and trying not to burn yourself or the dinner, getting to work and paying attention to that (or not) ... but as writers, we
need to turn our antennae to the natural world and what's going on around us, really look and see and feel, and take some time to pay attention to those things that nurture and inspire our writing and creativity, to listen to snippets of conversation and to wonder why your friend is so up front about Mt Everest that she's hooked up with a mountaineer who will teach her how to use all of the alpine equipment she is now ordering online.
And if you're sitting there, being kinda quiet and paying attention for long enough, I'll bet some cat will come along and sit in your lap for a bit. Now there's a bonus and a treat.
I love using my water blaster.
This is the time of year when I get it out of the shed and tackle all of the concrete stairs leading up to my house. The high and hot suns of summer have been replaced by the low, mellow winter light without warmth that barely makes it over the tops of the trees. Slimy stuff darkens the outdoor stairs, slippery stuff, a recipe for disaster. Even the cat slips.
I have a special outfit I wear: an old blue raincoat, a pair of my Dad's old sou'wester foul weather gear pants from his sailing days, and a pair of green boots.
I don't mind the water blasting. I've been using it as an excuse not to write.
I confess. Someone else could certainly do the water blasting but I choose to do it, in fact I leap up, put my hand in the air and say 'Pick me! I want to do this job!' even though it is wet, dirty and dangerous, negotiating those outdoor steps that have memorial plaques on them saying 'Harold fell over here on 1 January 2008. Fortunately he didn't feel a thing.' (because it would have been the morning after one of my New Year's Eve parties).
It just goes to prove how far I will go to avoid writing. However, I have always found the process of water blasting beneficial in a creative way: I think it's good to busy yourself with a manual task, and then the mind is free to wander about, ponder, think things through as you see the slime and moss being washed away, lulled by the sound of the machine and the methodical approach one takes to operating the equipment. And there is the end result - nice clean stairs, no slipping, and best of all, no memorial plaques this winter.
So while you may see a job such as water blasting or gardening or painting as a means to escape writing (and I can't help myself, I certainly do), the act of doing something can often help us to think creatively, sort out a writing problem or roadblock, figure out the story ending that has eluded us for days.
Plus you'll have a very clean house, outdoor steps, and garden.
In her book Inheritance , Dani Shapiro writes about the time in her life when she innocently submitted her DNA to a genealogy website and found out that her deceased father was not her biological father.
The book is about secrets - those kept within families, secrets too shameful to reveal, or kept hidden out of love to protect others. Dani writes, '... secrets, particularly the most deeply held ones, have a way of leaching into everything surrounding them.'
We all have them: family secrets like Dani's that are kept hidden, those we keep to ourselves about our own lives and actions, those that are entrusted to us by others where we carry the burden of secrecy.
And as Dani says, sometimes those secrets 'leach' into our lives and the lives of others, rather like toxic landfills seeping into surrounding terrain... and the results can be life-changing, as Dani discovered.
Have you thought about the secrets you hold in your life, those that you cannot reveal because they are too embarrassing or shameful, or, if someone finds out about them, the repercussions would be too terrible to imagine, not only for you but many other people?
Having a 'secret' at the core of a story can generate a powerful narrative: we are intrigued when someone says to us, 'Shall I tell you a secret?'
'Oh yes please!' we say, hungry for something deliciously terrible or tantalising. The person then begins to string us along, dropping hints about 'the secret' which becomes more enticing chapter by chapter until we're almost desperate with anxiety, wanting to know ... and then all is revealed in a powerful and usually unexpected ending.
It's the stuff of bestsellers, let me tell you!
Writing about our own secrets can be done 'in secret', writing we do just for us.
Writing about those things in our lives that we simply cannot share with others for whatever reason, can help us to process, understand, and either ease the burden or put those secrets to rest for good. Keeping a journal can be one way of processing our secrets or sitting down with pen and paper, writing it out, and then destroying the writing afterwards can also be helpful.
Dani writes of a phrase quoted from a psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, one that guided her as she delved into the secrets long-held by her parents. You may like to use this as a prompt for your writing:
'There is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but may never be able to think.'
The Greek philosopher Epictetus said,
'If you wish to be a writer, write.'
Simple as that!
I'll add to this by saying, 'If you have a story to tell about your life and times, then I'll bet people will want to read it.'
Tell it well and compellingly, and you may just have a book that will not only sell but will touch the hearts and minds of the people who read it.
You may ask: 'How does she know this?'
Because we all have a built-in curiosity about others, a hard-wiring that goes right back to our earliest ancestors sitting around fires at night. Before language there was visual communication. Take the charcoal drawings in the cave of Altamira, renderings of local fauna and the prints of hands. Perhaps this was a visual sharing of the story, 'Look what we hunted and killed today and now we're eating it for dinner.'
Michelle Obama's memoir Becoming has now sold over 10 million copies worldwide and her story could become the best selling autobiography ever. Sure, she received a real incentive to write her story - a reported $60 million US advance for the memoir - and this was a real measure of how eagerly anticipated her story was, now widely praised for it's raw and truthful telling of life before, during and after the White House years.
The corridors of power attract us, the lives of the rich and famous do too but we also want to know about the everyday, the lives of people like ourselves, those who have experienced something wonderful, traumatic, hopeful, joyous, or unbearably sad, and have been able to translate their thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions into the written word.
These are stories we can relate to, learn from, and enrich our own lives through the reading.
I'm so proud of Josh Komen and his book The Wind at My Back which reached number two in the Neilsen Weekly Bestsellers list for NZ adult fiction for the week ending 2 March 2019. Josh is a young man who had a special story to tell, one that has resonated with so many - not only because it describes the harrowing journey of a young man diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer but also because it is a story of hope, of overcoming a stack of incredible adversities to beat the odds and find joy, friendship, and love.
You can do this too. You absolutely can. If you want to be a writer, just write, tell your story.
If you need help getting started, call me!! We can chat.
A colleague attended a breast cancer support meeting recently. She said they had been asked to bring along an object that they treasured, something that had a story attached, an item of personal significance. They would then tell the group the story behind that special object.
I'm sure those stories would have run the gamut of emotion from hilarious to tearful, poignant to pleasing, and frightening to calming.
As I sat here at my desk, I can see plenty of things roundabout. I confess I am a bit of a collector and tend to hang onto stuff - and most will have a story hanging about them like an aura. Sometimes that aura is bright pink for breast cancer, other times red, an aura colour that can both attract and repel. If you think hard enough, you'll find a story in any object.
The picture here is of Susie. She might look a bit like the scary doll-babe from the movie Annabelle but Susie is far from malevolent. She is a family heirloom and belonged to Mom when she was a kid. This is kinda what dolls looked like back in the early 1930s. Mom kept Susie her whole life. When Mom was in the hospital, towards the end of her life, she asked for her childhood companion, and Susie was with Mom when she passed away.
So for me, Susie conjures up plenty of things I could write about. Not only can I remember Susie always being around my whole life - and to be honest, she used to give me the creeps when I was little, with her torn little face and funny, thready hair (she was a poor cousin to my flash and dashing Barbie and Ken dolls) - but she makes me remember Mom, not just the last days she was with us, but as she was - funny, playful, entertaining, and joyous.
Have a look around at the things that surround you at your desk: I am currently looking at the following:
- a glass kitty-cat with an arched back and yellow eyes given to me by a dear friend with whom I have regular and fabulous writerly lunches at the Buddhist temple cafe;
- one of those M & Ms characters you see in the ads for the candy; he's blue, holding up one hand in a crazy salute, given to me by a friend who always brings a packet of M & Ms when she visits;
- a glass paperweight with a gold shamrock on the top given to me years ago by a southern gentleman from the state of Georgia who restored vintage American cars, as a farewell gift when I left the USA to return to NZ for good;
- a handwritten note that I've kept for years, jotted down by my writing mentor, Mrs. M, that says: 'Have faith in yourself. You're doing what you want to do and that's an accomplishment in itself. Viva Zapata! (Whatever that means).' I look at it often to boost my spirits when this old writing gig gets too hard;
- a red and orange coffee cup now full of pencils and pens that used to belong to a set called 'Sleepy Sheepy' .
I'm not sure about the story behind that one, but give me time and I'll think of it.
Wow, it's hot.
Dry too. We haven't had a good rain in ages here. I don't have to do much weeding because the intense heat is shriveling them up and it's too hot anyway to do more than pull up a few pieces of ginger and sweep the steps.
So my day is pretty much like this right now.
I work in the morning. I've been getting up earlier and earlier to enjoy the cool and to prevent the computer from blowing up. Its little fan or whatever is in there to keep it from overheating is working like a son of a gun and the heat shimmers out of the top like a mirage. It manages to keep its cool until about noon and then it starts panting and whining like a hot dog.
So it's up at 5.30am and Betsy cat loves it. It means she can eat earlier and wander to her cool place down the stairs where the bricks stay shaded all day. The sun comes up with a soft red glow, the neighbourhood is quiet and the birds are already gathering breakfast and singing with their usual optimism that the day will be a super one.
On goes the coffee and into the work I go. A break for morning tea, then lunch, some reading to let that settle, then it's off to the beach.
Every single day I am grateful for where I live because I slink off down the stairs in my flip flop jandals with my old towel, Atlanta Braves baseball cap, and baggy shorts with the little green turtles on them, walk for about three minutes to the beach, slide over the bank onto the sand, throw everything down and head for the water.
How does one describe that feeling of water ... silky soft some days, and when the wind is up it can give you a bit of a slap upside the head. It's been warm, the water, almost too warm. I don't see any of the little schools of fish I used to see in the shallows.
My jandals make quite loud squeaks as I walk back. One afternoon a guy walking along on the opposite side of the street said, 'You'd never make a burglar in those so don't try to rob a house after you've been swimming. Too much good rubber in them.' OK got it.
A friend's Mum used to say that a swim really cooled you down and set you up for the rest of the day. That may be true, but it's the cold beer that I often have after I've come back from the swim that does the trick.
Of course no more work gets done after that. Betsy and I sit out on the deck with our beverages (she quite likes some cubes of ice in her water on these hot days), heads hanging low but comfortably. We read the local paper, or a book, and catch up on the events of the day.
She tells me about the cool bricks and I tell her about the wonderful sea.
When you're thinking about your life, think about your car.
We often take our cars for granted. They get us from A to B, sure enough, and we spend inestimable hours in them over a lifetime: strapped into car seats as youngsters, learning to drive in our teens with a white-knuckled parent or pale-faced driving instructor beside us, and then when we're old, the moment we're told 'you can't drive any more' - how does that loss of independence feel?
Our cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles - any form of daily transportation we use - play important roles in our life stories.
Think about the first car you ever owned - so proud were you! Maybe your parents helped you buy it, or they gave it to you, or you saved every penny until you could afford to make this four-wheeled fantasy a reality. Did that first car have a peculiar characteristic? Did it always have a pull to the left, in spite of multiple visits for alignment?
Driving gave you independence. Having a car enabled you to get out into the world, go places, see things, meet people, get to work, hold down a job, take your girlfriend out - maybe the one who eventually became your wife?
While that car gave you freedom and joy, it also came with cost, trials and tribulations: you had to buy petrol to make it go; when it broke down, as they inevitably do and often at the worst possible moment, did you have the money to foot the bill?
'The adventure begins when something goes wrong' and nothing could be truer when a car breaks down: were you on a deserted country back road after midnight when the tyre went flat and you had no spare, or perhaps on a hot desert road and the radiator blew and you had no water to fill it? Maybe you had an accident in your car - a minor fender-bender or one that changed your life - and maybe someone else's - irrevocably.
I've always been fond of my cars. They've all had different personalities and quirks, particularly the used ones that came with a ready-made personality shaped by someone else - sometimes you get along with that persona, sometimes not. The first car I owned was a used Datsun 510 called Chickadee that I bought in Seattle and drove all the way to Fernandina Beach, Florida - I've written about that brave little adventurer in a previous blog. I've had only two new cars in my life that came to me with that new-car smell and shine. One was a little pickup truck that I never formed much of an attachment for (we were living in the country at the time and bought it because it was handy to have), and the other is my red Toyota Corolla that I still own, one that's been with me since about 1995 or so.
I cannot bear to part with it. I love it so. We've had plenty of adventures, Car and I, have traveled many of New Zealand's most hair-raising roads together, kicking up dust and flying over potholes and flood-water-gouged ditches. I've lifted that hatchback to load in firewood, boxes, building materials, people, my drums and heaven knows what-all else. It has about 280,000km on the clock now, is treated to an annual service each year, has a blow-your-ears-out sound system and doesn't give me a lick of trouble.
It gets me home late at night in a way that is gallant and noble: 'I will get you home safely Miss Jane, don't you worry.' It is never petulant - it starts up every time. Like a genteel older person, it keeps on going despite the aches and pains its 280,000 kms no doubt cause. It never kicks up rough and complains.
I could write a book about my experiences with cars - the ones I grew up with in our family, the ones I have owned, the places these vehicles have taken me.
What can you say about your wheeled pride and joy?
'Once upon a time ...'
Stories read to us in childhood often began this way and when I heard those words, I was filled with a delightful anticipation of what was to come, snuggling down even closer to Mom as she read from the picture book before my bedtime. Even now, I find myself going, 'Yes? OK? What is going to happen?'
Beginnings are everything in our stories. They hook the reader in, entice us to read on, we want to find out what happens. Even that classic clanger, 'It was a dark and stormy night' does the trick - what happened on that dark and horrid night?
I'll often pick up a book in the shop and read the first line. If it doesn't grab me, I'll put it down - is that fair to the writer? Probably not - but for me, as a reader, I know what I want and if I don't see it on the first page, I'll probably move on because there are so many other books out there ...
I've written about 'famous first lines' before and if you Google search, you can find lists of them. Here's one from Iain M. Banks (The Crow Road 1992): 'It was the day my grandmother exploded.'
Wow - I'd like to know whether she literally combusted out on the front porch in her rocking chair or did she blow up with anger and rage, red-faced with clenched fists.
Every first draft has a first line, and sometimes that first line will make it through to the final version. I began my book The Pink Party with, 'The invitations to Colleen's Pink Party said, 'Wear your best pink' so even the men have dressed up.' That sentence stayed as the first one right through to the published book.
Sometimes the beginning may occur to us when we're working on the middle, or the end, of our story. While writing my book about Mom, I was typing away on the middle and thought, 'This sentence would make a great beginning' - that's the fabulous thing about cut and paste.
It's important to be 'organic' with beginnings and first lines - often they will find their own way, present themselves without you having to structure them or force them into being.
That first line may surprise you. It could be an overheard snippet of dialogue, a newspaper headline, and it can inspire a whole story or book. I was sitting with a friend some years ago; she was ill in Hospice care, full of pain medications, drifting in and out of sleep.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and said with clarity and surprising strength, 'I can't hear the waves tonite.' That became the first line in a short story I wrote.
So when you're starting out with a story, don't let coming up with a ripper first line trip you up - don't think you can't start writing without one because you can and of course as we've said, that first line might even be the inspiration for your story in the first place.
(My editor would say, 'You've used 'first' too many times here.')
My cat Betsy has water bowls positioned all around the house so she doesn't have to go far, or exert herself too much, to get a drink on these hot summer days. She's going on 19 now so I try to make things easy for her.
In spite of the convenience, Betsy likes drinking from the bird bath on the front lawn.
It's a real stretch for her. She has to stand on her tip-toes, battling her arthritis, to get a drink.
Writing is a bit like that.
It's easy to go round and take from the usual sources, harder to make a stretch and go for something new, different, delicious, exciting - something that will make your arthritic creative joints hurt but the results will be worth it.
What are your writing plans for 2019? Do you think you would stretch your writing legs and try something new and different?
This year will you write in a new genre that challenges you? Travel writing? Crime? Romance?
Perhaps you will commit to writing that memoir for the children, or think about putting together a collection of poems, insights into the delights of summer at the beach or a small cabin by the lake...
Whatever it may be, think about stretching your legs a bit. Challenge yourself. Don't go for the water bowls within easy reach.
Stand on your tiptoes, put your hands up on that birdbath and see what the view is like from up there.
... and a Tonka car carrier truck.
Let's face it. Christmas is for kids and wow, if you were anything like me, as a youngster you'd be beside yourself right about now with The Big Day less than a week away.
The tree is up, some of the presents are already under it and you can tell there are more to come because the extra special ones you had on your list (that you delivered to your parents ages ago and have badgered them over ever since) aren't there yet, and you know that because the shapes of the ones under the tree at the moment don't match the things you've asked for. And it's almost too terrible to imagine a Christmas morning without those extra special presents waiting for you.
In this picture - yes that is me, aged about five or six - I am sitting under the tree with a truck. This would probably have been one of our last Seattle, Washington Christmases before we jumped on the ship and immigrated to New Zealand.
I am missing some front teeth but they were hardly a Christmas priority.
Apparently I absolutely coveted this car carrying vehicle. I wanted it more than anything. It came with one white car and two pick up trucks, red and blue, that you could drive up a yellow ramp and into the truck. And this truck was built, man ... that's when Tonka toys were made of real metal, not plastic. This thing went the distance. It came to New Zealand with us when we moved here, and my best friend Milton who lived up the road from us in Murray's Bay called it the 'Big Bad Harley Truck'.
In future years I was desperate to receive various things in accordance with my age at the time: new outfits for my Barbie and Ken dolls (sent to us from America - even more fabulous!), my first guitar (which for obvious reasons was hidden carefully until Christmas morning), an Osmiroid fountain pen, and a copy of Carole King's album Tapestry.
When I was young I thought I would always want presents at Christmas. I simply could not imagine the day without ripping into wrappings and pulling out something stunning and wonderful that I could play with immediately, eat straight away, or put on a shelf and stare at in wonder.
These days though it's heart warming and such fun to see other children carrying on the wonderful festive traditions we enjoyed as kids.
In the few years prior to Mom's death, she and I had a special tradition, our 'Christmas nip' and I looked forward to that more than anything.
We'd get up Christmas morning, open up the gifts, then Mom and I would repair to the kitchen, take out the bottle of fine single malt whiskey (Glenmorangie was usually on hand, Mom's favourite) and pour ourselves a short nip. We'd clink glasses, toast each other, the holiday, and the year that had been, down our shot, and begin preparing our Christmas Bissell breakfast of sausages, toast, and eggs.
Mom is no longer here but I keep up the tradition of the Christmas nip.
I'm often alone on Christmas morning, heading out later to join in festivities, and I take that quiet moment when the day is still and young to pour myself a shot, go outside on the deck, enjoy the view and raise my glass to the heavens in a toast to my Mom.