Things I liked today

I guess it’s time to say (or well past the time to say, but never mind) that there will be another little munchkin around here in less than three months. I’m 29 weeks, and the little one is prodding at the computer on my lap as I write. It feels exciting but a little unreal. What is not unreal is the fact that bending over, putting on shoes, and picking things up from the floor are all becoming a lot more challenging.

Things that happened today that make me smile when I think back on them:

  • after some reluctance and a heartfelt explanation from myself about the difficulties of tidying up on my own, the kids very sweetly and whole-heartedly got involved. They even did a team job of wiping down the stairs!
  • it’s very sweet the way they can co-operate and work together at times – Felix explains patiently what to do, and Antonia says ‘ok!’ and complies (they do wind each other up at other times, of course)
  • Felix had a very cute moment with my friend’s one year old – passing him a glow-worm doll to play with, and patting him gently on the back
  • Felix hacking into parsnips and carrots with hair-raising enthusiasm, and passing them to Antonia to put in the pot for the soup
  • Antonia gleefully dipping her asparagus and cucumber sticks into her soft boiled egg at dinner time
  • Antonia deciding that Felix could play with her wooden rocket after all, once she understood how sad he was about it. She’s quite good at this – you just have to talk to her about how people are feeling and give her a minute to process it
  • Felix managing to swim backstroke (slowly and hesitantly) in a straight line at his swimming lesson for the first time
  • Felix managing to swim freestyle across the pool without stopping to take a breath (the instructor had asked them to go as far as they could, and then breathe if they needed, and he decided that he just had to make it all the way. He loves diving under the water so he’s had a bit of practice. It was the fastest I’ve seen him swim. Normally when he swims freestyle he takes far too many breaths which slow him right down. The instructor wasn’t watching properly and I don’t think she believed him when he said he made it the entire way across, but he did – you should have seen him puffing when he finally came up for air.)
  • reading Pippi Longstocking to both kids before bed. They liked it a bit too much and Felix decided that when I told him to got to sleep, he would, like Pippi, put his feet on the pillow and his head under the covers
  • Antonia cuddling up in bed with the pink hobbyhorse she only decided yesterday that she liked. She kept getting distressed if the horse’s pole wasn’t tucked in properly!

And not related directly to the two of them:

  • the soup itself (yum)
  • the snow swirling all day outside our windows (it was definitely an *inside* snow day – so windy!)
  • hanging out with my friends
  • reading for an hour after the kids fell asleep at 8

All that talk of books to read to Felix got me thinking about what I was reading – I hadn’t been able to find anything that was quite right. Then I found Elizabeth Strout’s latest – My Name is Lucy Barton – in our college library, and I just adored it. I’ve just finished Amy and Isabelle on my kindle, and I’m grateful that I think there are another three novels of hers I have yet to read. (I read Olive Kitteridge a few years ago on the urging of a friend, and loved it, but hadn’t tried any of her others till last week.) If any of you know of anything else I might get into – let me know!

The other thing I want to note down is that last weekend Antonia started drawing figures! Faces with arms and legs! She draws them over and over again, and today drew some dinner for them too, and a house. So far she’s been drawing with her left hand.

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Reading to Six Year Olds

As Felix has approached six years old, I’ve been looking for ways to introduce longer bedtime stories. When I was in York in October last year, I spent several hours browsing the bookshelves of a large bookshop, and came home with Pippi Longstocking, Flat Stanley, and The Magic Faraway Tree. We haven’t got onto Pippi yet, partly because Felix was annoyed that the illustrations were different from the abridged version Mum bought the kids in Stockholm last year. He adored Flat Stanley. I remember my very first teacher in primary school reading this aloud to us. She was fabulous. He’s very intrigued by the Magic Faraway Tree but finds it a bit scary, so we are only about five chapters in…

Michael has a collection of five minute Batman stories, which Felix practically knows by heart.

In Australia we picked up Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which he has loved. I managed to find the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in my library, and he gulped that down too. Michael and Felix have also got through Fantastic Mr Fox, but I think Danny the Champion of the World is a bit heavy for now. For Christmas I gave him all four Bad Guys books by Aaron Blabey, which he thought were hilarious (and a bit scary), but he was devastated when they ended on a cliff-hanger. These are written in a comic book format, and I’m sure he’ll revisit them when he learns to read.

My Grandma gave him this absolutely gorgeous picture book for older kids, Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon, by Torben Kuhlmann. We’ve read it several times, and I’m sure there will be many more.

I recently asked my friends on Facebook what else they would recommend, and they came up with quite a list!

Some were books which I remember fondly from my own childhood:

The Little House on the Prairie

Tom’s Midnight Garden

Now We are Six, and Winnie-the-Pooh

Wind in the Willows

Beatrix Potter books

More Roald Dahl, especially James and the Giant Peach and George’s Marvellous Medicine

The Narnia books

The Famous Five

Every Arthur quest book ever written (I remember my fist King Arthur book, which was half about King Arthur and half about Robin Hood, picked up at a second hand book sale at school. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever.)

Midnite by Randolph Stow (I didn’t read this as a child but it’s one of my favourite books. Laugh out loud funny (for adults, at least). I recently finished writing a chapter about it. Felix is probably about the right age to start getting into it…)

The Secret Garden

And some were new to me:

The Tashi books (lots of votes for these and they look gorgeous)

Andy Griffiths books (13 Story Treehouse and sequels – they look very popular with kids at the moment)

Moomin books, especially Moomin Papa and the Sea

Anything by David Walliams (one of my friends had personal reservations about them, but admitted that the kids loved them. I saw today that my libray has a lot of these)

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm

The Boxcar Children

The Magic Treehouse

Milly Molly Mandy (several votes for this)

Astrid Lindgren’s Lotta books

Emily Rodda’s Fairy Realm books

How to Train your Dragon (these are in my library)

My Father’s Dragon

Swallows and Amazons

Graphic novels like Hilda and the Midnight Giant

Asterix (ok this one isn’t new to me exactly but I never read much of it myself)

The Tale of Desperaux

Treasures in the Snow

And, according to Penni: As read-alones, the Billie B Brown and the Hey Jack books by Sally Rippin are perfect. They are really great everyday social stories too, good for gently rehearsing every day problems like losing something or mean friends or whatever.

And from another friend, who has a boy Felix’s age: As for reading himself, he is reading a series of books about a pig called Mercy that are fun and easy to read.

Anyway, one of my friends asked that I collate the suggestions into a blog post, so they would be easy to find later. So here they are. I’m very aware that he won’t be accessing these books at school (apart from the Scandinavian ones, I guess), so I want to make sure he gets a solid grounding at home. I also think I’ll try to get hold of Bill Bryson’s A Really Short History of Nearly Everything, as Felix wants to know it all. Let me know if you have any more suggestions!

 

 

Spring

Feeling tired, but good-tired, after a weekend packed with friends and kids riding bikes. We even did some work in our yard this morning. We often lament the fact that we haven’t done outdoor work, so decided it was time to stop lamenting and just all go outside together and have a go. It was nice.

It’s not exactly warm yet but it is light well into the evening, and a lot more pleasant outside than it was last month.

The kids were absolutely gorgeous last night, climbing up onto the armchair together and spontaneously reading a book.

And they’re both loving their bikes. We got Antonia a balance bike at Easter in Germany and spent quite a lot of time waddling after her giving her little pushes and stopping her falling over. Very hard on our backs. But now she’s able to walk it along by herself. She doesn’t glide along yet but it’s a start! She insisted on ‘riding’ it nearly all the way to the park from the carpark at Michael’s work today. She wanted to ride it back, too, afterwards, and was very sad when I had to trap her in the stroller as we didn’t have time…

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Antonia: a girl after my own heart. She loves to climb up onto Felix’s little chair, select a book, then sit down and ‘read’.

Felix: Mum snapped this photo of him sailing his sea plane on our recent holiday on the Swedish coast.

It has been so lovely having my parents around. We stayed down on the Swedish coast for a few nights – a gorgeous place of rocky outcrops and boat-filled harbours. It was a perfect summer holiday. The weather has not been brilliant this summer, so I felt spoilt with two days of sunshine by the sea – playing in the garden behind the B&B, clambering on the rocks at the beach, eating ice cream, cake, fish and pizza at the wharf, mini golf, bouncy castles, and a beautiful watercolour museum.

In one week I go back to work and Antonia starts barnehage. Can you believe it? My parents are off on a trip through Europe for ten days, coming back for the weekend of Antonia’s birthday. So I have some time now to focus on the transition. There are a few things left to sort out – making sure Antonia has all the gear she needs – rain clothes, shoes (she’s never worn shoes!), lunch box, rain boots etc. Not to mention locating all of Felix’s stuff too. I am excited and a little apprehensive, and I hope my dear sweet cuddly Antonia will be ok. I have been mentally preparing for this moment all year, and it is so close now that there is no time for hesitation – merely a few deep breaths before we all plunge in.

But here are some more glimpses of our trip.

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Australia 2014-15

And sometimes, when there is ten minutes free, I need to write. We have been here for lots of weeks now. The weather is sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, and often perfect. There have been moments of frustration. Two months is a long time to stay with your family or your in-laws. But lately we seem to have hit a groove. The best days involve aunties and children for Felix to play with. Or parks and grandmas. Or all of the above.

As I have mentioned Antonia is not one for sleeping in the evenings and is fussing right now. This is why it is nearly impossible to finish a paper I am attempting to work on – as soon as I sit down at my computer I need to get up again. I will wait a minute now before rushing to her…

Yesterday Mum had a day off work and we took the kids up to the farm barn in Hahndorf. Felix loved the baby rabbits and the kangaroos. I loved the baby goats with their miniature triangular faces and tiny bumps of horns. Antonia loved hanging out with me.

Today we met my cousin Hannah and her husband and my Aunty Anne (Hannah’s Mum) in a cafe next to a park.

Ok. Baby.

A cuddle, a little chat, a feed, back to sleep.

While I feed Antonia to sleep I read Alice Munro stories on my kindle. I can’t get enough. Sometimes they cut too close to the bone. There are a lot of mothers abandoning children and children abandoning their mothers in her stories. And a lot of very sad love stories – disappointment, missed connections, illusions. But so many beautiful moments too. And a clarity like cut glass. I love how all the moments and details and observations are skilfully, not hurriedly, laid over one another, and it is not until you read the final paragraph, even the final line, that you discover exactly the shape they were leading to. And if you go back and re-read the opening of the story (I haven’t done this much yet, being so hungry for the next one), you can appreciate how deliberately the whole story has been quietly building all along.

The stories are about people. About people loving in tangled and imperfect ways, and coming up for air.

And I have been overloading the blog with photos lately but I feel the need to. Last time we were here, a year ago, I did not touch the blog – I was ill and exhausted with morning sickness, very nervous that my pregnancy would not work out, and on top of that had about a hundred exams to mark, which took up all my free time. But I miss the photographic record. I have gone back and put a couple of retrospective posts in, and may do a couple more. It is so nice, just for ourselves, to be able to click on a year or a month and look back on it.

And this time is so special. Watching my children play together – Felix still three years old but not for long, Antonia still my baby. They make each other laugh. They kick around on the mat or my bed together. Felix is so protective. He’s learning about numbers and adding up. In the car yesterday he said to me and Mum – ‘we have four in our family. Mummy, Daddy, Felix and Antonia. We are the luckiest, to have so many people.’ And he shared with us his extensive knowledge about babies: ‘babies’, he told us authoritatively, ‘are normally very soft’.

So there will be more photos heading your way. We are perhaps staying away from our home a little too long, but I am glad that there are couple of weeks left – to eat fish and chips in the park, watch Felix ride his bike, visit the aunties and the grandmas and some of my old friends, and go to the museum or the pool or the beach. Some days are tiring and jarring as happens with children. But I am so grateful for these days to slow down and be together. To come up for air.

 

A long weekend

We’re at the tail-end of a beautiful long weekend. Today the week-long heat-wave has slowly evaporated, but we certainly made the most of it, and spent plenty of time eating, playing and bathing outside with some excellent friends.

It was so lovely to have some time off with not only good weather, but a Felix healthy enough to enjoy it properly. Here he is galloping around the trampoline.

 
Today we bought a new oven. I am in love. Excuse me while I wax lyrical. We needed a new one because our old one was too small for our kitchen – both too narrow for the spot and too low for the bench. The new one fits perfectly and has induction hot-plates which are an utter revelation to me. So much better than our old ordinary electric ones – my heavy frying pan heated up in an instant, rather than ten minutes, and I managed to saute the mushrooms perfectly without burning the garlic. Not to mention the fact that food doesn’t fall down the side of the oven any more and the handles of the saucepans don’t bump into the bench-top.

Recently I’ve been on a bit of a novel-reading binge. If I open my novel the minute Felix falls asleep, I can recreate the illusion of being able to lose myself in a book for hours and hours. It’s been quite nice. I read the last two books in the Stieg Larsson trilogy. It had taken me about six months to get into The Girl Who Played with Fire, as the first sixty pages or so annoyed me no end. But once I got past them I actually got hooked and enjoyed them immensely. The story and the characters are larger than life but in the end I found them very likable.

From there I jumped headlong into We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver…

But now this blog post has to stop because my early morning is catching up with me and I need to go to bed. I’ll tell you what I thought about it later.

In praise of doors

Suddenly there was a ring at the door. Sophie’s Mummy said, “I wonder who that can be. It can’t be the milkman, because he came this morning. And it can’t be the boy from the grocer because this isn’t the day he comes. And it can’t be Daddy because he’s got his key. We’d better open the door and see.”

The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Judith Kerr

There is a delightful picture book I remember from my childhood called The Tiger Who Came to Tea. When I read it with one of the children at the kindergarten, she exclaimed ‘tiger!’ Felix, however, is much more interested in the front door through which the tiger enters. So much so, that as soon as he sees the book he cries ‘door!’, then impatiently waits till we get to the page of the tiger coming through the door, then loses interest.

I think he might be onto something.

People are often surprised and amused that one of Felix’s first and favourite words was ‘door’. He says the word with such deliberateness and such enthusiasm, he stretches it out, and he points: ‘door’.

But doors are wonderful. Quite apart from the thrill Felix gets being able to manipulate an object so much taller than him, and the magic of opening and closing it, doors are the gateways to everywhere. The whole world lies outside the door. As soon as Felix learnt to crawl he went straight to the doors and opened and shut them over and over, much to my dismay (as I tried to prevent him from squashing his fingers). Now he likes to walk through them and peer back into the room he has left.

Modern day doors are fairly bland, but in the past people used to take them much more seriously. We saw these doors in Hann. Münden.

And these doors in Salt Lake City.

In our house we have heavy old creaky doors which are quite lovely. I don’t love them quite as much as the previous owner of our house, however, who decided to take down the kitchen door and hang it ‘decoratively’ on the lounge-room wall. I think a door should function, first and foremost, as a door, and I’m glad our door has been restored to its original position.

If you are that way inclined, it is difficult to avoid the temptation to use doors as symbols. The bible is full of them. Churches are full of them. There are special doors that only certain people are allowed through, and doors that are only opened during certain ceremonies. And there is the tantalizing idea of doors to other worlds, for example the door of the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, a seemingly innocuous door through which adventure awaits.

So I think doors beat tigers hands down. You just never know what, or who, awaits you beyond them. As Sophe’s Mummy says, ‘we’d better open the door, and see’.

Here

I’m afraid I’m going to regale you with yet more pictures of you know who. We’re going to Germany next week so maybe we’ll get the inspiration to take a photo of something else. Michael took these in the garden on Saturday. We were out there for hours, on Sunday too. You can follow the progress of the weather by the gradual reduction in Felix’s outdoor wear over the last few posts!

It’s pretty fun watching Felix gather up the courage to explore the garden. It reminds me of watching our kittens discover it, nearly two years ago. By Sunday he was crawling all around, pulling the little pine cones off the sticks, turning around to check whether he was allowed to eat them or not. His favourite thing is to crawl up and down the stairs to the deck. He’s getting pretty adept at it. He’s also pretty happy with the swing that Michael strung up on our tree.

I think all the sun we’ve been getting lately has done something funny to my head, because despite the even more dreadful than usual night’s sleep we got last night, I feel so happy. I have been enjoying work lately and Felix has really adjusted well to being in the barnehage. I often get to see him during the day for short periods, and he’s even beginning to get used to that, and is not crying quite so much when he spots me.

In other news I recently had an article published in Bøygen, a journal put together by some Masters students at the University of Oslo (ooh, and I just discovered that the title refers to a great troll-snake, from the Peer Gynt story). It is a really beautiful little journal. The theme of this issue was ‘place’, and they have essays in Norwegian and English about the role on place in literature in places as diverse as Norway, Israel, Australia. The essays are interspersed with black and white photographs, mainly of Oslo. It really is lovely and it’s a bit of a thrill to be a part of it.

In the small pockets of time between child-rearing, working, and folding laundry, I have been reading Anne Enright’s Making Babies, a very beautiful collection of essays, recommended by Blue Milk. And I have been knitting. I’ve started one more vest for the little guy. It’s quite addictive. It was in this cabin, just outside the Glacier National Park in Montana, that I decided I absolutely needed to learn to knit. It was something about the self-sufficiency of the little cabin in the woods that didn’t even have electricity, and seeing Felix wearing a cardigan knitted by my Nanna. I thought it would be a satisfying thing to do. I was right. It has exactly the right balance between challenging and soothing; it is heartening to see your progress even if it is slow, the texture and colour of the yarn between your fingers is lovely, and there is something entirely wonderful about seeing your own child all snug in a jumper you made for him.

Books

In between things I have been reading. Over Christmas I read Philip Pullman’s Four Tales, which was a Christmas present from my Grandma. It is a collection of four novella size stories that Pullman defines as fairy tales, and it was most enjoyable. I particularly liked ‘I was a Rat!’ and the spooky, Germanic tale ‘All Wound Up’. I also read Penni Russon‘s Only Ever Always, which was lovely and haunting, a strange and delicate exploration of death and loss, love and choices.

Right now I’m on a bit of a Kate Grenville binge. Mum gave me Sarah Thornhill for Christmas. I started it just before I left Australia, but it was a big heavy hardback so I left it behind. I then couldn’t bear to be parted with it, so I bought it on the kindle app for the ipad. All Grenville’s books are on there, which is a bit unusual for an Australian writer – the main problem I have with the kindle store is that there is not enough Australian content. Although I wasn’t quite as impressed with it as I had been with A Secret River, which I thought was utterly amazing, I liked it so much that when I finished it I immediately bought The Lieutenant, which so far is very promising indeed.

All in all I love reading books on the ipad – what’s not to love about books that appear magically in your bed within seconds, glow in the dark and don’t wake the baby?

Boise day 2

Yesterday I fell in love with Boise even a little bit more when I discovered this place by the river. It’s the Log Cabin Literary Center, and they host literary events and writing camps for kids. Awesome.

It’s situated on the greenbelt, right near the art gallery and natural history museum and the zoo, and miles and miles of walking tracks by the river. As Felix is a bit young for writers’ camps yet, we headed on.

We strolled along the river for a bit and then test-drove our new picnic blanket.

Good for rolling and for reading.

It’s actually quite hard to get pictures of Felix doing anything but grinning manically at the camera, because he can be entertaining himself quite nicely but as soon as you pull the camera out he gets a huge glint in his eye and decides he wants to eat it, declaring enthusiastically ‘aha! aha! aha!’

Then we were all tuckered out.

Connections

Felix always wants to be on the go right now. This morning Michael suggested walking to the Barnes and Noble, but I said no, we need a longer outing. We drove into town and walked along the river, then had a coffee. I stopped at the coffee shop a couple of mornings ago and on week mornings the place is packed with lawyers on laptops or mobile phones or meeting with clients. It’s quieter on the weekend. After that we went and bought a loaf of bread from the bakery and felt very – I’m not sure what the word is. Civilized.

We went home and Felix slept for half an hour so we could eat lunch. Then it was all go again and we felt sorry for ourselves for a while because we didn’t have any friends or family to visit. So we went to the Barnes and Noble after all. One of the baristas knows me quite well now, and always has a smile for Felix (she says she likes seeing me come in, obviously having walked there instead of driving like everyone else). Felix always has a smile for her too. He is addicted to attention. He can be as grumpy and restless as anything at home but as soon as a new person smiles at him, he beams, coyly looks down, then beams again and flaps his arms around. I had a cup of tea and splurged on a chocolate cheesecake, and Michael took Felix for a stroll for quarter of an hour so I could read my book. Bliss.

Every five minutes or so there was an announcement of a meet-the-author book-signing going on at the front of the store. When Michael came back he said you should go and talk to that author, no one is talking to him except for strange people. So I wriggled Felix into the sling and off I we went. His name was Debu Majumdar, an Indian man who’s lived here in Idaho Falls for thirty years. He’s written a children’s book about India (he told me he thinks American children need educating about the rest of the world), and a book of essays detailing his impressions of Idaho Falls: From the Ganges to the Snake River. He could tell I wasn’t from around here either, so we had a bit of a chat about why we were here and where we were from. When I mentioned we lived in Norway, he said ‘oh yes, Halden’, and I said ‘What, how did you know?’ It turns out he works in the nuclear industry too.

So Michael came back to talk to him, and bought his book, and he gave us his contact details and told us we should meet up sometime. His book looks great. It made our day.

Naptime

This may be another of those ‘see how much I can write in half an hour‘ posts. But fifteen minutes has already passed – well, twenty, actually, if you count the five minutes I waited to ensure Felix was properly asleep before moving him to the crib – so it may actually be ‘see how much I can write in ten minutes’. Which I guess is not a great deal but you never know. In any case, he could surprise us all and sleep for an hour and a half, which would be lovely.

There are so many things I have been meaning to write. I want to write about children’s picture books, how the really lovely ones are just as good as poems, or better. And I want to write about the handful of ‘how to raise you baby’ books I have read, just in case anyone is interested. And I have half a post sitting in my draft box about stone and the elements in A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. And there are a few more photos I want to upload from my parents’ visit. (Yes more, at the risk of boring you all, but it was such a special time and I miss them.) And I doubt I will have time to do any of that right now.

I could also be reading now, and half wish that I was. I have started Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. It is my first e-book. Michael has loaned me his ipad to see how I like it. I have decided I’m definitely going to get an e-reader. Just have to decide between a kindle and the more expensive but more versatile ipad. (I fell a bit in love with the new nook color at Barnes and Noble, but you can’t buy books on it when you are out of the US, which defeats the purpose for me.) With the ipad you can read in the dark because it’s backlit, but some people find the backlit screen annoying and straining for their eyes. Hence the test-run. Advice welcome…

It’s been a tiring week (see previous post). And yes the boy’s gorgeous laughs do make up for it but sometimes they don’t. This afternoon we sat for nearly an hour under a tree outside our apartment, and he was happy, and now he is resting. (Well, I sat. He rolled around and cooed at the wind in the leaves.)

And yes it appears I can write rather a lot in ten minutes because it’s only been eight so far.

I also wanted to write some more about what’s happening in Norway because I have been thinking about it. They’ve started releasing photos of the victims. I looked at them and ofcourse they are sweet young educated ordinary people, and it is terrible. The youngest was fourteen and five days. And there are some older people too, some my age, some my parent’s age. And really what can you write about it because it is unbearable.

When we were with my parents in Salt Lake City we went for a drive up the Big Cottonwood Canyon one evening. Felix was a bit fussy (he finds it distracting when there are people next to him in the back seat), so we decided to stop by the side of the road so I could give him a feed. When we got going again we found the road was blocked not far ahead of us. There had been an accident. We waited around for about an hour, and then got word it would be at least another three hours, because of a police investigation, so we did the two hour drive out through the back of the canyon. It turns out a drunk driver had slammed head on into a car with a couple in their sixties. The last I heard the drunk driver and the other driver were in critical conditions in hospital. We felt so terrible, and so spooked. Because there really isn’t a magic spell that ensures it’s not us who gets slammed into by drunk drivers.

One thing I was unprepared for when becoming a mother was how intolerable the thought of death would suddenly become. I was not only protective of my baby, death suddenly seemed unacceptable for anyone, anywhere. The disaster in Japan happened when Felix was a few weeks old, and I couldn’t read any of the broadcasts. One day Michael was talking to Felix, and Felix’s little mobile was whirling around above his change table, reminding Michael of the circle of life. ‘This is the circle of life’, he told Felix. ‘You are born, and you will die. One day your parents will die. One day you will die’. ‘Don’t tell him that!’ I said. Because it seemed utterly unacceptable. It made me afraid. If this beautiful creature would die, if I would die, what was the point?

I talked to Mum about it while she was here. I said, ‘sometimes things are really not ok’. ‘That’s true’, she said. ‘But also they are ok.’ (In case you haven’t noticed, which I think you have, my Mum is very wise.) I think she is right. And when I think about things being ok, I think for some reason of the earth, of dirt and  rocks and stones and gravity, firm under my feet. The way I did in this poem. I do not know why. I do not like how frail and unpredictable life is sometimes. But I very much like being alive right now. Yes I do.

That, my friends, was twenty-five minutes, and it got a bit heavy didn’t it! And if he sleeps any longer, I’m going to read my ebook.

Books and places

I’ve just started reading Hilary Mantel’s Experiment in Love, and it’s making me nostalgic for England:

In summer, when I was a small girl, we would take a bus to the outskirts of town, and walk in the hills, rambling along the bridle paths in clear green air. We were above the line of the mill chimneys; like angels, we skimmed their frail tops (p. 11).

Of course, I was nostalgic for England even before I ever visited there (not counting being born there), having grown up with tales of the old country from my father and my Nanna. Now, however, the nostalgia is my own – for that wonderful first year in York which I had set aside for adventure, and the wonderful years after that, enjoying the town and the countryside with Michael. Ah, England in summer, with thick green grass, and little stone walls…

Incidentally I think I am developing a crush on Hilary Mantel (after loving Wolf Hall last year) and intend to read every one of her novels…

Last night I finished Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which impressed and intrigued me. Its communistic leanings are especially fascinating given the intense anti-communist, individualist sentiments here that I am only now beginning to get a feel for. I had no idea that if you earned more money here you don’t get into a higher tax bracket, for example. Back to the novel, however… I really enjoyed his descriptions of landscape and animals – especially the animals – and I liked his characters so much that when I got half way through I didn’t want to keep reading for fear of bad things happening to them. Towards the end, though, the characters seemed to become more symbolic, and you got the sense he was really laboring to make his point. (Almost like the didactic sections of War and Peace.) Still, I enjoyed it greatly and am keen to read East of Eden at some point. The last paragraph really took me by surprise – extreme breastfeeding, anyone?

In non-book related news, I am really enjoying life here at the moment. Felix’s night-time sleeping has deteriorated badly, so I’ve been quite tired, but am feeling much more zen about it just now. There is a really fantastic mother’s group which meets up several times a week in different places, and I’ve been enjoying getting to know a bunch of really interesting women and their children. If I want the car for the day I need to drop Michael at work in the morning, but he works only five minutes away from the downtown river walk, so my new routine is to drop him off and then park at the river for a walk before the day heats up too much. Felix naps, breastfeeds with a view of the waterfalls, and often has a roll around on his blanket on the grass afterwards. When we’re at home my main task at the moment is flipping him onto his back – he rolls onto his tummy, has a look around, gets stuck, then complains loudly. Repeat. Though today at the river he did manage to roll back the other way twice, with a bit of help from the slope of the ground.

Most excitingly, my parents are on their way over here and should arrive tomorrow night. I can’t wait!

Speaking of reading, here is Felix having a go at the Sunday paper, aged 20 weeks:

A day at the river

Finally we had beautiful weather – and not too much wind – all day! I tried exploring the ‘Historic Downtown’ district of Idaho Falls, but didn’t find much apart from decrepit buildings and attorney offices. And a very impressive public library, but it turns out that you have to pay $64 a year for a library card. What is this strange country, that charges for public libraries? So I ended up at the river, which was perfectly lovely. I walked past a Mormon temple:

and a water tower:

but the sweetest thing I saw was this little guy:

Felix was quite impressed with the pinecone:

He’s really got the hang of grabbing onto things and stuffing them into his mouth the past couple of days, but I didn’t want him eating the pinecone  just yet. After all that activity Felix had a long sleep in his pram while I read a book beneath the trees. Bliss.

One week in America

So many things… Some things are worse than living in Norway, but some things are better. When we first got here, I couldn’t help thinking – where’s my sunny house, and huge sofa, and deck, and lawn, and kitties, and my nice cool pine forest. But here we have a bath, which is great fun with a little baby, we have effortless climate control, thick fluffy carpet, and spacious rooms all on one level. I miss our giant bed which had made it easy to breastfeed Felix without disturbing Michael – for the moment Michael has decamped into the spare room. We aren’t in the prettiest part of Idaho Falls but it’s very convenient living a short walk away from all the shops.

There are two cupcake shops a two minute walk away. So far I have been quite restrained and only tried two flavours – red velvet, which was quite nice, and cherry chocolate cheesecake, which was incredible. I have been trying to be sensible and not eat sweet things but you have to make exceptions for cupcakes, right?

It’s been pretty cold and windy here so far, but we had one warm sunshiny day. I met up with a friend and her daughter in a park (we met them when they had a year long visit to Norway a few years ago), and met a couple of other mothers too. I’ve also joined a mother’s group that seems to do different activities a few times a week, so I shouldn’t get lonely, and it will be a good way to start exploring a little further afield. It’s quite entertaining walking around the shopping malls but it’s terribly tempting just to buy things all the time, which I can’t sustain!

On TV there’s this show called ‘extreme couponers’. People collect thousands of coupons and spend hours every week researching deals, and then manage to buy hundreds of dollars worth of stuff for practically nothing. They end up buying things like 50 tubes of toothpaste in one go, and convert their houses into storage facilities for all their stash. I’m not tempted to give it a go – who really needs 40 bottles of energy drink anyway – but I did manage to get a 30% off coupon at the bookshop by joining this kids club, so I bought Felix the sweetest little activity mat you have ever seen. It has a tree, and little owls and squirrels hanging down.

I finished reading The Children’s Book. It is a beautiful beautiful book but the last 150 or so pages were so hard to read as the mother of a small son. Even so, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a very long time. I might write more about it later. I’m now reading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I’ve never read it before – my knowledge of American literature is very poor indeed. So far I’m loving it.

Felix has now recovered from his first cold. It was dreadful seeing him so sick, but thankfully it was a pretty mild cold really. It first hit on Saturday. Luckily I had some baby panadol, as I had been worried he’d catch the cold from Michael. On Saturday afternoon Felix started wailing pitifully, and Michael raced out to buy three different thermometers. They’re quite hard to use on a small baby. We got his fever under control very quickly, but he wasn’t himself for several days. Most distressingly, he often didn’t want to feed – when I tried to feed him he would just start screaming. For a couple of days I was heavy with milk and worried about the poor guy, although he did seem to feed better over night. Yesterday I took him to the pediatric centre to be weighed just to check that he was ok, and  he is absolutely fine – his weight-gain has remained spot on. So that was a relief. At nearly 15 weeks he weighs 7 kilos.

Tomorrow we’re headed down to Salt Lake City for the weekend. The forecast isn’t that promising so we probably won’t get any flying in, but it will be nice to have a change of scene and I’m sure Felix won’t mind the car trip. Sorry for the rambly post.

See how much I can write in half an hour!

I miss writing. Even writing blog posts, which is just about all the writing I’m managing at the moment. Felix is still only sleeping half an hour at a time during the day, so unless I start doing whatever it is I want to be doing the minute I put him down, it doesn’t get done. Sometimes it’s having a cup of tea, which takes fifteen minutes; the remaining fifteen can be used for tidying or daydreaming or making lists of all the things I think I should be doing. Today it is writing. If I want to write I must not put anything away – even my teacup, even his pjs which need to go to the laundry, or wipe any benches, or put the washing on. I must not read anything, even other blogs. I must not click on facebook. I must sit, immediately, with my computer, and write.

When Michael emailed me the last batch of photos (he’s good like that), he titled them ‘Felix and Mum’. And I thought – gosh, ‘Mum’, is that me? I wonder if you’re not really ‘Mum’ until someone calls you that. Which I guess won’t be for a while. But still. I am undoubtably a mother. And I am used to it now, and used to him, but if you think for a moment about the grand, long-term scheme of things, which I can’t help doing from time to time, this is still terribly new. We think – I wonder what he will look like in a year? We think – we can’t wait until he can sit up at a table, and run around and kick a ball, and read a book by himself, and give us a hug. But at the same time, he is utterly gorgeous right now, as small as he is, which is considerably larger than when we first met him nearly twelve weeks ago. Children do something strange to time, and to the future – it feels less predictable and more exciting. A little scary, even, but it doesn’t have to be, it comes at you one day – one minute – at a time.

I’ve had a couple of low patches recently – they never lasted terribly long, not even a whole day, but I would hate to ever get stuck in one. It’s partly just how relentless it all is, and when you feel trapped by it it’s frightening to think you can’t escape it, you have to keep doing it every day for a very long time. I think part of the problem was a mundane one of eating too much sweet stuff. I love sweet stuff. And I love baking. But I feel much more energetic today than last Friday, and the main difference is that there aren’t any brownies left!

The other thing is time for yourself and space to connect with friends. There is not much time for myself but there is a little bit. I have been reading and loving A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I will write more about that later. And after reading this post by Penni, I have been listening to The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, as an audio book. I’ve been enjoying that too. And writing… not so much. But right now I am. I am surprised by how much I have to say!

The other problem, of course, is social interaction. We had a bbq here last Thursday, with a couple of old friends and a couple of new friends, and it was nice but Felix got a bit stressed by all the people so it ended up being quite exhausting. He is best with just a couple of new people at a time. But on the weekend a good friend of mine came over to help us with putting an ad up about our car. She is Norwegian, and lives around the corner, and brought her little daughter who had a great time examining Felix, sitting in his little chair (he’s actually borrowing it from her) and trying to give him her dummy. And it was just so so nice. Then on Tuesday I met with an American woman about my Mum’s age, who is here for a couple of months but comes from Idaho Falls, where we are headed in a couple of weeks. And that was also unexpectedly lovely, and we had the most excellent conversation about pregnancy and children and childbirth, and how pretty the landscape is around here. And then on Tuesday evening I went out for dinner with two friends I met at the kindergarten: my Welsh friend (who is younger than me and adores children including Felix but is waiting for a couple of years before trying for her own), and my Irish friend (who is older than me and pregnant with a much longed-for baby, due in June). I was worried how Felix would go but he was utterly charming and didn’t mind coming out at all. And it was just so so nice. I hadn’t been out with a couple of girl friends for at least two years. I will not let two years lapse before I do it again! It has been a slow process, making friends here (Michael and I are both natural introverts, really), but we are getting there. I know these friendships will survive our eight month absence, and be here when we return.

Apart from that we have been filling in forms and dealing with bureaucrats, and trying to find someone to care for our house and our cats (please don’t ask how it’s going!) and there is a lot a lot to do before we go. Today I have to go to the police to renew our residency permits and get one for Felix. But we are getting there. And the little guy smiles at us every day, especially when Michael comes home from work, and we are loving our brand new family, we are.

Five Bells

When my  Dad told me he had a copy of Gail Jones’s Five Bells that he was going to post over to me I was very happy indeed. I first encountered Gail Jones’s work back in 1998 when I was a second year student at Adelaide University. It was included in a module on postmodernism. I don’t remember the name of the book, but it was a collection of short stories and I remember being impressed by its lightness, strangeness and lucidity. I have seen her name come up a lot over the years, and intended to read her other books, such as Sixty Lights and Sorry, but never got around to it. In addition to this, ‘Five Bells’ is one of my favourite Australian poems, and I couldn’t wait to see what she had done with it.

For the benefit of my non-Australian readers, ‘Five Bells’, by Kenneth Slessor, was first published in 1939. It is a meditation on death, time and memory, in the context of a reflection on the death of a friend of the poet, who drowned in Sydney Harbour. The five bells are ship bells that ring out across the harbour, and they occur as a refrain throughout the poem. It opens:

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels

Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.

Between the double and the single bell

Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells

From the dark warship riding there below,

I have lived many lives, and this one life

Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

The poem seeks an alternative form of temporality in order to seek to touch Joe, who is lost. ‘My time, the flood that does not flow’ is memory, which consists of a different temporality than that of linear time, which marches always in the same direction, measured by clocks. Memory floods the present and rehearses the past.

The poem tries and tries to reconnect with Joe through lyric intensity but in the end acknowledges failure:

The tide goes over, the waves ride over you

And let their shadows down like shining hair,

But they are Water; and sea-pinks bend

Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;

And you are only part of an idea.

The poem refuses metaphor and its own redemptive imaginings. It allows an afterlife but only in memory, and this remembering and imagining can never truly touch the dead. I think the next few lines are some of the most powerful and uncomfortable words that I have ever come across:

I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,

The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,

And the short agony, the longer dream,

The Nothing that was neither long nor short;

But I was bound, and could not go that way,

But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.

Even the horrifically precise image of the water’s ‘black thumb-balls’ is not enough to ensure communion with the dead.

Gail Jones’s ‘Five Bells’ takes the poem as a starting point for a meditation on four individuals, each remembering their own dead. Phrases from the poem echo throughout the book, as do several other places, images and literary allusions: the harbour itself, snow, James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Russian literature, Communist China. The book takes place over a single day in which each of the characters visits Sydney harbour, but of course their own rememberings mean that the temporality of the novel is much more complex than that.

All this talk of death makes the poem – and the novel – sound a lot more gloomy than they actually are. The novel, like the poem, has a musical lightness about it, and riffs beautifully on the poem’s ‘diamond quills and combs of light’. I wonder how different an experience it would be to read it if you had never been to Sydney harbour, because it catches so perfectly its dazzling brightness. The novel does the poem justice and is a beautiful thing in its own right. The ending strikes the perfect – if disconcerting – note. I could write so much more but will instead leave you with one of the many memorable passages:

At the funeral there were flowers, and suddenly it made sense, why this might be so. In this town with no florist, this tiny town on the edge of nowhere, somehow roses and lilies had turned up, somehow there were elaborate wreaths and cellophane-wrapped bunches, and yet he had no idea how or from whence they had arrived. Yet it made sense. Something offered so that everything did not have to rest inside words. Something silent delivered from the living world. Something with no purpose other than to declare that the beautiful exists and will not last.

Six weeks

Six and a half, actually. Not the best photo in the world but I know my family likes to see his face. Poor little guy’s got a bit of a rash on his neck at the moment, but aside from that he’s doing well. He shrieks for joy now when he’s looking up at his mobile. And shrieks with frustration other times. He can be very very loud! Photos hardly do him justice really, because of how rapidly he changes expression.

Got him weighed yesterday and he’s now 5.5 kilos and 60 centimetres! That means he’s grown on average a centimetre a week, which is pretty incredible. He’s getting a bit more purposeful about controlling his hands and rubs his eyes when he’s tired.

I was down at the harbour today again, and the sun was blazing, but I forgot to put the memory card back in the camera so I can’t show you. There is still ice in the harbour though, and the ducks are still trundling all over it. I walked around and around the river and the harbour and the little town, and went back to the coffee shop and finished reading ‘Five Bells’ which is very beautiful and very sad.

After six weeks the utter absolute newness of the experience has faded a little, but he is still here! How strange! And I thought I would have more to say but I don’t really, not now. Michael goes away for two days tomorrow but I know we will be fine.

Suggestions?

Well, I’ve just about finished The Amber Spyglass, and I need something new to read as I wait for this baby to show up. I’m not feeling particularly inspired about the rather virtuous dregs-of-our-bookshelf list I posted a while back. (Although, looking back at that, perhaps I should get started on Carpentaria. In the end I didn’t read any of them because I discovered a dusty old copy of David Copperfield and read that instead. And then Mum sent me The Slap for Christmas and I read that. And then, also on Mum’s advice, I bought a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society from the local bookshop, and it was perfectly lovely. And then I re-read Pullman’s Northern Lights.) But we’ve discovered that you don’t have to pay import tax on books, and Amazon will ship for free if you buy a couple at a time, so I’ve decided to buy a couple. Could anyone recommend novels they love?

Innocence and experience

I’m re-reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. I first read it nearly seven years ago.

He is a fantastic writer. He really, really knows what he’s doing. He deftly introduces scenes, and propels and twists the plot, and pretty much holds you in the palm of his hand. The characters are compelling, the dialogue is effortless, the landscapes you pass through make you gasp with awe. One of the things he does best is describe animals, and this is where a great deal of the charm of these books lie. The characters live in a world where your soul exists outside your body, in the form of a ‘daemon’: a sort of familiar in the shape of an animal. This really is quite lovely because you are never alone – your daemon is your constant companion and you love each other fiercely. The type of creature your daemon is reveals a lot about your personality. Children’s daemon’s differ from adults’ daemons in that they are not fixed: they can change effortlessly from a mouse to a hawk to a panther and back again.

The books muse constantly on the difference between innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood. The central mystery of the books is the idea of ‘dust’ – a special substance invisible to the eye but which is discovered to be attracted to adults but not to children. It turns out that ‘dust’ has a lot to do with consciousness. The Church, in the books, is very suspicious of ‘dust’, and even sets out to try to eradicate it. They equate ‘dust’ with sin.

Anyway it’s got me thinking about the difference between children and adults, and it’s making my brain hurt. Because there’s not a line that you cross when you turn thirteen when suddenly you think differently and you’re not a child any more. But the difference between thinking as a child and thinking as an adult is more than an accumulation of experiences. Aren’t even teenagers’ brains still developing, so that although in many ways they are like inexperienced adults there are actually some types of thinking they can’t do yet? (I’m not sure about this but I do remember hearing it somewhere.)

There are so very many things to think about here. But it is interesting to try to remember what it felt like to be a child. I remember very clearly what it felt like to be seven, and what it felt like to be ten. There was a very very big difference between the two. Ten was a whole lot more complicated. Twelve and thirteen were more complicated again, but they had more in common with ten than ten did with seven.

The day I turned seven, my great grandmother died. This made me sad, in a sort of undefined way. For my birthday, I got a musical kaleidoscope. It played a tune, and turned all on its own. I loved the jeweled patterns it made with light. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world.

For my tenth birthday, I got my ears pierced. I was ambivalent about it. In the weeks before, I would finger my soft smooth earlobes and think – they will never be the same again. I liked my earrings once I got them, although my ears were inflamed for weeks. I also had a really great birthday party, but I was terribly stressed about it. I could invite ten friends. We went iceskating. And we came back to my place. Mum had organized hair ribbons, with special fabric puff-paints so that everyone could paint their own ribbon. I was so embarrassed and nervous that my friends would think it too childish. They didn’t. They loved it.

Reading

My book blog died in the final stages of my PhD. I couldn’t bear to write about books other than the ones I was focussed on day and night. Also the only books I could bear to read for pleasure at that point had to be very undemanding. Ian Rankin as bedtime reading was about all I could handle. But slowly this changed. Especially once I finished teaching this May, I realized I needed more to get my head around.

Reading this year has been directed mainly by what I had to read for the class I taught and what stray unread books I could find on my shelves, but there has been a couple of exceptions. I’ve also probably forgotten a couple.

Books for teaching:

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. Not what I expected, and really interesting.

A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster. The second time I’ve read this. Really enjoyed it.

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali. I enjoyed it but wasn’t sure she quite deserved all the praise lavished in the dust-jacket quotes. I don’t think she’s quite ‘the next Salman Rushdie’.

The Stars of the New Curfew, by Ben Okri. Very strange. Gave me nightmares.

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J. M. Coetzee. He really is a genius.

Books I bought:

Home, by Marilynne Robinson. I bought this in the University Bookshop, after loving loving loving Gilead a year or two ago. Penni has a few things to say about it, and I agree entirely. One of the most beautiful books I have ever read. My Mum read them both when she was visiting and also adored them. But she read Home first, and on reflection I really think you should read Gilead first.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. I bought this in Oslo airport, on my way to my summer holidays in the States. Best holiday reading ever, I didn’t want it to end. I finished it in Austria, and my Dad picked it up and pretty much didn’t put it down till he’d finished it either. Despite devoting many spare hours to cross-stitching Henry and his wives, I don’t actually know terribly much Tudor history, and this made me wish I did. The portrait of Cromwell was completely different from what I expected and my Dad and I both wondered whether he really was more like this than the monster he is more commonly portrait as, or whether this was a romanticized view. In any case, he is a completely compelling character.

Foe, by J. M. Coetzee. Also bought this in the university bookshop, but left it sitting on my shelves for long after I finished teaching. Strange and playful and not at all what I had expected. It’s a retelling of Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of a woman who claims she was written out of the final version. It muses on storytelling and power and authority and speaking and not-speaking, but in much more complex ways than I had first thought.

Books found on my shelves or pinched from Michael:

The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser. I guess I’m a bit behind the eightball reading this now. I think Mum left it behind from an earlier trip from Australia two years ago. Some of the passages were incredibly beautiful and the two main characters were clever and interesting and I enjoyed it… But I can’t rave about it the way that many of my favourite bloggers do.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Pinched from Michael. Quite gripping after a questionable opening fifty pages or so. Michael’s first comment when reading it was – I can see why middle aged men like this book. Unfortunately I couldn’t read the rest of the trilogy as Michael bought them on his ipad and that’s a bit difficult to wrest from his grasp.

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. A Norwegian novel. Quite beautiful. I recommend it.  (Haha see how detailed my reviews are?)

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Michael picked this up in Walmart a few trips to America ago, but gave up after fifty pages or so. I had heard of it when it first came out, and one of my friends teaches it at her school. I can’t say I was that impressed. The opening pages are pretty gruesome and the closing pages are exceedingly soppy. I thought what she was trying to do was quite interesting but the resolutions felt too sappy-sweet for me. (Also parts of it were pretty weird – fourteen year old girl who has been raped and murdered comes back to life for an hour and a half in her friend’s body in order to ‘make love’ to her high-school sweetheart, whom she only ever kissed once???)

Books still on the shelf (meaning either I acquired them ages ago but haven’t got around to reading yet, or they are old ones belonging to Michael):

Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright

Joan Makes History, by Kate Grenville

Midnight’s Children, by Salmon Rushdie

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Which one should I start with? Or should I go and get something else?

Because there is more to say

I wrote a lecture last week about the concept of home in the books we’ve studied this semester. We were thinking about diaspora.

As I wrote the paragraph about Robinson Crusoe, I cried. I remembered reading the novel four months ago. I remembered so clearly the blissful, dozy happiness of that cottage in Bright. The hours of half-heartedly prodding the beginning of the novel between watching the tennis and sleeping on the couch. I even have a photo of me asleep on the sofa, Robinson Crusoe propped against my nose, the top button of my trousers undone because they were just starting to get too tight.

I brought the novel with me on the day of the termination. I was closer to the end, then. I remember being utterly horrified when Crusoe sailed off with his English rescuers, not even waiting for his new friends the Spaniards to return. My surgeon was impressed by my bedside reading. We had a discussion about colonialism. He was a closet Australian history geek.

I wrote the paragraph, and I cried. But then I wrote the next paragraph, and the next, and I finished the lecture.

But I realized there is more to say. There is definitely more to say.

Serendipity

The funniest thing happened today. After lunch with my Grandparents and my Mum and my two aunts and my cousin and my cousin’s cousin I wandered not very far down the street to Mostly Books. As it’s around the corner from my Grandma’s house, which is pretty much the hub of Adelaide life so far as my extended family are concerned, I’ve been going to this bookshop all my life. (There’s a sign on the wall of my Grandma’s kitchen that says: ‘There’s no place like home. Except Grandma’s.’ Which pretty much sums it up. ) The bookshop used to be in the lower level of the shopping centre, and had a side room just for children’s literature. It was next to a toyshop and opposite a bike shop. There was a fibreglass whale outside that as kids we adored clambering over. It’s funny how clearly I remember it all – looking at the books and then going next door to buy a bouncy ball or marbles or a ring of sparkly plastic. Since then the shopping centre has burned down and been rebuilt on a grand scale and is almost unrecognisable. The bookshop’s upstairs now, as is the whale, which looks much smaller and scrappier than I remember. Anyway…

I browsed around and picked up a copy of The Lamplighter by D. M. Cornish, and Undine and Breathe by Penni Russon. They didn’t have thirdcat’s book. I’ll order it next time I’m in. As I went to pay, the shop attendant asked ‘excuse me, do you write a blog called Northern Lights?’

Turns out she came across it by googling Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline, and has been reading since then! I must have blushed bright red, and held up the queue of customers behind me long enough to discover that she did her undergraduate degree at Adelaide University, like me, and wrote her honours thesis on David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (one of my favourite books in the world) and Ovid’s poetry, which is a marvellous idea for a thesis if there ever was one. So, Rachel, if you’re reading this, hello!

I also spluttered something about how Penni writes a blog too…

So that was pretty funny and made my day. It also made me wonder how many other people are reading this but never comment. So if you are reading this, you are officially invited to say hello!

And I thought – how strange, how my blog interweaves with my past and present homes and lives. How, in that one encounter, so many threads came together! I wouldn’t even have been looking for Penni’s books if I hadn’t discovered her blog. There is a blog connection with D. M. Cornish too. He is a friend of a friend of mine, and after I left a comment on his blog, he looked at some of my photos and asked if he could use one of them as inspiration for a scene in one of his books!

A couple of days ago, this blog was two years old. Over that time, I’ve reconnected with old friends, and made many new ones. People I have never met, but whom I cannot describe any other way than as friends. Some have asked to read bits of my writing, and Clare Souter even sent me a beautiful painting. So. Here’s to blogs and the internet. Social and creative spaces which are not removed from reality, but refract and transform it.

Ice crystals

I took this on the weekend. Not sure the past three days could be accurately described as my most productive days ever. Have put aside my loathed theory chapter for now (just wish it was less flimsy), and am getting back to one of my poets. Hopefully keeping feelings of hate and wretchedness at bay. (My poor books have even been copping it – I’ve been yelling at them when they hide on the shelves. Of course they’re always in an obvious place but with a different coloured spine than I remember.)

Today it is snowing, again. The sky is falling and falling.

Now quietly – as quiet as the cold – I will crystallise the last words and paragraphs into stars and pathways, and it will be enough.

Ahah!

Thinking about homes and houses – in a strictly academic sense – and have solved a niggling problem at the end of my best chapter. Ie – what to make of Randolph Stow’s very strange book The Suburbs of Hell. It’s still not my favourite of his novels, and it won’t be the most interesting point I make in that chapter – but it’s enabling me to draw it all together much more neatly. Before, all I could say about that book, really, is that it’s an experiment in genre. I have to say something about it, because of its overt medievalism. But when you think about homes, and houses, it clicks into focus a little better, especially in regards to my thesis. Hurrah! Hurrah! (Maybe I’ll tell you why sometime – it involves the Gothic and a mysterious assassin. Ooh, and can link in with Beowulf quite nicely too.)

I’ve been reading The Politics of Home by Rosemary Marangoly George. Rather late in the day for someone whose thesis title contains the word ‘belonging’. Still. It’s fun to tweak my perspective on things and see them in a slightly new light.

Walled Cities

I finished reading the most beautiful novel the other day. Gatty’s Tale, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I first realised what a lovely writer he was when I read his translations of Norse Myths, and I vowed to get hold of his King Arthur trilogy. I did, and have read the first one so far, and loved it. Gatty’s Tale is a spin-off from that – a thirteenth-century girl joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There it was!

Jerusalem!

At once Gatty reined in.

There it was, waiting for her.

No need to ask. She recognised it like a home from which, long ago, she had strayed. Its contours were her own heart’s and mind’s contours. She felt like a little girl again. No need to say anything.

The Holy City, golden, grew out of the gentle slopes on which it sat. Or was it the other way round? Did the Holy City, Gatty wondered, come down from God, out of heaven? And did the hillslopes and the valleys and everything else on the earth grow out of it?

All that stood between the pilgrims and the golden domes, the clustered towers and columns and walls was one last shallow valley, dark with olive groves.

I read this on the train, on a very tedious journey from Stansted Airport up to Bingley. Finish the damn thesis, I told myself glumly as I stood in the cold in Peterborough station, waiting for a train that didn’t come, you’ve got to stop doing this. I ended up catching a train up to York, and then another train to Leeds, and then another train to Bingley.

As I waited in York station, I thought about how usually I would feel very sad just to be there. I lived in York for three years. I loved it. It was home. I met Michael there. We lived together in the sweetest little house. We cycled everywhere – to the shops, to the pubs, to the wonderful Baroque concerts with two pound tickets for students. I did my masters there. I finished my novel there. I started my PhD. I would walk on the stone walls, and hang out in my favourite bookshop (now sadly closed). Every time I returned there, after being away, as the taxi swung past the walls and the gates to the city, I would feel a tangible surge of at-homeness. It was so sad to leave.

But – this time I didn’t feel sad. I felt content, in myself. I have a new home now. I am building a new home.

And then, on the train, I read about Gatty in Jerusalem. And my heart surged. I have been there – the centre of the world, as they thought in the Middle Ages. I have stood inside this other walled city. Michael had a two month scholarship to be in Israel, and I went to visit him, and we went to Jerusalem together.

Like Gatty, I had heard about it all my life. The Bible was a big part of my childhood and my early adulthood – I have read the stories over and over. My parents went to Jerusalem when Mum was pregnant with me. Dad bought a little statue of Moses, which has sat in the corner of the lounge room all my life. My Mum bought a big brown coat, like a monk’s cloak, which I wore for a while as a teenager. And there I was, again, the centre of the world.

For Gatty, part of her has always been in Jerusalem, and part of her will always be there. And when she prays inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – that mazelike, burrow-like place where I too have stood – she prays for all her friends and family at home, for those who could not come to Jerusalem and never will, but when she prays they are there anyway, with her, safe inside the walled city.

And I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, but I like that idea – of being together even when you’re not together, of being at home even when you’re far away. And there, on the train, between York and Leeds, the journey was a burden no longer, and I gripped the novel firmly, with tears in my eyes.

The Beautiful Brotherton

Just to see if I can generate a bit more nostalgia for Leeds in certain readers… Here’s the chestnut tree in front of our red brick terraced English department, looking gorgeous as usual. And here is the beautiful Brotherton Library.

I love love love this library. It has all a library should: marble pillars, high ceilings, parketry floors, natural light. And thousands of books, including obscure Australian journals. It’s perfect just at the moment because the undergraduates haven’t come back yet. Here’s the view from my perch in the Australian literature section.

I had a great four days in Leeds – reading in the library, meeting up with my supervisor, and catching up with lots of lovely ladies with whom I have lived or studied or both over the past five years. And – er – a bit of shopping. Supervisor says thesis is on track to be finished before Christmas (even taking into account my secret and time-consuming plans soon to be revealed). He says it’s been downhill since I was fifteen months in, and all that’s left to do is the last bit of the downhill. Which I imagine will be quite painful none-the-less, but he did a good job at diffusing my terror…

And thank you thank you thank you to my cousin in London who always lets me sleep on his floor, and Vic who let me stay all week.

After boarding two trains, a bus, a plane, a car and a ferry, I’m back in Norway with my favourite person. Bliss.

Of Elves and Rings

A very long time ago, I read The Hobbit. I was hooked from the start, and when I got to the second half, where it suddenly becomes darker and tragic and achingly old, I was somewhat more than hooked. I went to find the school librarian. Look, I said, it says there’s another one, it says there’s a sequel. Where is it? You’re too young, she said.

A few years later, we were moving to the country. We put everything in boxes. Some hadn’t even been unpacked from our last move. On the top of one of them, I found the book – an enormous dusty paperback, fatter than a Bible. I might just keep hold of this one, I said.

I didn’t like it in the country to begin with. But I liked the elves. I read it slowly, the year I turned twelve. When it started falling apart, I covered it in plastic. I remember so clearly reaching the end of it as I sat in my parents’ threadbare armchair on a quiet afternoon. ‘”Well, I’m back,” he said.’ No, I thought, no, you can’t be. And the book in my lap transformed from a thing of magic to a heavy lump of soft, worn paper.

After that, I read it again and again. The last time was in the holidays after I graduated from High School. I read it in three days straight, and appreciated the battle scenes for the first time. I was afraid I loved it more than God.

In recent years, I have become somewhat ashamed of my youthful Tolkien fixation. I went to a session on him at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds a couple of years back, and it was dreadful. Laboured re-hashings of the way Tolkien based his monsters and everything else on medieval sources. (Yes this actually is interesting I suppose, but not when it’s already been talked about to death. More interesting is why, and what are the implications of his choices…) The unconcealed eagerness in the eyes of the Tolkien enthusiasts made me feel a little ill. They were talking about his creations as though they actually exist.

But we watched the movies again recently. And I thought – I’m glad he wrote that story. And I’m glad they made those films. Even if the elves aren’t quite as beautiful as I had imagined.

ps. Tolkien taught at Leeds, you know. Yep, my university. Even if he didn’t like it much, and scurried back down to Oxford as often as he could.

Transitions

I’m back in Norway again. I am happy. Yesterday I watched my world sliding past the train windows. The train journey from Leeds to Manchester is very beautiful. It crosses the Penines. Soft green-grey and amber mountain peaks, interspersed with grey stone villages. More like hills really than mountains. But they are lovely. I sat there on the train and all these words came bubbling up inside me. It was being in an inbetween space. It was having time to think, which I haven’t, for weeks, because every waking moment I’ve been thinking or writing or reading about Randolph Stow, or sorting out a pressing matter that was preventing me from doing so. It was nice, to sit on the train, and read an entirely unrelated novel, and look out the window.

The words bubbled up so insistently that I thought I would write them down. Just as I got my computer out the man with the drinks trolley came past. As he dragged it behind him he was talking to it like it was a dog: ‘Come on girl, good girl, sit!’ He explained he’d been working since three in the morning. I wrote a couple of sentences. Suddenly all the noises of the train seemed oppressive: the dull hum of ipods, people coughing. I closed the computer, and it was okay again. The words liked it better when no one could see them, or even imagine they were there. The other people were too close – when I tried to write the words down, there wasn’t room for them to sing.

I am writing some of the words down now. Some are secret. Some of them are lost. They knew that might happen. They didn’t mind. I could almost see them – transparent, fuzzy at the edges, rising upwards like flames. My own words, mine.