You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Lady Demelza's Year in Books 2018

Well I must say I am ashamed at the paucity of this list, yet again. I have recently been learning about how social media changes your brain, making it want to take in information in small pieces and articles, rather than reading books the old-fashioned way. I've had to realise that this is an issue, and I've started making some changes to address it. I hope that my efforts will be reflected in the next Year in Books.

1. The Walworth Beauty by Michele Roberts 2017
2. Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas 2001
3. The Children's Home by Charles Lambert 2016
4. After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry 2014
5. Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson 2016
6. Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick 2011
7. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig 2015
8. The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen 2010
9. Songs of the Gorilla Nation by Dawn Prince-Hughes 2004
10. Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas 2017
11. Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban 1974
12. The Olive Readers by Christine Aziz 2005
13. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes 1936
14. Folk by Zoe Gilbert 2018
15. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman 2000
16. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler 1997
17. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood 2009
18. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 2014
19. Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes 2010
20. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1981, English translation by Gregory Rabassa 1982
21. The Colours of All the Cattle by Alexander MacCall Smith 2018
22. Payback by Margaret Atwood 2008
23. The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks 2017
24. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman 2017

I think the best book I read this year, just by a fraction of a hair's width over the other top books, was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I was disappointed in the ending, but actually that just made it all the more realistic, so I couldn't fault it for that. A sublime book, I'll be interested to see other works by this author.
I must give a mention to Songs of the Gorilla Nation by Dawn Prince-Hughes. An autobiographical true story of an autistic woman who learns how to 'be human' from a band of gorillas in a zoo. Yes, I said true story. It's amazing.

The worst book I read this year, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, apparently isn't a crappy book at all, it's critically acclaimed. And that's probably why I made myself keep reading it after the first chapter, but it was a crappy reading experience, that's for sure. I felt like I was trapped in someone's bad trip. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig was a complete fail. I didn't find one thing in it that felt like a compelling argument to stay alive. The parameters of his arguments were not consistent with my life experience. Anyway, I'm still alive. I have a to-read pile of books. That's a reason to stay alive. The books are in this world.

You can also see my earlier Years in Books for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Monday, 2 April 2018

in which our Heroine discovers she has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and it really explains a lot

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. Many people in the autistic community would prefer it be known as Autism Acceptance Day, or even Autism Appreciation Day. For me, the acceptance and the appreciation flowed very easily, once I had the awareness I had been missing most of my life.

Ten years ago, I had no idea that I was autistic. I didn't see myself as being anything like the image I had of what an autistic person is like, which was probably, as for many people of my generation, associated with Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man.

Looking back, the first clue could have been reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Did you ever have the feeling that there was something about you that was so very different to everyone else you knew, that you felt you were completely alone in this experience? And then one day, did you happen to discover, through chance or as a result of your own investigations, that there was someone else out there who felt the same? Do you remember how utterly miraculous that feeling was? That's what I had reading that book. I was in floods of tears half the time I was reading it. I had to stop and calm myself down enough to turn the page. The main character, Christopher, was the one, the only one that I had ever known of, who really knew how I felt. But at the time, I thought that all the sensory processing issues I had so much trouble with were due to my temporal lobe epilepsy. It seems to me they must be related, there is such an overlap in the experiences. And there is, indeed, a high incidence of epilepsy in autistic people. We don't know what the connection is, but there obviously is one. It still didn't occur to me that I was autistic myself.

Then another fictional character came into my life - Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.

I started watching Big Bang when it first started screening here in Australia, and I loved it. It's bloody hilarious, and right up my alley with all the science references. But a strange thing started to happen as I got to know the characters better. Sheldon frequently comes out with statements that seem absolutely, outrageously wrong to everyone else, and he just can't understand what their problem is. And the audience laughs, because it's funny. But over time I came to realise that most of these crazy things he said were actually how I really, secretly thought about things myself. Only I had never, ever told anyone I really felt this way. I hardly even admitted it to myself. Once he was right in front of me on my TV screen, I could see it so clearly. Secretly, I actually am Sheldon. I've spent my whole life not letting anyone know that I am actually Sheldon, because one difference between he and I is that I know how completely socially unacceptable it is to behave and talk to people like that. And I've done a damn good job of it. I almost fooled myself. I really might still have no idea if Sheldon hadn't come into my life.

It's never openly stated that Sheldon is autistic, and the show's producers insist they did not intend to create an autistic character. I can accept and respect their explanation - they just invented a character, and when he developed, it turned out that he was autistic. But it seems to be to quite obvious to the vast majority of Big Bang viewers that of the range of 'issues' in Sheldon's life, Autism Spectrum Disorder is certainly a significant one.

At this point, rather than just continuing to debate my relationships with fictional characters, I began some proper academic research into ASD. The more I read, the more the light bulbs went off, and the more my difficult experiences made sense. I took those online tests you can find, and they told me that I'm probably autistic. After four years of reading and research, and of regular light bulb moments along the way, I was pretty certain that I must be on the spectrum. In 2013, reading Aspergirls by Rudy Simone was the clincher. My mum found a copy of this book and read it too, and she said, quote, "If that's not you, I'm a monkey's uncle."

The crucial piece of information was learning that ASD tends to present differently in girls than in boys. Girls are often good at a particular neurological mechanism called 'mirroring' which allows you to mask your autistic traits and behave more like a neurotypical person.

It was amazingly easy for me to get a diagnosis at this point, which was incredibly fortunate, because it seems that most people have to go though some kind of hell to get a formal diagnosis.  I told the psychologist I was seeing for counselling about all this, and it just happened that they had a specialist in ASD working at their clinic, and I was able to get an appointment with her. She said, oh yes, definitely, and that I was probably completely mentally exhausted from all the effort of masking my autism my entire life. I couldn't agree more.

When I got home I was so thrilled and excited, my goddessdaughter said to me, "I don't understand. Why is it good that you're autistic?" And I explained that it's the fact that I got a diagnosis that was so good, and making me so happy. Now, it's so much easier to explain to people and help them understand what is going on for me.

When I tell people who know me, especially those who have known me for a long time, they are surprised. The reasons they give for thinking that I "can't be autistic!" are my high level of emotional literacy and good social skills. They are usually under the same assumptions of stereotype that I was before I started seriously researching the condition.

Five years on, and I am completely comfortable in my identity as an autistic person. I don't have any value judgement around autistic identity - it's not worse, or better, than neurotypicality, it's just part of the natural diversity within humanity. It has helped me in so many ways to understand myself, and to identify ways to negotiate life a bit more smoothly. I wonder, I do, how life might have been different if awareness had been better while I was growing up, and I had been identified as autistic at a younger age. But then again, there's no point going down the rabbit hole of might-have-beens. I am thankful for the level of awareness in society now. When I don't get a joke (which is really very often - my main difficulties in social communication are semantic-pragmatic issues), instead of just giving a blank, quizzical stare, I can say, "Sorry, I have Asperger's, and I don't get jokes." Now this is wildly oversimplifying the truth of the situation, but it's wonderful how well people cope when I make this statement. They understand! Miracle of miracles! They drop the joke and just move directly on the next bit required by the social interaction we are sharing. There's no awkwardness, no sense of being judged at all. It is such a huge relief to have this one recurrent problem in my life solved just by making this brief statement. Anxiety levels plummet.

Sheldon has come a long way in his character development during these years, too. I am always so thankful that he came into my life. I couldn't imagine how different everything would be if he hadn't. He's like a real person to me, because his influence and effect on my life has been very, deeply real.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Lady Demelza's Year in Books 2017

Hello dear readers, I hope you are enjoying your New Year's Eve celebrations. I am getting back on track with publishing my book list in a timely fashion. I'm afraid it's quite paltry pickings this year. I've had a lot going on. Not to mention the discovery of streaming services and binge-watching...

I've linked the title of each book to its page on Goodreads, so you can click through and quickly get an idea of what kind of book it is.

1 Glad No Matter What by SARK 2010
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman 1997
Wise Children by Angela Carter 1991
The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler 2014
The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland 2013
6 The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories by Roald Dahl 1982
7 The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman 2000
8 Gypsy Cante: Deep Song of the Caves selected and translated by Will Kirkland 1999
Caught in a Story: Contemporary Fairytales and Fables edited by Christine Park and Caroline Heaton 1992
10 Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes 2016
11 Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith 2016
12 Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood 1976
13 The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cook 2012
14 The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben 2016, translated by Susanne Simard
15 Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett 2011
16 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor 1976 (re-read)
17 Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson 2006 (re-read)
18 The 100 by Kass Morgan 2013
19 Day 21 by Kass Morgan 2014
20 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry 2017
21 The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith 2017
22 Homecoming by Kass Morgan 2015
23 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden 2017
24 The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell 2017

The best book I read this year was Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson. Well hello, it's Jeanette Winterson. And she manages to explain the nature of space, time, reality and quantum physics in a kids' book. Clearly a winner. I would also like to recommend The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, a juicy Victorian Gothic novel, packed full of some wonderfully delicious sentences. I'll be looking out for more of her work.

The crappiest books I read this year were the first three of the The 100 series by Kass Morgan. I can't blame the books, I knew they were teenage romance trash when I got into them. The thing is, they are set in a post-apocalyptic world, and I just love me a post-apocalyptic world. I got through with a lot of letting my eyes glaze over and skim past all the mooshy nonsense, and enjoyed the science fiction aspect. Still, after three of these, I couldn't face the fourth, and gave up on the series. Always remember, life's too short to read crappy books.

And I pray to the gods of literature, please, please help me to get my reading mojo back in 2018. This booklist is totally insufficient for a Lady's intellectual and cultural needs. I want more!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

of the Death of a Lady's Man

I had plans to spend New Year's Eve the same way I usually do, keeping out of the heat as much as possible, and writing up my Year in Books blog post. But something very dramatic happened that changed not just the day's plans, but an awful lot of my life. Around 4:30 am on December 31st, 2016, I found Mr CJ dead in the garden. This is the story of how that came to be.

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I've spent the last several years as a carer for Mr CJ. He had been sick for seven and half years, slowly declining all that time.

It started with a headache that wouldn't go away, no matter what. Some months of hospitals and testing later, it was discovered that he had arthritis in his neck, featuring a growth spur that was pressing on the nerves as they exited the spinal column at that point. That meant chronic pain in his head, neck, arms and shoulders, limited mobility in his arms and hands, and reduced sensitivity in fingers that limited his dexterity. We slowly got used to this new life, revolving around visits to doctors and hospitals, keeping track of meds, and living with endless pain.

Then three and a half years ago, he had a short stay in hospital with pneumonia, and it was discovered that he had emphysema. Yes, he was a heavy smoker. The lung specialist thought it likely that he had lung cancer, and if he did, he'd probably only have around six months to live. It took more than two months to get through all the testing that confirmed that he didn't have cancer, just emphysema. It gave us a long time to think about the idea of him dying soon. But he hung in there, huffing and puffing and inhaling enormous quantities of Ventolin and other medications. Before long he could not lie down at all, as he couldn't breathe lying flat. He slept in a chair. He basically spent most of his life in his chair. But he was still really happy with his life in a lot of ways.

He really loved this place we have been living in, this house in Nimbin. Nimbin was a wonderful experience for him. It's like very few places in this country in that Aboriginal people are respected as traditional custodians here, and have higher status in the community than white people. He'd spent a lot of his life, especially the early years, copping shit pretty badly just for the fact of being Aboriginal. All that was turned around here. He was respected when he walked down the street in Nimbin, and addressed as Uncle. Not that he did a lot of walking down the street, especially toward the end when he could only manage to walk about 25 metres at a time, but word had spread and everyone knew who he was. I don't think he ever dreamed that he would experience such a thing in his lifetime, and it meant a hell of a lot to him.

It was only about six months ago that another spell in hospital revealed that he had congestive heart failure, a complication caused by the emphysema, and also two blood clots, which meant he had to take blood thinners forever to reduce his risk of stroke. His legs swelled up because his heart wasn't pumping the fluid around properly, and often developed cellulitis, requiring antibiotics. By now he was taking up to 20 or so  tablets of all different kinds daily, as well as three different kinds of puffers for his lungs. We knew he didn't have too long to go, but whether that was a few weeks or months or years, we couldn't know.

He had one thing on his 'bucket list.' He wanted to go to Sydney to see this brother, and he wanted to drive. We did it. Later, the doctors said it was a wonder that he survived the trip, and made him promise never to drive more than a hour or two away, ever again. He promised. He had done what he wanted to do.

There was a bit of excitement two months ago when he died for 31 seconds while having a cardiogram, but was revived. We all wanted to know, what happened, but there were no reports of seeing his ancestors or a white light. He just remembered hitting his head on a monitor as he was jolted into consciousness. The funny thing is, he seemed to really perk up for a while after that. I used to say the shock must have done him good. He became more wakeful and generally involved with things, his mood was positive, and everyone said he was looking well.

Everything seemed normal in his last few days, if this abominably hot weather we have here in the summer can be called normal, which I maintain it is not. Around 10 or 11 pm on the night of Friday 30th, I found him looking around the kitchen in that expectant way. I made him a toasted cheese and tomato wrap. He sat in his chair, eating it and watching The Big Bang Theory on DVD. I went back to sleep.

When I woke up, I didn't know what time it was, but it felt like the early hours of the morning. He wasn't in his chair. I needed to know where he was at all times, in case he'd fallen over or passed out, which had happened several times. I got up and looked out the window, and he wasn't in his chair on the verandah, either. I looked all over the house. It seemed impossible that he could just not be here anywhere. I looked in every room again. Finally I went out into the garden, and there he was, lying flat out on his back, with his head on the wormwood bush, looking so peacefully asleep, like he'd fallen over and passed out again. But this time, he didn't wake up. For all the wondering how much longer he would live, it seemed impossible that it could be today, now. I bent down to listen to his breathing. There was none.

The thing to do in such a situation, of course, is to call for an ambulance, so that's what I did, post-haste. And this is where we get to the bit that I wish, of all the things that happened that day, could have been different.

The people who answer the phone for these emergency calls have a certain script they have to follow. He told me to do CPR, and how to do it, which I knew well enough in theory, though I'd never actually performed it before. And so I started doing CPR, pushing hard and fast on his chest, then breathing into his lungs, and hearing and feeling my own breath come out of them in the exhale. It was hard, really hard. He was lying in such a spot in the garden that he had the concrete path running along one side of his body, and the fishpond on the other. I had to get up high above him to push down on his chest with my weight, and then get down low beside his head to reach his mouth to do the breathing. A lot of scrabbling around with my bare legs on the rough concrete. My knees were scraped, and stung for the rest of the day. The palms of my hands grew blisters from pushing against his chest. Did I mention that it was unreasonably hot? Even at this traditionally bitter pre-dawn hour. I don't think the temperature had dropped below 27℃ the entire night that night. I can't think of another occasion where I put so much sheer physical work and effort into one short block of time in my life. Did I say short? I don't know how long I was going on like this, but if felt like a long time, and I know that it must take an ambulance the better part of half an hour to get from Lismore to Nimbin, even with sirens and lights and high speeds. I kept telling the guy on the phone that there was no point me doing this, he was already gone. He kept saying "You've got to give him the best possible chance." So now I know what their script tells them to say when they get these calls. I was terrified when I heard something crack, but the guy on the phone said that that meant I was doing it right, and to keep going. So I kept going. I kept fucking going. Sweat was running off me in rivers. I didn't think I'd be able to keep going, but I had to, because the man on the phone was telling me to. I wondered what would happen if I collapsed. I kept going. It was hot and hellish and horrible and so violent. That's what I hate the most about this part of the story. It was such a fucking violent way to treat his body, when he had only just finally attained the peace he so deserved. I wish so much that I could have just sat in the peace of the quiet of the night and been present with him at this most sacred moment. I knew, inside myself, that that's what I should have done. But instead I followed instructions. The air smelled of fresh wormwood.

It was a great relief to just stop when the ambos arrived and let them take over and hook him up to their little electronic machine. I knew he was gone, but it was a whole new level of real to actually see the flatline running across the little screen. A moaning noise came out of me when the ambo said out loud, "Yes, he has passed," and I didn't understand why, because I already knew he was dead, and why should it make a difference for him to say it?

Immediately I rang his brother to tell him, he's gone. I held the phone out over his body so his spirit could hear the cries. That was when our housemate, Sister F, came out, alerted by the lights of the ambulance and the noise. And I told her too, he's gone, he's gone, he's gone. They put a white sheet loosely over his body.

The light of day was just starting to break by now. One of the ambos got a proper look at me, and it was clear from his reaction that I didn't look so good. He said I needed to drink some water right now, and Sister F brought it to me. Then they all went out the front of the property to wait for the police to arrive, and I was alone with him, and had that precious moment of peace that I wished I could have claimed from the start. I lay down on the concrete alongside him, and I held his hand, like I had through so many painful tests and procedures and long dreary hospital hours, and I got to hug him without causing him pain by doing so, for the first time in seven and a half years. I breathed in the scent of the crushed wormwood, now stained with his blood, and I let my eyes drink in the sight of the deep peace that his face wore. He had wished to die at home, and not in a hospital. He got to die lying on this good earth, in the garden he loved, under the stars. It was just so beautiful, beyond any words, so I took photos.

It just so happened that a local elder of the Bundjalung nation, upon whose land we dwell, had been living in the shed in our backyard. He heard the whole thing, and he waited. When Sister F first asked me if she should go and fetch him, I said no. I didn't want any more people coming along, I just wanted to be quiet with him. But a while later I realised it was the right thing to do, not for me or for him, but for the land, for this land that had carried his pain for all this time and now held his spirit and was witness to its passing. He came striding through the grass and the dawn light, dressed in his totem colours and carrying a stick that is sacred for reasons that I will likely never be privy to, speaking to the spirits of the land in their own language, this man's own mother tongue, the language of the Bundjalung. I recognised one word - bugelbeh - it's all right. It was so beyond real that it was like being in a scene from a movie.

I'd always imagined that if or when this happened, the ambos would just load him straight up in their ambulance and take him away, and that would be it. So I wasn't at all prepared for what came next. Firstly, if they attend a DOA, the ambos have to call the police, wait for them to arrive, and hand it over to them, without disturbing the body any further. It took at least a couple of hours for them to arrive, I think. I sat by him the whole time. An enormous bruise started spreading out over his chest - that had been caused by me doing CPR. He started to cool down - though not by much, as air temperature was near 30℃ anyway, and he slowly started to stiffen into rigor mortis. When I wondered what might be a good way to mark this event with ritual, I thought of how he would always buy a beer for his loved ones and ancestors on the dates of their memorials, have a drink with them, and then pour their beer onto the earth. I don't drink beer, but it just so happened that I had a bottle of Pink sparkling wine in the fridge, for the first time since last summer. And I knew what to do - I would have a drink with him. I got the Pink, and opened it, and poured a little of it into his mouth, and drank my toast to his spirit. I drank the bottle over the course of the morning. God knows what the coppers thought of me polishing off a bottle of champers amid all the goings-on, but I felt they knew better than to be judgemental. They were pretty good. They did their job.

There was a lot more waiting for a special forensics guy to come out and declare that this was not a crime scene, and then more waiting again for the doctor to come on so he could sign the death certificate. There was a statement to be made and recorded in the little notebook and initialled on every page, and a form with which to identify the body. Then some more waiting for the 'contractors' to arrive, which was how the police referred to the undertakers. Sister F and I found this rather hilarious, in a very noir kind of way.

There was one really amazing thing that happened while the waiting was going on, and that was the ants. First, there were just a few ants crawling on his feet. Nothing unusual there, that's what happens to any feet that happen to stand still for more than about 30 seconds around here. It was quite surreal to see them swarm and for him to remain still, and not brush them away and kick his feet to shake them off. Then more came, and more, and they climbed higher and further across his body. It was Sister F who first noticed this, and the highway they had formed between their nest on the other side of the house and his body. She called out, "Look, the contractors are here!" They had already begun to take him, tiny drops of sweat and blood at a time, into the earth, where they lived. It was wonderful to know this had happened, as he would have loved to just be buried right there in the backyard, if only that weren't completely unacceptable and illegal. They swarmed for about an hour, concentrating on the juicy bits, and then just faded away once they had collected what they came for. Many blessings were given upon the ants for their work.

The sun was high in the sky by the time the human contractors arrived, well on its way to reaching its daily high of over 38℃, and it beat down horribly upon them in their shiny little black suits, as they wrestled to fit a 90+kg corpse into a body bag without falling in the fishpond. When it was all done, it was near midday. His body had lain there on the earth, crushing the wormwood bush, for around eight hours, and I could finally go and lie down. There would be a smoking to do after sunset, and then a New Year to ring in.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

of Treasure Found - the 100-year-old Autograph Book

It's not often that I get the opportunity to mark a centenary, but this is such an occasion, so I want to share something special with you.
I've had this book for about nine years or so now. A friend of mine found it in a rubbish skip on the street in Five Dock, an inner western suburb of Sydney. He knew it was precious and saved it, but he didn't know what to do with it. It was when I showed him my altered book art that he decided that I loved old books enough to appreciate such a treasure, and he gave it to me. I don't know what to do with it either, either than love it and be amazed by it.
One hundred years ago, at Christmas in 1916, this book was presented to Dorothy Wickham Bate for Music. The latest date I can find recorded in the book is 1936. For twenty years, Miss Bate kept this book with her, adding new friends and memories to it regularly. I don't know why she stopped keeping it - there are plenty of blank pages still left - or where it was in all that time from 1936 until my friend found it, or how it ended up in a skip on the street after all that.

The book has been printed with beautiful decorative motifs, lines and spaces for autographs.
Dates are scattered randomly throughout the book. Miss Bate has used this book by opening to a random page each time rather than keeping a chronological order. A Mr Fred T. Berman, B.A. of Five Dock skipped ahead to the last page as early as February 5, 1917 to write thereupon "The end crowns all: /And that old common arbitrator Time / Will one day end it. / For tho' the day be ever so long, / At the last it singeth to evensong." Some of Miss Bate's friends signed just their names and the dates.
Many wrote short poems or passages; most of these have some religious flavour or moral lesson, while a  few are humorous.
"Once I had money and a friend
On whom I set great store,
I lent my money to my friend
And took his word therefore.
I asked my money of my friend
Naught but words I got.
I lost my money and my friend
Pursue him I would not.
But if I had money and a friend
As I have had before,
I'd keep my money and my friend,
And play the fool no more." - unsigned

"It is hard to find a friend
It is hard to find a hope.
It's harder still to find the towel
When your eyes are full of soap." - D. Bate 1916

"Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own." - Miss Burwood, 1921

Some have drawn original artworks, little sketches and cartoons.
Most exciting for me to discover were a few extraordinary inclusions, such as a white envelope lying loose between the pages, not fixed in. On the front is written 'Autobiography. Miss Nobbs (Five Dock)' and on the back flap, 'N. Brailey, 14 Elizabeth St., Five Dock, 2046.' Inside is this photograph of two women in military-style uniform standing in front of a van, a S.D.C.A. St. Andrews Hut Tea Canteen, whatever that is exactly. The logo bears a motto - 'FOR HEALTH AND FREEDOM' and the van is apparently sponsored by a National Emergency Fund. It is parked in front of the arched doorway of a stone church. There are three typewritten pages fixed together with an old stud. The heading says 'AUTOBIOGRAPHY of JESSIE NOBBS, and memories of old FIVE DOCK.' That is a story in itself, of course, and I plan to share this precious document more fully with you in another post.
In 1916, of course, the Great War was raging, on the other side of the world perhaps, but very much at the centre of people's lives. Women and girls of all ages were called upon to knit socks and other comforts for soldiers on the front. In those days of trench warfare and footrot, I imagine that a fresh, new, dry pair of hand-made socks would have seemed like manna from heaven. A pair of Dorothy's socks made their way to a Sergent Henri Hiver of the 264th Regiment d'Infanterie, and he sent her this letter of thanks, written with exquisite penmanship and barely coherent English.

He provided his address...
...and she sent him a postcard in return, bearing this 1829 image of Como, Sydney.
It sailed to France but failed to find him, and was returned still in its envelope, where I found it, loose between the book's pages. I cried.
Someone has made a note of a 2nd Lieutenant Robert S. Lasker of the Royal Air Force, who was killed in May 1918.

And there is this amazingly odd, very utilitarian postcard that must have been issued to soldiers serving overseas. Lew Nicklaus was able to send word on September 9, 1917, that he was quite well and had received his parcel.
If there are any descendants or relatives of Miss Dorothy Bate looking around on the Internet for traces of their ancestors, it is my hope that one of them will find this post with their search engine. Wouldn't it be wonderful to find a rightful home for this most precious treasure?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Lady Demelza in the Big Smoke of Sydney

  Oh, dear Reader, it's so exciting - I'm in Sydney, and just thrilled to bits to be here.
 It's been several years, and I'd forgotten how much I love this city, which is surprisingly much, given that I can't stand cities generally. Somehow, there's some magical effect here in Sydney that protects me from all the distress of sensory overload and allows me to just delight in the teeming humanity and the heights of human culture.
  Maybe it's because this was my first home. At least, the first one I remember. I was born in Melbourne, but my parents moved to Sydney when I was just a year old. I was eight when we left, so that's some pretty formative years that I spent here. So maybe there is some ghost of my childhood spirit, or a guardian angel from my early childhood that still dwells here, and makes this city so marvellous for me. I was actually just feeling really daunted about the trip here, thinking I would be overwhelmed as I usually am by travel and by cities. And then I arrived and all the magic came pouring back to me. Somehow, here in Sydney, the crowds are not overwhelming, the traffic is not unbearable, and the pace is just exciting rather than terrifying. I was even excited to discover that my hotel has a light well. Imagine, living in a place where there is need to build light wells! It should be terrible, but somehow, I'm delighted.
I will never be able to explain why this seemed so beautiful to me when I discovered it on the way to my room.

  I know that Sydney must have changed a lot since I was a tiny kid, but it feels the same. It smells the same. The dirt and the graffiti and the stone walls look just the same. Even the buses are the same blue and white as they were when I rode on them with my mum more than thirty years ago.
Just below my hotel early this morning

  Today is also the first day in several years that I have woken up to being a free and independent agent. Mr CJ is in the care of a family member, and I have three days off from being a carer. Oh my goodness, the freedom is just thrilling. Me, Sydney, a good pair of shoes and nobody needing me - the world is my oyster, as they say. Off I go!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

of Washing Up, Interrupted by Unexpected and Astounding Beauty

One of my biggest frustrations in the pursuit of blogging is the failure of a photographic image to match up to reality as I perceive it. I see something, and I want to share it with you. So I take a photo, but when I look at the image I have captured, it doesn’t look at all like what I was seeing. And so I can’t share the experience, and I give up on the fledgling blog post. I have tried a few different devices in my search for verisimilitude, and I don’t know if the better camera is producing a ‘better’ image or not, to me, it’s just another version of the image that’s not the one I saw.
I went to start doing the dishes a little while ago, (as one must, repeatedly, apparently) and I was struck with one of those moments that I wanted to share with you. Beauty can always be found in the most unexpected and unappealing places, even in the dirty dishes in the sink.
There was a bowl. It had been filled with peaches and cream, and then when it was empty, filled with water and left in the sink. And a butterfly had landed in it, and just stayed there, lying flat, no doubt stuck to the water by the opalescent, shimmering scum of the cream on the surface of the water.
Well, it probably would technically be a moth if I bothered to find out which it was. But it was so beautiful, I have to call it a butterfly. It was so beautiful, I wanted to share it with you. So I got my camera, and took some pictures, and they look absolutely nothing like the butterfly and the bowl of creamy water that I could see. But something as unexpected as the butterfly itself happened – the photos are beautiful images too, even if they are different to what I saw. I could see that. So I’m sharing them with you anyway, even though they are not the beautiful sight I saw in my kitchen sink tonight.
These are taken with the flash,

… and these are without the flash. Just more versions of something I didn’t see, but all beautiful.

I stared at the butterfly for so long. It’s like I was trying to fill my eyes up with the perfection of its beauty while it so fleetingly existed, to imprint it in my mind that I could always recall it and thus hold the experience forever. I tried to understand what about it made it so perfect and so beautiful, but the nature of perfect, fleeting beauty is not to be understood, but marvelled at. I marvelled. There were the delicate brush strokes of a fine Chinese brush flowing along the wings, the antique hues of sepia, earth and umber. There was the silk-shiny sheen, shaded by the muffled, faded, matte patches on the underwings where the top wings would rub against them. There were the countless layers of geometric patterns in the wing design and the shape of the creature’s body itself, unfolding as I stared, like a shifting kaleidoscope. I could see the antennae as being like rows of eyelashes, rather than unaugmented prongs, and I could imagine how it felt to feel things through them. Time and space fell away and the whole universe revealed itself, floating in a bowl in the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
I had to tear myself away, eventually, as dishes won’t wash themselves, it turns out, no matter how beautiful the butterflies may be. I really meant to wash all the dishes, sacrificing the beauty of the butterfly to a fate that was already foregone. But somehow I managed to wash all the dishes except that one bowl, and it’s still sitting in the sink, full of creamy water and beautiful butterfly. I know it can’t stay – but I can’t bring myself to be the agent of its demise. I’m hoping that Mr CJ will disturb it with his next dirty dish, and I won’t have to witness it. I’ll get up in the morning, and it will be gone.
I wanted to share it with you. I can’t show you or tell you exactly what I saw, but I can share with you that it was beautiful, and that it was awesome, and that will just have to do.