My Blog

Hello again

Thanks to everyone who wrote to me after reading my (recycled) piece on turning 70.  I know I promised to write about turning 75, but I am still trying to work out how I feel about that! Meanwhile I want to let you know about a couple of terrific books that I’ve read in the last few months.

Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel

Allegra in three parts coverI fell in love with 11-year-old Allegra in the first chapter of this book, and that took me by surprise, because I tend to be cautious about books written in the voice of a child. But Allegra’s voice is immediately captivating: smart, funny, intelligent, and endearingly innocent at times without, thank goodness, ever being cute.  I really hate cute.

Ally lives with her maternal Grandmother, Matilde, a post war migrant from Hungary, who does garment piece work from home, spending long days at her sewing machine and cooking traditional Hungarian food. Matilde’s life is focused on Allegra to whom she is devoted, but she is sad, angry, and struggling financially. Her fierce love for her granddaughter makes her rather strict and controlling.

Next door is Joy, Allegra’s paternal Grandmother, who is gliding joyfully into the women’s movement of the seventies. She has a tortoise called Simone de Beauvoir, smokes a little weed and is often impractical and vague.  Just like Matilde, Joy loves Allegra dearly; she is an emotional woman with a warm heart and saves her tears in small glass bottles, inscribed with the reasons those tears were shed.

In the flat at the back of Matilde’s house is Rick, Ally’s father, who works in the building trade and is a keen surfer.  Matilde calls him riffraff, which has Ally puzzled.  What also puzzles her is why all three of them love her but seem hate each other.

These relationships are beautifully developed as Allegra, in her final year at junior school, negotiates her way through other, sometimes rewarding, but often painful connections with her schoolmates.  Her combination of knowingness and innocence is beautifully demonstrated, as is the confusion that results from it.

The background of the seventies and the women’s movement is right on target. For the background to what’s going on in Allegra’s homelife, you have to read the book.  But the triangle of the people she loves most, and their hostility to each other is a constant source of sadness, misunderstanding and confusion.  She navigates her way through each day, keeping up with schoolwork, making and losing friends, and juggling the expectations of her family, trying always to do the right thing by all of them.

Suzanne Daniel is a talented writer and a great storyteller.  She is a journalist and communications consultant who has worked for the ABC, the BBC in London and the Sydney Morning Herald. It is a similar background to my own and this is her first novel.  I found the shift from journalism and broadcasting to fiction extremely difficult, so I was interested to read this.  I think it is a triumph, and I am waiting now for the next book 

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

Late in the Day coverI discovered Tessa Hadley’s books when I was in England last year and haven’t yet found them in Australia.  I bought two to read on holiday and have had to order the others online.  They are well worth waiting for.  Late in the Day is her most recent and, in my opinion, the best.  But each time I tell someone that, I remember the others and how much I enjoyed and admired them!  Hadley writes with insight into the extraordinary nature of the ordinary life.   Her books are usually about families and old and new friends of all ages.  She is particularly astute and sensitive in creating normal situations in which people hide small secrets and resentments that end up tripping them into awkward and sometimes distressing situations.

In Late in the Day Hadley explores the lives of two middle-aged couples: Zachary and Lydia, and Christine and Alex, who have been friends for many years, and have spent some of the best times of their lives together.  There are also close friendships between their various teenage children.  But it is the adults, the way they interact with each other, the way their friendships work and the secrets they keep, that is at the heart of this book.   Sneak peaks into the past are woven seamlessly into the narrative revealing more about each one and how their friendships began.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the death of Zachary is the catalyst for change, because it happens on page three.  His wife, Lydia and their oldest, closest friends are devastated. He was the heart and soul of their friendship, the one they all loved most, the one they could not afford to lose. It is a crisis for all three, and as each one traces back through the years of their friendships, we learn about their connections to Zachary and the lines that were crossed, the secrets kept, the trusts broken, the joys and disappointments and the strength and love it has brought them.  Each one must now learn to live without him, and maybe without the friendships that have been central to their lives for decades.

I loved this book: the story, the characters, the way that the loss of one, changes the future of the other three, their children, relatives and friends. Real tension grows as loyalties are tested and found wanting.

I will read Late in the Day again, more than once, for sheer pleasure, and for the fascination of trying to work out how Tessa Hadley does it.

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That’s all for now. Thanks for staying with me during what’s been a really difficult and challenging 12 months.  I am working on the next book with more confidence now and your encouragement and support in emails and letters has been wonderfully motivating.

Revisiting 70

As I feel myself emerging from several months of hibernation I came across a piece I wrote five years ago about turning 70.  It made me stop and think about how I now feel having turned 75 earlier this year.  There are differences, some positive and some not so great, but I’m still here, and am starting to feel more like myself again. Thanks for sticking with me through the long silence.

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald five years ago.  I’ll follow up soon with one on turning 75.

On turning 70

I have always wanted to be old. I know it sounds odd but it’s true — and it’s not as unusual as you might think. As a child, I spent a lot time in the company of old people, whom I loved and admired. I also envied them. They were confident, independent, free to choose what they would or wouldn’t do. They had power.

Seventy seemed to be the magic age that opened the door to all this; it called to me as the start of a rich and satisfying stage of life. And so I paid attention to the milestone birthdays — 21, 40, 50 —each time expecting to feel different, more grown up, more complete, but each year I woke on the day feeling just the same. It wasn’t a case of wishing away the years, but rather working slowly and naturally towards something that would reward me.

Then, on my 70th birthday, for the first time ever, I woke with a distinct sense of difference. I’d arrived; something had shifted. Initially, it was disconcerting, like being cut loose, adrift and unsure of what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a pair of high heels that grounded me. One last pair that I’d kept in case I needed them for some special, formal, fashionable event. As I opened the wardrobe, I spotted them tucked away in a corner of the shoe rack — a symbol of the discomfort and restrictions of conformity. In that moment I knew that were I to be invited to something where heels and all that went with them were essential, I would decline the invitation. Out went the shoes — and a whole lot of other things followed.

Getting old is empowering. With the joy of going to bed early with a good book, mindfully occupying the centre of the bed and embracing celibacy, comes a sense of congruence. Seventy feels like a reward for patience and perseverance, and I am determined to make the most of it and of what follows. My relationships with family and friends seem more precious, time more valuable and the joy of books, music, art and the natural world more enriching. But ageing is not for wimps. I struggle with energy, aching joints and moments of memory failure. I tire easily and have very little stamina. When I get down on the floor to retrieve something I’ve dropped, I stay there for a while. I have a look around to see if there is anything else I can usefully do while I’m there, and I reflect ruefully on the days when I could bounce up again with ease. But I accept my limitations at the same time as I embrace my new freedom.

The poet May Sarton wrote at 70 that old age is life-enhancing. “Now I wear the inside person outside and I am more comfortable with myself. In some ways I am younger because I can admit vulnerability, and more innocent because I do not have to pretend.”

Once we live as if we are dying, priorities are thrown into sharp relief.

But I know I’m fortunate. I have always enjoyed solitude, have a home of my own, work that I love, people who love me, and enough money to live modestly in the coming years. Ageing is not so kind to those who are alone and isolated, who struggle for financial survival, seek a place to call home and suffer with poor health.

It’s clear that women do better than men in old age and adapt more easily to living alone. Ageing men tend to seek partners for their old age, while many women relish the independence and freedom of later life. But the worst thing for old people, both women and men, is the relentlessly negative public conversation that predicts penury, isolation, generational conflict, sickness and confinement to a nursing home. Yet figures show that 85 per cent of Australians aged over 80 still live independently at home, enjoying active lives.

We wrinklies are the triumphant end product of a civil society with high standards of education, housing and health care. And we are living proof for young people that ageing can be a time of pleasure, satisfaction, opportunity and yes, even new horizons – something that young people, if they stop to think about it, would aspire to for their own old age.

For me, turning 70 feels like a doorway to the future; a modest, quiet but satisfying future that I can craft to my own liking, within my own means. I’m not alone in this, and for many others, of course, the future signals something more adventurous. Each to her or his own is how people of my age and older are grasping this last and precious gift of time. While acknowledging that others are less fortunate and that as a society we have responsibility to respond to that, we need to talk more about the good life of old age, because young people need to hear something other than gloom and doom. And because it sure beats the alternative.

Mother’s Day competition

Well here I am, back again!  I’m slowly getting on top of my health issues and starting to feel better. Many thanks to everyone who contacted me via Facebook and my website. While I was not able to respond, I really appreciate your concern and kind messages.  I’m still easing back into things and I’m hopeful I will be able to return to writing blogs and Facebook posts in the near future.

Meanwhile Mother’s Day is coming up and I thought it would be nice to have a competition to celebrate.  So I’m giving away signed copies of two of my books – A Month of Sundays and Bad Behaviour.  Four winners will get one of each.

To enter the competition all you need to do is follow my blog, either as an existing follower or by joining it now.  To join just go to my website www.lizbyrski.com and enter your email in the “Follow my blog” field on the left-hand side of any page, and click the black “follow” button.

If you already follow the blog – go to the Contact page of my website and fill out the form, putting the words “Mother’s Day competition” into the comment field.

The four winners will be chosen at random and their names published on my Facebook page and blog.  The winners will also be contacted by email to provide their postal addresses.

The competition closes at 5pm on Sunday 5 May. Good luck!

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Merry Christmas

Only a week ‘til Christmas – how did that happen? I only just managed to post my Christmas cards!

Congratulations to the winners of my Christmas competition – Christine Monaghan, Ginny Dadd, Heather Hillman, Lindsay Fisher, Tracey Gregory and Kim Goodwin. Your books are on the way to you!

Thank you all so much for your continuing support and encouragement. Even when I am scratching around in the dusty mess inside my head, wondering how to make something work, I am always aware how fortunate I am to have such loyal and enthusiastic readers. Thank you so much and thank you and welcome to those of you who have picked up a book for the first time this year. I hope you’ll enjoy some more of my books in future.

I want to say a big thank you too, to the amazing Pippa Worthington, my media and marking consultant. Pippa looks after the competitions we run, she nudges me into writing blogs and discusses ideas, and this year she created my lovely new website. There is so much more to being a writer these days than just the writing and without Pippa nothing would get done.   So, thank you Pippa for all your ideas, support and hard work through what’s been a tough year in many ways. Pippa runs Heart and Soul Consulting, and you will see her logo on the bottom left hand side of my website, so if you need thoughtful, sensitive advice, ideas and action you can contact her direct.

I am currently working on a new novel after a bit of a struggle, so I am hoping it will be available in 2020.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas in whatever way you most enjoy.  I’ll be spending it here in WA with half of my family, and of course with Gazza who will be getting a big lamb bone on Christmas morning. I will spend the day trying to stop him bringing it into the house and chewing it on my best rug!

Merry Christmas everyone and a happy and healthy New Year, from Gazza and Me.

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Christmas competition

Well here we are in December, which means Christmas is almost upon us. So it must be time for a Christmas competition!

I will be giving away 6 copies of my latest book A Month of Sundays to 6 winners. Each will be signed and you can nominate the name I write in the book. So you can have it personalised – signed for yourself, or for someone else if you are planning to give it away.

To be eligible for the competition you need to follow my blog…. either as an existing follower or by joining it now.  To join, just go to my website and enter your email in the “Follow my Blog” field on the left side of any webpage, and click on the black “FOLLOW” button.

If you already follow the blog please go to the Contact page of my website and fill out the form, putting the words “Christmas competition” into the comment field. Make sure you also provide your name and email.

One entry per person please –duplicate entries will be removed!

The competition closes at 4pm on Sunday 9 December. Six winners will be chosen at random and their names will be published on my Facebook page and blog. The winners will be contacted by email so they can provide their postal address and nominate the name for me to write in the book. The quicker you respond, the quicker you will receive your prize in the post.

Good luck to everyone!

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Conscientious objections

The magazine arrived in the mail. I flicked through it, spotted an article on ageing, folded it open at the page, and promptly forgot about it. Three weeks later on a beautiful Sunday morning I remembered it, and wandered out onto the verandah with a mug of coffee intending to read it.

For a while I sat there, enjoying the sun and the silence, the lavender in full bloom, the new buds on the roses and the cloudless blue of the sky. Spring at last! I was grateful to be almost half-way through my seventies, sitting in my garden with time to think about what ageing means to me. The article that I had yet to read had sparked this interlude of conscious reflection. Having anticipated this time of life with enthusiasm it has been so easy and delightful to slip into it. There are things I can no longer do, but there are many other new and different things to enjoy. There are disadvantages: aches and pains, some problems with mobility, and an increased awareness of the reality of death. But slowing down, talking less and thinking more, doing new, simpler and rewarding things to suit myself are some of the bonuses of this time of life.

Eventually I picked up the magazine. The article was about an Australian scientist, who is working on prolonging youth. Rather than just focussing on ways of treating the diseases of ageing he and his team are working towards the classification of ageing as a standalone, treatable disease.

I understand that some, perhaps many, scientists feel driven by the thrills and possibilities of science for its own sake, and that it must be frustrating to think beyond that, or to envisage disadvantages that detract from that. Perhaps some also feel the shadow of middle age as a threat that they want to hold at bay. They probably have the finest of intentions but classifying ageing as a disease can take us to ridiculous extremes.

Do we really want our children and grandchildren to be saddled with the concept of ageing as a lifelong disease that must be treated?

Ageing is not a disease, nor is a problem, it is a fact of life. The only problem is how we approach it, what we expect from it, how we talk to ourselves, and others about it, how we raise our children to think about, respect and plan for it.

Some years ago, the beauty, cosmetic and fashion industries explicitly and shamelessly declared a ‘war on ageing’; specifically, a war on women’s ageing. In this war the weapons are cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, and other procedures involving needles, potentially harmful substances, and various bits of trickery to plump up lips, cheeks, breasts and bums, or scalpels to reduce them.   It’s a phoney war because ageing is not an enemy, unless we choose to make it one.

Ageing is the gift of time to live our lives in a different way.

Old age brings challenges and opportunities, different pleasures, new goals, fine new friendships and the richness and maturity of older ones. It can also bring pain and illness some restrictions, and sadness. This is life, and these things can happen at any age. Hopefully our ageing includes increased leisure, a little wisdom, a measure of respect, the opportunity to be different and to make a difference. Ideally it brings with it the wisdom and judgement to reject the profit focussed claims, concepts and products of some, or the suggestions of well-meaning others perhaps motivated by science as an end in itself, or by their unconscious fear of their own ageing.

Given that we age from the moment we are born, are children to grow up burdened with the belief that they are diseased from birth, or that ageing is an enemy on which they must declare war? Are we incapable of accepting that there is a natural balance and shape to life? We already have a reasonable expectation that human beings can live for a century, and the number who do increases every decade.   Isn’t that enough?

The solution to negative perceptions of ageing lies in our embracing it as a part of life and enjoying the good fortune of reaching it. If we live long enough we will grow old, and eventually die. Can’t we just be thankful for what we have, grateful for the science that can help us to manage the physical and mental diseases of ageing, and become conscientious objectors in this phoney war? Do we have the courage to say, enough really is enough?

Travels with my feet

Travel – it’s what a lot of us look forward to as we get older, and as I approached 75 I really wanted to make what might possibly be a final trip to Europe. And so I set off last month, first to a conference in Barcelona, then on to London and Sussex (work plus a nostalgia hit), and finally to Italy, because it was the only western European country I’d missed out on. I wanted to get the most from this adventure, so I went into ‘training’. Walking, swimming, dancing to Abba in my lounge room. I lost weight, I felt better, stronger, more energetic; I was raring to go despite my still dodgy hips and ankles. And then there’s my feet – but more about my feet later! There wasn’t much I could do about an unanticipated European heatwave.

In Barcelona there wasn’t much time for anything other than work. The city was heavily overcast and most of the time, the heat was oppressive. We walked a lot, around the ancient and beautiful university buildings and campus, and to various restaurants and other venues. My feet mentioned that they didn’t much like the heat, nor the amount of standing. Finally, on the morning of the day I left the storm broke, clearing the air, reducing the temperature, refreshing the city and, I suspect, lifting most people’s spirits. I had a wonderfully interesting and intellectually invigorating time. My feet were less enthusiastic.

I went to Sussex for research for a book, but also to revisit the past. My memories are rich with memories of green fields, forests, winding lanes the smell of freshly cut grass, and long, mild, summer evenings in the gardens of quaint country pubs. But the first thing I noticed was a widespread absence of grass – or at least green grass. The rising temperatures has left most lawns, parks, fields and verges burned to a crisp. But it was still Sussex, still the place I’d lived for almost half my life. My feet mentioned they were uncomfortably hot, but happy that I was driving everywhere. And then it was time to return the car and take the train to London.

Friends in Australia sent me jokey texts about the feeble British who can’t handle the heat, unlike us rugged Aussies. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone – but I couldn’t take the heat either; 37C in London feels a whole lot hotter than the same temperature back home in Perth. No idea why. London was heaving with tourists, many heading for shops, bars or restaurants on the assumption that they would be airconditioned. But the last great European heatwave was in 1961; why would you bother installing aircon? England seemed burned out, exhausted. By the heat? By Brexit? By the shenanigans of an unstable Government and an inadequate opposition? By the visit of Donald Trump? My feet said, ‘We don’t like this, can you go back to driving please?’ Don’t worry, I told them. Italy next, gorgeous green Tuscan hillsides, and woodlands, and we’ll have a car.

In Italy I fell in love: with the country, the way of life, the streets of Florence, it’s plethora of glorious churches, magnificent buildings, steep picturesque side streets, piazzas where we tucked in to gelato and observed the passing glamour. Most of all I fell in love with the Tuscan countryside and what its pristine condition, and the obviously loving custodianship of and respect for the land, seemed to say about the Italians themselves. We drove along narrow winding lanes and roads, sharp bends and steep hills, through olive groves, vineyards, bay trees, cypress and Lombardy pines. We visited tiny hilltop villages, in which tourism was minimal. And we walked a lot, climbed a lot, traversed cobbles, uneven paving and went up hundreds of steep stairways. My feet didn’t like it; they complained bitterly. I tried to appease them with new, tougher, walking shoes (yes there really is a branch of Foot Locker in the centre of Florence). My feet would not be appeased.

My son took off to Portugal for the rest of his holiday. I took the train to Milan and then to Varenna on Lake Como, a place I have longed to visit. It lives up to and beyond, both its reputation and my dreams. I am captivated by the vast gleaming expanse of the lake and its subtly changing colours, that craggy faces of the mountains, the small towns and villages clustered along the shore line. On the tree-clad slopes ancient villas and castles, towers and churches are tucked into the tree clad slopes as if scattered there by some divine hand. Heaven! No – hell – said my feet!

Four days on my feet have resigned. They swelled way beyond the confines of my shoes, including the new ones. Just a pair of sandals are almost bearable. Gout! Look – I didn’t eat that much gelato! I have had one glass of sparkling wine in four weeks. And now I am shifting between my bedroom balcony and the hotel terrace, in a lot of pain, barely able to walk. Grounded again! May have to call the airline for assistance on the way home if my feet don’t improve by the end of the week.

My advice: take a trip – see Italy! See it soon – we never know how much time we have left. Oh! And – make sure you leave your feet at home.