Recharging – working hard while taking a break

I’ve just had a week’s break.

Annual leave is a beautiful thing, an upside to having my day job. That’s something I need to remember when I’m railing against my workday routine of 9-5 (so to speak).

Earlier this year, I was fretting that I wouldn’t be able to string the days together and dedicate a week to relaxing. There is always so much to be done.

What I needed to do was just book the time.

My initial plan was to have at least a few days without technology. No phone, no tablet, no laptop.

Hilarious. There’s a reason my family has called me ‘Techno Jo’ from time to time.* I love my various screens and devices. I’m considering a formal retreat where I’ll need to leave all the technology at the door.

A while ago, I used to do that myself. Regularly. All the technology in a room, on silent. The door shut, phone unplugged. I’d send a clear message to family and friends ahead of time that I would be unable to be contacted while I was on retreat.

The retreats featured meditation and writing. They were blissfully refreshing. I was disciplined and invariably productive, but this wasn’t the week for that sort of discipline. I had some loosely defined goals.

Assessing the break

There were a few things I didn’t manage to do:

  1. Go away for a couple of days. The thought of packing, then of unpacking. To go, then to come back. I couldn’t rise to it.
  2. Keep away from work emails and phone calls. I made it through to around half past three on Monday. Eventually, I stopped checking in. Switching off is a challenge!
  3. Catch up with the housework. I did some but not all the ‘autumn cleaning’ I’d planned. It would have been good to do more, but not essential.

Not managing to meet those three goals wasn’t disastrous. I had a wonderful week. It was busy but the pacing was manageable.

I shouldn’t be surprised that when I’m taking time to do things I love – with people I love – that I will simply feel energised.

Some of the things I did manage to accomplish include:

  1. Enjoy a couple of lazy mornings. I switched the alarm off but I woke up at my normal time but pottered about. I’m always fascinated by how easy it is to wake up while I’m on holiday. There was time for meditations and journal writing.
  2. Catch up with  friends. Relaxing conversations with minimal distractions are a luxury. I was blessed to have time to catch up with some of my favourite people over leisurely cups of tea and chatty lunches.
  3. Make the most of being able to be on campus. I made it to a couple of presentations. There was time for work on my thesis. I spent quality time with The Wife of Bath and Foucault. I sat out on the lawn and made friends with one of the peacocks. (Ok, friends is probably stretching it. He was hoping I had treats. I didn’t, he left.) I hung out.
  4. Take in some of the wonderful events happening in Perth. The PIAF film season is in its last weeks. I made it to Rams (Grímur Hákonarson, 2015) at the Somerville on Monday. It was a hideous day in Perth (it was still about 37 at 6.30 in the evening). The film is set in Iceland and looks cold. There was a summer thunder storm with flashes of lightning behind the screen and minimal rain and made a nice contrast. Later in the week, I made it to Sculptures by the Sea on a hot day and then on a cooler, overcast day.
  5. Do some writing. This was where my week really shone. There was some work for uni. I went to a blogging workshop with Amanda Kendle, which is always a joy! Her travel blog, Not a Ballerina, is full of adventures and great tips. Inspired by the workshop I curated content, I finished a late post. I also kept up with the journalling. I wrote four poems (and tinkered with five or six others).
Somerville after a hot day
A clear sky before the clouds

Learning from the break

I was well overdue for a decent break when this week rolled around. What I needed wasn’t necessarily a week of doing nothing. But a week which featured creativity and friends was magic.

I didn’t get to spend time with the ‘to read’ pile teetering on my nightstand, but I have plans for that in the next few weeks.

Cottesloe on a calm day
Blissfully calm

*They also call me ‘Unco Jo’ because of my decided lack of coordination. There are worse names than these, I guess.



Poetry in film – February – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Yes. I know. It’s March. What happened to February? I still can’t believe it’s gone.

My plan for February was to watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?  by the Coen brothers. The DVD is ready and waiting on a shelf I pass multiple times a day. It’s at eye level and I look at it each time I pass by. I just haven’t been able to watch it.

Despite that, the film and its distant, loose connections to The Odyssey have been on my mind.

In the meantime, my real purpose in this ‘poetry in film’ project (which sounds so much better than distraction, tangent, avoidance strategy …) was to think about the poems. There should be time for the film over the Easter break but I’m going to jump ahead and riff a bit about the poem now.

A late arrival

I came to The Odyssey late. I dipped into it as necessary when I was an undergrad. I watched friends work with it as part of their studies of Ancient Greek. I wished I could fit Ancient Greek into my own program. I couldn’t. I let it go.

I have fond memories of Sunday mornings in the ’90s watching Tony Robinson’s Odysseus, The Greatest Hero of Them All. I loved that. Robinson’s storytelling on windswept beaches and that great grey coat (and was there a red scarf? a pinkish one?) has stayed with me. Rik Mayall’s Grim Tales was also part of my television viewing at this time. I remember there was cracking storytelling from both Robinson and Mayall.

From time to time there were brief excursions into episodes along the way. Links to a short story here, a conversation about Homer/epic poetry/oral traditions there. It would come up – as you’d expect – in discussions about the hero’s journey and archetypes.

I didn’t read the poem in full until I was in my thirties. I still haven’t learnt any Ancient Greek* so I read it in translation – a Penguin Classics edition by E. V. Rieu, D. C. H. Rieu and Peter Jones and the Robert Fagles translation that I’ve realised is missing from my bookshelf and will need to be replaced. (Yay for shiny new copies!)

I read the Rieu et al version at the height of summer, stretched out on the floor very close to a fan. It was perfect reading for ridiculously hot days that stretched into hideously hot weeks.

I loved the unevenness of the narrative line. When I finished The Odyssey I jumped straight to The Iliad. It was that sort of summer.

poetry in film check in february book pile
Ready and waiting

A recent encounter

In the past few months, The Odyssey has been popping up. It could be I’m noticing it because I knew I would be thinking about it as part of the schedule I set myself. One of those, I just bought a red car, now all I notice is red cars scenarios.

The most striking encounter was when I caught The Epic (Finn O’Branagain and Scott Sandwich) as part of this year’s Perth Fringe Festival. That was an hour of whirlwind storytelling that looked at some of the ‘big’ stories from across the world over history. The show included a captivating demonstration of the ripples of the story that continue to be felt. (I won’t go into detail because I’d hate to spoil it for you if you ever get to see it. You never know…)

I had gone to the show because I thought there was a bit about Macbeth (there wasn’t). The Odyssey turning up was a timely bonus.

The Muse and magic

The Odyssey opens with an invocation to the Muse. As it’s an epic poem, I’m guessing that is Calliope. The invocation rests in ritual and the sacred. It also makes sense for the poem as a spoken performance. It not only calls the muse but captures the audience.

The telling of the story begins with an incantation.

Perfect. So much of storytelling is weaving a spell. I love that drawing in – and being drawn in. There is also the appeal of an external (or it could be internal) driver.

The invocations in Homer’s The Odyssey, its companion The Iliad, Virgil’s The Aeneid and in later poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and, with a slightly different  purpose, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene offer up the poem as something not only created but inspired.

The lit-nerd in me quite likes the idea of reading just the invocations and doing a formal comparison of what they seek and what they offer.

There are all sorts of arguments against inspiration and for the hard graft of day in-day out work, but there’s a part of me that loves the idea of an otherworldly – if not divine (and these days I’m more atheist than agnostic …) – spark as the impetus of a work.

Why not begin with an invocation to a muse, human, divine or otherwise?

Peacock close up
A muse of sorts

*One day I hope to read it in the Ancient Greek. For now, though, translations have to do. After this thesis is done. Latin has a higher priority. And Middle English, for that matter. I’ll be in my 50s. Excuse me while I process that …

A singing bird – reading leads to writing which leads to reading

Despite the best of intentions, I’ve strayed from the routine I’ve been nurturing. Actually, I did so intentionally. I have been wilful and made a fully intentional detour.

After all, life has to happen like that sometimes.

My life does, at least.

It only becomes an issue when the detour needs to come to an end. That’s where the best of intentions come into play. Detours and diversions can be so (let’s be honest) seductive.

This is a recurrent theme in my reflections. What I’ve realised is that I’ve arrived at a point where I need to take time to do what gives me joy if I’m going to stay focused on the other things. There might be joy in them, the other things, but … sometimes I need to be sure of some respite.

There is a Chinese proverb that I have always loved: Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come
A thought to carry

I always think of the bird as joy and creative energy.

The joy of reading

Most of my life – day job, study, recreational time – revolves around words. As a rule, that works for me. I love what I do. Mostly.

There a moments, though, when my heart sinks. Just a little.

Another discussion about Oxford commas, anyone?

But words and everything that goes along with them are what makes my heart sing. Reading and books, word games and word play have been at the centre of my world. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader.

I’ve always loved putting words together. In my head if there’s been no paper or, in those early years of school – it was that long ago, a slate.

  • My great-grandmother, Old Nan, was legendary for wanting to read everything. She was voracious. I didn’t know her for very long. She was 97 when she died and I’m not sure I was even at school. But the memory of her – of her reading, along with the family stories – has stuck.
  • When my dad accidentally caught my arm with a cigarette as we walked along a crowded street he consoled me (not only by obviously being devastated that it had happened) with a wonderful book of poetry.* I remember choosing the book from the shelf in the bookshop, the shape of first poem (even though the exact words escape me now) and its illustration. It was about looking into a fire and seeing fairies dancing. I read and read that book. I loved it.
  • My prized possession as a child, lost when I left home, was a book of fairy tales. Each story had one illustration. The only story I didn’t read – because the picture featured a man pinned to a tree by a snake – was ‘Sinbad the Sailor’. The others I pretty much knew by heart.

So, I’ve always been a reader. Words have always been my thing.

I don’t have time for a bookclub and my solution is time out for a sizable detour. It’s an indulgence, if I’m to be honest, especially as far as time goes: the Perth Writers Festival.

Three days of listening to writers and readers. Three days of catching up with friends, some of whom I hardly ever see these days. With some it was a quick chat in queues – or in passing as we crossed paths in the race to the next session – and with others it was a lunch and conversations that peeled away the years in between meetings.

They were three days of knowing there was other stuff I should be doing but that I was doing what I needed to be doing.

I imagine this also explains why I went to PWF16 with a plan to attend poetry events and sessions but kept finding myself listening to people talk about writing crime stories.

Start of Australian Poets Festival: 9x5 The Big Read WA Poetry
Standing room only

I went to sessions that were packed. There was standing room only for some.

I caught some spoken word sessions that made my heart sing. I’ve heard about Barefaced Stories, so that session on the Friday night was always on my horizon. Sketch the Rhyme – freestyle rap meets Pictionary … What’s not to love?

Joy and effervescence

Amongst it all, I have made progress with my thesis.

I have clarified what I think needs to change with the shape and direction.

Reshaping the project continues to be confronting. That’s obviously the point. If I didn’t need to respond and make changes, I think pursuing the topic would be an empty activity. The changes come from making discoveries and deepening understandings.

It comes down to the words and, to be honest, the chase. Hunting down ideas is part of the game. It’s what I love about the process.

Along the way, I’m hoping to be more balanced and remember that joy in being a reader and a writer. It is being a reader and a writer that brought me to the project. I am staying alert to moments that fizz because ideas work and words are right.

I’m hoping for some of those moments while I’m drafting the next chapter and making ongoing revisions.

A moderate haul from the bookshop at the Perth Writers Festival 2016
In the wings


*I suspect I only felt its heat, not an actual burn. There was probably no real need for consolation…