Dance Box

It’s Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, and we need to get out of the house. There’s a dance festival in Zurich, spread across the city, with opportunities to learn to dance as well as watch the experts. What could be better?

‘I don’t want to dance!’ my daughter cries when we reach the city. It’s as if we’ve suggested jumping in a vat of boiling oil instead of learning how to salsa. Her shoulders slumped, she stumps along beside us with a frown on her face, and I can feel the day slipping away from us and we contemplate getting back on the train. But we compromise, agreeing to try just one event with the promise of ice cream at its completion.

And so it is that we find ourselves at the Dance Box, and it’s not what we expected. At all.

It’s a tiny, yellow caravan, with a sign on top. There’s a red lightbulb above the door that glows when the caravan is occupied, and two slots, one for payment of a franc and the other for you to insert the card upon which you’ve ticked the box of your preferred dance.

We wait in line, all of us giggling, laughter erupting when the caravan starts to rock from side to side or the sound of stomping is heard. Each time the red light goes off and the door opens people emerge with big grins on their faces and the rest of us crane our necks to see inside.

Finally, we’re next, and my daughter inserts the coin and the card in their respective slots. The door opens and my husband and daughter climb aboard, because there’s only room for two. But I’m happy just to be there, the whole experience so different to anything else I’ve experienced. The caravan rocks and sways and the whole line laughs and I wish I could hug the person who came up with this idea.

After a few minutes the door opens and they emerge, laughing, their faces lit up with what can only be described as joy. They can’t wait to tell me all about it, about the two tiny chairs for them to sit on, and the dancer who danced without music, who came right up to their faces and swayed and jumped and moved her arms and legs and seemed to take up all the space.

Our afternoon has been transformed and I can see it’s the same for everyone else, too. We lick ice creams as we wander along the river until we reach a playground and my almost-teenage daughter climbs and swings as if the grumpy girl from earlier never even existed.

That an idea so small and simple could be so powerful is a revelation. It’s also inspiring, because it strikes me that this is what the essence of the creative arts should be, something transformative, no matter the size or cost or seriousness or anything else, whether a novel, short story or blog, an orchestra or single voice, an oil painting or pencil sketch, or a whole ballet by a company of people or a single dance by one person.

Such is the power of one dancer, no music, and one very tiny, very yellow caravan.

dance box

 

 

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lend me your horse!

In late nineteenth-century Far North Queensland, unless you had a horse you had to walk. Or run. Or skip or hop. Or swim, just as long as you weren’t worried about crocodiles or sharks or deadly jellyfish and the like.

I’ve had to imagine what this is like in order to write about it, trying to judge how long it might take someone to ride from here to there, and also trying to imagine what it might have been like to do so upon roads that weren’t really roads, or, at least, not how we know them to be.

I’m a long way from Far North Queensland and it’s been a long time since horses were the preferred (only?) method of transport. But, still, we don’t have a car. Call us crazy (and I’m sure there are those who do) but it’s a decision we made a while ago and we’ve managed to stick by it (sometimes with a little help from our friends).

But how do we usually get around, I hear you ask!

Well, apart from our own two feet, we use bikes, scooters (the kick kind), buses, trains, trams, a car share service, and ferries. And lately my daughter has been heading off to school every morning on her bright orange skateboard (the one with the purple wheels and the jagged multi-coloured geometric pattern on the underside….jealous?).

Of course, the fact that we live in Switzerland makes this an awful lot easier than it might otherwise be, because this is a country that is set up beautifully for people like us because the notion of not owning a car isn’t as ridiculous as it is elsewhere. That and the trains run on time.

But what also makes it easier is most ably demonstrated by the photo below. This, ladies and gentlemen, was my journey home last night. Yes, really.

ferry evening

 

 

Swan

This is a Swiss swan searching for and then scooping up the bugs and algae floating on the surface of the Zürisee, otherwise known as Lake Zurich.

Writing can be a little bit like this sometimes, when you’re searching for the right word and just can’t find it anywhere…

swan

The cat is happy and so am I.

I will now sing the praises of my lovely supervisor.

She is a woman of fine character and discerning tastes. A person who recognises quality and can see potential when it is right in front of her. Furthermore, she likes a nice turn of phrase and appreciates a good metaphor when she sees one…

Yes, she liked my novel! Phew.

This isn’t the end of the story, not by a long shot. My story will undergo many small changes between now and the finish line, but it’s bones are are in place and solid enough that it can stand up by itself.

So that means it’s time for me to get on with my exegesis. This is the nonfiction half of my Phd, just as big as the novel and just as scary although not for the same reasons. As I’ve said before there’s a real tension between trying to write creatively and academically, and the exegesis falls very firmly in the second camp.

Recently, though, I find myself looking at the exegesis as a challenge to see how I can combine the creative and academic, to see if I can construct it in such a way that it is still academically robust but ends up being something I would like to read. For me, the best academic writing holds my attention because it uses clear, straightforward language and has something of the writer on the page, something personal.

So it’s with this in mind that I’m approaching this with a renewed commitment to putting a little bit of me in there, because I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it any other way.

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 4.08.01 pm

 

 

First draft is…done

 

I can hardly believe it, but, yes, dear reader, it’s true. I’ve finished the complete first draft of my novel.

As soon as I finished I sent it to my supervisor and made a hard copy for myself. Then I tidied the house, made lunch for my daughter and her friend, cooked dinner for later that evening, cleaned out the kitty litter tray, had a cup of tea and then taught my first music student for the day.

Now that is how to live the creative life, let me tell you.

There will be many more drafts, of course, and no doubt I will read it again soon – after an appropriate amount of time has passed – and feel like using it to line the kitty litter tray, but for now I’m going to enjoy the feeling of having done something I didn’t think I would ever be able to do.

Now I’m waiting to hear what my supervisor has to say. Depending on what that is I may never get up the courage to show it to another living person.

At least the cat will be happy.

Elsie eye

 

 

 

Burnt toffee

I’ve spent far too much time today trying to make an almond toffee recipe that’s worked perfectly before but is turning out miserably today. It’s for a dinner party I’m going to this evening and, naturally, I want it to be good. After two attempts I gave up, had a cup of tea and pondered the failure that was my cooking.

The thing about failure is that it seems to like company, so, I started pondering other failures as well, like my failure to write on this blog in the last few months, my failure to get my head around what it is I’m currently trying to write for my exegesis, and my failure to come to grips with the plot in my novel.

After all this thinking I had to get back into the kitchen because I still had to produce something to take this evening. I opened and closed cupboards, stared out the window for a while and then improvised, cobbling together something altogether different to what I had planned.

But…it’s delicious!

Melted dark chocolate with chopped dried figs, toasted slivers of almond,  and sea salt. Simple but good.

Of course the exegesis issue isn’t going to be solved quite so easily but I’ve been comforting myself with the thought that the creative process is nothing if not about failure. If I had given up the first time I failed I would have stopped writing long ago.

As it is, sometimes I have to force myself to keep going because failure is very draining and not all the cups of tea in the world can save me on some days. But sometimes what comes after can be better than what was originally intended, and sometimes the very fact of being forced to improvise can produce something new and exciting.

Either way it is a comfort to finally realise that this is, however much I try for it not to be, a natural part of the writing process, and that maybe the simple act of beginning again is an accomplishment that should not be underestimated.

Like starting this blog again.

 

Toffee

Teenagers

I’m spending a lot of time developing the character (based on a real person) of a fourteen-year old girl living in colonial Queensland in the late 1880s. It’s hard to imagine what a fourteen-year old was like back then, because teenagers didn’t exist, or at least not in the shape and form with which we are currently so familiar.

I think about my own ten-year old daughter (a tween??), still clutching Ruby, her stuffed horse, as she goes to sleep each night, and still racing towards the swings as soon as she spies a playground.

But the signs are there!

She’s forsaken pink for darker colours and kindly and freely offers her poor mother advice when she thinks I need it, which seems to be quite a lot of the time.

And then this morning she staggers to the breakfast table, headphones firmly in place, iPod in one hand, grunting and rolling her eyes when addressed. Her father and I roll our eyes at each other. Is this the beginning of the end? Is this the first real sign that our daughter is becoming, gasp…a teenager?

Ah, but then it turns out that instead of the mangled and inappropriate words of a scantily clad pop star our daughter is listening to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Yes, George, Julian, Dick, Ann and Timmy the dog, as they go on jolly, wholesome adventures through the English countryside, complete with lashings of ginger beer, their socks falling down around their ankles and all adults gloriously conspicuous in their absence.

Life for my very own would-be teenager could not be more different than that of a young girl more than one hundred years ago, but I suspect they’re probably not as different as I think, ipods and Enid Blyton notwithstanding. Like that whiff of independence that makes them lift their heads, that realisation that family is not everything and that the world outside is only a few steps away.

Yet in my novel (and in real life, too) my colonial teenager has already sailed across the world from Cornwall to Queensland. She’s witnessed things my daughter will never, I hope, have to see and she’s partly grown up in a colony characterised as much by violence and racial hatred as that much-lauded pioneer spirit, however much we might wish to deny it.

There is much I would wish for my own daughter as she continues to grow, but the understanding that history is not as clearcut and neat as some books would have it, that the world is not as perfect as she might like it or as she’s been told, and that there are some lessons that will never be learned so she should keep on trying (always) are definitely on the list.

In the meantime, I’ll try to imbue my colonial teenager with that same growing sense of wonder and scepticism I can see in my own daughter, no matter the hundred or so years that separate them.

And I’ll try not to smile when I shouldn’t (nothing makes my daughter crosser when she’s in a bad mood), or cry when I shouldn’t as Ruby the horse and I watch my daughter move from being small to not-so-small.

Tilda asleep