Back in my day, Year Books weren’t a standard part of New Zealand high schools, although this has since changed and they're now quite commonplace. Perhaps one influencing factor for this is the amount of times they are referred to in modern American movies. And while I might not have ever seen a U.S. example, I am aware of at least one aspect of them: the “Most likely to…” quote. Here’s the sort of thing that’s said about students:
Most likely to start a band
Most likely to become President
Most likely to travel the world
Most likely to start their own business
Most likely to cure cancer
Most likely to become a ninja
Most likely to be late to their own funeral
Most likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize/Pulitzer/Oscar
If I’d had one, mine would have said, “Most likely never to own a dog.”
I didn’t grow up around dogs, am allergic to dogs and always felt a little wary of dogs.
We heard, however, of some anecdotal evidence to suggest that dogs are good for kids with autism. That made me feel a little tempted to consider the idea…but, really, a dog? I don’t think so!
Then I happened to be on a school trip with my daughter about eleven years ago. While we were out exploring I saw a small and extremely cute dog and for the first time ever thought to myself, “I could take that dog home.”
I didn’t recognise the breed, except that it looked like a baby greyhound. On investigation, I discovered it to be an Italian Greyhound (also known as Egyptian Mouse Hounds). Italian Greyhounds aren’t very common in New Zealand but we found a breeder, waited patiently, and eventually ended up with one of our own who we named Oscar.
Oscar turned ten this month. His name means “divine spear” and this seems so fitting – a divine gift who not only looks like an arrow, he acts like one too. He’s shot his way through our family in such a way that the novelty of having him around hasn’t ever worn off. He’s been fabulous for my son – and fabulous for all of us.
And because I’m inevitably the one that looks after him, feeds him and walks him, he’s become like my little shadow. He’s a constant presence in my life when I’m home and keeps me company while I write. In fact he's with me now as I write this post. It’s fair to say that I’ve gone from dog avoider to dog lover.
So have I turned into a crazy dog lady? Most likely!
As usual the year has started with a gallop and the end of January has arrived. According to statisticbrain.com, 58.4% of those who made a New Year’s Resolution will already have given up on their goal. As someone who doesn’t make any to start with, I can happily say I’m unaffected by this statistic.
Here in New Zealand it’s summer. Being an island nation at the bottom of a vast and sometimes tumultuous ocean, this means not being certain of whether our weather might be good, bad or indifferent.. Some years we have good summers. Other years we are plagued by cyclones or wind or changeable conditions with cloud, rain and sun all taking turns in any given day to despair or delight. I’m pleased to report that this summer has given us a good range of favourable days and record hot temperatures – hopefully a phenomenon caused by nature rather than climate change.
Over the summer our family have had what might best be termed a staycation. We’ve pottered about the city, made use of the back-yard hammock and had the odd beach visit or two. One exception to this city-based summer came just two weekends ago when my husband (Paul) and I headed south for the day as part of our 28th wedding anniversary celebrations. We enjoyed a great lunch at a beautiful restaurant on an olive estate before going on to Hobbiton to do the movie set tour from the Lord of the Rings films. It proved to be a delightful way to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
Statistic-wise, and depending on your country of residence, the divorce rate is anything between 33 – 50%. This figure changes markedly for parents of special needs children, with a whopping 80% of marriages not standing the test of time – or, more accurately, the test of caring for a small person with big needs.
As a couple in this latter bracket we can also say that, to date, we're also happily unaffected by this statistic, I can only reflect on what might have helped keep us strong. Because, at the end of the day, we have no magic answers or superpowers. After pondering this, I can only conclude it’s team work, a common purpose, hard work and a good sense of humour. Oh, and good, old fashioned love, of course.
This all makes me wonder, if I had to make a resolution from here, what would it be? After yet more pondering I conclude it's this: To keep smiling, keep striving, keep hopeful…and keep writing! I feel quite resolute about that. How about you?
Have you ever heard of Orison Swett Marden? I’ll confess I had not. Upon consulting Uncle Google I discovered he was born in 1848 in a place called Thornton Gore, New Hampshire, a place so humble it is no more. Three years after his birth, Orison’s mother died. Another four years after that, his father also died as the result of an accident. Thus, at the tender age of seven, Orison became an orphan.
Shortly thereafter Orison’s childhood appeared to be over as he became a “hired boy” working for a number of families in exchange for his keep. Most of us in the western world in this day and age find it difficult to imagine a seven- year old having to get out and work. Most of us will attest that’s it’s pretty difficult to get the modern seven-year old off the computer let alone having to labour day in and day out.
I suppose such an experience could have defined Orison – and not in a good way. He could have been bitter and resentful for the hand life dealt him. At the very least he could easily have faded into obscurity. Yet Orison was not destined to merely remain a farm hand. In fact the fountain of all knowledge, Wikipedia, notes, “Marden’s young manhood was marked by remarkable energy and unbroken achievement.” We learn that, by his early thirties, Orison had undertaken university studies in the areas of science, arts, medicine and law before going into the hotel business.
Why, I hear you ask, the interest in Mr. O. S. Marden? Because I came across this quote from him:
"Deep within you dwell those slumbering powers;
forces that would revolutionise your life if
aroused and put into action."
This thought quite grabbed me, not least because most of us, if expecting some sort of revolution, figure such radical change will come from external sources. The Cinderella-waiting-for-someone-to-come-and-set-her-free scenario springs to mind. Yet Orison Marden thought otherwise. He raises the theory that revolution comes from within and all that’s required is to arouse those “slumbering powers” hidden deeps within us.
On reading more about O.S.M. I discovered that, as a teenager, he’d been inspired by the writings of Scottish author Samuel Smiles. This jovial sounding man had written (and self-published) a book called Self Help that extolled the virtues of hard work, thrift and perseverance. Marden took these principles to heart and applied them to his own life. It clearly helped him push on through several failed businesses. It perhaps also helped him recover from the setback of narrowly escaping a hotel fire in nothing but his nightshirt, in which he lost over 5,000 pages of manuscripts.
The loss of all that work also did not deter. In fact O.S.M went on to write over fifty books and leaflets and to found SUCCESS magazine, a publication that still exists to this day, albeit in digital form. His book Pushing to the Front (1894) helped inspire people such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Gladstone, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. He’s considered to be something of a founding father in the field of self-help and motivation.
And my point? Perhaps it lies in this question: what are your slumbering powers? And how, as we sit on the eve of a new year, do each of us wake these powers up and start a revolution – to effectively make our lives count while we live and breathe?
I admit to not having read Pushing to the Front to find out. But perhaps a clue lies in a quote from another famous author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who says:
"To accomplish excellence or anything outstanding, you must listen to that whisper which is heard by you alone."
So as 2018 arrives let me encourage you to take some time to listen out for whispers. I know I will be. And, in doing so, who knows? We might just start a revolution.
It’s fair to say I come from a pretty small family – and what family I do have are not local. My brother, his wife and children live in the US and my cousins are in Australia, the US and in the South Island of New Zealand. My hubby comes from a bigger family but they are all on the other side of the planet in the UK. And while it is doubtless a much smaller small world than it used to be with modern travel and communication technology, there’s still no substitute for being able to get together – and not just on high days and holidays.
This was brought home to me just recently as my brother and his family came to visit. His children are six and eight, full of that delicious promise of youth, brimming with wide-eyed enthusiasm and utterly delightful. For one glorious week I found myself in Auntie heaven, making sandcastles, looking in rock pools and watching the two of them bond with my two children. It was a very special time.
It was also extremely hard to say goodbye, not knowing when we will see them again.
That small world that everyone talks about just isn’t quite small enough for my liking.
I’ve also been reflecting on how much I love my own family – how proud I am of my children, how I enjoy watching them grow and develop and face life’s challenges with courage and determination. I would quite literally do anything for them.
I’ve come to a conclusion that, in a strange way, that distance – that separation – that lies between us does make me feel an enormous gratitude for all of my family near and far and for the times we do get to spend together. I feel I’m in no danger of taking them for granted or not appreciating their specialness.
Perhaps some of this is reflected in my writing, in the way that I like to bring groups of people together as I tell my stories. Things don’t always go smoothly (I’m not totally living in a fool’s paradise!) but forged bonds and connections are ultimately where most of my novels end.
So I encourage you to take a fresh look at your family, to hug them and accept them with all their faults and foibles. Because, at the end of the day, family are the most precious gift we have – and ultimately, everything is about our love of family.
The last few weeks have been something of an English-fest for me. Many of the students I tutor for high school English are coming towards the end of their academic year and are starting to prepare for their final exams. This involves a honing of all that they have learned over the course of the year. We’ve been talking about things like the use of emotive words, of how to make their sentences more powerful, of trying to show their understanding of what they’ve studied in a clear way.
I have also taken on a project ghost-writing a book. For commercial reasons I am not able to talk too much about this project. What I can say is that it's been a great opportunity to get back to what I love most: writing books. Because I have been doing a lot of business writing over the past twelve to fifteen months, I haven’t had a lot of time to focus on writing my own projects. I now realise how much I have missed this.
Although ghost-writing can be quite prescriptive, there’s still a sense in which you are still the creator, particularly during the first draft. You have to decide how things are going to be laid out. You have to decide on how things will be structured. You have to decide on what words will be used. It’s you and the blank page which, with time and work, suddenly becomes something that never before existed.
I love the simple joy of words, of trying to find the perfect one to communicate an idea or an instruction or an inspiration. The word that is going to help someone else to understand things they didn’t before or to make their life a little better. And lucky for me, English is a rich tapestry of words from which to choose. And choose I have. A book that at its outset was going to be eight chapters has now become nine. As I type these words I am nearly finished writing chapter seven.
But strangely, rather than feeling resentful about the commercial work I have been doing, I also find myself feeling grateful for it. Having to write about subjects that have at times been beyond my interest or experience – and to a deadline – has given me a greater level of discipline. And in working on this project, I am also feeling a greater enthusiasm for other personal projects I have in mind.
So watch out world, I’ve been overtaken by the joy of words. Hopefully many more will be coming your way in the near future.
I turned 50 this month. 50! Five decades. Half a century. Approximately 18,262 days on Planet Earth. It’s the sort of milestone that makes a gal take pause. And in that pause I guess it’s only natural to start looking back, to contemplate what I’ve done with those 18,000 odd days that have been gifted to me, and to consider where my journey has taken me.
As I thought about those five decades I came to the conclusion that I have managed to do a reasonable amount with my time. I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’ve made the most of the time, but I can’t be too dissatisfied with what I have managed to do and experience in my half century.
Over that time I’ve made friends, travelled, got married and had a range of work experiences. I’ve had children, immersed myself in a range of community activities and in a small way tried to make a contribution to others. I’ve owned parts of houses (the bank has owned the rest!), owned cars and managed to just about keep my head above water living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And, of course, I’ve written books and tutored students and written commercially too.
Looking back, I also find I have few regrets. Perhaps, if I had my time over again, I would have liked to take a degree in English. But then, if I had, there’s no guarantee that the other things I’ve done and experienced would have come my way. The thought that my path might then have taken me in quite different directions isn’t one that sits easily with me.
In any case, I’m not a great fan of regret. It usually accompanies a desire to wind back time and do things over. For a start, doing things over is impossible. But even if it were possible, who’s to say that the ultimate outcome would be any better. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A different path might just lead to different difficulties, for all any of us know.
And besides, life is not over yet. I still have things I want to do and achieve. I’m not just counting the days until retirement (approximately 5,478 days if I’m lucky to live that long and they don’t put the retirement age up!). I want to keep learning, developing, creating and experiencing. Who knows what blessings might come my way?
And so I feel I am quite philosophically fifty – happy to be here and happy to think about all I might see and experience from this point on. I feel grateful without being too self-satisfied. And I’m also grateful for my readers. Thanks for being part of my journey.
With the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana fast approaching, I’ve been watching some of the commemoration documentaries that have been screening on New Zealand television. I freely confess to being a great admirer of Diana. I stayed up late to watch her marry Prince Charles, loved seeing the many photos of her looking serene and elegant and beneficent, and still to this day feel sad when I think of her life having been cut so short.
Most of the documentaries have taken a frank yet sympathetic look at her life and works. They’ve celebrated her qualities, her abilities and praised her as a warm and loving mother. They’ve also not shied away from looking at her struggles, both internal and external, as she tried to navigate her way through the difficult waters of being in a troubled marriage and through becoming a member of the royal family. Her sons have added their perspective, as have her close friends. Some footage has added Diana’s own thoughts and feelings on her experiences. In fact, she seems as fascinating and captivating as she ever did, which is quite remarkable given that two decades have gone by since her untimely passing.
No matter what your take on Diana is, there seems little doubt that she was an extraordinary person with a charisma that cut through social boundaries. She sat with AIDS patients, she held hands with lepers, she had a genuine heart for the homeless. She championed causes others rejected and she inspired people to have courage, giving hope where none existed. Some small snippets from these documentaries that chronicled how meeting Diana changed the course of people’s lives is truly inspiring.
I think what has stood out to me most is the fact that her desire to help and to serve came from the realisation that she could genuinely make a difference. Many of the people she met in the course of her charitable works had been marginalised, felt unloved or rejected. Diana, for all her glamour and beauty and privilege, knew what it was like to feel just that same way. It made her compassionate. It made her want to reach out and tell others it would be okay.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want? To feel loved and accepted? To be needed and wanted? To feel as though everything will be all right? But how often do we do things that make others feel rejected in order to make ourselves feel stronger, more in control. Maybe, like Princess Diana, we need to work a bit harder to share the love, hold hands with the rejected and try, in some small measure, to make a difference in the lives of others. For in truth we can all make a difference.
Many of my friends - and at least some of my readers - will know of my fondness for Jane Austen. Last week marked the 200th anniversary since her untimely death. She only reached the relatively young age of 42 when she passed away, from what is now theorised to be Addison’s Disease. This is a condition where the adrenal gland fails to produce sufficient hormones for the body to function. These days medication sorts out most Addison’s sufferers, but in Jane’s day no such treatment existed.
In a small post on my Facebook page (feel free to “Like” my page here) I marked the day by wondering what treasures we might have had, if she’d lived a little longer. But, with six main published works to her name (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mansfield Park all published in her lifetime; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published posthumously) she certainly made her mark. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think dear Jane would be shocked beyond belief at the ongoing interest in - and love for - her works.
These days, Jane Austen spin-offs are a dime a dozen. A number of authors have attempted sequels to Pride and Prejudice, extrapolating the lives of Elizabeth and Darcy into the future. The story has been told from Darcy’s point of view, from the view of the servants in the house, from the perspective of their offspring and even, in one case, how they became involved in a murder mystery. Some of her novels have been updated for modern times, the core elements of her stories woven into current settings. There are even ‘time slip’ novels with characters from Jane’s novels coming to our time, and vice versa. She’s been used as the basis for a ‘theme park’, a drawcard for a book club and an alleged excerpt from Jane’s own life made it onto the silver screen in 2007.
I have, of course, pondered why Jane’s works have garnered such enduring interest and devotion. An article I read recently (in UK’s Writing Magazine, July 2017, by Sophie Beal) suggested that Jane would probably have trouble even getting published today. The reasons for this were ten-fold: slows starts, too much backstory, no diversity, old-fashioned values, telling instead of showing, insipid/passive heroines, having the main action ‘off-stage’, superfluous characters, lack of realism. That’s quite a list.
However, as Sophie points out, a work is the sum of its parts and therein lies Jane Austen’s skills. A partial answer to her ongoing popularity can be found in the magic of her prose, the way she so ably captured the social mores of the time with wit and irony. Readers of today come to know and understand the complexities that those times brought for women, and to see what a minefield all those manners and etiquette created. Themes such as hopes for the future and wanting to be valued also resonate because such issues are timeless and part of the human condition. After all, who doesn’t want to hear words such as those uttered by Mark Darcy in another Pride and Prejudice spin-off, Bridget Jones’s Diary, when he says, ‘I like you very much, just as you are.’
Her heroes and heroines, too, are not perfect. Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are as equally able to laugh at their own follies as they are to laugh at the follies of others. They make mistakes, are too quick to judge or end up the victims of the mistakes and judgements of others. But, when all is said and done, they overcome rejection and adversity in order to get to their happily ever after.
So here’s to Jane Austen. I know her works have made my life richer for the reading. May she continue to inspire, entertain and educate for many more centuries to come.
My visit to Jane Austen's house, Chawton, England, in 2013.
Did you know that roughly 88% of the world’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere? This perhaps isn’t altogether surprising given that 68% of liveable land is also in the Northern Hemisphere. However, that’s 88% of our total population whose experience of life differs in some fundamental ways from those “Down Under”. The most obvious of these is the seasons, with summer and winter being reversed. And, while this does not seem like such a great thing, it has an effect on a number of things. For example, in the Southern Hemisphere the academic year runs from February to December. The best time to go skiing is July or August. And Christmas is celebrated not with warm fires burning and snow on the ground, but with summer sun and barbecues and lashing of sunscreen.
And because I live almost as southerly as a person can get, I can report that here, right on mid-year, we are most certainly experiencing winter. It’s a season that lends itself to the use of alliteration – wet, wild, windswept, wintery – cold, cloudy, crisp, chill. As I write today, I could use many of those words to describe the weather outside. A leaden sky hangs overhead. Wind swirls and eddies as though being chased by an invisible foe. Fat droplets of rain streak the windows and the best place to be is at home by the fire.
I can’t say I’m really a winter person. In fact, if I had to pick a favourite season it would be spring. New leaves, new flowers, new life, longer days, the prospect of the summer to come. It’s not too hot and not too cold – a bit like Goldilocks’ ideal porridge. Yet I don’t detest winter either. Here, in Auckland, we don’t get snow (a few flakes get spotted by keen-eyed individuals every few years but these melt before falling to the ground) and frosts are rare. Fogs sometimes plague the airport, stranding passengers and disrupting travel plans. Rain, on the other hand, is our main tormentor, coming in waves from all different directions, sending people scattering for cover and contemplating the need for webbed feet.
It’s definitely the sort of weather that lends itself to indoor pursuits. Movie watching, games, a spot of mindless web surfing. And, of course, what could be better than a spot of reading on a wild day? But then, that’s the joy of books. You can just as easily read one in the summer as you can in the autumn, winter or spring. You can read them in bed or on the beach or in a plane or on a train. What could be nicer?
So, whether your weather be blizzardly or brilliant, dive in and make the most of books. After all, it’s fine weather…for books.
As you possibly already know, I’m the proud owner of two almost-grown children. My daughter is twenty and my son is seventeen. Although when I say “own” I mean this in a more figurative than literal sense. No one owns children, or at least they shouldn’t. I am also a tutor for high school English and have eight students between the ages of twelve and seventeen in and out of my house each week. And, it’s fair to say that I love teenagers.
Why do I mention this? Well, mostly because I’ve taken pause lately to think about the creation versus consumption conundrum. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate. For a start, it’s virtually impossible to create at the same time as it is to consume. And yet the latter can’t take place without the former. And story, a concept that is at least as old as the hills, is still in as much demand as ever. Thank goodness.
My exposure to teenagers also means I have a very good idea about what is taking up the time of many of them these day – and, for the most part, it doesn’t involve creation. Most of them are avid consumers of content, and most of that is online: gaming, binge-watching series after series through platforms such as Netflix and Lightbox, following YouTubers, a bit more gaming, maybe the odd e-book or two in between. Countless hours are devoted to these pursuits – and every hour that is devoted in this direction is an hour less that could be used to create things of their own.
I’m hoping this post won’t make me sound too much like a relic from the last century (although I technically am) but I have to say that I think this is a shame. After all, who knows where the creativity of youth will lead? To illustrate this, my husband and I attended an interview with Ian Rankin, bestselling Scottish crime novelist, at the recent Auckland Writers Festival – and a great interview it was too. He was asked about his origins as a writer and he talked about how, as a young man, he would write his own cartoons and that he made up his own rock band, complete with plans for fictional world tours and song lyrics. I love that. In fact I did a similar thing myself by writing a magazine – although I confess that I never went quite as far as inventing a rock band. Perhaps I missed a great opportunity there.
Such basic creation seems to me to be an apprenticeship of sorts. Nobody outside of maybe Mum or Dad is likely to see these creations without sniggering (and thus are most unlikely to ever be shown them) but they give the creative muscles a work-out and teach rudimentary skills about what it takes to produce something new and unique. Technology, for all its wondrousness, may be occupying our children’s time and giving them things to talk about with each other, but it may also be stealing away valuable time that could be employed in the pursuit of creation.
Of course this generation could be destined for things that relics like me can’t necessarily picture, but here’s hoping that future is as filled with creation as it can be. Like I say, I love teenagers, and know they have a lot to give – or at least they would do, if only they made the time. My only hope this that technology doesn’t turn out to be some sort of sinister Pied Piper, solving some problems only to cause a whole lot of others. Here’s hoping…
Coming soon. . .