My Two Million-Year-Old Brain

I didn’t have to go. I could have said no. All the signs were there, telling me not to, yelling, “Danger! Danger!’

A volcano, for God’s sake, about to erupt at any minute the headlines screamed. I bought masks and goggles, and borrowed a Steripen in case water became scarce.

My husband glanced askance at my growing pile of precautions. ‘Are you sure you really want to go?’ he asked. ‘Doesn’t look like much of a holiday to me.’

“I’m going,’ I said. But in my head the voice remained, ‘It’s a sign, pull out now. Don’t go.’

The facilitator of the writing retreat I was attending sent an email. Because we don’t want to put anyone in danger we have decided to relocate the retreat to Australia.

I was incensed. I’m the one who decides to put myself in danger, or not. I didn’t want to go to a writing retreat in Australia. I wanted to go to Bali. Besides the retreat was being held in Sanur, miles away from the widest of the exclusion zones. And the locals needed us. They were suffering because of cancellations and the lack of tourists. We had a moral duty to keep the retreat in Bali. I emailed the facilitator and told her so. But all the time the voice in my head kept saying, ‘See, even someone who spends half her time in Bali thinks this is a bad idea. It’s a sign. Don’t go. Stay home. Stay safe.’

The facilitator changed her mind. The retreat was going ahead in Bali after all. I could tell my husband was disappointed but I was jubilant. Well, most of me was, all except that voice in my head.

The plane refuelled in Darwin, just in case we had to turn back. The stewards told us stories of how they’d been stuck in Bali two years ago because of a volcanic eruption. I thought of my mask and goggles safely packed in my suitcase. Volcanic ash consists of tiny pieces of glass that cut and gouge into eyes and lungs, so the voice in my head kept telling me. ‘It won’t be pretty. You could jump out of the plane now, in Darwin, and catch the next plane back home.’ I didn’t.

The week in Sanur passed without incident. No eruption. No disaster. No ash cloud. But my next stop was Amed, up the north east of Bali, right next to the volcano but just outside the exclusion zone. I was going there to learn to scuba dive. It took me three days to find a driver who’d take me. “Too dangerous,’ ‘Amed is closed,’ No Miss, you can’t go there.’ These were the stories I was told. I emailed the dive school three times for reassurance. Yes, they were open, yes, it was safe, and Amed was suffering because of the lies about it being closed. The small town of 500 people needed me to come and spend my rupiah. The voice in my head disagreed. ‘This is a sign,’ it said. ‘If you go to Amed you will die. If the volcano doesn’t get you the diving will. Breathing underwater? Are you kidding? It’s against nature. You will drown. Your equipment will fail. Your death will be horrible, excruciating, and tragic. Your poor husband. He didn’t want you to come to Bali but here you are and now, against all advice, you’re still going to Amed, you’re still going diving? Idiot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

A strange thing happened when I arrived in Amed. That very day all volcanic activity decreased; the tremors, the crater steam, the magma readings. They all plummeted. I was disappointed. I’d hoped to feel some tremors at least. Nothing. The volcano was beautiful. I walked along the beach of black volcanic pebbles and was in awe of its pointy, steaming majesty. Here I was, right next to the cause of all the fuss, and it was nothing but a gentle, sleepy giant. (And yes, I took the photo above of Mt Agung.)

The next day I learnt to scuba dive. I breathed underwater. I swam through fluttering clouds of rainbow fish and over magical realms of coral and creatures. I was weightless and buoyant, oblivious to gravity and atmosphere in another world beneath the surface. The voice was in my head the entire time, urging me to stop this foolishness, telling me I’d proved my point after the first dive and didn’t need to continue, that persisting with a second and then a third dive was lunacy, I was just pushing my luck, I would definitely die. After two days of diving I was triumphant and invincible. I was still alive.

The voice in my head didn’t let up, it warned me about the state of the roads, the lack of driving skills of the people using them and the total absence of road rules, the fact that tourists get robbed and thrown out of cars on a regular basis, that my credit card would get skimmed, my passport stolen and I’d have no money, no proof of identity and I’d be left in a desperate state, abandoned and probably injured.

I’d managed to avoid monkeys and the numerous stray dogs that populated every area I visited. The voice had warned me about the very real threat of rabies. Ironically it had also insisted that I not to get a rabies shot, or any other vaccinations. ‘Vaccines don’t work, just look at the flu shot debacle,’ it had told me before I left for Bali. ‘Besides vaccinations are full of crap like mercury and other poisons you don’t want in your body. Avoid them entirely.’ And so I did, and gave every monkey and every dog a very wide berth. Even the dog that came running out of an alley in Ubud, threw itself on the ground in front of me and rolled onto its back wagging its tail begging me to rub its tummy. I missed my funny old dog back home. This dog was so full of joy and fun I laughed out loud but I didn’t touch it. Besides, the voice told me it had probably been trained to do just this by some nefarious person who would be appearing out of that same alley any moment demanding money to feed his funny, loveable dog.

On the fast boat to Nusa Lembongan the voice had me checking for life jackets and devising escape strategies in case of capsize. ‘The lack of legislation and protocols is obvious,’ it told me. ‘Safety standards are non-existent. You’ll have to take care of yourself. Can you imagine being left in the middle of the ocean with no proof of identity and no money? Make sure you keep your passport and credit card close.’

On the island I wanted to see the sights and travel to Nusa Cenigan which was only accessible by scooter across a narrow, yellow bridge. The hotel where I was staying only offered truck tours, which, and here I agreed with the voice, would be a lot safer. The roads were shocking, narrow, pot-holed, rutted and in some places flooded. A vehicle with four wheels was a better bet than the two-wheel variety, especially as there wasn’t a bike helmet to be seen on the island. But I persevered. The young men at the hotel’s recreation centre had a friend who would take me for a scooter tour. All I had to do was pay them the money and they’d arrange it for the next day. I handed over 200,000 rupiah and not even thinking to ask for a receipt, the deal was done.

The next day at the appointed time there was no friend, no scooter and a different young man in the recreation centre knew nothing about the arrangement I’d made.

‘You could take the truck tour,’ he said. ‘There’s one leaving at 11am.’

‘Yes, take the truck tour,’ the voice said. ‘This is a sign. If you’d gone on the back of a scooter you would have died. Remember that Australian girl who fell off the back of a scooter in Bali recently. She died. That could be you. Forget the scooter. Take the truck tour.’

But I had paid 200,000 rupiah. It was the principle of the thing. Although I felt like an idiot for not getting a receipt, I was going to get what I paid for. I marched off to the front office and told them what had happened. Within ten minutes a scooter complete with driver appeared and I was off and away, leaving the voice floundering in my wake. It was a marvellous adventure, rugged, rutted roads and all. The scenic spots were rather ho-hum for a girl from the Sunshine Coast who’s surrounded by exquisite beauty every day of her life, but being on the back of a scooter was a blast especially when we zoomed along a beautifully paved and maintained back road past the mangrove forests. I felt free and victorious. Once again I had triumphed over the nitpicking nay-saying of the voice.

I understand the voice. It’s my two million-year-old brain. That ancient reptilian amygdala that wants to keep me safe. It doesn’t want me to have adventures, it doesn’t even want me to have fun. All it wants is for me to survive and back then, two million years ago, survival was paramount. And no matter how I try to reason with it, it doesn’t understand reason, all it understands is fear, especially in a strange place like Bali, or underwater or on the back of a scooter.

And so heading back home, the over-packed minibus did not roll over in the chaos of Denpasar airport traffic, the plane did not fall out of the sky, and, apart from a case of Bali belly, I arrived into the arms of my loving hubby unscathed and still very much alive. But the voice persisted. ’There’s still the journey up the Bruce Highway,’ it muttered. ‘There could be a massive accident. You know how notorious this highway is. You could still die.’

‘Oh, shut up!’ I said.

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Scrabble Divas Rule

It makes friends of strangers, enemies of friends and binds like-minded souls in a pleasure that cannot be experienced by the uninitiated. Scrabble.

Those who have never owned a well-worn Scrabble set and a much-thumbed Scrabble dictionary may scoff, but the pain and the pleasure of Scrabble cannot be beaten.

Like most people, I’d played as a child, enjoyed it at the time but moved on. That was until I met the Scrabble Queen. I was living in a small country town and she took me under her wing. Every Sunday afternoon I would go around to her place and she would wipe the board with me. Month after month this went on. But as I watched and I learned, she passed on her skills to me and I became powerful. The day I beat her I became worthy of the title of the Scrabble Princess.

The legend grew and people would travel to that small town to take on the Scrabble Queen and the Scrabble Princess. One cocky Sydney journalist thought he would have his way with us using his vast knowledge of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. But no.

He left a defeated man, his tail between his legs and our laughter ringing in his ears.

I moved to a bigger town and kept my skills a secret for some time. Sometimes it is best to watch and wait.

Eventually, I found a worthy opponent.

Once again every Sunday we would meet and while her boyfriend cooked us dinner we’d hit the triple scores with everything we had. I taught her tricks I’d learned from the Scrabble Queen and before too long she became a Scrabble Diva to beat the best of them.

Once again I moved on, my Scrabble destiny not quite complete.

It took a while to find an opponent brave enough or foolish enough to take me on. This time I took pity on a poor little Scrabble Tadpole. She reminded me of myself in my younger days. I passed on the skills that had been taught to me by the Scrabble Queen and eventually I bestowed upon her the honour of her very own Scrabble set. But if you challenge her, beware, she has the training of many generations of Scrabble Mistresses. She may toy with you for a while but eventually, she’ll hit you with a seven-letter word on a triple word score that will blow your mind.

These days I play online. I keep in contact with the many Scrabble goddesses I’ve met along the way and we battle it out with each other, thanks to the glory of the internet. But whenever we do get the chance to catch up in person, the Scrabble board gets dusted off and it’s game on. Nothing can beat the clatter of the tiles on their wooden stands, the scribbled scores mounting ever higher on a hastily found piece of paper and the satisfaction of stealing that triple word score, quite literally, from under your opponent’s nose.

Scrabble on!

Freedom. Or Perks?

It’s the time of year when we reflect on the past and look forward to the future. I’ve spent part of the past week at the Woodford Folk Festival and, unlike a lot of other festival-goers, for me it’s been a sobering experience.

Often we don’t notice the changes that occur in our everyday lives. The days slip by, the years flow on and we ease gracefully into other states of being. Well, that’s how I perceive it happening for other people. For myself any change is usually accompanied by much clashing and gnashing.

The first Woodford Festival I went to was a tribal experience. I drove up from Sydney with five others in a Kingswood called Gretel. We set up camp in amongst other people’s tent ropes and tarpaulins. I wandered wide-eyed and sleepless for the entire six days. I went to every jam session and danced all night in the Chai Tent. I joined the choir and made lanterns. I entered The Great Band Competition and circled every act in the program. I immersed myself in the Woodford experience and when it was time to resurface I couldn’t even remember my pin number.

My second Woodford Festival was spent as a performer. I played the Big Top and slept in the Performers’ Camp. I hung out in the Green Room and played in a few jams. I wore one of those coveted “access all areas” wristbands and got to watch packed out shows from the space beside the stage.

The next time I went as a radio announcer. It rained the entire time but I didn’t care. I was like a pig in the proverbial and there was plenty of that.  I interviewed as many performers as I could and when they played for me a crowd would gather. It was live radio at its best.

Since then I’ve produced and presented many national broadcasts from Woodford for the ABC. And when I became a published author I spent a couple of Woodfords on stage as a speaker. Every year I’ve had special privileges because of my position as a broadcaster, a performer and an author including parking spots, all-access wristbands, free tickets and speedy entry.

This year all that changed. It was the first year since that first tribal trip to Woodford that I’ve paid for a ticket. No access all areas, no special treatment.  At first I felt free; I had no responsibilities, no burden of care, nobody expected anything of me. I had no deadlines and no particular place to be. For the first time in almost twenty years I could experience the Woodford Folk Festival on my own terms. But when The Hubby and I had to park in the day parking area and catch the shuttle bus along with all the other punters, the reality sunk in and I didn’t like it. The truth is I enjoy being special. I love having perks and privileges. I scowled like a cranky toddler.

‘Don’t they realise who I am?’ I huffed.

‘Don’t you mean, who you were?’ The Hubby replied.

And it’s true. I love the freedom of retirement. Every day I’m grateful that I get to choose what I do, or don’t do. And after a lifetime in the public eye in one form or another, I adore the invisibility of anonymity. But freedom comes at a price. And for me that included the cost of a ticket and experiencing the festival as a mere member of the public.

So would I change anything about that experience? Would I shackle myself back to the burdens and responsibilities of a working life for the sake of a free ticket and more convenient parking?

I have had the experience of attending the Woodford Folk Festival in many different guises, and those roles of musician, broadcaster and speaker have suited me at the time. But times change and we change with them or we are doomed to a life of resentment and regret. Freedom is more important to me now than recognition, prestige and the perks of a media pass (even though, yes, sometimes I miss those perks).

So here’s to looking forward, to a life of freedom and choices based on that freedom. And if I get a bit huffy from time to time because I used to be someone, I hope I remember that I much prefer the someone that I am now.

Happy 2017.

Outback & Overwhelmed

my-feet-in-the-desert_2Many years ago, when I was a musician, I travelled through the world’s biggest living dot painting to the Northern Territory, a bag in one hand and my guitar in the other. 

I paid my way by singing for my supper, songs I’d written about the sea. Being a coastal girl I’d never been to a place where there were no seagulls. 

I arrived at Yulara, the tourist town that leaches dollars from the grandeur of Uluru. The rock is a magnet for cars, tour buses and four wheel drives. It was hard to find a peaceful place in the middle of the desert.

During the day I would wander away from the resort and sit on a small dune, my pale bare feet digging into the red sand.  I felt as though I was in a postcard, with the rock to my left and Kata Tjuta directly in front. I loved the Olgas, they welcomed me with embracing arms. But I found Uluru overwhelming and kept a respectful distance.

On the last day of my desert adventure, a friend took me out to the gorges. We went for a walk. A gentle gradient to the top of a cliff where a ghost gum grew. There we perched like rock wallabies, watching the light shift and change on the range. Down below, birds were coming home to their water hole.

Time slipped by unnoticed.

I gazed at the rock face, the ancient hills and cliffs, always seeing something new. Gum trees clung in seemingly impossible places. Why did they grow there? How? They had no choice, they had to stay where they sprouted and make the most of it. I felt shiftless and reckless in comparison.

We were running late when I took the wheel of Nelly, ship of the desert. She was a big boat of a Kingswood, column shift, dimmer switch on the floor near the pedals.

I sped across the plain chased by a blood red sunset; the fingers of night creeping up and the darkness scurrying behind us, descending gloom and the threat of looming cattle on the road.

The evening star guided us, first through grey/pink clouds and then through the twilight suspended dusk.

The sun disappeared with a thud and leached all the heat out of the air as it went.

I knew the next day Sydney would slap me in the face but that was many hours away.

The night was restless, windy and warm.

The Book of Love

variation-of-books-in-library

Recently I had a major eureka moment. I discovered how love works. I should really keep the details to myself and write a best-seller about it. And that’s a clue as to how this discovery was made. Books. Best-sellers, biographies, histories, romances and horror stories.

I went to a charity book sale, just out of curiosity. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but I do love books. To tell you the truth when I got there I was a bit overwhelmed; so many books, rows and rows of boxes upon boxes of books. I didn’t know where to start, so I just browsed.

I picked up a couple of books, had a look at them and then put them back. I wasn’t really interested. I picked up a book I knew a friend would love but still nothing for me.

Then I started looking seriously and methodically. I walked up one aisle and down the next looking at each box of books as I went. I found a book that I really should read, a book that would be good for me, a book that would look impressive in my bookcase.  And I chose another book that was uplifting and inspirational, I knew because it said so on the cover.

But still, nothing that excited me.

Then I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my luck. A book by my favourite author, a book I didn’t even know I was looking for until I found it. And then I knew why I’d come to the book sale. It was purely to find that book. It was fate. The book and I were meant for each other.

That’s how love works.

You don’t know what it is until you find it. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing and then suddenly everything becomes clear.

Occasionally you’ll find a great boyfriend for a friend while you remain single. You choose the person you think you should be with, or someone your mother thinks would be good for you, or someone whose cover looks impressive, but none of them really excite you. Plus you’ve got to sort through a lot of stuff that you don’t want first. 

But when love does arrive, it’s totally unexpected and totally wonderful.

So, when I got home did I curl up in bed with my miraculous discovery? No. I put it on the shelf and started reading the book I thought I should read because it would be good for me.

Books may be meant for the shelf but I think I still have a few things to learn about love.

Photo via Glen Noble via Visualhunt

The Best-Selling Author Who Changed My Life

A couple of years ago I wrote a book. My publisher said they wanted it and then they changed their mind. My agent at the time told me if my publisher didn’t want it then no one else would, she couldn’t sell it.

‘Write me something I can sell,’ she said.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Women’s fiction.’

‘Oh.’

Up until that time I’d written a novel about a sixty-something woman who was actually an energy being from another galaxy and two memoirs. I knew nothing about writing women’s fiction.

Shortly afterwards I interviewed a best-selling author. I’d interviewed her before, more than once. She’s a prolific writer. After the interview she asked me how my writing was going.

‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘My agent wants me to write women’s fiction and I’m not sure that I can.’

‘Of course you can,’ she said. ‘Come to my masterclass and I will teach you how.’

‘Masterclass?’

That’s how I found out about Fiona McIntosh’s commercial fiction masterclass, the masterclass that changed my writing life. I paid the money (it’s not cheap but it’s worth it), flew to Adelaide  and spent five days having my world turned upside down. Imagine this; you’ve spent a lot of money to be at a masterclass, you arrive on the first day and are surrounded by other keen writers, you await the pearls of wisdom that are going to drop from your teacher’s mouth and the first thing she says is this:

‘Nobody cares. Nobody cares about your writing. Nobody cares about your book. The world does not need your book.’

I felt as though I’d been slapped. I was a writer. I was special. I was a published writer. I was even more special. Of course the world cared. Of course the world needed my books.

I cried, I fought, I struggled and eventually I got over myself and remembered the rest of Fiona’s opening speech. She said, ‘The less I care the better I write.’

At the time I thought, Well that’s certainly not true, she researches her books impeccably, she’s written thirty best-sellers, she cares .

It wasn’t until I was deep into my next novel and struggling with a worrisome chapter that her words made sense. This chapter had to be in the book but I didn’t know how to approach it or how to make it work. Hell, I didn’t even know where to start. Then I remembered, ‘Nobody cares.’

It was if a weight lifted from my shoulders. Nobody cares. It doesn’t matter. This book doesn’t matter. This chapter certainly doesn’t matter. The world doesn’t need this book. Nobody cares. All the stress and worry of the tricky chapter disappeared. I began to write. The words flowed. The chapter sang. And all because nobody cares, not even me. Hooray!

Fiona McIntosh’s latest book, The Chocolate Tin, has just been released and she’s touring the country to talk about it. (You might have seen her in the latest edition of the Women’s Weekly.) She and I will be having a chat at a literary lunch in Noosa on the 25th of November. You can find the details here. And yes, there will be chocolate.

If you can’t make it to Noosa details of her other events are here.

And if you want to change your writing life then you can find out about Fiona’s masterclasses here.

But no matter what you do, whether you’re a writer or not, that simple lesson of ‘nobody cares’ may change your life.

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Do The Mashed Potato

dee-dee-sharp-mashed-potato-time-columbia-2My friend Fiona was a career woman. Like a lot of my friends at the time she had a great job, plenty of money, all the perks she could possibly demand… and a part-time man.  There was an era of my life when the latest accessory for the woman who had everything was the no-commitment relationship.  Fiona called one such relationship  “Three Days”. Once a month he’d fly up from Sydney and they’d do the long weekend thing, an arrangement she was perfectly content with.  Many of my female friends longed for the perfect relationship – not true love, commitment and roses, but a man who’d leave them alone to get on with their busy lives and only be around when it was convenient.

Fiona asked me around for dinner one night, at that stage she was going out with a sailor, a Rear Admiral no less, whose home port was San Francisco. How marvellous we all thought, she has a boyfriend she only sees every 6 months, very clever.  She asked me what I’d like to eat; Thai, African, perhaps Japanese.  She was a rather put out by my reply. At the time I was working on average 14 hours a day (a relationship with a hermit living in a cave in Estonia would have been too much for me) and I wanted bangers and mash for dinner. I think the trend for good old-fashioned home cooking, like mashed potatoes, was spawned by exhausted careerists who needed to feel looked after, just for a while, before chaining themselves to the corporate juggernaut once more.

Fiona did her best with what should have been a simple task; boil potatoes until they’re falling apart, drain, add milk, lashings of butter, salt to taste, and then go to it with the potato masher. Worked for my mum every time. Unfortunately a glossy coffee table book detailing these instructions hadn’t been released and Fiona was way out of her depth.  What should have been the pinnacle of comfort food arrived on our plates as grey, lumpy soup.

Fast food, disposable music and no-commitment relationships left me feeling empty and homesick. But I didn’t have time to dwell, there was too much work to do. I was dishing out instant gratification on commercial radio, highly researched and tightly formatted for maximum monetary gain. My head was full of call-out figures, familiarity scores and burn factors, that was what music had become to me.  Slow cooked food, slow music that cooks and a slowly cooking relationship were way too inconvenient. But the day after that dinner I found time to buy a potato masher.

These days my life is a lot slower and I love it. Everything has changed. Who would have thought that the career-frazzled woman I used to be would become a happily married writer? Not me. Now I have time to think and cook  and write a book that’s coming along way too slowly. And that’s okay. Other things have changed too. The Hubby and I no longer eat mashed potatoes but have discovered the delights of mashed cauliflower and it’s just as delicious and comforting. Fast food no longer enters the building and I’m feeling well and truly committed after 12 years of marriage. But one thing hasn’t changed. I still have that potato masher.