The reader

Other people’s words about … books

She has always been the reader — no-one else in the family is that interested. She had carted her books from house to house as a student, the boxes growing in number each time, keeping them because she could not imagine doing otherwise, and because she thought that there was something permanent in a book, that it lasted forever. But now, when she takes an older paperback out to reread or loan, she is surprised at how fragile it has become, the paper threatening to tear in her hands if she turns the page, tiny black specks embedded in its tissue pages; bugs, probably. She should have cleared them out, she thinks. Packed them up in boxes for recycling. No-one would want them when she was gone.

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I grew up in a house in which every room contained a bookcase or a wall lined with bookshelves. I remember kneeling in front of those shelves as a child, scanning them, trying to make sense of the order in which they had been shelved, trying — with a child’s sense of incomprehension — to understand the titles. There were lots of orange paperback spines (oh, those old Penguin classics!). There were fat, hardback dictionaries — volume after volume of them. There were thick novels with white covers and raised lettering. There were books with titles like Fear of Flying, which didn’t seem to be about flying at all. There were books with titles containing words like ‘teach’ and ‘literature’ and ‘linguistics’ and ‘semantics’.

And none of these books had pictures in them.

DSCN2822

I made a vow when I was about seven or eight years old that I would never, ever read an adult book. The books on my parents’ shelves seemed to be about — or to come from — a disturbing adult world: a world of which I knew I wanted no part. And so the first time I read a book without any illustrations, I felt half-proud, and half-afraid. Was I crossing over to adulthood now, after all? Could I stop myself? It seemed not. Reading, in the end, was more than just enjoyable: it was essential.

As a young woman, I lived for many years in a series of rented houses and share households. My housemates and I each had our own bedroom, but we shared saucepans and bowls and TVs and washing machines. We talked about the films we wanted to see, the music we liked to listen to, the books we had just read. We cooked for each other and shared bottles of cheap red wine and chardonnay. We borrowed novels from the local library, and bought tattered secondhand paperbacks from the local op shop.

During those years, I stored any books I owned on a makeshift shelf that I’d constructed by putting bricks on my bedroom floor and laying a plank of wood over the top of the bricks. Later, I went through a phase where I decided that lettuce crates were a cool way to store my books. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a proper bookshelf. I was afraid, I think, of making the commitment. A bookshelf spelled permanency. It spelled adulthood. It spelled turning into your parents. I wasn’t going to do that. (Why, I wonder, are we so fervently against turning into our elders when we are young? Now I would be honoured to think I was, or am, like either of my parents.)

DSCN2825

I don’t remember exactly when I gave in to owning a bookshelf: to growing up, to admitting, happily, that I shared my parents’ passion for literature. I am glad that I did, though. The books on my shelves may one day fade, their pages tearing, their covers warping with damp. They may seem meaningless to anyone else. And yet there is something permanent in them: there is something that lasts forever, despite their physical frailty.

Reading transports to you another world: a world of someone else’s creation. It makes you feel things — sadness, joy, anger, bewilderment. Writers share their worlds with us; their books are their gifts. Those gifts leave an imprint on us. You can’t store that imprint on a plank of wood resting on a brick. You can’t stack it in a lettuce crate. And you certainly can’t pack it up and recycle it.

Note:
As you may have noticed, I have recently dropped the frequency of my posts a little. I hope to pop in with a post roughly fortnightly or so, but … quality rather than quantity, right?! And there is only so much reading one woman — or this woman, at any rate — can do …

An open door

Other people’s words about … inspiring teachers

DSCN2815

I brought Vera to one of [my mother’s] lectures. It was held in the quadrangle at Sydney Uni and the hall was packed. Vera and I squeezed in at the back next to the open window and then my mother made her entrance, rushing in with a briefcase under her arm. She didn’t know we were there and didn’t see us. Applause broke out, brief but enthusiastic.

‘Oh,’ she said as she reached the front, ‘you are being entirely silly and adorable.’ And then she put on her reading glasses and began the lecture. I didn’t hear a word of what she was saying. I just kept thinking that I too would have clapped had I not known her. There had always been a kind of heat emanating from her. People responded to it, and that day was no exception; that day she made everyone feel that Political Science 101 was a gateway to a brilliantly inspired life.

from ‘What the Light Hides
by Mette Jakobsen

When I began my Arts degree at university, the one subject I refused to enrol in was the subject in which my father was a lecturer. I didn’t want to have the experience of being tutored by, or lectured to, or graded by, a parent. I wanted to make my own way through university, no strings attached.

DSCN2818

Still, word gets around. My father was an immensely popular lecturer: fallow students in other subjects began to come up to me and say incredulously, seeing the surname I shared with him, ‘I think your Dad’s my lecturer.’ The lecture theatre was always packed when it was his turn to speak. He told anecdotes that made students rock with laughter, and the passion he expressed for his subject lit up his eyes, filled his voice, guided his gestures. He was cool; he was a legend: friends told me this all the time. I know now, as I did then, that his students, walking under the shaded trees of that campus, strolling past the old stone buildings with the arched doorways and the spreading lawns, were lucky to have him.

DSCN2821

It’s a cliché, but teachers and lecturers really do change our lives. When I was in Year 12, I had a teacher who shared the same kind of popularity amongst students as my father did at university. She taught Australian history — a subject as dry and dusty as any you could think of, at least back then, in the days when the history of Australia’s first people was rarely considered or contemplated in high school classrooms. She took us through the history of the Australian Labor Party, the social history of (white) women in Australia, the beginning of national pride in Australia.

Like my father, she taught by telling stories. She had a flat, slightly croaky voice, and crinkled, grey hair through which she would push her hand as she walked between our desks. The whiff of cigarette smoke hung about her clothes — woollen jumpers, tweed skirts — leaving a trail behind her. She kept a sheaf of notes on her desk to consult if she needed to, which she rarely did. Mostly, she just talked. Sometimes her voice grew sad, sometimes urgent. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her talking.

Beyond history, she also taught us how to study. It was from her that I learned how to take notes, how to structure an essay, how to study for exams, how to practise good time management so that you could hand in an essay on time. I took those skills with me to university. I wasn’t happy socially the first time I attempted university — indeed, I left at the end of that first year and didn’t return for another six years or so — but I loved the academic challenge of the subjects I was studying, and I have my Year 12 Australian history teacher to thank for that. To this day, I still use the skills she taught us to structure anything I’m writing or drafting, and I rarely miss deadlines. That’s because of her.

DSCN2819

If you look closely, you’ll see a common theme in each of the photos I’ve chosen to accompany this post. They are all taken on or around my local campus, the University of Adelaide — and every one of them shows a door or a window. That’s because learning should be about opening doors, letting fresh air into our minds. It should be about allowing us to enter new worlds, to see things from a new perspective.

Gifted teachers guide us through this process — people like my history teacher, people like my father. They change our lives for the better.

In return, we carry their teaching with us for the rest of our lives. We never forget them.

In the land of giants

My partner and I bought our house on the coast south of Adelaide shortly after we met, eighteen years ago.
We moved here because he’s a surfer, and because the houses down south were, then, affordable.
It was a new life for us: together.
And yet.
DSCN2633
When my sister and I were children, we glimpsed these hills from the back seat of our car on regular family day-trips.
We called the hills giants’ toes, because — to us — that’s what they looked like.
I knew this place before I moved here, you know?
I knew my home before I found it.

Painting your life

A gift

I have always wished that I could draw, but I don’t seem to have inherited my mother’s and my grandmother’s artistic gifts. Hand me a pencil or a paintbrush, and I freeze.
My grandmother dabbled mostly in oils, but towards the end of her life she tried her hand at watercolours, painting scenes from the Dorset village in England where she and my grandfather had retired.
One of her watercolours hangs in the kitchen in our house down south:
DSCN1655
Now if only I could paint the Scrub and the sea as well as she painted village life!

Soup for the soul

Soup from my father’s kitchen

During winter, my father cooks up a weekly batch of vegetable soup,
which he and my mother eat for lunch each day.
The soup flavours vary —
pumpkin one week, tomato the next, broccoli and green bean the next.
And he always sets aside some for me.
DSCN2297
Winter’s well behind us now, of course.
(In the first week of October,
the temperatures soared over 30 degrees Celsius.)
DSCN2298
But I’m still enjoying my father’s soup,
which is tasty, warming and good …
DSCN2299
… and which he makes, always, with love.

Symbols

Some years ago, while we were on holiday together, my mother gave me this little statuette. It’s the Rooster of Portugal: a symbol of good luck.

DSCN2142

I once planned a trip to Portugal myself,
hoping to bring my mother back her own Portuguese rooster.
The trip never happened; on bad days, I think perhaps it never will.
Life!
You think you can keep tabs on it — predict the things you can and can’t do —
but then there is the passage of time
and of fear.
Still, I have my rooster,
and the memories of that holiday with my mother.

Christmas gratitude and celebrations

Merry Christmas to my readers!

My family (mother, father, sister) are home this Christmas.

There’s no better present.

Although …

A pot of tea’s always good, too. 🙂

Note:
I am a fan of the blog Tea & Cookies. After a long absence from the blogosphere, Tara has returned. Reading her post ‘Grateful’ over and over will be another way that I’ll be celebrating Christmas this year.