As I keep mentioning, it’s been really really cold here the last week.
We’ve had morning frosts and miserable rain and top temperatures of little over 10° Celsius.
Winter has hit early and it’s the shock to the system more than anything that makes you feel glum. All of a sudden, half your wardrobe is wrong. The sheets on the bed are too light. You’re unprepared for the generous crop of goosebumps to surface on your entire body between dashes in and out of the shower.
Queensland does some things well, but temperature control inside buildings is not one of them.
This region somehow missed the memo (and hundreds of years of wisdom and research from other parts of the world) about insulation and economical indoor heating.
We have a fireplace in our lounge room, for example, which makes that room tolerable (and the square metre directly in front of the hearth very cosy indeed), but we always end up blasting individual heaters in the other rooms, which saps the moisture from the air and often leaves one with the peculiar sensation of being a badly burnt sausage — hot and crisp on the outside; still raw and cold on the inside.
It was with this moisture-less environment in mind that I decided to make a jar of body balm to soothe my alligator skin during the next several months of Toowoomba-style winter.
This balm has only four ingredients and melts wonderfully into the skin. I apply it all over after a warm shower, rubbing it between my palms to soften it then smoothing it wherever I want to — usually my arms, legs, hands, and hips.
The most tedious part of the whole operation was squeezing the individual vitamin E capsules to add their oil to the mix. I got that stuff everywhere.
My father came into the kitchen midway through my balm-making experiment while I had countless slimy capsules piled in the centre of the eating table and yellow oil dribbling down a forearm. I was either brandishing a needle or a pair of kitchen scissors at the time.
‘Don’t ask,’ I said.
‘That looks like—’
‘Don’t say it,’ I said.
When the butters are in liquid form, yes, they turn the revolting, lurid yellow of a urine sample.
But you needn’t be alarmed.
Once cooled, the balm solidifies into a creamy-coloured confection ready to make your skin feel amazing. It’s my current Favourite Thing.
Oh, and one last note.
I used essential lavender oil for fragrance because I love lavender (granny pefume?), but you can either leave it out completely or choose another essential oil ‘flavour’ that you like. Either orange oil or rose oil would be beautiful, I suspect.
PS My pinkie fingers are crooked. Is that weird?
DIY winter skin rescue balm
200 grams pure shea butter (I ordered mine off eBay but you can also find shea butter in healthfood stores)
300 grams unrefined coconut butter/oil
20 vitamin E capsules
1 teaspoon fragranced essential oil
Spoon the coconut butter and shea butter into a large glass jar (at least 600mL capacity). Place in the microwave or in the top of a double boiler and melt for one minute or until completely liquid.
Pierce the vitamin E capsules and squeeze the contents into the other oils. Add the fragranced oil.
Use a small whisk or a fork to thoroughly combine the oils. Allow to cool to room temperature and then place the jar in a dark cupboard to solidify.
The resulting balm is opaque and solid but not hard.
Scrape a little out from the jar with your fingers after a warm shower. Rub between your palms to melt, then apply all over.
This balm is also suitable for treating scars and stretch marks.
I’m reviewing the Queensland Ballet’s production of Giselle tonight at the Empire Theatre.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a ballet. And, somehow, I doubt that my stint as a mini-ballerina circa 1993 really qualifies me to appraise a production of this calibre.
But I’m excited. (If a little dismayed by the weather. How does one dress for a black tie event on a 10° Celsius evening? That’s where high-denier stockings come in handy, I suppose.)
I’m excited because I love to watch people dance. I dont care if they’re a b-boy, a krumper, a ballroom dancer, a contemporary artist, or even… doing this (yeah, all right, especially that). I’m simply captivated by dance and what the body is capable of.
What fascinates me about ballet is the obvious evidence of discipline: that particular sinewy musculature, the buns pulled taut, the feet arched subtly en pointe.
Part of my fascination for ballet comes from the art that I loved most as a student. I used to spend a lot of time poring over books in the library at lunchtime (I was an epic nerd) containing Degas’s sketches of the girls from the Palais Garnier, home of the Opéra Paris and the ballet. They were some of the poorest girls in the city, essentially owned in full by the ballet. Degas caught them at their most intimate and vulnerable. He was preoccupied with their private moments in the wings: dancers rehearsing positions, tying their shoes, or examining their feet; women combing their hair or washing themselves.
There’s something very soft and sad about it.
I can’t quite chase away the idea that ballet is a type of suffering for the sake of art.
Is that too bleak?
On a fluffier note, here are some ballet-inspired things. As I shiver in front of the heater working on my writing in Ugg boots and leggings, it takes a concerted effort to get in the mood to go out. This is for me.
(PS Ladies, do you know about Country Road’s Ballet Shop? All of the non-heeled goodness in Australia lives there.)
Degas’s’ ballerina sketch, graphite and pencil on paper
▸ Country Road Claudia ballet flat
▸ Polli Wood Water Colour Line earring
▸ Columbine ballet sock available from The Iconic
▸ Witchery pink pleated mini skirt
▸ Daisy chain camisole in blush by Ladakh
Needless to say, my birthday was a little weird this year.
I woke up in a hospital bed, but I was allowed leave for the day. I enjoyed a lovely late brunch with my sister and some friends at a café on Margaret Street and a stroll around Queen’s Park before my energy flagged and I asked my sister to take me back to the land of blue and white so that I could nap.
I was, however, thoroughly spoilt.
I woke up mid-afternoon to see one of my best friend’s poking her head around my door. Then there were more friends, a giant Iced VoVo cake (!), mounds of wrapping paper, and plenty of laughs.
Digression #1: Whenever I think to myself, ‘Hey, I’m 29,’ I can’t help but say it in my head like Schmidt from the first season of New Girl: ‘Twennny-NINE!’ OK, maybe you have to see it to know what I mean. But I quite like this number. I’m still young enough to be stupid and quote lines from TV shows in my head when I think of inconsequential stuff.
Digression #2: I went to a naturopath very recently, and after she’d taken my measurements and entered other data, I stood on a fancy set of scales that determined my biological age to be 21. 21. Woo hoo! But then said naturopath started talking about how she felt that the clinic was haunted by the ghost of a dog, so her credibility diminished somewhat. Still. I felt comforted for approximately two minutes.
Anyway, I wanted to use this post as a way to say thank you to all my friends and family for the gorgeous gifts that they bestowed on me — even though I asked them not to get me anything this year.
Thank you especially for the tweets, letters, e-mails, cards, and little thoughts to say hello and to wish me well.
Thank you for the amazing coffee table book, the cat keyring, the photo montage, the ukelele, the graphic cup and saucer, the watercolour palette, the cutesy red dog brooch, the 365-day journal, the novel I couldn’t put down, the fancy facial cleanser that feels like liquid feathers (somehow?), the silver cloud stud earrings, and the mystery bunch of flowers, which lasted 13 days, which lasted until I was allowed to go home. Funny that. And perfect.
I know that I’m missing a few things and people out (the gift card! the music DVD!), but please know that I was touched by every little thing sent my way.
I will always remember this birthday partially for the weirdness but predominantly for the kindness.
Helen Keller wrote: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.’
I felt very loved. Thank you.
So, I’m home again.
I’ve been home since Thursday afternoon, and it’s been strange.
When I went into hospital it was autumn; when I came out, it was suddenly winter. I’m writing this sitting in front of the fireplace, because elsewhere in the house, it’s a biting 9° Celsius. I’m wearing a flannelette shirt, sheepskin slippers, a dressing gown. And glasses. Yes, it’s all terribly glamorous in my neck of the woods.
I haven’t felt much like writing or sharing stuff on here. I still don’t, but I do feel that settling back into a regular writing routine might be a healthy normaliser for me.
Being in hospital was like being suspended in a peculiar blue-and-white world somewhere between reality and complete non-reality.
It was good and bad.
There’s something stifling and almost demoralising about being a patient. I lived in pyjamas and jeans and jumpers. Nurses administered all of my medication and watched me swallow it. I collected all of my meals on a tray. Sometimes a nurse would wake me in the morning. Other times, a pathology worker would come to take blood. Other times again, I would wake up at 2.30 am and catnap until 6.30 am, by which time I was so bored and frustrated that I’d take a shower just for something to do. During week days, I could walk up the ward or sit outside in the courtyard. But I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything beyond that.
This gave me a lot of time to think.
There’s a Russian word, ostranenie, which has no English translation. It means, approximately, ‘the making strange of objects and perceptions that are familiar’. It usually applies to art — a process by which the creator seeks to defamiliarise the world through their work and allow viewers to perceive the commonplace as strange or extraordinary. But I believe that ostranenie can also be applied to life. That’s why a change really can be ‘as good as a holiday’: when your routine is unexpectedly disrupted or you are suspended from your regular life, you come to see it, quite suddenly, as something alien and unfamiliar.
My life having been ‘othered’ in such a way, I’m now in the curious position of looking from the outside in. Even some of my friends and family members have grown strange in the space that’s widened between me and my own life.
You know what’s more demoralising than being a patient languishing inside hospital walls? Realising how impotent you are in the world outside with few or no boundaries at all.
I’ve realised that I’m essentially lonely.
I’m not alone. No. Let’s not confuse the two words. It’s not the presence or absence of people in your midst that necessarily determines loneliness. Loneliness comes when you fall out of sync with the world, when you sense that your microphone has become unplugged and that all that remains is the faint echo of your voice in an empty auditorium.
All my adult life, I have worked hard and expended so much energy. I pour myself into study, into work, into relationships. I put out all this light and heat and warmth and want and it’s almost like I’m speaking into a telephone receiver and getting a mere crackling — or dead silence — in my ear. People use me, drain me, lean on me. They yank me along on their roller coaster rides. But they’re never there on time. They’re never here. I have to go there.
And I think I’m just tired.
I’m tired of competing.
I want out of the race. I want to call ‘bullshit’ on all the lies and bravado and laziness and selfishness and intrusion that people — friends, family, clients, doctors — seem hellbent on supplying me.
So, it’s time to regroup. It’s time to let go. It’s time to work it all out.
And it’s time to start writing again.
I’ve had the experience, on occasion, of shopping with somebody indecisive.
This happens very rarely because I rather hate shopping and I especially hate shopping with one or more people in tow.
I do this thing where I walk into a store, gaze around for approximately four seconds, know that I don’t want anything whatsoever in there, then continue on my way. At a brisk pace. Usually in the direction of a café.
I am not a browser.
I am not a window shopper.
I am a cold and calculated planner who knows her own mind and credit card limit.
If I buy something, it’s because I have planned to do so and have something specific in mind. I take it when I see it and leave it when I don’t.
I can say yes or no immediately.
I know what I want.
So, I feel exasperated when somebody isn’t so sure. How can you not know what you want?! I demand obnoxiously in my mind, all the while smiling and nodding and delineating the pros and cons and secretly wanting to be anywhere else doing anything else. How can you not know whether to take it or leave it?!
Shopping is a stupid example, but it says a lot about my personality.
I know that I’m impatient and a person of extremes, but uncertainty is simply something with which I’m neither familiar nor comfortable.
I’m driven by conviction. When I want something, I want it badly. I want it with every cell in my body. What I really, really want is most often the most reliable guide for my decisions. In fact, whenever I go against my gut instinct, my intuition, what I want deep down, I lose. Every single time.
But right now my gut instinct has gone somehow astray. My intuition has wandered.
I feel confused. I feel split 50/50. I feel… nothing. And everything. Simultaneously. All at once. Is that ambivalence? Equivocation? Irresolution?
You know when people say that they’re torn between options? Well, that’s exactly how I feel. Torn. Rent down the middle. And it hurts. It asserts a certain pain.
For once in my life, I have no idea what to do or where to go or whom to trust.
All I do is remember — all the lies that I’ve believed, all the hopes that have been dashed, all the faith and sweat and wanting that has yielded so little.
There have been times, in the last several weeks, in which I’ve sat on the steps outside my house in the blinding autumn sun and I’ve sobbed and implored God or the universe or anyone listening: ‘Please show me what I have to do to feel better and I will do it, whatever it is.’
And I’ve waited and waited and waited for someone or something to give me just a hint.
But I don’t know. I hate not knowing.
The word liminal comes from Latin limen (threshold) and means something like ‘to occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold’.
I am liminal.
I could so easily step backwards right now, because I do not know how to step forward. So I’m stuck.
And my answer to every question is: ‘I don’t know.’
I want to know what I want again.
And I want to get it.
Having all this spare time on my hands is a funny thing.
You see, I’m not comfortable with time. I take time. I bide time. I waste time. I kill time. But I don’t use it, not in any real sense of the word.
Now I’m sitting in a room that’s not my own, sleeping in a bed that’s not my own, suspended in a sort of non-reality, losing track of time altogether.
I don’t know what to do with myself.
I have become a stranger to myself — a shock in the mirror, an impostor wearing my pyjamas and my underwear and occasionally my lipstick.
I chat with the nurses about trivia, I reassure the pathology collector that I’m OK with the sight of blood, I say, ‘I don’t know,’ when somebody asks me how I’m going, and it doesn’t sound like my voice at all. I don’t recognise it.
I’m stuck here by myself, having to look at myself, listen to myself, and simply be by myself.
And it’s uncomfortable.
Once the crossword puzzles are complete and the novels are finished and I realise, yet again, that it’s impossible for me to nap, I’ve exhausted my list of Things To Do.
So, I’ve found myself looking into different folders on my laptop.
My whole life is stored, to a great extent, on my laptop right here. All of my personal writing, all of my pictures, all of my academic work, all of my professional work, all of my e-mail, all of the files and papers and quotes and miscellanea that I’ve collected and hoarded on this single hard drive for more than five years. I am umbilically attached to my laptop. If I can’t write, I can’t breathe.
Yesterday I trashed hundreds of photos.
I skimmed through endless pictures of cats and cakes, pausing to stare at some of the more unusual images that caught my eye: the photo of my arm when I almost broke it falling off a chair in my bedroom while trying to hang curtains; smiling from behind windswept hair with the city of Kassel smeared in the background; kissing an ex-boyfriend while my old black dog wandered unknowingly through the frame; kohl-rimmed eyes gazing deep into the lens on a night when I had no idea that my life was about to change irrevocably; head tilted upwards into some weak Sydney sunshine after I cut off all of my hair that time.
Then I read back through my blog archives. Some entries made me laugh. Some entries made me frown. Some entries surprised me. How quick I am to forget some things! How slow I am to process others…
Taken as one long, undulating stream of consciousness, my writing seems to reveal parts of myself that I can only see through the clarifying lens of time. I am at once familiar and strange. And I’m reminded once more how uncomfortable I am with myself.
I found my eyes drawn inevitably to errors and flaws. Whether it was a blurred photograph, an awkward sentence, the lopsided dimple in one cheek, or a misplaced comma or letter, the more I looked and the more I read, the more discouraged I began to feel.
Why can’t I look back at myself or back on my work or back on my life itself with any convincing sense of pride or accomplishment?
Am I too close to myself or too far away?
I suppose that, if I didn’t have an eagle-eye for error, I wouldn’t be any good at my job.
But what I’m coming to realise is that maybe I’m not the best editor for my own life.
As a writer and an editor, I know all too well that the best person to edit my writing is, in fact, somebody else. Our brains are tricky. We often read what we meant to write, not what’s actually there on the page or screen. That’s how typos slip through the net even after multiple read-throughs. (That’s also how the human eye can read words upside down or make sense of jumbled text as long as the first and last letters of the word remain the same. Brains fill in gaps.) Unless you can put a piece of your own writing away for a significant length of time – to allow it to become unfamiliar once more — you cannot typically edit that piece of writing with any helpful sense of objectivity.
Your eyes are too close to the page.
Sometimes, however, too much distance can also be a problem. The editor who forgets that the author is another vulnerable human being is a shitty editor. The editor with too much detachment can edit ruthlessly, soullessly. They become a tyrant with a red pen in hand. Sometimes I am that tyrant. Homing in on every imperfection, questioning insignificant matters of style, shifting, adding, and deleting for the sake of it. For the sake of being ‘right’ or ‘better’.
Where’s the comfortable middle distance? I want to know.
For too long, I have allowed myself and others to either pick me apart or leave me alone entirely. I wait for a label from somebody else — ‘smart’, ‘exasperating’, ‘punitive’, ‘hopeless’, ‘full of potential’ — and I wrap myself in it, unable to assess for myself who is right or what is right or who is real and what is real. Or if there’s a real or a right at all. My identity is tethered to labels but there’s nothing living or breathing inside of them.
I’m living my life backwards. I’m receding into the past, stuck in the mistakes for which I cannot seem to forgive myself.
I need an editor to help me out. Somebody close but objective. Somebody who recognises my humanity and can massage my flaws into the whole of myself again, the sum of my parts — neither unequivocally good or bad. Somebody who can hold up an honest mirror to myself and invite me to look in and look away for long enough each time to make sense of it all.
Because none of it makes sense.
Backwards or forwards.
None of it makes any sense.
On this day 29 years ago, my mother almost screamed down the maternity unit at Toowoomba Base Hospital giving birth to a 5lb-15oz-three-weeks-early baby girl whom she named Amber Elizabeth because my father told her to. (She had no choice: he read Forever Amber as a teenager and my fate was sealed.)
Yeah, that was me.
By the virtues of my iPhone and the personal hotspot function, I’m uploading this commemorative image today from a hospital bed. I think that that’s all I want to say about it for now. I didn’t quite intend to spend my birthday resting up against blue pillows and sealed off from the real world, but that’s how the cards have played out.
Right now I want to remember that innocent, untarnished little girl for a moment, who, even in her first year, had formidable eyebrows and hair that stuck straight up. If I could go back in time and tell her something, I’m not sure what I’d say. Maybe Don’t fear, little lady. You got given this life for a reason, a purpose.
(Also: Get your eyebrows professionally waxed. Don’t pluck them aggressively — and therefore asymmetrically — yourself.)
I can’t get enough of Lorde at the moment. (Lorde. So hot right now, Lorde.) This New Zealand youngster sure knows how to churn out some funky tunes.
Her entire EP is available on iTunes now. I suggest that you get on that shizz straight away.