My research interests

I’m going to write a little bit about what I’m doing at uni, purely to document what’s happening. I am obsessed with documenting personal history, so this is part of that. So if you find academic stuff a bit boring, click away now!

One of the pages of the first edition Alice I had the chance to study
 
As I have mentioned, I’m doing an MA Italian Studies and a collaborative program in Book History and Print Culture. This means I’m doing six courses this term! I remember finding three or four a heavy workload, and that was during my undergraduate studies when I had no children or responsibilities. I didn’t even have a job!

Anyway, just as a bit of background, I mentioned previously what my journey to this masters program has been thus far. I went on to do a Graduate Diploma in creative/professional writing and got part way through another one in editing and publishing but it wasn’t really stimulating me so I didn’t re-enrol. I kind of wish I’d stuck that one out as maybe I’d have gotten some more editorial work. Anyway.

An illustration by Maggie Taylor from a 2008 edition of Alice
 
So upon planning to give Canada a go, and realising the easiest way to do that was for me to study, and given I’d wanted to do a masters for years, ten years actually, I set about deciding exactly what to study. Initially I planned for creative writing but I very quickly realised I didn’t have what it takes. Not only were my English marks shockingly poor during my BA, I didn’t do particularly well in my postgraduate writing studies either. I think the best word to describe my achievement level is “mediocre”. Marks in the 50s and 60s amounting to a Credit average. In addition to this, there was no way I could get the required two academic references from professors who probably didn’t know me during my study, let alone over a decade later… I found one program I could apply to using a portfolio, so I did that. I also applied to a comparative literature program, an English program, and an Italian program. I’d done well in Italian and my professors were only too happy to give me references, despite not having heard from me in about 13 years. I was a bit sneaky and asked them for references for the non-Italian programs too. I actually thought I might have a shot at the literary/writing programs and somehow they’d overlook my dodgy grades. Yeah right!

Alice talking to the Cheshire Cat, original printing of first 1865 edition
 
I ended up getting into only one of the four programs I applied for, the first one I’d applied for, the one I least expected because it was the most prestigious university of the lot. UofT apparently has the largest Italian department outside of Italy! Not to mention world-class teaching staff and amazing facilities. I must admit, though, as soon as I realised I was in, I developed a lump in my throat which I swallow at various intervals but which has remained since. I didn’t feel true drive and passion for Italian. But I was excited, and knowing how well I do with languages I knew this was the right choice as it would be easier for me than something literary. Little did I know that in fact it was a literary program I’d gotten into! Just Italian literature! Uh oh… my undergrad was pretty much straight language… and no, reading “Spotty va al circo” and a bit of Italo Calvino doesn’t count!

Anyway, I was excited. I had some time to think about my research interests and I had a vague idea that they resided in two areas: a kind of editorial/textual area, which involved loving words and books and language structure; and the other is about migration and cultural identity, how we come to know where we belong and find peace with our culture. So two totally different areas. My main goal through this program is to nail down exactly what my research interests are and specialise in one area. Not as easy as it sounds for an all-rounder lazy person like me.

When I finally worked out how to enrol in courses and that I’d be doing six of them (what?!?!), I found there wasn’t a big pool to choose from. I had to choose one particular introductory course for book history, then what was described as a “pedagogical” compulsory course for Italian. The other four courses were up to me, although there was only five to choose from. I opted out of studying Pirandello, given I’d never heard of him before and the prospect of having to read an entire book in Italian freaked me out. So I ended up enrolling in one about film and perceptions of China and Italy from both camps, one about something I’d never heard of before but that I got extremely excited about (philology), one with an extraordinarily long title that had something to do with new ways that Italian language and culture is being mixed into Canada and vice versa, and the last one was about a migratory diaspora from a particular part of Italy that I’d never heard of. Very exciting but very scary given how little I knew about what I’d be doing. I felt both thrilled and terrified.

Another stunning Maggie Taylor illustration from Alice
 
So this is supposed to explain my research interests. Well, I’m halfway through the first part of the program now, and I can safely say that my interests still lie in those two areas but I think I’m leaning more towards the migrant diaspora stuff. And not necessarily Italian. I’m finding the textual stuff interesting but there is also a lot of boring stuff that seems like much ado about nothing sometimes, whereas the cultural identity stuff feels like me, I want to know more, and my personal connection to and experience with these issues means it is somewhat cathartic for me to study this stuff. There is purpose there. I absolutely adore the philology, it’s amazing, but it feels, I don’t know, kind of abstract. Like it’s great but it doesn’t relate to me enough. Gee, that sounds so self-indulgent! Oh well.

I think I want to tell stories, those of people I know, myself, but also others. I want to create connections with culture and investigate the concept of home and belonging. It’s something I’ve been looking for in my life and I daresay there are many others in the same situation with less capacity for or interest in finding the answers. So that’s where I’m at. The density of information that I’m absorbing, the sheer volume of it, is surely going to mean I’ll be clear on exactly what I want to do after this, whether it’s a PhD or something else.

The right path

How do you know when you’re on the ‘right’ path? I feel like I used to know, before I got distracted by life. It’s like, in my teenage years and 20s I used to have huge amounts of time to ponder and think over things. Too much time really. An ex-boyfriend (who, when he was my boyfriend, wouldn’t commit enough to my liking and I desperately wanted him to buy me some jewellery to symbolise our commitment) once bought me a birthday present, I think when I was about 22. It was a silver ID bracelet and he’d had it engraved. On the front it had my name and on the back was “No Thinking Zone”. I think we’d been dating a year or so and he wasn’t really intellectually the right person for me but he easily saw my issue back then. I was thinking too much, going over every little thing, obsessing.

Oh if only I had the time to obsess now! Something happened, I think, around the time that first serious relationship started to break down, and life started to become full. I resisted, of course, and it was only because that boyfriend announced he was leaving for a stint in London that I pig-headedly pushed my way forward and ended up leaving for my own London adventure a few months before him. I resisted it all the way, was convinced I would be there for about six months, and I wasn’t going there to party it up like all the other antipodeans. Oh no, I was just going for, um, the experience, whatever that was… And I’d be back in six months anyway. I didn’t need to let my hair down and be stupid on the other side of the world to find out who I was. I was going to fix my relationship, get married, and settle down in Canberra. Or Melbourne. That was me eight years ago. I would sit and think things over, imagine myself in various scenarios, get a feeling, and know the right path. I don’t think that’s what I did with my decision to go to London, although I know for certain it was the right choice. I became a completely different person, a much better person, after living in London. And I met Mr Chewbacca, which is one of the best things that could have happened to me.

With my decision to step into a new life in London, I forfeited this process of assessing my future plans. I began to be spontaneous, and ended up doing a lot of things I would never have considered previously as a result. Some things I can’t say I’m particularly proud of, and I don’t know how positively they contributed to who I am now, but I’m here to tell the tale (not in a public forum though!) and I don’t regret anything. I do miss that clarity, however, those moments of contemplation which allowed me to see the right path. I haven’t got the time now, to sit and think and plan, and so much has happened, life and circumstances have descended upon me in layer upon layer of possible deviations from the right path so that there is now no going back. I can’t sort back through each layer, meticulously choosing my path at every turn. Too much has happened.

So now I am on the path I’m on. I’m here, in Canada, a country I never even envisaged visiting let alone living in, and I’m doing an MA at one of the top universities in North America. As a family, we’ve taken a huge risk coming here. A risk for what? Because we didn’t know for sure if Australia was the right place for us. We couldn’t handle any more 40 degree endless summers. We wanted snow and beautiful trees and piles of leaves and traditions at the ‘right’ time of year, to be in a place that feels like it’s a little more in touch with the world. The course I’m doing is certainly leading me in the right direction and it’s fantastic to be studying again, especially with a level of maturity that allows me to apply myself fully to the material and achieve good results. But it will be ending all too soon.

Many MA programs are two years but this one is unfortunately just one year. I love this university, I am so privileged to be taught by some exceptional academics. I seriously want to do a PhD. But there’s one problem: this university is in Toronto, in the city. I don’t want to live in the city. In fact although I live 40km out of the city, that’s still too close. I can’t wait to move. But if I wanted to do further study I’d have to stay close enough to commute.

I got some clarity around what we might do next yesterday and I know what our options are in terms of staying on in Canada once I’ve graduated next year in June. Unfortunately, none of those options is clearly the right one. We haven’t been here long enough to decide whether to go back home or stay on permanently, another year testing things out at least seems the right thing, but that’s not an easy thing to do. These decisions are depressing me! I wish it wasn’t so complicated, and so much about money!

https://www.youtube.com/embed/_emz0o638PQ“>http://

I listen to my Aussie music, stuff I never listened to when I was at home, and I actually miss home, I miss it for the first time since London. I don’t believe in regrets, they are a waste of time, everything happens exactly as it should. But there are so many things that, if I’d just thought at the time with some clarity, taken a few moments to sit and really make the decisions without rushing, I’d have gone a different way and things would be better. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’ll never know, there’s no such thing as Sliding Doors. Right now, we’ve got some serious thinking to do and big decisions loom yet again. Wasn’t it meant to be easier than this? Didn’t I plan to settle down and enjoy simple family life when I left London?

Hard

I’ve never heard this music before but my dad has recommended it and the artist is Italian so it’s fitting. I plug my free Apple earphones into my broken Samsung and hit shuffle. Within moments of hearing the opening bars there are tears in my eyes and for once I’m grateful for my vision being obscured by my child-scratched sunglasses. It’s piano, reminds me a bit of Michael Nyman and I remember the story my friend K told me about him propositioning her one late night in London.

This MA study, it’s hard, in all respects. It may even be one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced to date. The work is hard, the commute is long and complicated, and I feel totally conflicted about leaving my kids, neither of whom like being without me.

This music is my soundtrack now. Ludovico Enaudi. If I have another child, I think I’ll call him Ludo. Or maybe that’ll be a good name for a family dog. I won’t forget what this music has done for me. Although damn it, stop with the tears already!

I wrote this on the third day of my first week at uni. I was sitting on the bus at 8:15am having just forced my protesting 13-month-old into the arms of a lovely stranger while I put myself through the torture of a complex class conducted all in Italian. I think in those early days I understood about a quarter of what was said, if that, and what made it worse was that the other three members of the class understood everything.
At this point I’d been to five of my six classes and I was feeling overwhelmed. And to top it off, other than Thumper’s separation anxiety, the Dude was having huge meltdowns about catching the school bus and Mr Chewbacca had just messaged me saying he was almost in tears too at having to take Dude to school against his will because he’d point blank refused to get on the bus.
Looking back, yes, it was hard. But we’ve moved on now. That first week, wow, I’ll never forget it. And I’m glad I wrote this as it reminds me just how easy I have it now in comparison.

First week as a student again

I pinch myself constantly. Are we really doing this? Living in Canada? Am I actually doing an MA? Is this real? It really is like a dream. Although trying to comprehend the Roman accent of my lecturer is like a nightmare! No, it’s not that bad, but it’s hard work, especially as I’ve not been speaking Italian for over a decade now. I felt it coming back as that first class wore on and I think I’ll manage it after a few weeks, but man, it’s hard going! Luckily it’s really the only class I have that’s totally in Italian. (Just a side note that won’t interest anyone but Italian students: I emailed my professor before the first class to apologise as I would be late and I actually titled the email “la prima classe oggi”. “CLASSE”!! What was I thinking?! That’s not the correct word for “class” in Italian. Urgh. Feeling stupid!)Displaying 20150917_105824.jpgDisplaying 20150917_105824.jpgDisplaying 20150917_105824.jpg

Lovely buildings around campus
Lovely buildings around campus

My other classes are either totally in English or a mixture, which works well. The Italian professor is luckily a super nice, kind guy who is very understanding about my family responsibilities. He even had no issue with my having come late to the very first class. Meanwhile there’s no hint at any assessment and the course outline is all in Italian and I can’t see anything in there about due dates! It looks like we will be expected to do a presentation and an essay at least… scary!!

My week generally looks like this: nightmare day Mondays with 10-12, then some weeks we’ll stay back and watch a film as part of the course. Then at 2pm I have my Book History class in the rare books library which is a good 10 to 15 minute walk from the Italian faculty. That class is meant to go til 5pm but, typically, I have a clash as the foundational pedagogical class for Italian is scheduled between 4pm and 6pm back over in the Italian department! Apparently these clashes shouldn’t happen as the Book History people asked any collaborating department to confirm in writing that they’d leave that time free and not schedule any of their classes during those three hours. In typical fashion, the Italians have ignored that and I’ve been screwed over. It’s too late for them to rearrange things and, frankly, why would they go to all that trouble just for one student? Yes, this confirms that I’m the only person doing the Italian Studies and Book History collaborative program. Quite cool! And to be honest, that third hour looks like it might be just dedicated to faffing about some weeks anyway. The professor spent a significant portion of time at the beginning of the class talking about the best places to get coffee and nice food around campus! Okay, sure, coffee is important, and I’m missing proper espresso like nothing else, but I don’t consider this a good use of the time. Surely there are other places and people we can ask for this sort of info.

As for the final class on Mondays that is apparently so incredibly important, it really reminded me of being back in high school or even first year uni. All this stuff about the dos and don’ts of essay-writing! Seriously?! We’re master’s students here! But I’m beginning to see that the standard of writing is pretty low generally and these professors obviously dedicate a significant portion of their time ironing out issues and wading through shit writing. So at least I’m in front there. Although I haven’t written an essay in over 10 years so it won’t be easy!

Oh, back to my schedule, so Monday is the day from hell as I don’t get home til 7:40! Past the kids’ bedtime. It already sucks with Mr Chewbacca being at home but once he gets a job it’s going to really suck. Dude gets off the bus at 4:10pm and someone has to be there to collect him, plus little Thumper finishes daycare at 5:30pm. And then there’s dinner to cook, entertaining both kids who will no doubt be tired, especially the little one who is still breastfeeding and will no doubt miss it during the day. Although she’s great with food and doesn’t ask to feed, maybe just for nap time if I’m there.

Anyway the rest of the week is early starts again Wed and Fri for my 10am class with Rome accent professor and Thursday is my favourite class, philology. On Tuesday it’s just the afternoon with 2-4pm diaspora class and then a 4-6pm film class, so another late one home to two tired kids at about 7:40pm. A 10am start may not seem early but because we’re so far out of Toronto I have to leave home by 8am to be at uni for 10. My routine so far is to put the little one in the stroller and walk her to daycare which is about 8 minutes’ walk, then the bus stop is just up the road. I catch an 8:15 bus to the train station and catch an 8:56 train to Union station, then the subway takes about 10 minutes. I get off at Museum and it’s five minutes walk to my class which I can be on time for providing I can stick to that schedule and don’t have to line up to get a coffee for too long. The difficult part is leaving the little one at daycare which she started this week. She didn’t want me to hand her over the first few times but on Thursday she reluctantly went and same on Friday, without tears. Phew! I think this means she will be okay.

The good thing is that this difficult class that’s on three mornings a week finishes after about a month as the professor is just visiting so in October I’ll have Wednesdays and Fridays off, which I’ll no doubt need. Because I’m doing this collaborative program plus this term we have to do this pedagogical course in addition to the standard full time course load of four, I am actually doing six courses! It seems unachievable at the moment but I’m determined to do it, somehow…

What is home? (Part 1)

I’ve had part of this post sitting in drafts for quite a while now, since January this year. When I hit ‘publish’, I’m making things real. I’m announcing to the world (or the one and a half people who read this blog) that yes, we are moving our family across the other side of the world. Here goes…

When I used to visit my friends in Melbourne about four or five years ago, I’d wake up in a state of pure bliss and relaxation just knowing I was here and not in smelly old Sydney. Here in Melbourne, the city I’d loved since my first visit at age 16.
image

I vowed that once I was old enough I’d move there. But life happened. I finished school, went to uni, found a boyfriend, moved into a share house, got a job, a car, bought a house, broke up with my boyfriend, went overseas, came back, got married, had a baby, sold a house… and finally, the time was right. And I moved to Melbourne. And finally, finally I could make myself at home, feel settled, stop the search for home. Couldn’t I? No. It appears not.

As I mentioned previously, I don’t feel very Aussie and there’s a lot about this country that doesn’t work for me. So over the last year or two we’ve been toying with the idea of leaving Australia. The prospect scares the crap out of me, I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t. But the prospect of staying in Australia is somehow more daunting.
image

Let’s backtrack: about two years ago while living through yet another revolting, endless summer in the South Western suburbs of Sydney, Mr Chewbacca and I decided it was time to leave. Finally he’d come around to my way of thinking: Sydney was not for us. Not long after that, the tenants renting my house in Canberra for the past six years announced they were moving out. I had an agent go through the place and it became clear that the house was not really fit for renting out or sale without some freshening up. We decided selling was a good option as we’d never settle in Canberra and wanted to offload the house given how much work it needed. So in July 2013 we moved to Canberra for six months while we renovated and sold the house. Once that was done, we moved here to Melbourne, on Australia Day 2014.

The odd thing about all this though is that despite my desperation to move to Melbourne for so long, as soon as we made the decision to move and the wheels were in motion, we began discussions around moving away from Australia all together! When I realised just how little Australia fits us, I was so disappointed. I wished we’d come to this conclusion back in London, saved ourselves a bunch of money at least! But for some reason it didn’t work that way.
So, where to? We discussed our options at length. Staying in Australia was out: too hot, no winter, no defined seasons, southern hemisphere, cultural desert. New Zealand? No. The only thing it has going for it (for us) is breathtaking scenery and snow; we don’t identify culturally. And we still have the problem of it being in the wrong hemisphere. So back to the UK? No. That would be a step backwards. And we are used to the space now. Plus you’re not guaranteed proper winter and summer there either… Somewhere in Europe? But we don’t speak the language. Italy? Nah. I might speak the language and have a degree in it but culturally I don’t really identify. The US? I don’t think I could handle the political extremes. Plus it’s near impossible to get in as migrants. Somehow we narrowed it down to Canada. I still don’t really know how.

First we looked at what sort of migrant programs are available and discovered we don’t qualify on a skills basis. I know some people get jobs and sponsorship but that’s hard if you’re not in the know and making connections within your field. So the options were narrowed down to one really: study. I’ve been talking for years now about doing a Masters and there’s no reason why I can’t do it overseas. Why not Canada? At least if we don’t love it or it doesn’t work for some reason I’d have a Masters so would be more employable. But a Masters in what exactly? Oh dear, I think I finally need to specialise!

It has to be a creative writing MA, surely, I thought to myself in the few moments I had as we packed for our Melbourne move. But can I really do this? Do I have what it takes? Am I really cut out to be “a writer”? What if I’m total shit? Will I be laughed out of the program, told a few home truths about just how big a mountain I need to climb before my writing is good enough for a postgraduate level award? For publication? Fear of failure has caused me not to make an attempt in the past so I decided that this time I’d go for it and ignore all those little critical voices in my head. As I looked further into my options for writing masters’, I began to get excited. Some of the programs looked fantastic and I began to imagine myself as a published author, writing away in a warm study with snow outside. But then I noticed something which made my heart sink. A successful application required solid grades and great academic references, neither of which I had. My English marks were pathetic, and that’s being kind. And there’s no chance any of the tutors or lecturers would remember me after 14 years, and even if they did they wouldn’t give me a good reference as I frankly don’t deserve one. My postgrad marks weren’t much better, and that was pure creative writing. I even emailed a few faculties and asked if there was a way to get around the references, given its been so long. But they all said the same thing: apply to a program that doesn’t rely on references and grades if you haven’t got those, because ours does, deal with it. So I was at a dead end.

When I was cleaning out the shed at my old place in Canberra I came across all my notes from my uni days. I didn’t have the heart to throw out assignment after assignment with great marks and detailed comments from one of the best teachers I’ve had, my Italian teacher. I googled him, and was amazed to discover he was lecturing at a university in Melbourne! Then I looked at my academic transcript and suddenly it was a Gru moment: “Lightbulb!” My marks in Italian were good, excellent even, and given I’d received a scholarship from the Italian government I suddenly realised how good I looked on paper when it came to studying Italian. And I knew without a doubt that my Italian teacher and the departmental head would remember me and I was pretty sure they’d happily give me references.

To be continued in Part 2…

Some writing

I never publish my writing, even on this blog. It’s mainly because I don’t have enough of it that I consider worthy of even being read by another human, let alone being published anywhere. I’m all talk when it comes to writing. Yes, it’s true, I never get a chance to sit and write, but by the same token, I would do it if it were really important. I haven’t got the self-discipline and I can’t focus for long enough. 

As part of some planning for my MA application (yeah, I’m finally doing it, if I can work out how, after ten years out of university), I stumbled across some bits and pieces I’d strung together when preparing an application for a Masters program about seven years ago. I never actually ended up applying, although I had everything pretty much ready. I had planned to study in the UK when I went over all those years ago but for some reason, I can’t think why now, possibly the financial implications, I never ended up applying

But anyway, I came across this piece which, although it is far from polished, and in fact somewhat incoherent really, I thought I’d post here. I quite like it, as the beginning bare bones of something.  It has no title, just a series of subtitles for each little section.

 

WEDDING

Boxing Day in 1924 was a cold but bright day.  Rosa, frail and thin, wore a large heavy wool coat and some second-hand men’s sheepskin gloves.  Lottie looked the picture of spring, shining cheeks, a freshness and openness about her.  Joe wasn’t cold, he was tough.  And he didn’t care much for fashion or looks, he just got on with things.  Thomas remained smart and stiff with carefully parted hair, and perfectly groomed moustache and a three-piece suit with his watch chain draping appropriately across the front pocket.

Lottie glanced over at her counterpart, the other mother-in-law, sitting alongside her husband.  Hands folded in the lap and a hardened look on her pale face, you could see she wasn’t well.  She looked about ten years older than she was.  As the cameraman adjusted his lens, ducking under his black cloth to check the focus, Lottie wondered about Rosa, and whether she had ever wanted anything more than marriage at 16 and 12 children.  There was no real expression on Rosa’s face; you would never know, thought Lottie, that she is the mother of the bride, who sat fidgeting alongside her new husband, glowing with early pregnancy in her usual state of nervous excitement.  Perhaps once you’ve been to ten of your children’s weddings you just don’t think it’s special any more.  The fashion was certainly well and truly still Victorian, and shabby even at that.  Lottie’s hair was a bohemian experiment, piled tight and curly up on top of her head and fenced in with a bright silk scarf.  Rosa had worn the same hat twenty years earlier for her eldest daughter’s wedding, a large-brimmed affair with a dull ribbon squeezing the protruding cap.

“Right-oh everyone, hold still…” announced the cameraman as he ducked under his cloth for the final time.  Lottie could hear Uncle Jim cracking a joke in the row behind her and she reached her hand up to quiet him, but couldn’t help laughing.  Snap went the shutter and that was it.  Joe had smiled at the joke too as he sat next to his wife, enjoying the moment, amused by the amount of effort people went to for something as trivial as a photograph.  The moment was captured perfectly, Lottie and Joe smiling away as they always did, and Rosa and Thomas, stern and stiff.  Two such diverse families one could never meet.

 

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Gladys had spied him walking home from work and had gotten all worked up and flustered, as usual.  His shyness was attractive to her in a mysterious and intriguing way.  He was used to silly girls mooning over him, and thought nothing of this one; but she was persistent, and that’s what made the difference.  She worked herself up into a frenzy. The more he withdrew and went about his usual routine, the more she became adamant that he was the one.  She liked the chase.  It wasn’t that he didn’t like girls.  He just wasn’t interested in the game of flirtation; in fact he didn’t play games at all.  He found her attractive too, in a sort of ditsy, helpless way.  She wasn’t unintelligent, but she was so highly strung that the slightest thing would cause hysteria.  Perhaps it was because she was the youngest girl in her family, much younger than the other two girls, and spoilt rotten.  She wasn’t close to her mother; it was her father who doted on her and encouraged her little princess routine.

He puffed on his pipe like a man twice his age and considered things. She was the antithesis of his own mother, who was easy-going and level-headed. She’d probably find this small, hysterical girl endearing, at least until she became annoying. When he was near this jumpy rabbit, he felt a pull as he’d never felt. He’d never been compelled to pursue anyone, but this girl, her chasing and flirting was becoming infectious.

 

MEETING

Lottie stood at the shop window watching the reflection of the pipe smoke curling inside an invisible tunnel up into the air.  Somehow, without the smoke deviating from its perfectly vertical course, snippets of the sweet, comforting smell drifted across to her, and she felt warmer with each breath.

“I’d love to smell it again,” said Joe, sucking in the air through his mouth with a practised rhythm.  It was enough to bring her out of her trance and she straightened her posture and peered with purpose into the shop window momentarily.

“Is this your shop, Sir?” she asked, turning towards him as he leaned against the door frame.

“That it is, Miss,” he replied.

“I wonder if you might consider selling some of my garments?” she asked, lifting the cloth that covered a large wicker basket she held.  He moved only his eyes in the direction of the basket for a few moments then chewed the stem of his pipe.  “On commission, of course,” she added hurriedly.  He slowly breathed out a soft cloud of smoke.

“I mean no disrespec’, Miss, but ‘ow can I be certain ye’re of good repute?” he asked.

“Well, I… I must say, Sir, I am quite offended by that.  I know not whether you and your shop are of good repute yet I am willing to sell my items here, at least on a trial basis.”  She tried to stare him down, even though he wasn’t looking at her.  Joe peered into the bowl of his pipe, then tapped it sharply against the wall to free the last few ashes.  He turned and held out a hand for the basket.

“Come inside, Miss, an’ I’ll see what ye’ve got.”  She hesitated, but let him take the basket so knew she had to follow him in.

The shop itself was most interesting; it didn’t fit into any particular category—iron mongers, haberdashers, tailors—there was such variety of goods filling the shelves which reached to the high ceilings.  Lottie couldn’t help staring in amazement before she noticed him watching her with amusement and collected herself, replacing her look of amazement with a look that said she’d seen it all before.

“Is this your own work, Miss?” asked Joe, running a finger over a finely embroidered red rose, intricate green leaves curling around it in a myriad of Celtic style patterns.

“Of course,” she replied haughtily.  Joe smiled at her, noticing for the first time that her own clothes were adorned with the same style of embroidery, tiny coloured flowers on the dark background of her bodice.

“Your work is very fine,” he nodded. She relaxed a little, having been ready to gather it quickly into the basket and march out of the shop, secretly terrified.  “I’ll sell it, at an agreed price, with commission.”  Lottie breathed an audible sigh of relief and was about to speak when…

“On one condition.”

She immediately became suspicious again.

“Is the commission not a condition already?” she asked, grasping the embroidered nightdress, ready to leave.  He noticed how tense she was.

“Yes, ye’re right, that it is.”  He pulled a shirt from the basket and held the colour close to his eye, lifting his glasses to see it clearly in detail.  “I’ll give ye thruppence for each o’ the men’s shirts and a shilling for each ladies nightdress.”  It was more than she’d expected, and she wondered what his game was.  But the money was all important, so she nodded in agreement.

“I’ll warrant there’ll be a demand for your garments, but we’ll wait to see what happens.  Come back in a week,” he said bluntly, gathering the pile of clothes out of the basket and dumping them on the counter behind him.  There was something about him, she thought, that told her he was honest.  Perhaps the pipe smoking.  Her father would puff on his by the fire of an evening and announce to no one in particular, ‘ye can alweez trest a man wi’ a paipe’.

So with that she left the shop, sneaking another quick glance at its crowded walls, full of everything from tea sets to nails.

 

HAPPINESS

Uncle Buddy was the first person in the street to own a camera.  The camera itself had been around for years, but only professional photographers, of which there were not many down the East End in the 1930s, owned them.  There hadn’t been many celebrations or real knees-ups for some time, since the beginning of the war when Arthur was sent off.  Lottie had never been the same, but had helped so many, which in some way helped her own grief.  Life moved fast, and Lottie made it so. As long as things were humming along, as long as she just got on with things, there would be no time to mull over losses, which really was a waste of time and made one old beyond her years, said Lottie, when questioned as to her busy life.  It was worth it, for her, as she brought solace to so many grieving mothers; most of them felt their sadness wane, knowing what Lottie herself had gone through.

The trouble was, the camera didn’t accommodate speed.  It didn’t accommodate any movement.  In order to be captured on camera, one had to remain absolutely still for at least a minute, depending on the light of the day.  So all of Uncle Buddy’s earliest pictures were of buildings or graves, which were guaranteed to remain steadfast and one could really focus, get the timing right, the shadows black and the light white.  A grave was the closest thing to a person that Buddy could photograph.  He could have asked a stranger, paid some quiet child to sit still for him, but he felt as if the subject should be still by its very nature.  Posing, trying to remain still and frozen for the photograph was so unnatural and, to Buddy, went against the very reason for the existence of the medium.  Painting was a medium with which one could capture movement, and moving objects and depict them in any way needed.  It was artistic license, making it up according to a fantasy.  A photograph was real and should never be used for trickery.

The tragedy of war, the removal of life, the future of an entire family, had caused Uncle Buddy to develop a fixed way of thinking about photographs.  And it took the birth of Lottie’s first grandchild, only son of her only son, to bring her back to life.  She remembered dancing, singing, the many celebrations she had been a part of since her marriage until 1917.  Celebrations became a part of daily life—in fact not celebrating became a novelty, and Joe secretly relished those days off, where he could smoke his pipe in peace and quiet and think of nothing.

Uncle Buddy got a new camera.  For him, it was a whole new medium.  It replaced his painting almost entirely.  It captured life, movement.

“Awright, you lot… ‘Eck, pop in there on that side… wear your ‘at, can’t ‘ave a picture without the ‘at… put that baby down for a moment, will you Glad?  No, Ron, thas it, pop yer ‘ead in, thas right…”  Joe bared his missing teeth as he laughed along with Ron, the next door neighbour, and Mrs Axley from across the road, who was laughing so hysterically by this point that she held a hand to her mouth and tears brimmed in her eyes.  Gladys finally relaxed, her thick glasses giving her something convenient to hide behind, as she smiled at her husband, laughing heartily, a rare thing for him.  Uncle Buddy chose the moment and the flash bulb smashed, the moment captured.  Lottie was in the corner.  Whether she laughed, we’ll never know. That corner of the photograph was torn off by mistake.

The fear and necessity of specialisation

I’ve always been an all-rounder. Generally pretty good at everything. In fact, fairly early on in my life it became apparent that if something warranted a bit of effort, application or concentration from me, I wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t often that things fell into that category during primary school, but as I progressed through high school and on to university and then into the workforce, I came to a frightening conclusion: it’s not good enough to be okay at everything, even if you’re clever and capable enough to be okay at things without any effort. I discovered I had a distinct problem with self-motivation, drive, ambition, and ultimately in my 20s this lead to something akin to depression. I was terrified to discover that I wasn’t passionate about anything! Not really. Because being passionate meant really immersing myself in something. It meant choosing and being disciplined enough to stick to something. And risking failure.

Now at 35 years old I am experiencing some pretty harsh realities and finding it harder and harder not to specialise. As this very insightful article I just stumbled upon explains, if you don’t specialise you become unemployable. I would go further to say that if you don’t delve into your passions, you are living small. I’m not going to be so arrogant as to assume that everyone knows what he or she is passionate about, or that everyone has the means to explore passions to the greatest extent. But I think that most excuses for not really grasping your passion fully are cop outs; it might frustrate some, but the old cliché is true: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This question of will comes up for me now. As I mentioned earlier, I was shocked to realise I wasn’t really passionate about anything, or at least passionate enough to really get up close and personal with any one topic. In the past, I’ve put this down to being ‘pretty good at everything’. But what I realised recently is that I’m not good at everything, I’m good at what I’m interested in. It seems pretty simple, but the moment I realised that, I also realised I was pretty arrogant to dismiss specialisation in any given field purely because I was just so fantastic at everything. That was the ultimate cop-out.

I’ve talked for years about doing my Masters. In fact I realised recently that it’s been ten years since I last studied! What?! That not only makes me feel old, it makes me feel like I’ve slacked off. So what has held me back? I could say that I was just having too much fun, doing too many other things, that it wasn’t really that important. But that’s not true. What’s held me back is the awareness that I’d finally have to specialise. That’s scary, as the article I linked above so eloquently explains. It’s scary because it means having faith in yourself, in all the sweeping statements you’ve made in the past about ‘being good’ at things. It’s also scary because it can feel like a limitation, like you are having to relinquish some pretty interesting ideas in order to make space for the big idea, the big passion, the speciality.

Anyway, I am finally looking into really doing my Masters, but doing it in a way that doesn’t allow me to slack off, cop-out, give up, make excuses or fail. And let’s face it, my chances of failing are pretty slim, given I never studied throughout my undergraduate degree and it never occurred to me I could fail until my very last semester at uni when I discovered friends had to take a unit again due to having failed the first time. I actually did come close to failing once or twice. I remember the struggle I had studying history in first year uni (Culture and Society in Britain and France 1750-1850 – I was 18 and had never really even heard of the Industrial Revolution and my knowledge of the French Revolution revolved around vague notions of people getting their heads cut off a lot). It was a year-long unit, which made it extra painful as I had no option but to see it through right to the end of the year. I had no study skills whatsoever, couldn’t absorb the texts as I didn’t understand any of the context, and there were all these crazy philosophy dudes in my tute group sitting round and pontificating about things I couldn’t comprehend. All I knew is, I didn’t get it, and I hated it. My tutor was a really lovely English woman who could see exactly what I was going through and kindly gave me a pass mark (52, I think it was) at the end of the year, probably because I managed to read most of Voltaire’s Candide and write a vaguely coherent, grammatically correct essay about it. But did I feel ashamed or upset that I’d let myself down by getting such a low mark?  Oh no, I just decided that the kind of history they were teaching at uni was garbage and not worth learning about. Yes, I was arrogant. I put my nose in the air and enrolled in linguistics where I proceeded to write entire essays the night before they were due with absolutely no referencing or citation, claiming I’d just come up with the ideas myself and that was enough of a reference. Hmm. I must have been a bugger to teach!

The one last thing to say about this latest educational venture is about the way I’m going to tackle it. It’s a bit of a secret at the moment so I won’t go into details until it’s clearly set in stone, but suffice it to say, I’m excited. It’s going to be an adventure, especially as my family – Mr C, the Dude and the little girl joining us sometime towards the end of August – will be along for the ride, directly affected by everything I do. Specialisation, here I come!