Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Against bonsai parents

I've been polishing this piece of writing for about six years. It explains why I parent the way I do (yes, I have children - I don't talk about them much online though). People have asked what my 'secret' is. It's the classic 'less is more' approach. It's also a reaction to the way I was brought up and it may come as no surprise that the writing was actually done as an exercise for a counsellor who wanted to 'see something of my feelings written down'. He also said that he hoped that I would publish it one day so here it is.

Besides, New Year's Eve seems like the right time to publish a more personal post.

How to grow a bonsai tree:

Sow the seed in a pot that is too small.  As the seed begins to grow, keep the pot small – by giving the roots no opportunity to extend, you ensure the tree will stay tiny. Wire and clamp both trunk and branches – this guarantees that the tree grows the way you want it to grow. Plan the most attractive composition for the branches then train them in this direction using the wires. Pruning is essential; clip and snip to prevent the tree from becoming unwieldy or, heaven forbid, large. With enough time and effort (and you will need to put in a lot of time and effort as bonsai trees need constant tending) you will have a miniature tree that will be a testament to your patience and industry. People will be amazed at your mastery over nature and you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

How to grow a tree:

Sow the seed in the ground. Watch over the seedling while it is still tiny – you may need to protect the tender young shoots. In the early stages, you may need to prop it up, but after a while the trunk will be strong enough that it can grow without support. Water regularly in the beginning. After a while, when the roots have grown deep and wide, it will source its own sustenance from the earth.  Prune as little as you can, if at all. The tree will find its own form and this is beautiful in itself without any shaping from you. As time goes by, you will find that you need to tend the tree less and less. Step back. Watch it grow and grow. Years later, you will find that the tiny tree that you watered and kept safe has become something majestic and wonderful.  People will be amazed at its size and form and beauty, and you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

How to grow a child:  as you would grow a tree – watch over them while they are still tiny and vulnerable; prop them up in the early stages; sustain them until they can sustain themselves. Don’t be tempted to show your mastery over nature by stunting them, by keeping them small. Don’t clip at them and snip at them just because you think they should be or look a certain way. Don’t grow a child as you would a bonsai. Don’t take a living being and make them lesser than they can be.

Some parents are bonsai parents. Bonsai parents have an idea of what they want their children to be and they take every step they can to realise this. They end up with ‘show children’ who demonstrate what time and effort and money can achieve. That these children might not be happy never occurs to them. Appearance is everything, after all.

Here’s the thing though: every bonsai has, at its heart, the ghost of a natural tree than never was.When you’ve been constrained, shaped, prevented from going in a direction that felt natural to you - simply because someone else felt it would be better for you to go a particular way, that they would prefer you to be different to your own inclination - your inner tree yearns to burst out and stretch its roots and branches.

Working in education. I have seen whole systems dedicated to the production of ‘bonsai children’ – governments and parents who all want that managed perfection that is only achieved by constant interference and control, by pedagogical and familial snipping and clipping. If you cultivate thousands of bonsai trees, you will end up with a bonsai tree display. It might be pretty at first but, after a while, one bonsai looks pretty much like another. If, however, you grow thousands of trees, you will end up with a forest. No one can argue about the many benefits and the far, far greater beauty of a forest.

So many children feel the chafing of the wire and the effects of the clamping. I know this from my own experience. A child’s initial acceptance of their bonsai-state makes their parents even more incredulous when they rebel and express dissatisfaction about their constraints. How could you not want to be a bonsai?  Bonsai is beautiful. It is so clever. You must be mad to think otherwise. To want otherwise.

Did you know that the bonsai process can be reversed? If planted in the ground and left unpruned, the tiny bonsai tree will act like a cutting and begin to grow again in a natural way. This is a truth I have found out for myself in recent years as I have tried to get back something of my own natural state. But a natural tree has no place in a bonsai collection. It is ungainly and conspicuous. It stands out. It doesn't look like the others.

I don’t fit in. I spoil the clever effect, the pretty arrangement. I’m like a weed. Bonsai growers loathe weeds, and so do bonsai parents.When you distance yourself from a pruning, clipping, clamping family, you start to stretch and grow. It hurts, of course, at the beginning. When you have been constrained and wired in a particular direction, you will feel the cramps as you extend. When you have been used to a certain type of nurturing, it’s a shock when it is no longer part of your daily life.

Then I look at my own children – I have no idea what they will do, how they will be, how they will look when they are grown. That’s amazing, exciting – I am going to enjoy finding out exactly who they are. I don’t want them to be me and I don’t want them to be a certain way. They are reaching out and stretching tall and finding their own shape and space. They are glorious and interesting. They are different.  People see their individuality and comment on it.

I look at myself. After years of being confined and cramped,   
I am  finally taking back my true form.I push my roots deeper and wider, drawing sustenance and anchoring myself. 

I unfurl, further and higher – there is so much which is finally within my reach, now that I am not small. Now that I have left that bonsai life behind.People are amazed by the changes, the very good changes, in me.

And I feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

Monday, 28 December 2015

This night belongs to...

The only thing in life that should make you feel small is the sight of the night sky. Nothing realises that sense of insignificance quite so keenly as when you stare up into the not-quite-blackness and thing how far away the stars are and then consider that what you can see is actually quite close (in both time and space) compared to what lies beyond.

It reminds me of when I was a kid and I used to write “This book belongs to…” plus my name and address in my books. To my address I would add 

Planet Earth
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe

It seemed very clever (to me and to every other kid who wrote the same thing). A child’s way of making sense of the vastness of everything.

I still feel this way though. I felt it a couple of weeks ago when I was outside to view the Geminid meteor shower. It was a cold night for early summer, or rather, a cold morning – the shower began around 2am. Barefoot on the deserted street outside my house, I got a chair and sat down. I was wearing pyjamas and a poncho. I felt as though I was in a pop-up book that had just been opened. An odd lone figure in an unusual streetscape. 

I didn’t know quite what to expect but then the first bright streak of a meteor loped across the sky. Then another. Then another. All in all, I saw 12  - not a shower exactly, more a scatter. 12 wishes for me. 12 lines in the resulting poem.

The resulting art that I have put at the beginning of this post. Because I am not an astrophotographer, it is an imagining of what a shower would look like if you could see it from the city, if there were not so much light pollution.

It was a magical experience - one worth the effort. 

This night belongs to 

Western Australia
Planet Earth
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe


Alone and cold and pondering
This lazy gold procession.
As warp and weft of arcing light
Create the canvas of the night –
A tinselled swathe of lazuli,
A dazzling impression.

Awake, aware, and witnessing
Each startling incision.
Fragments of burning long-ago
Scoring the blue intaglio,
Etch their own glowing eulogy,
A fiery inscription.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Spaceship Perth

The junction of Hay and William Streets.

My favourite constellation is Orion. You might think that’s because it is such a distinctive stellar arrangement and that is indeed part of the reason. However, I like mainly it because when I moved from England to Australia, Orion was one constant in the new and strangely-patterned sky. Of course, he was an upside-down hunter when seen from the southern hemisphere, but he was the same – the belt, the tunic, the shield. When you’ve been unsettled by the substitution of the Southern Cross for Ursa Major, these things are important on a personal, if not cosmological, level.

The then-strange skies are now my usual skies (I have only made 2 trips back to England in the last 26 years) but I was thinking recently about how accustomed we are to our own particular celestial "landscapes" and, even if we don’t pay them too much heed, how even a slight change can be perceptible heighten the sense of strange.

The following series of pictures is based on changing familiar skies – to an extreme. If Perth were in different type of solar system, or flipped into another part of the galaxy, what would/could our skies look like? What starscapes would there be for the streetscapes that we know so well? (They'd look a bit like the covers of 1970s sci-fi novels it seems... :) )

I started out calling the series #perthcelestial and then, in a small homage to Buckminster Fuller, decide to change this to #spaceshipPerth because I can’t resist a pun, however weak. 

The old Melbourne Hotel

The QV1 building

An office in West Perth

The heart of the city

Wesley Church

Central Flats, West Perth

Monday, 19 October 2015

Grey day.

Yesterday was a rainy day and I was having moody thoughts. There was a poem and it is always a tad worrying when the gloomy verse happens so easily. Ideas coalesce into words and words naturally form into rhyme and cheeriness be damned.

I didn't take any photos or do any painting of the rain, so the picture above must suffice. It's the darkest, rainiest one I have at the moment (from my recent visit to Brisbane where I spent my last day hiding from a thunderstorm).

As an antidote to my cloudy mood, I later drank wine and watched comedy shows on DVD so it's all good.

I can't think of a title for this one. Unless it's '-less'.

Stare-out-of-the-window aimless.
Palm-prints on the cooling panes,
As the warmth of a golden afternoon
Gives way to sudden rains.

Where-on-earth-did-the-time-go listless
And I-should-do-this-but-I-can't,
As I wonder if more doors close behind me now
Than will ever open in front.

If-I-had-my-time-again hopeless
Meets a where-to-next refrain
While my I-have-no-idea-at-all sighs
Are lost in the noise of the rain.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Only just.

I was eavesdropping. A poem happened.

Only Just.

"It was just a kiss."

The world is a smaller, sadder place
When a kiss is qualified as
Only 'just'.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Beautiful ghosts

I had a kaleidoscope when I was a child. I think most people did. Mine was as basic as they came: cardboard tube, a couple of mirrors wedged in the base, and a handful of cheap plastic beads thrown in. I loved it though. A gentle tilt and the beads would shift and form a subtly different pattern. A more vigorous shake, and the composition would change entirely. Simple materials that produced an infinity of pretty glowing patterns, the first kaleidoscopes were made in the early 19th century and they are still made today.

Being a language nerd, I find the etymology of kaleidoscope as appealing as the instrument itself. As with ‘periscope’, ‘telescope’, and ‘microscope’, it is based on the Greek ‘skopos’  -  a watcher or observer. However the other two components in the word are what give it charm: ‘kalos’ = ‘beautiful’ and “eidos” = shape or form. A kaleidoscope is ‘an observer of beautiful patterns’ though personally I think of it as the “Look at the pretty things!” toy. And if you think that last translation is overthinking things, I can go one better. That middle component, ‘eidos’, is where we get our word ‘idea’ from. Even better, it is also connected to concept of the ‘ghost’ (or eidolon).

An observer of lovely ideas. A watcher of beautiful ghosts.

I told you I was overthinking.

On a more philosophical level, I find the kaleidoscope a great metaphor for life. It’s pop philosophy, but I like it. People are all kaleidoscopes. The plastic beads are knowledge, experience, and emotions. Everyday life will give you a gentle tilt or a vigorous shake and the pattern of each day will always be slightly different to the pattern of the days before it. Sometimes it’s the better parts of your life that are in view – those are the good days. Sometimes, the mirrors show a replicating pattern of the darker things and the day is filled with endless beautiful ghosts. However, even on the bad days a little ‘plastic bead’ of happy can mix with the gloomier array, just as on some of the best days, a dark ‘bead’ can give a sense of the bitter-sweet. The marvellous is mixed with the mundane, and we continue to add ‘beads’ to the mix.

Right now, my quotidian is rather more


I’m pretty sure that my life needs a vigorous shaking to bring a more pleasing arrangement into view. I’ve organised a few days’ personal leave next week to seek if I can shake away the ghosts (I say away, not off, for if you have such forms in your personal kaleidoscope, they are never really gone – just out of sight for a time).

As they say, “there’s always light at the end of the tunnel”,  or perhaps they meant to say “there are always beads at the end of the tube”?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015



As you passed you threw
Your shadow on my surface
Obscured every image save your own,
Occulted both my reason and my purpose.

As you moved on I felt
Reality returning.
I closed my eyes against the light

Which discovered me alone and burning.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The stuff of nightmares

The problem with insomnia is that by the time I actually manage to get to sleep (or get back to sleep as the case may be) my mind is determined to punish me for the 20 hours that it has been awake by presenting the most lysergic dreams that it can produce. The result is a groggy morning self strung out by the memory of fevered images.

It’s a good thing I’m not operating heavy machinery.

Just so you know, I don’t think dreams are prophetic. I think dreams are the result of shaking the brain’s kaleidoscope, and that various unrelated bits and pieces fall into focus. I don’t think dreaming of a tree means that I’m going to experience growth in the future. Neither do I imagine that repeatedly dreaming of a brimming wine goblet means that I will be repeatedly drinking red wine in the future (although now I come to think of it…)

There is red wine in store for me.

Dreams and nightmares are, however, excellent fodder for art and stories. If I can hold onto an image long enough to get something down on paper or into type, then I usually find the result oddly pleasing.

The ‘cosmic tree’ was one such image.

It wasn’t mean to look quite so mystical. That result was due to my limitations as an artist. In my mind’s eye, I saw a tree, quite bare of any leaves, with a very clearly defined root system and the night sky in its background. What I managed to draw was something like a branched glowstick, but it looked pretty enough so I left it as it was.

Then later in the week, I was at work and the conversation turned to Google Deep Dream. Deep nightmare would have been a better name for it judging by some of the images that I was shown. It’s a piece of ‘machine dreaming software’ that looks for similarities between an image you upload and images which it has stored in its database. It then morphs the former into the latter in a process called 'inceptionism'. There are shapes and animals and buildings.

And eyes. So many eyes.

So I put my cosmic tree into the dream and waited to see what would happen.

The results was beautifully weird.  More dream than nightmare. It was the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh meeting the surrealism of William Blake’s religious art meeting a Shaun Tan mural meeting Arthur Bocklin’s sacred groves. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The White Goddess rolled into one. It’s a vanitas, a memento mori, and a near-death experience.

I saw my tree had morphed into an arboreal/peacock hybrid. The stars had turned into eyes, like the feathers on a peacock’s tail, and, as if the reinforce that image, the tree roots had now sprouted peacock feathers that glowed like iridescent tubers in the dark earth.  It was the myth of Argus Panoptes – slain in a grove, his 100 eyes transposed post-mortem into the tail of a shrieking bird by the goddess, Hera.
And yes, yes, I *know* it’s just an algorithm and probably Google’s way of scoring a lot of free images for their database, but I needed a little weirdness this week (well, good weirdness over bad or weird weirdness), and this delivered magnificently. It wasn’t nightmarish at all.

The only scary thing about it was that the artificial intelligence had dreamed something that I could well have dreamed myself. Now, that's the stuff of nightmares.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Accentuate the positives

I want to write about what is making me feeling good right now. But this is not a “Pollyanna post”.

I don’t like Pollyanna posts or blogs– you know the ones I mean. Pages and pages of unmitigated, manicured cheer and affirmations. Those blogs with posts which are light and bright and white and all the food has been styled, or there are pictures of bedrooms with pristine bedspreads (organic cotton, of course), with votive candles on the bedside table just next to a carefully-constructed stack of books about positivity and wellness. If your blog is a constant stream of in-your-face-Pollyanna-I’m-just-glad-glad-glad-to-be-alive images and text, well, I don’t believe you. You’re not living - you’re constructing life and you’re putting your constructed life out there to show others how superior your way of (constructed) life is. As the hashtag says I’m #notbuyingit.

My bedroom is not a restful sanctuary. Even at its tidiest, there are mismatched sheets and covers; books on/beside/under the bed; shoes lie where I kicked them off when I came in; cables all over the place where I charge my phone and lap-top; cosmetics, creams, lotions and potions on all available surfaces; dust on top of everything, because dusting? Really? who can be bothered? I bet your bedroom looks more like my bedroom. There isn’t a single tulip flung artlessly on a boho comforter and nary a self-help book in among the book clutter.

Now, the Pollyannas among you will clutch your hand-knotted pearls and gasp “How shocking! She must be desperately depressed. A bedroom should be a sanctuary of BEAUTY and REPOSE. Let’s crowdfund her a subscription to Home & Garden, forthwith!"

But here’s the thing: sometimes the bedroom looks like a bedroom. Sometimes it looks like a war between books and bedding with casualties on both sides. Sometimes I’m in an upbeat mood and all is good (and I’m a bit glad, but never quite to Pollyanna extremes) and sometimes life sucks/blows/bites/your oral metaphor of choice.

I like to write about both. Because real life. Not constructed. 

No edited highlights. More the positives accentuated to distinguish them from...everything else.

So here are the my positives:


Not the song from Fiddler on the Roof (although I do have a rather good story about that – remind me to tell it sometime), but the actual diurnal events. As it’s winter here, the sun is rising as I am heading to work and then setting as I am coming home. So I’m outside, with my iPhone camera, enjoying the colours, and the cloud patterns, and the messing around with Instagram filters to up the drama a bit. I like the contrast of the natural and the manmade. You will see lamp-posts, powerlines, roads, and other structures in my photos.

Once the sun has set, and I have put my camera away, I go star-gazing and planet-gazing. There’s a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter this evening. They are less the 3 degrees apart in the Western sky so they will look like one big star. Venus is about 260 million kms away from Earth and Jupiter almost double that, so the fact that I can see them so clearly when I, say…go to put my rubbish in the bins at the end of the day, is incredible to me.I feel a poem coming on. (No, seriously, I do. Watch this space.). Venus is my favourite planet because it looks so glorious in the sky; yellow-white and diamond-sparkly; named after the goddess of wuv, twuw wuv. In reality, it has a surface temperature of over 400C, sulphuric acid clouds, and an atmosphere so dense that if a human were to land there, they’d be crushed to death before they had time to be incinerated or poisoned. There is nothing Pollyanna about Venus. 

Down-to-earth, definitely not celestial, cocktails are good at any time of year, but in the winter they take on a new quality that has to do with coziness, that lovely heaty sensation you get when drinking spirits, and glamour. More often than not, they are  delightful to look at. The Negroni will always be my favourite - it is a song of ice (occasionally hand-cut) and fire (all the red and orange) in a glass. That said, my recent experience with a Honeycomb Old Fashioned has nudged Old Fashioneds into my personal cocktail second place.  For what it’s worth, I don’t food-style – I don’t have props or a light-box or any of the bells and whistles. I usually push any clutter out of the way, but you may sometimes see the corner of a menu or a beer-mat in shot and that’s fine by me. It’s the  real deal, the drink I actually drank – moments after the photograph was taken, that drink was probably gone.

So that’s me at the moment – head in the stars, glass in my hand, mess in the bedroom.

Gladdens the heart. :D

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Turquoise Gate - a dream set down

I can't remember the last time I woke up because I was crying out in a dream. Mostly with dreams I forget. This one is clinging insistently. I decided to draw it & to write it. It's not horror exactly, but there was a sense of menace that was not easily shaken off. It was one of the few times when wished there was someone else in the house with me.

The Turquoise Gate

The gate at the top of the stairs is old.
Turquoise paint peels off the metal.
It's wet from the rain.
fiddle with the latch & I think I have it closed.
I push to test it but it swings open.
I pull it closed & try again because I know what's coming.
The rain obscures everything in my field of vision. 
The rain bounces off the white marble steps that lead up to the house. 
The rain is a dense white veil. 
I can see nothing.
Then I can. 
The image is blurred but it is there.
A small dark form. 
It's closer than I thought because I didn't see it coming. 
And it's closer now. 
And the latch will not fasten.