Sally Murhpy, Kid’s Poetry, and Me

March 26, 2010

Sally Murphy is an Australia author. She writes kid’s books and other stuff. In 2009 her kid’s verse novel ‘Pearl Verses the World’ was shortlisted (one of three) for the Independent Booksellers Award for Best Australian Children’s Book.

Sally has a blog, and through the month of March she is inviting other authors to tell what they like about children’s poetry. I was one of those authors. Chase up my guest blog here.

Celia Lashlie

March 17, 2010

Celia is a New Zealand author and past prison governor. She has two books, one about who goes to prison and one about raising boys.

Today I attended a forum with her as the speaker. The morning session was taken up with stories from her prison days. The afternoon session taken up with stories from her days working with boys in high school, trying to figure out the difference between a boy and a man.

Somewhere in among it all we sat in table groups and spoke about how her stories had something to say to our own work.  Those attending came from a diverse background. On my table was a prison chaplain (me), a Housing NSW community officer, a Catholic Care worker, three people from local Juvenile Justice offices, and one refugee settlement officer. Elsewhere there were private counselors, TAFE counselors, High School teachers, Drug and Alcohol workers, all sorts of people working with boys and men in trouble.

The whole day was extraordinary. I came away with one of Celia’s books (swapped for a copy of one of mine) and a whole lot of thinking to do about how men and boys communicate with each other and the outside world.

If you ever get a chance to hear her speak, take it. She is a wonderfully warm personality with a great love of story telling, and a wealth of experience in understanding people.

Find her here

Beware Of Books

March 14, 2010

Beware Of Books is a schools initiative here in Australia. It aims to encourage reading and writing for school-age kids.

For the next two weeks I am their guest author, answering questions from school groups on a forum that we’ve set up.

If you have teenage kids and their English or Library class is not involved, send them in this direction –

New York Review of Books

January 23, 2010

I can’t read the NYRB fast enough. There must be ten of them sitting here waiting for me. It’s packed with intelligence and takes me a while to get through it. It makes my brain work overtime, for which I don’t get any extra pay.

But there are also things that make me smile, like the personals. I was surprised to find these in such a serious magazine but I’ve grown to like them. They have a quality all their own in this environment. Sometimes I wonder if somebody I know might one day advertise like this.

For instance:

Good looks, blond, all-American girl, smart, sensual, former CEO, International Consultant in NYC. Insightful irreverence, quick mind, self-deprecating humor. True explorer’s spirit. Easygoing, warm, stylish, intellectual. Passion for photography, travel, film, art galleries, music, restaurants. Would love to meet bright, active, cosmopolitan man.

My initial thought was that somebody with these qualities would know lots of men and be in a social position to form the relationships she is looking for. Apparently not.

Here’s another.

Anti-advertising woman, reasonably well packaged, obsessively honest but wears make-up for special occasions. Moderately sophisticated (better than too sophisticated) available for playful, thoughtful, sexy, serious relationship. Too good to be true. This offer will not be repeated.

I must confess, I find the thought of an anti-advertising woman writing the final two sentences to be very funny.

I’m left wondering if the people who put these personal ads in the NYRB actually read the book reviews.

Just a thought.

Coffee, Case Notes, and Lies

January 12, 2010

It’s coffee time. At last, I reckon. My brain is not happy.

I’m trying to get some case note stuff up to date.

Oh yeah, before I forget. The coffee is wonderful stuff, New Guinea Kongi Gold. It’s from our favourite coffee roaster who has coffees from all over, this one is lovely. We get him to grind it in the store. I figure that his $2,000 (or $5,000, whatever it cost) coffee mill is going to do a better job than one of those spinning blade things we might get for home use. And when it’s being ground the aroma explodes into the air. It’s like standing in a rain forest and having the whole aromatic under-storey cascade over your head.

So, time-out time. With a mug of coffee in one hand I can mouse over to WordPress and blog for ten minutes – anything to get my mind off whatever it was on. Now, where was I? That’s it, case notes. Blerch!

Case notes and me? We’re not the best of friends. It’s not as if we’ve ever done anything to annoy each other. It’s just that we don’t get on very well. Most of my case notes are short and sharp. That’s good. But I only ever write them in my appointment diary. I see a client, I write up a sentence or two about what we discussed etc, that’s it. The rest is kept in my head. I can often remember ‘the rest’ with a client a year or more later. It’s how some people’s heads work.

Touble is, those people up there, the higher ups I mean, they want more. They want real notes. On a computer. They don’t really like my head notes. Well, OK, that’s not fair. It’s just that they can’t read them. So whose fault is that?

I’ve been two years in my current work.  That’s two thirds of the way through our pilot project. It’s time to make a formal report so we can extend the funding. That means I have to write stuff that other people can read. You have no idea how I wish I had a scanner that would just read my head notes and download them into some software application, all neat and tidy.

So here I am, sitting at my computer with my diaries for 2008 and 2009. It’s a start. All I have to do is read every page and type it up. But this is where it get’s all odd.

Case note software has all these boxes and slots and little areas for different bits of information. Sometimes I can’t read them. I’ve got this reading problem, a dylsexia kind of thing. Reading text is OK for me, but reading stuff in little boxes is a different story. I look at the format and my head goes blank. The page doesn’t mean anything. The same thing happens when people do Powerpoint with too much litter.

On one occasion last year I was in a planning meeting and the ‘King of Powerpoint’ in my organisation was suggesting a format for work procedures with lots of boxes and charts and arrows pointing to circles etc. – ‘the full catastrophe’ as a friend of mine would call it. One of the other managers looked at me and smiled, saying, ‘It’s OK Kim, you don’t have to look at this.’

The funny thing is I have no trouble just writing. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. When I’m on a keyboard there is some part of my mind that gets bypassed and the words appear as I think them. Writing stuff that I make up as I go is no problem.

Reading is the same. It’s only when the format of columns and rows etc gets me that my head won’t follow along.

And the stuff I write? The books and stories? It’s fiction. It’s all lies. I make it up as I go along. None of it is not true.

Can you see how this case note stuff is going to end up? I wonder if I should just invent  a case-load of clients, fabricate a diary full of appointments, construct a series of interviews, posit a range of outcomes, cobble together some recommendations, and send it off to the higher ups. Yep, that should do.

This coffee is good stuff. It’s really sharpened my mind and I can now see the way forward. Thanks for listening.

Now, I’d better get back to work.

When A Child Dies

January 9, 2010

Last week I got the news that the three year old son of friends of mine had died.

He had been put to bed for an afternoon nap and he didn’t wake up.

Sometimes we get the message that there is something wrong with the universe. This is one of those times. Children are not supposed to die. Parents die first. That is the rule upon which so much of the universe is built.

It’s more than a rule, isn’t it? It’s more like the law. Don’t we live by that law almost as much as we live by the law of gravity?

The little boy was at his day care centre. That’s where it happened. It’s another layer of complexity that gets added into the grief of the parents. The Police are involved. There has to be a coroner’s report. The Dept of Community Services have to review the day care centre. There has to be a court case convened, a judge, things have to be investigated.

Somewhere in the pile of bureacracy are two grieving parents and a grieving older brother. And on the periphery are other people – relatives and friends and next door neighbours and customers at the family business and teachers and mates at the elder brother’s school and the check-out staff at the local supermarket because everybody knows everybody else in a small town.

I’ve known other children to die. I have conducted the funerals of them. Some of them were the children of my friends. Some of them were complete strangers.

I was present when the son of friends died in hospital, the end of a difficult struggle against cancer. We sat around his bed that final day and gently wiped away the blood that was spilling through the damage protective coating of his brain and continually dripping from his nose, the result of the tissue damage that had been caused by his treatment. Late in the afternoon his body could take no more of either the disease or of the medical intervention.

We laughed at his funeral. We laughed at the joy that he had brought to his family and friends. And we cried. We cried at the dismay we felt over the course of his illness and at the grief we shared at his death. People expressed their surprise at how right it was that we should laugh, and as they told me this their tears started down their cheeks once more.

I supported the decision of other parents, also friends of mine and for whom I had conducted their wedding, in sacking one funeral director and going to another half way through the funeral arrangements for their still-born child.

It was nothing particularly that the funeral director had done that angered them, it was their grief showing up in an unexpected manner. I respected their rage against whatever or whoever it had been that had broken that fundamental law of the universe that ‘children don’t die’. Don’t you get angry at people who break the law? And so you should.

Trouble was, these particular parents didn’t know who to get angry with and the funeral director had said or done something that put a target on his forehead. He didn’t know what he’d done or said, neither did the parents for that matter. Their anger was sufficient for the moment. And so I spent time with the funeral director following that funeral, talking through with him what was really going on for these parents.

I did some of my chaplaincy training in the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. It’s a place of great expertise and there were medical people there who were considered among the best in the world in their field. But late one afternoon I was called to the bedside of a seven year old boy who was dying from a tumour that had started low in his brain and was travelling down his spinal column. He was not expected to live through the night.

I sat holding the hand of an unconscious boy who’s breathing was barely strong enough to detect. His skin was the colour of a grey cloudy sky and that night I learned that the colour of impending death can be worse than that of death itself.

He was alone. His parents could not take the sadness any more and had left the hospital. Nobody knew where they had gone, and back then there were no mobile phones and no SMS messages to urge grief-stricken parents to come back to the hospital. The boy died that night and I never met his parents. It was January 1982.

Why do I remember that event so clearly? I remember it because of my anger. I sat with that little boy with a rage building within me, a rage against this tumour that was doing so much damage. A rage of being in one of the world’s great places of healing and yet even here they could not open up this boy’s body and remove the mass of renegade cells bent on self-destruction.

And I was angry that there was nothing I could do, nothing except sit and hold his hand in the darkness and try to be for him the love of his grieving parents. That anger and that love is worth remembering.

And so back to my friends and their little boy. I conducted the wedding for this couple many years ago. They were our next door neighbours back in that town and so we saw much of each other. Then they moved town and we moved town and we lost touch over time. But last week a mutual friend passed on to them a christmas email from me, and they emailed back. And in the catch-up came the news of the death of a little boy that I had not met, nor even known about, but who’s death brought tears to me and difficult and fitful sleep.

It was a night of struggle with that question ‘Why does this happen?’ We might also put it in this form, ‘Who was it that broke that basic law of the universe that ‘children don’t die’?’

Welcome back to where we started.

The Aliens Have Landed

December 14, 2009

Run for your lives, they’re real.

This thing is now sitting in my house.

It doesn’t have Shawn the Sheep in it. It’s got a cow being beamed up.

And since it’s been here, my blog posts keep disappearing, the microwave has stopped working, the phone keeps dialling a non-existent number, my pacemaker has been beeping, and my voice sounds like it’s coming from deep down in some machine and there’s all this heavy breathing happening that I can’t explain. Oh yeah, I keep telling people that I am their father.


Time for Something Different

December 3, 2009

Time for me to do something different. I’ve been writing the next book. The first draft is half complete, or at least that what it feels like.

There’s this funny thing that happens when I start writing. Sometimes the story takes over and leads into areas that I never thought of in the initial planning. That’s OK, but it means that my idea of how long the book will be can sometimes change. And that’s where I am at the moment.

I was writing like mad for the month of November, and found that by the end of the month I had half a first draft instead of the complete thing.

And now I’m a bit brain dead and have decided to take a break from the book for a week or so. Trouble is, here I am writing again.

Pobody’s nerfect.

A Day with the Coppers

November 17, 2009

I spent today in the local Police Station.

One of my clients rang me this morning. He either had to hand himself in or wait until somebody came to arrest him. He decided to hand himself in. So I picked him up and took him to the station. We spent the rest of the day in the charge room. And in the afternoon as I went to my next client, he went to the court cells to wait for his bail hearing tomorrow.

It’s not everybody’s idea of a day well spent. But being a prison chaplain means I spend my days differently from most. This client has paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. He’s a difficult person to deal with sometimes, such as when he is not taking his meds, which is most of the time.

His life is like a centre of gravity that draws everything towards it. It draws the heavy things faster, and they do greater damage. This means that while most people live lives that are somehow “normal”, this man lives his life with heavy things coming at him pretty often. Tomorrow he will probably get another lagging. That’s a heavy thing.

My presence in the place made a difference for him and for the officers. I was able to keep him calm, and the officers were able to get their work done calmly. It was not like that the last time. He spent the time shouting at the officers and punching the perspex cell door and raging around the tiny cell in the charge room. Today they didn’t have to lock the cell door, it stayed wide open and we both sat there talking. As long as there is somebody to listen to him he can manage the turbo-charged thoughts in his mind. It’s not a task that I would be able to take on for more than a few hours at a time.

I worked with him through a crisis some months ago. Back then I managed to get him back on his medication and his life started to settle down after a few days. He didn’t end up in the police station that time. This time he hadn’t paid the gravity bill and everything came rushing at him faster than he could manage. I spoke with my assistant about him this afternoon. We recognised that perhaps being in custody is the only way that he will get medication at the moment. That’s a heavy trip in my opinion.

We sometimes like being the centre of attention. But it is a very different story being the centre of gravity.

Samantha Hughes Does Shoes

November 15, 2009

First up I want to know why ‘does’ does not sound like ‘shoes’.

I don’t, really. But there’s this Australian artist named Samantha Hughes who does shoes. And if those two words up there did rhyme it would make the title of this blog a bit special.

OK, that’s the word thing. Now for the art thing.

Go over here. It’s Samantha’s blog, but you can see that already.

Scroll down until you come to her painted shoes. They are worth finding your way to Western Australia for I reckon.

NaNoWriMo – Half way point

November 15, 2009

It’s Nov 15th, half way through the month, and last night I got to the half way point of my novel writing.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get 50,000 words up in thirty days. I’m up to 25,105.

Check me out.

Trouble is, I keep thinking I’ve now got all the easy stuff done and the hard stuff that I have not thought through yet is going to take me longer than the time I have left. I then tell myself that this is about as valid as “The dog ate my homework”.

The Berlin Wall, My Part of it’s Downfall

November 12, 2009

I have a piece of the Berlin Wall, a piece that is now twenty years old.

Want to see it?

My piece of the Berlin Wall

It’s not a big piece, about the same size you see here, a few inches across. It is painted in grey, several layers of varying shades.

It is made from cheap concrete with no aggregate, just sand, cement, and a few tiny stones. Such concrete has no strength of its own. And that was the wall. The only strength it had was in the oppression of the people who lived behind it.

It is quite a strong symbol for me. It says something of the way we lock parts of ourselves away somewhere. And many years later those parts cry so loud to be free that there is no choice but for some weak pretence of protection to crumble within us.

People sometimes ask where I got the piece. Simple answer. My Uncle Barry got it when the wall went down twenty years ago. Uncle Barry was a diplomat and back then he was Australian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania. When the wall came down, my uncle was there.

People have taken pieces of that wall to the ends of the earth. One of them ended up with me.

On Being Mindless

November 8, 2009

Not me, somebody else.

Every now and then we come across something completely stupid and without thought. It’s my turn.

I have just spent the weekend with my son. It was his birthday and so my wife and I headed west to his place for some catchup time. We took the kids to a playground to mess around a bit late on Saturday afternoon. It was a pleasant family thing. Four adults, four kids, nobody misses out.

Sunday afternoon and our son suggested that we drive back to the playground as one of the boys had lost his jacket and thinks he took it off there. We got to the playground and got out, one on each side of the car. So far, pretty normal. I scanned around from my side and saw what looked like it might be the jacket. My son scanned his side and saw what looked like the jacket. We each set off in different directions, and we each arrived about the same time at our target. We were both right.

Each of us had found one half of the boy’s jacket. It had been ripped in half down the back from the neck to the waist. The two pieces were lying about fifty metres apart.

Small boys forget things. That is normal. But this was a big boy bit of petty vandalism. So a small boy has lost his pride and joy leather-look jacket, and a big boy with a small mind has lost something else. I haven’t figured out exactly what he’s lost. Perhaps one day I will.

Oh yeah, NaNoWriMo. It was a slow weekend for writing, considering the birthday and all. But there’s a modest increase and a few ideas got written down in my notebook in some waking moments through the night. So far, so good.


Day Five

November 5, 2009

Time for a NaNoWriMo check-in. It’s day five and I have 12,651 words so far. That’s 25% of the goal.

The story is going well. I’ve got a one page timeline sitting above my desk. And I have found using Simon Haynes’ yWriter to be perfect for this project. I’ve got all sorts of story parts floating in my mind and with yWriter I can write any bit I like and just plug it in where it fits the timeline.

You can keep track of my progress here

End of Day One

November 1, 2009

Word count is now 3566 for day one.

I can tell you right off, I’m not going to post the tally on here every day.

Or maybe I will.

Depends on if I fade out or if I keep up the pace. So far, so good.