Staying (dis)connected with Telstra

A man and power lines are reflected in a Telstra poster adorning a public telephone in Sydney, AustraliaScene – at my local Telstra shop.

Me: “I’m not sure what to do, I’ve smashed the screen of my iPhone, but I believe I have insurance…”

Them: “The best thing to do is to call Telstra, find out if you have Stay Connected and take it from there – if you have Stay Connected, you get two gigabytes of free data, and they will replace the phone.”

Me: “Really? That sounds simple…I was thinking of just getting the screen replaced in the shopping centre…”

Them: (Sternly.) “If you do that Madam, you will null and void your warranty and any problem you have with your phone will not be covered. Would you like to wait in the queue? Our waiting time is only four hours at the moment.”

Me: “Oh. No, I’ll go home and call Telstra.”

* * * * *

Them: “I already have your year of birth so please tell me the day and month or enter it on your telephone keypad…”

Me: “May 15.”

Them: “Is that…the 25th of October?”

Me: “No.”

Them: “Please tell me the day and month of your birth or enter it on your telephone keypad…”

Sometime later:

Them: “How may I direct your enquiry? Blah, blah, blah or blah, or other?”

Me: “Other…”

Them: “Sorry I didn’t quite catch that…”

Me: “Other!”

Them: “So that would be telephone sales?”

Me: (Sighs.) “Yes.”

Person answers.

Them: “So you’re interested in purchasing a new phone.”

Me: (Patiently.) “No. I dropped my iPhone and smashed the screen, and I believe I have insurance.   I was told at the Telstra shop that you provide a replacement phone, and that with Stay Connected I can back-up two gigabytes of data.”

Them: “I’m sorry, that’s not my department. But I’ll put you through immediately to Stay Connected. Is there anything further I can help you with?”

Me: (Politely.) “Thank you, but no thank you.”

Dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum…

Me: ”Oh hello! Yes, I’m ringing about my iPhone, I dropped it and smashed the screen and I was told…”

Them: “Yes, that’s right. All you have to do is download the Stay Connected app, then you follow the instructions and you can back-up all your data. When you get your new phone simply follow the prompts and ALL your data will be restored…”

Me: “Really? That’s fantastic! Thank you.”

Them: “Perhaps you would like to stay on the line and complete a short survey?”

Me: “Sure.” (Thinks – In your dreams.)

itunes-error-1669

A few days later, new phone arrives. Download Stay Connected App onto old phone (which is still working held together by sticky tape and Gladwrap). Instruction tells me I can’t download data, because I have too much on the phone. Start to delete. Keeps telling me I have too much. I get below ONE gigabyte, still tells me too much.

Them: “…I already have your year of birth so please tell me the day and month…”

_________________Readers fill in the blanks.

Them: “Hi there, I’m Cherie from Stay Connected. How can I be of service?”

Me: “Well, the thing is I smashed my iPhone….I’m trying to use the Stay Connected App. I was told it took two gigabytes of data and I’m way below now.”

Them: “Oh, well, I’m sorry but the App is down at the moment. It’s being redesigned, and in fact you have FIVE gigabytes of FREE data on it.” (Said in tones of great excitement.)

Me: (With just a touch of sarcasm.) “So I’ve just deleted most of the photos and videos on my phone to get it below the two gigabytes I thought I had, and in fact your App is not working, but if it was I would have five gigabytes, which means I’ve completely unnecessarily cleared my phone out?”

Them: “That is unfortunately the case. However, have you ever backed up your phone through iTunes?”

Me. “Yes, I have.”

Them: “Well, due to our App currently being redesigned, perhaps the best idea would be to back up your old phone to iTunes and then insert your new phone, and instead of clicking up setting up new phone, click restore phone…”

Me: “Good idea. I’ll do it that way. Thanks for your help.”

Them: “Thank you and perhaps you would like to stay on the line to complete a short survey?”

Me: “Fine.” Thinks – in your dreams.

Back up old phone to iTunes. All G, as they say. Insert new phone. Message. Your phone cannot be connected to iTunes because your iTunes needs updating. Hmmm. Update iTunes. Your update cannot be installed because your operating system needs updating. Hmmmm. Update operating system. Your operating system cannot be updated because you don’t have enough free space. (Also although they don’t say this, someone out there is going, PLUS your stupid MacBook is way too old, Loser, and you ain’t never going to have El Capitaine on that thing…and if you can’t afford a new laptop you don’t deserve to back up your phone anyway…)

Reparación-de-celulares-mas-allá-del-simple-cambio-de-pantalla-en-Iphone-Ipad-y-Samsung

Them: “So I can direct your enquiry to the right place….”

Me: (Screaming) STAY CONNECTED STAY CONNECTED STAY CONNECTED.

Them: That would be, moving house?

Me: NO. You idiot. I am not effing moving house.

Them: “I’ll put you through now.”

(I’m pretty sure she said it in huffy tones – they probably have a huffy robot tone…)

One hour later.

Them: “What seems to be the problem?”

Me: (Sobbing quietly.) “I smashed my iPhone…”

Them: “I can hear you’re having some problems. Have you tried

downloading your data to the cloud – have you done that yet?”

Me: (Deep sigh.) “I tried once but it seemed to take a long time.”

Them: “The first time does take a while but I’m sure that will solve your problem, and it’s very easy, you just……………”

SIX hours later – you know the drill. “Welcome to Telstra. I already have…”

Me: (Finally talking to a person.) “Look, I’m having some troubles downloading my data to the cloud – it’s been six hours so far and it doesn’t seem to have finished yet…”

Them: “Let’s see if there’s a problem.” Goes away. Dum-de-dum-dum-de-dum.

Them: (In an accusatory voice.) “Your internet is working very slowly…”

Me: “Yes, that’s something I’ve been meaning to mention…the Telstra shop told me that I could get NBN where I live, I’m thinking it would be a good idea.”

Them: “Let me see.” (Pause.) “Unfortunately you can’t get NBN where you live. Have you tried backing your phone up to iTunes?”

Me: (Frothing at the mouth.) “Sorry, I have to go, I have an emergency…”

Them: “Perhaps you’d have time to complete a short survey?”

Me: “Sure.” Thinks – In. Your. Dreams.

THE NEXT MORNING – phone STILL downloading to the cloud. But at 4.00 am I had a bright idea. I have a Mac Book Air belonging to the company for which I do some social media work, and I have my own user profile on it.

I download iTunes, log in, and back up my old phone to it. I plug in the new phone – and Yippee!!!! It works. Data restored.

It’s only taken 36 hours, and I’m – oh yes – SO connected.

Perhaps I’ll wait until tomorrow to talk to Telstra about the NBN.

Candida Baker’s latest book is Belinda the Ninja Ballerina published by Ford Street.  You can purchase the book here: fordstreetpublishing

 

 

 

It’s Belinda’s way or the Highway…

Belinda the Ninja FRONTlowresSo there we are, my partner and I, and we’re slogging up Whitsunday Peak on Whitsunday Island, and it’s hot and humid. My sandfly bites are driving me crazy, and mozzies the size of elephants are trying to carry me away. I’m wondering if my desire not to be the first one to say ‘let’s stop’, will beat my desire to get back to Dugong Beach as quickly as possible and plunge myself into the beautiful, clear, turquoise water.

I give in. “Greg,” I whinge. “Let’s go back.”

He stops almost mid-step. “Phew,” he says. “I thought you’d never say it.”

So we turn around and pick our way back down through the rainforest, and into the scrub, and back along the path to the beach, and as we do, I’m thinking about my (then) 13-year-old daughter Anna, and how much she loves to do dance. I’m swatting away the mozzies, and wiping the sweat from my brow, and I suddenly get this little dancing image in my mind. At least, it’s a little girl, but she’s not exactly dancing, she’s doing Ninja moves.

“Yee-hah!” she’s shouting, as she puts up a hand to stop an imaginary opponent, and I’m surprised though, that she’s dressed in a little pink tutu and ballet slippers – because even though I’ve only just made her acquaintance I’m absolutely sure she doesn’t want to be a ballerina, she wants to be a Ninja.

The Ninja Ballerina I think to myself, and suddenly a name pops into my head.   Belinda.

Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

I’m almost jumping up and down on the spot – I’d be doing Ninja moves at the brush turkeys if I was supple enough.

“I’ve got an idea for a children’s book,” I say. “I think I’ve got to write it now.

There’s a wonderful moment as a writer, when an idea comes to you – and just for a moment you see it there, already written, already published even, and it’s perfect, it’s just as you imagined it, it’s a success, everybody loves it…and then, reality hits.

To begin with, you actually have to get the words out of your head on to paper, or computer, and then you have to begin the arduous process of working on the words, and even worse, fight off the internal nay-sayers who are only too happy to tell you that your idea is no good, and why on earth do you think you can write a book. Those voices don’t even listen when you tell them you’ve written books before – “yeah, well,” they’ll say in derision, “just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you can do it again.” When I teach creative writing I always tell people – when you write something, at some point or other you’re going to have to cross Mordor.

But as I sat on a wooden bench, under a palm tree, trying to get this cheeky curly-headed girl out of my head and into a story, the words flowed as swiftly as a river, and within an hour, she was written. There was only one problem – I wished desperately that I could draw – I so wanted Belinda to look as I imagined her, and not how someone else might imagine her. But I needn’t have worried, because for whatever magical reason it might be, Belinda’s birth into the world of books, has been as easy and blessed as the moment of creation.

Mitch Vane's first rough drawings for Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

Mitch Vane’s first rough drawings for Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

Some people have already asked me the obvious question of whether I did ballet as a child, and I did – but let’s just say that I was not the most graceful child on the block. In fact I was pretty much permanently traumatized from the age of four when my father came to see me dance at my end of year kindergarten concert. We were doing a Little Miss Muffet sequence, and I was very proud of my pink tutu, tights and ballet shoes. I ran up to my parents after it was over, and my father looked at me solemnly.

“Well,” he said, “Stay as clumsy as that and you’ll never make a dancer.”   I sat down on my little pink bottom and burst into tears while my mother hugged me and not for the first or last time looked at my father reproachfully.

And there I was sitting under a palm tree on the other side of the world over 50 years later, and the idea of the Little Miss Muffet sequence came flooding back in – but this time, Belinda took control. No cute little costumes for her – no way, she wanted to be the Ninja spider. Graceful be damned – she was going to dance her way, or no way.

When Paul Collins, the publisher of Ford Street books in Melbourne, accepted Belinda I was delighted. I love what he does with children’s books – the care he takes, the fact that he’s stuck to his guns and still prints picture books in hardback, and when he mentioned to me that perhaps we should approach Mitch Vane to do the illustrations, I was over the moon. I know Mitch’s work well, although I’ve never met her, and sitting far away in Byron Bay, waiting for the first drawings to come in, I felt a combination of excitement and trepidation. How would Mitch see Belinda? After all, they’re not called ‘picture’ books for nothing – the words may have come first, but the pictures were essential. Would Mitch’s vision match mine, or would she see Belinda completely differently?

When the email arrived with the first roughs, I almost broke the keyboard in my excitement to open them – and WOW – there was Belinda. My Belinda. A cheeky curly-haired red-head, with a grin, and a Ninja costume, cart-wheeling her way through the pages of the book.

It’s interesting when you write a book, or a story, or essay, how other people see it – sometimes as a writer you may question their interpretation, sometimes they see something you didn’t even see when you were writing. Mitch spotted an element to the book that was entirely unconscious in the writing, and that was Belinda’s constant movement.

“Belinda’s character is never what you would call ‘quiet’ or ‘still’,” Mitch said to me when we were talking about the teacher’s notes for the book. “Throughout the story she never stops practicing her Ninja moves, and that’s why I felt the energetic squiggly pen and ink line and splashes of colour wash best reflected her personality – but I think what was most important for me was to portray Belinda’s determination and passion.”

It seemed that Mitch and Paul both connected with Belinda’s determined personality, and then throughout the publishing process there was also Dmetri Kakmi – Belinda’s editor – the contact point between us all – publisher, author and illustrator. He too loved Belinda, and carefully negotiated the minefield of dealing with ‘creatives’ to gather the various strands into the whole that has become the book that at this moment – after 14 books – has most perfectly realized that moment of creation.

I know how lucky I am as a writer to have had this experience, and as Belinda the Ninja Ballerina is launched into the world next week, I hope many young readers enjoy her message on the importance of standing up for yourself.


You can find out more about candida baker on candidabaker.com

Candida Baker also runs an online arts, culture and lifestyle magazine based in the Byron Bay region – www.verandahmagazine.com.au

For more information on Belinda the Ninja Ballerina go to: www.fordstreetpublishing.com

A force of nature

 

"Flooding water is unpredictable..." Photo:  Candida Baker

                “Flooding water is unpredictable…” Photo: Candida Baker

Deeper Water by Jessie Cole, Fourth Estate rrp $29.99 346pp

 

In literature, and in film, there are some classic plots almost guaranteed to grab the audience’s attention. The Stranger Comes to Town is one, Coming of Age is another and what in England we might call Something Nasty in the Woodshed (a reference to the wonderful novel Cold Comfort Farm) is another.

Like a practiced chess master, local Burringbar author Cole, who grew up in relative isolation on a country property, has used all these themes to create a novel that is as deep, chilling and sensuous as the title itself. Her first book, Darkness on the Edge of Town,(which also used the stranger in town device) was good, this one is not just better, it’s extraordinary.

It’s ten years ago this year since I moved to the Byron and during that time we’ve experienced nature at its best and worst. You don’t need to live in the country to appreciate Cole’s novel, but it’s certainly familiar territory – which she writes about with tender clarity – if you do happen to have suffered from the arbitary forces of nature. At the start of Cole’s novel, we’re introduced to the main character, a young woman, Mema, who, like Cole, has spent all her life living on the family property – she’s trying to get a cow who has started to calve away from the edge of the rapidly swelling creek, when a car is washed off the close-by bridge. Mema rescues the young man, Hamish, with a long branch, bringing herself close to disaster at the same time. When Hamish is finally safe, his 21st century life and all its accoutrements in the bottom of the creek, he takes one look at Mema, and says: “Fuck, you’re just a girl”.

Just a girl. Mema thinks how horrified her mother would be, and in the space of a remarkably short time we get the idea – Mema is a capable 22-year-old, who also happens to have a club foot; her potter mother has alienated all the surbanites in town with her ‘feminist’ ways, and because she’s had children to different men, all of whom have left her. Mema’s older sister already has a toddler, and a baby on her hip; Mema’s best friend, Anja, is as light and as unstable and dangerous as mercury, with a father who is a drunk, and possibly abusing her. Into all of this strolls Hamish, the city-slicker, an environmental consultant who is in the area to asses a proposal to turn sugar cane waste into power. And then there’s Billy, a somewhat brooding presence, who’s had the ‘hots’ for Mema for years.

cov_deeperwater

It’s a volatile mix, but no less volatile than Cole’s actual life, and if a writer is as good as their material, then sadly for Cole, she has been given first-class material in the suicide of her older sister when she was a teenager, which drove her psychiatrist father to madness, and also eventually to suicide. With two young children by the time she was 23, Cole was suffering depression when she first went to see a counsellor who encouraged her to write everything down as therapy, and in an ironic twist of fate, the life that had caused her such deep grief, has become a deep well of complex emotional material.

It’s almost inevitable that Mema, who has never taken much notice of men, should fall for Hamish, but Cole doesn’t take the easy route of giving Mema and Hamish a relationship, instead all of Mema’s longings are stirred into a melting-pot of desire and confusion which, in the end, allows her to notice Billy, and his devotion to her.

There is warm, rather than cold comfort in this novel, in the end, which is perhaps testament to Cole’s growth as a writer. Where her first book was chilling to the bone,Deep Water allows for, in amongst the tragedies, the sweeter things of life – that a local farmer who has been leaving flowers for Mema’s mother at her driveway, should finally be given permission to approach the prickly matriarch, that Hamish should warn Mema that the company he works for does not necessarily have the area’s best environmental interests at heart; that Billy and Mema, despite misunderstandings, begin to see themselves as a couple.

One of the most compelling aspects to this novel is the way Cole writes about landscape. In this book – and parts of it remind me of Peter Carey’s ability to make the landscape a character in itself, in both Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda – the landscape is a living, breathing entity. Mema’s connection to it is visceral, and in a sense it is the force of nature – the flood, her awakening to love in the woods around her house, a potentially lethal fire, her call to environmental action, that create a backbone, or trunk, for the novel. If Mema’s mother is the brooding matriarch of this big, scattered, somewhat chaotic family, then this country of the Northern Rivers is the matriarch of the entire novel, a Kali-esque presence that can switch from giver to destroyer of life in a few minutes, but whom, in her turn must be mothered and nurtured. It’s that unseen compelling Gaia presence that certainly keeps me here, where life is often extreme in surprising ways.

For me a pre-requisite for a novel is that it should transport you to another time and place, and allow you to connect to its characters. I walked around for days imagining myself in the world of Deeper Water and I can’t think of higher praise than that.

This post first appeared in my new publishing venture Verandah Magazine…if you’re interested to read more go to: verandahmagazine.com.au 

Canberra in the cold is cool

Canberra6

It’s not an obvious thing to do, leave the winter sunshine of Byron Bay for a holiday in chilly Canberra, but we discovered a winter wonderland, a city full of surprises – and a lot of hot chocolate…

There we are whizzing around Lake Burley Griffin on our Segways at exactly 12 kmh, and I swear the wind chill factor is making it several degrees minus nothing.  I’m rugged up to the nines but I’m still cold – but I’m having such fun I don’t care.

A Segway for those that haven’t tried one yet, is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle.  The name Segway is derived from the word ‘segue’, meaning smooth transition.  I couldn’t exactly say that the first five minutes were smooth, as our group which included myself, my daughter and her friend, did our initial practice around the trees near the hire kiosk, but once you get the hang of it, smooth is exactly what it is.  It works on your body weight, and rather than conventional steering, all you have to is lean on the handle and it turns – with a remarkable zero-point turning capacity.  (You can contact them on: www.segglideride.com.au)

Canberra2

Having mastered the balancing art, we’re off, up beside the lake, along the paths that pass Questacon, around the ornamental gardens below old Parliament House, and pretty soon we’re all wishing it could go twice the speed.  Our half-hour passed in a flash of smooth transitions, and the next burning – or freezing – question was where to go to warm up.

A friend had told me about Lonsdale Street Roasters www.lonsdalestreetroasters.com  – one of the numerous funky cafes that have sprung up in Canberra in the past few years, and so we made our way there and soon had our hands wrapped around a piping hot chocolate.

Canberra in the cold is a wonderful destination, full of a perfect combination of activity, education and indulgence.  As well as our Segway experience there was ice-skating in the middle of the city, trampolining at Flipout, and of course, the highlight for all of us, tobogganing in the snow at Corin Forest.  Last time we were there we spent an entire day at Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, a sensory-filled hands-on experience if ever there was one – this time our chosen experience was the War Memorial, which was both enlightening and inspirational.  As we moved through the sections in this extraordinarily elegant building, each of them dedicated to Australia’s involvement in different wars, my daughter, her friend and I were all moved beyond measure by the bloody and brave history laid out before us.  For me, to have paid a visit this year, the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War, was particularly poignant.

Canberra5

As for indulgence, that was an easy call.  A long time fan of the Max Brenner (Chocolate by the Bald Man) shops, I’d heard of the San Churro chocolate shops but never been to one – and on a chilly Canberra morning what better way to start the day than with a hefty overdose of chocolate?  The San Churro stores are an Australian success story – the first store opened in Fitzroy, Melbourne in 2006, and they now have 38 stores operating around Australia. We headed to Woden www.sanchurro.com/store-locations/store/40/woden with a group of five kids and two adults, and when the beautiful plates of fruit, churros, meringues and hot melted chocolate arrived it was love at first bite – the kids almost dove into their chocolate pots in their eagerness to start.  I was an immediate fan of the funky mix of paintings, takeaway offerings such as dark-chocolate coated cherries and spicy Aztec hot chocolate and the beautifully delicate meringues.  Named after the monk who, legend has it, made it his life’s mission to take hot chocolate to the Spanish people – San Curro has certainly been embraced by the Australian people, of all ages.

It was no doubt a good idea that an entire day separated our chocolate breakfast and our trampolining experience (for those that wanted to trampoline anyway, which didn’t include me!)  Flip Out www.flipout.net.au/hume.php is no small endeavor – it’s an entire warehouse filled with trampolines, with three distinct areas, one where smaller kids can bounce without fear of being trampled by a horde or rampaging teenagers; two runway trampolines where you can bounce yourself straight into a pit of foam tubes, and the largest of the sets where it’s a free for all on a massive collection of trampolines which also go up the sides of the walls.  It’s a perfect way to exercise kids in bad weather, that’s for sure, and it’s been so successful that booking is essential.

We’d saved our snow experience up until the last day when the weather was supposed to be at its best, and we were glad we did because it was a perfect day – cold, crisp and sunny.  The previous days cold snap meant there was snow in Corin Forestwww.corin.com.au which has a designated snow area, toboganning and when it’s not wet a 1.2km Alpine sled ride.  It’s not super-cheap at $15 entry fee into the snow area and $5 for a toboggan but it’s much easier than a five-hour round trip to Thredbo or Perisher, and much less extreme if you just want to tick the ‘We Saw Snow’ box on your outing sheet.  Only 40 minutes from the city, it’s a beautiful drive up through the hills and into the forest, where everything was glistening with white, and more than enough (just on the very of melting snow patches) to make the obligatory snowman once we’d spent several hours sliding on the toboggans – followed by the by now (you guessed it) obligatory hot chocolate at the café, which came complete with roaring fire and a beautiful wide verandah.  Once we’d left the actual park, we found a track not far away which took us into the woods where the kids made snowballs, had snow fights and were determined to complete Frosty, even though he was not the largest snowman I’ve ever seen.

Our snow day was our last day in Canberra and we were sad to go, but we had a date with some friends in their house at Robertson in the Southern Highlands on the way back, where we had a Christmas in July experience at the Fountaindale Grand Manor House, full of Christmas kitsch, nativity scenes and Devonshire teas, with plastic Christmas trees scattered through the spacious grounds and the occasional screeching sound of a peacock.  (It was at my friend’s house that I discovered the joy of our Holden Malibu’s camera when I was reversing up their normally hard-to-negotiate driveway, and discovered how easy it was.)

At Robertson it was a balmy three degrees as we started our journey back home, shedding layers as we went, but as we headed back towards Byron Bay and a more temperate winter climate, I have to admit to a twinge of sadness that we were leaving behind the crisp cool winter weather, our daily hot chocolates and, of course, the snow.

The car for our Canberra trip was provided by (www.redspot.com.au).

 

Silence is Golden

images-1

Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

images-2

And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

From horse’s hooves to ballet shoes

balletshoes1

 

I’M PORING over the entries to the next dance eisteddfod – I know we’ve got to tick the contemporary solo under 14, that’s easy, but OMG what about all these others? Not just the obvious ballet, hip-hop, jazz and tap, but modern, lyrical and even lyrical expressive – I’m tearing my hair out here. It’s like a completely different language, I mean – I’m a horse person not a dance person.

I was lucky when my son was small that I very soon noticed his interests dovetailed with mine – i.e. horses, horses and more horses. His best toys were an already second-hand collection of my little ponies that we picked up at his kindergarten fete one day and paid 50 cents each for. I can remember the names he gave them 20 years later: Paris, Hank, Charlie B, Angel and David. (I can partly remember the names because I’ve never been able to bring myself to throw them away and they’re still in a toybox in my room somewhere.) His growing obsession with all things equine allowed me to extend myself from someone who had ridden a bit all her life and knew a bit about horses into someone who knew a lot.

Unknown-1

Twenty years on and a lot of pony club, horseshows, natural horsemanship, horse rescues, horses bred, bought and sold, we still have six lovely equine friends in our paddocks, and although I ride much less, I spend a lot of time talking to and working with them, and Sam trains the young ones.   As we went I learned to plait manes, and call dressage tests, to know the difference between a Liverpool and an Oxer, a six-bar course and an AM5, and when to give him advice and more importantly when not to (at least I think I mastered that skill although he would probably disagree).

But his younger sister, although she loves horses in a broad humanitarian way has a different skill – one to which I’m completely new. She is a lovely dancer and getting better all the time. When I realised we were heading towards a fairly serious hobby, I was relieved that it wasn’t horses. No more charging around the countryside with a float and camping gear and horses in tow, no more standing out in the wind and the rain and the hot sun in numerous Australian country towns, no more one day a rooster and the next day a feather duster depending on that peculiar combination of horse and rider and the many variants involved. No more, oh, thank goodness, no more arriving at a showground and hearing the twanging nasal sounds of ‘We’re the Boys from the Bush and we’re back in towwwnnn’. I imagined being a Dance ‘Mom’ as a veritable bed of roses. I’d already been so inept at doing hair and make-up that I’d been given a withering look and told she’d do it herself. Suits me I thought, I’ll read a book, or better still write one, while I’m sitting around genteely with oodles of time on my hands. Plus I thought, at least it can’t be as expensive as horses.

Ah, how wrong can a person be! First of all of course there’s the hours of training – five and even six days a week, and that means a punctual and reliable taxi service. Then there’s the incredible array of ‘stuff’ – leotards, dance shoes of all kinds, tutus, bun-nets, bun-pins, bobby pins, tights, dance shorts, and of course costumes.

Halfway to her first solo eisteddfod in which she was entered for her self-choreography, she announced she’d ‘forgotten’ her tights, and then after we’d dashed into our local dance shop and got back on the road, her shorts. A quick sideways duck into the shop where, in Australia, ‘you don’t pay for any fancy overheads’, and we were on the road again.

Then came the nerves, and with it the Jekyll and Hyde personality change.  (Oh, I remembered that one SO well, culminating in a moment at Caboolture showground when my son, sitting up on his 16.2hh showjumper, looked down on me and exhorted me to: “get off my high horse.”  And then cantered off furiously when I laughed.) Anna having by then criticized me for everything from my posture to how I tap my hand on my knee when I drive, to my laugh, I decided the best thing to do was to keep quiet. “Why aren’t you talking to me?”, she moaned after a few minutes silence. “Talk to me.”

It was fear, of course, and I understood that. It was also not helped by our rather overwhelming dose of reality when we got to the eisteddfod. I mean, here were girls with literally mobile racks of costumes – the amount of make-up they had would fill a Louis Vuitton luggage set. We sat in the corner at the back with our little chiller bag from Aldi, and the mini-make up set and the one costume, adapted form her Year Six formal dress at primary school and I felt, I can tell you, like a rank amateur. Why had it not occurred to me that if Anna was going to do well at this I was going to have to do well also? I was going to have to learn the language, buy the stuff, be the support system.

Just a little luggage...

Just a little luggage…

It caused me to stop and think about how it’s not that hard if you’re a parent and your child has an interest in something you love to do and that you fundamentally understand. It’s much harder when it’s something for which you don’t have a natural affinity, but it’s just as essential, if not more so. I think many of us have felt the emotional blackmail from our parents to do something that pleases them rather than to do the thing that pleases us, and perhaps one of the most active areas of growth as a parent is to jump in with that. To be on board for your child and help them develop their passion so it can sustain them throughout their lives at whatever level they choose.

We were so overwhelmed by the professionalism of the girls around us that in a way it worked for Anna, she was so convinced she wouldn’t get a place she simply relaxed, went out and danced like an angel. When she got a Highly Commended she was as pleased as if she’d won. Our journey home was very different – she chatted amiably all the way home. Stress relieved, mission accomplished, first solo eisteddfod down.

And a dance mum explained the difference between the dance types for me. “Contemporary is slow controlled movements,” she explained patiently. “Modern is more expressive and emotional, and lyrical or expressive or lyrical expressive is a combination of those with its own element thrown in.” Ok…makes a 2.1 dressage test look easy by comparison really. In fact a room full of hormonal teenage girls in full preparation for a dance contest makes driving around the countryside with horses and a horse float look easy.

To be honest I don’t see the novel being written, or even read, anytime soon, but I am fully involved in the Dance Mom’s Handbook.  (Actually I made that up, but if it doesn’t exist, it probably should…now there’s a good idea.)

The Horse Rescuer

Amanda Vella has one mission in life - to rescue as many horses as possible

Amanda Vella has one mission in life – to rescue as many horses as possible

SAHA’s mission: To provide as many neglected, unwanted, slaughter bound horses with a second chance at life and love.

  When Amanda Vella, the founder of the charity Save a Horse Australia, got engaged last Christmas, she put in on Facebook, definitely the modern way to communicate important events in our lives.  But for Vella the announcement wasn’t made to a few dozen, or even a few hundred, or even a few thousand people.  It was made to an astonishing 20,000 people who follow Vella, her steadfast band of volunteers and the stories of the horses she rescues on a daily basis from her home at Beaudesert.

But despite the overwhelming support and congratulations from those who support her and her organization, there are only a few who know the full story behind the engagement and fewer still who know Vella’s personal story of love lost and love gained.

Vella grew up in the small country town of Narrandera (population 3,871), on the banks of the Murrumbidgee in the Riverina district of southern New South Wales.  “I always loved horses,” she says.  “I was just born with a love for them.  I borrowed a neighbour’s pony, and I got my own pony when I was 11. I was in Pony Club for a while, but I got kicked out for being naughty – I was a bit of a rebel.”

But the rebellious streak was not surprising.  Vella lost her mother to cancer when she was seven, and her father, who didn’t cope well with her mother’s death, committed suicide when she was 13.  Vella, caught in a maelstrom of loss and grief, turned to horses even more. At 14, she rescued her first horse, Gypsy.

“I paid $75 for her from the horse sales,” she says. “I had her with me in Narrandera for three months, and I adored her.  But I knew I had to get away from home, and when I was 14 I made the decision to move to the Gold Coast to sort my life out.” For Vella, who has older and younger half-brothers and sisters, but was the only child to her parent’s marriage, the Gold Coast was one of the few places she knew that had happy memories. “I’d been taken there on a holiday by a family friend,” she says. “When things got difficult with my family I was living with my grandmother, who was not able to keep me permanently, so it was a question of going into care or leaving Nerrandera.”

Vella chose to leave, selling her childhood pony, Sandy to raise her bus fare, and for almost a year, lived, as she puts it “rough”, until with help from the Miami school principal, Jim Baker, she got an orphan allowance from Centrelink, and Austudy to go to school. “Mr Baker actually became my legal guardian at the time because I couldn’t even go to school unless I had a legal guardian because I was under 16,” she says.  “I rented a caravan near my high school, Miami High, and I worked part-time – at Bernie’s Burgers, Sizzler and Toys R Us.” (She tells me this almost casually, as if it’s an everyday occurrence for 14-year-olds to move thousands of kilometres away from home, live in a caravan, study and work three jobs.)

It took Vella some months to feel secure enough to send for Gypsy, who was being looked after by a friend in Narrandera. When Gypsy arrived Vella was overjoyed – until disaster struck again.  “I’d only had her up here for a few months when she was stolen from the property where she was agisted a 30-minute drive away from where I was then living.” she says.  “I was completely devastated, at that time Gypsy was my life – I looked everywhere and advertised for her return, but nothing.  I never found her, and I worried about what had happened for years, until only fairly recently I finally managed to trace her to a lady who had got her from the RSPCA so obviously the thieves couldn’t or didn’t keep her. This lady owned her for years until she was put to sleep – and I only missed her by a few months, but at least I knew she had been well looked after.”

Top:  Trixie not long after she arrived at the sanctuary, and bottom, a few months later

Top: Trixie not long after she arrived at the sanctuary, and bottom, a few months later

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Vella, still traumatized from her emotional roller-coaster ride, had given up on horses at this point, but far from being deterred by Gypsy’s disappearance, Vella rescued her second horse, an emaciated bay Thoroughbred called Buddy she heard about from a friend.  “My friend called me and told me about someone he knew who had a really skinny horse, so we rang him, and he told us to come and get him.  He was in North Brisbane when we collected him, and after he’d recovered his weight we adopted him out to a lovely lady in the Lockyer Valley.” For Vella her trials have simply reinforced that this is her calling.  “I’ve heard people say that they’ve been brought to earth to do a particular job,” she explains, “and that’s how it is for me. I was born to do this. I know that, and I’ve always known it.”

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and watching Vella at work – organising to pick up a surrender case, speaking with the local RSPCA, confirming the care requirements of a particular horse, and telling me she’s had to make the heart-rending decision to euthanaze a horse that isn’t going to make it, I wonder whether she feels that the loss of her parents – and of Gypsy – actually in some way prepared her for the life she leads now, a life in which she witnesses again and again the best and the worst of human behaviour and where she has to handle the prospect of a horse’s death on an almost daily basis.

“I think it definitely gave me an ability to cope,” she says.  “Not that the decisions I have to make are easy, but at the same time what I do feels urgent and necessary and so I just get on with it.”  (In a sad postscript to her Buddy story, his adopted family had him for many years until he and three other horses were drowned in the massive 2010/11 Queensland floods when the waters swept through the Lockyer Valley.)

Despite her long-term ambition to own a horse-rescue centre, even as a teenager Vella was canny enough to know that it would take money, and working her way school and university, she became a business development manager, earning enough to self-fund her horse rescue habit through her salary.  “I started my charity the opposite way to most people,” she says.  “I had 15 horses in care, and I was still working full time and self-funding all the horses. I finally decided to register the charity in 2009, and self-funded that for a long time as well. But then it gradually started to take off.  I started up a Facebook page, and that just went crazy, and now a lot of our pledges for support come through Facebook, and last year I was able to start working full-time for SAHA.” Examples of goodwill towards Vella and her charity include a woman recently donating $10,000 to pay for an urgent operation needed for a rescue horse, vets donating their time whenever possible, and thousands of people donating money on a daily basis. “Everything helps,” says Vella. “Even five dollars makes a difference, and I am thankful for every dollar people give us.”  (At the time of writing SAHA has 47 horses in care, and Vella says over 700 horses have been through the centre, although sadly not all of them make it, and even during the course of this article several horses had to be euthanized for various health complications.)

It takes a lot of people to run a rescue operation based around our largest domestic animal, and Vella now has around 35 people working with her – volunteers, committee members, foster carers and adoptive homes as well as an additional army of horse vets, dentists and farriers. What’s more, this is no glamorous get a gorgeous horse for free outfit – as Vella wryly puts it – “we’re not talking Olympic champions here.”  Even running a charity, and with the massive amount of supporters she has, she’s found that, as she says: “Most people want something for nothing. And the horses we get are mainly old, or younger ones with particular problems, or horses that have been almost starved to death.  Re-housing them is very difficult, and often we have to keep the very old ones ourselves. With the younger ones, once they have been rehabilitated, they are trained, and then fostered out before they are offered on lifetime adoption contracts.”  (As well as the numerous amount of foster carers on personal properties, SAHA has two permanently leased properties – one of 20 acres in Beaudesert, and a 12-acre-property at Wongawallan in the Gold Coast hinterland.)

Because of the extraordinary numbers of horses that end up at knackeries – close to 40,000 per year according to Vella, she has had to narrow the focus of SAHA to something achievable.  “It’s hard to actually quantify the exact number or horses that are killed every year,” she says, “because no government body keeps an exact account, but we know there are two official production plants that kill 700 horses a week each in order export the meat overseas for human consumption – one in Caboolture and one in South Australia, and there are 33 licensed knackeries in Australia, so even guesswork makes it a huge number of horses that are killed every week.”  The charity’s decision was to bid against the ‘doggers’ as they are called, at the sales, and therefore save lives.  “Once the slaughter men have bought them they are not allowed to sell them on, so we try to outbid them once we’ve decided which ones to try for,” she explains.  And that, in itself, is a heart-breaking process.  “We have to ignore the ones that we know cannot be helped, and that we would have to euthanaze straight away,” she says.  “But other than that we don’t discriminate at all.  Fortunately at many of the smaller sales, the younger horses in good condition – young ex-racehorses for instance – are often bought by people looking for a horse, which leaves us free to bid for those horses that need a second chance, but sometimes we will buy a young healthy horse to stop if from being slaughtered.”

There are a few things that make Vella angry and one is the idea that saving broken-down or old or sick horses is not valid. “Sometimes we get comments on Facebook about it, as we also do about the people who have let the horses get in this condition, and also about the guys that run the ‘kill’ lists and buy horses on a kill quota from the abbatoir,” she says.  “I am absolutely firm on the fact that every horse deserves a chance at life no matter what their condition, and those of us that run the charity make the choices for good reasons about which horses to save. There’s no point in making accusations about people – stuff happens, people get in bad situations, or they simply don’t know, and the kill guys are just doing their job.” It’s a credo that she takes into her social media, frequently stopping negative lines of comment with a firm hand.

The day I visit the sanctuary I meet one of the stars of SAHA’s recent rescues.  The completely adorable Trixie – a small (13hh) grey pony who arrived, having been bought by SAHA at Grafton sale for $100 so emaciated she was basically a terrified bag of bones.  When horses are this sick they have to be introduced to food extremely slowly, and little Trixie was touch and go for a while.  Because she was in such poor condition, she contracted a chest infection that required massive antibiotics, and just as all of her growing legion of FB fans were breathing a sigh of relief, she was affected by a paralysis tick, and again, being so small and thin it was a life-threatening situation.  For three days she was kept in a stable with mattresses on the floor, and around the walls, so the 24-hour-volunteer roster could turn her every few hours. When she finally got up and walked and started eating again, there was an almost palpable sigh of relief from her thousands of followers.   A few months later, she’s well, happy, putting on weight, and has learned to trust the human race again.  With her little pink outfits (even a pink playball in her stable), she walks herself into her stable at night, and tucks herself up for the night. “Worth saving?” says Amanda. “You bet – and if she continues to improve there’s a good chance she’ll find a forever home.”

Trixie - one of the SAHA stars

Trixie – one of the SAHA stars

With all of this going on you would hardly think Vella would have time to look for romance, but it found her in the strangest way possible.  “When I was at high school in Narrandera I had a boyfriend, Mark, (Davies) but we were young, and when I moved up to the Gold Coast we lost touch,” she says. “Then for Christmas 2012 I went home to see the family, and I met Mark again, and basically we just reconnected. What was so strange was that he was living and working in the Gold Coast too – we’d been living near each other for years, and had no idea, and then we met up at home again.” The romance quickly became serious, and Davies, who works in a quarry at Beaudesert has thrown himself into the SAHA work, helping Vella out at the weekends and whenever he has time.

It was a year later to the day that Davies proposed, and a delighted Vella accepted.  Their long-term ambition is to move further out of the Gold Coast to Beaudesert or to the Lockyer Valley in order to open a horse sanctuary on their own property.  Just to contemplate what this young woman has done with her life in the past 20 years is to know that there is absolutely no doubt she will succeed – and in the process she is not only, as she says, “making horses better and giving them a second-chance,” she is giving many of us who are horse lovers a chance to be better people.

SAHA