January Memoir Bookishness

Looks like this January I am going to have an interesting time looking at memoir - as an art and as a craft.

First on my list is Patti Miller's The Memoir Book. This is a craft-book on actually writing memoir, and I look forward to it. I am almost finished her book Ransacking Paris, about the time she spent living in that city, and it's just superb. I have never read her before, and am so glad I have discovered a new favourite writer.

Then I am going to read Huston Smith's Tales of Wonder. I have had this book on my "must read" pile for ages, but Smith has just passed away and I feel it's time to read this account of his life as a student of the world's religions. He was a brilliant man and did a lot of important work.

Next up is more craft and more Patti Miller with her book Writing Your Life. The reason I have so many Patti Miller books on my list is that late last year I want to hear her speak at Ashfield Library, and I was so impressed I bought all of her titles the bookseller had there. This one is about piecing together your life story, something that Miller has been teaching and writing about for many years.

When I'm finished I plan on re-reading The Unexpurgated Beaton, an uncensored selection of his diaries. Beaton always makes for superb reading, and I have to do this one now because I am doing my talk on Beaton again in February, and this will be the perfect way to remind me of some of the juicier anecdotes and details.

For much the same reason I will then go on to his My Fair Lady diaries, which are fascinating, and the copy I have is an absolute delight to hold.

My 2017 Projects

I am pretty bad at doing anything if I don't have some sort of deadline, promise and schedule.
Self-discipline is an utterly unknown quality for me.
And so I tell myself that I use my blog as a kind of "accountability buddy" - if I share my plans with lots of people and some strangers I might just stick to them. It rarely works. But still I soldier on. I would love it if you could shoot me a line throughout the year asking me how I am going. I need it.

Keep in mind these are NOT my goals. I am hesitant to share them publicly because they are a bit embarrassing and I am terrified of censure when i don't achieve them. Instead, these are those extra things which make a life interesting and which are nice to do throughout the year to ensure I am a well-rounded person.

I also hope to blog all of these projects in an effort to stay on course.

So, my projects for 2017:

1. Spend a month exploring new parts of Sydney: I am dedicating the month of March to some intra-city exploration. Inspired mostly by the wonderful work of Vanessa Berry (who is releasing a new book in 2017!), I want to spend a whole month visiting those places I have always meant to go.

2. Paint every day for 3 weeks: I have some blockages around painting. I have never been a talented artist, but I also had a bad art teacher in Year 8 who looked at my frankly adventurous work and said, "You have no talent. Do something else." I WANT to be able to paint, like Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria and all of the characters in E. F. Benson novels. My April project.

3.  Reading all the books of Norman Douglas: This year marks the centenary of South Wind, Douglas' scandalous novel. He has always intrigued me, so in May I plan to make a study of him. Reading all of his books, in order.

4. Reading books by five Australian authors I have never read before: I credit this idea to the wonderful Allison Tait and her post 5 Brilliant Things You Can Do for your Writing in 2017. It was one of her 5 Things. July project.

5. Chant the Om Mani Padme Hum every morning: Ever since I visited Bhutan in 2015 I have been fascinated by the use of the sacred Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I have used the mantra on and off every year for 27+ years, but for 2017 I will be chanting it every morning and seeing what effect this has on my life.

And another year-long project:

2017: Year of the Heart Sutra

Well, I have appointed it such.
I will spend the year studying various different translations of this, the shortest but most enigmatic holy text in the Buddhist canon.
I will also be chanting it myself at home, and visiting temples to hear it chanted.

Broaden your mind in 2017: go to an author talk

I am always banging on about how people should go to lectures, talks and events. Such things represent incredible value for money (indeed, they are often free) and they help build up a dynamic society that cherishes its own culture and creates a space for the development of all kinds of new voices.

I was excited to hear that a very old friend, a dear teacher from my youth and, once, my own very patient and generous landlord Neil McDonald is about to launch a new book and is talking about it at the State Library of NSW. And yes, it's free!

So log on now and BOOK YOUR SPOT.

Neil is one of Australia's living treasures, an expert on film, the development of photography in Australia, and especially where those two disciplines meet military history. This new book is about Chester Wilmot, and Neil knows more about him than anyone else alive. I remember Neil talking about Wilmot and researching him back in 1989! So this book is the result of a lifetime's work. You can imagine how fascinating his talk will be.

Australian historian Neil McDonald (photo by David Brill)



  •  FREE


Metcalfe Auditorium, Ground Floor

Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent

Reginald William Winchester (Chester) Wilmot (1911–1954) was a renowned Australian war correspondent, broadcaster, journalist and writer. From the first triumphant North African battles of Bardia, Tobruk and Derna, to the heartbreaking disaster of the Greek Campaign, the epic struggle along the famed Kokoda Track, the momentous amphibious invasion at Normandy, and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany, his voice stood above all others during BBC and ABC broadcasts throughout the Second World War.
Join bestselling author Neil McDonald as he talks about Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent the first full biography of this enigmatic man.

This is a free event, but it is essential that you book.
State Library free events are usually very popular, so I suggest you put this date in your diary and book your spot NOW.

The songs I listened to most in 2016

Time has come for me to reveal the inner aural workings of my mind. If you saw me on the train or walking through Cabramatta with my headphones on, chances are I was listening to one of these tunes. Does it make you think differently of me?

1. We've Got the Right by Boy George - For some reason I got all late 80s gay radical this year and spent a lot of time (well, 80 times to be exact) listening to Boy George's little-known paean to gay love from 1986. It is a lovely song, don't you think?

2. Restart by Sam Smith - More Queer longing. I have whittled the Sam Smith album down to just this song, and that's cos it's filled with all kinds of 1980s dance-ey fabulousness.

3. All Around the World by Lisa Stansfield - Every moment is the right moment for this late 80s classic. It might be hard to believe now, but I used to once rock the Lisa Stansfield look myself, with geisha-white face (are you allowed to say that anymore?), black lipstick and some spit curls. I was adorable. I remember lying on my loungeroom floor in Willoughby watching this song on Video Hits and when the gorgeous men from all over the world flashed up on the screen I would vote on their hotness. My friend Steph looked at me and said: "You are so immature." And nothing's changed, Steph, nothing's changed :-). Years ago I was at a soccer match and two 11 year olds were making fun of this song when it came on the radio being broadcast at the kiosk. That's when I knew I was old.

4. Theft and Wandering Around Lost by The Cocteau Twins - There is a Cocteau Twins song on my list every year. They just get better. And I have less of a need for words I can understand.

5. Jealous Heart by GO101 - I was just thinking today about GO101 and how much Australian pop music from the 80s and 90s just seems to have disappeared. GO101 were my favourites, and the lead singer was so gorgeous. Does anyone out there know someone who was in GO101? I wanna write a story about them.

6. Love Has Come Around by Donald Byrd - Super-camp disco fabulousness, I really know nothing about this song. I am surprised by how many times I listened to it :-)

7. Chenrezi by Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbetts - Glad there was something spiritual on my Top 8 :-)

8. Heatstroke by Man Parrish - Some more High NRG 80s gay loveliness to make me re-live an era I actually just missed. This was all happening while I was a high school student in North Queensland.

My favourite books of 2016

You k now I am not really a devotee of the new. So as always, my favourite books of teh year will probably be all oldies, or several years after the fact at the very least. It takes me a while to work through my piles of "books to read next." I read a lot this year - I taught and spoke a lot, and it always involved huge reading lists. So I feel as though in 2016 I really extended my knowledge - something I feel happy about.

Anyway, here are the books that delighted me the most this year:

1. Lucia in London by E. F. Benson - this year I taught a course called 'The English Comic Novel in the 20th Century' and one week was E. F. Benson. It was, of course, tremendous fun to prepare, and I think I managed to infect a few people with the Benson mania. But once again Lucia in London stood out as the best of all the Lucia books. It's never boring, for even a moment, and it is splendid in how it makes you love and despise the main character in turns. I think if I just read this book over and over I would be perfectly amused for the rest of my life.

2. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym - four people get old and die. Doesn't sound like a laugh riot, but what an exquisitely formed and totally unique novel. This is the one that was nominated for the Booker Prize just before Miss Pym died, and really, it should have won. I can't wait to read it again.

3. My Hearts are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird - this year Carmel Bird won the Patrick White Award, and very deservedly so. She is a remarkable writer, and this odd and at times unsettling collection of short stories really shows a writer at the very top of her craft.

4. Proust's Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini - ever since I read Edmund White's delightful little biography of Proust some years ago I have become obsessed with the man. I have read the Remembrance...and many books of biography and literary theory. This unexpected little book is perfect for the Proust fan. detailing just how many people are obsessed with the man and have let him run their lives, long after his death. This is an entertaining and completely engrossing literary curiosity that would turn even the most hardened into a Proust enthusiast.

5. Astrology: Secrets of the Moon by Patsy Bennett - I am not really much of an astrologer, but this intriguing book opened up a whole new world to me and helped deepen my understanding of the possibilities of astrology to explain personalities and life paths. Patsy encourages readers to be more reflective about the night skies and to perhaps allow for the possibility of celestial influences. This is probably only one for those with a keen interest in astrology, though.  

6. Triumph of Joy by Pauline Robinson - unlike some of my writing friends, I am reasonably optimistic about the future of indie publishing and is possibilities. This incredibly moving memoir is an excellent example of how someone with a burning desire to tell their story can do just that and bring it to the world, no matter what publishers might say. Pauline lived through an extremely traumatic marriage which ended in the suicide of her husband, and in this beautiful book she carefully and meditatively looks at the lessons she has learned in the course of a difficult life. Engaging and ultimately inspiring, this is a collection of messages from the natural world that have come to Pauline and encouraged her to share her journey.

7. Strawberry Hills Forever by Vanessa Berry - another memoir (I do love the form), this was Vanessa Berry's first book, which must have been written when she was terribly young (she still is) but which has all of the hallmarks of maturity, sophistication and a strong literary voice. If you don't know Vanessa's work you really should become acquainted - she is one of the most fascinating people currently writing. This accomplished book deserves to be better known - completely engaging from beginning to end. Talcum powder, 80s horror movies and op-shopping - every part of the Berryesque oddness is already here. She really is my guru.

8. Dreams by Rose Inserra - I have been obsessed with dream books ever since I was a child, and my Aunty Audrey kept by her bed a battered old 1940s pamphlet dream dictionary. I have read all kinds of books about dreams over the years, and it remains a subject that absorbs me completely. Australian author Rose Inserra's exploration of dreams and dreaming is excellent and all-encompassing. It is a book I have read and re-read over the year, dipping into it occasionally when I have had a particularly vivid night of dreaming. It made me alive again to the divine messages of the dream world, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

December Buddhist Bookishness

I am just back from 5 weeks in Vietnam, where I always move in a distinctly Buddhist milieu, and where I was working on a book with a distinctly Buddhist theme. So it's not unusual that I should return with an intense interest in Buddhist books, and I have been working my way through a whole bundle.

First up is a booklet I picked up from a huge pile at the Ngoc Hoang Pagoda (these days more commonly called Chua Phuoc Hai) in Saigon. This temple has undergone something of a revival since it was visited by president Obama, and so there are crowds there every day. I have always kind of liked the place. In the very last shrine room I discovered this book, a reflection on the benefits of chanting the Great Compassion Mantra and the Om Mani Padme Hum, written by a local nun called Thich Nu Le Phat. Despite being in Vietnamese (I read VERY slowly in Vietnamese) it is a remarkably simple and interesting read, and I kept it with me the entire time I travelled. I actually went to visit the Venerable Nun, but she had the temple locked the day I turned up, and it was made even more tantalising by the fact that I could hear her chanting the Om Mani Padme Hum. So I sat outside on the stairs and listed to her instead. I would love to see this book in English - it is such an interesting and personal reflection.

Next we have a couple more books in Vietnamese, these ones specifically dealing with Quan The Am, more commonly known to English speakers as Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. She is an immensely important figure in Vietnam's popular worship, and these books detail stories about her in a handy (easy to read!) comic-book format.

I am also reading some comic books detailing the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. these are great for the language student because they have the text in Vietnamese and, immediately beneath, English. I am learning so much reading these, and also learning some interesting stories from the Buddha's life.

Last year I visited Bhutan on a writer's tour with the wonderful Jan Cornall. While there we met a number of local writers, including Pema Gyaltshen, and she gave me a copy of her beautifully illustrated children's book Lamche Goes to Merak. It's a beautiful story with Bhutanese Buddhist themes.

Further along the Kuan Yin theme, I have enjoyed reflecting on Alana Fairchild's meditations on Kuan Yin in her book Wisdom of Kuan Yin. this divinely illustrated book accompanies her gorgeous Kuan Yin deck and her DVD and CD of Kuan Yin meditations. I love all of Alana's work, and she is the most blissful, beautiful soul you could hope to meet.

There is very little writing from Australia on Buddhist themes, which is part of what makes Michele Seminara's collection of poetry Engraft so unique and interesting. I say only part, because in fact her poetry is filled with many other engaging themes, and hers is one of the richest and most unique voices in Australian poetry. For quiet and reflective reading, a delicious poem at a time.

The good people at New Dawn Magazine sent me Rosalind C. Morris' fascinating academic study of popular religion in Northern Thailand, In the Place of Origins, some time ago. This is a very dense book, and difficult to sit down and read quickly. But it IS fascinating, and so much of what she is exploring and describing is unique in English. I hope to finish it very soon and produce a review, because I think it is an important book which deserves a wider audience.

Shinmon Aoki's Coffinman was a complete surprise. An incredibly engaging and readable spiritual autobiography by a mortician and Pure Land Buddhist practitioner who had once been a hip young poet. I recommend you run and get a copy of this book, because I loved every minute of it. Aoki's honest and deeply personal stories provoke responses because of our own fears of death. The marital and family discord which arise from his work all tell their own stories about how uncomfortable everyone is with the world of the dead.

Given the number of monks there are in Vietnam, and the large amount of Buddhist publishing that goes on there, I am sad that there is not more translation of this very interesting work into English. I was delighted to discover this series of Buddhist essays by Thich Chan Quang, a monk living on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City who is a prolific writer and a great believer in the power of books. They are in Vietnamese and English, so a great contribution to the literature of Buddhism around the world.

And finally, a lovely illustrated book by Vo Van Tuong called 108 Danh Lam Co Tu Vietnam (108 antique temples in Vietnam). This is a condensed version of a series of books which have been around for decades. A handsome hardcover in a slipcase, the text is in Vietnamese, English, French and Chinese. The photos haven't really been updated, so you will be shocked to see how much development has gone on in Vietnamese temples over the past twenty years or so. But this is a very handy book because it provides full addresses and telephone numbers of all of the most noteworthy temples in Vietnam. I actually have all of the older books, but I got this because it is condensed down to 108 temples, and I think to myself: "Hmmm, now that is a manageable project. Maybe a future book...." Why 108, I hear you ask? well, 108 is a significant number in Buddhism. Oh, and just a note - if you wanted to use the addresses, please take them from the Vietnamese-language section (they are all brief entries) - the "translated" addresses aren't very helpful.

Meeting Mrs. Mindfulness

Mrs. Mindfulness - Melli O'Brien

One of the great joys of working for the Festival of Dreams each year (I MC the remarkably varied and energetic Open Stage) is the amazing people I get to meet and work with. It is because of the Festival that I have managed to see first hand the beauty and wonder of such great teachers and artists as Alana Fairchild, Lia Scallon and Lou Van Stone. And this year is no different because I got to spend a fascinating evening with Mrs. Mindfulness herself, Melli O'Brien.

Melli is an Australian mindfulness teacher of some renown. She started her teaching career at the Mangrove Mountain yoga ashram near Sydney, but these days she is based in Byron Bay and her platform is the World. Melli has taken her mindfulness teaching virtual, and she has made many people enter into a renewed relationship with themselves and their awareness through her online courses and events. Her Mindfulness Summit has been a triumph, and Melli continues doing her valuable work in spreading the message of attention and inward journeying.

I had organised to meet Melli at a ridiculously busy place, and several times I had walked right by her, wondering: "Hmmm, is that her...?" There was something about the gentle face and placid eyes that made me think so. But it wasn't till my seventh lap around that I knew for certain. She had sat down at a table amidst all of the craziness and was journaling. "That's gotta be her..." I thought.

And it was.

Melli is one of those people with whom you feel an instant rapport, and soon we were chattering away like crazy about matters spiritual. We had people joining us soon, so I just had a few precious moments alone wit her and I was determined to ask her all I could before the conversation inevitably shifted.

I had to ask her about the journaling. I am a keen journaler myself, and I wanted to know if this was an intrinsic part of her own mindfulness practise:

"Of course," she answered, "it just keeps me so centered and so concentrated on the moment. If there is any craziness in my life I know I can just pull out my journal and I will soon be transported to a particular type of careful attention. The act of journaling itself is an exercise in mindfulness. It can't be otherwise."

Carefully closing the beautiful journal she had open, she continued: "Journaling always connects me to my mindfulness practise. It is also an excellent - and safe- space that helps me to vent my frustrations and get all the stuff down, all the junk it may not be valuable for me to give voice to."

"I've been keeping journals since I was 15. I find it therapeutic and creative." 

So what lead you to become, I asked her, a mindfulness teacher? It is not exactly the kind of thing you get pamphlets for at a career fair in high school. "Well I was teaching for a long time before I established a blog and moved into the online space," Melli answered. "Most of my training was at the Satyananda ashram in Mangrove Mountain. I was always giving my mindfulness teaching but through a specifically yoga context.   I went through my teacher training there and it was a beautiful atmosphere. I always placed a strong emphasis on mindfulness. I was given a lot of opportunities through my involvement with that community. I started teaching retreats, and I took every single opportunity I could get."

Mangrove Yoga, Mangrove Mountain, NSW

"I was so happy to at last find a way of expressing something I had always known to be true," she said. "I had felt alone in my spirituality since I was a young teenager. I just wanted people to be happy by experiencing what I was experiencing."

"I think when you put so much energy and love into something it just grows more and more. I have been offered so many opportunities to teach something that I believe is valuable. But it wasn't till 2014 that I realised I had to start standing on my own two feet and really establishing myself and making this journey a permanent and sustainable one."

"My passion is immersion retreats, multi-day retreats, mainly because that is how I have had so many amazing experiences in my own life. It's a creative expression, and each retreat is a microcosm, it's own self-established community. It's all about the sense of journey."

Melli O'Brien and Walter Mason talking happiness and mindfulness

Check out the Mrs. Mindfulness website and see Melli's upcoming events.
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