Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Christmas scenes

In the Christmas season, homes offer a variety of Christmas decorations and settings. Whether modest or grand, they always cast me back to childhood memories, the main one being dad’s unique Nativity.

His scene was mounted on a raised platform around a fresh pine tree. He had the basic figurines and the rest was made from any scrap materials he could find. He built a wooden stable, surrounded by shepherds and sheep. The three kings made their way along a path, plaster camels following. Palm trees were fashioned with bits from the garden. The landscape was complete with little cardboard houses with twinkling lights inside. The whole thing wasn’t always to scale—sometimes the camels were dwarfed by the Wise Men. The distinctive feature of dad’s scene was the water that ran along a little creek and splashed through a water wheel, courtesy of a concealed pump. I’m not sure that water wheels actually existed in Bethlehem, but it added magic to dad’s Nativity. Above everything, dad hung the guiding star, lit by a well-positioned, hidden light bulb. He left the crib empty with all players in the scene serenely waiting. The atmosphere was heavy with expectation, until baby Jesus appeared on Christmas morning.

As a child, the working wheel and the twinkling lights made this more appealing than the legendary Myer windows. As I grew to adulthood, I became more appreciative of my father’s creativity and the effort he put into making people happy. We were poor and in those early days, he used his ingenuity and his artistic skills to bring the scene to life.

Over the year’s dad’s nativity, scenes have attracted attention. In the 1970s, he built one that filled our dining room. I can't remember where we ate dinner that year, but the local paper sent a photographer and ran an article on dad’s seasonal efforts.

Dads’ in his eighties now, and every year he still makes a Nativity scene for a local church. Even with shaking hands, he manages to fashion the houses and trees, and put all the figures into just the right spot. It still has a water wheel, and it’s still out of proportion, but everyone loves it.

So, as you enjoy people’s decorative efforts this year, think about the work that your fellow citizens have put into sharing the Season with you—and spare a thought for dad’s camels, having to carry the giant Wise Men.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Curriculum vitae

One of the first questions we’re asked when we meet someone is ‘What do you do?’ The answer to that question potentially sets the course for defining each other. What does the world of work mean? Certainly, it means income. It can mean power and status. It means belonging and it has a lot to do with identity. For many, what we do is who we are. That’s understandable. We spend so much time at work whether our world is white or blue collar. We take jobs to pay the bills or as a stepping-stone to where our passions really lie. Sometimes we get stuck there. Sometimes we are unceremoniously trundled out of our hard-earned position on the ladder of success (whatever the hell that means) and bumped to the ground by redundancy, illness, accident or just plain bad luck. Not having a job is devastating for most and being unable to pay the bills is just one part of that. Our social networks are impacted, our capacity to contribute and our sense of place.

I was talking with someone recently who is struggling to find regular employment. This person is talented, experienced and willing. The job market and potential employers don’t always respond in ways that are encouraging and that’s if they even bother to respond. How who we keep our spirits up when the world of work and all that it brings to us isn’t available? I don't know that entire answer to this question. I do know that it is worth encouraging people to keep going, to redefine themselves, to look at other ways and to keep up hope.

For many years, I worked as a recruiter. Good recruiters read between the lines of a CV. It’s not only about what you’ve done but also about what you haven’t done. As a recruiter, I was interested in the ‘roundedness’ of people, in the real meaning of curriculum vitae as per the Latin meaning the course of one's life. It isn’t just about work. In between what we do and how we handle life in general, we find who we really are.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The characters we meet

Recently, a writing friend pondered some of writing's big questions—how do we build our characters and how much of the character is drawn from ourselves. The very first novel wrote was a terrible, terrible, terrible, YA novel. Did I mention it was terrible? But, I loved my characters, mainly because they were composites of me, my experiences, people I know, people I’d like to know, people I didn’t want to know. They had all the traits I didn’t have and wanted, and none of the one I did have, and didn’t want. I would see them as I walked down the street. I imagined them in familiar locale settings. I invented lives for them I couldn’t live. I gave them power I didn’t have. For characters to be informed by our own experiences and observations seems to be an accepted method. We start with what we know. In that process, we discover what we don’t know, and what we need to find out. How does a character behave in certain situations, what would she/he do when scared, frightened or elated? Since my first forays into writing, my characters have become more realistic, more complex and more interesting. Part of their development comes from my own. As I get older and wiser (hopefully), the choice of reactions, responses, idiosyncrasies and physical features that are imparted to the characters I write is drawn from a wider pool of experiences and observations. On the page, they can be anything, anyone, including the best and worst of ourselves.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Ferrari, my silent partner

When I write, I have a constant companion. He’s a silent partner in my work. My partner is always nearby and encourages me with adoring looks. My silent partner loves my voice when I read my work out loud. My silent partner loves me and my work unconditionally. My silent partner thinks everything I do is wonderful. My silent partner is my dog, Ferrari. He’s followed me from room to room, his whole life, which stretches to 12 years (roughly 84 human years).
A few days ago, I discovered that Ferrari has an enlarged heart, due to a leaking valve. What a bizarre coincidence that my dog developed that same problem as I had. In the doggy world, valves don't get replaced, so Ferrari doesn’t have the benefit of high-tech prosthetics like the one I have. Prior to surgery, when I couldn’t breath and I spent my days in bed, writing letter to those I loved, and wondering if I’d make it through the day, Ferrari stayed at the foot of the bed. His determination to protect me extended to attacking my husband if he dared set foot in the bedroom. We sorted that out pretty quickly. No longer the alpha-dog, Ferrari relaxed a little, but still his attention was on me constantly.
Ferrari is a companion dog, a Maltese Shih Tzu. In past parlance, he would have been known as a lap dog. In reality, he’s not that precious or fancy. Okay, so he’s groomed regularly, his coat’s dazzling white and his eyes melted chocolate. He’s feisty; his bark is surprisingly deep, not at all the high pitch yap associated with small breeds. These days, barking makes him cough. That doesn’t stop him defending his territory. He barks at anyone who dares walk in his street, or pass our back gate or ring our doorbell. Once you’re in the house, it’s a different story. Visitors are presented with his stuffed toys. Their shoes are sniffed and the tail wagging accelerates.
He’s not a great watchdog. On one occasion, burglars got into our garage and stole two sets of golf clubs, while we were inside having dinner. Unfortunately, that particular evening the spread included a large cheese platter. That’s Ferrari’s idea of heaven. Clearly golf isn’t. We forgave him that.
Everyone loves Ferrari. He’s sweet natured and kind to old people and little kids. Everyone wants to take him home. We can't go for long walks anymore. He’s not interested in sniffing around the streets. Sometimes he just looks at his food bowl, as if he can't be bothered.
There is no way of knowing how long Ferrari will stay around. He’s on fancy dog meds, which may help his heart muscle. Maybe in the mysterious ways of animals, he’ll know when it’s time and he might let me know too.
Until then, Ferrari remains my silent writing partner. The spot by my desk is reserved for him. Unconditionally.