inspiration

[poem] advice to myself by louise erdrich

A coffee I enjoyed in Bali last week.

A coffee I enjoyed in Bali last week.

Advice to Myself 

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons 
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Poem: "Advice to Myself" by Louise Erdrich, from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. © Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.  Sourced from The Writer’s Almanac.

travel: food, drink and inspiration in Berlin

kreuzberg

When you think of Berlin, perhaps you think of the Wall, the Reichstag, or Checkpoint Charlie. Every city guide will mention those, and with good reason – they are must-sees. But Berlin is also a paradise for creatives, dotted with artisan coffee shops, funky bars and galleries, cutting-edge restaurants, eye-grabbing street art, green spaces, museums, food stands and flea markets. The spirit of reinvention and possibility permeates every corner of this city. Whether you’ve got a week or a weekend in Berlin, if you want to be inspired, you’re in the right place.

kadewe-leuchturm-notebooks

Stationery lovers will be in heaven at KaDeWe, Europe’s second largest department store after Harrods, where there is a whole floor of notebooks, cards, paper and every writing implement you can imagine with which to pen a masterpiece. We spent ages trying to pick which colour Leuchturm notebook we wanted! And foodies, make your way to the sixth and seventh floors where you’ll find the food hall to end all food halls.  

cookies-cream-berlin-experience

Cookies Cream leads the way in the ‘cordon vert’ trend, serving edgy and extravagant vegetarian food – expect dishes like apple gyoza served in celery, walnut and thyme broth, and yellow beetroot gnocchi with olives. What’s more, you’ll feel like you’re in a spy film trying to find the hidden entrance to the restaurant in the car park at the back of the Westin Grand Hotel! We had the set menu which was a bargain €55 for four courses and included all their signature dishes. It was a meal to remember. We still talk about it.

schillerburger-berlin

Even your burger comes with a side of philosophy in Berlin. We thought the best veggie burgers were at Schillerburger, full of mustard and pickles in traditional German style. They have branches dotted all over the city. We frequented the one across the street from our favourite bar! 

coffee-and-cake

If you’re a cake lover, Berlin is your city. Kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) is a German institution and any neighbourhood café will have something freshly baked and delicious – espresso bar Café µ in Friedrichshain served a carrot cake that was even better than my grandmother’s; The Barn in Mitte is a world-renowned coffee roastery whose flat whites are strong and essential pre-shopping refreshment before you hit the arty boutiques of Schönhauser Allee; and even vegans don’t miss out, as Goodies Vegan Café has a sumptuous selection of cakes as well as excellent coffee.

hops-and-barley-beer
hops-and-barley-bar-berlin

Friedrichshain is my pick of the trendy neighbourhoods. The streets are lively and colourful, practically every block of flats has a mural painted on it. After a walk and browse through its many unique shops (no chain stores in sight here), unwind with a halber liter (a bit over a pint) of one of the beers or ciders at Hops and Barley, where they brew everything on the premises. Their pilsner is incredibly tasty, with a zesty citrus flavour.

Don't forget to visit a photo booth! They're great fun.

Don't forget to visit a photo booth! They're great fun.

Getting around is a cinch – Berlin is a cycle-friendly city and you can hire bikes very easily to zip around on. There’s also the U and S Bahn trains, which will get you from the outer neighbourhoods of the city into the centre of things in about 15 minutes. It’s also one of the most walkable cities in Europe. Wear comfy shoes and don’t forget your Fitbit!

michelberger-hotel-berlin

We liked staying at the funky Michelberger Hotel – a former factory complex, where the décor is a delightful eclectic mixture of vintage and warehouse hipster. I wouldn't recommend staying in the loft room, however - it was a rickety wire ladder to get up to the bed, which was too much like a mattress on the floor for my liking. Which was a shame, as the rest of the room was very comfortable. Worth double checking when you book that you have an actual bed! But otherwise, there’s an excellent bar and restaurant on site and the hotel is mere moments’ walk from the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall and, if you’re in town to catch an international music act, the Mercedes Benz Arena. I would stay here again quite happily.

Berlin Wall, East Side. 

Berlin Wall, East Side. 

 

One thing’s for sure, you’ll be plotting your return to Berlin before you’ve even left - however long you spend there simply won’t be enough.

Have you been to Berlin? What are your top tips for enjoying this wonderful city?

belong to nobody but yourself

Simone de Beauvoir ( source )

Simone de Beauvoir (source)

‘In order to write, in order to be able to achieve anything at all, you must first of all belong to nobody but yourself.’ - Simone de Beauvoir responding to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, in a 1966 lecture called ‘Women and Creativity.’

I have been a (silent) fan of fellow Australian writer Louise Omer (formerly Heinrich) for years. Today, browsing through my Feedly in between bits of spicy leftover rice noodles at my desk, I saw she had updated her website, with a different name. Curious, I read on and clicked on the article she shared which explained why.

I find it interesting that we (and by we, I mean society) are always curious about why a woman changes her name, or doesn't. We assume so many things. If you've been reading me for a while, you'll know I didn't take Tom's surname when we got married eight years ago and no one has ever questioned that decision, least of all him. But sixteen years ago I did take my first husband's surname and I was very excited to, because the idea of being an entirely different person was kind of the point of the whole thing (something I can only acknowledge looking back). Strangely, I would have taken Tom's surname if he had really wanted me to…but he didn’t. And that signalled to me that I’d made the right choice. A man for whom that was vitally important would not have been the right man for me to marry. 

The world is no doubt on the cusp of change, and hopefully it won't always be this way, but it's weird that a woman changing her name or choosing what name she will be known by, still feels like a political act. But to me, and it sounds like to Louise as well, it was a deeply personal way to reclaim my identity and do what felt right to me, in my bones, not just what the convention was. It was time, as Louise says, "for my grown-up name." Which in my case had been my name all along. But for others, their "grown up name" is taking the surname of the person they love and have chosen to spend their life with. Which is totally fine too. We're all just making our private, personal choices. We are all different - a fact that hasn't really been reflected in how women have been treated and expected to behave over the past few centuries. 

Perhaps it comes back to this idea that many of us still feel inhibited when it comes to meeting our own needs. Being selfish, I suppose, which I was raised to think of as a bad thing to be and something to avoid at all costs. But the flipside of that is that you suppress your feelings and desires because you learn early on that expressing them is not safe. In the end you become numb to them and on the rare occasions you are asked directly what you want, you have no idea. 

And there's the "selfishness" you need, in order to create, in order to be an artist. For men this never seems to be an issue but for women it always surfaces at some point. I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago, an interview with American novelist Stephanie Danler, whose words stopped me in my tracks:

"The reasons I left my marriage were not clearcut but they had something to do with writing the book. And that has always felt like a very ugly thing to talk about. There was a point where I felt I had to either choose my life with my husband - the one we had spent six years building together - or I had to choose myself and my novel. And even with the success Sweetbitter has had, I still to this day don't know whether I've made the right choice. But this is the one I'm living with.....I couldn't have done it [written the book] in the relationship I was in, not because it wasn't supportive....but because I couldn't be selfish in the way I found was necessary for me to create. I feel that's a bit of a taboo, it's not something I find women talking about often - is that you actually might have to be deeply, deeply, painfully selfish in order to make art a priority."

 

It’s funny. As I get older and (hopefully) mature, I feel I know my younger self better now than I ever did then. Every time I'm brave enough to confront something in myself, or I read articles like this or listen to podcasts with people who have also been through a divorce young, another lightbulb goes off, another penny drops and I think, yes, that was it, that was what I did, that was what I thought, that was me too

I long for the day when it will no longer be radical for a woman to belong to nobody but herself.

what kind of heart does it take - an evening with alison jean lester

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

On Thursday night at Daunt Books in Hampstead, I attended an author event by my friend Alison Jean Lester. We were greeted with shots of sake and Japanese rice crackers, and then the evening began, with an intimate and enthusiastic group of us gathered on a dark night in a gorgeous little bookshop. Alison is not only a very fine, observant and witty writer, she also used to work as a corporate communications coach so she knows how to work a room. I knew I was in for a fun evening!

sake-rice-crackers

Alison read an excerpt from her first novel Lillian on Life (one of my favourite reads of 2015) and then she sang us a Japanese folk song which she used to sing to her children, who were born in Japan. It was like a little meditation, the perfect bridge to the discussion of her latest novel, Yuki Means Happiness

A line from the song Alison sang was "what kind of heart does it take?" and she posed that as a question that fiction writers should ask themselves when starting the story they want to tell. What kind of heart does it take to endure/pursue what the story is asking? How will that heart be changed? Broken? Mended?

We talked a bit about the process of putting your real-life experiences into your fiction - something I am very familiar with (and didn't quite manage to pull off, hence why my book was a memoir in the end!). "The great thing about fiction is that you have control in a way you don't have in life," Alison said. "If someone fell under a train in real life, in fiction you can change that, you can save them. Or, you can let someone go under a train and save yourself!"

Alison also said she finds the whole "how autobiographical is this novel?" question that is often asked of women writers quite flattering - "because it means they think it really happened. It's a compliment to your writing." 

Ultimately, Alison advised us to "write about what haunts you". To ask questions of our characters that we might have asked of ourselves, once upon a time. To have a character take a path you did not. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

I thought deeply about this on my train home. The character in my novel is in a very similar situation to the one I found myself in 12 years ago and what she is doing to save the marriage is something I never, not for a split second, entertained - trying to have a child in the hope that it will heal the rift between them. I have been struggling with the novel lately, fearful that everything is a bit two-dimensional. I have done so much reading, so much research, and I know what I want to say and who these people are - I just haven't found the right way in yet. I have the key but it hasn't fit in any of the locks I've tried. Is this a way into the story, I wonder, to imagine an alternative future for myself, a path I might well have taken had a few things been different?

It was such an inspiring and wonderful evening, and it pumped me up in a way I hadn't realised I needed. I must make an effort to go to things like this more often because when I do, I feel like I'm among peers, among friends. I feel seen, heard and understood, even when I say very little and just listen. Writers are my people. And you can't help but feel uplifted when you're with your people. 

I'm currently reading Yuki Means Happiness and it's marvellous (as I thought it would be!). If you enjoy thoughtful and funny writing that makes you think about life, I highly recommend seeking out Alison's books!

deeds not words

Image originally found via  Old London (@GreatestCapital) on Twitter .

Image originally found via Old London (@GreatestCapital) on Twitter.

This photo is of one of my favourite suffragettes - if one is allowed to have favourites - Emmeline Pethick Lawrence on her release from Holloway Prison in 1908.

Emmeline did amazing work for underprivileged women, founding a dressmaking cooperative that paid women a minimum wage and holiday pay. When she and her husband Frederick were married, they double-barrelled their surnames and had separate bank accounts. Frederick was also a huge supporter of women’s suffrage, helping Emmeline start a publication “Votes for Women” in 1907 and he even went to prison too for conspiracy/taking part in demonstrations. They favoured “militancy without violence” which led to huge disagreements with the Pankhursts and eventually Emmeline and Frederick were thrown out of the Women’s Social and Political Union. But they didn’t give up the fight and spent the rest of their lives campaigning for social justice.

Today on International Women's Day I am proud to acknowledge the passion, sacrifice and courage of Emmeline and so many women like her who fought so hard for equality (and she deserves just as much acknowledgement as the more famous Emmeline in my opinion!). We still have a long way to go but there is so much to thank these brave radical women for. Keep fighting, keep reaching. Today and every day.