Booklovers’ surprise

Hampton Arms Inn, Greenough
Hampton Arms Inn, Greenough

The quaint Hampton Arms Inn in Company Road, two kilometres south-west of the Greenough Hamlet, is one of only a handful of Australian colonial hotels that has survived from the nineteenth century.

Opened in 1863, not long after the Greenough Front Flats were first settled, the building retains all of its original architecture and form, with a central two-storey section and single storey wings on each side. In its hey-day, the Inn was a focal point for social gatherings, balls and meetings of all kinds for the settlers in the district.

Not surprisingly, this charming old building was classified by the National Trust in 1977 and placed on the Register of the National Estate in 1978. It was placed on the Shire of Greenough’s historic buildings list in 1984.

Lovingly restored by its current owners, Judy and Brian Turnock, it still functions as a licensed inn. A restaurant and upstairs accommodation, with patchwork quilts on the beds, add to a homely welcome.

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These cute fellows sit either side of one of the doors to the bar
These cute fellows sit either side of one of the doors to the bar

The day John and I visited, members of the Geraldton Yacht Club and their guests from other clubs were celebrating the end of the racing season. They had taken over the beer garden and welcomed us warmly, but there was barely seating room for two more people.

‘That sounds like a pleasant enough place,’ you might say.

But the Hampton Arms Inn is much more than a pleasant pub. Apart from its historical significance, what amazed us was the completely unexpected second-hand bookshop, which starts in the bar and spreads into at least four of the ground-floor rooms. There were tables and chairs in these rooms, for the benefit of customers.

A small sample of books at the Hampton Arms Inn
A small sample of books at the Hampton Arms Inn

Owner Brian, a genial host who on the day we were there doubled as the bartender, describes this part of his business as ‘Hampton Books at the Inn: Rare and out of Print, a place where you can browse an antiquarian bookshop with a beer in hand.’ As well as the physical bookshop, Brian also runs an online bookshop at hamptonarms@westnet.com.au

I didn’t ask his age; it’s not the sort of thing one does. But now I wish I had and that he hadn’t been so busy with the yacht club in the courtyard. I would have liked to talk to him more. I wanted to know what brought him and Judy to Greenough. I wish I’d asked what prompted them to take on such an enormous restoration project and how he came to develop his bookshop in such an out-of-the-way place.

I have probably missed the opportunity for a different post, one about another  person who is ageing in style.

But during that day in Greenough, what could have been more appealing to John and me, a couple of passionate readers on holidays, than to spend an afternoon browsing among books we loved, and making small-talk with the owner of a bookshop?

We discovered a wealth of Australiana, included some books that had been companions in our long-ago childhoods. We also spotted other favourites and came away with an armful of reasonably priced volumes, chosen almost randomly from the wealth  on offer – delightful reading for the rest of the time we spent in Western Australia’s Mid-West Region.

This unexpected, well-hidden treasure trove was, indeed, as its owners say, a bibliophile’s dream come true.

Ageing with Style – Elizabeth Worts

My sister Elizabeth Worts at work in one of the units of her bed and breakfast
My sister Elizabeth Worts at work in one of the garden rooms of her bed and breakfast

An elephant swayed from side-to-side as she picked her way down the side of mountainside in a jungle in northern Thailand. She felt her way with her trunk to test the terrain before she put each enormous foot carefully into a tiny space between loose rocks.

The mahout on the creature’s head turned around to where I clutched Elizabeth’s arm in terror. If it hadn’t been for my dear sister, my life would have been much less adventurous. And I would never have been perched so precariously on a  platform on the animal’s back, waiting to be thrown to the ground and trampled underfoot.

‘Very safe,’ the mahout called, laughing as I shrieked. I swear could hear him thinking, ‘Silly Farang!’ (foreigner).

‘Grandmothers like us should be at home sitting in rocking chairs,’ Elizabeth said calmly, ‘not rocking around like this on the backs of elephants.’ She didn’t seem at all fazed by that experience or others that followed.

A mahout and his elephant (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)
A mahout and his elephant
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

In the eight years she lived in Bangkok, Elizabeth orchestrated the most amazing adventures for family and friends who flocked to her apartment in Soi 12, Sukhumvit, right in the heart of Bangkok. She showed us the tourist sites; we explored China Town and travelled the Chao Phraya River on over-laden local ferries where we rubbed shoulders with Buddhist monks – taking care not to touch and so defile them – and with old men holding live chickens and old women clutching babies on their laps.

Elizabeth took me on boat trips on the tiny klongs (canals) that criss-crossed the city, mostly hidden from tourists. We visited the Klong Toey slums near the port with a Redemptorist priest as our escort and a vicious cock-fight an unexpected and unwelcome spectacle. At an international charity workshop we talked to the nuns and to the young women from slum districts who were learning to make patchwork bags, placemats and quilts. One day when we went looking for a medical museum that I’d read about, we even found ourselves in the morgue of a hospital with corpses placed haphazardly on trolleys and only partially covered with grey blankets – and no staff in sight. That was really scary!

When not playing hostess to Australian guests, my sister could often be found in an orphanage in the slums, feeding and cuddling babies or playing with toddlers.

‘I’ve learned not to go to the babies that cry the loudest,’ she said. ‘They get all the attention. I pick up those that are lying quietly. They’re passive because no one cuddles them.’

Fast forward twenty five years. Now my still energetic seventy-two-year-old sister lives in Dowerin, a tiny country town almost 160 kilometres north-east of Perth in the central wheat-belt region of Western Australia – as far from the bustle of Bangkok as it’s possible to imagine. Apart from the few days each year in August, when the Dowerin Field Days attract thousands of people from all over the State to the agricultural displays on the football oval, it’s quiet in the town.

Elizabeth and Peter on their wedding day
Elizabeth and Peter on their wedding day

Always the consummate hostess, Elizabeth owns the Dowerin Bed and Breakfast with her husband, Peter Worts.

‘We thought this lovely house looked like a B & B the minute we saw it,’ Elizabeth says. ‘I’ve travelled overseas and all over Australia and stayed in lots of home-based accommodation. I love entertaining, and thought I could probably do as good a job as many other people in hospitality.

‘Peter and I came to Dowerin ten years ago to semi-retire. We’ve obviously failed at that!’ she adds.

Welcoming corner in spring sunshine
Welcoming corner in spring sunshine

The Dowerin Bed and Breakfast has become a home-away-from-home for many people from government departments who visit Dowerin and the surrounding areas, as well as for tourists and business people travelling in the wheat-belt. Elizabeth’s attention to detail ensures that guests enjoy a warm welcome, delicious food  and a comfortable room or purpose-built garden unit where they can sit on a veranda and enjoy the expansive rural views.

Wheat crop seen from veranda
Wheat crop seen from veranda

During the Dowerin Field Days, the bed and breakfast accommodation bulges with visitors. Some people even park their caravans on the property for the duration of the Field Days. Breakfast begins at six each morning as people prepare to set up and staff their stalls and exhibitions. At the end of each of the busy days, a party atmosphere prevails as twenty or so guests and visitors sit down to three-course, restaurant-standard meals. People book a year, two years ahead, for the privilege of staying at the Dowerin Bed and Breakfast during Field Days.

As well as running the bed and breakfast and helping Peter with his business, Shades Pergolas, Elizabeth has immersed herself in the life of the town – book club, craft group and art classes. She is also a long-term member of the North East Wheat Belt Travel Association, which promotes tourism in the region. As a member of the Country Cousins network of Western Australian farm-stay accommodation, she actively helps to maintain the standards of the network and attends regular meetings and conferences in regional Western Australia.

This active, much-in-demand grandmother of ten and great-grandmother of four makes time to drive to Perth almost weekly – a three-hundred-and-fifty kilometre round trip – to visit family and friends. She often takes care of her younger grandchildren, either in Perth or during school holidays at Dowerin. She regularly visits her daughter and grandsons who live in Bridgetown. Beautiful crotchet rugs, knitted jumpers, hand-made gifts flow from her hands for new babies, toddlers and the older children.

Austin and Elizabeth celebrate his first birthday in Bridgetown
Austin and Elizabeth celebrate his first birthday in Bridgetown

Elizabeth with her grandson Mark (l), great-granddaughter Chloe, and son Steven
Elizabeth with her grandson Mark (l), great-granddaughter Chloe, and son Steven

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth and Peter holiday regularly – in Bali, in Thailand, where Elizabeth’s son Damian manages a restaurant, or further afield. Last year they spent five weeks in England, where they visited Peter’s relations and went to some of the places where he spent  his childhood. Often they take their caravan on short trips to the beach; to the outback where they camp on stations near water holes, perhaps to see the wildflowers in the mid-west; and to places in between.

The Worts on the Hoe, Plymouth UK, 2013
The Worts on the Hoe, Plymouth UK, 2013

Energetic and full of enthusiasm, my sister is a woman ageing with style. Perhaps one day, she’ll settle down in that rocking chair she mentioned in Thailand. But I imagine that won’t happen soon!

2014 Perth Writers Festival – afterwards

Books are piling up on my tablet and beside my bed as a result of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival last weekend. The collection surprises me. At face-value it is such a different selection from my usual choices.

For example, before the Writers Festival I’d almost forgotten my penchant for travel memoirs, although in the past I’ve read dozens of them. I have a special interest because my own first book, Other People’s Country, fits firmly into that genre, although when I was writing it as part of a Writing PhD I vaguely hoped it would also be considered as a ‘literary’ work.

Since publication, Other People’s Country has been acclaimed as journalism and history. And it has ended up on the shelves of university and public libraries in the obscure section on Aboriginal Health, and not as memoir at all. It appears on some university reading lists under ‘community health’, because it is the story about the time I spent working as a nurse on a remote Aboriginal community in the Western Australian desert.

Maybe my newly completed (as yet unpublished) memoir will end up in the ‘romance’ category, or even as ‘chick-lit’. I wonder if there’s word for a story about romance in later life? Surely there’s something more appropriate than ‘chick-lit’.

Following the Writers Festival, there are four travel memoirs on my immediate ‘to read’ list. Travel memoir is in a class of its own when it comes to books and writing. The authors don’t merely recount their journeys like travel writers. Travel memoirists also invite readers to enjoy their stories and adventures and to glimpse their experiences of personal growth as they reflect on  aspects of new and sometimes alienating cultures, and what it meant to immerse themselves in a new place.

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Sarah Turnbull’s new book, All Good Things, is a memoir about her life in French Polynesia, where she moved with her husband from Paris. At the Writers Festival, the Australian author explained to her audiences that this new book differs from her first, the highly acclaimed Almost French, because it describes a more personal journey. While her husband, Frederick, was at work all day, she had  time to enjoy beauty of the island and to think. She said All Good Things recounts many intimate details about the longing for a child shared by her husband and her. I will review this book soon for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

The next three travel memoirs might not have come to my attention if I hadn’t heard their accomplished, highly entertaining authors speak in a session at the Festival. Xavier Toby, author of Mining my own Business, is a comedian who was in Perth for the Perth Fringe Festival that preceded the Perth Writers Festival. His book is about a six-month stint on a mine-site in Queensland, where he went to earn money to repay debts. I was immediately intrigued when I heard him say, ‘Miners talk in anecdotes. They don’t have conversations. I’ve known a few fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, and wonder about the lifestyle, but Xavier Toby seems to have taken it in his stride.

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The next author on my list, Tim Cope, is an intrepid adventurer, filmmaker and writer who has to his credit several books and documentaries and a number of travel awards, including the Young Australian Adventurer of the Year, 2002 and the Australian Geographic  Australian Adventurer of the Year 2006. He travelled from Mongolia to Hungary on horseback, an amazing journey if ever there was one. It took almost four years for him to cover the 10 000 kilometres. His book is On the Trail of Genhis Khan, An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads. 

Brendan Shanahan calls himself ‘a reluctant journalist-turned-writer’. His latest book is Mr Snack and the Lady Water Travel tales from my lost years. It is a collection of what have been called ‘darkly wicked’ stories from his travels around the world, including one about buying a house in Las Vegas, unseen, from the internet.  I can’t wait to read a book about which Annabel Crabb has said, “Eccentric and darkly hilarious. I’d read anything Shanahan wrote, but I’d never travel with him anywhere.”

The book for our next book club meeting at the end of March, chosen by a member after several of us heard the author at the Festival, is Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, and I’m looking forward to that, too. Jo Baker said that this literary novel began from her speculation on the way ‘things got done’ in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: a letter was delivered; the laundry was done – simple everyday events that seemed to have no agent. She asked herself, ‘Who did that?’ and ‘What would that be like?’ Taking her clues from historical research and the life and novels of Austen, Baker wrote from what she called ‘absences’. She imagined the servants and others who did the hidden work in those days, and the characters in Longbourn began from there.

9781742613093[1]And then there is Debra Adelaide’s collection of short stories, Letter to George Cluny. I’ll review that, too, in the near future, for the AWW Challenge.

There was more, much more, that attracted my attention and compelled my interest at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival. But this list is a good start to my reading plans for the next few months.

2014 Perth Writers Festival

The University of Western Australia
The University of Western Australia

Searing sunshine. Beautiful buildings and gardens at the University of Western Australia. The Swan River. Pop-up shelters on green-grassed ovals. Bunting. The smell of Moreton Bay figs crushed underfoot. Smiling faces. Encounters with old friends. Congenial conversations with strangers. A buzz,  excitement,  movement. Packed performance theatres, lecture theatres, tents, Winthrop Hall. Local writers centres seeking new members. Children, craft and ice-creams on Family Day. Writers, would-be writers and readers mingling.

Sensory overload.

Sun shelters in UWA gardens
Sun shelters in UWA gardens

The four-day festival included a day-long seminar on publishing; sixteen three-hour workshops with experienced writers and one hundred other events, as well as a day-long program of activities especially for children on Sunday. Almost one hundred and eighty novelists, memoirists, biographers, journalists, travel writers, comedians-and-actors-turned writers, poets, academics, retired politicians, several lawyers and a Catholic priest  stimulated, enlightened and entertained their audiences in a number of venues.

Crowd outside Romeo Tent
Crowd outside Romeo Tent

There were international speakers, among them Margaret Drabble, Jo Baker, Lionel Shriver and Simon Garfield; a strong contingent from other parts of Australia as well as numerous locals. Experienced and emerging writers spoke about their latest books and discussed their writing processes. There was something at this festival for everyone.

With so much to choose from, John and I missed things we might have otherwise attended. But we did the best we could with the program published a month earlier, and ticked and crossed those sessions we thought would best suit our temperaments and our interests.  In spite of our plans, we often changed tack and went to different sessions which we mixed and matched according to whim, and often to our great delight.

I’ve been going to the Perth Writers Festivals for decades. One that I remember with great fondness was held at the Fremantle Arts Centre, a tiny venue by today’s standards. That year, a dear friend and I booked into bed and breakfast accommodation within walking distance from the Centre, because we didn’t want to miss anything. We went to everything on offer, including a bus tour of Fremantle.

The festival has moved on since those early days. At at various times it has been held at the Perth Concert Hall and the Perth Art Gallery. Each place offered something unique, but UWA provides a delightful setting with a central hub and nearby venues. After speaking at Writers Festivals in Melbourne and Sydney, I’m convinced Perth’s festival is best. Biased? Perhaps.

Novelists Hannah Kent and Jo Baker with Chair Rachel Robertson in a discussion
Novelists Hannah Kent and Jo Baker with Chair Rachel Robertson in a discussion

There were many highlights, of course. and other people might choose differently. But some of my stand-outs were the wise Dame Margaret Drabble, author of seventeen wonderful novels; the fresh new writer, Xavier Toby, who had doubled as a comedian the week before in the Perth Fringe Festival;  Angela Meyer, whose careful research and bubbly persona made the sessions she chaired a special delight; and a thought-provoking session about the current political language being used in Australia to talk about asylum seekers. Speakers in this conversation were Thomas Keneally and  Rosie Scott, who have edited A Country Too Far, a book of asylum-seeker stories contributed by eminent writers; Debra Adelaide; and ‘reformed’ asylum-seekers, last year’s Young Australian of the Year, Akram Azimi, and Carina Hoang.

Last week, I wondered if perhaps I was too old now for writers festivals. Tonight, I know I am! I won’t need rocking to sleep. But I have so much new information to think about, so much to process, so many new ideas to share, that I’m glad I’ve attended another festival. And I look forward to doing it all again next year.

Ageing and advocacy

Twice during the last week I’ve been reminded sharply about the importance of advocacy in the lives of older people.Advocacy is a simple concept: it means standing by another person who needs support to confront a more powerful person or institution. The more vulnerable a person, the more he or she may need an advocate to address neglect, bullying or abuse, whether intentional or not. Even the strongest among us may need the support of other people when we are ill and in hospital.

A supporting hand
A supporting hand

Anyone can advocate for another person, regardless of the relationship between them. At one level, a lawyer who represents a client in court is the client’s advocate; parents regularly advocate on behalf of their children to a variety of people; and a student who stands up to a bully on behalf of a weaker child is also an advocate.

A few months ago I posted about a friend of mine who was a patient in a private hospital. As a retired registered nurse with considerable experience in aged care, I could see clearly that my friend was not receiving the care she required and to which she was entitled. In addition, as a patient in the hospital, she suffered several serious mishaps . These could have been prevented with better assessment and attention. They have impacted severely on her recovery and her on-going quality of life.

Several issues relating to the care and treatment of my friend were apparent, and I believed they should be addressed by nurses, doctors and other staff who were responsible for her care. One that worried her most was that she was moved from ward to ward several times without explanation. On one occasion, she was left sitting in a chair following a general anaesthetic because the bed to which she was being moved in another ward was still occupied.

I began to think it was highly probable that poor care of older patients might be endemic in that hospital. One of the additional positive outcomes of advocacy is that hospitals and other institutions often amend their practice as a result of well-measured complaints. This leads to better care for everyone who is or will become a client or patient.

Because my friend is not only an older person, but was also very unwell at the time, I discussed her position with her, and then wrote on her behalf to the chief executive officer of the hospital.

My written complaints were not addressed with me by hospital management, but several staff members entered into discussions with my friend (although she was very ill) and one ward nurse had a brief conversation with me.

As she was still ill and a patient in the hospital, likely to remain so for some time and perhaps even to be readmitted in the future, she was not prepared to discuss the issues with staff on the floor, even she was unhappy with the care she was receiving. She was afraid that there would be repercussions if she complained.

‘Patients can be punished if they say anything the staff doesn’t like,’ she told me. ‘As old nurses, we both know that.’

As my formal complaints to the hospital had not been addressed to my satisfaction (or that of my friend) when she left the hospital, I took the matter further. A third party told me in a telephone conversation that ‘the hospital thought’ that all the complaints had been resolved. And in spite of my first letter clearly stating I was acting as my friend’s advocate, they thought I was ‘just a friend!’

Some of the important lessons that I learned in ten years as a professional advocate were that anyone act as an advocate on behalf of another person; advocacy goes into the fray as hard as it needs to; and does not give up until the end of the matter. Obviously that hospital has not learned the same lesson. The story continues…

Another old woman who is much loved by a number of people lives in residential aged care facility. Last week, following a visit by one of her friends, there was a discussion about apparently poor care the old woman had received recently. I suggested the friends could address the matter with the director of nursing, or they could contact an advocacy agency for support. The friends thought that the woman’s family should be told of their concerns and the decision to deal (or not) with the concerns should be left to them.

In my experience, staff members in most aged care facilities and hospitals recognise their duty of care; they want to provide the best attention and treatment for their residents and patients. Often, a timely word to a senior staff member from whoever witnesses problem behaviour results in prompt resolution of the issue. There is often a written complaints procedure that will help if the complain is not resolved immediately.

Bystanders who do nothing to assist a vulnerable victim of neglect or abuse become part of the problem.

In Western Australia, for more information about the rights of residents and assistance with making a complaint about a residential aged care facility or a Home and Community Care Service, contact Advocare Incorporated.

For assistance with a complaint about a hospital, contact the Health Consumers Council

There are similar organisations in other Australian states.

Annah Faulkner,The Beloved, a Review

This year I have finally gathered courage to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge and to commit myself to read six books by Australian women writers and review four of them between now and the end of 2014. This is my first review. Chosen by the book club to which I belong for the February meeting, the selection was thrust upon me, rather than a choice I made. But Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved is a treasure.

This beautifully written first novel won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Emerging Author (2011) and a place on the Miles Franklin Literary Award short list (2013) for good reason.

Against a backdrop of life in the 1950s in Port Moresby (where Anna Faulkner spent much of her childhood) with excursions to Sydney, Melbourne and Canada, The Beloved is the story of the protagonist’s somewhat stormy childhood in a family fraught with problems.

Stricken at the age of six with polio, the protagonist, Roberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot – yes, really – is left with a disability which means she must eventually wear a boot to correct her gait. Her deformed foot impacts on her perception of herself and how she chooses to dress, as well as forces her to compensate in many areas of her life.

From the outset, the reader is shown Bertie’s exceptional artistic talent. This talent, as 20140130_184853well as the child’s passion for her art, puts her in direct conflict with her strictly controlling mother, who aspires to a career in medicine for her daughter. The conflict is epitomised in the mother’s steadfast refusal to give Bertie the box of 72 coloured pencils for which the little girl longs. The battle between mother and daughter draws the story along at a page-turning pace, ensuring an easy read. Bertie’s deception and secrecy as she pursues her art against her mother’s wishes is at the heart of the novel; but hers is not the only deception.

I loved the way Annah Faulkner portrays her characters, even minor ones, giving them a distinctive life of their own. The author’s passion for, and knowledge about art is apparent throughout the book. But what impressed me most was the fascinating use of the voice of the child to tell this story in first person as she develops from a little girl to a thirteen-year old. For the first few pages, I was unsure of the voice. Once I became used to it, I was impressed with the deft way the author manages to maintain a voice which matures as the girl grows older, and becomes more cognisant of what is happening around her, and the implications of other people’s actions.

This is an excellent book club choice and I look forward to discussing it soon.

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2014
Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014

Joining the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Last week, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014, which began on 1 January and will finish on 31 December. For this challenge, women and men readers and bloggers in Australia and elsewhere are invited to read and review books in any genre written by Australian women.

The challenge has run for the past two years, and each time I’ve thought of an excuse not to be involved. Laziness, perhaps. I mostly choose to read books by women and talk about some of them at the book club to which I belong. Reviewing is a logical next step.

Australian Writers Challenge 2014
Australian Writers Challenge 2014

Books by male authors in Australia are far more likely to be reviewed than those by women. The stated aim of this challenge is ‘to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women’. As a woman writer, I have to like that!

In the challenge, there are four suggested levels. The first three are named after Stella Miles Franklin, an Australian writer and feminist who is best known for her novel My Brilliant Career, which was published in 1901. The levels are:

  • Stella: read four books, and if reviewing, review at least three
  • Miles: read six and review at least four
  • Franklin: read ten and review at least six.
  • Create your own challenge,  which could include reading and reviewing an unlimited number of books, or simply reading a few more books by Australian women and reviewing none.

I’ve been very gentle with myself and opted for the Miles level, which means that, in 2014, I’ll read at least six books and review four. Because I write memoirs and sometimes facilitate life-writing courses at Peter Cowan Writers Centre I tend to read more memoirs than books in other genres.

My plans could easily change, but for the challenge I’d like to read and review books from several different genres. Perhaps I’ll find some books written by and about older women. I’ll report my progress and include the reviews in my posts.

There are a few reasons why I’ve joined:

  • The idea of being part of a community of people who are reading and writing about books by women writers appeals
  • Accepting the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 is an act of solidarity with women writers who are underrepresented in book reviews and on long- and short-lists for most writing awards
  • I like challenges, even small ones.

Anyone reading this blog can join the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and read more books by women this year. I know some people would enjoy reviewing the books, as well. For those new to reviewing, there are guidelines on the AWWC website, and there are also numerous websites with information and tips on how to go about it. Perhaps members of book clubs and writing groups could encourage others to join the challenge and support each other’s review-writing.

ps. This is the first time I’ve tried to add links to one of my posts.  I can’t find any way to check until I post this. If I haven’t got it right, I’ll try again. Learning curve!

Eureka moments and epiphanies

In the olden days, when I was a girl, the Christmas season lasted twelve days. The season was celebrated in song and stories that everyone knew – think, for example, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In some cultures, Twelfth Night was a time for revelry. But, traditionally, in my family, the twelfth night was the time to take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away until the next year. By then, too, hopefully, the last of the ham, Christmas cake and puddings had been eaten, the holidays were over and life was restored to pre-Christmas normality.

In those days, on the sixth of January, the day after twelfth night, Christians commemorated the arrival in Bethlehem of strangers from ‘the East’, gentiles who had come to visit the little, Jewish Christ-Child. This was known as the Feast of the Epiphany. Now, at least in the Catholic Church, the feast day has been raised to a Sunday feast, so that the date is no longer fixed.

The Magi as depicted in popular culture.
The Magi as depicted in popular culture.

The Magi are traditionally known as kings and sometimes as wise-men. They may have been astrologers, which would explain their ability to follow the star to Bethlehem. Depicted on Christmas cards (remember when everyone sent and received them in the days before email?) the men do not look like travellers at the end of a gruelling journey. They’re always dressed in clean, colourful finery, sitting on camels and bearing precious gifts, often beautifully wrapped with ribbon ties. The Magi probably didn’t arrive on the first Christmas morning, and it is likely that by the time they got to Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph and the Baby had moved out of the stable and settled in the town.

In T.S. Elliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the narrator is an old man dictating his recollections of the journey the men undertook. Leaving their homes, ‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ and the silken girls bringing sherbets’, they went through hostile cities and unfriendly towns and dirty villages. In the end they resorted to travelling at night, sleeping in snatches. The narrator hints at scenes that foreshadowed the end of the life of Jesus. Although he says he would do it again, he is not sure if they had been led all that way for Birth or Death. After his experience of seeing the Child, nothing could be the same again. http://allpoetry.com/poem/8453741-The-Journey-Of-The-Magi-by-T-S–Eliot

The clock tower in Berne, Switzerland, said to be the source of a eureka moment for Albert Einstein. Source: www.dailygalaxy.com
The clock tower in Berne, Switzerland, said to be the source of a eureka moment for Albert Einstein.
Source: www.dailygalaxy.com

Epiphany, eureka moment and enlightenment are a few of the words used to describe an apparently sudden breakthrough. In reality, such new insights can only come as the result of long hard slog, after weeks, months, sometimes even years of total immersion in the mundane details of a problem.

Often, we’ve lived with the question for so long, seen the contradictions, chased down blind alleys and suffered so many failures that we’ve almost given up. At this point, we step back. Only then does the answer becomes apparent.  Breakthroughs cannot be anticipated and often come from an unexpected direction but always as a result of hard work.

 

The solution that comes suddenly at the end of such an arduous process can be helpful, useful, simple, beautiful, elegant, or more loving. It is always exciting. For scientists, the moment of discovery is their Eureka! moment; in the arts, as in psychology, it is an epiphany; and in spiritual or religious terms, enlightenment.

Looking back, the person involved may be able to see the steps along the way that led to the eventual discovery. But one thing is sure: his or her life will never be the same again.

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