How my dog told me to shut up and sleep

I’ve just reached the tail end of a pretty crazy exam period involving hominins, Indigenous knowledge, medical anthropology and the environment. Admittedly, I’m not sure how well I did, but one of my study methods involved voice-recording all of my notes and listening to them on repeat in bed, night after night, in the blind hope that I’d absorb something in my sleep. This went on for three weeks. Every night. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well.

IMG_0180My lovely Labrador, Sheldon, suffered through my droning dulcet tones, too. For three weeks, he grunted and grizzled, nudged and huffed during the night from his nest of blankets, then looked at me with bloodshot eyes when the time came to roll out of bed and hit the pavement for our morning walk.

I’m still in that hyped, stressed out study mode, so yesterday I downloaded some mindfulness podcasts to help me reach for that illusive sleep. Expecting another sleepless night last night, I turned off the light and hit play.

Sheldon immediately let out the long, drawn out huff of the damned.

I patted his head and told him he was beautiful, while in background the podcast dreamily spoke about embracing the moment.

Sheldon replied by kicking me in the legs.

I took it for the sign it was; I turned off the phone, settled into the darkness and listened to something I hadn’t heard in three weeks: silence.

Sheldon huffed again, this time in bliss.

It was the best sound I’d fallen asleep to in weeks.

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Crystal Clear

There’s a magical beach in Queensland where crystal-imbedded rocks are washed ashore. You can walk the long stretch of pale sand and find tiny emeralds and rubies, as well as boulder opal and geodes crammed with sparkling crystals. At sunset, wallabies come from the surrounding national park to stand before the waves and catch the evening breeze.

Such places set our imaginations on fire. They remind us why we create and write—to celebrate life and all of its flaws and wonders.

Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes I get caught up in yet another edit of a paragraph/scene/manuscript. Sometimes I forget to call my family, or be there for my friends, or just sit outside and breathe. But not today.

Today, in such a place, life is a gem.

How I write: broken bones

crutchesI recently dropped a chair on my little toe. The chair was fine, my toe not so much. After the immediate desire to scream and swoon had passed, I was left with an ugly, purple mushroom of a toe and an aching desire to watch the world burn (I get aggressive when injured).

If you’re wondering what the hell this has to do with how I write…well, I’m one of those people who sees a connection between what happens to their body and what’s going on in their life. Burn my leg—I’ve been a raging lunatic about something. Persistent colds—I’m mentally drained and my life is in disorder. It’s the Louise Hay way, I suppose.

The last time I had a foot injury (I sprained my ankle while falling into the ocean via an 8m rockwall), google gleefully summarised that my mishap was a physical manifestation of my refusal to move forward in my life.

Does this sound weird? Far-fetched? Maybe, but for me it had a ring of truth. I’d sprained my ankle at a time when I was miserable at work, not writing, and unable to find a way past an increasingly depressed outlook. So I left my job, wrote like crazy and worked on some self-respect.

It all sounds a bit drastic and daft. Who would uproot their life because they sprained their ankle? Of course it’s not as simple as that, but sometimes you need a trigger for self-reflection and change.

So when I broke my toe, I took it to mean a similar warning sign: I’d been neglecting some pretty important things in my life. One of them was, again, my writing. For a myriad of reasons, writing had taken a backseat, and while life sometimes demands this (and it’s okay if it does!), I had entered a cycle that could easily continue for a very long time if I refused to make some changes.

By the time the icepack came off, the laptop was powered up and I was working on a new production schedule for my writing. Part of that involved new writing prompts, an achievable daily word count, and configuring Scrivener to suit my redrafting needs. Within a few days I’d written my way out of a problematic scene that had bothered me for weeks and discovered new turning points for my redraft. It’s been consistent progress since then.

I mention all of this because my biggest writing breakthroughs come when I make room for change. And it doesn’t always have to be extreme. Quite often it’s the opposite. Things like moving my writing desk to a different part of the room; going to a new writing location each day for a week; walking more (so good for generating ideas); reading books that turn my beliefs on their head; meeting new people; volunteering; and dressing up to go out when I’m just going to sit in front of the laptop and eat marshmellows.

Changing your lifestyle even in tiny ways can clear the cobwebs, jolt you out of a rut and let fresh ideas flow. Trust me, it works.

Let’s just hope you don’t need to break bones to get your writing life in alignment.

Know your place

The suburb I live in is named after a pioneering family who ran cattle in the area from 1879 to the 1970s. The husband was a luckless blacksmith who came to Australia in the 1850s for the gold rush, stayed poor, and eventually ended up in Townsville with his wife and family. They set up a dairy farm and struggled to survive. Much of their land is now submerged after the city flooded it in building the local dam.

Knowing your place, as in where you currently live, offers surprisingly rich fodder literally right under your writing desk. Have you ever researched the history of your home, who built it, who the street or suburb is named after, and what they did that was deserving of such recognition? Give it a shot. What you learn can show up in unexpected places in your writing.

But once you’re done, I’d like you to look again at those street signs and suburb names, and ask about the silences they represent. Are any suburbs in your city named after women? Scientists? Humanitarians? Artists? What about Indigenous Peoples? You’ll be surprised by what is underrepresented or missing.

My suburb is Wulgurukaba country. They are saltwater people who have lived in this region for over 37,000 years (to put that into perspective, there were no humans living in England or America when the Wulgurukaba first settled here). There is 6,000 year old rock art only 15km from the city centre—it’s older than the Egyptian pyramids. The river I walk my dog beside every morning is the northern-most area where the Wulgurukaba people travelled during the changing seasons.

In the mid-1800s, pioneers trapped the Wulgurukaba at the base of the nearby mountain range and massacred them. It’s unknown how many families were murdered, but they died because the pioneers wanted the land, and the Wulgurukaba refused to leave their ancestral country.

smoking gun

Like much of Australia’s colonial history, the Indigenous story of this region is buried under silence. One has to dig deep or speak to a local Elder to know.

As writers, we can choose to see the silences in our daily lives. We can discover what is hidden, whether it is in place names, the news, in conversations, advertising or random interactions. And then we can  write about what we find.

Where you’re sitting right now is as good a place as any to start.

I don’t ask for help

Help and support signpost

I was seventeen when I drove my car sideways through a sugarcane field. The fault was all mine—I’d driven too fast around a corner on a dark and wet country road while tired after a long shift at the local fast food restaurant. One small overcorrection left me fishtailing across the road and down the embankment. Then the car bucked and tilted onto two wheels before the 5m high sugarcane suddenly brought everything to a halt, providing a soft, green cushion that gently tumbled the car back onto all fours.

I was fortunate to be alive. The only injury I had was a tiny cut to my cheek courtesy of a cane frond that had come in through the driver’s side window. But in the aftermath, all I could think about was how Mum would yell and offer me a cup of tea, and how Dad would scrub his hands over his face, unable to speak. I knew I’d be teased mercilessly at school, and that my sister and brother would lord it over me with their lovely, undented cars and pristine driving records.

So when the headlights from another car came into view, I did the only thing that made sense—I turned off my lights and hunkered out of sight.

It was only after the car had gone safely past the corner that I thought perhaps I’d made a mistake. Mobile reception didn’t exist in the area and no one knew of my predicament. So I sat there in the dark, contemplating my life choices, until the next car came along almost an hour later and I sheepishly caught a ride home.

I’d like to say that the accident taught me a great life lesson. But I’ll wait until I’m overwhelmed with exhaustion and about to press delete on a year’s worth of writing before I begrudgingly raise my hand.

Because I’m still the kid who’d rather sit in a banged up car in the middle of a sugarcane field than ask for help.

Dogs are gloriously disgusting

The beach at Chelsea, in Victoria, is a secret gem. Pale white sand, surprisingly turquoise water and thunderclouds on the horizon are the norm. It could be a 10˚C day and Chelsea’s beach could fool you into thinking you were on a tropical island watching a summer storm roll past.

Chelsea on a 10C day.

Chelsea on a 10C day.

Ahh, summer!

Ahh, summer!

Jellyfish the size of dinner plates wash ashore most mornings. Their stinging cells are negligible to all but the tiniest of fish, and by the time they hit the beach, they’re harmless. Most beachwalkers avoid them anyway, so too their dogs who enjoy the freedom of an off-lead outing.

Sheldon, however, is an exception. A handsome Labrador with a distinguished grey muzzle and jaunty tail, Sheldon will examine each and every jellyfish. He looks for The One—a jellyfish whose edges have been crusted by the sun, whose solid bulbous centre has turned slightly to mush. To this chosen one, he gives a lick and a gentle nibble on the side (just to be sure), before he cocks his leg and continues on his explorations.

It’s only half an hour later when the debacle begins. On our return along the beach, Sheldon, eyes bright and tongue lolling, will hunt out that special jellyfish. It has been sitting in the sun, seasoning, if you will.

It’s clear the moment he’s found it. His muscles seem to loosen, his very bones turn to liquid, and he flops down onto the jellyfish shoulder-first. Then comes the joyful rolling, the happy wriggling and victorious bark as the jellyfish turns to slush.

Sheldon eventually rises, covered in gloop and his own urine.

I give an embarrassed shrug to horrified onlookers, but I don’t stop him. A bucket, shampoo and towel are waiting for us beside the back door at home.

But Sheldon has one more act in this daily show. He snuffles the sand and digs out the dirtiest, smelliest remnant of the jellyfish.

And then he eats it.

I don’t know of any other dog who pees on jellyfish, rolls on them and then eats them. But his simple joy is one of the many reasons I cherish him.

My love requires no seasoning.

Don't judge...I'm awesome.

Don’t judge…I’m awesome.