Category Archives: life

On Fear of Dogs, and Privilege

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When I was a little kid, my mother says, I was fearless. I would go up to even the biggest dog and, in the telling German phrase, put my hand right in its mouth – no fear at all. But when I was three, we were visiting at a great-aunt’s house, and she had a German Shepherd. He jumped out at me from behind a door, barking – it badly frightened me.

I don’t remember any of this. What I do remember is being afraid of dogs – debilitatingly so. The worst were German Shepherds, but it could be any dog, and particularly if it was barking and running at me. The lady on the third floor of the house across the street had a dachshund – I was scared of going over and ringing her doorbell, because the dog would start barking. A dachshund, for crying out loud, a silly wiener dog!

But the worst was another neighbour. We lived on a short cul-de-sac that only had one entrance way. Along that road was a family who had a large dog – well, what seemed like a large dog to me as a child; I think he might have been a collie. Their fence ran along the whole lane, and it had a small gate in the middle. The dog wasn’t out in the yard that much, but every once in a while, when we’d ride our bikes down the road, he’d run along the fence behind the hedge, barking. And once or twice, the gate was open, and the dog was out on the street. Not running or barking, just out wandering about – and I was terrified.

Now, as I said, this was the only access road to get to the end of the cul-de-sac where my house was, so I had to walk along that fence every single time I came home from school. And every single time, I was scared of that dog being there. I remember walking up to the corner, where the tall hedges of the yards met, and stopping. Carefully, I would lean forward, and carefully I would peer around the corner. Was the gate open? Usually, it wasn’t, so I’d heave a sigh of relief and scuttle up the road to reach home in safety.

A few times, however, it was open. I distinctly remember that on at least one occasion I retreated, went back a few hundred metres and around another corner, and stood there waiting, hoping that somebody would come and close that gate so the dog wouldn’t come out and bark at me. After a little while, I went back and did another stop-and-peer manoeuvre – the gate was still open. But the dog was nowhere in sight, so maybe I could risk it? I took a deep breath, and I ran for it. No barking, no attack by a slavering fiend – I made it!

The next day, I went right back to peering carefully around the corner, my heart in my throat – because you never know, do you?

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Yes, I know, it sounds silly. The dog in question was, I’m sure, a perfectly harmless, friendly creature – this was a family with children, so his barking was probably only a desire to play. But that didn’t matter. I was scared of dogs, and of barking dogs in particular, so that was that.

In fact, I’m still scared of big barking dogs. Oh, I’m fine with dachshunds now – anything that’s no taller than my knee doesn’t really scare me, and my knee is considerably higher now than it was back then.

But – do me a favour, will you? If I’m coming over to visit you, and you have a big dog, particularly a German Shepherd, don’t let it rush out barking at me. I don’t care that your dog is the friendliest creature ever, and that, look, he’s really smiling at me, and that the wagging tail says he’s so happy to see me, and him jumping up on me and slobbering all over me only means I’m one of his favourite people, and he’d never harm a fly anyway. I don’t care, because I’m bloody well scared of big barking dogs! One frightened me, a long time ago, and I’ve never gotten over it.

Well, thank you for understanding. I knew you were a real friend.

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So then today, I was in another one of those white-people conversations. It all started with me mentioning how I’ve been taken aback on re-reading some of the wonderful classics of British detective fiction (namely Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown) at how racist some of these stories are. Just casually racist, like that’s perfectly normal (which, sadly, it was, a hundred years ago when those stories were written).

And it set one of the other people around the table off on one of those white-privilege rants – you know the ones, to the tune of “All this talk of racism today is a bunch of politically correct nonsense; this stuff happened a long time ago; we can’t change the past, so why do these people get all this special treatment now; they should just get over it and be treated like the rest of us!” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)

Oh brother. I wasn’t going to get into a big argument with them – that’s usually not very productive. But on the way home, I thought about it. And what I thought was this: A lot of white people, in the Western world, are walking around with a chip on their shoulder. We’re being picked on, they say, for being white. Those others, they’re getting special privileges because their ancestors were being abused by people of our skin colour or culture. That’s not fair – now we’re being picked on, and it’s not our fault! Unfair! Poor us!

Well, let me ask you this: Am I being unfair when I’m asking you to not let your big dog rush at me and bark? Yes, probably I am. It’s not your sweet Fido’s fault that my great-aunt’s German Shepherd traumatised me when I was a toddler. But I’m still traumatised. I still react with fear to the noise a large dog makes, even if that fear is not rational.

And because you’re my friend, you are willing to help me with that fear. You are willing to (unfairly) curb your dog’s exuberance, so I can learn to trust one more dog, which will go yet another step towards teaching me to trust all dog-kind. I will probably never entirely lose my fear of large barking dogs – the scars are too deep, and too deeply buried, for that. My friends will probably always have to accommodate me in this way, at least a little bit.

And the same goes in the much bigger picture for us white people. It will be a long, long time before the injuries our ancestors’ actions have inflicted on those of other colours and cultures will start to heal. And until they do, we have to accommodate them. Yes, it might be a little inconvenient for us. Yes, it might seem a bit unfair. But it’s justice. It’s what friends do.

And that’s not too much to ask, is it? No, I didn’t think so.

Life, the Universe, Big Dogs and Privilege. It’s really not that hard.

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Dear Internet, It’s Not You, It’s Me

Then again, actually it is you. I can’t handle your constant demands on me any more; it’s stressing me out when you’re staring at me with that hurt look if I don’t show up exactly at the moment that you expect me to; the negativity that hangs around you is dragging me down. And the time – you want so much time from me!

So I think we need to take a step back, evaluate our relationship. I don’t mean exactly break up, but, you know, maybe just be friends for a while.

Take care of yourself, Internet, eh? I gotta go now, I’ve got stuff to do.

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Rearview Mirror on a Summer

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Long Beach, Vancouver Island

September has come, it is hers / Whose vitality leaps in the autumn…*

Except that my vitality ain’t doing too much leaping at the moment. I’m still scrambling to catch up with the long, busy, and, above all, “away” summer – you’ve seen a few of the pictures. We left home on July 9th; spent two weeks in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island; came home; then after all of two days I hopped on a plane (or rather, a series of them), and headed for Europe for a month. A few days of sightseeing in Munich; three weeks of family stuff (helping with a move, to be precise); then to cap it off, three glorious days in London.

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Marienplatz, Munich, with Mary’s Column and Old Town Hall

Six weeks, 1500 photos, a wealth of experiences and memories. My house and garden, meanwhile, went to pot. As for my writing – well, I was going to say that nothing happened on that front, either. But that would actually be quite untrue. No, I didn’t really put any words to paper (or screen, as it were). But among those 1500 photos are quite a few that I took specifically as references for my WIP (that’s short for Work In Progress, for the un-artsy of you). The whole time in Germany I was soaking up atmosphere, sounds, tastes, sights – all with a mind to how that could be put to paper. My hotel in London was a converted Regency townhouse – inspiration pure (I might just have to write a Regency novel one of these days just so I can set it in that street; it was called Burton Crescent in those days).

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Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury

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I want to go back…

One street over, Tavistock Square, was where both Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens lived for a while and wrote To the Lighthouse and A Tale of Two Cities, respectively. Five minutes walk up the street was the British Library – I got to see original manuscripts by (i.e. stare in awe at the notebooks of) Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde; my jaw literally dropped when in one of the gorgeous glass cases I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels, and in another the Codex Sinaiticus… But I didn’t just revel in high-brow literature – I stopped in at King’s Cross Station and took a look at the Platform 9 3/4 store with its trolley stuck into the wall, too.

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The one and only portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra. National Portrait Gallery, London.

I drank Bavarian beer in Munich, Württemberger wine in Stuttgart, and English cider in London; I ate pork roast with dumplings in the Hofbräuhaus, lentils and spätzle in the old part of Stuttgart, and beef-and-ale pie in a pub by King’s Cross. I got claustrophobic in the Bloody Tower as one of the bloody masses of tourists and sat in silence in the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart among a few other visitors stopped in to pray. I revelled in train rides and was moved to tears by world-famous paintings. And in between, I packed boxes and unpacked boxes; walked to the grocery store, walked to public transit, walked to visit people, and on Sundays went for walks by way of recreation.

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Beef pie and Symonds cider, in honest-to-goodness London pub

And now I’m back home in the land of peaches and salsa and grapes, where one has to take the car even to buy a jug of milk. I have limitless wi-fi again, so I’m catching up with what I’ve missed on the internet (which I haven’t actually missed that much – I’m considering making this a lifestyle). And I’m bound and determined to get back to writing. I have great good intentions to regularly sit down and work on my, well, work. One can always be optimistic, no? I certainly have enough inspiration to carry me along for a while.

Life, the Universe, and a Long Busy Travelling Summer. Now to process all those impressions…

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Franz Marc, “Birds”. Lenbachhaus, Munich. So beautiful it made me cry.

*opening line from a poem by Louis McNeice, Autumn Journal

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News from the Writing Trenches: #amtravelling, #amwriting

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I know I’ve been really quiet on here lately – well, it’s because life happens. Steve and I are on the road at the moment, and will be for most of the rest of the summer, visiting friends and family, and doing a little bit of sightseeing – no, sorry, research! – on the side.

But I thought I’d let you know that writing is still happening, in a manner of speaking. Some of it is just thinking about it (long drives in the car are perfect for that); some is editing of previous work; some is writing in short bursts in a little notebook. The latter is a new one for me – I do all my “serious” writing on the computer. But maybe this very “being not serious” that writing longhand in a tiny book entails is what I need at the moment.

So, writing still goes on. I’ll let you know when there’s something to let you know. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for new experiences, scenes and ideas – writing material is everywhere.

Now Steve’s got his backpack on and he’s ready to go for another day, so I better get on with it.

Life, the Universe, and News From The Writing Trenches. Happy Summer!

PS: If you do Twitter or Instagram, you can follow me at @amoffenwanger – I’ll be posting the odd picture there.

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Jill of All Trades

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Way back, when I first started blogging, I took a blogging course. If you want readers, the teacher said, make your blog be about something. Have a focus! But I didn’t. Because I can’t.

There are lots of blogs that are about one thing, and one thing only. I have friends who write about sewing or knitting. There’s several blogs I follow that are all about fairy tales (like this, or this one). Writers, of course, have blogs about writing. There are great blogs about food (incredible numbers of them! reams of them! mountains of them!). Or Jane Austen. Or photography. Or Norfolk in the 18th century.

To be honest, I feel a bit inferior to those bloggers, if not a bit jealous of them. They’re serious about what they’re doing. They have lots of followers. They know their stuff; their blogs are interesting. But mine… Well, there’s food. And fairy tales. And photos. And Austen, and writing, and pottery and soap-making and history and gardening and cats and herbology and musings on mental health; and then the occasional interlude with a small stuffed bear (he’s been there from the very beginning).

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Chive vinegar I made yesterday

Stick with one thing? I’m sorry, I can’t. Never have been able to. No, I don’t have ADHD (Squirrel!) – more like CCS, Chronic Curiosity Syndrome. There are just too many interesting topics out there for me to restrain myself to just one. I’ll get bitten by an interest bug, and then I’m utterly passionate about it for a while – and then I lose interest, and move on to something else.

Some fifteen years ago, I was crazy about fish – as in, aquaria, not the kind you cook. I’d haunt the pet shops, drooling over the nice setups with the 30-gallon tanks and live plants. A few years before that, it was heirloom sewing and embroidery – hand-stitching clothes with no sewing machine whatsoever (I made some tiny little night gowns for my new baby, and a couple of rag dolls). Cooking. Quilting. Bread making. Soaping. Painting (both walls and pictures – the latter in watercolour, oil, acrylic, pastels…). English history. Calligraphy. Jewellery making. Dollhouses. Furniture building. Art history. Guitar (and recorder, percussion, harmonica; even a tiny bit of piano and pan flute…). Growing herbs, and using them for food and medicine. Been there, done that, all of it; and plenty others besides.

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“Very Small Ink People”, 2011. Ink & Watercolour, 8×10″.

I am, indeed, a Jill of All Trades. But you know the rest of that saying, don’t you? Jack of all trades, master of none. That’s because Jack never sticks with anything long enough to get really good at it.

That’s me – there’s a lot of things that I know how to do or know something about, but it’s all at the level of a first-year apprentice. I play guitar quite well, but nobody would come to hear me in concert. I can paint, but no one is beating on my door begging me for another piece to add to their collection. I’m a darn good cook, even if I say so myself, but I’m not about to open a restaurant. I can make pottery dishes, but they’re none of them exactly the same size or shape, or else great one-off pieces of art. I’m a mine of trivia on history and Jane Austen and fairy tales and herb lore and folk customs, but I’m not going to write books on any of those topics.

Well, maybe not books – but I can write blog posts. Snippets of any and all of these things. That’s why this blog is called “amo vitam” – “I love life”. Some of everything. Jack of all trades, master of none.

Actually, I do have a Master’s degree. But guess what it’s in? I’m a Master of Arts, in Integrated Studies. I got a degree in not making up my mind; I’m a Master of Some-of-Everything-Please. Jill of All Trades, Mistress of Mixed Pickles.

And so that’s what this blog is, too: a great big crock of mixed pickles. (Hmm, crock. Sauerkraut. I want a Sauerkraut crock, one of those straight-sided buff stoneware ones, for making and storing homemade Kraut like they did in the Old Country. I should make myself one. Let’s see… Oh! Oops, sorry, where were we? Right, blog. Mixed pickles.) Yes, I know that it won’t make my blog one of those go-to ones for expert information; that it won’t be one of those sites that people quote in academic papers. And you know what? I think I’m okay with that.

Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s always been about that.

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Steve and some patriotic flowers.

 

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Too Many Projects, Too Much To Do – Really?

I was going to post this collage yesterday for Wordless Wednesday. Overwhelmed with too many projects, with too much to do.

But then I remembered something I recently saw scrolling past online:

People compete over being busy; it’s about showing status. “If you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life.”

(Brigid Schulte, in this article)

Gah. Is that what I’m trying to say here? Am I trying to show off how terribly busy, therefore terribly important, I am?

Actually, no. That wasn’t my intention when I took those photos. It was really more by way of an excuse: See, because I’m already so very busy and so very overwhelmed, that’s why I still haven’t finished Star Bright. Why I haven’t read all of your blogs and left profound comments. Why I don’t post more fascinating articles on fairy tales, or Jane Austen, or How To Be a Better Writer and Human Being In General. Why my front (and back) yard is a mess (never mind the inside of my house). Why I haven’t had you over for dinner, or sent you birthday cards on time. Why, in short, I haven’t done all those things that I think I ought to be doing, that I think all of you are doing (I have proof, from your blogs and Facebook and Twitter and all), that would make me an accomplished and worthy person.

It was a plea for validation: Look, I really am busy! I’m not a slacker, honest I’m not!

Brigid Schulte again:

Psychologists treat burned-out clients who can’t shake the notion that the busier you are, the faster you work; the more you multi-task, the more you are considered competent, smart, successful. It’s the Protestant work ethic in overdrive.

Being overwhelmed as a status symbol – as a sign that I am, indeed, a worthwhile person, as valuable as you.

Really?

That is not how I want to live my life. And not the image I want to project outward here.

But what, then, is the way to live?

Maybe a small first step is to become aware of this attitude, and consciously reject it. Slow down. Slow food, slow life, slow writing. Slow gardening? Staying put instead of running.

Maybe it’s a start.

Life, the Universe, and Being Overwhelmed. Will you join me in rejecting that status symbol?

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Following My Heart’s Desire

A reblog from Helen Jones. What she says here about painting and writing, I could have written myself, word for word (including the “sold a few pieces, been exhibited once, have some on my own walls”). Writing has indeed let me find my passion. I’m still working on finding that daily groove like Helen has, but like her, writing is here to stay with me.

Journey To Ambeth

img_3702I published this post in October 2014, back in the early days of my blog. I came across it the other day and realised that it still rang true. So I thought I’d share it again.

As I walked home from school after dropping my daughter off the other morning, I pondered, as I usually do, the latest plot twists in the book I’m writing. Then it struck me that this is what I do now. I thought back to a couple of years ago, before I started writing about Ambeth and all the other stories coming through me and was amazed by how my life has changed.

‘Will I always be like this?’ I thought to myself. ‘Is this it now, or will I look back in a few years time, shaking my head at how obsessed I was, how writing was a compulsion, a daily requirement?’

You know…

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