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Is the greatest artist on earth. The sound of his voice, singing or otherwise, flutters my heart.

That is all – I’m off to swoon again 🙂

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Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

It doesn’t show signs of stopping,
And I’ve bought some corn for popping,
The lights are turned way down low,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

I do wish I could tell you that one of my Christmas traditions involve sitting by the fireplace, roasting corn/marshmallows, watching the snow fall down steadily from the Heavens. But I have gone through a few Christmas traditions in my time, both with the family I originated from, and the one I created ever since I married my husband.

One Christmas Tradition that never dies...

My earliest memory of a Christmas tradition, back in Jakarta, included a night-time Mass that ended right at the stroke of midnight (or just slightly after). Because our parish serviced about 4 massive areas, the Church was packed up to the carpark area, and if you wanted to get a seat to brace the over 1-hour Mass, you had to be at the Church around 8 at night for a 10PM mass.  Growing up, I had very much looked forward to this even if cramming yourself into a room during a windless, humid night meant you also had to fan yourself vigorously for two straight hours); it was a chance to meet with my friends outside school setting, a chance to wish them a ‘Merry Christmas’ right there on the spot instead of waiting until New Year, when the school resumed.

On Christmas day, all of us went on a family outing. Being a Muslim-oriented country, the shops in Jakarta remained open, despite Christmas day being officially declared as a public holiday. It was the one day that we put aside all our differences as a family,  traipsed around the many levels of the shopping centre of choice, and had a wonderful, peaceful Christmas lunch. I would have loved to be able to say that afterwards, I happily checked out the Christmas/after-Christmas sales, but being small, with no money whatsoever, I had to satisfy myself with following my Mother around whilst she checked out the sales, trying out whatever clothes she deemed appropriate for me to have. Failing that, I retreated to the bookstore and devoured new release books until the moment my parents declared that family outing time was finished and we headed home.

Imagine my bafflement therefore when I migrated to Australia and experienced my first Christmas here. I grew up watching American shows, where the weather cooled right down to freezing nearing Christmas. Every Christmas movie I watched showed people rugging up from head to toe, protecting them from snow and blizzard. Based on this, and the experience I have had in Jakarta, I was thoroughly disappointed to find that on Christmas day in Australia:
1. The temperature could reach early 40 degree Celcius, making it difficult for ANY kind of make-up to stay on your face for long.
2. The shops are closed for the whole day. Even the cinemas at one stage were closed.
I know, I know, it was a time for family to get-together and enjoy each other’s company. But seriously, the first Christmas I spent in Australia, it was only my Mum and I (unlike a flock of birds, when we migrated to Australia, we had staggered migration – with me and my Mum travelling first, and the rest of the family coming in much much later – but that’s a whole other post!). We were living in a unit, we didn’t know anyone, and we weren’t prepared for the quietness that ensued following the morning Mass. Everyone else in the apartment building had gone to their respective families to celebrate Christmas; the thought of bracing the journey to town in public transport, only to be greeted by closed doors were equally unappealing. It was, by far, the dullest Christmas I’ve ever experienced, a far-cry from all those warm, fuzzy feeling I’ve watched on TV, and I got so disheartened by Christmas that particular year I actually cried!

In hindsight, my vow never to experience such a Christmas again led me to the next Christmas tradition. I started travelling; instead of staying in Australia for Christmas, I think over the next two years, I went back home to Jakarta during Christmas-New Year. I reacquainted myself with friends I have made from teaching a local Sunday school in my parish. I met, and made new friends with the prayer group I used to attend before I migrated to Australia. I went on a Religious end-of-year retreat.

The tradition of travelling more or less continued when I met my (then) future husband. Granted, he also took me to his family’s Christmas dinner celebration, and I rediscovered the true meaning of Christmas – of it being the time to share the love and joy with those you hold dear. But, as the years went by, and my then boyfriend, then fiancée, then husband and I wanted to cement our own, unique Christmas tradition, travelling during Christmas had become a regular occurrence for us. In the course of 7 years of marriage, we’ve travelled back to Jakarta 3 times; we went to Sydney and Melbourne; and this year, we are about to embark on yet another overseas trip, to Philippines, flying just a few days before Christmas.

So, apart from exchanging presents on Christmas day, what are some of the Christmas traditions you have upheld? Both in the family you’ve grown up in, and the family you’ve created since?

Long before I started writing, another constant passion of mine was singing. In fact, there was a period in my life in which I wanted to be a professional singer.

The dream, after a while, morphed into something more… down-to-earth, though my passion to belt out a tune certainly didn’t. I broke out singing every chance I could – in the car, either on my way to work, or as a passenger travelling to friend’s/in-laws’ houses or weekend getaway destination with my husband; around the house, whether I’m chopping vegetables for dinner or late at night in the midst of writing; in the shower (that goes without saying, right?), mastering the art and skills required to opening my mouth and carrying out a tune without gulping a substantial amount of shower water in the process.

Yes, I really do have a set of waterproof headphones and real microphone in the shower... not!

I have a collection of my favourite songs I sing from time to time. No, I’ll take another step back and say that from time to time, I will play certain songs I’ve encountered, sometimes more than once, and test my singing ability until I can sing as good as the artist. ‘See The Light’ by Mandy Moore, the soundtrack from the movie ‘Tangled’ falls into this category (just as many of the early Disney movie soundtracks did); ‘On My Own’ and ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from musical Les Miserables are there too; ‘Just A Feeling’ by Maroon 5; most of Lee Dewyze’s songs; and the list go on.

I have always stated to those who knew of my singing ability that I can, and love to sing; I can read music – know the difference between a full-note, a half-note and treble notes; I can count beats; I am in no way a professional singer, and my ‘training’ (if you could call it that) consisted solely on being part of the school choir for… 12 years or so (from primary to high school).

This ability, however, has become very useful at work when we are celebrating liturgies/masses throughout the year, from Easter, to Catholic Education week, to end-of-year mass like yesterday. And whereas back in the main head office, I was one voice of many, in the current branch I’m working in, I have been the only voice.

Throughout this year, I had been singing solo, and unaccompanied. Which suited me fine to a certain extent, because no one will know if I’m pitchy or didn’t quite hit the right notes – they will just go along with the notes I’ve sung. On the other hand though… I’m all for sharing the love, and the limelight 🙂 I want that little bit of leniency that when my voice isn’t up to scratch, or when I’m about to run out of breath, someone else can take over for just a little while until I gain my momentum back.

So imagine my excitement when, in preparation for the end-of-year liturgy, a few people have come forward, lending their singing talent and guitar-playing ability. All week long, I have done several real-life and cyberspace squealing to the person co-ordinating all aspects of the mass at the fact that this time around, we have a band!!!!

I soon found out that not everyone share the same singing passion as myself. What I thought would be natural (like being able to read music, or perfectly adapt one’s voice to the rise and fall of a song with a click of a finger) was actually something that took years and years of practice. One of these singers actually even confided in me: I love to sing, but I can’t read music.

So I found myself leading the band, guiding the other members to hit the right notes, taking on several songs by my lonesome and singing it (once again) unaccompanied. And God help me, I found myself having to curb a lot of my perfectionism; I had had to suppress that little voice inside my head that said “all of us are singing all over the place!” or “No, that’s NOT the right notes!” (Oh Dear, I think I just caught a glimpse of what I would be like if I’m ever responsible to manage a bunch of staff in my later years). I had to constantly remind myself that work’s end-of-year mass is NOT the final of Australian Idol; that starting with less than a ‘bang!’ and pitch problems were parts of all normal singing process. And that, from singing solo to having a band, we have grown in leaps and bounds.

What about you? Do you have a passion that brings out the best (or perhaps worst) of your perfectionism?

Ahh… it’s 1st December – the first day of the Festive Season. Just like I’ve previously written in Don’t Think… Just Write! post, there is something magical about Christmas, and the lead-up to the biggest holiday season of the year.

I wish I could say that it had something to do with the changing of the leaves and the temperature drop, but alas, living Down Under, the ‘changing of the leaves’ (or in this case, the Jacaranda tree) happened in September, when the season changed from winter to spring. And instead of cooling down, today in Down Under marked the first day of summer.

Nevertheless, there’s something in the air as the clock struck midnight on December 1st that always perk up my spirit from the long slug that was November. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that school finishes on the first week of December, and to me, it means a significant reduction in the amount of phone calls I have to take at work, giving me more ample time to get to those outstanding work I’ve been meaning to get to all-year round (like filing!). Perhaps it’s the fact that each shopping centres compete against each other in erecting the tallest, biggest, brightest Christmas tree and ornaments; or that the Christmas carols they have been playing since October have been further ramped up, and replaced more and more with choirs singing or real-life bands playing. Or perhaps, it was just as simple as people’s spirits everywhere being lifted up in anticipation of celebrating the birth of Christ.

To mark the first day of the last month of the year, I have changed the look of my blog accordingly. And of course, everything I post this month will naturally be Christmas-related.

What about you? What does the lead-up to Christmas mean for you? Do you get excited as November turns to December?

Today, I was given a golden opportunity to do a fifteen-minute presentation on my favourite subject to some of my fellow colleagues – my passion for writing.

To start of with, silly me, thinking that I was all prepared, forgot one simple fact; that Macbook Air didn’t have a direct connection like PC-based laptops do to a data projector, and arriving at the venue on-time, I had no time to source this little device connecting my Macbook to the data projector from anywhere else.

No matter – I have a back-up plan. Out came another device I have armed myself with; my trusty iPad. So I started showing my website on the iPad and asked my colleagues to pass this around whilst someone kindly sourced another laptop for me. Connected that up to the data projector, got visual, sweet! Opened Safari… only to be greeted with that (damn!) ‘Page cannot be found’ and ‘There is a problem in connecting to your Internet connection’ messages. No, no, no, NO, NO!!!!!

What is it they say in show business? ‘The show must go on’? Well then… I ‘ignored’ the technological problem and dived into telling the fellow Secretaries what started my love affair with my scribbling pen to paper, what I’ve accomplished in the past five years since, and what prompted me to delve more wholeheartedly into creating and maintaining social media presence, being unpublished notwithstanding.

You know, I considered myself being not as bad as I used to be in public speaking. I used to always have to type up my speech, memorised it days (if not weeks) prior to the big day, and refer to it from time to time during my presentation. These days, bullet points outlining the main topics were all I needed.

Still, having known the topic of my speech SO well, I could feel a nervous sweat broke out within the first few minutes of standing in front of about 25 of my colleagues; some of it culminating just below my eyes, blurring my glasses I was compelled to take them off and wiped the moisture away.

But I did get through it, and had tremendous fun doing it, even if:
1. At times, I spoke a little too softly for people to hear. It has always been something I need to consciously work on.
2. Whilst I explained to them the dream that started Eleanor I, and read an excerpt from said book, I didn’t think to explain the premise of Eleanor I and/or II (though perhaps, the excerpt would hopefully shed a light on that? Entice the audience to want to know more about the book? You know, the whole ‘not giving too much away’ point of view and all that?).

It is something I need to work on and improve between now and Monday, when I’m reprising this presentation to another bunch of my colleagues. To my very first group of audience today, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your time, and I hope I have managed to captivate/entertain you in some capacity.

As writers, we all tend to mull over each word, each sentence, each paragraph, making sure that one flows from the next; that the adjective we’ve chosen aptly reflect the mood of the character or the atmosphere of the situation. We consult our trusty Thesaurus over our word choices; sometimes, we even (gasp!) select a whole section we’ve deemed unworthy and press the ‘Delete’ button, or rip pages of handwriting we simply believe are made of utter crap.

Not so long ago, I came across the concept of Freewriting, written by Sue Healy. She describes a writing exercise in which you put whatever that first comes into your mind onto the screen, dismissing grammar and structure. It’s a warm-up exercise; a chance to stretch and flex those muscles inside your head; a great way to ignore those voices criticising your every literary move and just… write.

So here is my debut effort of it, dedicating three whole minutes writing whatever it is that comes into my mind. In 3… 2… 1…!

Sitting in front of my computer, with no sound other than the whirring of the air-cond above me, my husband snoring in the bedroom, it suddenly dawned on me that it’s nearing Christmas. And there is something magical as December approaches. While Christmas carols have been playing in big department stores since October (something I don’t quite get), nearing December, I can’t help but get swept up in the whole festivities. I love seeing the Christmas decorations each department store puts up, the baubles hanging from the Christmas tree branches, the bows on the displayed gifts under it. Nearing December, I always put on my personal Christmas compilation, imagining myself standing in the middle of snow-covered ground, wearing one of those thick, fur-lined red suit, watching the snow falls from the sky.

I must say that writing this was somewhat therapeutic. And I can definitely use that, almost as is, for a passage in one of my books. Go on – I dare you – if you haven’t tried this before… give it a go!

This book came highly recommended by a few of my friends, stating the old adage of ‘once you’ve gone past the first page, you wouldn’t want to put it down’. The synopsis at the back cover of the book didn’t reveal much, except this:

January 1946: Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.

1. ‘Hook you in’ from the first page.

I must say that I had my skepticism about reading  a book that was narrated entirely of correspondence, from start to finish. It started… somewhat mellow, I must say, and lacked the punch line that made me go, “Oh my God! I have to find out what happens next!”

2. Be so riveting it keeps reeling you in, and you find it difficult to put the book down.

This is how unenthused I was about this book. I had had it for a year, managed to read the first 3-4 pages of it when I first bought it, put it down with a thought to ‘pick it up later’, and forgot all about it. When I did pick it up again, for the first few pages, I had to keep telling myself, “keep at it. Maybe it will pick up soon and surprise you.”

3. Convey a powerful message and/or educate me on topical issues.

Surprise me it did. As the book went on, it described the aftermath of the war, from a writer’s perspective living in London. It also revealed of the German occupation during World War II on Guernsey Channel Island, near France. It told in details of arrest and imprisonment of a Guernsey Channel Island resident for being caught of hiding and treating a German slave.

I have always been fascinated by anything written about World War II – in history books, reference materials, fiction, and otherwise. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s a combination of being interested in finding out how tough things could get during the war, making me appreciate the abundance I have in my life currently. I’m also intrigued at how people cope at the extenuating circumstance they may find themselves in; how they would behave, and act the way they normally wouldn’t had they not been caught in the middle of a war. And I’m always hoping for a ‘fairy tale’ aftermath – you know, the kind that the main character(s) doesn’t go into deep depression. Yes, they may have their trauma, their nightmares; yes, it’s definitely understandable that they refer to it from time to time, but on the whole, I do hope that they have the support of spouse/family/friends/relatives, and little by little, they can put what’s been done to them behind them and move on.

4. Produce A Great Piece of Writing.

I have to say that I now have a new appreciation of letter-writing. I had my doubts about how the characters would come across simply through letters (I mean, you know… there are only so many ‘I’s’ you can take before you’re branded self-absorbed), but through incidents, you get to see what Juliet Ashton’s like, and I find myself ‘digging’ her character wholeheartedly. Who wouldn’t throw a bloody teapot (with tea in it) at a nosy reporter trying to get you to admit to a whole bunch of false allegations? Who wouldn’t throw your fiancée out on the street for emptying your bookshelves only so that he could display his trophy?

I can so relate to her matter-of-fact cheekiness. “I do have a telephone. It’s in Oakley Street under a pile of rubble that used to be my flat.” And her sense of child-rearing is refreshing. “I knew that all children were gruesome, but I don’t know whether I’m supposed to encourage them in it. I’m afraid to ask Sophie if Dead Bride is too morbid a game for a four-year-old. If she says yes, we’ll have to stop playing, and I don’t want to stop. I love Dead Bride.”

5. Have A Well-Rounded Conclusion.

Yes, it did, but… I guess this is where a third-person narration, with details, like other normal books, would benefit. You know, I find the male main character nothing out of the ordinary; to quote, he’s “quiet, capable, trustworthy… and he has a sense of humour… let him walk into  room, and everyone in it seems to breathe a little sigh of relief.” From little snippets here and there, you realise that he’s watching Juliet from afar, secretly in love with her. But I would like, no, LOVE, to be able to get into his head more, to know what he was thinking rather than reading everyone else’s observations, to know when, exactly, did he fall in love with Juliet, and why he is so reserved and never says anything (something happened when he was five, ten, twelve? His parents didn’t show affection, ever?). These little details would have provided a better lead-up to the conclusion, I guess.

6. Leave a long-lasting impact and/or drive me to pick up again for a re-read.

Having written my point in number 5, yes, perhaps I will pick it up again for a re-read sometime in the future, if only for no other reason than to pick apart every word Dawsey Adams (the male main character) has written to Juliet and try find any hidden meaning/feelings he may convey (goodness, I feel like Mrs Marple they referred to). It’s an easy read, not as heavy and topical as others I’ve read, but it’s still an enjoyable read.