Thursday, December 31, 2009


I've been avoiding writing this post, but if I'm going to do it today is the day.

Bad stuff first. Feel free to skip ahead to the good stuff.

2009 hasn't been the easiest year for our family. It seems to me like it began on the 7th February, with the Black Saturday fires, though before then there was blissy post-Christmas camping in Mildura and the rest of January, a lot of which we spent in shopping centres escaping the fierce heat. And a week before the fires Frederique, my first baby, started school, though I guess the two will always be tangled up in each other. The fires came within two kilometers of our house before the wind changed, driving the fires back up to Kinglake. Neighbours who were home watched flames approaching on the surrounding hills, listened to the explosions of gas bottles and - horrifyingly loud - the petrol station in Kinglake. Twelve people in our town died, 38 from Kinglake up the road. Friends lost their homes, and in the aftermath we watched marriages deteriorate and our school community shrink as people moved away. The fires weren't extinguished until mid-March. For a month we were on alert, exhausted, grieving our old ignorance as every time the mercury climbed or the winds picked up we evacuated. And all the time knowing 'we are the lucky ones' - our house was spared, and we weren't home on the day.

In March I had a not very serious car accident, though all car accidents feel serious, don't they? And it was serious enough to almost write the car off. The accident was to affect me as a driver most of the year, and I am only just getting my nerve back. I still won't drive on the Hurstbridge road.

In May my sister, Kylie, had her baby at 27 weeks gestation, weighing less than 2 pounds, in a Northern English hospital, and her world began to fragment around her. We tried to get the fare together so I could go over and be with her, but it was impossible. Distances grow and shrink, I've always found, never before this year has England seemed so impossibly far away. (Happily, Joseph and Kylie are both thriving).

In June our town suffered another devastating blow. Helicopters circled, bringing back horrible memories of the fires, and Martin and I scoured the bush around our house - on a cruelly lovely winter's day, the sunlight streaming through the trees - for a three year old boy who had wandered from home. It shocks me now to say 'three' because he was the same age as Una, they had done a few dancing classes together, and we knew his mum to say hello to. Una is now four, and yet he will always be three. The look on Martin's face when he came back from his last shift has never left me. The little boy drowned in a dam. I picked up Fred from school that day, and mothers stood around, their faces white, for all of us, it was all our children that day. I broke the news to Fred, knowing it would be around the school yard. She wanted to know, distressed: did they dry him after they found him? This solicitous response, the tiny mother in her was also affected. After this I must admit I was hit by silence. I didn't feel I could blog about it - it wasn't my story to tell. And yet it was the only story I had to tell. I am not a negative person, not sad, or depressive by nature, for all that I am contemplative and reflective (pensive, Merri Andrews called me in Year Twelve). And yet sadness has entered me this year.

In October Martin's father lost his long battle with cancer. Not two weeks later, my half-sister died shockingly off Legionnaire's disease.

Our local school, which we love, is affected by a drop in numbers - mostly because there simply aren't a lot of kids in this area (there are a lot of very longstanding residents, whose own kids have grown up). We are wondering if it will be the right school for Una, there is only one prep kid next year, and Una may also be in a class of one. Even with blended classes, I worry that she will be socially isolated. If you secretly have a child in St Andrews, you will never find a better prep teacher than Erica, who won an award for her innovative teaching methods, AND WE HAVE BETTER NAPLAN RESULTS THAN THE OTHER SCHOOLS IN THE AREA (they aren't allowed to advertise this fact, but surely I am permitted to spread it around as a big ole [true] rumour). And the school community is lovely, and so open to new ideas.

In November Martin went from being a student to being unemployed. Even though there's no real difference financially for us, for some reason this has been an enormous source of stress, as the bills rocked in and the present buying season assaulted us.

So that's the bad shit.

The good stuff is:

We nearly lost Miles last summer. The fact that we had so many more months with him is a blessing, and I am always thankful for it. In that time he seemed more peaceful in himself, happy to live for every day. His funeral was a joyous affair: a tribute to a man who lived a good life, and made lasting friendships, and parented with love.

I taught all year at Melbourne Uni and took great pleasure in it. It's a great way to keep learning and to challenge my own knowledge and assumptions about the writing process and the inherent value of the act. And I met some great students, who have a lot to contribute to the literary community in Australia. I also did some fantastic high school workshops, and heard some great writing (the best thing is when the teacher says with genuine surprise, 'Student X never writes anything'). One highlight was a weeklong workshop at the SLV with kids who love writing so much they wanted to do it in their holidays, they were so switched on and enthusiastic. Another was going back to Bendigo Catholic College with Kate. But all the schools were fascinating and young people everywhere delight me.

In July Little Bird came out. I am so proud of this book. It's got exactly the right mood to it, and the right structure. It's the first of my books that has a structure like it (all my other books are structured identically - ssh.) And I remember last year Miles asking when it would be out, and the expression on his face when he said 'that's ages away.' He lived to see it and the book is dedicated to him and Catheryn (and to my own Nanna, Ada May).

Writing Dear Swoosie with Kate was FUN. And it's a really great book, it's happy and light and funny but not insubstantial, it pokes reverent fun at vampire YA books and flashes back to the 80s (a la Romy and Michelle which I watched as research - yay!), and most of all it feels like we're putting a nice thing out there in the world. It was a fun bonus too - conecived in March finished by early July - because I thought I wasn't going to have a book in 2010 at all. And Kate and I discovered we work beautifully together and have plans for at least five more books (some of which are Swoosie sequels and may be written purely and solely for Susannah Chambers, editor extraordinaire).

All year I have been rewriting Only Ever Always, three incarnations it's had so far and considering it's so short (about 33ooo words) it's the hardest book I've written. Hopefully it's worth it. Just quietly, I think it might be. Most of you won't be reading it till 2011 which seems an age away. I finished the latest draft on Thursday and feel it is achingly close. Which means...I can start writing something new! Entering perfect platonic ideal book stage! One of my favourites.

Josie and the Michael Street Kids being shortlisted for the Children's Peace Literature Award, nearly two years after publication, was a lovely unexpected surprise.

In July I had my first short story for adults published in The Big Issue. This was exciting enough in itself. So I was thrilled when it was picked up by Delia Falconer for Black Inc's Best Australian Stories 2009.
2009 was the year of Twitter for me (I joined Oct 2008). Although dangerous in its power to distract, I love Twitter, I have always liked having friends living inside my computer and it doesn't feel quite to powerfully addictive as other online communities I've been apart of. It's comfortable. It's fun. Okay, it can be addictive. But it's easy to back off from. And also, there's lots of smart funny interesting clever successful people on there, so it can't be so bad if they want to hang out there too.

All this year I have missed Zoe, who has been my BFF since we were five. I was going to put this in the sad section, but I am putting it here because in missing her, and feeling missed by her, I think we have recognised for the first time in ages just how much we love each other. (I have a little tear writing that). My girls adore her boy Jethro with a passionate sense of ownership, and we talk about Zoe and Dan and Jethro nearly every day. And I think about them EVERY day. Jethro has gone from being a baby this year to being a great big strapping toddler. Watching him and Una play together in the Hobart Botanical Gardens this year filled my heart with joy - our kids playing together, our childhoods repeated in some small way in them. That's the stuff.

Martin has had some exciting offers for 2010. They are difficult things to grasp, jobs that have barely been invented yet, but there is great potential for him to find something intellectually challenging and family friendly.

2009 was also the year of the iPhone. I know it sounds horribly consumerist of me but I cannot tell you how much pleasure my iPhone gives me. I love taking spontaneous photos and video. I like being able to check my emails on the train. I LOVE having an ipod in my phone, music has been the thing that's cured my driving anxiety (yeah, turns out listening to constant play by play of the bushfires on 774 - bless their cotton socks - was probably contributing to my sense of fragility). It may sound strange to say this at my newly franked age of 35, but this is the year I feel like I've become an adult. Not just because of the things we've faced, the consequences of our grown up decisions to buy a house in a bushfire region, or the very adult pain of losing a parent and sibling, but also because I've reclaimed my own space as an adult. The iPhone symbolises this a little to me. But not just that. I've been finding new music to listen to. I've been reading more challenging literature. I've been thinking outside our domestic daily routines. Perhaps all this comes from having Fred start school, I no longer feel like my days are entirely devoted to the immediate and pressing needs of my children.

In that light, I've joined a new writing group. I really like those people.

And of course nearly every day friends and family - old and new - made me smile and laugh, despite the litany of disasters and sorrows above. And really it hasn't been such a bad year. I've loved to the very fullness of my being this year, loved through hardship and loss, loved through frustration and self doubt. I've branched myself out in love, loved people far away, overcome distances with nothing but love. Mostly I am happy.

And if I was happy ALL the time, admit it, you'd loathe me.

Things to look forward to in 2010
Two weeks camping in Tassie in January
Meeting my new nephew Joseph
Jethro's number two birthday party
Dear Swoosie coming out, I can't wait for people to read it!
Writing another book with Kate
Starting a new writing project for myself
Doing more schools, teaching at Melbourne Uni
Martin getting a job, something he loves that says 'so there' to the me that cried when he didn't get the job 7 minutes down the road
Hopefully having some money to do some stuff to the house and pay off some debts
A year of stability for the girls, with school and creche not changing
Fred turning seven (*faints*), Una turning five (*faints*)
Una getting ready for school
And who knows what else? The mystery of it.

And in 2009
New Year's eve with good friends just down the road

Happy New Year everyone. Thanks for reading.


  1. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Wow, what a great post and no wonder you've been putting it off. What a mammoth year you've all had. I'm guessing you're finding that together you've forged an amazing unit as a family because of it.

    Here's to all the great things you have to look forward to and a fabulous 2010. Take everything you have become into the New Year with you!

  2. A very full year indeed, and how great that you can talk about the good things the way you can.

    Keep up the good work I say, and may 2010 bring you more of those good things and a few great ones.

  3. Royan1:55 PM

    Thanks so much Penni. I loved reading this.

  4. happy new year penni - good things good things good things

  5. Laurie2:43 PM

    *sigh* Wish I could write so movingly about my year. And I wish your books were readily available here. (didn't intend to make a rhyme!)

  6. Lovely summation, Pen. I miss you guys too. Frequently when we're strapping Jethro into his car-seat, he points out Una's spot and Penni's seatbelt! We can't wait to see you all very soon!
    Oops...toddler meltdown in the vicinity...

  7. Frangipani9:13 PM

    Lovely post. One thing you missed was the wedding of your half brother in Tas, thus acquiring a sister in law and a new niece. You may have missed the service but you and Martin helped make the garden beautiful.

  8. Penni, I think I will always associate your girl starting school with the fires too. Thank you for this beautiful and deeply touching essay. Congratulations again on the Best Stories and other writing achievements, and happy New Year to you all.

  9. So lovely to learn more about your life and your loves and your hopes for the future, Penni. Thank you for sharing this post with us.

  10. Great post, what a year you've had. I hope 2010 is a fabulous year for you and your family.

    This year has been the year of the iPhone for me too. The freedom of having at least half my office with me has been divine. Not to mention the joy of listening to music in the supermarket without fear of missing a vital business call. Truly a life hack, not just a gadget.

  11. What a beautiful post, and oh I am so sorry about all the terrible things in 2009. Even the public ones were terrible enough for anyone, without all your family griefs as well.

    And you kept writing and working and doing all the things you do and I hope you feel very proud of yourself and yours.

  12. You are an amazingly strong/inspiring woman penni. May 2010 bring love and happiness to you all xx