Jewish King Arthurs

In 1999 I daringly went to a conference (GrailQuest ‘99) and my two worlds collided as they never had before. I went for the Medieval Arthurian stuff (of which I’ve long had a strongly academic interest and about which I’ve written my fair share), but I wasn’t confident enough after all those years outside academic research and didn’t offer a paper. I was more active in the fiction side, and met many people who became long-term friends. I asked a question from the floor of an academic panel and everyone looked across and asked me a question back. They listened, and one of my favourite Aussie writers of the matters of Arthur took me aside and we talked about the subject for a fair while. The write-up of the conference published my answer. I was also asked for a non-academic version of my answer. This is the one I’m giving you this week.

A Jewish King Arthur?

OK, let me admit it up front. As far as I know King Arthur was not Jewish, not in any piece of medieval literature. I have seen him written up as a fairy, as a warlord, as the leader of a very fancy court, but never Jewish. But while he was definitely not Jewish, Jews wrote about him. How do I know the authors were are Jewish? Well, one work is in Hebrew and another in Yiddish. This is a fairly strong indication.

It is hard to say if any other Medieval Arthurian works are Jewish. Most are blatantly Christian. There is, for example, a wonderful prose romance (just amazingly long) where the Grail becomes a very religious object (which it may not have been originally, but that is another story): this is a decidedly Christian affair. And there are some named authors who belong to one court or another and are more likely to be not Jewish. Most Medieval literature is, naturally, by that prolific author anonymous.

One author is borderline. I have seen it argued that Chretien de Troyes (who first introduced the grail into Arthurian romance) was Jewish. He was one of France’s great poets, so I have always wanted it to be proven that he was, indeed Jewish, but the likelihood is that he was not. He may well have Jewish relatives though, or at least Jewish friends – his place of birth was an important Jewish centre, after all -so there is some consolation. Since Chretien as good as invented the verse novel known as the Medieval romance, even a vaguely possible Jewish link is a nice thing.

Most literature written in most medieval languages, sadly, has to be assumed to be Christian unless there is positive proof to the contrary. We are talking, you see, about a Christian society.

But because we are talking about Christian countries in the Christian corner of the world, we can be 100% certain that anything written in Hebrew or Yiddish is very, very unlikely to be written by a Christian. Hebrew was known by scholars of all sorts, but the one Hebrew Arthurian manuscript we have is purely and wholly and gloriously Jewish. There was no reason for clerics to write German texts down in Hebrew characters unless it was for a Jewish audience, so any Christian reader of a Yiddish Arthurian manuscript would have to be the rather bizarre combination of a scholar whose native tongue was German and who preferred to read a translation into a dialect of their vernacular language written in an odd script. Unlikely, I suspect, especially when there is a lovely German version of the same story (Wigalois). So the likelihood is nicely strong for the writer of Widuwilt (the Yiddish tale) to have been Jewish, and probably the copyists and, almost definitely most of the listeners. It was written originally to be declaimed or sung, so most of the audience were listeners rather than readers.

So we are back to the works themselves. What are they? Do we have any idea why they were written? What is their history?

The Hebrew tale is popularly known as the Melekh Artus, and was written in 1279 by a poor soul in the midst of a very trying time. We know this because he wrote it in his introduction: he was translating the Arthurian tales to cheer himself up, and justified it at great length, citing Rabbinic authority. The author/translator was from northern Italy and bits of Italian have crept in. As he was Jewish, bits of Christianity have crept out. Wherever his source has a mass, he omits it, and he translates concepts into Jewish equivalents. I am not sure that Saints and Tsaddikim are analogous, and I really like the thought of the Holy Grail becoming a dish used to give food to the poor.

Either the text is unfinished or the copyist ran our of steam, because the one manuscript of this amazing text is, alas, incomplete. Very incomplete. It is held in the Vatican, and has been edited and translated and yes, Canberra has a copy (at the National Library). Its literary value is very low, I must admit, and the French sources that were used are much more entertaining (except for the brilliant apologia at the beginning, which is well worth reading) but it is most definitely a Jewish (Italian) version of the Arthurian tales.

The other work is later and exists in several versions in several manuscripts and editions. It was not written down until the very close of the Middle Ages, but made up for this shocking lapse by being popular for centuries. Widuwilt only features Arthur as an aside. It is actually about Gawain and his son. It is from the German that the tale reached Yiddish, hardly surprisingly, from an Old French original. The hero has a different name I the German, though. Unfortunately, we have an early example of Jewish humour (maybe written by an ancestor of Sylvia Deutsch?). Apparently Gawain was not really paying attention when his wife bore him a son (he was just about to desert the poor lady, in point of fact) and so, when she asked him what Gawain wanted to call the baby, Gawain answered “Whatever you want”, so he was called “Whatever you want” or “Widuwilt”. Apart from this, most of the tale follows the German original according to my sources (which is just as well, because the French and the German are relatively available, but the Yiddish is not so none of these comments imply a sighting of the original!) except for some adventures added at the end.

It seems to be a lovely adventure romance, with all the Christian bits left intact (yes, Arthur holds court at Easter, rather than at Pesach!) and lots of good fighting. While the Hebrew tale was a bit more serious (as befitting a scholar suffering form melancholy) Widuwilt is simple entertainment, and very suited to a Spielmann and his audience.

Now for the $64,000 question: why am I interested in these works? Like the writer of the Melekh Artus, it is for sound and moral reasons, although I won’t go so far as to cite Rabbinic authority..

One thing that these Medieval Jews had in common with us was the fact that they were a minority group in a society so very Christian that it took that Christianity for granted. You ask most Australians and they will say that Australia is not a Christian society, that it is secular. Yet Christian holidays, Christian imagery and Christian concepts weigh down the very air we breathe. The relationship between Christianity and society was different in Italy in 1279 to Australia seven hundred years later, and Jews definitely have different status, different acceptance, different problems. But we are still not quite mainstream. We are still outside the norm.

Even in the more restrictive atmosphere of Medieval Europe, Jews could reach out and make sense of the fullness of the outside culture. Unless you translate a romance or read it in its original language, you cannot make any sense of the people who write and read in that style. Widuwilt is evidence that some Jews were enjoying Arthurian romances, and actively coming to terms with all those elements of Western European vernacular culture.

The fact that only two works have been translated or interpreted into Jewish languages, one unfinished and apparently for private use, shows that Jews had very different concerns to Christians. But it also show that there was overlap and a meeting of interests. Not only is this interesting in its own right, but it gives us a neat tool for use in understanding our own society, for understanding the culture we share with others, and those elements that are specifically Jewish.

As Australians we often use the dread phrase “cultural cringe”. It can apply just as much to being Jewish Australians as to being Australians in general. We are neither solely religious nor simple recipients of wider Australian culture. We don’t take the whole of our identity from Chaim Potok, nor from Mary Grant Bruce. King Arthur teaches us that. If there is a Jewish view of King Arthur and even a Jewish grail, then there is a Jewish view of everything.

Learning Needs a Joyful Reason

I just started learning Italian on Duolingo. Because I’ve already studied French and Spanish (I would not go so far as to say I’ve learned them) I have something of a leg up: Italian doesn’t seem terribly different in many ways from those other two Romance languages, and I know enough about language learning to notice where my weak spots are and work on them (prepositions, how I hate thee). I’m slugging away. I not only like the language, I’m enjoying the process of learning it. My goal is to learn enough to be able to embarrass myself if/when I go to Italy. I wrote an entire book set in Italy; it seems to me I should go and see it for myself. So I’ve got a reason. That helps.

But not all reasons are helpful. Because I’m contemplating self-publishing some of my backlist, I was counseled that I should work on promotion: viz, a newsletter. Which has led me to learning of the sort that makes me want to lie down and howl. I researched newsletter management software–the stuff that will keep your mailing list and provide templates for newsletters. Based on cost, the size of my current mailing list, and various reviews, I signed up for a trial of one. I’ve done newsletters before at the museum where I worked. I was not fearful.

Silly me.

Let’s dive right in, right? I click the button labeled “CREATE YOUR NEWSLETTER.” Before you can design a template or write anything, you have to make the underpinnings of the program talk to the underpinnings of your website.  I created my website more than a decade ago, my recollection of the process is fuzzy at best, and I don’t go wandering the basement looking at the wiring for fun, because I just don’t. But I dig in. Shortly I find myself mired in the sort of technical backstage stuff in which I have no training, outdated information, and zero interest. 

After two hours of trying to fix the SPF and DKIM on my website so that the newsletter manager will accept it as a “sender”–each time coming up with a new and different way to not quite do it, and each time being terrified I would break my perfectly functional website–I gave up, cancelled my trial, and tried not to throw a tantrum.

Today, filled with renewed optimism (who am I kidding?) I will seek out a different newsletter manager and see what I can make of it. But there is nothing about this kind of learning that gives me joy. The best I can expect (aside from a working newsletter) is a kind of bitter triumph of the HAH! TAKE THAT variety. 

Part of the problem is simply that this is a kind of learning that doesn’t come easy for me. And an equal part is that my reason for doing it is of the hold-your-nose-and-just-do-it variety which provides no joy. When I think of  learning Italian, I think of wandering in a city I don’t know, asking directions, having adventures, ordering food and drink and making fun of how dreadful my Italian is, but trying anyway. It’s a joyful imagining. That’s my payoff.

The payoff for figuring out newsletter software is (theoretically anyway) being able to create a newsletter* and send it out with relative ease. That’s it. I appreciate the benefit that will provide. But there’s no joy in the process, and no prospective joy in that benefit, and at this point in my life I suspect I kind of need some joy to grease the wheels and make it easier to persevere.

If y’all will excuse me, I’m going to practice Italian for a while.
*The thought of sending out a newsletter makes me feel rather… squishy? Awkward? Send out regular bulletins about ME! What’s going on with ME! And my work! I have no problem writing ab out what’s going on with me and my work in a “you can read this if you want to” venue like Facebook or Threads, but there, I can just throw something up and people can read it if they want to. When you send a newsletter out you’re assuming that someone will want to see it (yes, I know: you send newsletters to people who have already indicated an interest). It just feels colossally pushy to me. Which may, in fact, be what is required for a self-published author. And yet.


One of the side effects of the digital version of enshittification is that stuff you thought was yours disappears – and not just stuff you stored electronically, like ebooks and music, but tangible goods, like appliances and cars.

Cory Doctorow had a particularly good piece on that this week. It’s not just that electric vehicles are “computers on wheels” as he says and therefore the manufacturers can stick in things you don’t want and can’t remove, but there’s the definite possibility that if the car maker goes broke, the fancy, expensive vehicle you bought will be bricked.

It’s bad enough to pay for ebooks and then learn that we were only paying for limited access to those books when the company decides to delete them, but think about paying $50,000 for a car that suddenly doesn’t work anymore because the company failed or screwed up.

One of things about buying stuff is the assumption that if you take good care of it, you will have it for a long time. Disasters might happen – these days that’s also a likely risk – but barring that, your stuff is your stuff for a reasonable life span as long as you pay attention.

I still have mass market paperbacks I bought in college and, let’s face it, mass market paperbacks were not meant to last.

Having ebooks disappear is particularly annoying, because those of us who read a lot buy books and then don’t get around to reading them for years. Not to mention that we re-read as well.

But really, very few people I know are in a financial position to buy an expensive car and have it bricked a year later because the manufacturer did something wrong. Also, I spent enough years practicing law to suspect that if you bought the car with a loan from your credit union, you might still be on the hook for the loan on the dead car.

The lender could repossess the car, but bricked it might be worth less than you owe.

The only solution is to only buy things that cannot be bricked or twiddled (to use another Doctorow word). There are two problems with that.

The first is that it’s getting harder to do that. If you want an electric car – and if you have to have a car, that’s the way to go – you will be giving up some control to the manufacturer no matter how much you pay. And this can happen with anything remotely computerized in your life.

The second problem is the basic problem of stuff. Continue reading “Stuff”

Women’s History Month from another angle

Another bit of the history of Australian Women’s History Month. This was first published by Trivium Publishing, who also took on my first novel. They were the single biggest component in persuading me that I could write and should write. I never didn’t write, to be honest, I just assumed that my writing was not terribly good and that no-one wanted to read it. I didn’t know enough about the publishing world nor about how very isolated Canberra was back then from all publishing influences. It’s still possible to talk to editors and agents in some part s of the world and be discovered as a writer. In Canberra, this is now possible, but only because a group of us worked very hard from the early 2000s to change things. I find it fascinating that new writers don’t know this history.

I also find is fascinating that, what was difficult to do as a writer (be seen, be useful, change things) was very easy for anyone in the women’s movement from the 1980s until about ten years ago. Living in Canberra and having coffee with friends was sometimes enough to meet the people with who you’d change the world. Women’s History Month was a case in point. Ten years ago, all this changed and now Women’s History Month is a faded fragment of what it was 20 years ago. Social forces change and people change and those of us involved years ago are exhausted. This is the human tendency to reinvent the wheel plays such an important part in our history, I suspect.


I have been asked to write an article about women’s history.

I don’t want to write this article. I don’t want yet another piece of writing on the web by an historian, telling non-historians how to think. I was involved in Women’s History Month from the day it started in Australia until 2004, and I am sick of basic instruction. I want to hear stories; I want to tell stories.

I don’t have a whole story to tell, though. I have been thinking about women’s history and realised that my mind has fragmented my experiences. What I have is a series of half-memories. I am an historian who feels history fading and a writer who can’t tell a tale. It is about time I recorded some of my morsels before they are forgotten and someone invents a glorious past.

The official record states that Women’s History Month was first celebrated in Australia in 2000.

Helen Leonard had planned a launch to end all launches. She had talked the Speaker of the Senate, Margaret Reid, into allowing her and her committee to launch the event in Margaret’s private garden in Parliament House. Very official. Very impressive. The list of acceptances was official and impressive too – Australia must have a real Women’s History Month if it is to be launched in the private garden of the Speaker. The dignitaries were daunting.

I didn’t know about this. All I knew was that I was planning an online educational project on women’s history. To be honest, I didn’t even know about Women’s History Month. I was having a whale of a time obsessing about online teaching techniques and I just wanted to set up a test group to teach some women’s history and some Medieval history using those techniques.

When I obsess about something, I tell everyone, so Helen suffered a dose of bubbling enthusiasm about the possibilities of online teaching Medieval Studies and women’s history for people with no history background. My logic in allowing my enthusiasm to bubble was that it made a change from CEDAW and women’s peak networks. Until then I had kept my historian self fairly clear of my committee self.

The next thing I knew, I was meeting Helen for coffee at Gus’s, a café in central Canberra.

The first Women’s History Month committee meeting in Australia was that coffee. I don’t know if the others knew before they arrived – one day I must ask them. I certainly didn’t know. There is a formal list of the initial committee on Australia’s Women’s History Month somewhere, I believe, but I really don’t know if it actually represents all the people Helen had in mind or had worked with.

The historian in me wants to present you with a clear narrative, telling you every important aspect and giving you crystal interpretations. The writer in me wants to present you with an elegantly articulated truth. And the committee person in me says, “I wish life were that simple.”

I can remember the coffee, every mouthful. We sat outside at a little table that was diminished further by Helen’s overflowing ashtray. I had a cappuccino and took so long to drink it that the last mouthfuls were icy. Lulu Respall-Turner walked out of a radio station where she was interviewing me, late last year and we looked at that table from across the road and asked each other why it was so far in our pasts. Five years is not a long time, but the underlying fabric of life changed when Helen died: that first meeting was aeons ago.

Like that coffee, my images are frozen. I remember thinking, “In the US they had an Act of Congress to create Women’s History Month; in Australia we have a declaration by Helen.”

Of course there was far more to Women’s History Month than a personal declaration and a cup of coffee.

For one thing, there was Margaret Reid and her garden. Now she bears the title Honourable and is retired: her garden has bowed out, even though she hasn’t.

I met her garden before I met her, so it has a very real personality for me. My mind flirted with the greenery as I helped setting up for the launch, and then I became acquainted with her kitchen as I washed the glasses after that launch. These tasks protected me from the dignitaries: I was too shy to tell anyone I was an historian, so I pretended to be the kitchen volunteer.

Until Women’s History Month was launched in that garden and for the full time we celebrated it, all I saw was my computer, and more of my computer. No, that is not true, one afternoon I saw Helen’s computer. It took long hours from all of us to bring that first Women’s History Month in Australia to life.

That afternoon with Helen’s computer is my next image frozen in time, in fact. It must have been a couple of weeks before the launch. I had set up online discussion boards and chat rooms and everyone agreed we would get key women in to discuss their experiences and that we would record what they said and we could archive this for researchers to use. It would be fun. We were totally determined that it would be fun.

Anne Summers and Marilyn Lake were on the committee and did their bit on the program as well, but weren’t a program in and of themselves. I was happy to train people, but we needed More Big Names to grab the general public and in general, we were lacking in people to train. I had emailed Helen and she had emailed me, and we had talked round the committee and explored some possibilities, but we had nothing like a full program.

By this stage it was becoming apparent that the launch was our flagship and that the online program would be the part of women’s history month that would meet all the rest of our goals. The launch would make people aware of women’s history; the online stuff would get women involved, remembering and owning their pasts. Without much ado, my temporary classroom became our main program focus.

That afternoon with Helen’s computer gave us the bulk of our program.

When Helen had said, “Come to my office and we will fix it today” she had been totally serious: I went to Helen’s office. Erica Lewis was there, I think, and helped until meetings overtook her. Wreathed in smoke, drowning in instant coffee, we worked our way through Helen’s black address book.

Soon we had it down to an erratic system. Helen would give me a few names and we would toss about a possible topic, then she would ring or email that short list of friends. Since they were all Great Names, this usually meant her leaving messages. Sometimes she was put straight through and I would hear half-conversations about children and mutual friends and political action before Helen introduced the reason for the call. I was in the background the whole time, which, now I think of it, sums up a lot of my experience over the last five years: Women’s History Month has involved a lot of hidden work.

Eventually Helen had rung everyone and moved onto other things and I had a draft schedule nutted out based heavily on who might ring back and what they were likely to say. Then the phones started ringing. I filed the blanks in on my program sheet: we had our Big Names.

Our first program consisted of a totally terrific array of women. They had all made a huge leap of faith: very few of them had been in a web discussion or chat before, and although we were supported by the Women’s Electoral Lobby (and then by the National Foundation of Australian Women) we were not a formally constituted body with funding and written objectives. We were a group of friends, brought together by Helen, all of whom cared passionately about women and about history.

Now Women’s History Month doesn’t meet at Gus’s. It has a permanent, purpose-designed website. It is supported by the National Library and the National Museum and a host of other institutions. It has a budget. It even has sub-committees. Other women than me do the IT training and support and hidden work. I can go back to being a Medievalist and writer. And I can reminisce pleasantly about that coffee with Helen and where it led.


Cake made in 2001. My technique has improved.

When I was a kid I was at a friend’s house one afternoon when friend’s toddler brother went racing through the room and down the hall with friend’s mother running after him, yelling “Did you make? Did you make?” I looked at my friend. “Toilet training. She wanted to know if he had a BM.”

“Ah,” I said. My friend and I returned to whatever game we’d been playing.

But this morning as I thought out what to do with the day, I remembered my friend’s mother: “Did you make? Did you make?” That’s the question: were you productive today? What did you produce? The family I grew up in was not so concerned with bowel habits, but I did grow up believing firmly that You Are What You Produce.

I’m working on two books and a short story, and not one of them is being obliging. Which is to say, I don’t feel comfortable that I know where any of them are going, and that lack of focus is making it hard for me to engage. Writing, when I”m into it, should have at least an edge of fun–if not fun right now, then the promise of fun down the line. There should be anticipation: “Ooh, if I set this up now, later I can do THIS. And That! And THIS!” Right now I’m lacking that sense of anticipation.

Thus I find myself making other things, in order to live up to my You Are What You Produce programming. There are things that I need, or want, to do: I’m working on learning Italian, which isn’t something with a finished object to be held aloft for admiration, but is still an accomplishment of sorts. There are also the approximately 1,624 chores that need doing: cleaning out the closets, organizing the filing cabinets, putting things away so that they’re, um, away. But those are chores, there’s no output at the end of it (rather the opposite: at the end there should be less rather than more).

But cakes and frosting flowers and bread and beaded necklaces? I do them because I like the process, and improving the process (I just found a photo of a cake I decorated when my kid was in kindergarten, 23 years ago; I’ve gotten better) and because at the end of the day I’ve made something. Because I’m not getting that I was Productive rush from my writing, I have to get it from somewhere else. From the manipulation of stuff to make stuff.

Still, on my To Do list every day is time putting words on the page. Just because I’m not feeling it right now doesn’t mean that I won’t feel it ever. This is not my first time around the Maker’s block. In my experience some word or scene or idea will make my brain go *PLINK* and I’ll be in the zone again. So I keep writing, even when I’m writing in circles. And I make cake and bracelets to take the pressure off the words.

It’s a weird system, but it works. 



When I visit places, I often spend time thinking about whether I’d like to live there, whether it would have the things that I want in my life, whether it would inspire me in new ways.

I’ve done this all my life and, in fact, when I’ve spent lengths of time in other places (like in Seattle for Clarion West or in Antigua, Guatemala, to study Spanish), I did try to fit myself into what living there full time would be like.

And I enjoy doing that, even if I’m only in a place for a few days. I always fantasize about what it would be like to live there.

While part of that is simply the joy of figuring out what the local patterns are, I think there’s another reason I do it, a deeper one: I don’t feel rooted anywhere in particular.

Now I am, as most people know, a native Anglo Texan. My people go back around five generations, pretty much as long as there have been Anglo people in the state. (I use Anglo in the usual Texas sense to mean “White, non-Hispanic.”)

I am certainly tied to that culture in many ways. It certainly comes out in my accent, some of my favorite music, some pride in my ancestors, especially the strong women of my family on both sides.

I’m also tied to it – as are many other Texans – by a rejection of some things that are also inherent in it, such as racism and exponential growth.

But while I still feel the ties – positive and negative – and love much of the country there (despite the weather), I don’t feel this deep connection to the land.

Part of that, I suspect, is because the land represented by Texas has only been controlled by Anglo Texans for 200 years.

When you look at the Indigenous populations of the Americas and how long they’ve been here, 200 years is laughable. Continue reading “Rootless”

The End of Bruno and the Beginning of Something Wonderful

Twenty odd years ago, when we moved to San Francisco from New York, we bought a house. That flat statement doesn’t reflect the year of living in a rented flat, looking for a house that 1) met our inscrutable criteria for size, price, amenities (this above all: a garage!), proximity to public transport, and some degree of walkability. We were unbelievably fortunate that we sold our NYC apartment for enough to give us a competitive down payment, even in SF (which was then in a wave of utter insanity, real estate-wise). Still, what we wound up with was not one of the gorgeous Victorians with which San Francisco is blessed, but a modest two-bedroom house with a semi-finished attic which would do as a third bedroom, a garage, and a rather feral back yard. Over the years we have made improvements (a workable kitchen which is still my delight; new furnace, new water heater, new bathroom). And this week we started on a massive project: new back yard.

As I believe I have made clear in past posts, I am horticulturally impaired. I mean well. I have on occasion kept a plant (or, in college, several plants) alive for periods of time. I admire the gardens of other people. But I have no gardening imagination, and my attention span for nurturing the difficult or delicate is, um, nil. So whatever we did, it was going to be done by contractors, and it was not going to involve me out there with a trowel and a kneeling pad, carefully consigning plants into the earth.

After a considerable amount of shuffling around and talking to different people we settled on a landscape designer and began with a plan. The first thing was to rip everything out, down to the studs. There were several reasons for this. Most of the plants were not healthy, blackberry was invading from the back neighbor’s yard (coming up through the concrete patio and over the fence), the laundry-shed structure was ugly and rickety, and mostly what thrived was pigweed (aka amaranth). The concrete itself was in crappy condition. 

So: a complete redo, soup to nuts. Which started with taking the whole yard down to about a foot below its current level, the better to discourage invasive blackberry and other monsters: there will be a layer of plastic, then gravel, then a lot of sand, then pavers or plants.

After the initial estimate came out at… enough to buy a whole house in another less spendy part of the country… we scaled back our intentions. Above you see the initial plan for the pavers. The blank area to the right represents our house; the green circle is the one tree we’re keeping, right next to the back door. The triangular gray area will be the new patio, and the brown triangle is a pergola (shaded structure).

I have to say, both Danny and I found it hard to really wrap our heads around this as a “here’s what you’ll wind up with” model until we went out back (stepping carefully around the debris) and paced things out. Then we gave the designer some feedback, he made adjustments, and proceeded to send back an image with a rough planting plan thrown in. This time (maybe because there’s some color) I felt more comfortable. There’s a secondary seating area (in the lower left corner) and a “path” among the plantings.

What kind of plantings will there be? Not sure yet. We did specify one lemon tree to replace Bruno (the old, super-productive monster lemon tree that gave us lemons the size of my head, mostly pith and dry fruit). And we asked for native plants, things that don’t require a lot of maintenance. I wouldn’t be sad if there was some rosemary, which grows wild here. We’ll find out.

Right now we’re in demolition-land: the guys have spent the last week breaking up the better part of 1600 square feet of concrete. The laundry shed is gone, the decrepit washer and dryer, ditto. The unhealthy plants are a thing of the past. It’s a blank canvas.

I kind of enjoyed the homey sound of jackhammers, which to me call my childhood in New York City, where the noise was always a harbinger of something changing.

2016 in the life of a Gillian

Did anything happen in 2016 besides over a hundred short pieces of mine being published? Quite possibly. It was a busy year. Not the busiest, but busy enough. Most importantly, it was the year The Wizardry of Jewish Women was published. It was the first Australian fantasy novel by a Jewish Australian. History and Fiction also came out that year. It’s an academic volume. I interviewed historical fiction writers about how they use history in their writing and they wrote such informative and colourful answers that the wider public has been buying the book.

I was teaching at the Australian National University in the evenings, and for Belconnen Community Services during the day. I rounded up my income from many short articles. That was the year I officially lost count of how much of my writing was published by other people. It was also the year that I discovered that it was posible to be asked to do volunteer work for a casual day job and that the work would be greedier of my time than the actual job. This was at the Australian National University, where I was the “College Champion” teacher for the Centre for Continuing Education. The most time-consuming duty as to help other CCE staff get teaching accreditation. There was nothing in it for me – I had a graduate diploma and was accredited for university teaching in two different ways. I did it as a community service, just as I was involved in science fiction conventions and, earlier, in other things. This was the beginning of the end of my life at the ANU: this was their first step in demanding more work than I was ever paid for and of treating me without any dignity. 2016 was the year they ‘forgot’ the advertise my courses and then complained that I no longer had enough students to warrant offering them. I survived finally by writing articles, giving workshops at writers’ centres, and survived physically with the help of my local hospital. I also had a blog on my own website and, every March, asked fellow-writers if they’d be interested in celebrating Women’s History Month with a blog post. A publisher collapsed, and some of the work that was supposed to be out early the next year is only just now beginning to emerge. It was a complex year and an impossible one: 2017 was much better.

The great advantage of being a bit older is that I have years of curious life to draw on when I need them. My first publication was when I was fourteen. It was a letter to the editor of a local journal. The local journal was so surprised that I’d written to counter the council’s plan to place speed bumps or roundabouts in all the back streets to force people onto the main roads, and that the letter had been written in green ink, that this was also the first time I had an article about me in a newspaper. The green ink was pale and hard to read. I thought it was fine and trendy, but I pity the publishing editor.

I can’t go back as far as that with this series. For one thing, there was no internet. In fact, personal computers were only just looming. The 1970s were the time of the typewriter and the ballpoint pen. In my case, the pale green ballpoint pen. For another, only one or two stories appeared in print for the next few years then…. Nothing. There a story behind that ‘nothing’, I can take this little series back to last century, then. I can, but will I? Wait and see. The next year I’ll look at is 2005. The reason I chose 2005 is because I’ve been mourning losing most of my photographs from that year. I need to prove to myself that it was still a good year. My photographs are part of my research and part of my writing and whenever I need the ones from 2005 or one of those missing from 2006, I want to rail at the world. My reason for railing at the world in 2016 was nearly dying, and in 2005, photographs. That pretty much sums up the differences between those years.

Patreon in 2016

In my very first Patreon newsletter, sent in December 2016 (really!) I wrote about a life that feels very strange now. Eight years is a long time in the life of a Gillian, after all. To celebrate the changes that eight years bring, my posts for the next few weeks will focus on what happened in 2016. I was 55, and many things happened. This, then was that very first piece for Patreon:


On the Bigness of Hair

Today the air was full of unshed rain. This caused my hair to be big. Since the whole morning was taken up by a visit to the National Portrait Gallery with a group of creative writing students, my hair took on a significance. I was dressed quietly and modestly, as befits a teacher, but my hair was acting big.

I noticed the hair in portraits and I commented on them. We looked at the various stages of Victorian women’s hair in particular. We discussed the technique by which ringlets could be carefully developed and the importance of the sloping shoulder in relation to the hairdo. We talked about the sex factor of Big Hair. And all the time I was aware of having big hair.

I’ve often taught the different values our ancestors have given to various physical traits and dress. Sometimes a waist is important and sometimes a slit in the side of a dress is seen as impossibly heart-breakingly daring. Hair was a constant for a long time. There are still many groups that prefer to not see women’s hair at all than to have symbols of unbridled sex in the eyes of everyone.

Old postcards and the earliest of films show this attitude clearly. The sirens of the screen and the charmers of the cards wore a surprising amount of cloths. Titillation was through showing the possibility of skin rather than actual skin. But the hair! It was padded and it was pulled and it was piled up high. The postcards weren’t decorous at all – they were simply focused on something that far too many modern viewers don’t know to look for.

I kept the depictions of sirens in mind when I was walking my students through the Portrait Gallery. The word ‘sirens’ is in mind because of Norman Lindsay, whose portrait was there, sporting both a satirical look and a satyrical look. He was part of the change in culture that objectified the body of a woman. One day I’ll find out if anyone had counted the number of naked women he drew compared with other artists of his ilk and time. His more formal pictures still focused on the hair and these were of decorous women, but he felt the siren call of bare skin and was notorious in his day for refusing to block his ears against that call.

In the gallery immediately before Lindsay were the Victorian matrons. Unlike the sex symbols of the day, their hair was not so big. It was not small. It was most definitely soignée and often beautifully curled, but the nature of the hair of the dignitaries was quite different to that of the hoi polloi in the theatre.

Big hair isn’t simple. It reflects social stratification and relationships as much as it reflects fashion and hygiene. Except today. My big hair today was perfectly simple. There’s a lesson in that, too.

When We Grow Up

We humans don’t yet know what we’re going to be when we grow up.

In my morning senryu, which I call zentao, I often close with the last line “not civilized yet.” Here’s an example:

We can do better.
We have the tools and knowledge.
Not civilized yet.

A lot of those senryu are written in anger. If we were civilized, this thing wouldn’t happen. Or we know better than this; we could be civilized.

This is rooted in an idea I’ve had for many years that every established group of people – particularly the wealthy ones – thinks they are civilized. We are civilized, unlike the people from a thousand, a hundred, fifty years ago.

Or, more dangerously, we are more civilized than those people over there, which often becomes an excuse to kill them.

This is not a popular theory. Once on a science fiction convention panel I suggested we humans weren’t even close to civilized, and got a lot of pushback from everyone else.

Of course, it depends on what you mean by civilized. My own conception of that is long and complex, but the gist of it is a world in which we use what we know and can learn to make good lives for all in sustainable ways.

As we were driving across the country this past week, my sweetheart, having gone down a rabbit hole online based on something we’d noticed, told me that the horse was first domesticated by humans maybe 6,000 years ago.

(My sweetheart also suggests that teenage girls first domesticated the horse. It’s an interesting theory.)

And it suddenly dawned on me – because my mind goes down its own rabbit holes – that human beings are a very young species.

Of course we aren’t civilized. We haven’t been around long enough. Continue reading “When We Grow Up”