A Year of Beauty

Thursday, September 18, 2014

AmberScott_photoJustinRidler - backCover_
Photo: Amber Scott by Justin Ridler

Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

--From “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

* * *

To help celebrate The Australian Ballet’s launch of its stunning new 2015 season, A Year of Beauty, I’ve compiled my own ode to beauty. If you’d like to take part on Instagram, the hashtag #whatisbeauty will take you to all things ballet and beautiful.

Found here are some beautiful images coupled with some beautiful words...

Full disclosure: I do write for The Australian Ballet, and although I’m biased, I am totally besotted with the 2015 season. It is worthy of a million blog posts. So enjoy!


Photo: Juliet Burnett and Adam Bull by Georges Antoni

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

--From “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

The Sleeping Beauty

140528_AusBallet_15_01_0240_ext_low res_
Photo: Lana Jones by Georges Antoni

She sleeps: her breathings are not heard
In palace chambers far apart.
The fragrant tresses are not stirred
That lie upon her charm├Ęd heart.
She sleeps; on either hand upswells
The gold-fringed pillow lightly prest:
She sleeps, nor dreams, but ever dwells
A perfect form in perfect rest.

--From “The Sleeping Beauty” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Photo: Chengwu Guo and Madeleine Eastoe by Georges Antoni

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

--From “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats


Photo: Andrew Killian by Justin Ridler

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

--From “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats


Photo: Amber Scott by Lynette Wills

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

--From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Swan Lake

Swan Lake Adam Bull and Amber Scott - Liz Ham-1_
Photo: Amber Scott and Adam Bull by Liz Ham 

I love thee, mournful, sober-suited Night!
When the faint moon, yet lingering in her wane.
And veil’d in clouds, with pale uncertain light
Hangs o’er the waters of the restless main.

--From “To Night” by Charlotte Smith

Exit by way of here...

All images are used here with permission from The Australian Ballet. Please seek permission if you’d like to re-blog.


I woke up today with a horrible headache and nausea. I’ve been feeling this way for the past few days. I know exactly what’s causing it: work/deadlines stress. This is called life and it’s pretty normal stuff.

Here’s something that isn’t ordinary that causes nausea too.

How do I separate my ordinary nausea from this one – this one that I seem to write about repetitively and futilely? I don’t even know what to write anymore.

I will say this though. I know my nausea in all its forms is a privilege. It’s the privilege of being alive. There are 6 million people who don’t have that privilege, who are not here to speak for themselves, and who did not die so we can keep abusing their deaths, their innocence and their memories.

Europe and the UK are pretty unpleasant places to be a Jew right now. I find myself negotiating basic things, like what kind of jewellery to put on (better not wear that Star of David necklace I got from my grandmother), or who will recognise my very Jewish and very Israeli name and react badly (this has happened, usually from men, and it’s very intimidating). I find myself frustrated at the smug banality of other people’s reactions and slogans, and the self-congratulation of ‘respectable’ middle-class people who tsk tsk at all the ‘savages’ in the Middle East, but who casually contribute to the rise of both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiments in their own countries.

But all of this comes with the knowledge that I have the privilege of being alive. So I’ll take my nausea and my tears, and I’ll take my rage and shaking hands, and I’ll take my daily negotiations. What I will not take is the minimising and appropriating of 6 million Jews, over and over again.

I would like everyone to visit Auschwitz. Go stand in that pit of pure hell and then tell me if you don’t feel nausea too. If you do, take it as a sign that your body knows, somewhere deep inside, what was done here, and that it will not let you stand by and watch as this hatred rises up again.

Not saying much

Monday, August 25, 2014

I’ve noticed today that most of my posts lately begin with ‘who the hell reads this blog anymore?’ I realise this is annoying to read as someone who isn’t the author of this blog. It’s not fishing for compliments, it’s me wondering what I’m doing, or not doing, with this blog. So many things are conspiring to not make me want to blog, not least of which is me not quite feeling like me.

It will take a while to get used to the changes that have occurred in my life, to really comfortably sink back into my skin. In Australia, even at my lowest point of ‘what am I going to do with my life/career’ panic, I always held onto this version of myself that I could comfortably sink into – it’s a version that I feel is me without the self-defensiveness, shyness, insecurity. It usually comes out through daydreams, or night-dreams, where I could picture stories in my head and just enjoy them. I haven’t been dreaming much lately – of course, I have normal dreams when I sleep, what I mean is, I don’t really feel like me enough to take those elaborate awake dreams with stories I like to make up. This may explain why I’m writing more poetry lately, because I find it easier to write disjointed, metaphorical sentences, rather than big long narratives.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s most likely a temporary thing. You don’t just make huge life changes and feel completely comfortable in a few short months. You certainly don’t when you do it alone. I’m not unhappy, there are many things in my life that have changed for the better, and for the first time I’m getting paid to do work I love full time. I feel useful, productive, appreciated. Those are not things to be diminished. But I don’t quite feel like me yet. This makes it hard to visit my blog and write. This place only makes sense when I make sense. But then, I do like that it exists and is here waiting for me when I need it.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Parisian Flower Market

It’s strange reading this birthday post from last year, because so much has changed, and yet so much is the same. It’s my birthday tomorrow. I have no profound thoughts, other than offering a poem and an image, and perhaps a suggestion that you can join me in my birthday gift to myself by donating money to Yad Vashem (or The Donkey Sanctuary, or anything else that reaffirms our humanity, if only for a brief moment).

The Garden by Moonlight
By Amy Lowell

A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.
Firefly lights open and vanish
High as the tip buds of the golden glow
Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet.
Moon-shimmer on leaves and trellises,
Moon-spikes shafting through the snow ball bush.
Only the little faces of the ladies’ delight are alert and staring,
Only the cat, padding between the roses,
Shakes a branch and breaks the chequered pattern
As water is broken by the falling of a leaf.
Then you come,
And you are quiet like the garden,
And white like the alyssum flowers,
And beautiful as the silent sparks of the fireflies.
Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?
They knew my mother,
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone.

Image credit: A Parisian Flower Market by Victor Gabriel Gilbert.

Interview with Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Friday, August 1, 2014

northern lights

About a year ago, I asked author and friend Erica Lorraine Scheidt to do an interview on her novel Uses for Boys (which I ‘reviewed’ here). My love for this book, and for this woman, has not waned. Life got in the way, as life often does, and we both forgot about this interview. And then yesterday, I received a surprise in my inbox when Erica sent her responses to those questions I asked.

I’m probably not the world’s best interviewer and some questions are a bit clumsy/mundane. But I want to end this week with something thoughtful, beautiful, and humane. So here it is. Thank you, Erica.

(P.S. The image above technically doesn’t have much to do with the interview, but it just ‘fits’ in my head somehow. Don’t ask me for logic right now. Image credit: Northern Lights by Sydney Mortimer Laurence.)

Hila Shachar: How did you become a writer?

Erica Lorraine Scheidt: When I was a kid, I was certain I was a writer. I dropped out of high school to become a writer, and then I dropped out of college to become a writer, and then another college, and then I moved to New Orleans to become a writer, and then I went to the The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics to become a writer. And then, like everyone else, I graduated from college, got a job, and never wrote again.

Some fifteen years later, I returned to writing. I quit my job, I wrote stories, I took classes, I spent time with writers I respect. I lost all my teenage bravado. I’m humbled by writing, I struggle with it. I want a beautiful paragraph. I throw away a million words for every few that I keep.

HS: What compelled you to write Uses for Boys?

ELS: I knew I wanted to write about girls. And I was writing all these stories (incomplete, fragmented stories) about adolescence and about loneliness and at the same time I was reading and rereading The Lover by Marguerite Duras and a lot of Jean Rhys and I started writing about a girl for whom sex was an anodyne against loneliness.

HS: As I was reading Uses for Boys, I felt like it was filling an unspoken void in terms of the types of books that I currently see being written for and marketed to girls and young women. I’m much more used to, for example, encountering typical romances in the genre of young adult fiction now. Maybe this is a generalisation, but I do feel Uses for Boys is different and has a different tone. Did you deliberately want to create a different type of story for young women and girls?

ELS: I was frustrated with a certain pattern, it’s the: adolescent girl has some trauma (loses a sibling, is raped) and then starts down a self-destructive path (bulimia, cutting, drugs), then she meets someone (sometimes a teacher, sometimes a coach, often a boyfriend) and finds something (long distance running, art, love) that helps her understand her inner strength, and she moves on trope. So much of adolescence is uneven, and growth is not always forward; sometimes it’s a cluster of awarenesses and sometimes it’s a sequence of setbacks and sometimes you have to trust yourself and sometimes that’s a terrible idea.

Because I was trying to work against easy answers, early drafts of Anna’s story weren’t very satisfying. Anna just kept running and looking and it took an act of will to get her to stop and stay and see what happens when she takes the story she was given and rewrites it.

That said, there’s a tremendous amount of young adult fiction that is startling and human and curious and visceral. Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff is a favorite. And, Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.

HS: I stated before that I love Anna like a friend, or a sister, or even a part of my teenage self, even though I had a much better and different childhood. Did you intend to make her such a relatable character?

ELS: I can relate to her. God, she seems so relatable to me. She’s me, she’s my best friend, she’s my goddaughter—and yet she’s also not. I was so heartened when a young reader said:

>>>> “I’m 13, and I’m reading this book…It’s definitely one of my favorite books. It’s so real, so poetic, and it’s the fact that everything in this book, all the wonderful and all the terrible little things, can happen to anyone.”<<<<

And I have to say, I didn’t realize how dark everyone would find the book. I saw Anna as always trying so hard to be true to herself and to make a place for herself in the world.

HS: I have to confess to feeling quite angry when I read some of the negative reviews of Uses for Boys, some of which are basically victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Were you surprised by this reaction to Anna as a character?

ELS: I don’t know if I was surprised, because honestly I didn’t know what to expect. And I knew the story was more raw and explicit than most stories about adolescent girls. I was saddened by a few reader comments about the sexual assault—I wondered, is it because we don’t talk about the unsettling, unexpected reactions of survivors after a sexual assault? I know we all want there to be this clear marker: this is rape and this is what a survivor feels after rape. But I was much more interested in the messy complexity of Anna’s experiences.

HS: By the end of the book, I felt very protective of Anna. She inspires a raw, visceral response. Could you talk a bit about how she came to be – how you shaped her as a character and what inspired you to create her.

ELS: I don’t know if I could have done that on purpose. A lot of readers say things like they just wanted to hug Anna or hold her or protect her. I do think writing—and reading—is a form of empathy. And that it’s the mix of our unexpected frailties, strange resiliencies, problematic desires, and misguided actions that make us such empathetic creatures.

HS: Anna’s friendship with Toy is particularly interesting. I also found Toy’s name very interesting and thought about its significance. I was wondering of Toy acts as a type of ‘foil’ for Anna, or whether for you she has a different role in the story.

ELS: I was very angry at my best friend when I was writing the book. I felt like my real life would never measure up to her fantasy life and even though I was in my late thirties, and we’d been friends for more than twenty years, I felt like I couldn’t get this friend to really see me. That’s the genesis of Toy.

But as she became a character, I thought of Toy as a child who had suffered things so horrible that fantasy was her only possible response. I don’t know if she’s a foil. I saw her and Anna employing different, though both learned, responses to their loneliness.

I have no explanation for the name. It just came to me. And I’m inexplicably charmed by the name Toy, although I’m not sure that’s warranted.

HS: One of the saddest things for me about Anna’s childhood is her lack of family. And by ‘family’, I don’t mean some stereotypical image of the traditional nuclear family, but simply, a sense of belonging or enveloping, and love. Or in Gail Jones’ better words in Dreams of Speaking, “a space into which her self could be poured, without erasure.” Was this a clear theme you had in mind when you first started writing Uses for Boys, or is it something that developed along with the story and with Anna?

ELS: Hila, yes.

And that’s exactly what the book became about—I didn’t know it when I started. At first I thought the book was about boys, and then I thought it was about best friends, and then about the mom, and finally, only when I was finished with the final revisions and it was at the publisher’s, turning into a book, did I realize it was a story about family.

Family is a talisman-like word to me. A magical word that’s about belonging and being claimed. It’s no surprise that as I was finishing the book, I fell suddenly and startlingly in love with a woman and her daughter and we three made a space where our whole selves are poured without erasure.

HS: It’s hard not to talk about gender with regard to Uses for Boys, as it seems to so truthfully highlight the gender roles boys and girls are expected to play out as they get older. Is this a deliberate critique in the book?

ELS: Yes. Sometimes I feel like my whole life and all of my actions are a deliberate critique on gender roles. And especially now that I write for and work with girls—how is that that sexuality has become our one innate power? That sexuality is the last thing that the powerless can trade on? That we can be sexualized by others without our consent? How did this happen? I both want to work to dismantle it and so often I cannot stomach it. I feel a dark, bleak, grief in how our girls are systematically sexualized and made to feel powerless. I know you know what I mean. I know it’s one of the things we connect on, Hila, across continents, that sometimes our grief for the human race is something we are wailing and wailing and yet our voices are tiny and without weight.

HS: One of the most honest things for me about this book is its attitude to sex, especially in relation to teenage girls. Could you talk a bit about this and why you felt it important to portray sex so honestly?

ELS: Thanks for this question. I really love to talk and write about the weird, visceral, reality of two bodies together—especially when you’re young and you’ve never had that kind of intimate exposure to another person’s body. Our own bodies are so mysterious, but then, under the umbrella of “sex” we get to touch all these strange foreign parts of another person’s body. It’s comical, and nonsensical, and mystical, and really, just damn cool.

HS: Storytelling plays as important role in Anna’s relationship with her mother as well as with Toy – could you talk about the significance of telling stories in Uses for Boys?

ELS: A lot of the motif of storytelling comes from how I see the world. Our families give us stories to understand the world, and over time these stories change, or they don’t fit, or they do. And we tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and those stories change over time, and they become outdated and they don’t work anymore, and we need new stories.

A lot of Uses for Boys follows Anna as she learns to rewrite the story she’s been give. I’d love to think that’s our one great power, that we can write our own stories. That telling our stories is a brave and powerful act. That telling our stories makes us less alone.

HS: What young adult fiction do you love and recommend? What’s the first book you remember making a strong impact on you? What general books do you think every girl should read, or be given?

ELS: Here’s a few. The first one, the one I feel like I’m always writing toward, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. That was the most powerful book I read as a child. As a teenager, I read Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., and it was astonishing. I had no idea you could do that with language and story and character. I’ve read The Lover by Marguerite Duras dozens of times and it contains so much about the slipperiness of language and memory and how we tell the same story over and over. More recently I was heavily influenced by Exquisite Paine by Sophie Calle, which manifests how our stories change over time and in relation to others’ stories. I am bowled over by The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read it twice in a row now and it feels like the only thing I want to read. I’m also rereading the essays in Madness, Rack, and Honey by the poet Mary Ruefle. Especially the title essay. And Mary Oliver’s Stag’s Leap, the book about her divorce. This essay, by Bethany Rose Lamont, called “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, has been hugely influential in terms of thinking about how our stories change over time. It appeared in Rookie.

Rookie has the writing that most gets under my skin lately. It’s written for teenagers. The other YA that gets me: I already said Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. I love AS King, especially Everybody Sees the Ants, and Ask the Passengers. Her books don’t pretend that everything makes sense. Also Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry is the book that I would have carried and around and read out loud and dogeared the pages when I was a teenager.

This is not YA, probably, but maybe it is. I love this essay by Roxane Gay, “What we Hunger for.” Maybe anything by Roxane Gay.

Some pleasure

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I’ve been feeling so lousy lately, in every possible way. It is physically draining and makes me feel like a kid wanting to hide beneath the blanket. My escapism comes in many forms, including playing with my new waterlogue app. And reading poetry. And cuddling with the cat. And skype conversations with my mother.

The loneliness and homesickness feel worse now due to many reasons, and probably because it’s my birthday soon. All those birthday rituals I’m used to will change. I’m trying not to feel too sorry for myself, as it doesn’t help, and I have plenty of work to keep me occupied. And I just keep reminding myself that I love my new job and that I’m here for a very good reason, and I would probably be more sad if I were in Australia now, without such a good job.

Mostly though, I’m just angry at myself for not taking care of myself as I should. I’m not a child anymore, and I know the pseudo-virtuousness of overworking to the point of exhaustion is only alluring in romantic theory rather than in practice. Many people use the ‘I’m so busy’ line as a badge of honour. I’m not. There’s nothing virtuous about not carving out proper time for pleasure and it’s counter-productive to doing good work efficiently. So here is a poem and some flowers.

By Maccabit Malkin from 'When Leaves Fall'.
By Maccabit Malkin from When Leaves Fall.




Reacting versus thinking

Whenever there is a conflict in Israel, friends and family usually advise me the same thing: don’t talk about it online. This is not because they don’t like debate, or don’t believe in discussing things openly. It’s because just the word ‘Israel’ seems to bring on the most ignorant commentary online, from all sides. Whatever your position regarding Israel, it’s undeniable that the world chooses to focus on it intensively while choosing to ignore other regions in the world and those who happen to live there.

Now, I could try to analyse the reasons why, but I don’t feel I’m qualified to. I could make this post about Israel and the latest conflict, but I don’t feel qualified talking about that either. Despite being born there and having most of my family there, I still don’t feel I know enough to intellectually and ethically offer political commentary. If you ask me about Australian politics, I probably know more, because this is where I’ve spent most of my years on this earth.

But the little that I do know about Israel, its history, its politics, its government, is a lot more than the majority of people I’ve encountered online via facebook, twitter and opinion pieces published on media sites, who are commenting with the breathtaking self-confidence of MRAs lecturing women about women’s rights. Please, do go on.

This preface is a way of saying that this post is not about Israel, or the latest conflict. It is about the reaction to it I’ve been encountering and witnessing online (primarily, but not only, as it relates to anti-Semitism). If you cannot make a distinction between the Israeli government and all Jews worldwide, I suggest you stop reading now.

With this in mind, I want to raise two main points:

Unless you really are an expert, you’re not an expert: Self-explanatory. You know, there are people whose twitter feeds I follow, who usually comment on world politics in a balanced manner, who acknowledge that they may not know everything and that their opinion is subject to learning more. All that goes out the window when you mention Israel or Gaza to them. Suddenly, it’s the most simplistic, almost childishly naive argument being thrown. Suddenly, they are totally an expert, despite never bothering to actually learn the basic, skeletal history of the conflict they are commenting about.

This is occurring on both the Right and the Left ‘factions’. But since I follow mainly left-leaning people like myself, I’ve been noticing it mainly on the Left. In the last week or so, what I have learnt is that the Left is acting just as ugly as the Right. I do wonder how they think this is helping. Ignorance only fuels the hatred. Posting pictures of dead babies that aren’t verified is not only intellectually unethical it is morally compromising. This conflict is not an avenue to demonstrate to your followers just how morally superior you are by appropriating victims’ bodies. Posting inaccurate information in an effort to appear virtuous only adds to the cesspool of degradation and hate that this conflict is already breeding. You are not making things better, you are making things worse. If you want to comment, come to the table in a humble manner and recognise that victims are not here for your own consumption and that this conflict is not about how the West reacts to it – the West is not the centre of the universe.

This is not an avenue for anti-Semitism without impunity: We have people in Sydney attending mass rallies with swastikas flags. We have people chanting anti-Jews slogans and songs, calling for Jews to be gassed in Germany. We have the Holocaust being appropriated repeatedly. We have people in Paris destroying Jewish shops (and from personal direct knowledge, swastikas being painted on office doors of Jewish academics). We have a member of the Greens party in Australia attending a rally with a swastika flag, giving it legitimacy. We have people calling for Jews to be ‘expelled’ from Europe. We have #ifhitlerwasalive trending on twitter. We have so many more examples, but I may actually break down and weep if I list them all.

Are we back in 1930s Europe? Because it sure feels like it. Go read this, educate yourself.

Europe has a long history of making Jews their scapegoats, like alien beings in their own countries. Israel may be strong in its region, but Jews are marginalised everywhere else. And when your reaction to the Israeli government is to make them feel even more marginalised, you are making things worse and simply providing the justification for extreme Right-wing views from both sides. If your brain cannot handle talking about Israel without resorting to anti-Semitism, then seriously, shut up. You have nothing to contribute.

Points to end with:

* I’m aware there are equally vile anti-Muslim sentiments being thrown around right now that are just as damaging. None of this is helpful.

* I’m closing comments on this post for obvious reasons. If you email me threats or anti-Semitic crap, it will be forwarded directly to a lawyer. I am one person, not a government.

* Think before you tweet, and I repeat, be humble. You are dealing with people here, not a general mass. Be humble. And display your true humanity by not being simplistic and making generalisations. Be responsible.

* Don’t expect or require every Jewish person you meet to ‘explain’ what’s going on to you. We don’t owe you anything. We don’t all have the answers.

* Be kind, but remember this is not a competition of who is outwardly displaying themselves as the most virtuous on social media. This is not a game. This is also not about the West, and it’s arrogant to assume it is.