Sometimes I’m flapping my wings so much that I can’t even see what, or in this instance, who was standing right in front of me waiting to get into the very same lift. It was Michael Leunig…the cartoonist, poet, artistic visionary, philosopher, humourist. Of course, being my usually oblivious self, I had no idea. Fortunately, my friend tapped me on the shoulder and the next thing, I was boldly introducing myself and we shook hands. I actually shook hands with Leunig. Oh my goodness! I was never going to wash my hand again!!
Not only did I get the chance to shake Leunig’s hand, we talked. Even though I talk underwater, I somehow had to condense so much into just a sentence or two and managed to mumble something about him being a light bulb in the darkness when I had brain surgery. That was enough. After all, when you say you’ve survived brain surgery, people know that you’ve suffered. That you are a serious survivor and not some Mickey Mouse character who has simply stubbed their toe and had to write a tell-all book. I didn’t mention my subsequent battles with a very rare muscle wasting auto-immune with the unpronounceable very long name, dermatomyositis, or how that disease had spread to my lungs and I’d had chemo for Christmas. This collection of vicious diseases was too much to explain to anyone in a lift, even Leunig but I was using my walking stick and its presence alone spoke volumes.
I’m not sure how well Leunig is known overseas but in Australia, he has officially been cited as one of our greatest living treasures. Leunig is a man with such vision, that he can see through all those camouflaging layers we’ve so carefully wrapped round and round our fragile souls and he can put his finger on our broken hearts and heal the hurt…or at least offer a good dose of empathy and compassion.
In the introduction to The Prayer Tree, a gorgeously inspiring little book which is the perfect gift for anyone going through a hard time, Leunig writes:
It is difficult to accept that life is difficult; that love is not easy and that doubt and struggle, suffering and failure, are inevitable for each and every one of us.
We seek life’s ease. We yearn for joy and release, for flowers and the sun. And although we may find these in abundance we also find ourselves lying awake at night possessed by the terrible fear that life is impossible….
It is difficult indeed to accept that this darkness belongs naturally and importantly to our human condition and that we must live with it and bear it. It seems so unbearable.
Leunig is absolutely superlatively amazing and yet, Leunig the man…the man you meet in person …is humble, seemingly ordinary and easily blends into the crowd. He is neither tall nor short with curlyish light grey hair and when he speaks, he is very natural and very down to earth. There are none of the airs and graces mere mortals expect of greatness or from the pseudo artiste! This is why we love Leunig. He is real…so very, very real and authentic. It is this authenticity which really stands out in what can be a very superficial world. As does his kindness and compassion.
Despite my many years of attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I have never been to a session with Leunig before and only recently I’d became aware of that gap, which was so much more than a missing notch on the bedpost. I really felt I could learn a lot not just about creativity, writing, art but also about life and being spiritual from Leunig. After all, aren’t so many of us desperately seeking that inner transformation and some way of overcoming our struggles and learning how to glow in the dark? This has been my journey…to suffer yet find happiness. Go through periods of light and dark and as a writer to share these experiences with others and help us all feel a little less alone. I want people to know that they can also live with shadows and still know happiness, joy…life!
At the end of the session, there was question time. They are pretty strict with this question time. It’s not the sort of place you can stick your hand up and tell your entire life story or even more pertinently ask Leunig about the colour his underpants. Definitely not! You need to sound smart and your questions also need to be succinct, to the point and as carefully crafted as that elusive first novel. There is even an official “keeper of the mike”, so you almost need to have the full dress rehearsal before you even stick up your hand.
Despite these very intimidating surrounds, I always ask questions at the SWF because I figure this is my only chance to plumb the depths of some incredibly successful writers and somehow perhaps actually launch my own small boat into that enormous sea. Last year, I was very proud of myself when I actually dragged my shaking self up to the mike to ask Hollywood actor and now writer Molly Ringwald of Breakfast Club fame a question in the equally intimidating Sydney Town Hall with its ginormous pipe organ towering overhead just to intimidate me even further. Yet, this was the chance of a life time for this little pipsqueak of an unpublished Australian writer to actually speak to Hollywood super-stardom and I couldn’t wimp out. I did it.
So there I was a year later in the middle of yet another potentially intimidating and erudite crowd along with the gate keeper of the mike, and I stuck up my hand. Not to stick to the rules and actually ask a question. Not to tell my life story either but I wanted to thank Leunig for being there for all of us who have been lost in the dark and Leunig has been that light. While the theatre erupted in applause, this was a little controversial and involved bending the rules. I can’t remember what I said but the words just came out. I was amazed at my own eloquence as I can stammer and stumble over basic sentences even at home, but I have a funny feeling that these words didn’t come from me but were something of a wind or spirit simply passing through. I was just the messenger.
Thanks to meeting up with Leunig in the lift prior to the session, I had arranged to meet his publicist afterwards so I didn’t have to queue up during the book signing. However, we somehow managed to arrive before the hoards and there was this ever so small gap while they were getting set up… you could say a very pregnant pause. While he was signing my books, Leunig and I exchanged a few words and a glance. I felt such warmth and compassion in his eyes. I knew that he knew. He knew all those thoughts and feelings of light and dark that even I with all my great love of words, can not truly express. Leunig and I had made a connection, which for me was an incredibly deep and penetrating connection…two fellow soul travellers. I immediately felt so much less alone.
You can’t encounter Leunig in any medium and not emerge a changed person. It is an old cliché about the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis but it is oh so true! Our modern world can be so fragmented and isolating and then there are horrific experiences which also isolate us, even from those we love and love us. That is possibly the greatest problem…those toxic private tears which drip one by one down the back of our throats and into our hearts because for whatever reason, we just can’t get them out. Sadness and an acute awareness of our own failings are not easy feelings to share and most of us can’t just go and paint these feelings on a t-shirt and show the world or even our nearest and dearest. Leunig does. He knows our humble feet of clay and is more than willing to walk with us through the abyss. He might draw us a nice little window to look outside into the sunshine or add a light. He might even lead us outside into the sun to walk with his duck through the flowers because he wants us to know that just as life isn’t all light, it isn’t all darkness either. That we can more than survive our hurdles. Indeed, we can thrive. Yet, if we’re still not thriving, that’s okay too. He seems to have a real understanding of that little person who never, ever makes it.
To experience more of Leunig, you can read his bio and check out some of his works on his web site at www.leunig.com.au
I’m sure you will more than understand why his works mean so much to me!
Love & blessings,
 Michael Leunig: The Prayer Tree, Harper Collins, 1990 no page numbers.
Every year I live and breathe for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). It is my one big chance to glean the expertise of published writers and to meet and hang out with other writers in a suitably arty venue. You just look at this crowd and you can tell they know how to write… or they’re avid readers and certainly not the types to simply hoard books beside the bed. Oh no! They actually read them! That’s because most of them are wearing black or perhaps a vintage frock from some by-gone era be it the 50s, 60s, 70s but definitely not the 80s. You definitely don’t see 80’s gear out at the SWF. It’s still very out! Out! Out!
Each year, the SWF begins when the program appears in the Sydney Morning Herald. This is a massive call to action. The lift out is crammed full of events and workshops spread over something like a week .First, there’s the once over scan to see what’s on offer and circle anything of interest. Then I go back and choose the ones which really stand out and try to cram as many events as I can into the same day if at all possible. I also have to pace myself, especially this year. I haven’t been out and about all that much and I’m not really sure how far I can push myself without paying a terrible price for it later.
I usually have a near panic attack as I flick through the pages to see what’s on offer and to book in very , very quickly on the very same day that program appears, just to be sure. Last year, I left it til Monday and only just managed to get the very last ticket to attend a workshop with children’s book author Andy Griffiths. That was a very nerve wracking experience as that very last ticket somehow got stuck online and when I rang for assistance, I was told that the workshop had sold out. I had that last ticket stuck out there in cyberspace and the only way I could book it, was to let it go and start my transaction from scratch. I was a frazzled, nervous wreck. If you have ever read an Andy Griffiths book and he writes very dramatic books with very appropriate titles like: Just Doomed. Yes, I was feeling doomed. There was no other word for it. However, despite being more doomed than doomed at times, I also have good luck. Am in the right place at the right time. Yes, I did manage to get that last ticket.
When I’d read that Australian cartoonist and living legend Michael Leunig was appearing at the festival, I almost broke into some kind of electrified dance. I was over the moon. I’ve been going to the SWF for 6 years and I was only thinking recently that I’ve never heard him speak. He is probably my all time most favourite writer right up there alongside Keats and Kahlil Gibran who wrote: The Prophet. I really wanted to hear Leunig speak. I have heard so many fantastic Australian and overseas writers share their insights: Dr Anna Haebich (my aunty has to come top of the list), playwright David Williamson, children’s book author Jackie French who wrote The Diary of a Wombat, Andy Griffiths of Just Doomed fame, Morris Gleitzmann. I could be quite a show off except I have paid to meet and listen to all these fabulous writers, so it doesn’t really count.
After flicking the pages back and forth, I’m sorted. This is my program for the week:
Tuesday: 9.30 … Writing Historic Fiction with author Sulari Gentill.
Wednesday: 1.30… Mark Lamprell
Friday: 3.00PM …Michael Leunig
Friday: 4.30PM…Richard Flanagan
I decide to stay in Sydney Monday night and spend Monday researching Surry Hills for “my book”. Ha!
I will be spending almost a week in heaven. Can’t wait!