All posts by Mary-Lou Stephens

About Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou Stephens was born in Tasmania, studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. She has worked and played all over Australia and now lives on the Sunshine Coast with her husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees. Her meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation has recently been released by Pan Macmillan.

Scrabble Divas Rule

It makes friends of strangers, enemies of friends and binds like-minded souls in a pleasure that cannot be experienced by the uninitiated. Scrabble.

Those who have never owned a well-worn Scrabble set and a much-thumbed Scrabble dictionary may scoff, but the pain and the pleasure of Scrabble cannot be beaten.

Like most people, I’d played as a child, enjoyed it at the time but moved on. That was until I met the Scrabble Queen. I was living in a small country town and she took me under her wing. Every Sunday afternoon I would go around to her place and she would wipe the board with me. Month after month this went on. But as I watched and I learned, she passed on her skills to me and I became powerful. The day I beat her I became worthy of the title of the Scrabble Princess.

The legend grew and people would travel to that small town to take on the Scrabble Queen and the Scrabble Princess. One cocky Sydney journalist thought he would have his way with us using his vast knowledge of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. But no.

He left a defeated man, his tail between his legs and our laughter ringing in his ears.

I moved to a bigger town and kept my skills a secret for some time. Sometimes it is best to watch and wait.

Eventually, I found a worthy opponent.

Once again every Sunday we would meet and while her boyfriend cooked us dinner we’d hit the triple scores with everything we had. I taught her tricks I’d learned from the Scrabble Queen and before too long she became a Scrabble Diva to beat the best of them.

Once again I moved on, my Scrabble destiny not quite complete.

It took a while to find an opponent brave enough or foolish enough to take me on. This time I took pity on a poor little Scrabble Tadpole. She reminded me of myself in my younger days. I passed on the skills that had been taught to me by the Scrabble Queen and eventually I bestowed upon her the honour of her very own Scrabble set. But if you challenge her, beware, she has the training of many generations of Scrabble Mistresses. She may toy with you for a while but eventually, she’ll hit you with a seven-letter word on a triple word score that will blow your mind.

These days I play online. I keep in contact with the many Scrabble goddesses I’ve met along the way and we battle it out with each other, thanks to the glory of the internet. But whenever we do get the chance to catch up in person, the Scrabble board gets dusted off and it’s game on. Nothing can beat the clatter of the tiles on their wooden stands, the scribbled scores mounting ever higher on a hastily found piece of paper and the satisfaction of stealing that triple word score, quite literally, from under your opponent’s nose.

Scrabble on!

The Shallow Promise of Your Best Life Ever

The holiday and festive season is over. How do I know? It’s not the suddenly empty beaches or the re-emergence of school crossing guards. It is the plethora of magazine and newspaper lifestyle segments telling us that the good times are over and it’s time to pay for all the excess.

It’s like getting your first credit card statement of the year.

Suddenly, instead of recipes for the perfect chocolate pavlova, the media is full of ways to remove the undesirable poundage that said pavlova has deposited on unsuspecting thighs, waists and chins.

I was tempted for a few seconds by a seductive little detox number that promised to clean up my system, get me into my old jeans and supply me with a fabulous life all within the space of 10 days. However, when I read what I was expected to eat, or more importantly not eat, I came to my senses. I realised that 240 hours of sheer misery was too much to endure, even for the promise of my best life ever at the end of the torture.

Let’s face it. Diets aren’t about reaching your healthy goal weight. Diets are about reaching your goal happiness, your goal size smaller than your best friend, your goal boyfriend, and best of all; your goal envious looks from other people. Diets are about being suddenly slim and glamorous. They’re about swanning around in sports cars and being lusted after by movie stars. Wouldn’t we all be deliriously happy, content and rich if only we were just a little bit slimmer?

I’ve been wading through the lists of sure-fire diets and the swathe of Celebrity Diets. There are only two things that I’ve read that have made any sense. One was a celebrity singer saying that the only way to lose weight was to eat less and exercise more. The other was a celebrity actress telling us not to believe other actresses who say they eat whatever they like and stay stick thin. She said that she, like all the rest of them, was hungry all the time.

This week I’m relishing my morning walks along the near empty, post-holiday beach, not to lose weight but just for the sheer joy of it. And when I see those people who are slimmer than me, I no longer see them as morally superior beings who live incredibly fulfilled and fascinating lives with their perfect life partner. I see them as people who are just a bit hungrier than me.

The Miserable Joy of Eeyore.

I’m a year older than I was last week. There’s something about having a birthday that always reminds me of Eeyore. After all, what’s a birthday? Here today, gone tomorrow, as he would say.

Eeyore has always been my favourite of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters. With such lines as, “Good morning Little Piglet. If it is a good morning. Which I doubt. Not that it much matters”, how could you not love him?

On his birthday Eeyore is sardonic, witty and urbane but most of all he is miserable. Eeyore makes us all feel better on our birthdays. He takes on all the pain of ever feeling forgotten or abandoned on what’s supposed to be our special day. He makes even the most monumental loser feel good. No matter how bad things get they’ll always be worse for Eeyore. And that’s a form of comfort.

When I was a kid I was always jealous of my sister’s toy Eeyore. It was a home made job way before merchandising came to be the market force it is these days. It had character and was well loved. From an early age my sister and I both knew that Eeyore was the only one who saw the world as it was but still found something worthwhile in it. Even better he expressed his pessimism in no uncertain terms to anyone who’d listen and they still loved him. But most of all he was funny.

I once met a man who used to size people up by finding out who their favourite Winnie-the-Pooh character was. To him it was a reflection of how people viewed the world. Pooh types were optimistic, undemanding and simplistic. Piglets were insecure, needy and eager to please. Owls were quirky, odd and kind of interesting. Tiggers were arrogant and immature. Kangas were often nurses, caring but tired. Roos were wishy-washy. And Rabbit? Who on earth would choose Rabbit as their favourite character? You’d have to be perverse.

Very occasionally you’ll find someone who cites Christopher Robin as their favourite. According to his theory, it shows someone with a marked lack of imagination or a male going through a mid-life crisis.

But when you find another Eeyore you know you’ve found a soul mate. It takes a special type of person to love and appreciate an old grey donkey who pretty much keeps to himself in a damp corner of the 100 Acre Wood.

“I might have known’, said Eeyore. “After all, I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And it was last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’ The Social Round. Always something going on.”

Thanks Eeyore.

Happy Epiphany Baby.

I was due on Christmas day. But even in the womb I had a few clues. I knew the likelihood of birthday presents would be inversely proportional to the proximity of my birthday to Christmas Day. So my poor mother had to put up with me refusing to budge for almost two weeks.

I finally agreed to emerge on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Epiphany. I looked epiphany up in the dictionary once. It read, “the manifestation of the superhuman.” I was most pleased. Jesus received gold, frankincense and myrrh on the Twelfth Day of Christmas so I assumed I’d do all right too.

Wrong.

What I didn’t realise was this: when I was young I’d hardly ever have a birthday party because it was always school holidays so all my friends were away, and when I was an adult most people would be elsewhere doing other things like camping, travelling and vacationing. So if your birthday is also around this time I sympathise fully.

Some years my birthday has drifted past with barely a wave of recognition as others enjoy their holidays and festive season. But other birthdays have been diamonds. A couple of years ago a new friend, having realised my plight, baked a cake, made a birthday banner and decorated her lounge room with streamers for a birthday party just for me. She and I were the only ones at that party but it didn’t matter. I felt so special.

Many years ago, when I was living in Sydney, the city put on an outdoor concert in the Domain on my birthday. I spent the day surrounded by music and music lovers with Paul Kelly (whose birthday was a week later) as the headliner. Bliss.

And this year I had a full day of glorious celebratory activities culminating in a beautiful birthday dinner hosted by a good and generous friend. I felt well and truly loved.

So although the gold, frankincense and myrrh might not be forthcoming every year (even  Jesus only received those presents once) some of my birthdays have been pure gold and life has been a sweet smelling balm.

Thank you.

Freedom. Or Perks?

It’s the time of year when we reflect on the past and look forward to the future. I’ve spent part of the past week at the Woodford Folk Festival and, unlike a lot of other festival-goers, for me it’s been a sobering experience.

Often we don’t notice the changes that occur in our everyday lives. The days slip by, the years flow on and we ease gracefully into other states of being. Well, that’s how I perceive it happening for other people. For myself any change is usually accompanied by much clashing and gnashing.

The first Woodford Festival I went to was a tribal experience. I drove up from Sydney with five others in a Kingswood called Gretel. We set up camp in amongst other people’s tent ropes and tarpaulins. I wandered wide-eyed and sleepless for the entire six days. I went to every jam session and danced all night in the Chai Tent. I joined the choir and made lanterns. I entered The Great Band Competition and circled every act in the program. I immersed myself in the Woodford experience and when it was time to resurface I couldn’t even remember my pin number.

My second Woodford Festival was spent as a performer. I played the Big Top and slept in the Performers’ Camp. I hung out in the Green Room and played in a few jams. I wore one of those coveted “access all areas” wristbands and got to watch packed out shows from the space beside the stage.

The next time I went as a radio announcer. It rained the entire time but I didn’t care. I was like a pig in the proverbial and there was plenty of that.  I interviewed as many performers as I could and when they played for me a crowd would gather. It was live radio at its best.

Since then I’ve produced and presented many national broadcasts from Woodford for the ABC. And when I became a published author I spent a couple of Woodfords on stage as a speaker. Every year I’ve had special privileges because of my position as a broadcaster, a performer and an author including parking spots, all-access wristbands, free tickets and speedy entry.

This year all that changed. It was the first year since that first tribal trip to Woodford that I’ve paid for a ticket. No access all areas, no special treatment.  At first I felt free; I had no responsibilities, no burden of care, nobody expected anything of me. I had no deadlines and no particular place to be. For the first time in almost twenty years I could experience the Woodford Folk Festival on my own terms. But when The Hubby and I had to park in the day parking area and catch the shuttle bus along with all the other punters, the reality sunk in and I didn’t like it. The truth is I enjoy being special. I love having perks and privileges. I scowled like a cranky toddler.

‘Don’t they realise who I am?’ I huffed.

‘Don’t you mean, who you were?’ The Hubby replied.

And it’s true. I love the freedom of retirement. Every day I’m grateful that I get to choose what I do, or don’t do. And after a lifetime in the public eye in one form or another, I adore the invisibility of anonymity. But freedom comes at a price. And for me that included the cost of a ticket and experiencing the festival as a mere member of the public.

So would I change anything about that experience? Would I shackle myself back to the burdens and responsibilities of a working life for the sake of a free ticket and more convenient parking?

I have had the experience of attending the Woodford Folk Festival in many different guises, and those roles of musician, broadcaster and speaker have suited me at the time. But times change and we change with them or we are doomed to a life of resentment and regret. Freedom is more important to me now than recognition, prestige and the perks of a media pass (even though, yes, sometimes I miss those perks).

So here’s to looking forward, to a life of freedom and choices based on that freedom. And if I get a bit huffy from time to time because I used to be someone, I hope I remember that I much prefer the someone that I am now.

Happy 2017.

Eat More Cake…and Merry Christmas

The Hubby and I had the conversation we had to have a few weeks ago. About cake. Christmas cake to be precise. You see, one of our lovely neighbours comes around every December selling Lions Christmas cakes. Every year we buy one. In the past we have been known to give them away but last year we ate the whole cake before Christmas even arrived. We love Christmas cake.

This year we decided to buy one and divide it into thirds. We’d keep one-third for ourselves and give the other two-thirds away. Never happened. Once again we ate the whole cake in less than a fortnight, way before Christmas day had a chance to dawn. Did I mention we love Christmas cake?

But for myself, it wasn’t always that way.

 My grandmother used to create amazing Christmas cakes. They were works of art. She would bake the cake months in advance and regularly soak it in brandy. Then as the day grew closer she’d cover it in marzipan and then finally a coat of royal icing with all the trimmings. As a child I’d try to grab a piece with the most icing. The cake and the marzipan always remained on my plate, naked and dishevelled. Back then I hated fruitcake but I loved the icing. Kids! My grandmother must have despaired. If only she was still alive, I’d give her Christmas cakes the respect they deserved.

Granny was a great cook but there was one thing I could never fathom. At Christmas she’d serve up jellied peas. Who in their right minds would put peas in jelly? My mum explained that the jelly was aspic, a kind of savoury jelly, but I was not impressed. However, in retrospect, I can see how devilishly clever my grandmother was. She solved the problem of children and peas with a two-pronged attack. Peas in jelly won’t fall off the fork, plus it makes peas so unattractive to children they won’t want to eat them anyway.  There’s no danger of peas getting squashed into the carpet if no one under 14 is eating them.

I hope you have a joyful Christmas and I also hope that, unlike The Hubby and myself, you have some Christmas cake left to eat on the day. And wherever you are and whoever you’re celebrating Christmas with,  may there be no jellied peas on the menu.

Burning Up

Black Saturday Fires, Victoria 2009. Photo: Jake Valance.

Summer on the Sunshine Coast. It’s hot, it’s windy and the first serious fire of the season saw flames leaping over three stories high through bushland in Mountain Creek. 

All of us who’ve been close to fire never forget it. I remember the heat and darkness of the bushfires that burnt Tasmania to the ground when I was a young child. A huge red sun low in the sky made our home feel like an alien planet. Our house was the last safe refuge at the bottom of Mt. Nelson. The lounge room was full of kids. Their dads were in the smoke battling to save each others’ homes armed with nothing more than wet gunny sacks and garden hoses. The women gathered in our kitchen talking in hushed and worried voices, not knowing whether they’d have a husband or a home to go to that night.

During the 1994 bush fires that circled Sydney, the band I played in was booked to perform at a festival in Byron Bay. We set off up the highway not knowing whether we’d get through or not. Flames were burning along the side of the road, licking at the bitumen. We could feel the heat through the metal and glass of our hired tour van and were acutely aware that we could be trapped by fire at any moment. The highway closed just after we passed through. 

The festival went ahead, with other acts having to be flown in and much borrowing of amplifiers and equipment. It was a relief to be away from the smoke and the big red bushfire sun that cast Sydney is a strange sepia-toned glow.

The highway was open again by the time we headed back to Sydney, five musos on the road, after a successful performance at the festival. Our career was going well and the future looked good. Not for much longer.

Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when you know a relationship is over. It may not end right there and then but eventually it’s the reason the whole balancing act comes tumbling down in ruins. As we drove back towards a fire-devastated Sydney our bass player flicked her cigarette butt out the window. I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I turned to another member of the band just to check what I’d seen. She looked as shocked as I did. It was a single thoughtless act that highlighted a hundred other thoughtless acts. Families had lost their homes, children had lost their pets, others had lost their livelihoods and that cigarette butt, smouldering on the side of the road, could start the horror all over again.

Three months later the band had a new name and a new bass player.

If only a home or a life were that easy to replace.

Outback & Overwhelmed

my-feet-in-the-desert_2Many years ago, when I was a musician, I travelled through the world’s biggest living dot painting to the Northern Territory, a bag in one hand and my guitar in the other. 

I paid my way by singing for my supper, songs I’d written about the sea. Being a coastal girl I’d never been to a place where there were no seagulls. 

I arrived at Yulara, the tourist town that leaches dollars from the grandeur of Uluru. The rock is a magnet for cars, tour buses and four wheel drives. It was hard to find a peaceful place in the middle of the desert.

During the day I would wander away from the resort and sit on a small dune, my pale bare feet digging into the red sand.  I felt as though I was in a postcard, with the rock to my left and Kata Tjuta directly in front. I loved the Olgas, they welcomed me with embracing arms. But I found Uluru overwhelming and kept a respectful distance.

On the last day of my desert adventure, a friend took me out to the gorges. We went for a walk. A gentle gradient to the top of a cliff where a ghost gum grew. There we perched like rock wallabies, watching the light shift and change on the range. Down below, birds were coming home to their water hole.

Time slipped by unnoticed.

I gazed at the rock face, the ancient hills and cliffs, always seeing something new. Gum trees clung in seemingly impossible places. Why did they grow there? How? They had no choice, they had to stay where they sprouted and make the most of it. I felt shiftless and reckless in comparison.

We were running late when I took the wheel of Nelly, ship of the desert. She was a big boat of a Kingswood, column shift, dimmer switch on the floor near the pedals.

I sped across the plain chased by a blood red sunset; the fingers of night creeping up and the darkness scurrying behind us, descending gloom and the threat of looming cattle on the road.

The evening star guided us, first through grey/pink clouds and then through the twilight suspended dusk.

The sun disappeared with a thud and leached all the heat out of the air as it went.

I knew the next day Sydney would slap me in the face but that was many hours away.

The night was restless, windy and warm.

The Book of Love

variation-of-books-in-library

Recently I had a major eureka moment. I discovered how love works. I should really keep the details to myself and write a best-seller about it. And that’s a clue as to how this discovery was made. Books. Best-sellers, biographies, histories, romances and horror stories.

I went to a charity book sale, just out of curiosity. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but I do love books. To tell you the truth when I got there I was a bit overwhelmed; so many books, rows and rows of boxes upon boxes of books. I didn’t know where to start, so I just browsed.

I picked up a couple of books, had a look at them and then put them back. I wasn’t really interested. I picked up a book I knew a friend would love but still nothing for me.

Then I started looking seriously and methodically. I walked up one aisle and down the next looking at each box of books as I went. I found a book that I really should read, a book that would be good for me, a book that would look impressive in my bookcase.  And I chose another book that was uplifting and inspirational, I knew because it said so on the cover.

But still, nothing that excited me.

Then I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my luck. A book by my favourite author, a book I didn’t even know I was looking for until I found it. And then I knew why I’d come to the book sale. It was purely to find that book. It was fate. The book and I were meant for each other.

That’s how love works.

You don’t know what it is until you find it. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing and then suddenly everything becomes clear.

Occasionally you’ll find a great boyfriend for a friend while you remain single. You choose the person you think you should be with, or someone your mother thinks would be good for you, or someone whose cover looks impressive, but none of them really excite you. Plus you’ve got to sort through a lot of stuff that you don’t want first. 

But when love does arrive, it’s totally unexpected and totally wonderful.

So, when I got home did I curl up in bed with my miraculous discovery? No. I put it on the shelf and started reading the book I thought I should read because it would be good for me.

Books may be meant for the shelf but I think I still have a few things to learn about love.

Photo via Glen Noble via Visualhunt

What makes a girl fall in love? And out?

Petersham InnWhat makes a girl fall in love? Even more interestingly, what makes her fall out of love?

It was another great night at the Petersham Inn on Parramatta Road in Sydney, thanks to the enigmatic Duncan who booked the music and was the licensee. (Duncan died last month but his legacy lives on.)  The band was firing and the buzz about them was beginning to grow.  They were a long way from the multiple ARIA Award winners they’d become but all of us in the Pismo Bar sensed we were witnessing a legend in the making.

Now, I’ve been guilty of falling for a few boys in bands myself in the past but I was nothing compared to my friend Angie. All the excitement got her hot and bothered. She’d caught the guitarist’s eye and wanted to move in for the happy ending.  Neither of them had a car so I was coerced into driving them, and his guitar, back to her place. He and I chatted about music while she hung onto his arm and gazed into his eyes.

That was how it started and that was how it was destined to remain. They didn’t have a lot in common so whenever she was going out with him she’d ask me along too. I’d act as a kind of interpreter; they could both have conversations with me but were at a loss when it came to talking to each other. The three of us spent many happy evenings at No Names in Darlinghurst eating spaghetti while I acted as their go-between.

However, there was one area of their relationship where I couldn’t help them. It’s an area that doesn’t require much talking so I assumed everything was ok. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It became clear that after the initial rush of excitement something was dreadfully amiss. My friend was not happy. She didn’t mind that he was lost for words but she found it inexcusable that he was tongue-tied.

It’s been my experience that ultimatums don’t work but try telling that to someone with a bee in their bonnet. They can’t hear you, the buzzing’s too loud.  She borrowed a friend’s apartment to ensure privacy and cooked an amazing dinner with candlelight, wine and Peggy Lee. Lord knows what they talked about over dinner but I do know what was said at the end of the evening.  He took the “or else” option and opted out of her life.

She didn’t miss him, but I did. I missed our conversations about music, guitars, books, bags and bands. Was I ever tempted to go out with him? No way. After all, this girl could never fall for a guy who didn’t….have a car.