Wednesday, May 23, 2007


No, not me (well, maybe just a little) but the hyacinths. They've flopped down onto the desk and are looking a little ragged around the edges. A botanical metaphor for the effects of work on our bodies and our souls? Or the obvious result of cranking up the heater till the office feels like a tropical afternoon, so hot it won't be long before there are vines growing from the ceiling? The floppiness disappointed me until I was struck by the cascade of pink, a little aged and soft around the edges, and a little more approachable than their bold and upright former selves.

Straight or bowed, those flowers are good company through the day. And I need the company - I had no idea how homesick and babysick I would be. More than anything it's the lack of physical contact. Nell spends a lot of time asleep and Lu's a bit too busy for cuddles - the occassional resting of her hand on my leg or 'joke pokes' are the most I'm allotted. But over the course of the day it all adds to the warm fug of physical intimacy and this is sorely lacking - obviously and perhaps rightly so - from my work. And the cold plastic of the breast pump is a very poor substitute for Nell's snuffling, suckling and grasping. I'm almost running the last stretch of my walk home, so desperate am I to smell and touch and drink in my girls. By almost any standard I've got a good job - a great job even - but it's not as good as the one at home.

Back to the hyacinths. Could they be the way to solve workplace tensions and boost morale? It's hard to be cranky at a co-worker when you're faced with a flash on bold and unapologetic pink on the desk.

Thanks everyone for your kind comments, and for sharing your own experiences. I make sense of my world through writing and through thinking about what others' have written and seeing how it fits in my own life. Knowing your thoughts helps me think my own.

Eating from the garden: just the walnuts in the muffins I take to work. Such scanty pickings compared with two months ago. Ah well, the cabbages will soon be ready for the pot.

Monday, May 21, 2007


I calculate that over the last ten years I've spent more time in my offices and than I have in my homes. For a long time I felt more comfortable at my desk than in my house, and I felt a sense of relief when I put the key in the lock each morning, and a pang of loss when I closed the door behind me at the last possible second at the end of the day. But yesterday I went into work to drop off my clothes for the week, and I felt so alienated in that space. The institutional, grey carpet, the perfectly acceptable and perfectly uninspiring beech veneer furniture, the blinds - they are all so very blah. There's no life in that space and no welcome for me. Unlike the room in which I am now sitting, the office at work as neat as a pin with no dolls, toy engines, prams, wraps, mislaid socks, towels to mop up Nell's spits, and pen marked furniture. There are no scuffs, flakes, marks on the carpet, and bits of dog and cat fluff. There are none of the bits and pieces of my current life. Boring.

I think the office needs some pink, so tomorrow when I go in these will come along with me.
They're hyacinths, pink and happy. I'm hoping they will remind me of the garden and home and family. And when I start to lose my vision and get sucked in to the ever increasing demands of work, they'll remind to shift my focus back to what makes me feel best. Besides, I think we could all do with a little more pink in our lives.

In the meantime, they're sititng in my study at home, brightening this cold and wet day. My plans to build a compost heap and plant more green manure have been scuppered by the weather, so I'm doing the week's baking and making some soups to freeze for those days when I come home to shattered to cook (I don't think the freezer is big enough to store all the meals I'll need to deal with that eventuality).

Eating from the garden: not much really, just the last of the walnuts in some more muffins. It's a barren time of year, between the last of the bok choy and the first of the cabbages. If we needed the garden we'd be going hungry now.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A break in the weather

... so Lu and I spent some time re-acquainting ourselves with the garden. Some parts are looking pretty sad - the corn died a long, long time ago and I haven't got to mulching it yet (garden slattern that I am).
But the rhubarb is spectacular and just keeps coming. It's a bit like zuchinnis - you've got to keep on top of it or you'll be swamped with produce and guilt for not using all you can in muffins, cakes, stews.
While we were out and about Puss came along to spend some quality time looking disdainfully at me. He's been sick - and I suspect, a little depressed - for a very long time but a stay at a health retreat (the cattery while we were in Brisbane) and some of the proprieter's super secret pancreatic kick start mix has him back to his old cumudgeonly self. Welcome back, old man.

Finally, here are two of my greatest life successes: Lu and the compost bins. I'm so pleased I've got both. But I am fighting some major boot envy. Mine were boring old black ones, a size too small, left in the garage by the previous owners. I recently binned them in disgust. Lu's are, in her words, "fablous".

Eating from the garden: walnuts up at the back fence; for dinner, spinach thinnings with bacon and lemon in a salad to eat with the roast chicken (not one of ours; they're behaving themselves for the moment).

Friday, May 18, 2007

Going green

I didn't realise how miserable a cold could make a person until I nursed little Nell all last night, getting up as she woke very hour to snuffle and cry, standing with her over the humidifier, trying to get her to breathe in all the eucalyptus goodness that sent me straight back to my own childhood (do they still make Vicks Vaporub, I wonder?). Anyway, there was a lot of time for thinking and planning and scheming about the garden.

Mulching has been a source of confusion for me, in this garden. It's one of the unargued principles of organic garden - it's a commandment: thou shalt mulch - but it's really an ambiguous practice. I know in dry places it conserves water but here in Tas. that's really not a big issue, and particularly not in winter. With healthy soild, worms will drag the mulch down, building up the structure of the soil, but in our plot, the dead, clay substrata means we have to dig everything in - there are no worms to help us out. What the mulch becomes is a hiding place for the bad bugs that lay waste to my veggies. In my garden, mulching is sadly transformed into an example of poor grden hygiene.

So I'm giving up on the pea straw, lucerne, etc, and going green. I've planted green manure and I'm loving it. The peas, rye, lupins and clover look fantastic: lush and green and suggesting a level of fertility I don't think actually exists in the garden. There's nowhere for baddies to hibernate, and little space for weeds. I've decided to mix this green manure with flowers that will grow through the winter: stock, some poppies, various other as yet unidentified types. I'm hoping this will eventually attract bees and other storybook characters and add a bit more pretty to the back section, which often teeters on the grimly utilitarian.

These plans are part of a broader rethinking of what I do in the back beds. I read something in a permaculture book the other day, something that gave me an "Aahh" moment: it's not natural for plants to grow in monocultural straight lines. I know this, but had somehow forgotten it. My best gardens have been those where I've stuck things in any old place: freesias among the raspberries; poppies in the cabbages; sweetpeas in the corn; basil anywhere I could fit it. Those gardens looked so full of promise and had very few predator problems. But living with Al - and man who likes his paths swept, his plantings straight and flowers and veggies segregated - has clouded my vision. But now, looking out on the sodden ground, I'm seeing what it might be like this summer, with lots of waving flowers and colour and confusion, and I'm very excited.

Look out slugs and bugs, you're about to be stymied. Ha!

Eating from the garden: spinach thinnings in a pumpkin and lentil soup; our walnuts and apples with carrots in some muffins that are about to be baked to stave off the cold and wet of the day.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Get out of the kitchen

Four years ago I went to a conference where the keynote address focussed on the corporeal effects of neo-liberalism, which is just a fancy way of saying our work patterns impact on our wellbeing. The gist of the talk was this: we are working harder under conditions of uncertainty and our bodies are paying the price. The topic was a hit and over the coffee break many people - most of them women - talked passionately about their experiences. But the message didn't resonate with me. I thought, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".

Last week while in Brisbane I caught up with an old colleague. We were discussing the ways in which our institutions require us to work longer hours in increasingly diverse roles. I'm not so pleased with these expectations but my colleague felt differently. She said - you guessed it - "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen". I murmured something non-committal but I've been stewing over this exchange, wishing I had said what I thought: "Bullshit". How times do change.

What worried me about the comment last week was the tone. There was no attack, just a clear suggestion about the best way to deal with a tricky situation. But why is it self-evident that we need to bend our families and ourselves to the demands of our paid work? I'm trying to think through, and not just feel, why I find this expectation is more than a little bit wrong.

A couple of days ago we were very busy, bumbling and bustling in the autumn mists. Lu and I planted some broad bean seeds (probably too late for anything to happen to them) and she learned the difference between broadcasting and placing seeds in furrows. Then we searched for walnuts and cracked them open with a brick before hunting strawberries and discussing the merits of cleaning out the chicken coop. After this exchange (we came down in favour of not cleaning the coop today), we read Hooper Humperdink eight times in succession ("and Olivetta Oppenbeem. I'll have to order more ice cream" – I love that line, it’s very fine poetry). I fed Nell and to her delight, played "heads and shoulders, knees and toes" with her body, many times over. While Nell slept I walked the dog down to the deli to buy some thank you gifts and then dropped them by at a friend's house. Then Al and the girls went to the park while I went for a swim. Home to cook dinner, bathe the girls and dose them with cold medicine, and put them to bed with more stories. Not a dramatic day, and a good day.

In six days' time I won't be doing any of this. I'll be sitting at my desk, passing as a professional in a smart jacket and my nice shoes. Al will be looking after the girls and he won't be doing half these things; my day only happened with two parents on the ground. Next week, the intimacy and frustrations of all day contact will begin to dissolve. This isn't an epic tragedy but my small domestic losses have a cumulative effect on my world and our shared society.

It probably doesn’t really matter that Lu is learning self-sufficiency in the garden, or that she can forage for protein. But our day could be described as more than a series of tasks: I socialised my children; opted out of – and back into – consumerism; I invested in social networks; ensured my family enjoyed a balanced diet; and looked after my – and my family’s – physical and mental health. These actions are all social goods and many also have indirect positive economic benefits for society. But I suspect I would have to explain this to most people, whereas the goods of paid work seem self-evident.

It’s not a new issue, I know, but it’s new in my life. I’ve never really felt the need to justify my work and family choices in a way a lot of stay-at-home mothers experience, probably because I’ve always been heading back to work – thus fulfilling my duty as an economic being – and Al looks after the girls at home – thus avoiding the fraught debates over childcare (Al’s choices, on the other hand, confuse and confront almost everyone we come across). But I get the feeling I’m going to have to start explaining why I’m not working weekends and evenings, why I’m saying ‘no’, why I won’t be travelling; in short, why I won’t be giving my all to the organization that pays my wage. Even putting boundaries around my time I will feel I will be sacrificing a lot, and I will be, because my family is my core, my centre, my axis, and I feel most comfortable expressing this through my domestic activities. For other women, going back to work is a blessed and invigorating choice, and they may show their love for their kids in other ways. But my colleague – who’s a smart and critical thinker, and who openly struggles with the work-family balance herself – talks about the role of work as a given. It’s neither a choice nor a sacrifice but the natural order of things: work first.

I’ve spent seven months away from work and, while there’ve been some very hard time, it’s been on balance quite wonderful. I keep saying to people, “It’s such a luxury”, mindful of the economic pressures and truncated leave entitlements most people work under. But as I get ready to start up my work self I’m increasingly sorry that what we’ve had is a luxury – it should be something available to everyone. As I write this I think, ‘Well that’s not economically feasible’; even in my wish life the taken for granted-ness of the centrality of work asserts itself. But I’d like to think that I won’t forget what I’ve learned about the value of time and family in these months away, and that I’ll protect those lessons and values from the encroaching demands of work. I’m planning to stay in the kitchen – the metaphorical one, and my very own as well.

Eating from the garden: surprising strawberries, big as Lucy’s fist; rocket in sandwiches but not much else.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mothers Day...

...has treated me kindly this year. Until today I've always spurned it as the shameless consumption based 'celebration' it is, but this morning I jumped on the bandwagon, primarily on Al's promise of time to myself and a nice bit of cheese in front of the DVD of my choice (embarrassingly, it's The Holiday, which I know will be at best mediocre - and probably won't reach even that standard - but it's highbrow compared to other favourites from the 1980s Brat Pack genre).

So today I have:
* had a sleep in until after daybreak (thanks, Nell);
* been given a bunch of flowers at church;
* discovered my pre-baby No. 2 jeans now fit me, despite ten days of comfort eating in the Brisbane suburbs;
* strolled in the sun down to the deli for cheese and olives;
* browsed in my favourite bookstore;
* purchased roses - tacky, garish, and sure-to-be fabulous;
* purchased some felts and materials in an attempt to kick start my erstwhile plans to learn to sew.

With some time in the garden scheduled for this afternoon, I deem this day to be Not Too Shabby.

Eating from the garden: more not-so-neighbourly walnuts baked in biscuits from a Moosewood recipe; chives, thyme, oregano, majoram, parsley and sage with mushrooms and cottage on toast for lunch; three unexpected and boldly crimson strawberries, discovered in the midst of the strawberry patch, and selfishly not shared with Lucy.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

There's no place like home

We're back in Brisbane, fulfilling commitments. Our baby Nell is getting baptised, we're rushing about to family lunches, dinners and bits in between. The trip is a series of obligations, some welcome and some not. As nice as it is to see people, it's not my idea of a holiday: there's no big pool with a bar in the middle of it, and no snorkling. (This holiday fantasy has emerged since we entered parenthood. Before this, I aspired to culture and nature and mild adventure but truth be told, that now all sounds like a big effort.). Nor is this a home coming; Al and I sit here and dream of home.

For a long time Brisbane was home for both Al and me. Until the big move down south, Al had never lived elsewhere, and I'd spent my teens and most of my twenties here. We've both had some very fine times and some that were less than stellar. Things were pretty grim when I left four and a bit years ago: dumped, no house, no income and temperatures that never dropped below 30 for weeks on end. I was staying in a friend's house, trying to finish my PhD before taking up a job in a town where I knew no one. That final summer was spent desperately tapping away at the lap top on a verandah, drinking copious amounts of water to avoid dehydration, and then getting up every twenty minutes or so to pee. Despite going out with a fizzle, I've often dreamed about coming back here, coming home.

But I'm a stranger in a strange land. Brisbane is really big and really hot and really, really dry. Many people seem to be taking the BrisVegas label a little too seriously (irony, people, irony!). So many of this town's features - cocktails, glam restaurants, late nights and infinite consumption opportunities - are not relevant to my life. The suburbs in which I once lived are almost unrecognisable, bastions of high density living and and Tuscanana architecture. My old rental houses are either gone or schmicked up. There's a lot of concrete and a lot of dust. As an outsider, I see little love for gardens. The water restrictions are cruel, yes, but in some places, the land is divided and divided so that a backyard is an oddity and a front yard is a bit of paving and a sail for the household cars. The plants are the same in every yard, and the houses themselves fit a template. The ramshackle, the quirky, the odd are being torn down or tarted up. There are a few small pieces of my different life - Nono's kebab shop, Northy Street City Farm, The Gun Shop and Mondo Organics - but the pockets of interesting possibilities are shrinking fast.

Until this trip, I saw myself as exiled from my home, tied to Tasmania due to work commitments and the financial inplications of a mainland move. But the exile is as much temporal as it is physical: the Brisbane of my heart exists five years ago. The exile is emotional: my town exists in my love for people who have long since moved on, from the town and sometimes my life. Indeed, it's not a state of exile. I could go back if I wanted to but really, I don't. Brisbane looms large in my past but it's not where I belong. In my personal dictionary, "home" is a haven, a place of safety, a source of succour, the core of identity and the hearth of my family. And it's not here. I'm a small town girl now.