Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Broadening my horizons

On a happier note …

Since I conceived Lulu three years ago, our lives have circled inward. For me, this has been a choice, informed by the emotional vulnerability of pregnancy and parenthood, and a state enforced through physical problems carrying Nell in particular, finances, time, feeding and sleep routines. We’ve been happy, on the whole, with our micro-focus. But lately, we’ve begun to look beyond our backyard.

This past weekend we took our first holiday unconnected to family obligations and support. We went here, Cradle Mountain, and it was glorious.

Lucy chugged about, being a train along the track, charming trail mix off other walkers (“Mmm, apricots. So delicious”), and making an argument for an attempt on the summit (“I can climb it, I will fly to the top like a fairy and play in the snow. I will do it by myself”). Nell bobbed along behind me, pulling my hair and spitting up her milk with abandon.

Things have changed in the past three years. Al and I are not outdoorsy but we have on occasion ventured into the wilderness. Back in the day, anything less than a five hour walk was a bit soft really, we spurned boardwalks and touristy circuits, and we always returned well under the estimated times. Hell, we’ve even camped in a tent and peed in the grass. But now, a Parks-designated one to two hour walk at a ‘relaxed pace’ takes us two and a half hours, most of which is heavy slog; anything uphill makes us grit our teeth and look for a rescue helicopter; and a gravel path can feel like rough terrain.

And camping? Well, that’s also in the past. We stayed in a cabin with a spa and easy access to cold beer (project eat clean was suspended for civilised post-prandial drinks) – the Tasmanian wilderness experience at its most inspiring.

As we walked along, I kept lifting my eyes to the mountain, which is a remarkable presence, towering over the track. But more often, my eyes would drift downward to the child in front of me, gambolling and bossing and make believing, and the one on my back, cooing and bouncing; even under the broadest of horizons, my focus is pulled to the tiny things at the centre.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's not academic

Today my friend Sue caught me up on the lives of a group of women with who I shared my uni years. That email made me sad and angry. We are all in the crunch years: early thirties (okay, early-mid), early career, early parenthood. Our lives can be summed up by a list of struggles: debt, housing stress, alcohol abuse, social isolation, marginalisation and small cruelties at work, unsympathetic parents, relationship breakdowns, depression, illness, anxiety, sleeplessness and a general desperation, experienced in varying degrees on different days.

We are women who have benefited from the social structures within which we were born and within which we have worked. We're tertiary educated to the nth degree, we've got well paying jobs and go-ahead careers (albeit some temporarily suspended). Most of us met in law school and through a misogynist debating society - we know how to argue. We're trained up in the theoretical bases and practical applications of feminism. We've subverted, deconstructed and stormed the barricades. In short, if you wanted a group of women to embody structural privilege, you could take our photo: Structural privilege, Class of 2007. Also, we are tough, we work really hard, and we take limited amounts of sh*t. Plus, we all have really great hair. And we're funny.

So, I don't really want to hear another person tell me that women bring career stagnation/ anxiety/ illness/ financial difficulties/ loneliness upon themselves because we don't work hard enough/ work too hard/ put our children in childcare or alternatively, don't look after ourselves/ aren't careful with money or alternatively, spend it all on childcare when it would make more financial sense to stay at home or alternatively, choose to stay home and thus need to suck up the financial implications of that choice/ don't make an effort to keep up with friends or alternatively, bore our friend because all we do is talk about our kids and would it kill us to see a movie with subtitles once in a while because it sure would make us more interesting. Because between us we have tried every variation of the options available and motherhood is still damn hard. Women do not bring 'it' - whatever 'it' might be - upon themselves. And given how hard it is for women who have vast personal, social and financial resources available to them, I can't comprehend what it must be like for those who have so much less.

Now I could provide a very elegant and theoretically informed discourse on why this is the case. But I don't really want to do that today. I just want to say, it makes me sad to know the sparkling and brilliant girls of my youth are being squeezed on all sides, and I feel so powerless, finally knowing for sure we can't change the system from without or within. And I'm also really proud that we are all really, really good mums and good people despite and because of the ways we deal with the love and sadness of being a mother. I would also like to say to any teenage girl who tells me feminism has gone to far, "Sweetheart, just you wait".

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


We live on the edge of a landslip zone. This is not nearly as dreadful as it sounds, it's really rather nice. Two minutes walk up the road (ten minutes if kids are in tow) lies 'the area', a space at the top of a hill with trees and birds, a view of the valley and many intriguing possibilites for kids and their parents. This is my escape, a place of quiet in which I stroll or stomp, depending on mood(iness). This is Lucy's playground, where she runs with her imagination alight, seeing koalas, staying in motels, being a monkey, getting shot by spiders - a lot of adventures are had in this small piece of suburban wilderness.

I had always assumed no houses had ever been built here, that engineering knowhow had predicted troubled and council planning had marked the area off as unsafe. But chatting to a neighbour, I heard that there were in fact once houses. The details are sketchy, something about a resovoir, a landslip and the ruination of plumbing. The plumbing - what a mundane source of disaster. I think about those people and wonder if the event was sudden, an explosion up through the sinks and toilets, a sudden rush out onto the street. Or perhaps they faced a slow realisation as the pipes blocked and blocked again, until finally it just wasn't worthwhile fixing the systems. Was the neighbourhood evacuated all at once? Did they cry or joke as they packed up their cars? Was there a small, still space inside, growing cold as they walked away from a home they had loved and a garden they had tended? Lives and landscape have changed dramatically up the road, and I only found out through a chance meeting with a chatty home owner who lives nearby.

When we collect kindling or pick flowers, when we throw sticks to the dog, we're standing in someone's old front yard. There's not a hint of the houses - no foundations, no stubbornly standing chimney stack - but gardens have left faint traces: the blackberries we pick in the summer, the pears and peaches and plums, this flowering quince,

these jonquils,

the yellow red hot pokers just up the way,

the old and remarkable oak.

It's the plants, not the structures, that remain to bear quiet witness to the joys and hurts, the plans and disappointments, that were part of this space not so very long ago. I would very much like the people who lived here to know that I love it very much, and am mindful that my peace of mind and my calm arises out of their loss. Thank you.

Of course, I also hear the council keeps testing in the hope the land stabilises so they can sell it off to be developed. I grit my teeth and roll my eyes at this news. What's so very wrong with space that is shambolic and green? The value of this hectare or so lies not in its potential for sub-division but in its offer of slowness and stillness and memory.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A no-nonsense account of some recent gardening practices.

Yesterday, in between looking at flowers, walking the dog and the kids, spending time with my visiting mother and doing yoga, I gardened, as I do every weekend. I spent the glorious afternoon spreading manure and spraying the peaches and apricots with bordeaux mixture, hoping to stave off the leaf curl this year. I also pulled out the lupins which were in a few beds as green manure, and had another go at turning in the oats. Pulling out and then mixing in seems to be a better option for me; when I shovel and turn over, the green manure is left with such lumps of soil on the roots, it just keeps growing. In keeping with my pseudo-permaculture approach, and once again avoiding the bad bug-supportive hay/lucerne mulch, I used big stacks of weeds as cover over the rings of manure. There's something very satisfying about using what I have to do what I need. There was nothing inspiring about my time in the garden but it was so very satisfying all the same.

Excitingly, the broad beans - the fall where they will set - are starting to flower. After a childhood of hating the things (and in my defence, my tragically slack and slatternly mother didn't double peel them - just one more instance of childhood cruelty to which I was subjected. Hi Mum) I now look forward to these nubbly lengths of deliciousness. I say it every time I go into the garden, but it bears repeating: this summer's going to be very good indeed.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

As I walked out one morning ...

I saw this, and it made me smile.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Having my cake and eating it too

We're still off the junk food. This is good for us in so many ways but I must now work harder to sate my sweet tooth. I was always more of a savoury lover, choosing cheese over chocolate for example, but pregnancy changed that. With both Lu and Nell I had an overwhelming craving for bleach, rubber boots and cuttlefish; only XXX peppermint lollies could temporarily assuage the need. All that sugar permanently re-built my tastebuds and I look for sweet things daily. In the absence of lollies and ice cream I've returned to baking cakes.

I've got a few posh, glossy cookbooks but I'm most often guided by the Kenmore State School Cookbook. I'm not sure when exactly it was published but the Brisbane phone numbers are only six digits so it's getting old now. Other telling signs: the recipe titles are capitalised and maraschino cherries make regular appearances. A far better indicator of its age, this is the book I used as a child - turning the pages pulls me back to Saturday afternoons in rural Victoria: Bran Loaf, Chocolate Sponge Cake (always served with whipped cream) and Simplicity Chocolate Cake, made up by my mother in double quantities, baked in a large rectangular tin and served with chocolate icing on very special occasions.

It's the relative frugality of these cakes that strikes me most. Contemporary treats suggest chocolate with 70% cocoa solids, lots of nuts and lashings of cream. Those cooking in Kenmore circa 1970 worked variations of the basic theme of eggs, S.R. flour, sugar and butter. Many recipes don't even require creaming the butter and the sugar, my great failing as a cook. Using this book is a return to those times when cakes were a no nonsense way of filling bellies, when they were not 'sinful', 'indulgent', 'decadent', and made no obvious moral judgements. Standing at the bench, I feel I should be wearing a pinny and sensible shoes, and that's a feeling I'm quite comfortable with.

In this book, between Energy Cake and Pudding Cake lies Peach Blossom Cake, one of the minor disappointment of my childhood. When I baked this for the first and only time, I expected magic, wonder and beauty but it's just a tea cake with some pink colouring mixed in. The bubble of excitement deflated on the very first nibble. I couldn't have been more than nine, and I've never eaten it again. To this day I remember its stale, dull taste.

I'm not sure how a peach blossom cake should taste, but I know it should smell of daphne. Each day as I walk to the bus I pass a bush with its modest flowers and remarkable scent, almost overly sweet but with a tang that shifts it back from cloying. Daphne has been one of the surprises of my life down south. I had been excited about raspberries, daffodils and roses but had never really thought much about this plant. Now everyday it pushes itself into my senses. In one of those odd associations, my first sniff, the day after I had dragged out the Kenmore book, pulled the peach blossom cake into my head and I thought, 'This is what it should have been'. I am so very pleased that a little of that childhood expectation is restored to my life each morning. To keep me happy, I clipped a little bit of the daphne (really, there's plenty on the bush) and popped it into a jar to sit on my desk and sniff when the anxiety started to gather in my chest.

Yesterday was blustery, cold, sometimes sleeting and never welcoming; a very good day to sit inside and eat cake. Which is what I did, in my office, with a cup of green tea. I had packed the All in Together Cake in my lunchbox, the same cake Lu spat in (but surely 40 minutes in a moderate oven solves those sort of issues?); the crumbly slices, together with the flowers, made a little bubble of calm in an otherwise overwhelming day.

So here I'd like to record my thanks to the person who placed the daphne so close to the path, so that we can all share in that remarkable scent: Madam/sir, you made my day.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Things I never thought I'd say

Well, there's hundreds but here's three in the last day or so:

There're children in the Sudan who'd be very grateful for that baby latte [in response to complaints that 'my latte isn't frothy enough'.]

Don't spit in the cake mix.

Please stop licking batter off your father's leg.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Chicken and chips

By golly I worked hard in the garden yesterday, and was so proud to get all listed tasks completed. There's something both empowering and kind of depressing in spending three hours ankle deep in chicken sh*t. I dragged the bedding out of the coop, swept out the run, washed down the walls (!) and laying boxes and spread new straw. Then, because I'm the kind of chook owner who cares, I caught the chooks and rubbed vegetable oil on their legs to get rid of what Organic Gardener magazine tells me are mites. Rubbing oil on chicken legs is just a little too intimate for me - I got a heapin' helpin' of the heebie jeebies and wonder how people can eat those scaly pins. Uggh. Yuk.

(On a related matter: the student has become the master. I couldn't actually catch the chooks - they're too quick and I flinch when beaks and talons come flying into my face. Al sent out Lu, who caught each one of them without fuss. I asked how she does it and she replied 'Just like that, Mum'; patronised by my two year old!)

(Also - can I have two sets of parentheses like this? - I think we're getting a little too lax with hygiene. My daughter stood beside me, kissing the chooks' combs and murmuring 'I love you sweetie'as I rubbed oil into their mite infested legs; even with the five second rule, I wonder if this is a biohazard too far.)

I felt really pleased with myself until I realised that now the chooks have a cleaner house and nicer legs than I do. And they're still being stingy with the eggs.


Al and I are so careful with the girls' food. It's not sophisticated fare but we eat organic, eat fresh, eat local, cook from first princples - we live all of those feel good phrases. Why is it then that at least twice a week we end up sitting on the couch, watching really bad telly and eating junk food? We'd never feed it to the kids, why do we feed it to ourselves? Al gets into his coat, searched for the keys, drives down to Coles in the very cold winter night, buys the chips and lollies,the ice cream and chocolate, and then comes home again. He does this, and I want him to so this, when we know what we eat is, in my father's useful phrase, 'gutrot'. We live a double life: right on pseudo-hippy homesteaders by day; toxic, couch dwelling potatoes by night.

On Saturday we woke up hung over from the junk food. We felt ill. We have shaken hands on a new approach: we won't eat anything we wouldn't feed the girls. Two days clean so far.

But again I ask: why is it we are so careful with our children's emotional, physical, spiritual health and so careless - more than careless, knowingly destructive - of our own?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Forces of nature

When people ask, I tell them I have two girls. This is a partial truth, it oils the wheels of social interaction. I've given birth to females with all the relevant physical bits and pieces but to claim they are girls - a social category, a shaky edifice built on their biology - glosses over their distinct and idiosyncratic selves.

Heaven knows there are days we seem to live in a girl world. We separate the washing into three piles: darks, lights and pinks. The girls' room is a rosy symphony and at the end of each day we trudge around collecting dolls, babies, kittens and other soft toys. (How did this happen? We were committed to providing gender neutral colours; life was was going to be yellow and green and white. Instead, la vie en rose.) Nell, a baby herself, is happiest with her own baby Amalie, and Lu's conversation is peppered with 'so cute', 'sweet' and demands for jewellery, creams and ungents, perfumes and fairy wings. Some times, on some days, we have girls of the most girly kind.

But each of those times on each of those days is countered with not-so-girly things. Lucy claims to be a cow with chocolate milk in her udders and a koala in her belly. (Appropriate response: "That's handy".) She is aggressive and as rough as guts. She is confident in her body. She yells a lot. She cannot sit still. She loves trains and heavy machinery. These are stereotypically 'boy' characteristics. Lu's stated career aim is to grow up to be a 'lady digger [earth mover] driver' so that she can dig big holes, scoop up lambies and send up blankets to the rock a bye baby on the tree top (a nicely gender-bending aim). She's dressing the part already.

Nell's own self is just emerging as she learns to negotiate and control her body and her world. But all signs point to the same movement and noise that Lucy uses so effectively in our lives.

I think about my uncategorisable kids as I hear another mother say 'I always wanted a daughter, someone to go shopping with', and remember an article on determining the sex of babies, where parents talked about balancing out the family or wanting a daughter to go horse riding with while the five boys rode their BMX bikes. I'm not saying anyone is a bad person for wanting these things but it strikes me, looking at my Lulu and Nell, that it's a set up for disappointment. In the end we get kids, individuals who are both familiar and strange to us, who choose their paths in response to and in spite of our own preferences and expectations.

All of those 'traditionally feminine' pursuits and atittudes are productive and skilled and create beauty and joy; I'd not be disappointed if Lucy chose to sew and spin. But my kids have reminded me we're each of us made up of snips and snails and puppy dog tails and sugar and spice and all things nice (which for me would include Stone's green ginger wine, duck and greens from The Vietnamese in Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, bush walking in snake free terrain, and chocolate meringues). I know this anyway - I spent years reading sociology and gender studies - but now we're living it, seeing the ways in which Nell and Lu come into the world hard-wired, and our social practices and expectations let us tinker around the edges a bit - and maybe make people feel bad for not doing and being the 'right' things - but aren't the overwhelming force I used to argue they were. On good days, child raising seems to be more about offering suggestions than forging a being in the fires of 'No'.

Seeing my girls reminds me that while we designate behaviours 'masculine' and feminine' for ease of categorisation and argument, it's hard to argue they exist in meaningful ways in young children's lives. As Lu and Nell grow older cultural expectations will become more pressing, throwing acceptable differences between boys and girls into sharp and disappointing relief, but I love that at the moment they are simply themselves with no thought of what they 'should' be. It's only in my thirties I'm able to even recognise this as a possible way of being, let alone live in that freedom; my heart hopes my two forces of nature carry that knowledge with them right through their lives.