Thursday, January 31, 2008


The road from the east coast of Tasmania to the central north where I live winds past Piccininny Point, skirts Irishtown and Germantown, goes straight through St Mary's and on past Cornwall. At one point, lying alongside it, is a crooked graveyard attached to a solid Anglican church. Lucy, my parents and I stopped here on our way back from our holiday before Christmas, and spent some family time wandering amongst the dead.

This is perhaps not the most obviously family friendly fun but we love these places. They are quiet and beautiful and each piece of stone holds a story. They never end well but then none of our lives are attached to a happily ever after. Some though, are a little harder to read than others. This one made my heart stop and then start again a little more slowly than it had before.

Lu asked me about it when I was taking photos and I told her what it said, without thinking. I told her the little baby was sleeping under the ground, cosy with his dead friends. Then she asked if he was fixed with bandaids and cream (ointment). I said no, that he would always be under the ground. Then she asked if he was fixed with bandaids and cream (ointment). And I said 'yes' because she wanted it to be true and so did I. I am a mother and I want to think that no-one ever has to face this horror, this one of a thousand worst things, things that cannot be named, things we fear when we think of our children and wonder at our fragile luck in having them still.

It's a month and a half since we walked in the graveyard but I think about that memorial every day. No lily following the curve of the headstone, no 'sadly missed', no 'dearly loved'. But those words don't change what happened or what was felt. Everyday I think about that memorial and I remember that I am blessed.

And I would like to acknowledge those mothers who have faced the worst things.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The human condition

A friend called me yesterday.

"Hi. How are you?" (tone: chipper)
"Oh, good. I'm making chutney." (tone: resigned)
"Zucchinis?" (tone: sympathetic)
"Oh yes." (tone: sad and beaten down)

We're separated by thousands of kilometres, we haven't met up for three years, but when you're friends with a gardener, they always know what you're going through. And like all really good friends, there's no judgment of me letting those zukes grow to horrifying proportions, no "I told you sos" over the number of plants encouraged, and a confession of a basket of zukes sitting balefully in her own kitchen.

For all those who suffer under the yoke of productivity, here's a useful place to go: Jackie French might just re-invigorate your enthusiasm for the marrows. Maybe.

Monday, January 28, 2008


I am lonely. I have friends - people I love passionately - scattered about the place but down here there's no-one I can casually call up to go and see a movie. There's no-one in my life who fully appreciates my particular kind of humour, no-one who is happy to talk about bugs and compost and how best to keep ivy under control. Since we've moved down to Tasmania, almost five years ago now, there have been people we've socialised with but we've found no-one with whom it is easy and funny and no trouble at all.

I am lonely. I don't think that's a sentence uttered aloud very often; there's something shameful about it. As a kid, 'Nigel (no friends)' was one of the really mean names in the arsenal of bullies. As a feminist I'm quite comfortable talking about the ways in which social structures marginalise and alienate mothers but those processes aren't personal, even if they feel that way at times. And the moral indignation at that kind of injustice can carry me through bad days. But there's something pathetic about asking 'Is it me?', thinking that maybe my empty Friday nights (and Saturday nights, and Sunday nights, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights) are not because of our stage in life or because it's always hard to meet people when you move to a small town, but because people just don't like me very much. That stings.

The thing I loved most about Canberra was being with my friends. I hung out with people who I hadn't seen for three or so years but as soon as we saw each other the words spilled over without stopping. I was giddy with the conversation. Are Seville oranges frost hardy?, what various ex-boyfriends are doing now, is X about to have a baby?, how to cook a great risotto, curating exhibitions in the War Memorial, the tensions between the childless and parents in workplaces, career prospects in the public service, birth stories, how to run a vineyard, and a hundred and two other topics boring to almost everyone but me and my friends. I loved it.

I miss the ease and fun of those people, but more, I miss the self I am with my friends. That person is witty and never tongue tied, is happy to confide her life and her plans, she doesn't have to pretend to be interested in order to be interesting. Self-absorbed as I am, I love my friends because of who they are, sure, but also because of who I become when I'm with them. They reflect an image of my self that is far more fabulous than I could ever be on my own.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Centre of power

Until these past few weeks, I have never resiled from my position that Canberra is a hole. It is hot and circular and a nightmare for people who don't drive. It is flat and featureless, I always get lost, and everyone gossips about politics all the time. But now I think it is maybe not so bad; when I was there, I thought maybe this is the kind of place I could live in, maybe this is my kind of place.

Canberra is harsh in its drought but something beautiful has grown out of that: streets with verges and front lawns grown into small meadows as people let the lawn go rather than pour their laundry buckets on it. At every corner galahs nibble at the grass seeds, in backyards cockatoos casually strip fruit trees of their promise, and parrots eat out of the hedges. There's an awful lot of disrespectful medium density development going on - all horrible Moditerranean - but still so many humble houses with crazy veggie gardens out the back and no fences at the front. And the movies! The job prospects! The presence of friends who are easy and fun and generous, who make me smile when I see them. It's a heady thought, that possibility of a different kind of life where the dull bits of this one are coloured that particular shade of green you only ever see in grass on the other side.

Going away has thrown into relief some of the frustrations my town holds for me. It's re-opened that constantly recurring question: do we go or do we stay? Al wants to stay, the girls want to stay, I would go in a heartbeat if I wasn't bound to them. But when I leave the one movie cinema showing nothing I want to see, the lack of deep friendships, the less than promising opportunities my job currently holds, I'm also leaving our ability to live well on one income, to avoid the rush and stress that would come if we needed to put the girls into childcare, to travel without a half hour commute. Single and childless, I could breeze through the disadvantages of city living; as a mother and a partner in this particular family unit the thought of that life is daunting even as many of its opportunities are exhilarating.

I want my cake and I want to eat it too, but I've been well schooled in the knowledge that we don't get to do that. I think we'll stay because I've no wish for a brilliant career at the expense of my family's peace. Sometimes I think my decision to stay is more about my fear of big ponds and big fish, that I use my family as a cover for a failure of nerve...

But then yesterday, up at the area, the blackberries had arrived. And Lu, gobbling them down, said "Mmm, delicious and familiar". She knows what delicious means; familiar, I think, she's just trying on for size, feeling its fit in her mouth. But it reminded me that here is a kid who, for every summer of her little life has walked ten minutes up the road with her family to pluck the fruit from the thorns, who at less than three knows where the best pickings are to be found, and who could say with perfect honesty that those pickings are indeed delicious and familiar. The sharp edges of our big sacrifices are weathered to a softer shape by the daily reminders of what it is Al and I have chosen instead.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Off to our nation's capital to skill up for work. For me, two weeks away from home, with time to stuff my brain full of new things and space to catch up with friends and see a movie or two. For Al, two weeks by himself with the kids and a dog, no family support and limited social networks. That's the thing with parenthood: when one person circles out, the other is forced to fold in. Personal time is a zero-sum game: what I gain, Al loses.

I don't feel guilty - I'm giving up guilt like some people give up cigarettes - but I am enormously grateful that I live with a person who not only says, 'It's fine', he says, 'I want you to go'.

Thanks, babe.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Renovate or detonate

There's a property coming up for auction just down the road from my house. It is beautiful, solid and symmetrical, with a front garden filled with different types of roses, planted in two neat squares. The house is also decrepit: some rooms have no walls; the kitchen is a bench and some ugliness; a person would get lost in the grass in the backyard. It is an elegant dump.

Out the front hangs a sign: Renovate or Detonate. I hate that sign when I walk past in the morning on my way to work and I hate it when I walk past in the afternoon, coming home. In part, I'm worried that the detonate choice will lead to another pastel stuccoed starter mansion with a concreted backyard. But also, it seems so disrespectful and so flip. I wouldn't take on a renovation myself but that word detonate suggests to me a thoughtless blowing up, an enjoyment in destruction, an event that wipes something unwanted from our existence. It's a house, I know, not a senient being but it's also a symbol of a time (unspecified, possibly 'ye olde' or maybe 'the olden days') and a place and presumably many people's lives.

The other evening I chatted to an old gardener who lives just across the road from the house for sale. He was working on his dahlias in his front garden and we got to talking about flowers and then the neighbourhood. When I told him where I lived he said "Up in the money" (well, things have changed in that regard); his street was where the working class families lived. When we wipe away these old buildings for something pseudo-posh, no doubt jerry built and just like every other new house in the suburb, we're wiping away the acknowledgement that difference matters, and we're wiping away the memory that not every suburb and not every family has a history of wealth, of just reward for being a winner.

I think there's been a lot of sadness and fear in that house - a small family once lived there, and when I look at the interiors my heart goes cold knowing a baby was kept there with the curtains always shut. And there's been a lot of disregard - at one time there was a sharehouse of louts who spent every evening on the front verandah, music too loud and drinking huge numbers of UDLs. It's not like a church, a focus of peace or sanctity or devotion. But I believe someone was proud they could afford to offer their family that home, and someone was proud they built it with such skill (80 years on and the lines are still straight).

Even if it can't be kept, I don't want the house to be detonated. I want its history acknowledged, its beautiful bits recycled into new homes and re-woven into the fabric of the town. I want its roses to be loved and restored. I want it to be acknowledged as something valuable, not only because it's on a large block fifteen minutes walk into town, in 'highly sought after ***', but because it's a reminder of a history and a way of life that is fast disappearing.

Dutch, at Sweet Juniper, takes the most incredible photos of urban decay in Detroit. Some are beautiful but mostly they're surreal in their shapes and colours and the depiction of materials and memories left to rot. He mentioned how often people comment on the sadness of the images, and wondered why. I've thought and thought about this question in terms of the huge swathes of abandonment in inner city Detroit and in terms of the isolated examples that dot my own suburb. And I still don't know.

Maybe it just reminds me that one day my family and my life will hold no relevance or interest for anyone at all and the last vestiges of our love will be smacked down by heavy machinery.

Maybe I don't like waste, and a disused house is a wasted resource.

Maybe it's the social forces that lead to a house or an area being left behind: poverty, violence, fear and bigotry; and a lack of support and resources by institutions who fail to deal with people with sympathy and in good faith.

Maybe I'm just foolishly sentimental and weeping for an abandoned house is like cooing over puppies and babies (which I do, all the timee).

Maybe I just don't like change.

But whatever it is, this house gets me. I wish I had the money to save it (I just can't see it being restored by anyone else). The auction is on the 20th of January and I get back from Canberra on the 26th - I know settlement's never so quick but I worry it will half hacked away when I return. When the inevitable happens I think I'm going to have to find a new path to work. I'm also going to ask for those roses.

And in other news ...

Today I saw a doctor riding to work at the hospital on a unicycle, stethoscope around his neck and briefcase in hand. That's not something you see everyday.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Circling out

Once upon a time, when I read things that were neither directly related to work nor an Agatha Christie novel I'd read forty times before, a friend gave me an article on the geographies of pregnancy. It described the ways in which pregnant women's movements are gradually constrained, partly through the physical difficulties of getting around but also through the social expectations attached to being 'careful' while carrying a baby. I never checked out if there was a sequel. There should be, because however small my life's radius when I was pregnant, it was large compared to what it became with two kids.

Looking back this last year has been hard. When I told me friend Anthony I was having another baby, that I would have two under two he laughed (a little grimly) and told me it would be the hardest year I'd ever had. Which is kind of like saying that labour hurts: it's true enough but no one really believes it will happen that way for them. And anyway, hard - like hurt - isn't something you can describe: happens to you and no words can make it real for others. So Anthony, thanks for the head's up but it wasn't much help.

Hard. Tiring. Confusing. Hurtful. Scary. And inward. I had no idea how inward I had become. I'm a homebody at heart, and I travel mainly for work or because it's good for me to broaden my experience, and not so much because I really enjoy trying to read a timetable in Thai or order a beer in German ('Ein Bier, bitte' - it's not actually too hard). But my movements had fallen into ruts, ones that you can see if you look closely in the right streets. Home - bus - work; the same path each day. Veggie store - deli - Coles; the same path each week. Home - the area; home - the op shops. Not much else as happened. It's because we are tired, and our kids aren't keen on car travel, and we've been trying to establish their sleep patterns, and there's not a lot of time to go anyway in between work and garden and keeping the home fires burning.

But mainly my inwardness comes because motherhood has made me raw. It's peeled away my exo-skeleton of distance and cynicism. I've spent the last year dodging bad news and bad scenes. I read two pages of Dave Egger's book on the Sudanese lost boys and had to leave the shop in tears; I don't watch anything that doesn't have Will Ferrell in it because it will be too emotionally draining. I've ducked friends and family; don't want to speak on the phone; never read the paper or watch the news. I've hunkered this last year, just getting through. Having kids has attached me to the world and its big and little events, and it's made me shy away from those things. I understand why animals crawl away to a dark place when they are hurt or sick - that vulnerability can only be countered through a safe quiet place in which to regain some confidence and balance.

But now, it seems we are beginning to emerge. It's a shock to realise and hard to believe. But I am reading books, lots of them, and have even agreed in principle to watch something that's not from the Scrubs box sets that have filled my nights these past twelve months. And I'm beginning to travel, nowhere glamorous or paricularly fun, but going to places by myself, for work, sure, but with time to fill with things I might like to do, and no kids to think of while I do it. I'm beginning to recognise myself again, even if I still can't describe who that self is. It's a cliche but I feel like I'm opening up again. I'm stretching out of the foetal position in which I've been curled all this past year, beginning to walk in wider circles, and sometimes even breaking the circle. My maps are getting a little bigger again.

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. Just to acknowledge to myself, I guess, that things change, and that Tuesday can be very different from the Sunday before, and this January is not the same as the very dark August, September, October I saw last year.

Anthony told me things would change. But that's kind of like telling someone that labour hurts: it's true enough but no one really believes it will happen that way for them. And anyway, change - like hurt - isn't something you can describe: it just happens to you and no words can make it real for others. But it's very real for myself.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Bakers Beach

Another day at the beach, this time in Narawntapu National Park. Hot sun, cold, cold water - but not icy and so I gathered my courage into a ball and dived in, and it was just so wonderful to be bobbing and floating free. The girls loved it too: Lucy is, in her own words, "mad keen on rock climbing" - she's like a beach goat, scrambling about; and Nell spent the time chasing the tiny blue and red and pink crabs in the shallows.

So many parts of the day hit me with memories from my own childhood: the rockpools with their colours and critters; the sand stinging my face and legs when the gusts blew off the ocean; packs of kids ranging about the campsite, brown and ever-so-slightly feral from days outside, up to adventures and filled with plans to be kept from the parents at all costs; red, red bodies, so red I flinch and stare; the flies (the flies, the flies - gah!) everywhere as we barbecued the sausages, cooking and then eating with one hand, the other in constant motion, waving the buggers away; and then that phrase from 80s Australian television, "Remember the Aeroguard and avagoodweekend" (are we still allowed to roll on chemicals or have they been banned?).

On the way home, I experienced what my Mum and Dad must have had so many times: driving and talking quietly while brown kids slept in the back. It was of those moments when I realised, out of the blue, that I am a parent. Sometimes I forget but so many echoes from my own childhood made me stop for a second with the shock of it all: I am a parent and I've just taken the kids to the beach, like thousands of parents before me. It made me feel more Australian, and more pleased to be Australian, than any flag raising or anthem singing ever could.


It wasn't just the flies hanging about the barbecue. When people ask if I will ever move back to the mainland I burble on about swings and roundabouts and pluses and minuses and give and take and work-family balance but really, this is why I will stay:

Down here, I know where to go so that I can show my kid something that makes her heart stop with joy.