Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Babies and rhubarb

I have been feeling odd lately. I think I may be disconcertingly, unexpectedly, happy.

In a different life, when my self was firmly anchored to a PhD, ambition and plenty of booze at the Regatta Hotel (for the locals: pre-bistro - I'm that old), I would turn up Indigo Girls' Closer to Fine* and sing and dance in the candlelight, in a melancholy and joyous release:

And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a b-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

I listen to this still, peeling the potatoes as Al and the kids watch Harry and his bucket of dinosaurs down the hall. It's taken me longer than four years but I think I am learning to acknowledge what makes me happy and to embrace these things without apology or interest in the opinions of others - this is quite an achievement in a world of shoulds.


I started this blog to find some space for myself: some time, a community, and mostly - although I didn't know it at the start - some space in my head to figure out who and what I am. Having babies takes us apart and it's hard to put ourselves back together, especially when there are bits missing and things that no longer fit; the instruction manual is out of date and the tools we have aren't always up to the job. Blogging has helped, immensely, in figuring out who I am and how I want to live my life. Blogging and time: writing out my self has wound through 211 posts, two blackberry seasons, the growth of my kids from babies to girls, and now a second windy spring of pink bluster.

A few months ago an erstwhile friend commented that my blog was all 'babies and rhubarb', and it wasn't really his kind of thing. I shrugged at the time but I keep circling back to that flip and mean definition of my hard won self. It's simplistic, of course - there's some feminism and a few veggies in the mix - but he wasn't far wrong: I've appropriated the phrase as a distillation, not a reduction. I don't have a ten word answer to the question of 'who am I?' but I know my self when I see it, and I quite like that self, too. And babies and rhubarb have a big part in this self in its ebbs and the flows; that's to the good: what's the world without love and dessert?

So blogging has been a process of construction, of making sense, of sorting through. It's been liberating, which is a big claim for a string of short paragraphs and some photos, but a true claim nonetheless. But now, I think, it is time for a break.

There are words in my life, drifting about in conversation, plopping on the page as I write for work, but the words for my blog are coiled inside, somewhere between my heart and my belly; they aren't attaching themselves to ideas and floating up onto the screen. I'm off for a little while to tend the babies and rhubarb until the thoughts and words are once again in sync.

* I was going to be embarrassed by this but hell, my music tastes get far daggier than this. And anyway, wasn't this the soundtrack to the lives of millions of searching women in their twenties, if only they'd admit it now?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Worth the wait

Things that have been a long time coming in my life:

* balance
* looking in the mirror and quite liking what I see
* a possibly perfect pair of checked trousers (not tragically hip, not weirdly golf)
* ranunculas

I planted ranunculas four years ago and they were lost to the dogs' digging. Three year ago they just disappeared on the watch of our very funky house sitter - I planted them but they never emerged (two passionfruit vines also went missing - she has no green thumb at all, it seems - and our dog was killed; but she's a lovely, lovely girl). Two years ago the free ranging chooks scratched the shoots away. Last year, it was a free ranging Lu. But this year, caloo callay, I have ranunculas. And they are lovely, like a stripped down peony.

They are easy to grow (when dogs, house sitters, chooks and kids permit) but just so glamorous and gorgeous I can't help but think that really, I am quite the backyard goddess. I shall have to life my game, sartorially speaking: bum cracks and daggy blue jeans are most inappropriate in this company ...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Yesterday it was raining, and cold. I remember a Sunday like that some years ago, spent sitting in front of the fire and drinking tea; now I have two kids who are mad for splashing in puddles and twirling their umbrellas. We kit up and set off, walking the block in the rain.

Once the thrill of the wet starts to fade, the adventures begin. Yesterday it was Snow White but Cinderella is also in vogue at our house. I once wrote that living with a real princess is as testing as sharing space with the Disney kind. Now I have some experience in both and I'm starting to reconsider. And I wonder, where does this come from, and what to do to chase the wenches away?

We live in a sea of pink but we've never actually invited a pop culture princess into our home. That is, until recently when allowing Lucy to chose her yoghurt for kindergarten lead to a six pack of princess themed Nestle vanilla and strawberry milk-based product. We could have - should have? - said no but like parents everywhere we were keen to avoid a meltdown in the dairy aisle and so we forked out for some indoctrination. But I think it must have started earlier - why did she chose that particular option? - possibly around the communal kinder table, or outside in the playground when the pirate boys said girls can only be mermaids. I always assumed that I could through vigilance and firmness protect my kid from inappropriate gendered messages; turns out - yet again - I can't.

I'm tinkering around the edges of some of those messages. Snow White is a girl who is hated for her kindness, not her attractiveness and blah, blah, blah, she lives with the dwarves and plants a garden and manages their financial interests, acting as an agent and selling on the mined jewels and gold. Her post-poisoning salvation comes in the form of a prince but one who is also a doctor, so that at least some motivation comes from medical expertise rather than general heroic maleness. In the end, the doctor-prince, S.W. and the dwarves all live together, with S.W. continuing her role as financial administrator for the guys.

This is okay as far as it goes but the things about kids is, they act as a mirror to our own cracks and inconsistencies. In my story the guy still saves the girl and the day - why not a witch with traditional knowledge, for example? - the girl is still poisoned by a crone (thereby perpetuating all those nasty constructions of older women; and S.W. doesn't just politely say thanks and walk away at the end - she ends up working as an employee in the men's businesses. I bet she does the housework too. And then there's the whole issue of abusive female family members who are demonised and absent and neglectful fathers who don't get judged for failing their kids.

I am caught up in the structures and practices I critique; they shape my thinking about what's possible even as I so carefully try to create new narratives for my girls, in the stories I tell "in [my] head and [my] hands" (Lucy's words) and in their lives. I can de-construct a fairy tale, but as soon after Al moved down to live with me I stopped remembering to pay bills, lost my pin number on any number of occasions and - shamefully - I can't name our bank or our insurers; nor do I know when the rates are due. I make the money in this house but I focus a lot more on the muffins. I pretend this isn't true but of course I have my own fairy tales, and they have nothing to do with poisoned apples and tiaras.

I don't hate myself for this - I've never met a feminist whose walk always matches her talk; try as we do, our possibilities and improbabilities are shaped - sometimes obviously, sometimes secretly - by our gender. My feminist motherhood, probably like all kinds of motherhood, leads me to think carefully about myself as a person and a role model, and this can be confronting and sometimes liberating. And as part of my motherhood, I try to show my kids some of the many different ways they can be women; perhaps these examples come as much in my own failures and oddities as in my strengths.

In the meantime, I have kids who chase after the evil queen and throw a giant apple at her. They beat at monsters with 'ferocious sticks'; they describe themselves as strong and brave; they can't wait to grow up to go to work, have babies, drink beer and chop firewood with a BIG axe. Lucy told me today, "I protect little kids and herbivores. I am a really good girl." And Nell agreed in her flat Aussie drawl: "Yeah."

I have faith that those bloody Disney princesses will never have much resonance beyond the yoghurt lids. I don't really have a strong view on what women should be but if my kids turn out the way they plan, I'll be a very happy mother and a very happy feminist indeed.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Slide night :: lost treasures

My Grammy and her younger sister Eileen. I only wish I were funky enough to carry off shirts like that. But on my good days, I can rock a headscarf.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Still life with lemons

I have a lemon tree and it is bearing fruit. This is the source of more satisfaction than a bald sentence might suggest. When we moved into our house there was no lemon tree, which seemed a mysterious absence given that the yards around my suburb still bear the traces of more productive times, when a veggie garden and some fruit trees were expected; the old and shapeless trees, dripping fruit and dropping it to the ground, glimpsed through back fences, are the most spectacular, juicy evidence of this past. Tantalising evidence too, with all the lemony deliciousness just out of reach and largely ignored and unloved, or at the very least unused by those who don't seem to know their luck.

I'm not sure why our own yard was missing this mainstay of suburban productivity. We live on what was the rich side of the street; maybe those posh folks didn't want to suggest they were peasants in their planting. It might be it was sacrificed to one previous owner's preference for straggling and inappropriately large natives. Possibly the people before us, whom we suspect have family ties to the big names in the state's forestry industry, chopped it down and pulped it. Whatever the reason, we had none of the easy abundance that a lemon tree offers a home.

I planted a tree - a Meyer - in the courtyard at the beginning of last year and have plucked off the blossoms with great self-discipline, in the knowledge that this leads to more impressive yields later on. Further, I manured, watered and trained Lucy to wee on the tree whenever she felt the need for some alfresco relief. And now that she'll only pee on flowers I've been known to stroll out after dark, perch precariously on the raised bed and offer up a little goodness. It's a very peaceful thing, squatting there and staring out over the lights of the suburb, and not without a charge of danger now that we have cut down the trees that once shielded us from the very tidy neighbours' view. All this care is working well: the tree is still small but it's hung with fruit that is bright and gold.

I need a lot of lemons in my life. Not so much for lemonade, which has never really thrilled me. When life sends me lemons I'm more likely to make lemon butter, to eat neat at the open fridge door so as not to dilute the sharp-sweetness (and so as not to share). But I'm more of a person who demands lemons; I don't wait for life to send them to me. I need them to eat with avocado and salt and pepper on toast, with steak, over salads, stirred into spinach with butter and salt, on chips, in icing for biscuits and no nonsense cakes. In my cooking, lemons are as much a seasoning as salt and pepper; anything that tastes really, really good is almost always finished with a lemon.

There are two iconic lemon moments in my cooking, repeated over and over again. The first: making wholewheat pancakes by myself on days of mizzle and drizzle, standing at the stove and looking out at the grey and the wind, eating each one with sugar and lemon as the next one cooks. The second is as yet repeated only in my head and draws from some grim New Zealand family drama, all marital dissolution and pedophilia on a bay in a small beach house a little like this. Before each evening's debauchery, the parents sit in deck chairs on the lawn, next to an enormous lemon tree, reaching out for fruit to squeeze into their gin. Seasonal eating at it's very best, I think, and the driving force behind my own small tree out the back. It's winter now, but the deck chairs are ready.