Wednesday, June 29, 2011


A few weeks ago Fred and Una and I got separated on the way to school. At the corner of our street and the street that takes us down to the main road Fred ran ahead. It is not uncommon for Fred to run ahead and walk by herself and in fact last year she chose to walk to school alone a few times a week rather than drive Una to kinder, with never an incident. So at the corner I called out "We're going to go the back way" and Una and I set off on the hilly scenic walk, down the dirt road, under gum trees where parrots flit from tree to tree and occasionally you come across a quietly grazing kangaroo. It doesn't take much longer than the main road walk but for some reason Fred doesn't like to do it. Fred wasn't *that* far ahead and I assumed she had heard me, but I also assumed even if she hadn't she would keep running all the way to school and beat us there, as she often does.
Anyway, Una and I wended our way to the crossing.
"No Freddy today?" the guard asked us.
"But she's already crossed hasn't she?"
The crossing guard frowned, trying to remember. "I don't think so." But she wasn't sure, though there's probably only half a dozen or so families who regularly walk to school (there's only about 30 familes at the school, and many of them are too far away from 'town' to walk). Anyway, Una and I crossed over and looked around the playground. No sign of Fred. I wanted to leave Una with the pram so I could run back and look for her, but Una, also worried, wanted to come too. I was making a plan (leaving Avery and Una with Jools in the office) when Fred came hurtling into the school yard, tears streaming down her face, followed by one of the other Grade Two mums.
She was crying and shaking, still frightened, in shock I think. Seeing me safe and well, with Una and Avery, also made her a little angry I think. I took them into the classroom and then Fred and I went to the staffroom where I held her while she calmed down. It took her a long time to stop shaking.
"I called out," I told her. "Didn't you hear me?"
It turns out Fred hadn't heard me. She had run ahead to talk to Jake the dog. When I didn't follow she got increasingly worried. She walked back up the road, realised I'd "disappeared" and began howling.
"What did you think had happened to me?" I asked later, guilty, exasperated.
She couldn't tell me.
Anyway until Saturday I thought that the next thing that had happened was the other mum had picked her up, driven back to our place to see if we'd gone home for something and then taken Fred to school. But on Saturday night we had a progressive dinner in the area, moving from house to house to eat the various courses. It's not something I've ever done before, but Martin used to do it as a kid. It was a great night, a fundraiser for the school, and the cooking was exceptional - a few foodies among us I think (highlight was the slow roasted tomato tart with pistachio crust). It was an utterly charming occasion, like everything out this way, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. Anyway, during the soup course (one long table in the big kids wing at the school) I was sitting opposite Jake's owner and she told me of her encounter with Fred.
"Jake was barking this really weird bark," she said. "I knew something was wrong. It was very strange."

She came outside and found poor howling Fred.
"My mum's disappeared," Fred told her. Fred has dramatic tendencies and has a flair for following things beyond their logical conclusion. "She was right behind me and now she's gone."
This was when the grade two mum saw them talking and stopped to pick Fred up.
I apologised to Fred a few times that morning before I left her (I stayed in class for an hour to do some reading activities with the prep/one/twos) and again when I picked her up.
"Don't worry about it Mum," Fred said, but she looked hollow and haunted every time I brought it up.
We've been playing scrabble together on the iPhone and her iPod Touch.Okay, so it's not like in my childhood where a game of scrabble was a companionable hour or so with my Nanna, but I really enjoy playing with her. One of the best aspects is the chat feature. It's like a meta-narrative:

"Mum, I don't want to talk about it." That took the wind out of me. I wanted to talk to her. I like to think I am a persuasive talker, and I wanted to convince her of my version: she was never really in danger for a start. It was a misunderstanding.
"Are you angry with me?" I asked her that evening.
"A little bit," she admitted. Then, not looking at me. "I don't want to talk about it."
We've mentioned it since then, in passing mostly. This morning I told her what Jake's owner said about his unusual bark, she liked the idea that Jake had helped her.
You know it's not a big drama. If it's the worst thing that happens to Fred this year then she's a pretty lucky girl. And look at what a great community we have, how quickly she was cared for by other mums, and by the neighbour's dog.
It's funny these hairline cracks. So faint they hardly show. But it's a faultline (a fault line) between mother and daughter. It's part of the continental shift, the stretch and pull and collision and rupturing of our two selves. How can such a thing like maternal separation not leave scars? It's almost like this had to happen. Oh not exactly this, not necessarily this sequence of events. But somehow: the acting out of the conflict within, the dramatisation of the internal drama of the self in which the archetypes, mother and child, each play out their role, like puppets on a string. She had to know that one day she could turn around and I will be gone.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Little Mouse

"Don't look in my school bag," Una told me as we left Guides on a cold dark Wednesday evening. "I have a surprise for you."

I did not look in her bag.

When we got home I took Avery (who had fallen asleep in the car) to the bedroom and tried to resettle him. Una went straight to her bag. But it was Martin, not forewarned in the least, who intercepted "the surprise". I entered the lounge to find Una howling and Martin interrogating her. In his hand: a dead mouse, wrapped in a tissue.


Una and her partner in crime, the grade one girl (singular, Una is the prep girl singular so they were destined to be friends) found a dead mouse at school. It was under the water fountain on the concrete. So cold. Poor little mouse.

We have had something of a mouse plague this year, all the rain I suppose. Our own house has been Visited by them - squeak squeak scratch scratch - and one was kind enough to die in my ugg boot, which puts the ugh in ugg boot I can tell you. I will not tell you the story of how I discovered this mouse because I haven't recovered from the trauma yet. I will say there was a pop, a smell and a strange sensation between my toes, but, unfortunately, not all at once. There now. My trauma is your trauma.

Anyway, Una's mouse was at school, and Una and Isabel wanted to have a little funeral for it. Erica, their teacher, put the kibosh on this plan for all the usual reasons adults think children shouldn't play with dead mice. Unbeknownst to Erica a tissue was procured, the mouse was stealthily wrapped and hidden away in Una's bag. This much we determined, because as soon as Una realised she was in trouble, she began to fabricate - insisting, for example, that her teacher had suggested she bring it home. (She rapidly reversed this story when Martin bluffed that he was going to call Erica.)

Oh, I understand the fascination and in writing this down we seem to me to be cruel parents. In early autumn that other star of children's stories the butterfly proliferated in our area (funny how one doesn't say "a plague of butterflies"). Una found a dead one at school, a perfect specimen, and brought it home to show me. We put it in the magnified bug catcher and studied it closely, marvelling at the scales on its wings, the hairs of its body, the inquisitive proboscis. This mouse was as perfectly interesting to Una as the butterfly had been, and perhaps if it hadn't been a Guide night, if we'd had a bit more patience or energy, if it hadn't been dinner time and we hadn't all been hungry and cold we might have slowed this down a little, taken the time to talk through it, paid the mouse some respects. As it was Una clung howling onto Martin as he gave the mouse a quick burial without ceremony. It was, after all, almost seven o'clock and we hadn't yet eaten dinner.

"Everyone says you get sick from touching mice," Una wailed at me as I took her on my knee and tried to comfort her, attempting to explain the difference between mice and butterflies. "But I'm not sick and it isn't true." Una, a gifted and easy liar herself, is terribly self-righteous in the face of other lies - whether they are her friend's whoppers (Miss Grade One Singular is adorably prolific in the tall tales department herself), a grown up's kindly intended white lies or even generalisations or exaggerations, though Una is fond of a little hyperbole herself.

It was a moment where adult and child's worlds were impossibly divergent. We simply could not capture the child like wonder at the intimate smallness of the mouse corpse, its static dollhouse perfection in death. She could not comprehend our disgust, our loathing.

Still I am touched by their collusion. There was something so tender about that white tissue. Lies are revealing, sometimes they are truer than bare facts. Behind every one is the truth of Una's self, the clarity of her spirit, revealed in her wide blue eyes. And I am touched by her guileless act, the gift of the mouse (like a cat), and by her utter disbelieving dismay when this gift was so rudely rejected. I am reminded at how when you are a child you live in a parallel world and it can be hard to slip between real and imaginary, it is so utterly painful to have this space intruded upon by the giants of this world: us. No wonder her heart went out to a mouse, so small in the face of death.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Choices we choose that choose us

It can hard not to feel faintly (or overtly) accused when people you respect and admire make different choices from the choices you've made. Or the choices that made you: the choices that erupted from nowhere - the volcanic variety - and shaped you.

I feel there was never a time I chose to have children, for there was never a time I seriously considered not having children. I felt the flow of my life as inevitable as a tide, towards the period in my life where babies would come. Lucky me that these babies did come one, two and three, with no real problems along the way. We tried for number three for a while between Una and Avery and I began to think there might be something wrong. Certainly it would appear as I neared 35 my fertility was not quite so whack as it had been the month we conceived Una practically by sharing the same apple. In fact the month we did finally conceive Avery we had just about given up on the idea. Still, when it did happen the months of it not happening were instantly forgotten really, because - fatalistic as I am - when we had a third baby, we were always going to have a third baby.

Yesterday I read two things about babies and choices. One was this article by Clem Bastow. She writes about her own lack of maternal desire and her perceptions of what society expects of her. At 29 she is feeling societal pressure from various quarters (family, friends, media) to reproduce. Some of this pressure, it seems to me, is also coming from within as her close friends start having babies she is obviously feeling a need to qualify and articulate her own position.

The other thing I read was this post by my sister. She had a baby very prematurely two years ago due to pre-eclampsia, a condition that threatens the life of both mother and child. Kylie had had a long journey towards motherhood. She collected baby clothes as a young woman, but by the time she was thirty was quite convinced children weren't for her. She met and married Corey and still believed that she would have trouble conceiving. This was not the case and Joseph was conceived easily enough, though clearly the pregnancy was fraught. Kylie has been advised by doctors that any subsequent pregnancies would be considered high risk for both her and the baby. In the post I've linked to Kylie has made a list of reasons not to have another child. These include the health factors that are the biggest consideration, but also other more general concerns. There would be many people who have had fairly straightforward first children who would relate to at least two or three points on Kylie's list, and lots of people consciously choose to stop at one. Kylie told me all the time we were growing up she wished she were an only child, now her son will probably be one. I think the saddest thing for Kylie is that, because of her health complications, she will never know what she would have really chosen. Maybe if her first pregnancy had been a dream she might have stopped there anyway, for the other reasons on her list.

The choice not to have children is not actually an event but a continuum, a decision that for various reasons Clem Bastow will revisit many times over the next ten to fifteen years, something Clem acknowledges. Kylie will revisit it too, grimly, because some choices we don't get to make.

I wanted to say something here, about choices. About the many women I know who have chosen not to have children, and those of us who have chosen it. I wanted to say that choices pretend to be bipolar, especially in mainstream media, but they are actually nuanced, complex and as individualistic as the individuals who struggle with them. Clem snarks that motherhood is not "the pinnacle of existence" that *insert they here* make it out to be. I quite agree and I am not sure who, apart from lady's magazines and nappy ads, is peddling this crap. Motherhood is nuanced too. My children are people that I share my life and my home and my stories with. I have shaped my life around them for now, because they are vulnerable to the weather and hunger and bodies of water and wild animals and need a place where they are protected and can grow and be provided for. My body and my lover's body made them and they brought enough love with them to keep them alive (through our parental fascination), and then more love grew. We have made a life for ourselves, hewn it out of raw materias, carved it from the landscape. There are rich rewards for this kind of life, and there are penalties too, and you show me the kind of life where that isn't true.

There's a quote about parenthood that I often think of. It's from the movie Lost in Translation. This is a movie about self and identity, a movie about personal journeys. And amidst it all springs this moment, spoken by Bill Murray's character about his kids: "The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born. Your life, as you know it, is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk... and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life."

Parenthood is something other than the pinnacle of existence. But this is because existence is a continuum too. There's no pointy end. Motherhood doesn't have to negate ambition, creativity, professional success, sexual desire or individualism(as Clem Bastow comes dangerously close to implying). But neither does the desire to be childless negate a sense of family, community, love or selflessness and I support both Clem Bastow's choice and her need to write about it.

Anyway, I wanted to say something about choices. Something sad, because Clem Bastow still feels this needs saying in 2011 when we have a childless female Prime Minister. Something terribly sad because my sister doesn't get to make the choice she wanted to make. Something slightly guilty because I could make that choice. And something defensive and apologetic because I have children and I openly love my kids and celebrate that love and that's one of those social pressures right there that people like Clem Bastow feel they have to kick against - and probably kick harder than they really mean. And I wanted to say something happy because my babies came to me, and though I couldn't have made an informed choice about motherhood before I had babies (how could I have known what it would be like?), I choose this life. I choose these kids. I choose this me – because of and despite everything.

As I finished writing this Una said, engrossed in a game on my iphone, "Mum? Do you like kids or smelly animals better?"
I said, "Kids."
Una didn't look up. "I would have said smelly animals."

Sunday, June 19, 2011


My mother who recently finished her treatment for breast cancer slipped on a rock at a beach while bushwalking and broke her ankle. She was in hospital for a month and during that time I flew home to Tasmania twice with Avery. While I was in Tasmania an ash cloud breathed from the depths of a Chilean mountain drifted into the atmosphere and Qantas and Jetstar stopped running flights to the mainland. For a day or so I was stranded (not sure how long my exile would last), and I was reminded of how islanded Tasmania is. When the apocalypse comes I suspect Tasmanians will be safe from everything but their own isolation, and perhaps each other...

It is a strange sensation, like time has slowed down and I am adrift from my normal life. It is not unpleasant, a little like being haunted by the landscape of my past, by my own past self - though Avery, a constant companion, is a talisman of my adult life. Looking down on me the whole time is the mountain of my childhood and adolescence, a thing of sun and shadow, of cloud and stone, a creature of contrasts. That mountain, there in the sky, all the time...benevolent? Distant? Yes always distant, though close too, intimately so. A living landscape, once a shallow sea, but then rock piled on rock, rock surged up and made something solid. Though, from the distance, blue and hazy, its solidness is disputable. It could be an apparition. Indeed some days it is not there at all, entirely wrapped in clouds, a ghost mountain, a palpable absence. It is as if one day the clouds might lift and reveal...nothing.

While I am in Tasmania, Una drops my favourite bowl, one my aunt bought me for my twenty-first, in the last days that I lived in Tasmania. ( It was a deep purple, one of the mountain's many colours.) It shatters in a million pieces. Una is bereft, she cries so much, Martin says, that she is white and shaking, he thinks she might be afraid of my reaction so he forewarns me. When I talk to her the next day I console her. She admonishes me for not being more upset, she wants me to be angry, to rail, to grieve. I do grieve. But the bowl is far away in a life I am temporarily severed from and I can hardly believe in its existence or the loss of it.

I spend the days with my ageing father, running back and forth from the hospital, or driving their car to Medicare and the supermarket running errands. A woman from the low vision unit come to see Dad who is slowly going blind. She shows him various magnifying glasses, looks at the light he uses. She talks about bringing him a bookrest, like a music stand. It sounds awkward. Dad has read three books a week for years. I say "isn't there any way he can sit on the couch and read?" She gives him a lecture. She implies he can no longer read like that not just because he is losing his sight but because he is old and lacks the capacity for concentration. I am more offended than he is. Watching him hunched over his newspaper in the mornings with his giant magnifying glass fills me with a bitter blend of emotion, I grieve for him and what he has lost, but I am proud of him too, for persevering. Not once does he say "why me?"

For that matter neither does my mother, who is impatient with hospital life but nervous too of what it will mean to come home. She has a trial visit and it doesn't go as well as she hopes. She can't hop over the awkward front steps, which are at a right angle from each other, and has to enter on her bottom, then get herself up from the floor. The occupational therapist, not Mum's usual one, is doubtful about mum coming home on schedule. The shower is a problem. As there is a question mark over me going home due to the ash cloud, there is a question mark over mum going home. In the end she too is delayed only by a couple of days but they are long days. She is moved from her room with a sensational view of the mountain's changing dayscape to a room that overlooks drab hospital buildings. She is upstairs from the Gibson ward, where she received her chemotherapy, and treatment for the early dangerous complication. Now we all know the hospital's switchboard number by heart.

I pop in on Zoe, my oldest BFF. We eat lunch together, and then sit on the couches to breastfeed our babies, which is a long way from pounding through a chemical night at Earthcore, or playing that we are wild creatures who feed on school children in her domed house on Mt Nelson when we were nine years old. I remember how, a year or two after we moved to Melbourne Zoe took the white pages and drew a line around the cover image of the Melbourne city skyline - it was the same shape as our mountain.

At the airport I am interviewed about the ashcloud, asked my story, with Avery peering out from the sling and that night my dad rings me to tell me I made the six o'clock news. I don't have the presence of mind, as the camera records, to say the ash cloud is the manifestation of my own ambivalence about arriving, departing, about living far from what will always be, in some primal sense, home (I wonder if they would have aired this).

As I fly into Melbourne just after midday from over Port Phillip Bay, looking down on the city from an angle I haven't seen before, the northern sky is eerily orange on the horizon, like a premature sunset, like a bushfire sky, like the residue of either natural or human violence. Was this the last of the cloud of ash that had bound me to the earth, the cloud that had travelled all the way from the other side of the world, such a long way from home?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Moss Garden

I love tiny worlds. I have never quite stopped believing in fairies. Actually I believe in everything - Santa, God, Buddha, fairies, monsters under the bed. To me, everything is true and nothing is real (not even you), and that is why I deal in stories.

Anyway, tiny worlds, I loves em. Who doesn't? We got this idea from an Usborne "make and do" book we bought Una for Christmas. It was easy, fun, instantly gratifying using things we had accessible. The project also has remained interesting, watching the moss establish itself and grow. We started the ones below in summer. The top one is Fred's made in an old cake tin. Fred looked for flat stones to make a fairy path. She was also quite particular about only using one type of moss. When it was first done because it was summer and quite dry, it looked a bit patchworky, but all the moss has thickened up and become quite lush.
This one is Una's:
For hers we used a terracotta pot. Because of the better drainage hers doesn't stay quite so damp (Fred's has drowned a few times but always survives), and it took longer to get lush. In Una's there's an old ceramic tile, stones, a glass pebble and a little cherub, all things we had around the house. So now, without further ado, here is a quicky tutorial. It is a bit cheeky calling it a tutorial when it is very straightforward but it makes me feel important.

Excuse me owl, can I borrow your home? I have an excellent temporary dwelling for you. Think of it as a little holiday in the south of Spain. What do you mean you can't dance like that? Just lift your arms...oh yeah. Sorry. You're a Greek owl.
You will need:
a container (cut off milk carton, empty cake tin, pot plant holder, butter container, tea cup, anything you like really.)
A teaspoon
Moss (any sort of moss will do)
You will also need any pebbles, toys, buttons, tiles, stones, bits of random crap you choose to decorate your moss garden with - please refer to above picture of random crap.
Using your spoon as a spade (not your Nana's best silver probs), fill your container with dirt. Can be crap dirt pebbly dirt, doesn't need to be potting mix or anything. Scrape some moss up with your spoon. Gently press it in. Because my container is small and the moss is so green and PHAT, mine looks quite neat and tidy, but it doesn't matter if yours doesn't, as the moss takes hold it will fill out over the days and weeks. This is part of the fun of it. In the pictures above, Fred laid her stones out first and then planted the moss around them, Una pressed hers into the moss afterwards. Because mine is a hillock for a wol, I am not decorating it.
By the way, should they catch you at it, your chooks may look at you like this. What you doin' crazy human?
But your owl will be most pleased.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Winter thoughts

Kind sun enters house
I spread it on toast. Sated,
I wash the windows.

the grass gasps
to meet the sun
orange billboard
this hill is for sale

Dusk, Eltham, the smell
of patchouli and woodsmoke
is fifty years old.