Thursday, December 31, 2009


I've been avoiding writing this post, but if I'm going to do it today is the day.

Bad stuff first. Feel free to skip ahead to the good stuff.

2009 hasn't been the easiest year for our family. It seems to me like it began on the 7th February, with the Black Saturday fires, though before then there was blissy post-Christmas camping in Mildura and the rest of January, a lot of which we spent in shopping centres escaping the fierce heat. And a week before the fires Frederique, my first baby, started school, though I guess the two will always be tangled up in each other. The fires came within two kilometers of our house before the wind changed, driving the fires back up to Kinglake. Neighbours who were home watched flames approaching on the surrounding hills, listened to the explosions of gas bottles and - horrifyingly loud - the petrol station in Kinglake. Twelve people in our town died, 38 from Kinglake up the road. Friends lost their homes, and in the aftermath we watched marriages deteriorate and our school community shrink as people moved away. The fires weren't extinguished until mid-March. For a month we were on alert, exhausted, grieving our old ignorance as every time the mercury climbed or the winds picked up we evacuated. And all the time knowing 'we are the lucky ones' - our house was spared, and we weren't home on the day.

In March I had a not very serious car accident, though all car accidents feel serious, don't they? And it was serious enough to almost write the car off. The accident was to affect me as a driver most of the year, and I am only just getting my nerve back. I still won't drive on the Hurstbridge road.

In May my sister, Kylie, had her baby at 27 weeks gestation, weighing less than 2 pounds, in a Northern English hospital, and her world began to fragment around her. We tried to get the fare together so I could go over and be with her, but it was impossible. Distances grow and shrink, I've always found, never before this year has England seemed so impossibly far away. (Happily, Joseph and Kylie are both thriving).

In June our town suffered another devastating blow. Helicopters circled, bringing back horrible memories of the fires, and Martin and I scoured the bush around our house - on a cruelly lovely winter's day, the sunlight streaming through the trees - for a three year old boy who had wandered from home. It shocks me now to say 'three' because he was the same age as Una, they had done a few dancing classes together, and we knew his mum to say hello to. Una is now four, and yet he will always be three. The look on Martin's face when he came back from his last shift has never left me. The little boy drowned in a dam. I picked up Fred from school that day, and mothers stood around, their faces white, for all of us, it was all our children that day. I broke the news to Fred, knowing it would be around the school yard. She wanted to know, distressed: did they dry him after they found him? This solicitous response, the tiny mother in her was also affected. After this I must admit I was hit by silence. I didn't feel I could blog about it - it wasn't my story to tell. And yet it was the only story I had to tell. I am not a negative person, not sad, or depressive by nature, for all that I am contemplative and reflective (pensive, Merri Andrews called me in Year Twelve). And yet sadness has entered me this year.

In October Martin's father lost his long battle with cancer. Not two weeks later, my half-sister died shockingly off Legionnaire's disease.

Our local school, which we love, is affected by a drop in numbers - mostly because there simply aren't a lot of kids in this area (there are a lot of very longstanding residents, whose own kids have grown up). We are wondering if it will be the right school for Una, there is only one prep kid next year, and Una may also be in a class of one. Even with blended classes, I worry that she will be socially isolated. If you secretly have a child in St Andrews, you will never find a better prep teacher than Erica, who won an award for her innovative teaching methods, AND WE HAVE BETTER NAPLAN RESULTS THAN THE OTHER SCHOOLS IN THE AREA (they aren't allowed to advertise this fact, but surely I am permitted to spread it around as a big ole [true] rumour). And the school community is lovely, and so open to new ideas.

In November Martin went from being a student to being unemployed. Even though there's no real difference financially for us, for some reason this has been an enormous source of stress, as the bills rocked in and the present buying season assaulted us.

So that's the bad shit.

The good stuff is:

We nearly lost Miles last summer. The fact that we had so many more months with him is a blessing, and I am always thankful for it. In that time he seemed more peaceful in himself, happy to live for every day. His funeral was a joyous affair: a tribute to a man who lived a good life, and made lasting friendships, and parented with love.

I taught all year at Melbourne Uni and took great pleasure in it. It's a great way to keep learning and to challenge my own knowledge and assumptions about the writing process and the inherent value of the act. And I met some great students, who have a lot to contribute to the literary community in Australia. I also did some fantastic high school workshops, and heard some great writing (the best thing is when the teacher says with genuine surprise, 'Student X never writes anything'). One highlight was a weeklong workshop at the SLV with kids who love writing so much they wanted to do it in their holidays, they were so switched on and enthusiastic. Another was going back to Bendigo Catholic College with Kate. But all the schools were fascinating and young people everywhere delight me.

In July Little Bird came out. I am so proud of this book. It's got exactly the right mood to it, and the right structure. It's the first of my books that has a structure like it (all my other books are structured identically - ssh.) And I remember last year Miles asking when it would be out, and the expression on his face when he said 'that's ages away.' He lived to see it and the book is dedicated to him and Catheryn (and to my own Nanna, Ada May).

Writing Dear Swoosie with Kate was FUN. And it's a really great book, it's happy and light and funny but not insubstantial, it pokes reverent fun at vampire YA books and flashes back to the 80s (a la Romy and Michelle which I watched as research - yay!), and most of all it feels like we're putting a nice thing out there in the world. It was a fun bonus too - conecived in March finished by early July - because I thought I wasn't going to have a book in 2010 at all. And Kate and I discovered we work beautifully together and have plans for at least five more books (some of which are Swoosie sequels and may be written purely and solely for Susannah Chambers, editor extraordinaire).

All year I have been rewriting Only Ever Always, three incarnations it's had so far and considering it's so short (about 33ooo words) it's the hardest book I've written. Hopefully it's worth it. Just quietly, I think it might be. Most of you won't be reading it till 2011 which seems an age away. I finished the latest draft on Thursday and feel it is achingly close. Which means...I can start writing something new! Entering perfect platonic ideal book stage! One of my favourites.

Josie and the Michael Street Kids being shortlisted for the Children's Peace Literature Award, nearly two years after publication, was a lovely unexpected surprise.

In July I had my first short story for adults published in The Big Issue. This was exciting enough in itself. So I was thrilled when it was picked up by Delia Falconer for Black Inc's Best Australian Stories 2009.
2009 was the year of Twitter for me (I joined Oct 2008). Although dangerous in its power to distract, I love Twitter, I have always liked having friends living inside my computer and it doesn't feel quite to powerfully addictive as other online communities I've been apart of. It's comfortable. It's fun. Okay, it can be addictive. But it's easy to back off from. And also, there's lots of smart funny interesting clever successful people on there, so it can't be so bad if they want to hang out there too.

All this year I have missed Zoe, who has been my BFF since we were five. I was going to put this in the sad section, but I am putting it here because in missing her, and feeling missed by her, I think we have recognised for the first time in ages just how much we love each other. (I have a little tear writing that). My girls adore her boy Jethro with a passionate sense of ownership, and we talk about Zoe and Dan and Jethro nearly every day. And I think about them EVERY day. Jethro has gone from being a baby this year to being a great big strapping toddler. Watching him and Una play together in the Hobart Botanical Gardens this year filled my heart with joy - our kids playing together, our childhoods repeated in some small way in them. That's the stuff.

Martin has had some exciting offers for 2010. They are difficult things to grasp, jobs that have barely been invented yet, but there is great potential for him to find something intellectually challenging and family friendly.

2009 was also the year of the iPhone. I know it sounds horribly consumerist of me but I cannot tell you how much pleasure my iPhone gives me. I love taking spontaneous photos and video. I like being able to check my emails on the train. I LOVE having an ipod in my phone, music has been the thing that's cured my driving anxiety (yeah, turns out listening to constant play by play of the bushfires on 774 - bless their cotton socks - was probably contributing to my sense of fragility). It may sound strange to say this at my newly franked age of 35, but this is the year I feel like I've become an adult. Not just because of the things we've faced, the consequences of our grown up decisions to buy a house in a bushfire region, or the very adult pain of losing a parent and sibling, but also because I've reclaimed my own space as an adult. The iPhone symbolises this a little to me. But not just that. I've been finding new music to listen to. I've been reading more challenging literature. I've been thinking outside our domestic daily routines. Perhaps all this comes from having Fred start school, I no longer feel like my days are entirely devoted to the immediate and pressing needs of my children.

In that light, I've joined a new writing group. I really like those people.

And of course nearly every day friends and family - old and new - made me smile and laugh, despite the litany of disasters and sorrows above. And really it hasn't been such a bad year. I've loved to the very fullness of my being this year, loved through hardship and loss, loved through frustration and self doubt. I've branched myself out in love, loved people far away, overcome distances with nothing but love. Mostly I am happy.

And if I was happy ALL the time, admit it, you'd loathe me.

Things to look forward to in 2010
Two weeks camping in Tassie in January
Meeting my new nephew Joseph
Jethro's number two birthday party
Dear Swoosie coming out, I can't wait for people to read it!
Writing another book with Kate
Starting a new writing project for myself
Doing more schools, teaching at Melbourne Uni
Martin getting a job, something he loves that says 'so there' to the me that cried when he didn't get the job 7 minutes down the road
Hopefully having some money to do some stuff to the house and pay off some debts
A year of stability for the girls, with school and creche not changing
Fred turning seven (*faints*), Una turning five (*faints*)
Una getting ready for school
And who knows what else? The mystery of it.

And in 2009
New Year's eve with good friends just down the road

Happy New Year everyone. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dear Swoosie

Kate reveals something of our first meeting here.
Swoosie is in the shops January 4th.
It is the best fun I ever had writing a book.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Martin's early Christmas present for Fred

Martin built a new website for Fred. You can go play with it here - the links are all age-appropriate websites for Fred (who is six). I'm sure she wouldn't mind if your six year old uses it too!

Guest post

Una and the big tickle monster
Once there was a monster. He was the meanest thing. Every person ran away. One day a girl called Una went to the cave where the monster lived! The monster ran after Una... and they lived happily ever after .
by Fred. -->

Saturday, December 19, 2009

School Days

First Day
Even the recent past has the pallor of innocence to it. This photo was taken at the beginning of the year, on Freddy's first day of school. Not even a week later I published a post entitled We're Safe.

Friday was Fred's last day. She has finished prep with a report to be proud of. And we are proud of her. Not because of what she's achieved - a bit ahead here, straggling a bit there - but because she works really hard and she's genuinely passionate about learning. When it comes to school she's got her own groove going on, she digs maths and science as well as reading - in fact ask her what she's most looking forward to next year and she'll say 'harder maths'. She's curious and engaged and I honestly believe the teachers find her a delight and a pleasure and a challenge.

As do I.
Last day

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Lovely Bones - review

SPOILER - nothing is spoiled here if you've read the book, but there is a plot point revealed in this review that you may not want to know about.

I thought I had reviewed The Lovely Bones when I read it a couple of years ago on here, but I merely mentioned I was reading it. I am not surprised, I don't often review books on here because as an editor I nearly always end up doing a full structural report, and find it hard to hold back from dissecting the ending, which isn't a very fun style of review to read unless you have read the book yourself, and want to get down and dirty.

Martin and I organised a rare night out with my mother-in-law babysitting, with no real plans, but perhaps a cheap and cheerful meal somewhere. But that very day I received an invitation to attend a free preview screening of The Lovely Bones, which is what you might call impeccable timing. So we headed into the city, shared a bowl of Gyu Ramen at Chocolate Buddha and walked down to Crown, a place that never fails to alarm me, and goes into psycho overdrive at Christmas time. But it was nice being at the movies, and sort of exciting handing over our phones at the beginning (though Martin fretted), and I enjoyed sitting in the cinema with other engaged movie-goers around me.

Anyway, onto my review.

Overall I have to say I was disappointed. The book bothered me, but it was compelling and beautifully written and had a strong sense of character. It was a difficult and challenging cartography of desire - the body in extremis - and about finding a way towards healthy sexuality. Lovely Bones the movie was about fathers and daughters to me, and as such a denial of sexuality. Missing was Sebold's strong, emotive analysis of the intimacies between women - mother, grandmother, sister, friend - and the fluid boundaries that separate the female experience when it comes to the lived history of the body.

The movie had immediate visual appeal. Anyone who's been loving Mad Men or Life on Mars will appreciate the brown 1973-ness of it all, gleaming with a sort of hyperreal Howard Arkley mode of seeing: suburbia as kitsch container of wabi-sabi beauty (okay, I get the mishmash there). The family life was sketched together nicely enough at the beginning, though I found Mark Wahlberg's portrayal of the father baffling at the start of the film (later I thought his performance outstanding) - he seemed almost sleazy. I settled into watch, hoping the grisly bit we all knew was coming would get over and done with quickly so I could enjoy the unfolding of the emotional arc of the story. But it was not to be. It was a bit like Titanic where an hour in you want to stand up and shout 'Sink the ship!' only in this case it's 'murder the nice little girl!' The scene leading up to the murder is excruciating in its tension, and I could feel my flight or fight (flee! flee!) instincts kicking in, it was almost impossible to stay in my chair. And then everything speeds up tremendously, so in the end a lot happens offstage - so there isn't actually the spectacle of violence.

And therein lies the problem. Jackson (and perhaps Sebold) over-compensates for the bad with shiny shiny. It's all right that she's killed cause look! Heaven! Sisterhood of victims! We all get to be frozen in time as perfect little girls forever! Martin and I disagreed about the CGI, he thought it fairly well-employed and beautiful (though lacking in substance), I found it cheap and tacky. We both agreed that the strength of the movie was the family dealing with the aftermath, which was the strength of the novel too.

My biggest problem with this movie is the fact that Susie is portrayed as more tween than teen, even though she is 14. Heaven is a Victorian idealisation of girlhood, with all sexuality stripped away. There is no real sense of sexual desire or body ownership in the film (well exemplified by Susie imagining herself as fashion model on a magazine - she actually becomes 2-dimensional). It's like everyone - Peter Jackson, even the performers - are studiously looking the other way when it comes to female sexuality, even to the point that it's never made clear if there is a sexual dimension to the murder. I found the climactic scene of the book peculiar to say the least, but when you read it as the character of Sebold (a victim of an awful sexual assault crime herself) stepping out of the halfway threshold space to reclaim her own sexuality, it made sense. In the movie, where everything is so innocent, where there is no body, it is a weak unsatisfying climax (she breaches the laws of heaven and earth for a chaste kiss?). I don't know if this was a performance issue (Saoirse Ronan is delightful, in an awkward way); I think that it was probably something they were aware of from casting. The end result was entirely dysfunctional, as if the only response to the lecherous gaze of Mr Harvey is to avert our own eyes, is to refuse to see or acknowledge even the merest presence of sexuality.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Australian Bloggers:

Now that December is upon us, there's not much time left to submit to Miscellaneous Voices: Australian Blog Writing 2009.

This will be the first issue of the anthology by Miscellaneous Press, which aims to prove that good blog writers come from all walks of life and that 'blogging produces strong and dynamic talent'.

Submit up to three blog posts you made between January 1st and December 31st.

This anthology is an important way of seeing what Australians blog about, and how Australia is looking at itself through the lens of new media. You might wonder why a printed book of something available free online is necessary. Well, it's an act of curatorship, of capturing the temporary in another form. That's why I submitted anyway. And it might reach a new audience, if blogging for you is a way of finding an audience.

(I don't know what blogging is for me. An act of curatorship I suppose, of capturing the temporary.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Raspberry Swirl

This time last year we went raspberry picking in Kinglake and came away determined it would be a Christmas tradition.
In February massive fires raged through Kinglake and many properties - and lives - were lost. We were relieved to discover that the raspberry farm was operating and drove up today to pick. It was the first time Fred had been up that way since the fires, which came within 2km of our house. The bush is regenerating, as it does, and in Kinglake there was a green fur on many of the trees and a wonderful understorey of ferns.
The cafe we went to last year, after the picking, is gone, but showing signs of rebuilding. As we drove past we noticed that some of the lovely gardens had survived, flourishing in all the spring and early summer rain we've been having.
It was a typical family outing, Fred got carsick (but not in technicolour luckily), I had an anxiety attack on the winding mountain road. looking down at the skeletons of burnt trees, Martin got cross with us all for doubting his safe driving, and a dog stole Una's sandwich when we arrived - and Una ran, screaming and crying, which only excited the dog more. Certainly memorable, in that way that outings are, which is to say they blend in together, and become a sort of composite memory.
We came away with just over a kilogram of raspberries for about $16. Excellent value. Some are in the freezer, waiting to be turned into a raspberry and lemongrass trifle. Some are in the fridge for snacking. And some are sitting cooling on top of the stove, nestling on an almond frangipane and folded in a buttery pastry, which signifies a rupture in mine and Martin's lowcarb eating plan.
But you know. It's raspberries.
Recipe for Raspberry Galette
This recipe is cobbled together from a few different sources. I actually made a smaller tart and used half the amount of pastry and frangipane, and plan to make a second tart tomorrow to take in for Fred's teachers' morning tea, so have put the rest of the pastry and frangipane in the fridge to assemble the pie tomorrow.


1.5 cups plain flour
125g butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
1/4 cup (about 1 lemon's worth) lemon juice
Preheat oven to 180ÂșC.
Place flour and butter and icing sugar in bowl and process (or do what I did and rub in softened butter with your hands). Add the lemon juice gradually and keep processing or mixing with your hands until pastry comes together easily. I didn't need all the juice.
Roll the dough into a circle on a piece of baking paper and put in the fridge. Mine ended up quite thin because of our diet, but I think it would be great to be thick and generous with it too, it's a very buttery biscuity pastry, with a strong lemon flavour. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
60g butter
75g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
1 egg yolk
A tsp of vanilla essence (or you could use something else, like brandy or cointreau)
Cream butter and sugar, then add almonds and egg yolk and mix or process well.
Spread on centre of pastry.

Toss in icing sugar if desired. Then tumble them into the centre of the tart. Quantities depend on what you've got, but probably a punnet would be enough for a smallish tart. You could adapt this recipe for most fruits and you don't really need the frangipane, but, hey, I like it.
Fold the edges of the pie pastry towards the centre. It should look rustic. Some might say messy.
Bake in mod oven for 30-35 minutes.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Falling from Grace

In other Christmas news, Fred came up to me the other day when Una was at the other end of the room and hissed 'Just tell me quickly, is Santa real or is it just parents?'
I said 'what do you think?'
She said: 'Santa?' (doubtfully). I raised my eyebrows in a way that I hoped was non-commital.
She said, 'Just tell me.'
We went down to the bedroom. And it emerged, that yes, Santa was parents. And she was cool with that, really. She'd figured as much, probably ages ago.

And then - tragic that I am - I went and looked myself in the bathroom and cried for about 20 minutes. I don't know why it affected me so much. And I'm okay about it now. But it was like, all of a sudden, some of the magic of Christmas, the magic that you wait so long to return after your own fall from grace, so you can experience it through your children, was sucked away again. It was like I fell all over again (though I honestly have no memory of the transition from belief to non-belief). Honesty was always my policy, but also it was convenient for us for Fred to know the truth, that we can't afford big presents this year - we'd said as much only earlier that day, how it would be a relief when it was all out in the open. 'Did I sell out Fred's childhood,' I asked Martin, 'for our convenience?' No, no. Of course we didn't. She asked. She wanted to know the truth*.

Don't tell Una, we said. You mustn't tell Una. And she hasn't.
But she did come home from school and say to me mystified, 'I tried to tell some of the other kids at school and they wouldn't believe me!'
Oh my god. We clutch her and plead - we're doing some serious facetalking now: 'Don't tell ANYONE. It's not for you to tell.'
'But they wouldn't believe me!' And I can tell she's tried - really tried - to convince them. I'm gutted that it's our kid who's the whistle blower. Me! How could this happen?

Strangely enough we still managed to get Fred to sit with Santa.
I wonder if it will be the last time? She was very shy, and obviously felt like a bit of a dill. Not so Una, she told Santa all about the walking talking blinking pony she wants and the doll who can really ride it and really hold on all by itself and say anything Una wants it to say. We didn't get an official shot this year, Martin's card wouldn't scan when it came time to pay. Luckily Martin had got a few snapshots with the phone. And this photo is much more natural than the pose they called for - seriously, let the kids talk to Santa for thirty seconds before getting them to switch on the fake smiles for the camera!

*I am a little ashamed to tell you that a few days later when she asked about the tooth fairy as I was looking at her teeth (quick Mum, come downstairs for a minute), I looked her in the eye and said 'Oh no, the tooth fairy's real.' I just couldn't face that fall too, not before she's even lost a single tooth.

Our Favourites and Our Bests 2: Quick and Dirty

Some quick ideas for Christmas presents.

1. We don't have a doll's house. We did have my old one from childhood, but it began to fall apart - sob. We really had no room for it anyway. But we do have lots of dolls house furniture, some from ikea and some very sweet wooden stuff that we picked up from a garage sale. You don't need to have a dolls house to love the furniture, there's the floor, or you can temporarily clear a space on a bookshelf, or use a shoebox. Lots of little toys you already have will probably fit on it - Polly Pocket, teeny tiny knitted toys like these ones from Little Cotton Rabbits...

2. Drawing stuff. Well, der. But my kids start every day with drawings at the dinner table. One of our favourite things are watercolour pencils. Also black lead (graphite) pencils and plain white paper. And the other day after watching this video (below) we got out the pastels and Fred and Una both produced some lovely lovely drawings.

3. Mia is great. Una and Fred both spend a lot of their computer time playing free games online - mostly at Poisson Rouge and Boowa and Kwala. But we bought Mia's Language Adventure a while ago (then lost it then recently found it again) and it's ace! It's a bit more involved than a lot of the online games, and Una really enjoys it. We'll get the science one too sometime.

4. Board games. Our kids love Uno.

5. CDs and DVDs. Our biggest hits with the girls this year have been Mamma Mia (be prepared to answer questions about 3 daddies) and the Jimmies (and stuff the kids, this is MY favourite song at the moment):

Music-wise, both the girls are listening to the Jimmies, Ralph's World, Abba, Hannah Montana and, on constant repeat at bedtime, Down to the River to Pray from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Their favourite collective song is the Rolling Stones song Wild Horses as covered by Iron and Wine.

6. I asked on Twitter the other day if anyone had perfume samples and got a lightning fast response from the lovely Gabrielle Wang. So they will be going into Fred's stocking. Una will be getting a packet of bandaids in hers. And we'll probably get both girls a new toothbrush. What? New toothbrush is a big event in this house!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our favourites and our bests 1

I have been Christmas shopping on and off for a few months now. 'So organised!' I hear you gasp. Yes, well, if I hadn't LOST some of the presents I bought, lost without a trace, then I would perhaps agree with you.

Una is easy to buy for, which makes her hard to buy for because there are so many things out there that you know she would like, nay, love. Fred is impossible. She becomes fixated on things that we know are not really her taste - at the moment she really wants a Baby Alive. Putting aside the fact that Martin and I find them creepy, and think the company cynical in the way they try and hook you into ongoing dependency on dolly food and disposable 'diapers', and also putting aside that they cost an awful lot of money, I am sure that once Fred has pushed all her buttons, seen her wee and poo and blink and heard all she has to say, she will lose interest in it. She's just not especially invested in her toys. There are things that she goes back to over and over again, but they are not necessarily things with faces.

Anyway, for those of you who are buying for smallish persons this Christmas, here are some of our biggest successes in the present buying department:

What is with that ages 10 and up? Are they worried that younger kids won't glean the full educational purpose of it? Or do they think someone might have their eye out? Fred got one of these in her stocking last year (she was 5), it cost about $9 and she has never tired of it. Both girls love making a pet of the little tame rainbow it casts on the floors and walls. I guess if you have a kid who chucks stuff at other stuff it might not be the most sensible toy, but Fred and Una have always treated it with reverence. I mean geez. There's a rainbow in that thing. You gotta respect the rainbow.We got Fred her own MP3 player when we went overseas last year, and this year Martin picked up a pair of these Phillips kid-friendly headphones. Una inherited my ipod shuffle when I got my iPhone. In our small house the MP3 player offers escape and solace through music and stories and Fred or Una will retreat to their beds to listen during the day (which sometimes results in sleep). They also like to lie together in the lounge room, singing the occasional refrain out loud, sometimes swapping to hear what song or story is piping through the other's headphones. Also good for long drives. If we could afford it (we can't), I would get them each an ipod Nano, so they could watch the odd episode of Charlie and Lola or play little games while camping and take videos of each other. Yes, I really said that. I cannot believe it myself.

This German castle retails online in Australia for $18. We bought one at the toyshop in Lorne over Easter for Fred's 6th birthday - it was the speediest present shopping I'd ever done. We got some great Papo figures to go with it, though I must admit Fred doesn't seem all that interested in them (I love them). The castle comes white, you slot it together and decorate it yourself. Martin and the girls had a very happy afternoon doing just that. Ours doesn't look anything like the above, but it's sturdier than you'd think and they play with it often.
We bought the above Ikea trainset ($19.95AUD) for Fred when she was around 2. Over the years we have bought the Ikea add ons - tunnels, track splitters etc - and acquired the odd Brio piece from garage sales. I love the classic simplicity of this track and train, and have never found myself yearning for a more complex set - this is one of the few things I think Ikea does really well. A very very common activity in our house is building a large convoluted track and then creating a town, or zoo, or kingdom, with the blocks all around. Both girls love it, as does any visiting child. These days I notice that Fred often sets the train tracks up for Una, the way Martin used to set it up for Fred. It's grown with them and their imaginations, and it's one of those toys that continues to intrigue me in the way they use it.
This was the quiet achiever. I bought this for Fred's 6th birthday very much at the last minute from Readings. I wasn't sure what she'd think of it (I expected it to get cast aside and rediscovered later, which is often the response to books), but it was instantly her favourite thing. She took it to show and tell. She pores over it. We haven't actually made many of the projects, but I am full of good intentions. They actually look quite feasible, it's just getting organised to do it and Fred catching me in the right mood (she has the habit of asking at bedtime or as we're frantically looking for her socks before school).
This sweet little teapot cafe was Una's 4th birthday present. It's made by Le Toy Van and quite a few Australian online and brick and mortar shops sell them, in fact I'd been eyeing them off since Fred was little. We got an ex-display so it wasn't too pricey, but they generally retail around $100 without the dolls. I know, it was an extravagance. It was worth it though, it is taken out, played with, then carefully packed away afterwards most days. All the little things fit inside the big thing, which was why we chose it, as we have a bit of a storage problem (ie, we have none). It's very, very pink, isn't it? It is also very well made.

Well, I'll stop now. I should go to bed. But I am going to keep going with these posts, because there is something about them I find endlessly satisfying.

Little Bird Wordle

Wordle: Little Bird

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fred and the Flower Fairies

Fred with short hair is more elfin than ever. Sometimes when we are at the park or in the bush, I think she belongs more to the trees and the grasses than to me, and that, like a seed head she will be taken away by the wind to eternally drift. Fred is not so much a flower fairy as a wind sprite, as was pointed out by Kate Constable, who knows a fairy when she sees one.

When Fred was born she was given a copy of a flower fairies book of poems by my brother and his family and recently it's been rediscovered and is a favourite - she takes it to bed to read to herself.

This morning she wrote her own poem (her punctuation, I have resisted the urge to edit).

I saw a fery, and I sede
to the fery...why
is your bed a poppy
it is soft

Saturday, November 14, 2009

And life

So life is chugging along. We are mostly in the moment, as people with small folks are, tending to daily necessities, laughing at the things they say (Una especially is a clown at the moment), worrying about lost socks and library books, going to school and creche, marking papers (me) and applying for jobs (mostly Martin). We have times of sadness, sudden spaces appear and we fall into them, but not forever. We have found distractions to skirt around these spaces - cutting our carbohydrate intake except at breakfast time, I seem to be rewriting a poem I've been tinkering with for over two years into a sonnet and I had a half-hearted attempt at putting together a new PhD proposal (didn't get it done by the scholarship deadline, but I have a proposal coming together that I am happy with), making grapefruit sorbet (Martin). Grapefruit sorbet is a neighbourly affair. He and Una picked the grapefruits of our next door neighbour's tree last week. Today, after churning it in the icecream maker, he took some up to Tim and Sally across the road who were clearing their block. Martin went over unannounced and to them must have seemed to spring up from nowhere, sorbet in hand. Tim looked up and said 'It's like some beautiful dream.'

'It's time to play secret gosh,' says Una.
'What's secret gosh?' Martin asks.
'Where I tell you a secret and you say gosh,' says Una. As they trip up the stairs I hear her high voice trill:'I love secret gosh.'

This is not to say we are putting off the business of grief. Rather, grief and distraction are becoming part of the landscape of the everyday. It is not entirely unpleasant. We are enjoying loving the people we have lost, holding them more preciously in our heads. We are seeing the world through their eyes and grieving them and for them, for there is so much here to marvel at, tiny yellow flowers on the tomato bush (and the two tomato bushes that have somehow self-seeded in the flower beds, along with a wayward sunflower), the lushness of the pear trees, the joyful sound of a child breathing into a harmonica, the smell of coffee.

There is another grief, Martin and I are aware that this summer signifies an End of Days for us. Martin finished his degree a couple of weeks ago, and he is now looking for A Job (psst, anyone want to hire a remarkable English/ICT graduate teacher, preferably within 20 minutes drive of St Andrews?) Four long years of full time study are over. Una was an infant when he started
now she is:
A Maid.
I am looking forward to what life has to bring (and if that should be polished floorboards, a coat of paint, a new couch and a gas oven I wouldn't object). But I am sad that time will no longer be our luxury.

We have had a week of heat and the flowers in the front garden are starting to frizzle. Lucky I took a picture before it happened, several actually, but this view from the kitchen window is a favourite.

Bushfire season is no longer coming, it is here. We don't plan to stay and fight a fire (our old plan was that I would take the kids while Martin protected the house), our policy is to leave early, leave often, all of us together. Martin, after training all year with CFA, decided as his father was dying that his heart wasn't in it, at least for the time being. I am selfishly relieved. Una looked at him once, when he was all dressed up in his orange suit and hard hat and said, in a very small voice, 'Bye Dad. I hope you don't die.'

Una demonstrates the concept of Heaven for my mum. 'Lalala,' (this is the bit when you're alive), then cac cac (she makes a noise in her throat, which signifies dying) then 'YAY!' because you're in heaven with all your friends and family. Here is a re-enactment.

Una is also a rockstar.

She does want a haircut really. But probably not a stupid one.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Cartography of Loss

The dedication in Breathe reads:

For Mum, Dad & Kylie

Thanks for giving me stories

And for Carolyn and Christopher

A story come true

My Dad was almost 50 when I was born. My mother was his second wife. His first wife was his childhood sweetheart from his home town, Redcar on the Yorkshire coast. They married when he returned from the war, in that giddy time when everyone was happy to be alive, and ready to meet the brave new world. Reading between the lines I'm pretty sure the marriage came about because of extenuating circumstances.

From earliest childhood I knew that somewhere in the world I had a half sister and a half brother. To me they were something out of a fairy story - a story I wanted to be told over and over again - from the magical time before time, when I was not born. They were ghosts of my father's past, made partly from what was real and mostly from my imagination. We had photos to fill out these details, sepia coloured, post war, a little boy in a suit with short pants, a teddy under his arm, Carolyn looking spookily like my sister Kylie at the same age, though they were born 23 years apart (Carolyn was born in 1949, Christopher in 1952 I think. Kylie was born in 1972, I was born in 1974. Just for interest's sake, my mother was born in 1943. These dates might be out of whack a bit, I am not after all the memory keeper, but the memory keeper's daughter.)

I must admit my fascination initially lay more with my half-brother Christopher. We were both the youngest (I lived in a family of first-borns, and as such felt misunderstood). There was something neat about this parallel, two youngests in the same family. I wanted a brother, a partner in mischief, a playmate. My sister was always a mini adult, and though we did play, particularly on family holidays, we weren’t especially compatible. Kylie liked make up and hair and pretty things and was a mother to her toys, I invested myself powerfully in my toys, and ‘pretended’ like it was an addictive drug and rolled my jeans up one roll too many. I knew my halfies would have already grown up, coming us they did from the dark, distant past, tied up in such anachronisms as ‘the war’ and ‘the mother country’, but to me Christopher and Carolyn were permanently children, like Peter Pan, like Alice in Wonderland (‘the everchild’, the child who never grows up, who lives outside of time, like Tin in Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday Child or the children in the cupboard in Coraline.) They were also a set, I could never imagine one without the other.

Dad’s first marriage had broken up under extremely unhappy circumstances. Dad tried to keep in touch with the children, but he was thwarted and eventually he took up the offer of a new life in Australia, as a ten pound tourist. Obviously this is the shorthand version, and says nothing of the emotional geography, or the cartography of loss, on all sides. I have grown up with Dad’s version, and it is compelling – I won’t share all the details here, and I acknowledge that there are are always at least two sides to every story. Some years after the marriage broke up he moved to Tasmania. Some years after that he met and married my mother. During this whole time Dad had no contact with Christopher or Carolyn, he had lost all trace of them. He was profoundly sad about it, but as time went on, he was sure that the rift was irreversible, and that Christopher and Carolyn would never forgive what he was sure they would see as his abandonment.

As a teenager my desire to find my half siblings never really wavered. I remember once half-heartedly looking up Russons in an English phone book in the State Library, which is probably when I realised how many people lived in England and how many phone books there were for the many different regions. I wrote to my Aunt Janet and asked if she had any leads. She wrote back to say no.

Then in 1993, when I was 18 and working full time in a child care centre, Janet was on the other side of the world, watching a trivia-style game show as the English are wont to do (no doubt she was also drinking a cup of tea and nibbling a nice bit of teacake.) And there he was: Christopher, still with his characteristically red hair. It was a miracle, nothing less, of the modern world (though these days we’d just jump on Facebook I suppose). My Aunt wrote him a letter through the station and he responded. All this was done through mail, way back in ’93 international calls were very expensive. Dad picked me up from work, I can’t remember whether I had an afternoon off or if I’d chucked a sickie. In the car was a letter from Janet, and for some reason we both knew it contained news about Chris. When Dad stopped the car and went in to the bottle shop to buy sherry (how English of him) I, dying of curiosity, opened the letter (which was probably addressed to Dad, my bad). She quoted from Chris’s letter to her: ‘And what about my dad?’ he had written: ‘Is he still alive?’ And he went on to say how much he had thought about him over the years, how much he would like to get back in touch. I read all this on that paper thin airmail paper, tears welling up in my eyes. Dad got back in the car. I read him the letter and together, in the carpark of the Globe Hotel Drive Through Bottle-O, we wept. A few days later, we all talked on the phone for the first time (my first conversation with Chris cost $60, before we hung up and he rang me back and talked for another half an hour). Carolyn was hesitant at first, as was Kylie. But we all reached out, eagerly in mine and Chris’s case, more tentatively for Carolyn and Kylie.

Over the past 16 years we have become a family, Christopher & Carolyn and their kids and spouses. We do not make a perfect family. It is a messy one: we have laughed together and holidayed together, drunk together. In the last 16 years there has been marriage and divorce and kids and sometimes we have disappointed each other. In this way, at least, we are normal.

But the thing is, with family, the default is love. However vulnerable we felt about it, we all started off with our hearts open, ready to meet each other, recognise ourselves in each other’s face (there was a lot of poring over photos in the early days, gasps of recognition, puzzling out who had whose eyes). From the outset we came together to share our lives, to complicate ourselves, to invest ourselves in each other, to love.

Last week, suddenly and unexpectedly, my half-sister died. She had just celebrated her 60th birthday.

When people ask if we were close I don’t know what to say. She lived on the other side of the world. I didn’t meet her until I was in my mid-twenties. I spent time with her twice, once in 2001, and then again last year Fred and I saw her for a few days for my sister’s wedding in England. She knitted two jumpers for Fred when she was born and, despite my best intentions, I never sent a thank you card and have always felt guilty about this, though I adored them both, and Una wore them too and I still have them folded and put away for Fred’s children. Were we close? Perhaps not as sisters who have shared a childhood go. But we shared the experience of navigating this strange adult love for each other, and, on an elemental level, though 26 years apart, one of the first pairs of eyes each of us looked into were the gentle brown eyes of the same father, his hands held me and they held her. At least I had a childhood phantom to structure my love around, I on the other hand appeared from nowhere. Under the circumstances, yes, we were close. We were intimate, perhaps involuntarily. We belonged, in part, to each other. We were each other’s people.

And I am thinking of the rest of her people. Her wonderful daughter who reads my blog. Her quiet, gentle husband who shouldn’t have to learn to live without her – they were to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary next year. Her son who has a baby turning one at the end of the month. My brother, part of a set, now incomplete. And I am thinking of my Dad, who has lost her twice.

We found her. And the finding was a wonderful thing. We built a relationship from different sides of the planet, and as technology progressed and calls got cheaper, and our flight paths criss-crossed the world, and the world seemed to grow ever-smaller. But now we have to say goodbye, and the distances once again seem insurmountably vast.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I like blogs

It was early evening when my journey began. The train was full, but not yet uncomfortably full, of people going home. It is important to insist – you will see why in a moment – that I was under no illusion about them. If anyone had asked me whether I supposed them to be specially good people or specially happy or specially clever, I should have replied with a perfectly truthful No. I knew quite well that perhaps not ten percent of the homes they were returning to would be free, even for that one night, from ill temper, jealousy, weariness, sorrow or anxiety, and yet – I could not help it – the clicking of all those garden gates, the opening of all those front doors, the unanalysable home smell in all those little halls, the hanging up of all those hats, came over my imagination with all the caress of a half-remembered bit of music. There is an extraordinary charm in other people's domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else's garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens.

C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, "Hedonics", 1986 (1st published in Time and Tide, 16 June 1945)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Peace Child

Remember how I mentioned Kate and I were both shortlisted for the Children's Peace Literature Award? Well Kate won it! Along with Christine Harris for Audrey Goes to Town (a book that has been on my radar to pick up for Fred sometime. And yes, when I say 'for Fred' I really mean for me. It seems to me that it might have some aspects in common with some of my favourite books for kids, such as Robin Klein's All in the Blue Unclouded Weather and its sequels, and also Thurley Fowler's beautiful books The Green Wind, The Wind is Silver and A Horse Called Butterfly...)

Anyway, I am so excited for Kate, she deserves it. We had lots of conversations about faith and God as she was writing Winter of Grace and I know what a journey it was for her to write it. Also kudos to Allen & Unwin that not one but two Girlfriends were actually on the shortlist (the other being Cassie by Barry Jonsberg - I delivered him from the furnace you know...well, from the slush pile...though if it hadn't been me someone would have snapped him up, because he has serious pathos up the wazoo).

Kate's house is full of domestic, chaotic, noisy peace. It is one of my favourite places in the world to be.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Catching the train - a toycamera* story

I usually park at the station and catch the train when I can. I say it's because I am a nervous driver. Or parker.
However, the truth is there is something mesmerising about train travel. Even when I do remember to take a book (today I forgot), I often find myself leaning against the window, staring out at the rush of the world, the swirl of time and place passing me by. I love looking into people's backyards, I love back fences and graffiti. I also like all the intersecting and parallel lines: railway sleepers, telephone wires...
I like the structures. I like train stations and their oddments of building. I like the glimpses into the past.
I like the way everyone descends into themselves on the train. We are travelling together, separately. It is a very human thing to do, to catch a train.I even enjoy those glimpses of suburbia, those billboards and brand names that dominate the landscape, places I don't go to, things I won't buy. Yet the commercially generated nostalgia is not entirely lost on me.
The train is a holding pattern. It's as if life doesn't happen on trains. As the train reaches the station everything slows down, even time itself. Then the doors open and people get off, they leave to get on with their lives, time catches up with them and propels them with a rush, out of the station and into the business of being in the world.
Until I am the last one left in the carriage.
These photos were taken with my iphone using the Toycamera application, which applies a random filter to your photographs.

Monday, October 12, 2009

In the face of it - peace

It is strange how normal life proceeds in the face of death. Valued Opinions sends another survey:

Hi Penelope,

We have a new survey available for you to take. If you qualify and complete the survey you will receive $1.50.

Survey topic: Consumer Goods

I want to ring them. I want to say 'Don't you know someone has died? How can I care about consumer goods? What is the point of $1.50, in all this world with all its pain and loss?' I quietly delete the email.

On Friday evening, after a long day holding it together at uni, in the company of people who did not know him and have failed utterly to notice his absence, my children fight at the dinner table. I hurry to assure them my tears aren't because they are fighting. I am crying because we live now in a house of grief, and I don't know how to find the time and space for it, or give them the time and space they need. Our house is small and suddenly feels crowded. Everyone grieves in their own way. We spend a weekend outdoors in the sun. It seems important. Carrying Una back to the car along a bush track, she leans her check against my shoulder and says, 'I'm sad about Papa.' We talk about what we miss most. Fred says his jokes. She is the only one. Miles told terrible jokes. But I will miss the way he told them. Thinking about the glimmer in his eye makes me smile. Fred has inherited Miles's love of jokes.

The phone rings, emails appear, I go to uni, I buy groceries. Life goes on. Things proceed as usual. As I write this post the phone rings again. It's Kate. And she tells me Josie and the Michael Street Kids has been shortlisted for the Children's Peace Literature Award, along with her book Winter of Grace. I am so happy for her. I am happy for us. I am happy for Josie, such a small book out there amongst giants, a quiet book about the power of stories to connect people together and to heal broken hearts. A story about our own personal maps, how we inscribe ourselves on the places we live, and how they inscribe themselves on us. A story about the last days of childhood, on the cusp of the long hot summer that marks the year between primary and secondary school. If this book has put some peace out there, into the world, then my heart is overwhelmed for a moment with joy.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Saying goodbye

It is a funny thing how, as an adult, just when you think you're done with being parented, you acquire a second set of them. And it's complicated, learning to love them (especially because you're kind of done with being parented), but in some ways it's instinctive too, because they made the person that you fell in love with. And at first the relationship is kind of arbitrary, you know. You like them and they like you, and after a while, like even becomes love, because you love your husband, and that includes loving all the people that are enmeshed in his life. Then you have babies and the connection becomes a blood one, because their blood, their DNA, is so clearly present and accounted for, mingling and mixing with your blood and your DNA. And so many people become connected up, branching outwards, so that through your children, the shape of your family tree changes.

And then one day if you are lucky you realise that, even if there was no blood connection, you'd just want to hang out with these people, because they make you happy.

Here is a strange story about connectivity, and I hope I get the details right. It's a bit of headspinner. Before my father-in-law, Miles, married Catheryn he lived in a shared house in Melbourne with a man named Bert (who ended up marrying Janet, Catheryn's younger sister.) During this time my own mother was boarding with Bert's father in Tasmania. This connection was only uncovered years later, last year in fact, ten years after Martin and I had met.

I don't think I ever told Miles that I love him. I also never said a final goodbye - in fact I was on my way to the hospital when Martin called me. I pulled into a country road, next to a paddock where a woman was training her horse, to take his call, and after we both hung up, this is is where I cried. But it doesn't matter, about that last goodbye. Every time we said hello and goodbye, we kissed, we hugged, and the frailer his body became, the firmer those hugs were, from both of us. He knew he was loved, not just by me but so many people.

Fred is sure that we will see him again, in heaven. Her certainty gives Una comfort and I am glad that someone in the family can explain it to Una in such simple and hopeful terms. Her certainty gives me comfort too, I admit.

Friday, October 02, 2009

What would Freud say?

Una: 'I hope I have a penis when I grow up!'
Me: Do you have penis envy?
Una: (Looks at me quizzically) Nah, not really. (Pause) I'm not really going to grow up.

(She has come to terms with being 4. She is going to stop at 7.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Una's Birthday

Today we celebrated Una's birthday, but it is not until tomorrow that it will be the four year anniversary of her birth and of this auspicious occasion, two sisters meeting for the very first time:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Growing and shrinking

Una and Fred are playing in their bedroom. I'm on my bed, fixing up the last changes on the computer. The phone rings. Martin answers. It's his mum. They're making plans for the week. Something Fred says (I don't hear it) prompts Una to clomp up the three wooden steps that divide the mudbrick from the weatherboard and into the loungeroom.
'Yes Una?'
'Do people ever shrink?' (This is an interesting question in light of the fact that several times over the last few days Una has asked me 'Are there giants in this world?')
I hold my breath, listening for Martin's answer.
Martin assures her no, people don't shrink.
She gets on the phone to Nana and asks her the same question. Una's voice is loud and bell-like, ringing through the house. Of course I am not sure what Nana says, but I think it must be something about old people sometimes getting smaller (which is not, I am pretty sure, what Una means, I think she means like Treehorn, which we were reading a lot about six months ago.)
Una informs Nana that she is not going to have her birthday (at the end of this month) because she doesn't want to be a grown up. This is a familiar theme. She has been talking about this for a week now, and not even the thought of presents and parties can entice her to change her mind.
Later it's dinner time, and we're all sitting up at the table together. We are eating chicken pie. There's a movie playing on Martin's computer.
Una turns from the movie and announces to everyone: 'I think we should talk about shrinking.'
Martin and Fred remain absorbed in the film. 'Are you worried about shrinking?' I ask her.
Her attention is drawn by the film.
'Una?' I say, trying to attract her attention.
She glances at me with a distracted frown. 'I don't want to die,' she says.
My heart cracks. I have a lot of little cracks on my heart, like a crackle glazed cup.
'All the people are going to die. Everybody wants to die but not Una.'
This moment passes somehow. Things happen. Martin turns the movie off. I go back to work in the bedroom. The girls eat dessert while Martin reads them stories. Una sneaks down to talk to me before bed. We converse. She is sunny. Her new haircut curls around her ears. She takes my breath away with her clear eyed, open faced beauty.

In the car, whenever we drive anywhere, Una will suddenly cry out 'I can see the distance!' Una's greatest desire is to live in the distance, but she can never go there, because the distance is always retreating. I remember driving up the highways of my childhood, looking at the velvet green rumpled hills and wanting to delve deep into them, to exist somewhere in their folds. Wanting to turn off the road, to glide over fields, disappear into forests.

She wants to drive on the moon.

She spent several minutes looking at the Schleich catalogue, telling me which smurfs she wanted and what she wanted them to be able to do: 'I want the smurf in the hammock, but I want him to be able to get out of the hammock himself and walk and talk by himself - real - and I want him to be able to sleep and sing and dance and...' She would rest her forehead on her hand, down on the table, between thoughts, as though tapping into some deep secret part of her mind. Real. The way she says it, her eyes wide, her conviction. There are some things you can't photograph, can't record. Some things you can only hope your mind will hold onto.

This time next week we will have celebrated her fourth birthday, though she will not be four for one more day. She will have blown out four candles. She will be little, but she will be also grown.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poem by Fred

Dogs Dream
Dogs Dream
Dogs Dream
About you.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

He's All Our President

Can we share him? He's an awesome orator.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.


Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don't let us down - don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Read the whole thing here

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Gratuitous Beauty

I am searching for birthday presents for Una. Remember how weird and obsessive I am about present buying? How I always want just the right thing? And then talk myself out of buying anything much at all? Anyway, here I am, looking at painfully and gratuitously and for varying reasons unattainably beautiful things on the Splinter-nets. And I thought I would share my painful melancholy yearnings for these platonic ideals with you all. Because I am thoughtful like that.Kitchen toys made out of used olive oil tins by rafinesse and tristesse.

The above dolls house from Hase Weiss (we are into economically sized dolls houses)
And this one below by Jeanette Domeisen
Though I fully acknowledge we ought to be able to make our own version of this, just as this clever person has done (via We Heart Books). In that other spatial dimension where time is like soup (plentiful, easily padded out to go round, and you can store extra in your bread).
I want to live in this playhouse:
And I haven't even started on Etsy.