Thursday, February 26, 2009

Links for my Mum

Here are some things I want to share with my mum, that I thought some of you would like to look at too.

The first one is this piece of writing about The Flying Nun. It's lovely and affecting and surprising - did you (that's a plural you, not just my mum, but I'd love to know her answer too) know it was a book first? I am going to try and track it down.

The next link is to the wonderful Barista blog, authored by David Tiley, a film maker (and historian? He doesn't say but he certainly seems to have a passion for archives). Many other blogs have already linked to his moving and intelligent immediate response to the Black Saturday fires We Lived Again but Life was Different; all his subsequent posts about the fire have been equally moving, beautifully rendered out of primary material with an unsentimental but clearly emotive commentary in the face of utter black empty loss. The way David holds history up to the light, the way he uses it, like a lens, to meaningfully and elegantly illuminate the present (and in turn creating a historical document himself) makes me literally hold my breath.

And then I love the Internet and I'm glad I waste so much time on it, because it helps me uncover real beauty and make sense of the world.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

not quite normal

I have signed on for sessional teaching at Melbourne Uni this year. I will be teaching two subjects, 5 classes a week, one called Novels and the other Reading Australian Writing, both 3rd year Creative Writing subjects. I am really looking forward to it, though it means a third day of creche for Una (which she will love) and before and after school care for Fred, hopefully she'll enjoy that, though I think she will be tired and g-r-u-m-p-y when she gets home, and there will be days I'll hardly see them. Logistics aside (the scheduling has been a nightmare). I am excited about going off to work like normal people with my bento box and my clear delineations between work and home, though of course I'll still be writing noggles in all my spare time (hahahahahahaha). It's only for 12 weeks, though there will probably be teaching opportunities for semester 2 as well. I have conquered my residual fear of driving on the freeway (well, it's more a fear of merging) and even fluked (utterly) a parallel park on a main road in Carlton with traffic streaming past. Friday is my one year anniversary of being licensed to drive.

Things are still not normal in St Andrews, though I think we are all getting used to the relief centre, the quietness of the roads, especially on Saturday mornings, the constant activity at the CFA, the posses of vans - Bigpond, Parks Victoria, travelling in threes and fours, one identical car after another shooting past as I walk up the main road after dropping Fred at school - and of course the police road block. At first I found their constant presence comforting, though alien. The world had changed and I needed these things to be here to mark its borders and to help interpret the new order of things. I am still appreciative of their presence and their hard work, but I am very much looking forward to the seasons changing, the Saturday market returning, to things getting "back to normal". As I write this I fully know and embrace how lucky I am that there is such a thing as normal still for us, that many people will have to rebuild normal from the ground up and then live it for years before they recognise it.

I also know it's not safe for us to just 'get over it' (as if we could), the season isn't over yet. There is still smouldering behind containment lines, and we are still surrounded by unburnt bush. There have been more fires on the eastern edge of the city and in the middle of the state. As the temperatures are set to soar again on Friday, we're thinking about school and creche and wondering how much we should disrupt our routines every time there is a fire danger day. It's not an easy decision to make, not as easy as I thought it would be immediately after the fires where we declared we'd be driving out every total fire ban day. The fire season stretches long into the school year, at least one month either side, more like two as summers get longer, in 2005 there were bushfires at Wilson's Prom in April as the result of the loss of containment of a controlled burn in unprecedented hot weather. This choice may be taken out of my hands, the Department of Education and Early Childhood are deciding tomorrow whether or not schools will be closed. Luckily Martin and I are both home on Friday. This sort of closure will only get more complicated for us, and will prove almost impossible to balance for some families. Sadly, I wonder if this will end up discouraging people in urban interface like us to send their kids to the local, that's already a bit of a problem here. I know it seems ridiculous to be thinking about the inconvenience of disrupting our routines even if there's the slightest risk of tragedy in light of the awful tragedies, and yet this is where we live, where we spend our everyday and participate in our most ordinary of activities.

Not to end on a sad note, here is a list of things that are making me happy:
*Watching Fred blossom into reading and writing. She came to me before with a jumble of letters, and as I tried to decipher it she showed me the words she'd copied from the subject reader for Reading Australian Writing: 'Nobel Prize'. And, yeah, I could kind of see it, despite the errant F and the fact that the Z was an S.
*Eating a bowl of soup while I type made by Fred with little help from me, with basil and chard from the garden, cherry tomatoes, salt, pepper, fresh ginger and other spices. Actually, it's delicious, a lovely light summer broth with fresh ingredients.
*Marmalade cookies, light and airy, dipped in cold milk.
*A home day with the girls, Fred's last Wednesday at home before the normal school week commences. I feel a touch nostalgic, this is Martin's first week back at uni and my last day at home with both girls under these ordinary circumstances. They've had the odd fight, and for the last hour Una has been bursting into unexpected tears, but for the most part they've played beautifully together, spending most of the day indoors making rockets out of cushions and chairs, doing puzzles, cooking and playing Mums and Girls, Cats and Girls, Girls and Babies etc.
*On Monday (a tense total fire ban day) madly refreshing Twitter as people offered hilarious play-by-play commentary on the Oscars.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

This is not a world

"People write books for children and other people write about the books written for children but I don't think it's for the children at all. I think that all the people who worry so much about the children are really worrying about themselves, about keeping their world together and getting the children to help them do it, getting the children to agree that it is indeed a world. Each new generation of children has to be told: `This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.' Maybe our constant fear is that a generation of children will come along and say: `This is not a world, this is nothing, there's no way to live at all.'"

Russell Hoban, from Turtle Diary, ch 24 found via this site, which seems to be dedicated to seeding random Russell Hoban quotes into the world (!!) And I found that via Julia Lawrinson's blog.

I will write a more personal post later, in the meantime I wanted to stick this into the scrapbook that is my blog, for fear I would lose my way back to it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children
by John Updike

They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes' pure blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

found via Judith at Misrule (not on her blog, she posted the link on Facebook).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Heaven and Earth

In the last day or so, Fred has been asking about God again. Who was the first person? Did God make the trees? The rocks? The road? Do you believe in God? Please, Mummy, please, please believe in God. It amuses me that she is still using the female pronoun for God. I don't think I'll ever quite know where she got the idea that God is a black woman (the prep teacher is quite sure it wasn't her), but I am never going to say anything to disenchant her.

I am trying to field her questions with dignity and respect, without actually betraying my own agnostic-leaning-towards-atheist views (I am not anti-religion, I just simply can't believe that God exists. A shame, because I quite like the idea of church.) She first began asking about God last year when her Papa was in hospital and we passed a room set aside for quiet prayer. She has seen her Papa radically decline (and improve and decline again) in his health, and for a small, deeply empathetic child who has just started to get her head around death and thinks she can fix everything 'all on her lone', this has been a distressing experience. As soon as we began talking about God she latched onto the concept whole-heartedly. For a child who believes easily in fairies and vampires and fairytales, God is no challenge. The basics of God are more plausible and simpler to grasp than science - we evolved from monkeys?! Mummy and Daddy made me how?? - and I guess that's some of the appeal of God for everyone.

We've had the conversation enough times now that I answer fairly automatically, sometimes not even listening to my own answers. Even so, I was not prepared for the way this conversation would go:

'Did God make the trees?'
'Some people believe god made the trees.'
'Did she make the rocks?'
'Did she make the roads.'
'Well, people believe God made people, but people made the roads.'
'No,' she says emphatically. 'God made the roads.' (I guess roads are as concrete and permanent as rocks to a five year old.)
'Oh,' I say. I'm bored of this conversation and always mildly irritated when she asks me a question then contradicts the answer. If you already know, then why ask, smarty pants? I look out the car window. We're curbside, in the suburb of Dandenong, waiting for Martin who is test driving a small blue manual car. A waterpipe has burst, and I am watching clay-coloured water bubbling up from the gutter. It's making me feel sick and uneasy because there are still fires in the state and suddenly this seems like water that should be somewhere else, doing its job, instead of gurgling uselessly onto the road in the middle of industrial estate.
Perhaps reading my mind, Fred asks me: 'Did God make fire?'
My attention snaps. Warily, I answer: 'What do you think?'
'No. God didn't make fire. I think the bad man that is god made the fire.'
For some reason the conversation stopped there. Maybe Una interrupted us, or maybe Martin came back. Maybe Fred or I changed the topic, someone suddenly bleated for a drink or a fizzy-good (the fruit tingles I carry in my handbag as emergency bribery on long car trips). I can't remember.

I have been nutting Fred's response out since. Does she mean the devil? I can't imagine that she would have any concept of the devil, but this bipolar schism intrigues me - the good and wonderful black woman God who made the world, a malevolent male entity who is also God and made fire. Or does she simply mean humans, people, does she have an insight into fire that I wouldn't expect her to have, that sometimes they are deliberately lit? Likely I won't ever know the answer to these questions. It's worth pointing out here (many Australian readers will know already) that there is a high profile religious nutter who claims that the bushfires were God's punishment following our recent laws decriminalising abortion. I'm not going to discuss that here, except to say that I am utterly certain about one thing: Fred's god would never do that. Fred's god loves children, loves the world she has made, and all the dead become angels. Fred's god is the only kind of god I have patience for.

Sometimes I think if the little local church next to the school still operated I would take Fred. The idea of driving into Panton Hill to go to church feels, on a purely selfish level, too intense, too much of a commitment. But I feel I want to give her the chance to develop this interest in spiritual matters even though her views don't match mine, and I would like her to have access to a different world view than my own: for I know there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamed of in my philosophy. For the moment, all I can do is answer her questions as honestly as I can, and know that this is part of how she's working out the nature of existence. Maybe, after all, she can teach me something, if I sit quietly and listen properly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


We came home on Sunday night, and things are still tense out here. We took Fred to school on Monday morning, and it was a very small and solemn collection of students. The prep teacher is stuck on the other side of Kinglake, but safe thank goodness, and so this week it looks like school is unlikely. Many people are still out of the area, and sadly some of the families have lost their homes. We've talked to our immediate neighbours who were home on Saturday night and we are so relieved we weren't home. The fires were close, they could hear the fire front approaching, gas bottles exploding, they lost power - it all sounds truly frightening and we were the lucky ones. We are poised to leave at the first signs of a resurgence, our car is packed. We are also prepared if we get caught by surprise, because you can't take anything for granted. As I write this I can hear Martin walking around on the roof. There are some areas still smouldering and there have been a few flare ups. Our smoke alarm went off at 2.30am and we are still recovering - it took Martin and I a long time to get back to sleep after Martin checked the CFA website and went outside to see if he could smell smoke (he couldn't - the girls slept through it all. They take after my father who slept through a window falling in on him when a bomb dropped close by to his home in the war).

It is strange out here. On the one hand we are barely affected, our house is standing, our neighbours are alive. And yet only 1km or so up the road, houses were lost and lives were destroyed. There have been deaths too, but the information is confusing and chaotic, mostly rumor. We've heard some terrible stories, stories that I can't bring myself to write down. We still have a police block on our road and we have to show ID to get back in. I find their presence both mildly alarming and curiously reassuring. As long as the police are here everything is all right. We drive past the CFA, the army trucks, the police mobilising where the Saturday market usually is. It's like living in another country. The girls are on edge like we are, though it's hard to know what they're taking in.

A helicopter goes overhead, reminding us that the state is still burning. Not far away, Healesville, Yarra Glen... It's not over.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

We're Safe

We weren't at home when the fires hit St Andrews, and we haven't been back since. Things sound pretty bad up there, though our house will still be standing, the fire didn't get quite as far as the township (though it got pretty damn close - we were saved by the wind changing - the people of Kinglake weren't so lucky). We still don't know the extent of the damage, but we know houses have been lost, people have died and others are still missing.

My love goes out to everyone who has been affected by the fires, especially in our wider community of St Andrews and Kinglake.

I will post more about this later, but I wanted to drop by and let those of you who knew about the fires and didn't have another way to contact me that we are well.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Horror Dream

Last night I dreamed that Fred's eyes sealed shut while she was dreaming, no lashes or lumps, no trace of them, just tightly stretched skin. I had to take a scalpel and cut two slits in her face for her to see. And I did it, deftly, with little emotion, but I did it wrong, one, the left eye, was small and neat and well positioned but the other cut was too centered, and too long. Later I saw her and her eyes were back and shining and blue as ever, but she had a long bloody scar across the bridge of her nose where I had misjudged the cut...

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Living in the Fifties

This is The Best Blurb Ever (Onions take note):

by Beverly Cleary (first published in 1954, this is from the 1977 Puffin edition)

This is the story of one summer in the life of fifteen-year-old Jane Purdy. She is quite an ordinary sort of girl, with quite ordinary hopes and fears.

What is different about her is that she is an American; which also means that quite a lot of things happen to her a little bit sooner that they happen in other countries.

If she had been a British girl, for instance, she wouldn't have had such long holidays, or spent so much of them earning money by baby-sitting. And Stan would not have been delivering dogs' meat to help pay his way through college. In fact he would have been allowed to drive a van at all, because he wouldn't have been old enough to have a license, and Jane and Stan probably wouldn't have met each other until a year later.

But whether Jane is British or American, or fifteen or sixteen, what she feels through this summer and how she copes with the first pangs of growing up are very delicately and truly set down in this book. As anyone who has ever stayed home waiting for the telephone to ring will surely tell you.

Those American girls, they're fast I tell you. Jane even washes her hair twice, in the same week!

Here's another taster:
'I have it!' exclaimed the florist. 'How about glads?' He reached into the refrigerator and brought out a couple of stalks of pink gladiolas and held them up for Jane's inspection. 'Nothing sissy about glads is there?'

Having said that, the book for the most part doesn't feel that dated. It has these quirks but I remember reading it as a teenager and I don't recall even really noticing the old-fashioned attitudes. Jane is a pretty cool chick really, and her journey is mostly towards excepting herself for the utterly ordinary girl that she is (which is a refreshing change from the 'everyone's a celebrity deep down' slant of the new millennium).

I'm obviously not the only one having a strange renewed fascination with the fifties (I've had lots of conversations recently about the sublimely distasteful Mad Men). I've been reading Sylvia Plath, The Hours and I've just got The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit out of the library. Perhaps its a response to the general zeitgheist - how did we become the consumers we are, and who will we be in a post-consumerist age? How inextricably are our identities tied up in the world of things, have we been so hollowed out by the mad men? Perhaps this is just a recession/depression, or perhaps we're in our next stage of social evolution...

The thing that makes me curious is why is there something about the aesthetics of the domestic in the fifties that is so damn alluring to me? Is it just social programming? Does it represent some exotic other, some media constructed perfect woman, that I still feel on some level I ought to aspire to? Or does it work on some other level? I don't mean here that I want to be a fifties housewife. Really I don't. But I love to ogle it. I love to read about constructions of fifties femininity, about etiquette and fashions and gelatin salads.

Monday, February 02, 2009

First Day

Early this morning we all left the house together. We walked the familiar route to the school - it's the same way I walk almost daily to the post office, and it's the way to the park and the market. This time we all saw the territory with new eyes. We said goodbye and left quite quickly, as soon as the kids were settled into the room, the paparazzi parents dispersed. Let the records state that I did not cry. I felt nothing but excitement for her and a wonderful lightness of being - I am no longer as responsible for every aspect of Fred's personal growth as I was yesterday. I get to share, yes I admit it, the burden of care for her. I get to hand over some of the intensity of her every waking hour. She is a resilient and powerful creature. I know she is ready for the world.
However, at 3.15 I walk down to the school alone to pick her up. I wait with the other parents, few of whom I know by name (even, I blush, some of the mums I know from kinder last year). All of the prep mums have older kids already at the school, I am the only newby. I am not exactly a foreigner (after all everyone is friendly and inclusive, and I've met everyone before, during orientation last year), but I feel slightly remote. A pregnant woman approaches, a week away from being induced. Everyone here knows her, sympathises with her about the fierceness of last week's heat. She is not someone I recognise, she's not a prep mum, her kids are all in older grades. I make sympathetic noises too, but say nothing. They all start talking about redback spiders nesting in their airconditioning units, again, I say nothing - we don't have airconditioning (yes, that was fun when the mercury hit 45 degrees last week), and I've never seen a redback spider, as far as I know. Fred comes out to use the toilets, hitching up her skirt before the toilet door closes and some of the mums laugh. The bell goes. Fred emerges from the toilets with two other girls and they all drift back in to the cloakroom, I remind Fred to get her bag. When she doesn't reappear I go in looking for her. She's discovered some show bag propaganda from the government. She forgets her schoolbag. I retrieve it. I know I will be carrying it home.
Outside she tells me that Milly, who was her buddy at the end of last year, isn't her buddy anymore. Fred is disappointed. So am I. I like Milly, who posed for a shot with Fred outside the school this morning. She has a new buddy, she tells me, but she can't remember her name. Apparently the new buddy hates Fred's name and hated Fred (Fred used the word hate). 'I think she's just mean,' Fred says, philosophically. My heart suckers closed, like a sea anemone. Later Fred says, 'But she likes me now. I fell over and hurt my knee and I think she was quite worried. She said Oh!' With Fred, it can be hard to get a straight story out of her.
Later, on the way home, Fred says 'Who's the best name of it all?' Still thinking of her so-called buddy, I answer reassuringly, 'Frederique.' 'No!' she says, 'the best black name.' I'm not sure where this question is going. We watched Hairspray recently, after Mamma Mia was such a big hit, and ended up having this terribly confused conversation about racism. 'What is it?' I say. 'God' she announces, with that reverent tone she keeps for talking about god (for new readers, this fascination is not new, but does not come from us, since we are a household of non-believers). 'God,' she says again. 'God has black skin.' What am I supposed to say? I answer with my usual vagueness:'Has he?' She looks at me. 'She. God is a girl. E told us today.' E is her teacher (they use first names, something I'm not 100% jiggy with, though I don't know why it bothers me). I am not sure exactly what transpired in the classroom, and though I know that for Fred, this story has some basis in truth, I also find it hard to believe that her new prep teacher, gentle, quietly spoken, turtle rearing, grey-haired E, smaller than most grade sixes (as I am) stood at the front of the room and said, 'Class, God is a black woman. Hallelujah.'
On the same walk home we also covered what people ate with in the olden days, you know, before forks, whether Fred was alive in the olden days, and if she would go to heaven one day, and just exactly where heaven is.
Although I didn't cry this morning, my stomach is churning. What happened with her buddy? Why were they talking about God in the classroom? This is it, I suddenly know. It's started already. She's entered a world almost beyond my scrutiny, and like a bird I can only survive on the breadcrumbs she throws me.
Later as I'm making her lunch I realise some of the novelty has already worn off. I see a string of endless lunches unfolding before me. There will be other girls like Fred's buddy, who will make fun of her name, or dislike her for no reason and not all of them will be so easily charmed. This is the long haul. This is the future. It's already here.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

For Fred, who is starting school tomorrow

Your childrenare not your childrenThey are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you
yet they belong not to you
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.