Thursday, December 31, 2009

A year is too short

A year is too short. I don't know about you, but it takes me decades to change. Yet here we are at the end of the year, hearing everyone chirp on about their resolutions. And I am thinking, a year is too short.

At some level, four or five years ago, I decided I was ready to start becoming me. And when I consider the last few years, I can see I have moved in that direction. But the changes are gradual, incremental. I may have made lots of steps forwards, but I've taken almost as many back. And so the very idea of a new year's resolution leaves me cold. It sets me up for failure and self-blame, yet another area in my life where I can judge myself harshly.

On the other hand, having an ongoing commitment to become myself, to explore my capabilities, and to discover new things: now that has possibility. It doesn't rely on adherence to a policy or principle, and I can't stuff it up too badly. The worst I can say of a decision is that I should have trusted my instinct, and perhaps I can do better next time. This approach is about freedom and openings, rather than achievements and obedience. And it's borne all kinds of fruit.

Where once I was brittle, I am becoming tender. Once I shied away from babies, and turned down all offers to hold them; now I cuddle them for hours. If I can't hold my own, I hold someone else's.

From never singing, I now sing with other people often. I have discovered I can hold a tune, even an alto part in a choir. I sing to my children and teach them rounds, I sing as we walk to school, I sing late at night as I ride my bike through the dark streets. I have quite literally found my voice.

Once I felt weak. Now I visit the gym regularly. It's made me physically strong; and it's made me more confident and sure of myself in other areas of life. It's even changed my appetite so that I want to eat the sort of food new year's resolutions are made of.

I thought I was lousy with little kids. Now twenty of them crowd around me when I walk into a classroom, stroking my arms and telling me stories; my eyes fill with tears of gratitude.

I've been teaching myself to draw, craft and write, with satisfying results. I can sketch a recognisable portrait; I can make an Advent calendar; I can write a blog.

I don't know what's next. I have no ambition, no plans. The last few years have been so joy-filled in all their random areas of growth that I am content to stay on this track, with all its shuffling forward and stumbling back.

But it's good to discover that in so many areas where I thought I was hopeless, in so many areas I never explored - well, it seems my teachers underestimated me.

Perhaps they underestimated thee, too. And maybe that's the opportunity of the new year: to reflect and explore. But instead of resolving to avoid this or do that, reflect on ways of being, ways of becoming. Find a loose approach that is open to mystery and surprise. What calls you? What lies dormant but longs for expression? What is that gentle voice whispering now, what are its thyme-scented suggestions? What hope swirls in on the sea breeze and cuts through the stuffy house like a knife? Draw a deep breath. Relax. Listen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A crash course in joy

Our home is being turned upside down and inside out as we sort. The kitchen table is littered with lists. We're scribbling over itineraries and covering slips of paper in sums, because in less than three weeks, we'll shove everything into bags, sit on the bags, zip them up, and leave for a trip around the world.

Clearly, we are completely mad. We have three young children, and we are going to spend nine weeks visiting four countries, many friends, and several exquisite dumpling shops. Or lugging sleeping children and snow gear through airport lines, if you prefer to think of it that way.

It all started because friends of ours asked me to facilitate a marriage ritual for them in Berlin, where they live. We linked it in with my husband's long holiday leave, a couple of months every five years, during which time he has to go away (or he doesn't stop working). We are interested in ideas of home and landscape, so we thought that from Berlin we would visit the UK and see where our ancestors came from. And we have many dear friends in the US, and once one has an air ticket from Australia to Europe it is no more expensive to keep going round the world. So we're travelling there too.

I am acutely aware of our inconsistency. I am passionately committed to the idea of home, to putting down roots wherever one is and learning to love it. I believe in living simply and slowly, finding life in depth rather than breadth of experience. I hate many aspects of travel; it is so often just another form of consumption. It's hideously expensive and an environmental disaster - and it's terrible for my garden: the tomatoes and corn will fruit while we're away; the salads will get all buggy, then wither; the young trees will probably die in the February heat. It's hard on our little church to have a family of five away, and our kids will miss the first month of school and kinder. Travel is an ethically grey area, to say the least. I try not to think about it too much.

Because on the other hand, travel can be so life-giving. Five years ago, on our last long holiday, we spent some months with our first baby girl in Italy. We stayed on a small farm, and friends came for a week or two at a time to visit with us and roam the area. Our hosts grew, baked, cured and preserved most of their food, and lived and ate according to the season. They gave us tomatoes and eggs and squash, bread and soup and salami, and taught me to make focaccia. Watching and learning from them had an enormous impact on us. We now grow a proportion of our own food, and make many of our jams and canned tomatoes and other preserves; our eating is much more seasonal than it ever was before.

There, I had my first visceral experience of belonging to a landscape. I'm not Italian, but even so the European light, the fields, the woods, the hills, the churches, the villages, made me feel deeply relaxed. The patterns of seed time and harvest, roads and valleys, sun and rain, the spreading trees and the food growing by the wayside, resonated somewhere deep in my guts. Everything smelled of home.

I was very moved by the constant presence of people of all ages in the squares and playgrounds. People used public space to chat, shell peas, jog, play ball, skip, read - and even hang out washing. Greetings flowed constantly, and children were supervised by many adults. I felt a great sense of neighbourhood and public life there, something that our empty Australian suburbs often seem to lack.

My daughter was pinched and kissed and feted and fed by a hundred security guards, shopkeepers and people at bus stops; and held and photographed again and again. I learned so much about enjoying children, and life, from the way others delighted in her.

Catching up, too, with precious friends from all over the world was wonderful. I lived overseas as a teenager and young adult; friends have since moved internationally; and if we are to continue the relationships, we have to travel from time to time to see each other. And these relationships are important. I can't discard them just because people have moved away, and I can't maintain them solely via email and Skype.

During that trip, for the first time I wrote an essay which was not for a class, sent it off, and had it accepted for publication. Somehow there I found the space and courage to try something new. All my subsequent writing has been a slow, very slow, growth out of that quiet space I first found sitting in a garden in Italy.

I'm aware of the ethical problems with travel, but I'm so grateful for the experience I had. It changed me in so many areas of life - in gardening, food production, child rearing, writing, listening to the quiet voice, thinking about home. I may have been on those paths already, but Italy accelerated the learning no end. I think of it now as a crash course in joy.

So we're off on another trip, and I'm wondering what will grow out of this one. A hundred stories to knit the family together; a dozen friendships renewed. And what else? I wait. I look for the quiet spaces. I know only that out of them something new will emerge, some mystery yet to unfold. I wait.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


As I bang out the dishmop against the kitchen sink, I glance down and see my mother's hands. Sometimes it's so real, it's shocking.

I am telling a story and hear my voice soar up and out, too loud, too loud, but I can't control it; my mother is taking over.

I'm drawing the broom the wrong way; her voice scolds me impatiently.

I find myself preaching sermons, preparing kids' sheets, affecting a congregation, just like her.

I walk into the theological library, and someone greets me with her name. As do old family friends, time and again.

Her enormous eyes are reflected in the bathroom mirror. I lift weights at the gym; she gazes back at me from the mirrored wall.

Whenever I see a small housefly, I think instantly of her. The colour and the texture evoke her grey rollneck jumper. That, and the fact it's buzzing around like a mad thing.

I make scones out of sour milk, quick and fast. I breathe in her impatience and whip the knife blade through the sticky dough; knead lightly with her hands; slide the scones into the oven. They puff into teetering towers. I pull one apart. The steam rises and I am a child again, sitting at a blue kitchen table.

My sister discovers me gardening in the rain. I'm not saying anything, she hollers out the door from the kitchen. But I've become Mum, I yell back. She often gardened when it rained; once, when it was snowing, she made us plant two hundred tulip bulbs before the ground froze.

Whoever said she was dead? Whoever thought she was laid to rest? Because here she is, right here. Her hands are typing, her eyes are looking at the screen. She buzzes around the room, checking up on me, nagging at times. She inhabits my body, takes over my stories, urges me into the pouring rain to pull out weeds, and laughs as the water runs down my neck. A basket of her scones sits on the kitchen table.

It's been nine years since she died. Just when I think she's fading away, her ghost slips back and surprises me again. And I'm grateful for the scones, and the big eyes, and the nice fingernails. I do like gardening in the rain. But I'm ambivalent about preaching, and teaching, and all that - she could have kept those gifts to herself. I wish her voice wouldn't take over my stories. I have to tell her to stop scolding as I sweep the house; be quiet, I say, you're dead.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A season of rainbows

It's the end of a season, a season of rainbows. Rainbow chard, to be precise. After six months of growth on a sprinkling of water and a handful of compost, after feeding our family of five a couple of meals every week, after shooting up to glorious seed, their time is over. The plants, too tall in their seeding, withered and toppled in a hot wind; and I pulled them out.

But before they disappear completely into compost, I would like to remember them. Red, yellow, pink, orange, cream. Blazing stalks holding up impossibly large leaves, deep green and glossy. They force their roots into our worst soil, rock hard clay, breaking it up as they grow. I starve them, and withhold water, and still they produce leaf after leaf after leaf.

Every few days I collect an armload of stems for quiche, for spanakopita, for frittata, for bruschetta. It's free food, an abundance just outside the back door. I find my children chewing in the garden, bright green leaves jutting out their mouths as they sneak an illicit snack. Tsk tsk, I say, pretending to be horrifed, while they giggle green and juicy. They gnaw on the stalks, and try to decide which colour tastes best.

At seeding time, the chard shoots up seven feet tall. There it stands, swaying and catching the late afternoon sun. Pixies! says a friend, amazed. Those plants must harbour pixies! Pixies in the garden!

Beyond them swings a hammock, red, green and gold. The chard grows thick; the hammock disappears behind a leafy camouflage.

Now, the seeds are collected in a brown paper bag. The stems poke out of the compost heap, bright yellow, ruby red, creamy pink. The ground is cleared. And it's time to fall back on lettuces, baby rocket, and spinach from the market while the seedlings grow.*

As I sadly mused the end of my leafy rainbows, at least for now, a harsh shriek pierced my thoughts. I looked up. Lorikeets were hanging in the pear tree; they took off with a crimson flash of their wings, calling to each other. They are annual visitors; they have returned. To my delight, I realised that we have rainbows in the garden even now, but this time, they are rainbows with wings.

*Of course, I haven't managed to grow seedlings ready for the time the old plants are finished. Sigh.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Let's pretend this is a craft blog

It was so hot last week that I gave up writing and thinking, and did cutting and pasting instead. Nothing like an effortless and totally absorbing activity on a hot day. Gotta love it. So let's pretend this is a craft blog for a change.

Because here comes Christmas. I hate Christmas. I hate the shrieking signs in the shop windows and the fake snow spray paint when it's 35C. I hate the tinny Christmas carols that begin in October, and the urge to buy buy buy. I hate the plastic toys and the wrapping that bowls down the street when the northerly blows. I hate not having a big extended family or cousins with children and thereby an automatic Christmas crowd. I hate not knowing quite what we'll do on Christmas Day, or who we will spend it with. I hate Christmas trees in a hot climate, and roast meats in summer, and the obligatory Christmas pudding. And, probably, I hate that I had a minister for a parent. Christmas Day was always a work day, and the weeks leading up to it were unbelievably busy and stressful. Thinking about those days can make me still feel a little sick.

For the last few years, we've done everything we can to ignore it. We go to church on Christmas Eve (and I do like that); have lunch with family and friends (organised last minute so I don't stress too much about it); and give each child a book, another gift and a few hair ties and chocolates. That's about it.

But the holiday season still looms. And, really, it's not Christmas that I hate but all the gross consumerism around it. It's loud, powerful, insistent. And I'm beginning to realise that ignoring it isn't working; it just makes me depressed. Instead, my family needs some rituals which will help us challenge the dominant ethos.

Going to church is one ritual. Our church is thoughtful about how it approaches Christmas or, indeed, any church season, and has given us the language and opportunity to think and talk about Christmas in ways that aren't absolutely mindless fake joy.

But since we are pretending momentarily that this is a craft blog, I want to tell you about another ritual. I was thinking about Advent calendars, and how I loathe them too - at least, the ones with gifts or chocolate in every pocket. How much junk do my kids need?, I wonder.

But it occurred to me that we could have a different type of Advent calendar. We could make our own and, in each pocket, slip a suggestion for an activity which will help us anticipate Christmas. Some ideas I have are: read a story; write a letter together; choose a gift from the TEAR gift catalogue; set up a Christmas tableau; make cookies (because hey! we have kids and we can't be too earnest); shop for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; and so on and so forth.

I had a look online and found a suggestion for a gorgeous Advent calendar here. It's right up my alley: easy peasy, and 100% recycled. The backing is a paper grocery bag, and the pockets (with gussets!) are decorated from our scrap paper tub. I will write the activities on little luggage style tags and slip them in the pockets; and my kids can take one out each day and act on it.

Heading up this post is a photo of my very own creation. I feel like a little kid with a painting on the fridge: inordinately proud, tugging at the adults' legs to come take a look. I particularly like pocket 21, decorated with a square from a road map which includes our street, my sister's street, and our favourite park. And my kids love the idea. They recognise the provenance of most of the pictures: paper which enclosed a gift from a friend; the tag from our favourite muslin baby wrap; a special card; strips from a torn paper lantern. They gently touch the calendar, and beg me to fill the pockets with activities right now. My children are joyfully anticipating Advent, and so, for once, am I. And for that, I am grateful.

PS Click here for some creative ways to consume less at Christmas.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Growing up, moving out

My daughter just turned six. When she's good, she's very very good. And when she's bad, well... But yesterday, as we were ambling home from school, she was good. More than good; she was farsighted, thoughtful, generous, compassionate.

We were walking and talking, when she suddenly leaned into me. 'I love you, Mama,' she said. She went on to say that when she gets older, she might go and live near the beach for a while, or perhaps go away and 'have some adventures'. But, she warned, even after she left she still wanted her father and me to stay in our house 'because we're doing such good things with the garden' - and because after her adventures she'd like to come home and live with us again and look after us in our old age.

Only a month ago we visited my grandparents. They live in another city, so we rarely see them. My grandfather is very frail; my grandmother has advanced Alzheimers, and scarcely moves, let alone speaks. She sits in a dream, flashing out a random smile now and then on a good day, but otherwise completely passive. My daughters watched me feed her with a spoon, and wipe her nose, and clean up her dribble. And my six year old notices and remembers everything.

I found myself wondering, does she mean this? even this? would she really want to feed me and wipe at my snot and dab at my dribble? Even if she imagines a more benign aging process, will she really cook for me one day?

And it raised other memories, painful memories. My mother had a very aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and was quadriplegic for a couple of years before she died. She needed people to brush her hair and clean her teeth, wipe her nose, wash her, dress her, and do everything else. My father and a carer did most of the work, all praise to them.

My mother and I had a fraught relationship; always at war, I had moved out. Even then, we struggled to negotiate the most basic aspects of care. If I came over and brushed her hair, I'd do it too soft or too hard or in some way other wrong. I couldn't even wipe her nose right. I fled to the kitchen and cooked, instead.

When the disease became acute, I suggested that I move home to help out in a bigger way. It seemed the only thing to do. But she, very rightly, refused. We had never got along when she was well; the chances of us negotiating her dependency were close to zilch. More importantly, for her, she believed I had to become fully adult and would be warped by returning home. It was crucial to her that I had space to expand and grow, and she couldn't see that happening under her roof.

My daughter's comment yesterday recalled all this. And it made me wonder, will she and I end up in a fraught relationship, too? She is brittle and fragile, like me, and could easily freeze over for a decade, like me. I already see the shoals ahead. Then again, I have learned some things my mother never knew: that when my daughter's aggressive and rude, pushing me away, the best thing I can do is give her a hug. She thaws every time. Maybe, just maybe we can negotiate a softer, more generous relationship. Maybe she could brush my hair, and I could enjoy it.

We've often made jokes that when she grows up, she and her family can live downstairs and cook for me, and I'll live upstairs and play with all the babies - she says she wants five. And I'm touched by her suggestion, and thrilled that she thinks of me as a person who ages and changes and will one day need care. It means that I'm not just mum to her.

Given all this, if we can find a gentle way to be together, would I want her to look after me? Would I really want my daughter to move back home to cook, clean and attend to my personal needs? And I realise that, at this stage, I wouldn't. No matter how bad things get, and I've sat with my mother through years of pain and suffering so I've a fair idea, I can't imagine I would want my daughter to shrink her life back down to me.

Like my mother, I want my daughter to grow up and out. I want her to explore the world, ever expanding her circles of experience. I want her to go live by her beach, or travel and 'have some adventures'; I want her to form independent relationships and build her own tribe; I want her to move out from under my shadow and grow tall and true. When I enter my doddery old age, I don't want my daughter to be warped, submissive or thwarted by me. I prefer to think of her picking grapes on an Italian hillside, or hiking through the jungle, or sitting on a mountain top, reflecting. And as I sit in my quiet room, I will flick through her postcards and smile.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Body thoughts

I am churned up by competing thoughts. Well, not thoughts really, more those amorphous senses or emotions that are thrown up by my heart and my guts. They are body thoughts, ideas and words floating around somewhere below my neck. They're not head thoughts. Writing about them is difficult, because writing begins in my head and only sometimes manages to send its roots down and draw from the rest of my body.

And these body thoughts are at war. On the one hand, I am tired of being thoughtful, responsible, hard working, a good girl. I'm tired of being the adult around here. I'm tired of cleaning up the mess, and reading the labels in the supermarket, and sitting on my temper. I'm tired of looking after everyone, and cooking for everyone, and doing the dishes afterwards. I'm sick of analysing, weighing things up, trying to make every choice a good choice. I'm fed up with the critical Protestant in me, whose black clothes are tightly buttoned up to her chin, and whose black umbrella jabs me in the guts in constant reproach. I'm sick of being modest, and self conscious, and nice. I don't know what I want; maybe it's just a week to myself; maybe it's something else. Something larger, something more like generosity to myself. Which, to a good Protestant girl, feels a lot like selfishness.

After feeling like this for months, I broke out and bought an obscenely extravagant pair of red high heels. I think it was a good decision; I couldn't bear to wear any of my sensible shoes to the wedding of friends, and celebrating marriage is a wonderful thing. Finding a safe outlet to feel outrageously selfish is another. Now I sleep with the shoes in a box on my bedside table. I love them madly; they've invaded my dreams, and I'm wondering if I've entered the fairytale where the red shoes will dance me to my destruction.

So there's that.

On the other hand, the question Why not? swirls around too. This question, this invitation, rises up and asks me: Why not become the person you want to be? And that person is a woman in her forties who knows herself, who is calm and faithful and powerful. I want to grow into one of those radiant people, whose faces shine out with love and hope and generosity. I want the self-assurance to be assertive and gentle - the assurance that doesn't need to prove itself, but which comes with self-knowledge. I think of Kathleen Norris's comparison of the committed life - monasticism or marriage or, I would add, parenting - to a rock tumbler. It may hurt like hell, but you come out beautifully polished. And that is what I want to be - beautifully polished at the end of this life.

Somehow, the two gut senses feel at war. One part of me wants to run away, to stop being so responsible, to get selfish for a while. Another part of me wants to become the sort of person who is graceful, generous, loving. And I feel like doing both is impossible.

But lately it occurs to me that perhaps they are not exclusive. Perhaps, just perhaps, I wonder, could they be different faces of the same coin? Because if I lose myself too completely in the mundanity of jobs and responsibility and parenting, I forget how to play. I become puffed up, thinking the tasks at hand are more important than they really are. I become boring. I forget how to laugh, how to analyse, how to criticise myself - and worse, I begin to judge others. Soon I resemble that pointy-faced Protestant with a sharp umbrella.

But if I get selfish, in a good way - take the time for myself to listen, reflect and pray; shut the study door and write, ignoring the cries of children who are being looked after most capably by their daddy; do what I can to live well and accept it as enough, for now; even buy those outrageous shoes to celebrate a friend's wedding - then I come to know myself better. And I have no doubt that a growing self-knowledge has already enabled me to become a better parent, wife and friend.

So perhaps the body thoughts aren't at war; perhaps they're inviting me to take what I need to look after myself and not just everyone else. Perhaps they're suggesting that I can be generous to myself, and that might lead to a new generosity towards others. If I listen to these gut feelings, and, consistent with my commitments, trust in them, then is it possible that maybe, just maybe, I might one day become that polished person I so long to be?

Monday, November 9, 2009

We're off!

We're trialling a Christiania delivery bike this week, thanks to the lovely Peter at psbikes. Yesterday, day 1, we toddled around the back streets getting used to the feel of it. We dropped in on my sister and shocked her neighbours by riding circles around her street - one neighbour stared at the bike with his mouth hanging open. Then we went to the supermarket, dumped a big bag of groceries on the floor of the delivery cart, and cruised home.

Today was day 2, our first morning school run. My kids usually need me to hassle them to get ready in the morning. Our routine is as follows: I ask and then ask more firmly and then really ask very firmly indeed and then shout and then on bad days screech and yell to get them to dress, brush their teeth, do their hair, apply sunscreen, get their hats, put on shoes and go out the door. After this ordeal, we burst out the door at 8.25am, and hustle and bustle down the busy road to get to school on time - only on a good day do we get out early and go the longer, quieter back way.

This morning, my big girls, aged 3 and 5, were standing at the front door, dressed, shod, teeth brushed, hair in ponytails, begging to leave at 7.14am. That's one hour and 19 minutes earlier than usual. The three year old cried when I said it would be more than an hour before we could go in the bicycle.

At 8.10, I took pity on my forlorn daughters again hovering near the front door. So we left to have a play at a local park on the way to school. When we got to the park, they ran around for two minutes then asked to go back in the bike. So off we went to school, nice and early.

It was hot, over 30 by the time we left the house, so I had the bike's sunshade set up. It looked like something out of the British Raj; the sunshade reminded me of a howdah. I said something to that effect out loud, and then had to explain the culture of the British Raj - nothing about oppression or exploitation, I'm afraid - to my five year old. A bit intense for 8.30am.

I was concerned that we'd have less opportunity to chat with each other or exchange greetings with other pedestrians because we were on a bike and not on foot. But because we rode the quiet way, we chatted all the way to school - we could hear each other perfectly well. And on this, our very first school ride, two cyclists - strangers - slowed and rode along with us, at different times, to ask about the bike. Both were very excited to see it - one of them had even been to Christiania, the town where the bike was made. When we arrived at school, a bunch of kids came over to check it out. And when I went to leave again, a group of parents wanted to ask about the seatbelts and the pivot system - the cart bit pivots, which makes cornering a breeze. So we had more conversation than ever.

We have two more days to trial it. But I'm sold already. It's cruisy, it's shady, it fits three kids and groceries, and we look cheerfully eccentric. What else could we want from a mode of transport?!

PS - Thanks for your comments. Brenda: Living locally sure costs more in the short term - like trying to buy local, or even Victorian, produce. It kills me that Victorian olive oil costs more than stuff from Italy! Mandy: I saw a photo of a family from Georgia with a Christiania bike, but I don't know where they got it. Here's a link to a conversation about the availability of cargo bikes in the US. Heather: Thanks for the Yuba tip - but I'm in love with this bike and will definitely go with it! And I loved the photo of your custom wheelchair bike. I saw too that Christiania also do a wheelchair bike; the floor of the cart inclines, you roll on, and as you roll the weight of the chair pushes the floor back up flat again!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Give us a wave!

Because I am committed to simple living - that is, I attempt to be committed - I am looking at a four thousand dollar bike.

It's true.

Walking to school takes hours every day. It has its merits, many merits, that I don't deny. We go different ways, and stop off in playgrounds, and observe all the gardens, and make new friends. But my double pram is only so big. My kids keep getting heavier. And we have a double decker style pram, so the baby sits staring at the back of the top seat. (A side-by-side pram would never fit in my suburb.) My baby, who is suddenly not a baby but an inquisitive child of fifteen months, is fed up with the view. She shrieks when I put her in, then twists her body and shoves her head out at all angles to get a better look at things. One of these days, I'm going to knock her block off with a rubbish bin or fire hydrant. I could put her in the top part of the pram, but then my three year old would have to walk - and it's just too far for a three year old. She even struggles on a scooter.

The tram costs five dollars just to get there and back; that's ten dollars a day, drop off and pick up, and at this time of year I'd prefer to spend that sort of money on blueberries. Not to mention that it's impossible to fit on a tram at peak hour, my kids fall over when it accelerates and brakes, and the motion makes my baby throw up.

Driving to school is a nightmare. We live in a crowded area with narrow streets and kamikaze drivers; it's what some friends refer to as the Beirut end of the city. And our car is a big, smelly, petrol guzzling behemoth. We bought it to drive up the creekbed into a friend's country block, but to transport a small child to school - well, using the car feels grossly excessive. I do, of course, when everyone's ratty and tired, or it's stinking hot or raining torrentially. But it's not my favourite option. I read of the abominable goings on of Trafigura and other petroleum companies; and little things like oil wars, global warming and my city's filthy air bother me, too. I try to avoid driving as much as possible.

So, what's my brainwave? A new bike! A four thousand dollar bike, in fact. We're looking at a Christiania cycle. It's a Danish delivery bike, and fits up to four children - with seatbelts - in the delivery cart. It has a sunshade and a rain cover, which will make it look like a covered wagon. We can still go through the parks and stop off at the playgrounds, and travel slowly enough to notice the trees in bud. We can chat all the way to school, but without the tears too much walking entails. And when my five year old becomes more confident, she can ride alongside.

It's taken me a long time to recognise that 'green' living might mean spending a bit of money. It doesn't all have to be so terribly difficult - I can go to school petrol free without making it a forced march for tired hot and hungry kids. And, as expensive as the bike is, most families spend much more than that on a second car. So I'm arranging a test ride, and then we'll organise our finances, and then... if you see a woman with three gorgeous girls cycling a delivery bike through Brunswick, give us a wave!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Music lessons

Other parents manage it. They have the job, and the kids, and they still find time to run their children to this class and that. I don't know how they do it. My kids walk to school and kinder and the shops, and then flop at home while I cook dinner. There's never enough time to do anything else.

What the hell are we doing? I wonder. The days are slipping by, one blurs into the next, and suddenly it's almost the end of the year. I was meant to arrange music lessons; our play is so unstructured that I'm not quite sure there's anything there; in fact, all we ever do is moon about. Where does the time go?

I think I blame the school run. Or, in our case, the school dawdle. It takes hours every day - especially when it goes wrong.

The other morning we were ready early enough to take the long way to school. We left at 8, in time to visit each of the two playgrounds, and arrived at school just before 9. Then I stood around chatting with parents while my preschool children played with other younger siblings. My plan was to rush home after and do a heap of jobs. But as we were leaving the school gate I noticed my three year old's jumper was missing. So we searched the school and the grounds, and found nothing. With sinking heart, I realised it may have been dropped on the footpath or left in a playground, and we'd have to walk the long way home again. So off we went, with the double pram, back through the side streets and the playgrounds. And just a few blocks before home, there was the jumper lying on the footpath, where the one year old had pulled it out of the pram basket at her feet and discarded it.

We staggered in at 10am, two hours after we left. We could have driven there and back in less than half an hour. Dammit, I thought as I flopped into a chair, tired and thirsty. What a colossal waste of time.

But later, refreshed, I found myself wondering, Or was it? On the way, my children played and swung and climbed and noted the new spring growth on the European trees. They picked a few flowers, sniffed every rose they saw, and called out the names of all the plants they recognised. We checked out our favourite front gardens, especially the veggie patches, and saw that someone else's rainbow chard, growing in a shady spot, wasn't in seed yet. Other families rode past, calling greetings from their bicycles; and old friends from kinder waved from their cars on their way to the local Catholic school. We saw a few dogs, and practiced ignoring them. My five year old tried out a new trick on her scooter. We greeted half a dozen fellow walkers, and chatted with the crossing ladies.

My house may be messy, but my kids don't care. They need trees and gardens and friendly neighbours. They need to climb on things and run and balance on walls. And most of all they need a sense of belonging. On the walk, we meet people and travel with them for a while, building relationships. We work out which street connects to which park, and develop a neighbourhood map. We observe the changing seasons, and find favourite gardens, which become personal landmarks. We discover small laneways - some, only slightly wider than our pram - and sneak through them, with a cheeky sense of delight.

Much more fun than hanging round while Mum puts on another load of washing. The dishes can wait. Only yesterday, my three year old discovered a whole block of musical railings - every fence in the street had metal pickets. She moved her hand as she walked along, playing up and down the scale. And as the notes rang out, my daughter began to sing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Small green shoots

Spring romps through the garden. After weeks of rain, today it is abruptly warm. The crabapple is heavy with pink blossom; the air heady with scent. The wind tosses white pear petals about. Ripening almonds bob on whippy branches just outside the study window. Lime green fig leaves look apple crisp against a neighbouring red brick wall. The rainbow chard has gone to seed, and the stems tower six and seven feet high, dancing and swaying in the breeze. A geranium spent the winter quietly climbing up a fence; now bright pink flowers wink at eye level. Lettuces burst out of planter boxes; potatoes fill the trench; the first three artichokes are forming on the silvery thistle.

Through the trees, you can glimpse the hammock suspended between a sheoak and a gum. Wander past the little apples and sink into it. Or flop onto the trampoline, rest a while, and look at the plum flowers above you. They flutter white against the bright blue sky.

After a summer struggling to keep all alive; after an autumn of replanting and teaching the soil to absorb water again; after a winter of bare branches and slow growth - here is life. The garden is in full swing.

And for once I don't see the weeds, the builder's rubble, and all we've failed to do. I don't see the ugly fence, or the ground under the crabapple waiting to be turned over, cleaned and planted. Instead, I see what is good. And what is good is very good indeed. Heaven on earth, right here in our backyard.

It fills me with awe. We're no great gardeners. I just read books and say, what if? And to my amazement, a collection of what ifs has become a sunny spot to chat, a shady place to read, a hammock to swing in, a pink salvia luring you round a bend in the path. It's a daisy saying hello, and the scent of violets following you as you wheel your bicycle past. It's white flowers glowing along the path at night, and bright flowers for children to pick. It's lavender under the washing line, mint in an old bathtub, and creepers up the fence. It's rambly and shady and overgrown and romantic.

And the more we do, the more I can imagine. There may be a pile of plaster buried under the weeds around the crabapple, but I imagine purple salvia spikes thrusting up through the lower branches. The neighbour's brick wall radiates heat, but I can see an olive tree holding the space, its silver leaves creating dappled light. The trampoline sits on a patch of raggedy weeds; but violets are spreading in its shade and one day every bounce will be sweetly scented.

Our garden has felt like a wasteland, covered in builder's rubble, exposed when next door was a construction site, and dried out by years of water restrictions and little rain. When we renovated, we ripped out old sheds and demolished a back room to increase its size - but the dirt was so sour it wouldn't take water, wouldn't take a plant. Cow manure and compost, and a year or two, and finally the soil is becoming fertile. Things are beginning to grow. And every now and then, I notice the shift that has taken place and my heart leaps.

A fragment of heaven slipped into my garden. I see, and I celebrate. And still more green shoots point the way ahead, and hint of further beauty yet.

(For a chat about garden books, click here.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Between the dunes and the sea

We stayed with family in Perth last week. I lived there for a few years when I was a child, and otherwise only visited. Yet even now, one road in Perth sings to me of home.

Whenever we go, we drive the long coast road from my relatives in the north to my old home, Fremantle. During the day, children sit in the back and I tell them the same old stories. Turn left here, and you'll get to my grandparents' house, before they moved to the Home. This is the suburb where my mother grew up. She was your grandmother. She lived in a house at the end of a sandy track, before the road was built. They buried a trailer load of sheeps' heads in the garden, and grew beautiful roses. Years later, when they dug up the roses, every bush had its roots wrapped tight around a paperthin skull.

Turn here to my other grandfather's house. His garden overlooked the golf course. He sat in his garden to paint and made friends with an inquisitive crow. Wayward golf balls landed among his roses; he put them in a cupboard.

Look at the dunes, I say. Look at the soil. It's sand, not clay. This is a city built on sand. Look at the water. Can you see the sailing boats? Let me tell you about my great uncle Merv, a sailor. He brought back China silks for my mother and her sisters when they were little girls. Let me tell you about my cousin Rob, the one you love to call Funny Man. A few years ago, he sailed down to Albany, and we drove hundreds of miles to meet up with him there. On our way home through the midnight forest, owls sat on reflector poles at the side of the road, enormous eyes glowing, and took to the sky as we roared past. We saw their wings flash past the windshield, soft, soft.

Just here is Port Beach. Out to sea, the container ships are waiting to come in. My daddy brought us here to swim after school. We'd bodysurf the breakers again and again. As the sun set and the shadows grew long, he'd call us out of the water. Damp and dozy, we'd sit on our towels in the back of the car and watch the street lights flashing by.

Look, round the corner there. Look at that one house, in among the stacks of shipping containers. One person refused to move. So they built the dockyard around her, and there it is even now, a little lavender house towered over by red, blue and grey blocks.

Story after story as the road unfurls.

At night, aunties babysit and my husband and I drive in darkness. For long stretches there are no street lights. It is magical; we roll through my memories. I tell my husband harder stories, sadder stories. And every time I weep for love of this place. I may live in Melbourne on the other side of the country, yet here is my landscape. Ocean to the west, dunes to the east. Family to the north, friends to the south. The air is salt and clean and fresh; water surrounds us. Salt water, river water, lapping, rolling, roaring. During the day, it shimmers silver. As the sun sets, the water ripples orange. The sky is thin and high, the scrub thick and low. I am deeply oriented here. I feel it in my bones.

This road maps my family, my history, my stories. This road is my geography. Driving along, I drift in and out of memory. Whether I travel it north or south, day or night; whatever my destination, wherever I am headed: on this road, I am always coming home.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Annoyed by my dinner

My husband's taken two kids out for the evening, and I'm home with the baby. If I'd remembered in time, I'd have bought something nice for my dinner. But I forgot. I gaze into the fridge. The three turnips, two carrots and stick of celery that were there this morning became soup with friends at lunchtime. I have no onions; they went into the soup. So I'm left with an inch-long stump of cucumber and a bit of ginger. We've run out of bread and crushed tomatoes and frozen peas, and I'm grazing on the last of the olives as I fret about dinner.

Be simple, I think. There's nothing to eat anyhow, and it's pouring with rain, and the baby wants to go to bed so I can hardly go shopping or get take away. So I make a bowl of spaghetti with olive oil and parmesan and tell myself that this is a classic dish. It's too wet to pick lettuce, so I forego even a salad.

As I'm eating my spaghetti, I'm feeling ravenous for protein. I think of all the great burgers I have eaten... and tell myself firmly that this is a simple meal, much better for the world. And then I remember that the olive oil is my favourite oil from Crete, on sale this week at one sixth the price of the local olive oils and I couldn't pass it up. The spaghetti is Italian, as is the parmesan. I'm sitting there eating food from across the world, and I'm feeling ungrateful. And annoyed at myself for feeling ungrateful, even as I reflect that a good local spud with a pool of melting butter; a good local steak oozing blood onto my plate, is probably far better for the earth than tony Italian imports.

Annoyed at my dinner and how little I want it. Annoyed that I was disorganized, and had no better option. Annoyed at my hunger, and how much it dominates my mood. Annoyed at my family, who will be well fed at their party. Annoyed at food miles and vegetarianism and every other restriction on eating that I want to live by but just find too hard much of the time. And annoyed that I'm annoyed.

I'd like to think I'm growing in maturity - and then this, this frustration at a single meal, the way a meal shapes my self-image, my worldview, my evening, makes me want to shriek with exasperation. We're such physical beings, so affected by weather and food and exercise and illness. A late meal, and I'm shouting at the kids. Not enough protein, and I slump in fatigue, overwhelmed by the demands of a young family. Too little exercise, and I get the blues. Repeatedly broken sleep, and I weep into my muesli. But get those things right, and I'm cheerfully confident, full of energy and ideas.

How would it shape my thinking if I didn't have access to good food? What sort of crank would I become? My slow growth in the ways of gentleness and kindness, my attempts at patience, my ability to think and muse and wonder - are they nothing more than the product of sourdough rye and buttery avocadoes at lunchtime?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My five year old can read fluently, and has no problem with numbers. But she mostly can't be bothered to draw. So, in the interests of balance, we settled down yesterday afternoon to play some games.

First, we did blindfold drawings. Blindfold on, or eyes shut, and draw whatever you want. So she scribbled a few love hearts and flower symbols. Then she tried a face, and yelled with frustration that the eyes and nose ended up two inches to the left of the circle head.

So we moved on to contour drawings: eyes on an object, pencil stays on the page, and draw in one fluid line. She drew a hand symbol four times in a minute, tight and boring: four fingers, a thumb, and done. I spent two minutes doing a slow drawing of my hand, and it was loose, scribbly and hilarious. So my daughter flounced and slammed down her pen because her drawings 'weren't as good as' mine.

Clearly, I was doing this wrong. I reflected. My parents said I used to paint at kinder, then immediately wash over the painting with black paint so noone could see it. I remember being teased in early primary school because my drawings didn't look right (I drew in perspective), so I quickly shifted to symbols: green grass, blue strip of sky, and little stick figures looking straight at the viewer. Even in high school, I kept to symbols until I could avoid art altogether. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I had the confidence to sit down one holiday and play with contour drawings, and in doing so, re-discovered something lost to me since kindergarten: the beauty of drawing.

My inner critic is still powerful, and I'm still learning how to keep it under control; my daughter's inner critic can be as constricting as mine. Like me at the same age, she draws conventional symbols because any other attempts are immediately blasted, by herself and others, as being too wobbly, too wiggly, too weird, too strange.

So we put on some music, and I described the pleasure of drawing. I talked about the satisfying feel of a good pencil moving across heavy paper; I tried to describe the dreamy state when one's thinking moves from the left to the right side of the brain; and I gave her some ideas to keep her inner critic quiet. I told her that some artists take years to complete a painting; that a good drawing takes more than a minute, and it isn't a race. Then I set up a still life of apples and bananas and a cup, and she did another contour drawing, then filled it in with crazy colours. We left her purple and yellow apples on the table, and had a long bath.

While she was in the bath, she commented that she always drew her flowers with a stick, two leaves and some petals, but real flowers don't look like that. So I talked about the difference between drawing symbols, and drawing what one actually sees, and how when one becomes absorbed the sensation of running one's eyes over the shape of a tree, a hand, a leaf feels like a pencil running over paper. Even days after a session, one can look at something and immediately know how it would feel to draw it. Find a good pencil, I suggested. Try different ones and see which you like the best.

Grandpa came over. As I bathed her sisters, she announced she was going to do his portrait. She sat in the back room, drawing away. I came out as she muttered, No! he needs more wrinkles!, and added a series of wavy lines to his face. Quietly absorbed, my daughter, who an hour earlier had managed nothing more than a heart and a flower with five petals, added the chair behind and around him, and the shape of the chair suggested bulk. Totally relaxed, she filled in the plaid of the chair's fabric. She drew in the lamp behind his shoulder, and shaded in rays of light; she drew in the bookcase. Grandpa's jumper bulged in all the right places. It was recognisable, joyful, exuberant.

I fret that her critic is as loud as mine; it grieves me to watch her curtail what she can do for fear of failure or being different. My heart sinks when I see her tight little hearts and flowers, all coloured in regulation pink. But some of the sadness is projected. I spent years at school, head down, trying to be invisible, when I instead could have been writing, drawing, learning; thinking about those years still makes me feel lonely and small. And yet, perhaps my experience is a gift: now I can help my daughter name and defuse the power of that critical voice; now I can choose a school for her which is a little more gentle, a little more encouraging of difference; now I can describe the joy of writing, drawing, making something beautiful.

And for all my worry, in one hushed evening, with a few suggestions, a few pointers, my daughter drew something delightful. She beams with satisfaction, and presents her drawing to Grandpa. We crowd around and admire her work. She grins, then wanders off to do something else. And my heart leaps as I realise that perhaps I need not be so anxious. She's not me, but another child, of a new generation; she's proud of her effort, but relaxed enough to leave it and go play when it's done. Her parents are different; her school is different; and with a good dose of luck, she'll explore whatever fascinates her without being governed by fear. Quick to learn, interested in the world; parents who give her reflective tools: perhaps, just perhaps, her guiding force might not be a crippling self consciousness, but instead an effervescent joy.

Even if not, even if, like me, she decides in the next year or two to bow down to fear and shrink back for a while, there is still hope. Because I have found, in growing up, that the fear means nothing; and the joy has been there all along. In time it will find the cracks in her defences, in time it will slowly seep in and fill her up, so that sooner or later she will be radiant again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Racing cars and muddy puddles

Every week, I spend an hour or two at a local primary school listening to kids read.* All the kids are refugees, all from the Horn of Africa. All but one are Muslim. Elsewhere I have reflected that African and Muslim kids, in fact kids from anything other than white middle class backgrounds, are rarely represented in children's story books. Not only are most kids in stories white, but most families have mums AND dads, both parents are around whenever the story takes place, and everyone lives in a house. In contrast, of course, in the world of this school kids are black; families have one parent, two parents, several aunties, or an older sibling in charge; and everyone lives in a flat.

These kids don't look like the kids in storybooks. Not only that, but before I was given a copy of the class roll, I had never seen these kids' names in print. How will it affect these children, I wondered, to never see their own names in stories? Will the lack of familiar names or situations be a stumbling block to those who are struggling to read? Will they see stories as always being about 'other' children, white children with English names? Will it create in them a longing to assimilate, to make their names and their lives more English; or will it create a desire to hold back from the dominant culture?

With these questions and no answers in mind, I wrote a set of (really really bad) rhymes which incorporate the names of all the kids in the class. Two boys go for a ride in a racing car; four girls climb a tree; a group of boys slide and fall in a muddy puddle. I've tested the rhymes on my daughters, who asked me to read them over and again, so that counts as a pass in my book; I only hope they'll meet the classroom test, where the kids can't sit still and don't like to be impressed!

This class in particular is extremely high energy. I feel like I'm in a room with 19 rubber balls, all bouncing randomly. A few weeks ago they had an emergency teacher, and it was like watching a man carrying too many oranges. First one slipped, then the next, and before you knew it there were oranges rolling everywhere. It was total chaos; I found it hilarious. I'm riding the energy of these little kids, even as I set boundaries and demand certain behaviours. And I'm falling in love with the lot of them. One by one, these children have found the cracks in my heart and crept right in.

In this surprise development, this unlooked-for falling in love, I find myself tapping into a whole new source of energy. Bleary exhaustion is my usual state, what with three small children of my own who often ALL wake at night; and yet I have all sorts of small ideas for these kids, nudging my attention and demanding to be heard. Little things, anything, which may get one kid or another stuck into books.

A few weeks ago I took in a teddy dressed up as a character from a story they had read and re-told the story aloud. I fed them cake to congratulate them on their work so far and discovered they know how to be quiet if there's cake involved. One bright boy, slippery as an eel and as hard to draw close, refuses to get out his reader, so I make him read the first paragraph of whatever book is in my bag - Patrick O'Brian, William Gibson, whatever. Last week, to his disgust, he had to read the first paragraph of a book about marriage; this week I suspect he'll bring his own! I'm dreaming up short poems about giggling girls and boys peeking in cupboards; and I'm quietly, gratefully wondering what's next.

You see, the small act of reading with children has led to all sorts of playfulness, a minor blossoming. I get home each Friday and flop in a chair with a cup of tea. With any luck, my 1 and 3 year olds are both resting and I have twenty minutes to doze, and listen for the next prompt, the next nudge. After this story, this cake, these poems, what? I wait. Some new idea, some surprise is just around the corner; my job is simply to recognise it, accept it, however silly it seems, and put it into action.

*If you want to read about how I got myself into this, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My hard heart

A block down my street lives a woman I'll call Jenny. It's hard to tell her age, maybe 35, maybe 45. Her face is ravaged. She's a heavy smoker; she's had a stroke, and now she lives in supported accommodation. As far as I can tell, the stroke wiped out mood inhibitors, as well as some motor control. Jenny spends her days sloping along the streets, bent like a question mark, muttering. She repeats phrases obsessively, 'need money, need money, need money' for blocks on end. When she sees a passer-by, she stops in their path and, almost incoherently, demands change. She uses it to buy more cigarettes. On bad days, she shrieks and wails and moans as she walks. Some days, she sobs.

My children are terrified of her. For all my words about illness, and acting with sympathy and kindness, they tense up when they see her, hide behind my leg, and beg to cross the road. Jenny's clothes hang in loose folds around her warped and skinny little frame. When she sees the kids, she swoops towards them like a slow ungainly bat. She stands too close, way too close, and jabbers her almost unintelligible demands: 'money, money, money'. No wonder the kids are frightened; she scares the bejeezus out of me.

Sitting at home, I hear her go past shouting, shrieking, sobbing several times a day. This is a wreck of a woman, physically and mentally devastated, driven to pound our footpaths and scab cigarettes.

And do I have pity? No, I do not. Instead, I think, For goodness' sake shut up already!

My hard heart frightens me. Jenny frightens me. Every major faith tradition tells us to love our neighbour, and care for the outcast. I find this easy enough with the retired midwife across the road: she's playful, sensible, and she gives us lemons. But the neighbour who stands at our gate, wailing and moaning? Who veers her path to intersect ours and block our way? Who curses me when I say 'no' and refuse to open my wallet? Who makes my children cry?

What do I do with a neighbour like this? How do I love her? Give her money so she can smoke herself into oblivion? Invite her in for a cup of tea? Or, as a warm hearted woman at the tramstop once said, do I 'sedate her, and give her a great big cuddle'?

Instead, 'No, Jenny,' I say. 'No.' I don't want to give her change and thereby cigarettes; my kids are anxiously hanging off my legs; we have places to go. But I hope that one day, maybe when my children are older and I don't feel so protective, I can find a way to become less scared and more open, and turn that 'no' into a 'yes'. For now, however, the best my hard heart can manage is to look her in the eyes, say 'no', speak her name, and move on.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chocolate, anyone?

I love a square of chocolate. Last night I ate seven. So did my partner. My children ate one, one and a half, and two depending on their weight. Then we changed the sheets and towels, threw everyone's clothes in the wash, and put the kids to bed. As the strange metallic taste unfolded in our throats, we vacuumed and mopped the floors, scrubbed the toilet, and hung out the next load of washing.

Worm medication comes in chocolate squares, these days.

I discovered it tastes like ordinary chocolate. Not quite the fair trade organic dark chocolate that I usually enjoy, but the chocolate of cheap easter eggs. My kids thought it was good.

What else did I learn? Usually, I hurl bedding and dirty clothes across the room into the laundry basket. This time, I carried them at arms' length, walking sedately and placing them gently into the basket - because, according to the packet, worm eggs can be airborne. Shaking sheets or clothes can dislodge them and send them drifting through the house.

Everything is now suspect. I am sure that every long fingernail, every gap in the floorboards, every grain of sand in the sandpit is harboring parasites, just waiting for a new host.

Living with young children is a deeply bodily experience. Forget the birth, it's the next five years of minor illnesses, poo, and parasites that wear me down. Worms, headlice, vomiting, rivers of snot, slapped cheek, flu, conjunctivitis, croup... this is the year so far. Is our family particularly putrid, I wonder, or does no one else talk about this much?

And the small physical injuries: I'm forever being elbowed in the boobs by someone scrambling for another book. I've spent hours at the physio and the gym treating child-related damage: a wrist so strained from holding down powerfully writhing babies that I was going dizzy with pain; a nerve so pinched from carrying heavy children that I bent double, at times. The skin on my hands peels off in strips: despite slathering on the fancy moisturizer and swallowing countless capsules of fish oil and selenium, fatigue and handwashing triggered eczema and I'm stuck with it until my baby goes to kinder. That's what the specialist says.

The washing machine trills. The fourth load is ready to hang out, and the fifth, sixth and seventh await. It's no wonder that I eat a small square of chocolate in the mid-afternoon, a quiet reward for getting through the day so far, an encouragement to pack the pram and head off to school. But perhaps I'll have to find a new pick-me-up. Because for the next few weeks, a square of chocolate will remind me of an itchy bottom, a mountain of laundry, and a little box illustrated with cartoon worms.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In praise of death

I'm terrified of death. Some nights, I wake in the small hours and lie next to my beautiful warm husband, transfixed by the horror that he, I, we will one day be no more. All that will be left are a few stories, until they too fade away. I worry that my children will die young, and I become all teary; I fret that I'll be a young widow, and be unable to cope; I think about my own death, and hope I can go gracefully and generously, even as I feel sick with panic.

And yet, I want to sing death's praises. Not sudden death, or violent death, or death before time. Not death that is plotted and planned and controlled. But death after a good life - yes, I will sing its praises.

I sat with my mother as she died, after years of suffering. We made jokes, and cried, and sang, and said goodbye; and then we were quiet as she laboured at the end. The room was filled with a sense of generosity, of hope and love. And freedom.

Because when a sick person dies, they are liberated from their suffering. They, and we, are utterly relieved that they will have to endure no more. No more doctors, no more pain, no more pills. And when a sick person dies, they leave a space. For years it is a great yawning void, a space that can barely be endured. And yet, whether we tiptoe round the edges and pretend it's not there, or leap into the void and feel drowned by grief, we grow into it. Our lives expand and we experience liberation.

My mother was a gifted woman, a workaholic, a trailblazer. She was large; her spirit took up most of the room. There wasn't much space for the rest of us. After she died, we crumbled down to our hard cores, then slowly, unexpectedly blossomed, as her shadow faded and we had access to the sun. So I will sing praises, to the end of suffering and to the start of something new.

And I will sing of corpses. I have seen a few. I will sing praises, because death is hidden here. Sick people are shuttled off to hospital, or hospice. To visit them and spend time with them, we have to drive to strange suburbs and sit in strange rooms and have strange conversations. Death becomes foreign. It happens to other people, somewhere else. Bodies are whisked away, and reappear, by arrangement, at the funeral home. So I will sing the praises of corpses, of the right to see a loved one in their final state, of the chance to say one last goodbye to a strangely still and waxy face, familiar and foreign in death.

I keep a few skulls on my piano: a wallaby, a kangaroo. I caress a bird's nest made of down, a hawk's feather. These objects of beauty are reminders of transience, a sign of the wonders to come.

And because I sing praises, I sing praises of life. Since it is finite, let us fall down into ourselves and discover who we are, so that when our time comes we can say that we have lived. Let us become those people today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Let us celebrate the life that is here, the life that is now, the life worth living. Let us turn up our stereos and dance round the kitchen. Make a cup of tea and watch the clouds scud across the sky. Plant some flowers in a surprising place. Write a letter to a loved one. Invite someone to dinner and open a bottle of wine. Start drawing, or writing, or singing like we mean it. Join a peace movement. Eat a juicy apple, and live extravagantly, generously, open-handedly today.

Because some day soon our bony friend will come knocking at the door. And when those hard knuckles go rat-a-tat-tat, I want to open it boldly, ready and able to welcome him in.

Fierce, bad and selfish

I'm a bad mummy.

I drank coffee and wine right through three pregnancies.

My babies all ate poo: rat, kangaroo or possum.

I can't remember my children's birthdays.

My baby slipped out the back door. I found her in the compost heap eating last week's vegetable peelings.

Sick kids annoy me.

I told my daughters to 'put it in the fucken rubbish bin'. A few days later, my five year old told her friend to do the same.

A crying baby in the night makes me want to scream.

In a fit of rage, I threw one daughter across a room onto her bed, then slammed the door and left the house.

When I'm furious, I shout so loud that flecks of saliva shoot out my mouth.

I've smacked.

I am a fierce, bad and selfish mum.

The wonder of it all is that my kids are fine. They cope with the occasional Vesuvian eruption, and I mostly leave the room when I feel it coming on. They've eaten compost and animal dung, dirt, leaves and potting mix, with nothing to show for it bar a gritty nappy. They've repeated rude words, and the sky never fell in; mummy just tried not to laugh. They've been smacked, and I've apologised, and we've had another go at the relationship.

When we began, I was so ignorant. I never held a baby until I had my own. My oldest was my training ground. None of our good friends had kids; none of our relatives. Our mothers had died, and our aunties are distant. We had our baby in a vacuum, and learned everything from health professionals and books. It took years for me to trust my instincts, to leave the books on the shelf and go with my gut.

I had to learn how little children are, how young - they really are new in the world. I'm still learning how to be gentle, and loving, and kind. I'm learning to apologise when I make mistakes, or lose my temper. I'm learning to share, to serve others first, to eat after the baby's fed and not just when I'm hungry. I'm learning to observe myself, even in the midst of chaos, to remove myself from a situation before I blow up. I'm learning.

And I'm trying to become more myself, less what other people think I should be. So much of the turmoil of the early years arose out of guilt, guilt for not being able to give up coffee and for regularly sharing a glass of wine during pregnancy; guilt for taking time out for reading, for writing, for chatting with friends so that the baby slips away unnoticed and falls down or eats poo; guilt for not being the ever present ever calm ever perfect mother. No wonder I got angry.

But in letting go of expectations, mine and other people's, I've learned something simple: I'm enough. Enough for my kids, and enough for me. My children are relaxed enough, happy enough, fed enough, clean enough. And I'm gentle enough, thoughtful enough, generous enough for them to thrive. This sense is growing, filling the house like a wandering breeze which drifts in through half open windows and chases out the stale air. And where once lay stagnation and frustration, sources of anger and self-blame, I am finding freshness and hope, playfulness and delight.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Knicker notes

Something very weird is happening in our street. Once upon a time, we were the yuppies. But the newer arrivals are wearing very expensive underpants, and put us to shame.

I know this because one morning I walked out the gate and found a pair of Calvin Kleins flung upon our car roof. It was gross and hilarious and intriguing - how did they get up there? I wondered. Why are they here? (When I tell the story, I like to add that those underpants were more expensive than our first car - but then I have to admit that our first car was actually a handmedown and cost us nothing. That car had been jumped upon by so many drunks that its roof had a great sag; our friends were pathetically grateful when we took it away.)

I assumed this underwear incident was a one-off, the mad capers of someone passing through our suburb. I mean, who would be crazy enough to own CK undies, let alone toss them onto our car?

But more recently, our street has been littered with boxes for Versace Y-fronts. Our garbos aren't too fussy about whether the recycling goes in the truck or onto the street, and these clearly missed. It occurred to me that kinder is always looking for small cardboard boxes, but I don't think this is what they have in mind.

Because I have nothing better to do, I googled Versace men's underwear. I found some on sale, marked down from $90 to a mere $60 a pair. My neighbours are spending more on their underpants than I spend on an entire outfit. Now I'm eyeballing my neighbours' posteriors, as if I had x-ray vision and could discern their underclothes. It makes me wonder. Are they that much more comfortable? Do they add lift, or come with free botox? How can they be so expensive?

Here I am with three leaky little kids, not to mention my menstruating self. One wears handmedown nappies - lovely fitted ones, for which I didn't pay a cent. The others wear a combination of el cheapo undies (I am yet find a fair trade option) and handmedowns. Perhaps second hand underwear is gross, but I'm at the stage where a poo is a poo is a poo. Friends' girls grow out of their knickers; we wash them, dry them in the sun, and on they go. Even I just wear plain black cotton bonds.

Rinsing out knickers, or finding soggy piles hidden behind the toilet door, is a big part of my life. So is dealing with a writhing baby who thinks it's hilarious to roll while I'm wiping the poo off her bottom. I can no longer think of underwear as anything other than functional, no matter who's wearing it, adult or child. Undies are for catching drips and spills, and to keep us nice when the wind blows up our skirts. When I want to be sexy, I take my clothes off.

In a world where millions of children have almost no food to eat, I'm amazed that people spend this much on their Y-fronts. More shocking by far is the realisation that these people look normal, and that they live on my street.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Going the distance

School's straight down a busy road. We walk there almost every day. It takes about half an hour at a fast clip with kids, or closer to an hour at the end of the day when everyone's tired, and there are railings to play on, phone boxes to make phantom calls in, and bread to buy.

The theory of walking is good. We walk to minimise petrol use; we walk so we can share our car two days a week; we walk to keep our car off the roads. We walk to contribute to a cheerful human presence on the street, with our bright red pram and the burst of colours that young girls wear - pink, orange, and green. We walk to make time to talk about the day ahead, or the day just gone. We walk to catch up with other families on our way, and to chat as we go along. We walk so my kids experience heat and cold and wind and rain, and notice buds and blossoms and browning leaves. We walk.

But most people drive. They drive to go fast, and to get there quick. And time and again, I have to pull my children back as a car accelerates to turn in front of us. For all the nice theory, the walk to school is stressful, care-ridden. I can't relax; I'm always on alert for a car shooting out of a side street, or turning across us at speed. We can never assume that a car will give way; we always assume that they will cut us off. And they usually do. Trucks make deliveries, parking across laneways and side streets so we cannot cross safely. From time to time, forklifts careen around; cars parked at the various mechanics abruptly reverse across the footpath in the eternal car shuffle. Despite the many walkers, drivers here don't look for pedestrians.

The traffic is heavy, and thunders. Trams roll past, rattling and clanging, and cars speed up to undertake them. There are always road works somewhere along the way. Jackhammers jabber. A fourteen story building is under construction; as the foundations are being dug, dump trucks are filled and roar out. When my children speak, I have to stop and bend down so I can hear them.

All the way, I shout like a segeant-major: Stop! Look! Wait! Very good... Remember the laneway! Stay with me here. Let's cross together. Are we safe? Good, walk! walk, don't run. That's right...

Every day, I get home exhausted, ratty beyond repair, often close to tears. But I want to walk. I want to create a street presence for more than just cars. This city belongs to me, too, even when I'm on foot. But it's so draining.

Just last week, after six months of this, I finally tried a new route. It's longer, by another half mile or so - a big ask for a five year old. But on the way to pick her up, I saw a car with a trailer turn at speed across two lanes of traffic into a street where girls were crossing with their mother; the car slammed on its brakes and skidded; my heart stopped; the car came to a standstill; the family finished the crossing; the driver shouted abuse and drove off; everyone was fine except their mother and I, who had aged about fifty years in that instant... and after that, something I had seen a dozen times this year, but which really got to me that day, I asked my kids to try a different way home.

The new route runs along side streets, through laneways, and across a large park. There are two playgrounds, and, well beyond my wildest imaginings, there is almost no traffic at all. Perhaps two cars drove past the first time we walked it. We stopped in each park for a play with school friends, and swapped phone numbers with one family. The streets were so quiet that we talked all the way home. It was what I had hoped for in the daily run, but which had proved so elusive.

My kids loved it. They decided that as long as I pack a bite for them to eat, then they want to walk it every day. Now, in the mornings, we scramble to get out the door fifteen minutes earlier so we can go this way. In the afternoons, I take a couple of bananas or a sandwich, and we have a picnic and a play in the park. All of us arrive home much more relaxed, and I realise what an ordeal the old walk has been. Sure, we still walk it when we're running late - but breaking it up, so that it's not day in day out, has made an enormous difference.

It makes me wonder what else I am doing the hard way. Where else is life difficult because I only see the road straight ahead? I was reluctant to try the new route, because of the extra distance. But I had not registered just how draining the noise and the stress of the busy way were. The longer quieter walk, through a large park and playgrounds, and under mature street trees, is restorative.

Which other parts of my life are so hard, so dangerous, I wonder. What else drives me to the brink of tears? Where are the better routes? If I am willing to give up the convenience of the main road, are there meandering paths, longer, narrower, but more kind and gentle by far, which will lead me into quietness and show me the way home?

Post script: I've commented on some books about street presence; if you're interested, click here!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dozing and dreaming

We had a furious shrieking day early last week, and now I know why. The day after, my baby and the three year old began to throw up. Then they went spotty. Meanwhile, I had a touch of flu. Picture this: a woman in a heated room, shaking with cold despite her woolly jumper, jacket, ugg boots and enormous woolly hat, holding a three year old's head as she vomits into a bucket. Then gagging herself at the stench. I don't think normal parenting gets much worse.

In a calm moment, bucket washed out ready for the next round, I and the three year old lay flat on the rug playing Memory. My headache made the cards spin, and the three year old wanted to chat through every pair we found - including animal noises for the very loud tigers. Then she asked to sing together. I taught her how to hold a note, then came in on the same tone to make a dense wall of sound. We did it over and over, finding the match, falling into the sound, laughing, and finding it again. It is a mystery to me how three year olds can be sick and chatty and hilarious all at the same time - or how a wall of sound felt healing to my headache.

Later, she and her baby sister broke out in spots. She's fine now, but the baby is still rashy from head to toe. She looks utterly ghastly, like the diseased thing that she is. But in these same few days, she's learned to play 'peekaboo'.

She finds a piece of cloth, or a small cushion, and holds it over her face. Then suddenly, off it comes, and 'Boo!' she crows. We all laugh riotously, her fat little tummy shaking with laughter - and then we start all over again. Or she hides behind a piece of furniture, then 'Boo!'. I look round, and a little spotty face is peeping round the edge of a chair or a doorjamb, waiting to be noticed, beaming with delight.

As I was recovering from the flu, others did the school run. I had no energy for walking or sweeping or shopping. Instead, my three year old and I made miniature books for the dolls' house, and a rhyming book about the colour orange. While she was absorbed in decorating her newly made books and arranging them on the dolls' shelf, I put together a tiny illustrated recipe collection.

We all want to be healthy, and serious illness is devastating. But I find it fascinating that in a time of mild sickness - vomiting, aching, shivering, and spots - we had an intense period of creativity. Singing games, peekaboo, papercraft, drawing, hand lettering... I was too tired to try to be some archetype of the good mother. The floor was covered in crumbs; books and toys and shoes were scattered around the house like a definition of entropy; dry clothes sat in washing baskets waiting to be folded. But my drivenness was stripped away, the desperate need to Get Things Done abated. Instead, I curled dozing and dreaming in a corner of the kitchen, and rose only to play: to staple, fold, cut, draw, sing.

And my kids loved it. They played alongside me, involved in their own projects and commenting on mine. In the end we had a great week, a happy week, vomiting and all. It makes me question how much time I spend housekeeping - so much time, that I can forget to play. After all, nobody cared about the mess, or the benches. They didn't even care about the crumbs on the floor. In fact, I think one in particular enjoyed it no end - with overlooked crusts clustered under the high chair, the baby savoured more than one illicit snack.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jostling, loud, and in your face

Everyone's home and screeching. My three year old's screeching at her five year old sister; her sister is screeching right back; and their daddy's just had a well-deserved shout at them both. The baby's providing a grizzly undercurrent, and I'm biting my lip not to join them all.

You see, I'm off duty; it's my writing time so I'm not allowed to get involved. Instead, I'm bunkered down with the study door shut, wincing at every piercing shriek and trying to reflect on the presence of the holy in the mundane. Hah. It's much easier to do when the mundane is asleep, or at school, or out for a walk.

I'm fascinated by the spirituality of everyday life. Like so many writers, I prose on and on about becoming like children in order to experience it. But we so often assume well-behaved, quiet, polite children. The sort of children who are entranced by a spider's web, or a particularly splashy puddle; who become absorbed digging in the sand pit or making a pattern of leaves.

But these same children, my children, can also be energetic ratty slightly sick children, grumpy children, selfish children, children going through a stage. They're full of an aggressive exuberance which drives us round the bend; they snatch and grab and squabble and yell; and their boundary testing makes me want to scream and reach for the red wine every night.

Are we only spiritually alive in moments of unconscious playfulness, like happy healthy relaxed children? Or is there something for us to learn here too? Should we also be like grumpy children, demanding children, screeching children? Jostling, loud, and in your face? Perhaps there are things we could learn if we would only let ourselves be fierce from time to time, if we'd only let our ambitions walk round naked and stop being so damn polite.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Searching for Small

Growing up in social-justice-y type circles, I thought that one day, I should save the world. Anything less would fall short of the mark. The only puzzle was who, or what, to focus on. After all, there are thousands of issues which need urgent attention: indigenous health, war games, Iraq, mandatory detention, water usage, expanding cities... the list is endless. But which was I to work for? Which would be my Big Cause?

These situations are desperately important, but none of them felt close to my heart. I volunteered with this organisation and that, and wrote lots of letters, and longed for a different world. But I never relaxed into any cause. Instead, I had kids.

The polar ice caps are melting, and overpopulation looms. Perhaps we shouldn't have had them. But for the most part I've delighted in them, positively wallowed in the experience. I love to watch them grow. And they've been the catalyst for my own growing up, my blossoming. I never published an essay until I had a baby; I never even thought to try. But with the shattered self, the re-building, and the newfound confidence that a baby engenders, I found myself attempting different things, asking more of myself and of life.

And also less. For at one level, I still feel niggles of doubt. Is raising kids really so important? Are small actions each week enough? Or should we all be leading great movements a la Martin Luther King Jr or Gandhi? I have often heard Buechner's suggestion that our call, or vocation, lies at the intersection of our greatest joy and the world's deepest need. But most of us struggle to name our greatest joy, let alone align it with the world's needs. And the world's needs are so big, so desperate, that it is impossible to see how we might have an impact. No one of us will be able to effect drastic change, but rather than think small, we give up.

Yet we are mortal. We are all of us little people, frail people. How else should we think, but small?

Surely, just as our lives are small but good, so might our deeds be small but good. Whether it's a moment's hospitality or graciousness, or something more intentional, perhaps there are little spaces where our happiness overlaps with the needs of others.

Let me tell you a story. Over the last few years, in reading to my own children, I have realised that reading children's stories gives me enormous pleasure. After a long time, it occurred to me that children other than my own might like having stories read with them. I wondered about school reading, but my daughter's class has so many parent volunteers, at least one of whom is working on her PhD, that I had no real interest in offering to help. I wondered about reading at other places, but nothing really worked out. I even thought about reading at another school, where most of the students are refugees. But I didn't know how to approach it, or who to ask. I sat on the idea, like a chicken with an egg, and waited.

One day, a friend forwarded me an email from this school. They were seeking new books for the kids, because most of the students had no books in their homes. I wept for these kids who had so little, and the egg began to crack. Then I contacted the coordinator, and told her about my idea. She was delighted, and so now I go in to listen to kids reading. The egg has hatched.

For an hour or so each week, I lie on the carpet at the back of a classroom and get quizzed on Harry Potter by boys with gappy teeth, and share naughty smiles with shy girls over the antics of the father Berenstein bear. We struggle to spell out long words, and talk about meaning, irony, irregular verbs and whatever else crops up - in very simple language, of course. Meanwhile my baby empties the classroom rubbish bin, eats pencil shavings, and is adored by 20 little kids.

It's small, very small, and so much fun that I can't believe it's useful. I get to listen to children's stories, and make jokes, and laugh. The kids get one on one attention with an odd lady in stripy socks, and a baby to play peekaboo with. My love of stories overlaps with the kids' need for someone to listen. It's not big. It won't make shockwaves or change the world. I'm not the only volunteer there; I'm not necessary. But if I can be just one link in a chain of people who welcome a young boy into the world of books, if it makes school just that little bit easier for a traumatised girl, then it is more than enough. I don't even need to know if it has these hoped-for effects; given the joy of the weekly encounter, the sheer fun of it, it must be good.

I figure that, all things considered, this is what I am called to do - on Friday mornings, at least. It's not much. But it meshes my love for books with a child's need for a reading partner. And it is particular, local, small.

I hope that in doing this one small thing, and seeing where it takes me, then I too might grow. And if, as they say, one thing leads to another, I reckon a thousand small things might lead to a life transformed. And who knows where a few lives transformed might lead? Perhaps... but that's another story.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Watching the shadows

Does everyone feel so short of time these days? I find myself lurching from one task to the next: washing, dishes, nappies, floors, school run, paperwork, quick cuddle and dinner time. In between there somewhere I set up activities and help put them away, hang up paintings to dry, tidy plaits, brush everyone's teeth, help kids with buckles and buttons, wipe snotty noses, wipe down the bench, buy our groceries, put away everything the baby's pulled out of a cupboard... Recently, friends were over for a visit. I'd made scones and cuppas and we were eating and chatting while I cleaned the kitchen, put away dishes, folded socks. 'Just sit down,' someone said. And I looked at them, only half laughing, saying 'Sit down?! I only sit down for breakfast, lunch and tea!'. And kept at my tasks as we talked.

I don't mind being busy most of the time. I enjoy a bit of bustle. But I don't seem to be able to rest even when I should. I have a few hours today, and am having an internal battle over how to spend the time. Write, read, go to the gym, weed the garden, go out for coffee. If I weed the garden, I can't go to the gym. If I read, I feel I should be doing something more productive. If, God forbid, I went to a cafe, I'd feel like I'd wasted my time off, even although I need a little downtime. Especially now, especially today - it's the first day of my period, and I'm wrecked. I should go lie on my bed and watch the shadows of the wattle tree dance across the wall. I tricked myself into keeping away from the gym by having a shower this morning (I have eczema, and can't have two showers in a day, ergo can't go to the gym where I'll end up stinking to high heaven). But I don't seem to be able to stop myself from Doing.

Because there is so much to do, a world full of interesting things I want to learn about, investigate, experience, explore. But when's the last time I went for a stroll along the creek? Sat down with a sketchbook? Watched the clouds?

I tell myself again and again that everyone has the same amount of time: 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week. This is what it is to be human, to live on Earth. It must be enough time for me, because it's enough time for everyone, and it's all we're ever going to get anyway. But how do I decide how to spend this hour, or that? When is the housework paramount, when is reading aloud more important? When should I write, or read, or draw? Garden? Stay fit? Sit still for a moment??? How do I find ways to rest that are renewing, re-creating, restorative?

Like all decisions, the parameters change daily. I'm forever weighing up this choice or that, or feeling guilty about a moment's idleness, or apologising for a task enjoyed, as if somehow my enjoyment means the task is not valuable. I drive my partner mad with my struggle to learn to kick back and do nothing. Protestant roots go deep. They should and can be nourishing, but at times they have a stranglehold that drives out life and suffocates. I don't want to look back on my life and see nothing but a whirlwind; I want to recall a life dappled with moments of calm, moments of delight. Moments observable only when there is a little breathing room.

Which brings me back to now, and the internal battle raging. Reading back, it is clear what I should do. It is time to go and lie on my bed, and watch the shadows dance.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Just call me Aunty

At the playground yesterday, a little boy pointed at me, saying 'Eye-a, eye-a'. I nodded and smiled and said, 'Yes! That's my eye! and here are my sunglasses too!' We did this several times until his father, grinning, told me that the boy was actually saying 'Aunty'. In their culture, and their language, all older women are aunty.

I've heard of this before. Friends of mine who lived in Papua New Guinea speak of the way a crying baby is passed around, even down the line in a crowded airport. Nobody holds a screaming kid for long; you take a turn, and then hand them on. Everyone is woven into the web of care.

But hearing is not the same as experiencing, and yesterday I was thunderstruck. This little boy, who had never met me before, was claiming me in relationship. Claiming me, and making claims on me. For if a little kid calls me 'aunty', then I am going to make damn sure that he doesn't fall off the monkey bars.

Time and again, my white middle class neighbours, mothers pushing prams and looking just like me, start and hurry by when I greet them in the street. Ditto at the playground. After all, what would mothers pushing prams have in common?! It took a year to get past the deep reserve of most of the kinder mums; at least at school the daily drop off means the barriers are breaking down a little more quickly.

I get so tired of it. So tired that at times I can't be bothered making the effort to say hi, only to be rebuffed again. I wonder about the future of a culture where we all pretend we don't need one another, and that our lives don't intersect. How much easier our lives would be if the three families who lived on our street opened their doors to one another, had kids move back and forth between the houses, even shared occasional meals. How much easier if parents at school accept that our lives will overlap for the next decade, so why not at least exchange names? Instead, so many blink like startled rabbits when I greet them, and quickly step away.

In this cultural context, the little boy's greeting was even more special. His word bound me to him, for the moment, and I felt deeply honoured. And I felt responsible. I will help him down the slide, as his father pushes my daughter on the swing. If he runs toward the road, I'll give chase. If he wants to chat, I'll make the time to do so.

I can only hope and pray that, as he grows up here, he retains this sense that we belong to one another. And may I be open enough to learn from him and others like him, as he offers us a vision of a world in which our lives are interlinked, and we depend on, and are enriched by, each other.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Love letters

I changed the linen. Wanton leaves had insinuated themselves into the clean sheets. They fell out onto the beds, and tickled my hands as I collected them.

The scent of violets wafts through the air, seducing me into the garden.

Buds are forming on the almond tree. On this cold gray day, one burst into flower.

A cheeky pink salvia peeps around the house. She winks and smiles as I walk down the side.

I was pinned to a path, tantalised. Breathing heavily, I turned my head, looked down: daphne.

What are these but love letters? Written by the earth, mailed by the wind, seized from the air by me and opened. Ravishing, sensual, I hold them close to my heart. My day is pierced with delight.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Humiliations galore

Crawled out of bed at 6.30am. Pulled on my dressing gown, felt for my ugg boots, headed to breakfast. Except that, as I staggered out of the dark bedroom, I skidded on a turd.

Yes. Some drowsy child pooed in their night nappy, forgot, and took their nappy off. They rehitched their pajamas, and the turd, not completely adhered to their bottom, slid down their pajama trousers and onto the floor in my doorway, where said child had stood deciding if anyone was up yet. Unnoticed, it lay there until I, last one out of bed, found it.

Nothing like scrubbing poo off an ugg boot at 6.33 in the morning. Or cleaning the bedroom floor at 6.37. Or running a shower for a child at 6.41. Or scrubbing their pajama pants out at 6.47.

Sometimes, I get a little up myself. I think of myself as intelligent, composed, dignified, adult. I feel like I'm managing the family fairly well. Daily life is a wholesome mix of craft activities, healthy and nutritious meals, clean clothes, playing in the garden, and almost no tv. I'm doing okay, I think. I'm getting good at this. Ain't I fine!

And then I step in a turd.

And of course it changes nothing. It's just life, everything else is going along quite swimmingly, and we know how to manage bodily discharges round here. And yet it also changes everything. I'm no longer dignified. I ain't fine. I am literally hopping mad as I instantly flip from withdrawn sleepy adult to person jolted awake by the shocking realisation that here, in this house, this lovely airy and above all CLEAN house, some other human has deposited a turd on the floor. And I've skidded on it. And it's on my shoe.

Someone once told me it was good to be humiliated at least once a day to stay humble. These days, I'm feeling very humble. My shoulder is perpetually smeared by baby snot; my self-righteous five year old knows all the rules and just rebuked a tattooed man on a train for standing in the doorway; my three year old still requires urgent toilet stops in strange places, including at a tree in the service road off Queens Parade on Sunday evening. I'm taking it all in my stride - even this morning, all was calm bar the initial shouting.

But there are times when I could use a little less humiliation, a little more building up. Perhaps someone saying, Good job! Here's a pay rise! We're going to promote you! except there is no pay rise, no promotion for this job. No holidays, no sick leave, no super. The best you get is a small satisfaction when someone remembers to say 'please'. Or, better, a spontaneous cuddle on the floor of the hallway, or a special drawing to stick on the fridge. It's just that some mornings it feels like the poo outweighs the cuddles.

It's not all bad, of course. The cuddles are lovely. And as my partner pointed out, at least I was wearing my ugg boots today. I'm often barefoot in the morning.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The new normal

I have this idea of 'normal'. I think of the kitchen bench as clean and bare; the hall bench, the same. In fact, I think of the whole house as clean, tidy, put away.

Yesterday was the Monday Project.* As I swept under the kitchen table for the third time (three kids plus small visitors drop a mountain of crusts - and we have a mouse), I thought of myself as getting it back to rights. I put away loads of washing off the clothes horses plural so my back room no longer looked like a Chinese laundry. In the bathroom, I cleaned off the grunge and wiped down the benches to get it back to its 'normal' state of pristine cleanliness. I picked up the 30 books that the baby had pulled off one bookcase, and put away dozens of other small objects scattered around the house. I scrubbed the toilet and mopped the floors and cleaned off the benches. Everything looked great, for an hour.

Then the baby had a snack. She dropped great blobs of hommos and smeared kiwifruit absolutely everywhere. After reading on the trampoline, the older kids dumped a cushion, a rug, a book, a hanky, a toy cat, two pairs of grubby socks and a pair of shoes on the clean dining table. Dusk fell. I brought in the damp nappies and a sheet from the clothesline, retrieved one clotheshorse, and re-established the laundry inside. As we sat down to eat, we ignored the washing, and the maelstrom of food preparation on the kitchen bench: vegetable ends, pasta packets, cheese rinds and damp circles where pot lids had rested. The kids brushed their teeth, leaving soft lumps of toothpaste and water all over the sink. Someone dripped a little pee on the toilet floor in their urgency. Someone else forgot to flush.

And at some point I had a minor revelation: THIS is normal. This mess, and these drops of wee, and this hard lump of unidentifiable foodstuff adhering to the table leg. These lines of laundry in our eating place, these chopped up vegetable ends, these dirty dishes - this is it. Any ideas I have of a clean, pristine, perhaps fully adult house, are not normal. They are a momentary graciousness, a Monday Project, but nothing more. Sure, I have to cook and clean and wash every day, but any expectation that the house will feel consistently clean as three kids and small visitors roar through the house, tumbling books and toys from their shelves, eating with clumsy fingers and no sense of mess, is idiotic. It's not just naive: it misses the whole point.

For a neat clean house probably doesn't have children in it. It won't breathe and laugh and yell. The chaos is the sign of life, of hope, of reckless joy that young children bring. The snips of paper littering the floor, the drips of paint, the sticky patches of glue; the small envelopes with 'To my family' lovingly written in wobbly capitals; the daisies and geraniums and random leaves carefully picked and arranged in an old glass jar; the crusts carefully hidden under the rim of a plate... these are all signs of the creativity, thoughtfulness and intelligence my children bring to the household. And I value these gifts, above all.

So it's time to get with the new normal. Stop being annoyed at the smears of peanut butter, the blotches of purple paint. See them for what they are: three young children exploring the world, learning to feed themselves, starting to express themselves. Developing children learning fine motor skills, and when to use the toilet, and did I remember to flush? Healthy children eating juicy drippy fruit. Strong children digging in the garden and getting their hands and clothes and shoes all dirty.

One day, they'll all move out and the house might feel neat for a week. And then I'll yearn for these days, when the house feels warm and full and generous, and I'll find myself inviting some young friends over. I'll feed them juicy kiwifruit, and dig with them in the sandpit, and give them dripping paintbrushes to swirl around. We'll cook something sticky, empty out all the blocks onto the floor, and have a grand old time. The house will get messy, and we'll all relax. And by then, of course, if anyone drips wee on the floor, it will probably be me.

*I mostly clean the house on Mondays.
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