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.
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