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.
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