Thursday, December 30, 2010

A glass of red


A few weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about wine. All of us have children, and drink wine at dinner. In our conversation, it came out that most of us have had to think seriously about how much we drink, and how much is okay. The more children we have, the more serious the discussion became. As one woman said, the recommended daily allowance of alcohol should be indexed to the number of kids in your house.

I certainly never drank so much before I had kids. It used to be an occasional thing; more on weekends and holidays. But after breastfeeding the third, around about the time she got stubborn, I got in the habit of having wine most nights. Sure, I have an alcohol free day about once a week; sometimes even twice. But for the most part, by five thirty or six, when everyone's getting ratty and I haven't had a moment to myself all day and dinner's almost ready and someone's just slapped someone else and as I'm taking a hot thing off the stove I stumble on a small rolling toy that someone has snuck into the kitchen... well, you get the picture. A glass of wine is welcome.

More than welcome. Anticipated, longed for, and finally enjoyed with dinner. I rarely drink to excess; I hate feeling tipsy. I usually have only a glass. But without that glass, and the calming effect of red wine seeping into my system and soothing my frazzled nerves, we'd all be a screaming heap by bedtime.

Sometimes I decide not to; then I shout the kids into bed. Sometimes I have a glass, and the kids are so ornery that I shout anyway. But for the most part, a glass of wine lubricates everything so that I can trick, wheedle and charm them into bed; any urge to shout becomes a spontaneous operatic recitative, sung heartily up the echoing hallway: O! Teeeeeeth and toilet! Right now! Get your pyjamas on, pyjamas on my darling. Put them ooooon!!!! Right now!

The problem is that while I love savouring wine, I hate knowing that I often drink it to ensure that I'm expansive rather than brittle at the end of the day. It doesn't stop me from savouring it, but the experience is tainted by that self-knowledge.

I want to be expansive without the wine, but I worry that I can't be. By the end of the school year, when everyone was exhausted and everything was hard, the idea of getting three young kids bathed and fed and into bed without a meltdown was unthinkable unless I had a bit of red sloshing around my system - especially those several nights a week when my husband was at end of year functions and I was doing it alone. Even worse, it breaks a taboo. An adult drinking by herself, even when it's a single glass of wine with dinner, sets off alarm bells.

If I lived elsewhere, I imagine it wouldn't be such an issue. My European friends certainly snicker at any suggestion of a night without wine. But I'm not European; I struggle to separate how I feel about the abusive swilling of alcohol from the enjoyment of wine. It's made trickier by the fact that my glass is often a coping mechanism.

In my family history, alcohol was the demon drink; it was the catalyst for family violence. A few stories have surfaced: a mother flits between safe houses, her children posted as lookouts for their drunken dad who rages around the suburb terrorising the neighbours as he searches for his punching bag. Alcohol is associated with humiliation and shame. It has taken three generations for it to be rehabilitated back into wine, that is, a simple fermented grape product to be enjoyed with food. In my family there is still, and perhaps always will be, ambivalence attached to any alcoholic drink: some fear, some guilt.

For all that, I'm beginning to realise it's an ambivalence I can live with. I need my dinner to have some dignity, especially those nights when it's just me and the kids at five thirty. The meal may be kiddie pasta, and I may just be eating with little people, but that doesn't make me an infant. I'm an adult, and the wine reminds me of that. It helps create ceremony and mark the occasion. We take our time, use our manners and chat about the day. The wine also soothes my nerves, and saves us from the screaming which doesn't do anyone any favours: not my kids, not my neighbours, not myself.

This week my husband is home from work and has taken charge of the kids. I've had hours to myself to write and to garden, and to enjoy the company of one child without two others competing for attention. I've had another adult around while preparing food and, to my surprise, it hasn't even occurred to me to open a bottle. I'm calm, we're all enjoying each other's company, and bedtime with two relaxed adults guiding the process is nothing more than a quick wrangle.

So perhaps, too, the problem is not the wine itself. With another adult around, I don't seem to need its medicinal effects and it returns to its rightful place: something to grace a meal. The problem is this nuclear family structure, these small gardens and busy streets and hidden neighbours, in which one adult looks after the kids and they're all underfoot and everyone's sick of each other by the end of the day.

Dead sober, I close my eyes. Before me floats an image of houses set around a village green. Children flow between the households; and as dusk falls, the workers return and everyone gathers for dinner. I see a long table, and there we sit – my kids and your kids, and you and me, sharing food and telling stories. As the evening passes into night, we pour out the good wine, and this time it feels like a celebration.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

French Salt


Last week, my two younger daughters had a fever. The fever would rise and rise, then break for a couple of hours before building up again. Four days it rose and fell; four days they perspired and grizzled and napped on my body; four days they woke at midnight, and two, and four in the morning; and on the fifth day, they were well.

But on the fifth day, my husband was headachy. Then his forehead became hot and he began to sweat. After three days in bed, hot and delirious, with headaches and muscle aches and nausea to boot, he went to the doctor. Unlike the kids, he was diagnosed with strep throat, and is now on antibiotics.

The next day, my oldest complained of a sore tummy and a pain in her throat. And my youngest started sweating again. So we went back to the doctor, and the oldest has strep throat; but my youngest just has a rotten cold.

It's now Day Ten of illness. Two members of the family are on penicillin, a third has a hacking cough and is pouring snot, and a fourth still has the pale face of fever. And this morning the fifth, the well one, that is, I, woke up with a sore throat and a bad taste in the back of her mouth. But I am determined not to be ill; I don't have time. In desperation I quaffed scalding hot drinks, and then I remembered salt gargle.

The only salt we have was a gift from a friend, who brought it with him from Europe. It's an unrefined product harvested from the salt marshes of GuĂ©rande. The crystals are large, damp, and blue-grey. It may be artisanal, it may be precious, it may be highly desirable, but it does not look like something I want to put in my mouth – I usually throw it onto my food without looking too closely.

But I had to make gargle. So I dumped some into a shallow coffee cup and dissolved it in hot water. Clear against the white cup, residues floated: black and brown specks suspended in a grey solution.

I sighed, took a mouthful and threw back my head. And was immediately thrown into the waves at Port Beach in Fremantle, where we used to swim as children in a landscape of container ships and silos. I remembered the slow rollers pushing my body, and the elation the first time I managed to leap up at just the right moment, paddling frantically until the wave caught me and I bodysurfed into shore.

The salt water pushed at the back of my throat, and I recalled hot nights and burning vinyl car seats and the way my thighs would stick to the seat so that I'd have to peel them up one by one. Going home from the beach, I'd sit on my wet towel and feel the weight of my hair hanging in a heavy rope against my back. My bathers would be full of sand; my lips, delicious with salt.

We lived in a narrow terrace on the hill overlooking the jail. The tiny front garden was filled by a single small tree, a frangipane, and the terrazzo veranda was heady with its scent. I'd pick a creamy white flower and sink my nose into its golden throat; my sister and I would pin the blossoms in our hair.

As my breath petered out, I spat out the first gargle and looked at the water in the cup. Small grey filaments were forming; they looked like little sea worms. I shut my eyes and took another swig. I felt the salt water hit the back of my throat, clearing out the passages, opening it up just as sea water channels through a limestone cliff.

And remembered a day long ago spent playing in a deep rock pool. Long straps of kelp were rooted to the ocean side. My sister and I swam across and clambered up the rough wall of rock, fighting the waves. At the top, we grabbed the kelp as the water roared over us, pulling and sucking at the heavy strands and at the girls wrapped around them holding on for dear life, hearts pounding, heads ready to explode for lack of breath. The kelp forest was filled with a golden light, and lime green and pink seaweeds drifted past. My body rolled with the kelp and scraped against rock, and as the current surged I heard the rattle and clank of rocks tumbling across the sea floor. Short of breath in the here and now, I opened my eyes and spat.

I took a third mouthful, and remembered sitting outside away from adult eyes and gargling. My sister and I would tip our heads back and gargle until we giggled so helplessly that we choked. I remembered hacking away, great strands of mucus and water shooting out of my nose and mouth, and the two of us howling with laughter, sides aching. And when we'd recovered, we'd wipe our faces, and do it all over again.

I couldn't remember the last time I had gargled, or blown bubbles with a straw, or laughed until something went nasal. I felt the salt water scouring my tonsils, and my throat relaxing at the thought of old laughter. I smiled. Water sloshed out the side of my mouth; I spat, and wiped my chin.

I took the last mouthful and as I tipped my head back I thought of my friends in Berlin who had given us this healing salt, this key to old memories. I recalled the friends this week who had phoned or dropped in to see how we were; the friends who took two daughters for the day; the friend who wanted to cook us a meal; and all the other offers of help. As water tumbled around the back of my mouth, small rivulets breaking loose and trickling down my throat, I felt myself floating on an ocean of friends and family and memories.

My eyes pricking with salt tears of gratitude, I gave the water one more swirl, leaned into the sink, and spat.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My happiest day...

should have been each time I gave birth to a child, but oh! the first birth was so fraught and difficult, days of labour and a contemptuous obstetrician and a supervising midwife who talked about me as if I wasn't in the room and I wasn't really sure I wanted a baby anyway let alone like this being ripped to shreds and when the baby was born she didn't sleep for hours just lay there looking at me with her big eyes and sucking out the ragged remains of my soul and I've been picking up the pieces of my shattered self ever since.

Perhaps it was the second birth, or the third – but then again, each time the hospital wouldn't let me go as soon as the baby was born so I paced the room like a caged animal and did crosswords to distract myself while my husband held the baby and adored her; and each time I was filled with guilt that my husband was more affectionate than me, even as I was frantic to whisk my daughter home.

It might have been the day that I married, but my mother had exacted a death-bed promise that we not postpone it. A week later we held her funeral; and a week after that, the wedding.

I wore my favourite dress, a red cheongsam slit up the side. Instead of pants, I thought I should wear stockings. I hate stockings. In my grief-stricken muddle, at the last minute I stripped them off and went bare legged. As I stood on the steps up front, I realised my white thighs were on display to the congregation, and my new sandals hurt. I beamed anyway at my pale and grumpy groom, who was standing at a lean; he had an ear infection.

Undeterred by sadness or dresses or illness or shoes, I bowled through the vows until 'in sickness and in health'. I had hoped to gallop through unthinking. Instead I stood there on the brink of eternity with my mouth gaping open and no sound coming out; although I loved my husband I didn't want to nurse him as my father nursed my mother – bathing, dressing, feeding, toileting, propping up with pillows and turning in the night – and I sure as hell didn't want him to nurse me. The congregation waited out the minutes, grieving with me, and out of the silence I felt them lift me up and find the voice to make that hardest vow.

Perhaps it was a day in Italy, where we had a long holiday with friends. I sat on a hillside and for the first time put pen to paper and knew I could write something that wasn't academic. I wrote about visiting the Sistine Chapel where the guards bellowed at the crowd to be quiet; I wrote about God, and Michelangelo, and the sanctity of chickens. And later it was published. A good day, but I was a tourist there; to be deeply happy, I need to feel at home.

Perhaps it was the day I first had dinner with my husband and stayed for hours? The day in Washington when it snowed at Christmas and our grandfather took us sledding at midnight? Or was it one of many days we picnicked on a hillside; or the cold night we built up the fire, stayed late and, as the thermometer dipped to zero, watched for an eclipse?

Or was it a rainy day, uncomplicated by anything much? I was a child, I don't know how young. My parents were gardening and, in the joyful lunacy of being outside in the rain, were at peace; my mother didn't even criticise. For the time being, we were safe.

My sister and I wore raincoats and plastic pants and gumboots. A shallow concrete gutter ran down the side of the house, keeping the water which ran down the driveway at bay. We floated leaves and sticks down the gutter and ran races, leaf against stick against leaf. We watched our little boats churn into the drain, then scooped up the water and drank it, clear and cool like a mountain spring, flinty, earthy, tinged with eucalyptus from the trees which hung over the drive.

We jumped in puddles and sent them splashing; we kicked up water and threw it around as rain sheeted down and the drive shimmered silver. The world was awash.

At the end of my sleeves, my shrivelled hands were pink with cold. Damp tendrils of hair curled around my face; my lashes were beaded with droplets. Rain ran down my runny nose and dripped onto the ground. I was sodden, yet I burned with delight; I felt ablaze and alive and wholly me.

And, as simple as that, and for all the adult joys and delights, that's probably it. On that well-remembered day in a year long gone and otherwise unremarked, I was, however briefly, the happiest.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Quiet Interlude (22’17)

I'm lying on my bed, fully dressed. I can hear my two year old in her room telling herself a story, and the creak as she rolls over and settles in for a snooze. The other kids are at school, at a friend's house. Outside, the north wind is roaring through the trees with the sound of crashing waves. Dry leaves and tan dust and deep pink rose petals are tossed through the air. A battered cardboard box tumbles down our street, flapping broken wings as it rebounds from parked cars and telephone poles.

Inside is cool and still. I sink into my husband's pillow and inhale his faint scent.

I think of all the things that have not been done, the jobs that are waiting; but tell myself that I will open my eyes at the right time. Other worries rear up. I breathe them away for later, and with each exhalation feel my legs, my fingers, my arms, my belly, my face relax. With a sense of permission and a surge of gratitude, I glide down into the space of sleeping awake.

I can hear the wind, the trees, my toddler turning in her bed; I can feel myself sleeping. The faces and events of the morning, the week, the month scroll past and I wish them well as they drift away...


The house of my childhood...


An overgrown garden...


A sky full of rain...


And it is time. My eyes spring open. Filled with sweetness, I flip my legs over the side of the bed and float down the corridor. I make coffee in a dreamy state, and stand at the kitchen sink sipping and watching chickens; then I glance at the list, sigh, and get out the vacuum cleaner.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The inevitability of tears

You're standing in a circle of women, chatting about winter boots or a place to get good coffee, when someone asks you a simple question and grief hits you over the head like a baseball bat. Suddenly you're sobbing, the school bell is ringing, children are streaming out of the building, and people you barely know are looking at you with kind eyes and rubbing your shoulders. Read more.

It may be Cup week, but it's also the week of All Saints and All Souls, days to remember our dead. As I've thought about some of my loved ones, I've found myself reflecting on funerals and the slow work of grief. You can read more at Eureka Street.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A fistful of poo

Yesterday morning began when a toddler came crying into my room, holding a moist and squishy turd in her hand. 'My done a poo!' she was sobbing, aghast as it oozed between her fingers. She's been experimenting with nappy off time lately, and this is the first time it's coincided with a bowel movement. 'Well, that's one way to learn,' I thought, as I somewhat gingerly knelt to cuddle her, then called for the other girls to bring me some wipes immediately.

'We can't find them,' they called in singsong unison. I told them exactly where they were, but again they sang, 'We can't find them. They're not here.'

So I left my two year old with instructions to Stand Still Don't Move!, and fetched them myself from exactly where I said they were, where they have indeed been for six years and eleven months now; and cleaning up the mess I fumed at four and six year olds and their selective blindness.

Twenty minutes later my four year old traipsed chicken poo through the back room.

And that's when I began to shout. I shouted and shouted as I dug out the paper towels and picked up stinky chicken droppings from the mat and the rug, and collected a great green-tinged ball from under the kitchen table.

And then I had to say, 'I'm sorry.'

I've been exhausted lately, tired and flat and sick of the kids and life at home. I feel like I had one child too many. I'm more than ready for them all to be out of the house six hours a day while I do other things. I'm tired of watching 'ballet concerts' and puppet shows and tired of picking up the mess or corralling them into doing it. I'm fed up with their squabbling, and the two year old's tantrums, and hearing her shout 'no' every minute of the day. I'm tired of being the adult, understanding and mature; and I'm tired of failing to be the adult, of losing my temper or just shutting the kids out. I'm sick of being patient, of tricking a two year old into keeping her shoes on or sitting in a car seat. I just want to slap her.

My two and four year olds squabble over who gets to sit in my lap; who gets to listen to a story. 'Go away!' screams the two year old at her sister, 'Don't listen!'. I talk about sharing until I'm blue in the face; I talk about the expansiveness of love. And then one of them hits the other. I'm so sick of them fighting over the pecking order, I could scream.

And I'm totally fed up with faeces, human or otherwise.

I've felt this way for months, on and off. Yet I do have a two year old. I can't park her in day care five days a week just because I'm fed up; yet I wonder how I got to the point that I even daydream such a thing.

I can't really believe I made the wrong decision to have a third child.

I had been certain we should have only two kids and yet was devastated by the thought. In private I cried time and again; and late one night, after I picked up a friend from the airport and we talked the way you do when it's dark outside and you're driving fast, I started sobbing, blinded by tears as I roared on at 110. I wiped my streaming eyes and nose with my sleeve, and glanced at her. She was looking at me oddly; then she said kindly, quietly, 'You can have three, you know.' It was a thunderbolt, a revelation, a gift; and I snuffled and wept in pathetic gratitude as I turned onto Bell Street and steered the way home.

And I had such clear visions, such beautiful images when I sat with the idea. I saw a group of children running up the stairs into the sky, colourful skirts swirling and voices laughing; I saw loving arms extended towards me, and a baby lying between us, and knew that to enter into the presence of love was to pick the baby up.

How did I get from that to this? Is my two year old really so hard, so devastating, that I don't want to be home with my children anymore? Well, no. She may be flexing her independence, but even in my jaded state I can see she's an absolute delight. Maybe it's just that, after almost seven years at home, I've had enough. And yet I have no choice; I must find ways to cherish it or I'll go mad.

After school today I put on a video, too flat to encourage another option – my kids don't fight when they're hypnotized by tv. But instead of using it as a babysitter while I rushed around and did things, for once I sat in the lounge room and watched with them. My four year old came and curled up in my lap; my two year old snuggled into my side. After the movie, my six year old wandered over for a hug and a kiss.

And maybe, just maybe, there's a clue. Maybe it was okay for the floor to stay crunchy; the second load of washing can wait. Maybe the garden can stay weedy; the papers can stay in a heap on the bench; my inbox can load up unread emails while I watch Mary Poppins. Maybe if I could sit with my kids more often, rather than forever Organising and Doing, things might feel a little easier.

How to manage it, I don't quite know. The washing can't wait forever; kids still have to get to kinder and school; the floor really is disgusting most nights. But a latte and a babycino in a coffee shop; a long play in a shady park; a lazy morning with books or friends; a slow visit to the library; a shared cooking activity: perhaps these ways of taking time, of drifting at a childlike pace – exactly the activities that are so easily axed when it all feels too grindingly tedious and the drive to be busy dominates – perhaps, just perhaps, they are as necessary to our family's health as the prompt cleaning up of the poo.

Notes from the periphery

Yet again I am flicking through the real estate guide, looking for something. I watch myself searching, and I wonder at the persistence of illusion. Why, oh why, do I still seek something that I know isn't there?

I often feel like I am not quite living my life, but instead observing it. I watch myself do things, foolish and wise; I stand on the edge of a ring of mums, listening to them talk in the playground; I eavesdrop on conversations in shops and on the tram; I forever watch my friends, my family, even my kids. With all this observing going on, it's hard to get out of my head, to feel unselfconsciously at home.

Instead, I always feel on the edge of things, always outside looking in. And I feel this about where I live. If only our house was closer to the city, or closer to school; or perhaps in a bigger city where more things happened; or perhaps in a smaller town where I could really sink my teeth into things, well, then I might not feel on the periphery. I might feel in the centre instead.

But I've lived in big important cities. I lived in Washington, where I met the Clintons and lunched at the Cosmos Club from time to time. I knew people who worked at the White House and NASA and even the CIA – and I still felt my nose pressed against the glass as those interesting important people swam around the fishbowl that is DC. I realised then that it wouldn't matter where I lived or what I did; if I didn't feel at the centre of things there, I never will.

As for the other end of the scale, I grew up in churches and imagine small towns might be similar. There is no centre in a church, just people who care and people who don't. And those who care, the ones who look like the centre don't feel like the centre; they usually just feel exasperated, and tired.

If I take a moment to think about how people might perceive me – hosting drinks on a summer evening; braying a cheerful if somewhat flat alto in the choir; telling stories in the schoolyard; listening to kids as they share their news; making suggestions and watching in surprise as a church takes them seriously; connecting A, B and C and having them all for dinner; writing pieces which are beginning to appear in this publication and that: I'm not sure many people would think of me as lurking around the periphery.

This feeling of being outside is not about who my friends are, or where I live. It's certainly not worth changing city, suburb or house for; I know by now it won't go away. Instead, the feeling is about me.

We are all alone; and at times when I watch myself on the outside looking in, this self-awareness, this knowledge of our fundamental loneliness, suffocates me.

When it weighs too heavily I get restless, and flip through the real estate guide in an attempt to avoid it; I talk too loudly and drink too much as I try to fill the space; I panic about all the things I have not done; my demons assail me.

But if I accept its weight, let it settle onto me, and sit with it a while, if I let myself fall into the darkness, I find something else: grace, perhaps, in the recognition that this loneliness is a gift.

The observer's stance, the self-awareness that makes it so hard to settle is what enables me to notice and appreciate what is before me. It motivates me to send love letters into the world; it is the distance I need to write.

And for this gift, so elusive and yet so fundamental; this thing for which I live and breathe: for this, I am overwhelmed by gratitude.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

House Hunting

From time to time, quite often actually, I think about moving house. I flick through the real estate ads and try to find a house closer to school, with fewer roads to cross and bounded by quiet streets. Or I dream about living on a hillside somewhere damp and fertile, somewhere with a view. I check out houses in country towns or on their outskirts; and occasionally I even go to inspections, and imagine living here, or here, or here.

Earlier this year, my partner and I so thoroughly investigated one country town that we even checked out the primary school, the yoga studio, and the train times to the city; and dragged our kids and a friend to inspect a romantic-looking cottage. Perhaps fortunately, the house backed into a mine; it was dark and poky and stank of cigarette smoke; the bathtub was not plumbed; the lounge was lit only by a candle chandelier; and the 'orchard' was a single tired quince tree standing in a field.

It wasn't quite what I wanted – but what, really, was I looking for? The thing is, there's nothing wrong with where we live, and so much that is right. Sure, the traffic's heavy, but other than that, it's perfect. My husband can cycle to work downtown in twenty minutes. We are serviced by ample public transport. We have a supermarket at each end of our street, and an organic market a mile down the road. We can buy anything we need, from almost any country on earth; we can buy many things made locally. We can walk or ride to the library, the pool, the kinder, the school, the gym and most of our friend's houses. We have a hundred restaurants or coffee shops nearby; half a dozen bookshops; a dozen op shops; and several ethical clothing studios where garments are made on site.

Our neighbourhood is dotted with guerrilla street art: brightly coloured pole warmers; a life-size stencil of Red Riding Hood feeding the wolf; snatches of poetry scribbled onto walls; trompe l'oeil gardens painted onto brick; and up a nearby laneway, a large blue dinosaur.

Our across-the-road neighbours give me lemons and the kids cuddles; the guys at our veggie shop laugh at my jokes. Our Lebanese pastry shop is decorated by pictures drawn by my daughters and the guys there wave as we walk by every day. My four-year-old buys pita bread by herself while I stand around outside; she chats with the owners who have watched her grow up. The men at the hardware store give free advice and carry stuff to the car when I cannot wrangle it into the pram; the ladies at the Italian wholesalers admire my toddler's cheeks and offer bread and olives for her to snack on. The waiters at our favourite coffee shop kneel to chat with my children before taking our order. This is our neighbourhood; in a quiet way we are recognised, and we belong.

And our house is wonderful. We chose it for the block – small for our city, but large for our suburb – and have been working on the garden ever since. Now our study is shaded by a ten foot high tamarillo tree, its leaves like elephant ears cooling the room. We have a dozen fruit trees, and in the pantry lies a sack of almonds that we picked. My girls spend summer afternoons on the trampoline nibbling on grapes from the vine that insinuates itself through the netting; I come home, wheeling my bike down the path, and pause to snack on figs plucked from overhanging branches. We have just acquired four chickens, who happily scratch and peck at the bottom of the garden under the old pear tree – and right now the tree is covered with blossom like a bridal veil. In just over a week, the crab apple will bloom and the air will be filled with drifting petals.

We live in a bountiful garden only five miles from the CBD among shops and services many can only dream of. Why, oh why, would I look to move?

I suspect two things are going on.

For one, we live in a deeply consumerist society. The constant message is that we never have enough. If we have three t-shirts, why not four? If our jeans are unfashionable, why not buy a new pair? If our house is a mile from school down a busy road, why not move? Forget travelling the long way – just upgrade, update, renew! Make it bigger, better, more convenient! Amen!

Yet while a new house might be closer to school, it will be further away from everything else; any imagined convenience, and its transforming power, is an illusion. And as for moving to a house in the country – well, living in an Australian town is like living in a spread-out suburb; living on a hillside means a twenty mile drive to school. Two weeks ago I spent the day in a fashionable town where the traffic noise was louder than where I live, and we couldn't cross the road for the cars. If I want peace and quiet, I'm better off sitting in my own kitchen, where during the day I can hear the wind sing through the sheoak and listen to the chuckle of happy hens.

I wonder too whether, if a house is like a skin, then perhaps I am trying on different skins, different ways of being. There are days when I'm uncomfortable in my skin. I'm tired and grumpy and fed up with the drudgery of being home with kids. I'd like to work again, and be paid for it; I'd like a little less vomit and a little more dignity.

I suspect that I look at houses because, at some deep level, I imagine that if I lived elsewhere then things might be different. If the walk to school were easier, or the house a little smaller or arranged a little better, or the street a little quieter, then perhaps I'd feel more at home – in my skin and in the world.

But whatever constitutes this idea of home, I reckon that the dream of finding it in a different house is just that: a dream. Our suburb is terrific; our house is comfortable; our garden getting better all the time. There is no perfect house, or perfect life, waiting for me to slot in to. Instead, this is my house, this is my life.

And when I pull my eyes from the real estate guide and draw a deep breath, when I look around and notice the delicate stars of jasmine flowers clustered on the fence, when I realise that the pear tree is in full bloom and the almond's heavy with nuts; when my four-year-old walks around with a chicken under her arm and my two-year-old finds an egg, then I have to admit that, from where I'm sitting, it's a damn sight more than good enough.

Right here in my own backyard, for all its messiness and imperfection, we have life in abundance already.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sick of scratching your head?

Sick of scratching your head? Tired of staring at a grid until your eyes are fuzzy and your brain is numb?

Help is at hand! The solutions to my very own cryptic crossword are now on Spike. Click here and all will be revealed...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fashion and a six year old

I recently realised that my six year old knows more about fashion than I do. I have strong opinions about what to wear. That does not include my daughter tucking her shirt into a high waisted skirt, or, more precisely, a normal-waisted skirt worn high. But the other day she was dressed just so, with her singlet and t-shirt bunched underneath, giving her a thick spare tyre; we had an argument. Her outfit reminded me of a particularly ungainly woman I once knew who wore skirts hoiked up to her armpits. This same woman had red bushy eyebrows, surprising tufts of nostril hair, and a terrifying lack of social skills, so when my beautiful daughter appeared with her skirt way up, I freaked.

I would like to think that I'm too mature to be bothered how she looks; in reality, she regularly wears outfits that make me wince, but I say nothing. However, occasionally she tries a combination that makes me cringe so badly that I ask her to change. "Just pull your skirt down a couple inches," I begged that day, "and untuck your shirt." She refused, of course, and said that she looked good. I told her she was Harry Highpants, even if she was wearing a skirt. "Make that Harriet Highpants," I added. "Don't be ridiculous," she shouted, "I look beautiful and I DON'T like you making comments about my outfit." Blech, I thought, and angled for a compromise – to drag the skirt down, at least.

As we were arguing, I realised that I really do want my girls to look good, even if they wear mostly second hand clothes. At some level they are a reflection on me, even of me. When they look grotty and mismatched, people give me critical looks or even – and this never fails to embarrass me – sympathetic glances. Even as I remind myself firmly that women and girls shouldn't be judged by their appearance, it bothers me. On the other hand, when my girls look good, we get warm glances of approval and compliments and that, of course, is lovely.

While all this was flashing through my head, I was also wondering where she got the idea to wear her top and skirt just so. No one in our household tucks their shirt in; it's not what we do. I always wear hipsters, so there's nowhere to tuck – and who can be bothered tucking in a baby or a four year old when they'll immediately come undone?

Then I suddenly realised that in every shop window are manikins looking just like her. They have high waists and wide belts and floppy blouses tucked in. Yet here am I sounding just like my mother, and her mother no doubt, frantic that my beautiful daughter is looking ridiculous, even hideous, because she doesn't dress like me.

Instead, she's looking around and trying things on, things that have a different meaning. High skirts don't remind her of an odd older woman with bushy eyebrows; they look cool. She is pulling away and defining her own style, her own sense of self. Even more shockingly, she's noticed and is trying the current fad, something I wouldn't dream of doing. I feel like I've suddenly plunged from being her beautiful mummy to has-been.

I wonder if I'm big enough, confident enough, to let it go? I want her to find her own voice and express herself, but I'm not sure I'll always be up to letting her explore – let alone be willing to help her.

That said, I felt okay about that day. When I realised what was going on, I stopped arguing with my daughter. I yanked down her skirt an inch but left the shirt tucked in, and smoothed her singlet and t-shirt so it wasn't so bumpy underneath. I still didn't like it, but she was happy with that, and we went out the door.

It felt like a small thing, a step towards helping her find her style, a step towards it being something we work on together. And for an imperfect mother and a stubborn six year old, that's probably good enough.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On veils and fancy lingerie

A while back, I was out shopping for underwear. As I deliberated over my usual modest choices, five women in burqas came into the store. Chatting and laughing, they headed over to a selection of lacy g-strings, holding up the garments for all to see as they checked sizes and made loud comments about each pair of panties.

In the wake of a Perth judge's recent decision that a woman cannot wear a burqa to testify in court, we have seen some hostile articles attacking the garment. Conservative Muslim women have been characterised as oppressed victims of violent households, and the burqa has been described as an abomination. But if you'd like to read a different approach, where I ponder sexy underwear and the subtleties of modesty, visit Eureka Street or click here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Yesterday. The tenth anniversary of my mother's death. The first day of my period. Yet another rainy day. All I wanted was to curl up under my favourite bedspread, hand printed with blue stripes and swooping cranes, and gaze out at the falling rain; to roll over and watch the faint shadow of wattle branches dance against the wall. I'd be my very own Japanese painting, beautiful and sad.

Instead, I loaded the washing machine and changed dirty nappies and ran around with the vacuum cleaner and hung out towels and listened to incessant chatter and picked up toys and wiped the bathroom bench and took phone calls and pegged more washing and tidied the kitchen and collected my kinder kid and made lunch and watched crumbs fall onto the clean floor. My two-year-old slept in the pram on the way home from kinder; my four-year-old would not rest; and I had no time to myself all day.

And just when I thought I couldn't stand it anymore, those endless mundane jobs constantly interrupted by the demands of small children; just when I thought I couldn't bear to read one more story or nurse one more bump or wipe one more grubby face, my four-year-old shouted at me to come and look. 'In a minute,' I said, but she shouted 'NO! Right NOW!'. The urgency in her voice made me rush over to the window; and there I saw a white-faced heron standing on our neighbour's roof. It was staring at us, perhaps trying to discern our shapes distorted behind the glass. We stared right back, quiet and still.

After a minute, or maybe three, it turned its head and picked its way delicately along the roof line, then swooped away with a great heavy shake of its wings, spindly legs dangling.

And the phone rang and my toddler fell down and Grandpa arrived home with my schoolgirl and the oven timer beeped and the girls began to squabble and I became stroppy. Then I remembered our visitor, and the way my mother had always carried a notebook with her to write down the birds she had seen. With a surge of gratitude I felt the house come alive, electric with people like a pond charged with darting fish; and I, standing in the chaos like a gawky old heron, watched on in fascination, and love.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Calling all wordsmiths!

And now for something completely different...

I wrote a very cryptic short story recently; that is, a short story in which are embedded the clues to a cryptic crossword. If you're a bit of a wordsmith and want to read some fine Australian writing besides, then rush to your local independent bookstore, buy a copy of the current Meanjin, flip to the back, find the crossword grid, sharpen your pencil and, um, blacken the centre square in the bottom and penultimate rows (a typesetting error, I am told) – then solve the puzzle! If you're a bit strapped for cash or live overseas, visit the Meanjin blog Spike, which has reproduced the crossword. Print it out, delete the words 'seventy years', find your favourite pen and away you go...

Today Spike features not only my puzzle, but an interview with the fiendish David Astle, aka DA who sets the cryptic crossword in the Saturday Age. To be linked with the master – such delight!

The answers to my crossword will be posted on Spike on 1 October.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Notes on a Table


A friend sent me this piece today, which I wrote way back in 2000 when I was living in a group house - well before kids had entered the picture. I had forgotten about it, but, reading through, it seems nothing much has changed. So I've blown off the dust and present it here, a message from the archives.


Our house has the happy combination of a large dining room opening off the kitchen and a pleasant dining room table.

The dining room is the brain of the household. It contains the telephone, the household diary, the newspapers, and the message pad. Most conversations take place in the dining room, and most decisions are made within the walls.

But the wooden table is our household's heart. Like all good hearts, it has been scratched, scorched and scarred by careless users, but is still large and serviceable. It stands in the centre of the dining room. As one housemate moves around the kitchen, another sits at the table and reads or puzzles or doodles. Conversations float between the rooms.

The table is the setting for glorious Saturday breakfasts. Housemates and guests come together to feast. We load the table with croissants and rolls, fruit and cereal, butter and jam. Sections of the newspaper litter the floor. By coffee time we have solved the general knowledge crossword and we can start to unravel the cryptic. Conversations fly as we catch up and gossip and tell stories. Our household is sanctified by our Saturday morning breakfasts.

We have held countless dinners around it. Candles light the room, red wine flows, conversation bounds along. One of us jumps up to consult a dictionary; another wanders to the kitchen and, still talking, brews coffee or reaches into the oven for a pudding.

I have a Scrabble friend who lives in Hobart. When he is in town we play fierce matches. The table stands placidly through the squalls.

Flowers adorn it; papers litter it; magazines clutter it. A cat sleeps under it and is outraged when unsuspecting visitors inadvertently kick her.

In the late afternoon the sun slants across its surface. We drink endless cups of tea and chat about cats and community, and we place our hands where the wood glows with warmth. Our heads propped on our hands, we lament over lost loves. We tell ridiculous stories and laughter bubbles up from deep within. The table is steeped in these moments, and every meal taken at it, every game played on it, every conversation held over it is infused with traces of this joy.

I have lived in houses with eating areas far from the kitchen; houses where the dining rooms are dark and poky; and a house with a fiendish table whose legs tripped the unwary. Never again. I have been converted. My church is a well-used kitchen, and a large and serviceable table.

Originally published in Patmos, 2003.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The scent of violets

The daffodils are blooming; the scent of violets drifts through the air. Late winter, my favourite time, when everything is full of promise. I've planted a yellow gage to replace the ancient rotting plum; I've put in grape vines to clamber up a pergola and shade the back of the house. Tiny buds are forming, once dormant roots are sending out exploratory shoots, the soil is moist and crumbly, there is a hint of warmth in the air. The almond has finished blossoming – as always, impossibly early – and is covered by soft new growth.

This year I long for shady vines and the silhouette of fig leaves against a red brick wall. I'll look for pink peach blossom and sweet ripe fruit; for the lemon tree to rally and grow; for the creepers to haul themselves up and cover fences with flower and leaf. The ruby chard is thickening, the rosemary is covered with soft shoots, and I sense possibility.

Like a sower with seed, I am casting round handfuls of rich manure and watering it in. I am clipping back scrawny growth so new shoots can grow. I am plotting, planning, piecing together a dreamy little landscape: a place of refuge, of gentleness, of love. You will know it by its lush growth and tangled vines; its fruits exploding with juice; its tantalising scents floating through the air and teasing at your nostrils; its flirty little flowers just around the path, bobbing in and out of sight.

At least, that's what I tell myself. Really, it's a mess. Weeds are knee-high; the pear's full of codlin moth; and a child stepped on my Correa and snapped it near the base. For all my plans we'll never get round to them – every weekend is a whirlwind of birthday parties and veggie shopping and piano lessons and minor illnesses and guests and cooking and laundry. Sure, I'll do what I can. I'll shut my eyes to the weeds, to the gaps left by smashed plants, to the beds that need restoration. I'll try to forget that in six months' time, the garden will be whipped by the harsh north wind and baked by the sun. I'll pretend I never cursed the day my ancestors left rainy Cornwall – and that I won't curse all those jobs that I don't do this spring.

And yet, and yet. Despite all this, and against all reason, I hold fast to my vision of being surrounded by growth, of being enfolded by a garden, of sitting and sharing a drink in the evening while friends talk and children play. The voice of despondency mutters away, but I will look for the hope which is drifting past, as elusive and energizing as the scent of violets. And because of that hope, that vision of loveliness, I will work, and watch, and wait.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Small healings

JS Bach's Cello Suites.
Sipping beer, putting up my feet.
Starting to write. Learning to knit.
Taking time to stop and sit
on sunny step with tea and friend.
Managing to tend
the garden. Unexpected fun.
The gentle light of winter sun.
The warmth of it upon my hair.
The hug of grandpa's velvet chair.
Watching laundry dance and flap.
Singing loud. Women's chat.
Emptying the well of tears.
Ten years.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The night we all got parking fines

The week before last, my grandfather died. It's just eight weeks since my grandmother passed away, and in a great creaking emptiness I've been to Perth and back twice now, carting home old photos, some crockery, and my grandmother's tablecloth.

Yet grief has a way of opening up old wounds, and so I find myself reliving time and again nothing to do with them but instead a day ten years ago come September, a day when the hospital called and told me to hurry over there and I called my sister and while I waited for her to pick me up I couldn't decide what to wear so I put on awful clothes that felt all wrong and made coffees for the car and called my lecturer and left a sobbing message on his machine; then my sister and I drove to the ends of the earth, which was what my father always called Bell Street, and plunged down that old familiar hill to the Austin Hospital and parked the car and went inside and met our father and my fiancé and sat with my mother until she died.

I did so much wrong that day.

I felt puffed up and important, as I knew something Big was happening, and I hated myself for feeling like that, for not being able to rid myself of self-conscious awareness. I was impatient, even bored, as we sat for hours listening to each ragged breath, to the dreadful prolonged silence that followed each one and wondering if this, or this, or this would be her last.

I was so exhausted from her years of illness that I couldn't wait for it to be over. I wished the end would hurry, even that it had come months earlier before quadriplegia, blindness, hearing loss and everything else had set in. And I wondered what sort of person I was, that I was impatient for my mother to die.

As the day wore on, nurses she knew well came in to say goodbye and I found myself resenting that even now she made time for them just as she had always made time for everybody so often at the expense of her children; and I felt so petty. As usual, she stage managed us; as usual, it nettled me and I rolled my eyes at my sister.

She asked me to remove the oxygen mask. I unhitched her; but I was scared not to have any back up, so I left the hose dangling loose and the sound of oxygen hissed through the open valve for hours. All I needed to do to stop the hissing was to turn the tap off at the wall; but I didn't. Near the end her drip ran out, but she didn't want any more intervention so we left her hooked up and ignored the machine which beeped every few seconds to tell us it was empty. So there we sat, in a cold ugly hissing beeping room, feeling awkward and waiting.

Deep in the night, she finally died. We sat for a while longer. Then I touched her cooling face and said goodbye. I wanted to stay but I didn't know why or what for and the doctor came in to certify her death and everyone else wanted to leave so I left too. I still feel guilty for leaving her body at the hospital, for not being able to take her home and look after her in death. It's the worst betrayal I ever did. The next time I saw her she was faked up before the funeral. Then the coffin was closed, and we held the funeral; the coffin was wheeled away, and I never saw it, or her, again.

I don't know where the body went; but years later I found out that a box of ashes was kept by the funeral parlour, then placed in a memorial wall. We held no ceremony then; I don't even know when it happened. I still haven't seen the wall, and don't know which niche is hers. There is no plaque. In her death as in her life, we did so much wrong.

But what did I expect? We are ordinary people, after all. And the other thing I remember is that we might have been in a sterile room at a hospital that I hated; we might have been clumsy with exhaustion and tongue-tied by grief; we might have failed to turn off the oxygen properly or talk about the meaning of life or stroke her arm to the end, but for all our frailty, we were not alone. The room was overflowing, positively exploding with passionate love; it was radiant in there. Love filled the room like a pulsing sun that pushed at the walls and shot flames under the door into the corridor; we spent that long last day in a fierce and fiery circle of care. And we did say goodbye, and laugh at her jokes, and talk about important things. She died messy and farewelled, with laughter and tears; and, really, that is enough.

At three in the morning we went outside, took the parking fines off the windscreens, and drove in miniature procession through the night back to my father's house where he strode around gathering up the dried flower arrangements which he had always hated, and threw them out. Then he put the kettle on to boil. While it was heating, he tossed her pretty little sugar bowl into the back of a cupboard, pulled out his big bachelor's bowl from some dark recess, filled it and said, "Well, she won't complain. She's dead." We started laughing at the flowers and the sugar bowl, and the awful ridiculousness of it all. We laughed and laughed until our sides were sore; then one by one laughter turned to tears and we sobbed as if our hearts would break.

And in the days that followed, they did.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My grandmother’s necklace


My father's mother had a pearl necklace. Her husband, my grandfather, bought her a single pearl each year that they were married; by the time she died, it was a long string.

My husband and I don't do that sort of thing.

But this morning as I was gazing out the window thinking about the necklace, a light breeze shivered across the damp garden and a silver pearl, lying in the cup of a nasturtium leaf, tipped around and around, rolling like mercury. There was a sudden puff; it teetered over the lip of the leaf and splashed onto the ground, rebounding in a hundred tiny droplets and down again.

Did I think of the necklace and see the pearl? Or did I see the pearl, and think of the necklace?

Either way, how wealthy I am! As long as there are nasturtiums in my garden, I have as many pearls as drops of rain will bead upon a leaf.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A sheepish PS

Sometimes I am so obtuse that it's a wonder I have elbows.

My grandmother has just died and my grandfather is in palliative care; it's no wonder I'm not feeling motivated. Instead of going to the gym I've been cooking and thinking about old stories, such as the time my grandfather cored apples with an electric drill; the time my grandmother discovered canned beetroot and didn't let on; and of course, lots of meals at their house over the years.

For these and other reflections, click on the latest posts on my food blog.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy in my jimjamjarmikins*

How long until I exercise again? My bike chain slipped off and the pedals spun back; one whacked my knee and it blew up like a balloon. As it subsided, I came down with a cold; I wanted to write something; I had a few bad nights and just had to nap; a friend in hospital needed a visitor; I helped someone move; and now it's raining. Also, I need a haircut. When I get out of bed my hair stands on end. It flattens only with a shower, but I don't want to wash twice in a day and I don't want to go out looking like a rooster and I can't exercise without knowing there's a hot shower at the end of it. So I stay home from the gym, feeling flabby.

Somehow, in the space of a few weeks, I lost the motivation. I am The Motivator, the one who gets children dressed and out the door and usually looks neat herself; who invites people over and cooks from scratch every night; who reads with young children and draws up crosswords for her daughter's class; who squeezes writing and thinking into every spare minute of the day; who finds it terribly hard to sit still even with friends present and chatting. After dinner, when most people rest, I do the dishes and fold the washing and run around with a vacuum cleaner. Sickening, really. But I just lost my oomph, for the gym at least.

Here I am now. It's 13 degrees and the heater's blasting; I'm curled up in PJs and hoodie with coffee and chocolate to hand, and wondering about throwing in the towel. Why, oh why, do I need to hurl myself at the wretched machines, headphones in? It takes so much time and effort to get there; it's expensive and undignified; and now I'm so unfit that it will be like starting again.

And how many times have I started again? Between babies, holidays and a twice ballooning knee, between sickness and colds and exhaustion, I've had to start over and over. Back to walking, not running; back to feeling wrecked not exhilarated by the experience.

At some level I feel like I should get sorted; that there must be ways to live that I don't need the gym's artificial construct. Surely gardening and walking and riding should be enough. But they are not.

My back aches, and I have little points of weakness from years of picking up children. Without regular weight training, I hurt. And without intense cardio activity, so much harder than the walk to school, I feel tired all the time. As if to prove a point, my back is starting to niggle again; last night I went to bed at 9.30, and slept for ten hours.

Exercise is not just physically beneficial. In the mindless activity of the cross trainer, I do some of my best thinking, and some hard emotional work. Small essays, sharp sentences, are plotted and planed as I row and puff and pull down weights. Despite all the sweating people in the room with me, the headphones and gym etiquette give me such a feeling of solitude that when feelings bubble up, I have the space to work out what's going on, and why.

For these reasons and more, I should go. Yes. But looking at the clock I see that yet again I've left it too late, fiddling around with a bio for a magazine, a submission, this blog – and I'm glad, glad to be home in the warm, glad to have done these things instead.

But where has my motivation gone, I wonder. Sure, the writing's good, but I need both. I'm feeling lopsided, but the more I get out of balance, the harder it is to exercise again.

On Thursday I have another chance, another couple of hours without children. Perhaps I'll make it then, rain, runny nose and all. Or perhaps I'll pour a glass of wine and bunker down instead, leaving it for another week. I wonder.

*What we call pyjamas, of course.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Worth getting angry

From time to time, questions like mantras come to mind. They stay with me for several months, perhaps a year, turning up unexpectedly when I most need them, and then, like Mary Poppins, disappearing when they've served their purpose. A few years ago, the words "Why not love?" sprang up. At a time when I disliked almost everyone – myself especially – time and again those three little words came to mind, soothing my response to people and giving me a choice about what sort of person I wanted to be. Softer now, in love with life and most people I meet, I almost never think them any more – they've done their job.

These days, I have a new question. When my daughters whinge and argue and stall; when friends or family let me down; when a toddler kicks a door or arches their back as I'm trying to strap them into a pram, I find myself wondering, "is this worth getting angry about?". Even in the midst of a swelling rage, even when I've already begun shouting, I hear the question. And most of the time, I can answer: it's not. I take a deep breath, the rage dissipates, and I try something new: a joke, a song, a quiet reprimand, a blind eye – whatever comes to mind, which is why you'll so often find me singing loudly as I wander down Lygon Street. It's the way I dispel my rage at reckless drivers on the walk to school.

But today my daughter was brushed by a car. Our little procession – me, the pram, and two girls on scooters* – were crossing with the traffic at a green pedestrian light. A stopped car facing the red light suddenly rolled forward half its length while we were in front of it. I simultaneously screamed and yanked the pram back and tried to grab at my four year old; the driver slowly braked, brushing my daughter's dress; and my family staggered to the curb. I turned back, still shouting, and the driver looked right though me. And I thought, now that's worth getting angry about.

And then I burst into tears. Weeping, I walked to school, all the while thinking of a walk we did in England and envying a friend who was reminded of her daily walk to school by my story.

But is it worth staying angry? Hours later, after my husband came home from work and I had another big cry, I'm not so sure. Getting angry is great when it fuels creative work, or provides an impetus for change. But getting angry at the way people drive in our suburb? Unless it leads to a social movement, which I lack the time, energy or heart for, it will eat me alive.

Of course I was justifiably angry – and terrified and panicky – at the moment of the incident, but there is no point carrying the rage with me. It doesn't change anyone's driving habits; it only poisons my relationships with husband, children and friends – and any other cars which cross my path.

So instead I weep, and I write. I'll probably drive for the next few drop offs; or, if the weather fines up, go the long road again. And tonight I'll go to choir and sit with friends and drink too much red wine and sing loudly and swear outrageously as I tell the story and then someone will say something utterly ridiculous and we'll all laugh our heads off like those bold scary women we just love to be. As my eyes fill with tears, of laughter this time, the weight of anxiety pressing down on me will vanish like an evening mist; behind it, I'll find stars.

*We never did get that courier bike. We planned to buy it ready for this school year, but the older girls shot up so much over the summer that it was no longer worth it. My advice is don't leave it too late!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

St Jerome had a skull on his desk

Me, in an idiotic random aside as I'm getting dressed: I think I'm getting too fat for these pants.

Her, matter-of-factly: Yes, you're almost dead.


A couple of weeks ago, I flew interstate for my grandmother's funeral.

Her, screaming: I want to come, I want to come.

Me: Not this time.

Her, stamping her foot: It's not fair. I've never seen a dead body and you get to see another one!


Her: When you go to heaven, Mum, you can see your grandma and your mum. When I go to heaven, I'm going to see Lucy [a dog].


St Jerome had a skull on his desk to remind him of his mortality. I have a four-year-old.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Organic Carrots...

I wish I could say the champagne's out, but a bottle split with my husband on a quiet Wednesday evening seems a little excessive. But I am excited! I wrote an article on why we buy organic, and it was published here this morning.

Perhaps a celebratory square of fair trade organic chocolate will suffice.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Who can be bothered?

Who can be bothered?

Weeds are taking over the garden. We've got the henhouse but failed to buy chickens, the pear tree's still buggy and the almond needs a prune. The snails ate all the veggie seedlings, and we'll have nothing out of the garden this month except celery.

It's rained for five days and the upstairs bathroom is awash from the leaking roof. We've rearranged our dining room to fit the clothes horses in front of the heater; just because I can't get their clothes dry, my kids don't stop playing in mud.

I'm fed up with nappies and have finally switched to disposables, six and a half years after having our first child. Though they're riddled with holes, the cloth nappies wink at me and I still feel guilty.

'Read story mama,' says my little one, and I'm bored bored bored with cuddly puppy and pudgy piglet and the other ghastly books we've been given. I recite Goodnight Moon from memory instead, even as most of me plans dinner.

There's genocide and gendercide and drought and corruption and viciousness and bombs and oil slicks out there. The world is going to hell in a hand basket and there's nothing I can do. I can't think of a thing to write, and am slumped into myself.

'Go to the gym,' whispers the little voice. I hate the gym. It's shallow and undignified and silly, it's noisy and it smells. But it shrinks things down to size; it gives me energy again. Grumbling to my husband, hating that I know how to fix myself if nothing else, I haul myself out of my chair, grab my stuff, and head out to my bike.

And my four-year-old's bike rests against it. On the back of her bike is a seat for a doll, but no doll sits there. Instead, she has carefully strapped in her garden: a Thai takeout container filled with potting mix, planted with grass seeds and tiny daisy cuttings, peopled with a wine cork with texta hair and sunnies. Over the weeks the grass has grown, and she has carefully cut it back with scissors.

As I look at this ragged little thing, a spot of green hilarity tacked onto a pink bike painted with fairies, I start to grin. If she can be bothered making a little garden and cutting the handkerchief lawn, strapping it onto her bike and taking it for a ride, I can be bothered.

I can weed the potatoes and find a chicken farm and call a plumber and give the nappies away and say a prayer for the world. As tiny as her little garden is, it's enough to make me enjoy it all again. Perhaps I'll make a cake for dessert to celebrate.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Women on a train

My six-year-old daughter and I were on a train. We had two seats in the middle of the carriage, my daughter against the window. Across the aisle sat a rough looking woman with her face downturned, the brim of her hat pulled low, her arms tightly crossed. She held the aisle seat, and the three other seats in her section were empty. A woman coming onto the train lightly brushed past her as she went to take one of the window seats. The first woman started screaming. "Don't touch me!" she shrieked, "I hate anyone ever touching me!". She yelled and carried on while everyone looked on, flabbergasted. Then she stood up, crossed the aisle, and sat next to me.

My daughter huddled into a small ball against the window, and her face went still. "I'm scared," she said softly. "How can we get off the train without touching her?"

I didn't know, but told her not to worry, we'd work it out. At each stop, the train became more crowded: people coming home from a musical, a rugby match, a football game. Some men were loudly drunk, and started a fight at the other end of the carriage. My daughter huddled even smaller, and I sat there anxiously running through possible scenarios. How would I get my daughter off the train? Would the woman yell at us? Would I be able to speak calmly, or would I get scared and shout right back? Should we go a few extra stops, hoping she'd get off first? Could we climb over the back of the seat?? Am I a total coward?

Across from my new neighbour sat another woman. As the train filled up and I worried away, she began to weep. I don't know if she was anxious about the fierce woman, or the crowd, or something else entirely. But she sat there with tears rolling down her cheeks, which she tried to hide as she carefully wiped them away with a tissue.

And the woman who had been screaming just minutes before leaned forward, asked if she was okay, and patted her. 'I get that way myself sometimes,' she said. And suddenly it felt completely normal for one woman to weep and the other to sit there, smiling tenderly and nodding at her from time to time, and my fears evaporated.

Who was the screaming woman, I wonder. What had made her so volatile, so touchy? And where had she found such wells of compassion for a stranger on a train?

A gentle silence hovered over us until our stop, when both women, one still teary, the other surprisingly compassionate, moved their legs and bags and carefully eased us – touching and all – into the crowded aisle.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Eating Seasonally

Because I am a madwoman suffering from delusions of free time, I have started another blog. This one's about food. Why food?, I hear you ask. What about the life of the spirit?

Well, it may be about food but I reckon food is about spirit, too. Eating well is important on lots of levels. For one, it's hard in our society to live within limits. We are constantly bombarded by advertising for cheap goods – food, clothes, and a thousand gadgets we'll never need – and it's hard to resist this. Yet it's so destructive. Our cheap stuff is the result of cheap petroleum, cheap labour and the total devastation of soil, air and water, and in the long run it's no good for anyone.

On a more personal level, I don't believe it's healthy for us to have whatever we want whenever we want it. We become like spoiled children, always wanting more, never satisfied with what we have, and blinded to the needs of others. We substitute shopping for creative acts, consumption for self-building, and are reduced to people who define themselves by what they buy and the shows they watch. But I want more from life: I want to grow into myself, become mature; and I want life in abundance. Even more, I want my children to have life in abundance too – and that means teaching them to live within limits, and leaving them clean air, pure water, and rich fertile soil.

So I place limits on our consumption, and value on the health of workers and waterways, soil and livestock, in an attempt to live in a way which benefits commonweal. We try to consume only what is good: fair trade, nontoxic, and only what we need.

This approach affects many areas: how we shop, how we entertain ourselves, what we wear. And it also affects our food. We try to buy food which is healthy: healthy for us, healthy for the workers who grow and harvest and deliver it, and healthy for the earth. We get a weekly veggie box filled with locally grown organic produce, which provides the bulk of our food for lunch and dinner, and supplement it with other foods from local suppliers wherever possible.

We're not fanatics. When we run out of home bottled tomatoes, we buy canned tomatoes from Italy; and we flavour our food with Japanese soy sauce and Italian parmesan. The recipes will reflect this. But we're slowly trying to shift the bulk of our food back to our own backyard, or at least to farms within driving distance of our house.

Because this is a learning experience – I'm learning what's available when, and how to cook it up – I thought I'd write about it from time to time.

If you live in Melbourne and are interested in eating seasonally, the blog might be a starting point: recent posts will tell you what is in season and give you ideas of what to cook. Those of you who already eat seasonally might enjoy reading about our family's efforts. You can follow along, get ideas, contribute recipes and so on and so forth.

So if you're interested, click here!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beauty in a Windsor knot

A woman folds a cloth; I am transfixed.

At our church, a long strip of coloured fabric – a stole – hangs over the lectern so that the tails face the congregation. The tails are sewn with images evoking the church season. On Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, so the stole was red and decorated with dancing flames.

And on Sunday, we had a guest preacher. As happens every week, the preacher placed the stole over his shoulders before speaking. As happens every week, when he finished he placed the stole back on the lectern before returning to his seat in the congregation. And although he didn't just flop the stole back onto the lectern and although it wasn't left in a crumpled heap, it was crooked and awkwardly short, and the hand sewn flames were no longer visible.

After the sermon, we have a time to pray at different stations around the room. While people slowly moved about the space, I saw a woman, the gifted seamstress who made the stole, walk quietly to the lectern, pick up the cloth, re-fold it with her skilful hands and, in a single flowing graceful movement, drape it perfectly over the lectern again.

Because our worship space is flat and we worship in the round, her act was unobtrusive. Yet it was utterly beautiful, prayer lived out, and I was transfixed.

It took me back to stories of the women who tended the body of Jesus, or who found the tomb empty with the graveclothes neatly folded. I thought of Joseph and his coat of many colours and the gifted hands who sewed it for him. I was reminded of the time each week when we set the table for communion, and the cloth is floated over the table, then smoothed down ready for bread and wine.

And then I found myself thinking about how I toss sheets in the air and let them drift down onto a laughing baby as I make my children's beds each week. I thought of hanging out the washing, how I snap my husband's shirts to shake out the creases before hanging them up to dry. I recalled flipping a jacket around my daughter's shoulders and easing her arms into the sleeves, and the way I used to swaddle my babies, folding cloth around their bodies to hold them tight. I saw my husband putting on a tie, and knotting it with a flourish.

And why not?, I thought. Why not see the beauty in a Windsor knot and the expert hands that form it? Why not see the sacred in a square of cloth, in the snap of wet washing, in the dance of tea towels upon the line? Why not see it in the act of dressing a child? These things must be done, so why not pay attention to the way life crackles in the interplay of fabric and hands, bodies and cloth?

It's cold and winter comes. Thoughtfully, I pull on my sleevies and concertina them just so, then spin a long scarf around my neck and leave the ends dangling; my children like to play with them. And then I say quietly, Amen.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The voices in my head

We spent the weekend with friends who have a place in the goldfields. On Saturday afternoon, my husband and two children were asleep, and our other child was chatting with our friends and doing jigsaw puzzles. I realized with a start that there was nothing I had to do, so I picked up the Saturday newspaper and wandered out into the garden.

As I slowly nutted out the cryptic crossword, that little undertone, my constant friend, reminded me that I had brought my laptop and I really should write something – or if not, there was that book about American politics in my bag that I haven't managed to finish – and of course, I must go for a walk and get some exercise and explore this little hamlet – and my friends were probably going nuts with my daughter's incessant chatter so I should rescue them from her and take her out – and by the way, now that I'm 35 I'm not getting any younger so when am I actually going to achieve anything?

But the sun was warm on my face and I was enjoying the crossword, so I told my little undertone to shut up, reminding it that without rest I become the psycho mother from hell – rather like that little undertone itself. The undertone gave a surly mutter, sprayed me with a final sense of guilt, and slunk away.

So I sat there dozing, only stirring from time to time to put an answer in the grid – my unconscious is far better at cryptic crosswords than my waking mind – and I suddenly heard myself think, 'You trust me' and then, 'I trust me, and I trust You, and that is enough'.

And the world, already green and sunny, suddenly felt deliciously expansive and I saw the oceans of time ahead of me when I might wonder and write and dream, and it was such a joyful feeling, such a relief bubbling up from the centre, that I felt my face crack open in a large loony smile

and grinning like the Cheshire cat, I finished the cryptic. Oh happy day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The party animals

Last weekend we had a party. It wasn't a birthday party per se, although a birthday was the catalyst; it was just a chance to invite a heap of people over and play some music and make drinks with bubbles and have a few conversations out of the usual contexts and feel the house bursting at the seams.

Because so many of our friends have children, it began at 5. By 6 o'clock, the house was pumping with energy as a tribe of kids ran around, bounced on the trampoline, and spilled fruit juice on the floor. They were like liquid mercury, splitting into bubbles and joining together again as they moved through the house. We turned up the stereo and peeked through the glass doors of the lounge room as a group of four to seven year olds practised their groovy dance moves. People talked loudly and waved their glasses around as plate after plate of food was demolished and a good dent was made in some serious pots of soup.

Soon after 8, kids were getting ratty and most of them were taken home. Friends without children began drifting in, but we were totally exhausted and the house was a bombsite. Three hours of partying with kids is quite enough for us these days. We ended up slouching around, listening to old jazz and chatting quietly. So much for partying.

It was weird. I felt like the party should start once the kids went to bed – after all, now it was adult time – yet clearly it had ended. With the kids gone I was curled in an armchair telling old stories and trying not to yawn too obviously. I felt tired and a little boring, and worried that I don't know how to party properly.

But for the first half of the night I had had a ball. I cuddled a baby and chased some toddlers and chatted with an eight year old and put on music that made the kinder kids really shake their hips. I realised that I really like parties with kids. I don't invite them because I'm a kind and thoughtful person who knows how hard it is to get a babysitter; I invite them because I like it loud and chaotic and lively. I like to see the barriers between adult and child melt as we all demolish cheesy pastries and wiggle to the music; I like watching children of all ages form a tribe and vanish upstairs; I like talking with people who are too young to be self-consciously clever or fashionable or funny, or be anything but themselves.

Wherever did I get the idea that a party is an adult affair? Why did I feel like the 'real' party should start once the kids are in bed? Because that's not true for me anymore – in fact, I'm not sure it ever was. I never felt comfortable standing around nursing a drink and trying to be witty or interesting. At a 'real' party, I feel lumpish and can't wait to get home. But lace a party with a bunch of young kids, and I loosen up and have a ball.

Yet again, my assumptions have been shattered by the laughter of young children, and I've learned something important about myself. Just as important, I've learned that the real guests at a party are not always the handpicked ones, the interesting and intelligent adults; the real guests, the ones that make the house rock and the party bubble and everyone laugh with joy, are the people forced to tag along with their parents, and who go to bed at 8.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Many happy returns

Yesterday was one of Those Days with kids. I couldn't work out why it was so bad; were they testing me even more? Well, yes, one was. My youngest has decided that the way to eat is to shove everything into her mouth until her cheeks are bulging, squirrel-like, then slip down from her chair and run around. I believe this method poses an unacceptable health and safety risk; also, it's rude. And so at breakfast we spent half an hour as follows: I put her on her chair, she slipped off, I removed her food, she screamed. And so on.

At snack time, she grabbed a handful of walnuts, and then we spent 45 minutes arguing over whether she could wander around the house with them in her mouth, or whether she was to remain in her chair. After that time, I forcibly removed the walnuts from her mouth, the walnuts she had refused to chew and swallow while she sat in a chair, and set her free. What an ordeal; and how humiliating to be so shredded by a 20 month old. I was so exhausted I rinsed off the walnuts and ate them myself.

Was her behaviour enough to make it a bad day? Somehow, I felt worse than I usually do at the testing of a toddler. It was one of those days when it seemed like everything was slipping out of control, and I wondered whether, like my daughter, I had bitten off more than I could chew. Only my problem wasn't walnuts. It was kids.

I wondered too whether the problem was Monday's public holiday. As pathetic as this sounds, public holidays throw me. I do all my weekly housework on a Monday, to get it out of the way and set the house up for the week. But this week, I went on a picnic instead. Lovely, of course, but now the house is a bombsite, and that always depresses me.

Even worse, my birthday loomed. This is, after all, my annual opportunity to review all my failures and the things I've never done (run for more than ten minutes, let alone climb Mt Everest; get a job I enjoy; deal with the leak in the roof...) – and as I steadily move through my thirties, I find myself realising that if I haven't done these things by now, I probably never will. Perhaps I don't really want to – but I'd like to cross them off the list.

For whatever reason, it was a bad day. And bad days get worse at twilight. The light grows dim, the kids get ratty, I still have an hour before my partner gets home – and during that hour I somehow have to bathe three children and cook a nutritious and delicious meal for five. Getting dinner onto the table by 6.30, while my kids argue and my youngest wants to turn the light switches on and off and everyone argues over who can help and maybe one throws a tantrum or punches the others and someone else keeps rolling a wheeled toy into the kitchen – it's a daily miracle that can be witnessed six times a week at our house. (On the seventh day, she rests.)

And on this bad day, when the dreaded twilight came my four year old was wrapped round my legs and I was shouting at her to just leave me alone for a minute. And then I heard myself saying, I can't do this anymore. I stopped shouting, carried her into the hallway, then ignoring her wails shut her out of my bedroom. Mercifully, the wails cut short and she ran off and squabbled with her sisters instead, while I spent fifteen minutes in blessed peace sorting two enormous loads of washing.

After that respite, everything went well. Baths, dinner, bedtime: all calm. There's a lot to be said for a little time out, however difficult it is to achieve – and even if it involves sorting washing.

This morning was my birthday. The plan was that I would sleep in, then get up late and have croissants for breakfast, supplied by my husband and daughters.

The reality: for the first time in weeks, no child disturbed my rest. Instead, at 6.15, I was woken by a grinding pain in my lower abdomen. Half asleep and wondering if I was sick, I staggered to the toilet and discovered I now had my period. What a gift.

And now I know why yesterday was hell. It wasn't really the anticipation of my birthday, or the fact that I'm incompetent, or my kids. They might have exacerbated how I felt, but mostly it was hormones. I'm not sure if I'm relieved that my mood has a chemical explanation, or whether I'm utterly depressed that, after 22 years as a menstruating woman, I still cannot recognise the havoc my period plays on my sense of wellbeing. Month after month, I have a day where I sit in a grey cabbage-scented funk, sure that life is passing me by, I have no friends, I'm completely incompetent and I cannot manage my children. One would think that, by this age, I might come to recognise the signs and be a little more gentle on myself, but no.

I dealt with the mess, then lay on the gritty grotty lounge room rug, full of self-pity. Sadly, everyone had heard my movements, and within minutes they were climbing on me.

But "Morning Mama" said my youngest, as she does first thing every morning, and, as always, it broke my heart.

And then I dealt with what I can only think of as the Birthday Bed Wet. Thank you darling, I muttered, grimly shoving the sodden waterproof sheet, other sheets (it was expansive) and pyjamas into the washing machine.

I'm glad to say the day improved drastically from there. Chocolate croissants, a husband home for the day, an art book, and a story about a horse and a fox written and illustrated by my six-year-old just for me. What else could a mummy want? Well, I got them too: no cooking, no cleaning, no dishes, no sweeping. Lunch at a cafe, and takeaway for dinner. Choir and a bottle of wine with other mums at night. And a party to look forward to on the weekend.

I'm not pregnant, my kids are lovely, my friends make me laugh, and I'm a reasonable enough mother who even manages to write a little. Life is good. Many happy returns.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fairy forests and thwacking bracken

Last week we spent some time at a friend's rural property. Despite the hills and the trees and the many things to investigate – burrows, dells, a shack near the point of collapse – my girls began moaning that they were bored. I recalled other children here, boys, who used to spend hours energetically slashing at ferns. "Why don't you thwack bracken?" I suggested. My girls looked blank. "You know," I said, "hit it with sticks and knock it over." They stared at me as if I had two heads. And with a vague sense of failure I said, "Well, you could make a fairy forest."

"Ooooh!" they squealed like something out of Enid Blyton, and ran off to build a little place of magic.

Now, I have to admit it is an excellent place to dream of fairies. The bracken towers over their heads, waving softly in the breeze. It casts dappled shade on lichen-studded stones and moss, and nearby, under pine trees, red polka-dotted toadstools grow. The landscape recalls an English story: pleasantly damp, threaded with springs, the fields and folds curve into forest. We have spent enough time there that my girls feel comfortable wandering and playing by themselves; yet the blackberries and the burrows and the forest and the leeches are mysterious enough to feed their imaginations. No wonder they want to build a fairy forest.

But where do they get the fairies from? My girls have been playing fairies and princesses and brides for years, often conflating the three. I never encouraged it, and they watch almost no television, but even so these themes dominate. And I find myself in a bind.

I want them to grow up with options aplenty. I want them to get interested in science and maths and trucks and how things work; I want them to feel free to be doctors or judges or engineers or construction workers, and not feel confined to girly roles. But they are so interested in pretty clothes and sparkly shoes, little fairies and babies. "Have I unwittingly shaped them?" I wonder as I watch them carefully don a bracelet, or a headband embroidered with flowers. They like glitter and beads; they choose their own outfits; they prefer pink. They wish I wore dresses and high heels, and often tell me so. I have no idea how they turned out like this. Giving them options, when all they choose is pink, is challenging.

At times I am tempted to burn the pink, and throw the dolls away. Yet my own mother was a professional who fought to gain acceptance and recognition in her field – and who banned dolls and pink from the house. She was so afraid of forcing us into domesticity, as she herself had felt forced, that she made it difficult for us to engage in domestic role play. Ironically, of course, despite her good intentions, the bans imposed limits of their own.

I studied maths at uni, to a great extent because I had been told for years that women should study science and I convinced myself to enjoy it. I didn't hate it, but I was never relaxed; I had no sense that I deeply belonged there. Yet I rarely explored domesticity, never holding dolls or even babies until I had my own children. I always assumed I would be a busy professional, no kids; instead, I am at home with three of them, and, for the most part, loving it.

It's taken me years of unlearning to recognise that, like so many women, I love children, I love being home, and I love words – and nurturing these loves is as authentic as smashing through a glass ceiling.

Now, as a mother, I want to give my daughters the freedom to know themselves better than I knew myself, to have less to unlearn in their twenties. I want them to consider parenting and part time work with the same seriousness and delight that they might consider a professional life with no kids, for surely the whole point of feminism is options.

So I let my girls have dolls, along with trucks and blocks and things to hit – and they do trundle toy trains around, they do wear blue. At the same time, they spend much more time with their dolls, breastfeeding them, changing their nappies, swaddling them, and singing them to sleep; and I can do a full load of pink in the washing machine.

Perhaps my generation, daughters of the revolution, are always going to find the balance difficult; not quite comfortable at home with kids, not quite relaxed in full time employment, and not quite sure what we want for our daughters. How do we let them pursue their interests without choking on fairy dust? How do we encourage them to explore different roles without preferencing some over others? Thinking about these things, I watch my daughters, and I realise perhaps it's both simple and difficult. All it takes is for me to be as comfortable watching them build a fairy forest as I am delighted when they pick up a long stick, stride purposefully into a field, and get busy thwacking bracken.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Three stages

We were driving on a rural highway last week, and passed a fast food outlet with a bright plastic playground. My four year old begged to stop and play there. We explained that we couldn't; it was attached to a restaurant where there's nothing for us to eat. "Why not?" she begged. Because you can't eat anything there that isn't meat, we said. "I want to eat meat," she said. As she has, to date, screamed if anything looking like meat touches her plate, we suggested she'd have to prove it.

Five minutes later, we came up behind a truck full of sheep. "Aargh," screeched my six year old. "don't get too close or we'll be covered in piss!" We parents were amazed. Where did she get it from? School, perhaps? Or could it be... us? And we remembered a time a year ago when we were driving in convoy from Adelaide and the car she was in was, indeed, sprayed with liquid gold sloshing out of a truck full of livestock. And even as we tried not to laugh, even as we wondered how horrified we should be about her language – can a six year old say piss? Or is it too crude? Why is 'wee' okay but not 'piss'? and other pressing questions – my four year old confidently announced where she thought the sheep were going.

"The farmer is taking them to the shops," she said. At which we all exploded. We asked if he was taking them to the shops to be sold – "yeah, to be killed", said the six year old – but no. In fact, the four year old was adamant she didn't want them to be killed. "But that's what meat is, silly," said her older sister. "Now you can't eat at that restaurant."

"I don't care," said the four year old, "They're NOT going to be killed. They will wait in the truck while he buys some things, maybe bread, maybe some nice food for them." "Well," said the six year old, starting to cackle again, "they'd have to wait in the truck or else the shop would be covered in piss!"

"Piss!" echoed the twenty month old.

And there you have it: three stages. The six year old, pushing the boundaries of language and politeness; the four year old, her worldview solidly anchored in the domestic; the toddler, mimicking everything she sees and hears. And five minutes of disgusting hilarity. Want to come for a ride?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dreams like darting fish

So many traditions encourage us to find silence, to spend time in solitude and see what is revealed. When I can, I do sit quietly and seek what lies beneath – but with three young children, I struggle to find the space or time. I have no desert cave or platform on a pole, no quiet place of retreat; even if I did, my children would come searching, crying out for a glass of water, a cuddle, their other shoe. So now I look for silence in different places.

I have discovered there is a silence in the presence of others. In the car driving home, children all asleep, my husband and I sit in quiet companionship and the silence descends. Old stories emerge. I speak them quietly into the darkness, then leave them to drift through the night.

At the gym, headphones in, I power away on the cross trainer. And despite the electronica the silence enfolds me. I remember forgotten things. Unvoiced hopes, buried emotions surface; eyes brimming with tears, I exercise on.

Hanging from a strap on a crowded tram, I slip sideways into another place and catch words like butterflies, still beautiful in my net.

As I push the pram, the baby chats happily. The slap of my step sets the rhythm of my thoughts; then the thoughts evaporate and I am left with nothing but possibility.

Mid-afternoon, my four-year-old dozes next to me. I tumble into the space between breath, and discover typewriters, goldfish, gratitude.

There is silence to be had in the midst of a crowd, in public places, on a bicycle late at night. There is silence to be had in a house full of children. It bides its time, hovering, waiting for us to notice. And if we do, if we make the effort to be aware, we will be plunged deep into the mystery. What we find there – fragments, words, dreams like darting fish – is ours to keep. Surfacing, we offer it up; the catch becomes our gift.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A toast, a toast!

I wrote an article about the children I read with each week, and it was published in a real live newspaper this morning! If you would like to read it, you can click here. And to all of you who have been reading along for the last year or so, who have emboldened me to keep writing, I raise a metaphorical glass of bubbly and call for a toast!

To mercy and laughter
To the web and weave of us
To patience and kindness,
To love and water!*

May faith, hope and love prevail.

And thanks to you all.

(*I came across this glorious toast here.)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The great unspoken

You know, I love my kids, but they drive me up the wall. I don't know that a day goes by without me feeling annoyed. I often shove down my temper, take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, tell myself to keep my big mouth shut – and still I end up shouting. I lack patience, always have.

My toddler opens cupboards. She's mastered the child locks which still foil my friends, and empties the contents onto the floor. Dozens of things, hundreds of things in a day. I pick up plastic lids, cake tins and duplo from wherever she's dumped them: in her bed, on the bathroom floor, under the couch cushions. I've been keeping the toilet door open so I can keep more of an eye on her, but yesterday she brought her stool into the loo, positioned it at my feet, and stood on it so she could stare into my eyes. When I asked her to go away, she turned around and tried to back onto my lap. I found myself laughing and shouting and crying in the space of ten seconds, able to see the funny side but so starved of privacy that I wept.

My four year old is terribly shrill; I hope it's a stage. She fights with her sister and shrieks and wails; they squabble and snap and drive me to distraction. Kicking, punching and slapping have become daily events in our household. I don't know why it has to be this way; I'm totally fed up. I try to talk them through it, but then they do it again and again. And at some point, I yell.

My six year old has moody days. She ignores simple reminders – brush your teeth; you need shoes; we're going to be late for school – and when I repeat myself, then raise my voice, she puts her hands over her ears and makes this harsh prehistoric shriek, the sort of noise I'd expect from a pterodactyl. It's like fingers on a blackboard, but it's scratching at my soul.

I'm bigger than this, I tell myself. I'm the adult around here – I should behave like one. My kids are little, testing the boundaries, expressing strong emotions that they can't navigate. My job is to help them.

On good days, I do. But so often, I snap.

Recently, we had our worst encounter ever. Over many hours, my six year old had said no so often and so forcefully, utterly refusing to do anything or listen to anyone and continually making that prehistoric shriek that drives into my skull and drowns out all softly spoken words of reason, that I literally saw red. The world went soft and hazy like it was backlit by fire, my ears started ringing and I started to scream. As she ran from me, the bitch mother from hell, I kicked her behind then grabbed her by the plait and yanked her back. I'm forever grateful that my husband was around, because I don't know would have happened next. But he took her away and I, completely appalled by my violence, took my horrible self to my room where I lay face down on the bed and sobbed.

I would hide this from you all – I should, if I want you to respect me – but I know I'm not alone. I know a woman who, regularly enraged by her children's fighting and the chaos while she's trying to cook, slams down her chopping knife and runs out the door. The alternative is unthinkable. One of my friends met some new neighbours recently. "Oh yes," they said, "we know your voice." They'd heard her screaming at her sons. Yet another exhausted friend was so vexed by her baby's crying in the depths of the night, she shook it. The baby, now 20, is fine, but it's a scary thing to have done. Myself, I once threw my child across a room and onto her bed, slammed the door and left home for a while.

It's possible that we are the worst women in the world. At times, it feels like it. But I suspect not. We're certainly no paragons, but I don't think we're alone.

The thing is, we're all human. We're all of us fragile and tired and pre-menstrual at times; we have all sorts of things going on. We fight with our partners and mothers and feel lonely and afraid and our kids shriek in our faces when we already feel like hell. No wonder we explode.

I sometimes think the miracle is that we erupt so rarely. Particularly in this world of small families, where a lone adult cares for children; where kids aren't allowed to roam the neighbourhood and are under parental supervision all the time; where they are often inside and underfoot instead of outside and out of earshot; where there is no grandparent or elderly aunt in the home who breaks up tension and provides a different focus; where the adult has no peer to talk with; where neighbours are strangers, transient, at work, invisible – it's no wonder we go berserk.

A friend grew up at a time and place when kids had much more freedom. He tells of riding within earshot of the family dinner bell. He'd roam his town, by himself or with friends, exploring, hanging out, away from the watchful eyes of parents. He was free after school until he heard the bell, when he'd jump on his bike and pelt home.

I hear that story and am filled with longing for a place and a time where kids go exploring while we cook in blissful peace; where our lives are not so entangled that we drive each other wild; where a community of adults takes responsibility for children, so they are safe as they wander; where adults don't hover and kids roam free.

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