Thursday, 19 October 2017

Joy

I'm reading Brené Brown's new book, 'Braving the Wilderness' at the moment.  It's one of those books that incites feelings of confusion, contrition, choleric outrage, and at times a compulsion to consign the whole thing to the freezer until I recover my equilibrium.  Do read it.  I've just read the following and it's a reiteration of statements she's made in many of her previous publications:  "Joy is probably the most vulnerable emotion we experience."

I suddenly remembered this poem I wrote nearly two years ago.  It was in response to the challenge laid down by a poetry group I was a part of briefly, to write something about joy.  In applying myself to the task, the realisation dawned on me that it was a long time since I'd felt any.  Reading Brené's words again I am beginning to see why.  

Here is the poem:

Joy

Plink.
Every odd
Moment,
A drip
Drops
Down
Into the deep.

Plink, plink.
Once and again,
There it falls,
Echoing
Against
The stones
Slickened with moisture.

Plink, plink, plink
Dark moss drinks a draught
And drains each drop,
Each tiny drop
Of water
Right away
But still the damp persists.

Plink, plink, plink, plink.
Frequency increasing.
It’s flowing faster,
Firmly, fervently.
I keep hoping
That, keeping faith,
My cup will soon run over…

Mary Goodman 5/12/2015


Thursday, 28 September 2017

Less traffic, more friendliness

I have observed something intriguing in recent months on my walk to the station on the way to work.  The walk usually takes around 15 minutes.  There are several ways I could go.  I suffer from perpetual lateness so I have pretty much always chosen the quickest route, which is up and down the hills of Lower Plenty Road.  This is a very busy road and at the time I’m going to work it’s usually teeming with cars and trucks.  There is a set of lights I have to cross at.  I press the button and then stand back a metre or so to avoid being run over by the cars and B-doubles which clip the kerb as they race round the corner. 

There are lovely views in this neighbourhood but I rarely take them in as I hurry to the bottom of the hill, watching the boom gates with anxiety. Any movement from them when I’m too far up the hill might mean I’ve missed my train. 

A few months ago I decided to start walking to the station another way.  The walk is longer by nearly five minutes, the first five of which are along an equally hectic and busy road, but then I turn off the road and walk through quiet, suburban streets with the roar and hiss of the traffic quickly fading away behind me. 

I walk past houses and I imagine what it would be like to live in them and what kind of people do live in them.  I ask myself why on earth anyone would a build a house that looks like a medical research facility, or why you’d build a house from scratch to look like a sloppy bungalow conversion.  I mentally award the houses prizes for being the most friendly, the most quirky, the most in need of love.  I notice when someone’s pruned their trees.  Pruning is a dark art to me: I don’t understand it.  There’s a house on a corner with a growing fleet of raised veggie beds covering what was once a manicured lawn.  I check the progress of the stuff growing in them as I pass, noticing the effect of a recent load of rain or an unusual warm spell.   

But it’s the people who are the really interesting factor, myself included.  On each route into work I probably pass or encounter between 5 and 10 people.  Only since walking the other way have I realised that on the Lower Plenty route, I find myself trying to isolate myself from the noise and intrusion of the traffic, and in doing so I tend to ignore any people I pass.  My anxiety is heightened because of the noise and fumes and I just want to get the chore of a walk over and done with as soon as possible.

On the other route, I look around, the atmosphere is calm, and when I meet people on the way, we exchange greetings and sometimes brief chats.  I am reminded that I live in a neighbourhood full of people of different backgrounds and interests.  It is a far richer, friendly experience.  Even the people in cars will wave or acknowledge each other and the pedestrians as they cross roads and driveways.

I would never have thought that such a seemingly trivial difference could have such a profound effect. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

Signs




Australian road signs freak me out.  Like today, Matt and I noticed one of these 'people crossing' signs over another sign, which in large, upper-case, ominous letters read:  'IN SIDE STREET'.

Something about the composition of these two signs suggested to me that whatever ferocious misfortunes were being visited upon these poor figures, the fact that it was happening IN A SIDE STREET was somehow compounding their suffering.  

I explained this to Matt.  

He now knows me well enough to know that he has a choice of either silently tolerating my weird; or jumping in and going with it.  His heavenward glance and sigh gave nothing away about the way he was going to go before he asked me what I meant. 

I replied:  Well - they're clearly recently escaped victims of a chainsaw murderer, who enjoys half decapitating people before cutting off their extremities to keep as trophies and these poor bastards in the SIDE STREET, there, have just managed to drag themselves off on their stumps in an attempt to reach safety, while the mainstream populace are being warned away from the area, thereby isolating them further and condemning them to a long, slow, bloody death.  It's deplorable really.  I'll write to the Council directly. 

Matt retorted:  No it's not that - it's just there's been a terrible sewage leak and the people are wading off out of the SIDE STREET in search of some clean socks.  

To which I responded:  No, no, NO! It simply can't be that, Matt.  See the man on the left there?  See how his limb has been severed at an angle?  If he'd just been traipsing through some effluent, that line at the bottom of his lower-right leg would be horizontal, but no.  It's a gory stump.  Mark my words!  

But, says Matt:  What if the Council has already been alerted to the catastrophic spill and has sent some workers over in a speed boat to assess the damage.  They've just swept past this chap and his girlfriend and the strange angle you're seeing at the bottom of his leg is in fact the backwash of sewage after the passage of the boat.  

Ah!  I conclude smugly:  But how do you explain the fact that said chap's right leg is so much longer than the left?  If he straightened his legs he'd have a mighty discrepancy in leg-length to be contending with.  Now it's just possible he's afflicted with some congenital disorder but my money is on Murder and Mayhem.  

Matt looked heavenward once more - which, right enough, for an atheist is an odd thing to do but then, the imminent threat of chainsaw murderers will maybe do that to a person.


Saturday, 30 January 2016

Christmas Morning Diptych

Scotland

Christmas morning 1995. Like any other day back home, I awake to the sound of my mother outside, shovelling coal from the bunker to the skuttle. The rhythmic, alternating sounds of the scraping shovel and the tumble of coal lumps have been my morning wake-up call all through my childhood.

Still in bed, I picture her, heavy coat pulled over her night clothes, slender legs hastily planted in winter boots, bent over the coal-bunker’s dark mouth. She’s heading back in now with the coal but will be out again to empty the ash and then back in again to bank up the fire: the first task of every day.

The light coming through my bedroom window is a matt, bluish white; a sign there may have been more snow overnight. The dog is downstairs and pacing around after my mother. The sound of her insistent trotting and scuttling underfoot propels me out of the warm cocoon of my duvet and I begin the ritual of layering up my clothes. Then downstairs to rug up for the outdoors. The dog fusses and sniffs around my face and boot laces as I try to tie them up: eager to help; inadvertently hindering.

At last I step outside. More snow has indeed fallen. Yesterday’s footprints are now shallow dips in an infinite white blanket that seems to roll out all the way into the sky. After the fall, a further drop in the mercury has petrified the scene. Everything bears a frozen crust, from the top of the Feshie Ridge over the valley, to the laden shrubs before me in the garden. Everything feels closer on days like this. Distance and sound are shortened, muted, flattened in the still air. It’s almost as if I could step over the shrubs and onto the top of the Ridge in one stride. The air is full of that metallic taste and smell that promises further falls of snow. Each tree branch, each power line has been re-etched, thicker, with a icy topping. A low sun glows faintly behind this monochrome backdrop.

The dog is already leaping about, all four paws off the ground at once, and into a drift, emerging with flakes clinging to every whisker. Her excited barks muffled and swallowed by the landscape.

Kerrow Dog: 1987-2003

My steps crunch through the top layer of ice to the squeaky snow beneath. On our way up through the village, we pass through the low hanging, acrid fug of coal- and wood- smoke: the only sign of life. Having escaped from the village chimneys it has nowhere else to go. Our walk takes us past the Gynack, gurgling quietly under a lid of ice and snow. The odd crow takes wing from a tree branch prompting a brief shower of powder. Deer and rabbit tracks and perhaps those of a hare lead away from the golf course fairway into the Douglas fir plantation. The Monadhliadh lie hunched and pensive up ahead. I realise I can no longer feel my face. Time to turn home.

La Pie (The Magpie - the European Sort), Claude Monet 
Musée D’Orsay, Paris
I know this isn't Scotland but it is one of my favourite winter landscape paintings 
____________________________________________________________________________

Australia

Christmas morning 2015. I awake, and become aware of the heat of a sunbeam. It has sliced through the gap in the bedroom curtains, cut the bed in half, and cast itself all the way up the opposite wall. The noise that has brought me out of slumber is from an insistent magpie on the balustrade of our front deck. It has an almost human whistle at times in between its reedy chortling which sounds like a cross between the bird equivalent of a muttered aside and someone accidentally stepping on some kind of musical toy.

The house is still quite cool but the intensity of that sunbeam and the creaking in the roof beams suggest it won’t stay that way for long. Outside the bedroom door the dog stirs and snorts through the fly screen at the magpie. Her claws are clicking frenetically on the hardwood floor in outrage at this avian infringement. I swing my legs over the side of the bed and throw on a cotton shift, my movement prompting a renewed tattoo of canine claws. Getting up I open the fly screen to the front deck of the house and the dog bursts out just as the magpie flies off to the safety of some overhead cables.

Cassie Dog 

Before the mercury climbs to 30 degrees, I need a coffee and the dog needs a walk. I set the espresso machine going and throw on just enough clothing to maintain public decency. The dog fusses around my feet. This amount of movement is a promising sign. Spraying sunscreen over my exposed skin has her backing off briefly.

I step outside. The tiles under my bare feet are still pleasurably cool to touch. But the crickets have already started to chirp faster. They’re working up to their summer chorus which will build throughout the day. With the help of their cicada cousins the sound should reach the outside edge of hearing by early evening. This is the sound of bright, intense heat. It is early still. The fresh sky an uninterrupted royal blue: the only thing yet to be sun-bleached in the landscape before me.

We set off through the suburb, past sleepy houses, the whirring and gurgling of air conditioning units the only signs of life. Once off-road, my steps crunch over scorched grass and baked gum leaves. The eucalypt scent intensifies as the warmth builds, slowly replacing the musky smell of possum. Brilliant, white cockatoos screech and swoop across our path to land in an expansive gum tree with a twisting dappled trunk. We reach the banks of the lazy Yarra. The river slides slowly by under the trailing branches of red-gum, slipping past beyond a veil of flickering leaves. The dog upsets the scene’s tranquility, leaping into the river, emerging at my side in a shower of muddy water. Within ten minutes we’re both dry again. It’s now 29 degrees. Time to turn home.

River Red Gum - Robyn Collier

Friday, 22 January 2016


Observations on a train

January 2016

The Talented Mr Hip-ley and the Urban Dothraki Geek

Melbourne is full of people trying out different things, having a go at changing and shaping their identity.  It’s one of the great things about this city; it somehow accords this freedom to its inhabitants. Sure, the place is overrun by conservatives clambering up the slippery pole of wealth and status, while the blue-collar classes are banished to the outer suburbs and branded an irrelevance, but there is still - an albeit ever diminishing - space for the Young and Free here, who appear unafraid to explore quite publicly who they are and who they might become.  You could argue that this is the case everywhere and, true, I haven’t lived anywhere else while being in my forties, so you’d maybe have a point.  That said, I remember playing ‘Brunswick Street Bingo’ with my friend, Jill, in the inner north suburb of Fitzroy in 2002 and I was overcome by the same wonder at how free people were to walk down the street - and picking a memorable example - to wear garish clothes and carry a pink umbrella in one hand and a stuffed armadillo in the other.  I can’t remember which of us spotted that one first, but whoever it was convincingly and unequivocally won that round.  It was different enough from what you’d typically find in Inverness or Edinburgh (outside of Festival season) to be remarkable to us at the time, at any rate.  

On the train last week, I spotted two individuals.  To the first, I gave the name, ‘The Talented Mr Hip-ley’.  He was sporting a white-guy afro, ‘intellectual’ style specs, and an “ironically” worn check-shirt and pair of beige corduroy trousers.  He was reading a tattered, 1970s-era paperback edition of Hemingway's ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’.  His occasional glances around the train carriage might have been nothing more than moments of reverie, but something about his manner suggested that in him festered a need to be seen and his carefully crafted persona observed and acknowledged.  The urge to scoff was almost irresistible.  It was such an apparently self-conscious attempt to paint a new identity while at the same time adopting wholesale a well-worn cliché with all the trimmings.

It’s such an intensely and almost universally human struggle, though, between breaking away to create a new self and the need to conform.  I suspect the inclination to mockery came in part from the recognition of this paradox in myself.  To mock is perhaps to flatter myself that I keep this kind of thing better hidden or to justify the stasis of my own character.  Perhaps too the very public outworking of Mr Hip-ley’s struggle for a new identity made me feel like an inadvertent voyeur of what is really a very private process.  I don’t know.

The next day I spotted a guy who I’ll call “The Urban Dothraki”.  He was probably about the same age as Hip-ley, of similar slight-to-medium build but dressed fairly unremarkably. His hair was the thing that stood out. It was long and brown, with some of it gathered up to the top of his head in a pony-tail or top knot and he had a beard - not one of those hipster/Ned Kelly affairs - it was unsculpted and left to its own devices rather.  He was avidly devouring a well-thumbed copy of George RR Martin’s Dance with Dragons (one of the Game of Thrones books), completely lost in the fantasy.  He looked like an urban, slightly geeky version of the Dothraki tribesmen as depicted in the HBO dramatisation of Martin’s books.  There is a set of Game of Thrones fans who belong to a group as defined as hipsters and it’s entirely possible that the subject of my observation belonged to this set.  You know the ones:  they’re awfully put out that the people who only watched the TV shows call themselves fans of the series.  They’re probably also writing long blogs about how disappointing the new Star Wars movie is.  They are the followers of bearded fantasy, not bearded faux-intellectualism.  Somehow I felt less confronted by him.  I think the difference lay in the fact that the Urban Dothraki was unaware of his fellow travellers and did not need us to complete his persona.  There was no exhibitionism.  The hairdo seemed to me simply like something he liked and decided suited him - he incorporated it into his personality and then forgot about.  

Plus, of the two books my observed subjects were reading, I know which one I’d rather be reading.  

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Bears and Jakeys

He's doing it again. 

One of the many things that drives me nuts. He's rescued an empty bourbon bottle out of the recycling, filled it with water and is now marching about the house with it, swigging as he goes.

"Oh for God's sake", I say, "why can't you just drink water out of a glass or water bottle like normal people?"

"This IS a water bottle now" he retorts, ensuring the water makes the maximum sloshing noise as he upends the bottle over his head for another thirst-quenching quaff.  "I'd have thought you'd have appreciated that, what with us being newly fledged members of the Green Party and all. I'm recycling. Look!"

"You look like a jakey!"

This was all I could come up with.  OK I admit it. I can't think of a particularly logical reason for wanting to outlaw this routine; I just don't want to see my husband stoating about looking like an alcoholic vagrant.

Even if it is in the privacy of our own home.  

In the dead of night. 

With the curtains closed.  

What is so galling about it really, though?  I can't fathom it.  I mean, I know he wouldn't walk down the street doing it. It's just a pet dislike of mine. 

Of course, Matt takes great delight in repeating little acts of annoyance that I can't find logical reasons for him not to do, and that makes it all the more annoying.

But those of us, who have been together for a while must all be allowed to annoy our partners in just such a way.  It's one of the pleasures and pains of the whole relationship thing, I suppose.

I can't claim not to have ample opportunity to get my own back.  

This winter, I bought a furry brown fleecy coat from Uniqlo with a hood that zips up the front to form the cosiest cocoon you can imagine.  I know I look like a case of horrendously bad taxidermy in it, but I don't care. It's the most comforting,  comfortable,  cosy thing you can ever imagine wearing and even though it is pretty much summer here I still wear it about the house every chance I get.  

Whenever it puts in an appearance, Matt sighs heavily. 

This is patently not how he imagined marriage. 

He calls it my bear costume.  

Unfortunately this only serves to encourage me, as it brings back fond memories of a lion costume my mother made for me for Halloween out of an old camel coat when I was about 5 years old .  I remember being indescribably thrilled with it and equally indescribably insulted when a neighbour mistook my mother's creative efforts for a bear. 

"Well," says he tremulously, "At least you never go out looking like that". 

(He doesn't know this but I have once.  Down the shops.  Don't tell him though, eh.)



Monday, 16 December 2013

Road-trips, removals and role reversals


(I wrote this in July but failed to post it and then lost momentum a bit for the blog – but rest assured normal service is now resuming).
 
 
When Matt discovered he was rostered to have 4 days off in a row in early July, we decided to use this time to hire a van, drive north to Brisbane and retrieve the rest of our personal effects we’d had shipped over to Australia, which were still at a storage facility at Seventeen Mile Rocks. 

The journey from Melbourne to Brisbane is approximately 18 hours.  It’s a long way but we looked into doing the trip only one way by road and it was going to cost us a fortune in relocation fees for any vehicle we hired.  We therefore decided to make a road-trip of it.  Matt made noises about us just putting a mattress in the back of the van and a duvet (or doona as they are known here) and stopping overnight in a truck stop to save money.  I contemplated this for a moment and several things vied for attention, chief among which were: 

·         what if I need the loo in the middle of the night?  (I frequently do – in fact just thinking about it makes me want to go!);

·         we’re taking the inland route – overnight temperatures in July can get pretty low (near to zero) in places and we can’t keep the van running all night to stay warm; and

·         How are we going to sleep in the back of the van on the way back when it’s full of our stuff?

At this point I also wished I’d never watched Wolf Creek (a horror film about backpackers on a road-trip being waylaid by a psychotic bushman).  So I vetoed the ‘sleeping in the van’ idea and booked us a motel in Dubbo – the halfway point.  (I still can’t believe there is a place called Dubbo!)

Time was tight and Matt was really busy in the lead up to the long weekend, so I made the bookings (which is usually my job)  but then also out of necessity I had to do several things that were not in my usual position description. 

1.        Pack Matt’s bag for the trip.  I NEVER DO THIS NORMALLY!  It offends my ideas of gender equality.  Inherent in the ‘wife packing her husband’s bags for him’ scenario is the assumption that either a) packing clothes and toiletries in a bag is a domestic chore and all domestic chores are the wife’s domain or b) men are too stupid to think ahead about what they might need for an overnight trip.  I heartily dislike an disagree with both of these assumptions and have therefore flatly refused to perform this task at any point during our 10 year marriage … up till now.  In fairness, Matt has never demanded it and this time, given the logistics involved, I offered, but it was a deeply disturbing experience, all the same.
 

2.       To make up for this, I arranged hire of and picked up the white van we were to transport our belongings in, ensuring that in the process, I reversed one-handed round a corner and blasted the horn at various drivers on the way back to the house until I felt that balance had been restored.  I must add at this stage that most of my horn blasting was to encourage people to take me up on my offer of giving way, when the initial attempt at waving and smiling didn’t work.  In Melbourne, the phenomenon of polite driving is scarce enough quite apart from it emanating from a white van, that I was forced to be rude for their own good.  Honestly! 
 


When Matt got home from work we took off.  We were rather disappointed at how loud the van was given that it was a relatively new model but it drove pretty well and had plenty of poke for overtaking.  I took the first shift, up toward Gouldburn Valley Highway (where the fruit comes from), past Puckapunyal (where Mum and Dad and Denny famously saw the passing out parade http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Urtiyp-G6jY) to Shepparton where we swapped seats and purchased ridiculous quantities of snacks.  I’ve heard of so many of these places and it was kind of cool to drive though/past them even though this route is far from the most picturesque way north (the view in the van excepted of course!) 


When Matt took over the driving again we once again remarked on how noisy but, thankfully, responsive the van was.  We did have to stop rather more frequently for fuel than we had hoped we’d have to, as well.  Again, this prompted wonderment at how such a late model could be so inefficient fuel wise, but hey ho.  We were well on the way now. 
Arriving at Dubbo, we let ourselves into the room we’d booked  – we’d told the proprietors we’d be in late, so they just told us the room number and said the key would be under the mat – then we got ready for bed and crashed out. 

The next day’s drive went smoothly and uneventfully.  Fuelled by the biggest breakfast I have ever seen in my life we continued to take turns driving through glorious sunshine all day. Long stretches of straight road punctuated every hour or so by a right angled turn at some junction or other.  It can get quite mesmerising, which made me a bit paranoid when I was driving.  The guys at the hire place had warned us about kangaroos.  There were also plenty of warning signs all along the way, to which  some individuals with a passion for anatomical accuracy had set about adding genitalia.  However, though we saw plenty of carcasses, nothing jumped out in front of us and we mercifully failed to end our days in a mangled marsupial mess. 


 
 We reached Toowoomba around teatime and because of the road-works taking place on the steep and winding road off the range, the last hour of the journey felt interminable.  We were well and truly ready to get out of the van by the time we drove up Pam’s driveway. 

Pam had several guests who had all come round for a barbecue to watch the British and Irish Lions play the Wallabies in Brisbane.  As the evening proceeded and the match got further away from the home team, the mood became distinctly subdued and disgruntled.  I was the only non-Aussie there and once again an incidental guest in Pam’s house.  I  therefore decided to keep quiet about the sporting disaster unfolding.  I’m not massively into team sport spectating but one of the things I was looking forward to in coming to Australia was being able to support sportsmen and women who had half a chance of actually winning something for a change. But between the pitiful performance in the Ashes tour in England and the Lions tour here, I was experiencing some surprise at the role reversal between this Great Sporting Nation and that of various teams originating from the British Isles.  It felt very odd.  What the hell was going on?  Maybe it was me!?  I never could watch Chris Paterson take a kick without him fluffing it.  Maybe the same jinx was now applying to Australian sportsmen?  (Note from December 2013:  Of course the Aussies have more than made up for these past humiliations in the Australian 2013 Ashes test, it would seem.  I’m most relieved that it wasn’t me after all.)
The next day we managed to catch up with a bunch of friends in between getting our stuff from the storage facility – in which more role reversals made themselves apparent.  Matt spent the whole time blethering to the bloke that ran the place – lovely people – while I gave directions to the fork lift guy and loaded the van. 

We were just leaving the storage place when Matt, in attempting to hand me his phone to answer and pull away into traffic at the same time (Matt?  Multi-tasking and keeping us back blethering all over the place?!)  jogged the gear stick by mistake causing it to slide alarmingly to the right … at which point we realised that we’d just driven 18 hours to Brisbane in third gear.  Neither of us are familiar with driving automatic transmission vehicles.  The 3 and the D were on the same level and in putting the van in gear, neither of us had realised that to get it into ‘Drive’ we needed to slide the stick sideways. 

On the way back down the road the van was much quieter and more fuel efficient… we noted humbly and bashfully.
We stopped off early the next day at Parkes Observatory – famous from the film ‘The Dish’ – fascinating stuff.  Our favourite bit was the two satellite dishes they have in the gardens.  These dishes face each other with a distance of around 150 metres between them.  You can stand in front of one and hear the person standing in front of the opposite dish whisper as though they were standing right next to you.  It’s a gimmick designed to demonstrate the efficiency of the dish shape in picking up signals over large distances, but we were enthralled.  It’s possible that the long, boring drive had made such highlights even higher in our estimation, but whatever. 
 



The final leg of the journey all role reversals were set to rights once again when I haired off down the wrong road and only started worrying after about an hour of seeing signs to Sydney instead of Melbourne.  We did a mad dash through countryside populated by very few people, ever tinier roads and ABSOLUTELY NO FUEL STATIONS to get back to the right route.  Again I wished I had never watched Wolf Creek, especially when we went through a wee village called Lockhart that looked strangely surreal … like a film set and STILL didn’t have a fuel station. 

In the end we got home about the same time we had planned but it certainly made for an exciting trip.  While on the whole, we’d enjoyed the trip  - including the snack pit as we named it – we agreed that next time we went to Brisbane, we’d be going by plane.