Saturday, 18 June 2016

Turning up

On January 1st I unwittingly set myself a challenge. “Do more cool things” I decreed as a tongue-in-cheek new year’s resolution. But what did that mean? It seems a dream three-week backpacking holiday in south-east Asia, late 2015, inspired more than renewed travel lust. It re-opened my eyes to life itself. And so “do more cool things” has come to mean turn up. Simply, turn up to my own life because as we all know it’s a fragile, unpredictable thing. (Turning 50 probably had something to do with it too.)

And so, even as an introvert, whose preferred place on a Saturday night - or any other time of the day/week – is at home alone, I’m pretty pleased with my efforts to turn up so far this year. I’ve recently taken part in a political rally for asylum seekers, cultivated dog-park friendships, grooved at a sick hip hop gig, supported Tom’s mid-life awesome in NZ, and carried the banner for a local refugee support group in my first parade.

And though I know I’ll still be riding that railroad of cancelled plans and hiding out on solitude mountain most of the time, right now I feel emboldened and empowered by the act of participation. It also helps that my online community of friends are so supportive. I certainly won’t be drafting an extrovert’s bucket list or putting my hand up for any public speaking opportunities any time soon but I will be looking forward to my next chance to simply turn up.

Illustration by Gemma Correll, author of The Worrier's Guide to Life and a self-proclaimed introvert.

Saturday, 6 June 2015


When I die, I hope people remember that I enjoyed life.

That despite the anxious moments I took great delight in foolishness and sunsets and crisp autumn mornings. That I loved animals and mountain views and good food.

That I lived for my children, their laughter and company, our impromptu drives through the suburbs and the way they’d implore “turn the music up!”

I hope they know that I knew about death and what it means to those you leave behind.

I hope they celebrate my little life and eccentricities, and don't mourn too deeply in a pre-fab, cut-cost funeral home.

I hope they get together sometimes to reminisce about funny things I did or said. The way my hair was lop-sided and messy. The way my eye sight was poor, like my judgement and singing. The way I interrupted and day dreamed and didn’t listen sometimes. Infuriating things.

When I die, I hope my loved ones are beside me and all is forgiven.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Me and Mr Darcy

I have a confession to make. I’m not very good at community. You know how we are all supposed to get our jollies from embracing our fellow man/woman, loving thy neighbour, pitching in and stuff for the common good? Well, “community” sort of scares me. I guess I'm just not a joiner. But then I met Helen and Darcy.

Our part of the neighbourhood is quiet. It hugs the precipice that leers over the Jamison valley, is often shrouded in dense mist, and is populated with holiday lets and renovators’ delights. Inside the renovators’ delights dwell old people, eking out their foggy last years amid 70’s d├ęcor and day time TV. There are the crotchety ones, the sad ones and the stoic ones like Helen.

We first met Helen not long after moving in. Helen liked to take her daily constitutional past our house and it just so happened, being a bonny Scottish lass, she loved border collies. She fell for our Sam and the feeling was mutual. It wasn't long before we also fell for Helen with her canny knack of showing up just when Sam was due for a walk and her keen observations on neighbourhood goings-on. She knew everyone, and had perhaps lived here the longest. She loved that we were renovating Mabel’s old place. She didn't love the way her legs got tired climbing Gordon Road but she tried to keep up none-the-less. At 90-something years young she took it upon herself to look after some of the other less mobile folk, dropping in for a chin wag and a medicinal each afternoon with Darcy and Cath. (She had a seemingly never-ending stash of her father’s Glenfiddich.)

But time ran its course for Helen and in early 2014 she died.

Helen’s passing left Darcy and Cath at a loss. No longer had he an afternoon drinking buddy or she someone with whom to disagree with on religion and politics. Age began to tell more visibly on them. Real frailty set in.

One afternoon I noticed the octogenarian struggling with his wheely bins and offered to help. And so began my weekly pilgrimage to see Mr Darcy.

I often scuttle in between work deadlines and loads of washing to rush the near-empty bins to the curb hoping not to be noticed so as to avoid conversation. But occasionally I am stuck, invited inside to hear the latest about Cath’s heart condition, their goodly friends from the “church” and snippets of neighbourhood gossip. I’m sure Darcy would like to offer me a drink.

I received a card on my birthday that Darcy made on his computer, and in return delivered a box of chocolates to celebrate his 90th. In our letterbox this Christmas was a jar of home-made marmalade, the same sort Helen used to give us.

They have our number should anything untoward happen that doesn’t require an ambulance.

I guess you can’t help but get involved in other people’s lives.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Precious cargo

A parcel arrived today post-marked Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The return address was Top Banana Guesthouse on the corner of Street 51 down by the riverside, and it was sent by my daughter Indi, aged 18, travelling solo around South East Asia since early November.

Inside were presents, collected treasures, market finds and some books and magazines that were weighing her down. A note addressed to “My team members,” made us smile. As did the thoughtful gifts, because knowing Indi, much deliberation and sincere intent accompanied their purchase.

What was also enclosed in the bubble wrap and newspaper but clearly not labelled on the customs document was much less tangible.

How did my little girl get so worldly and wise as to spend this long away from home and not only navigate her way through four different countries and cultures with aplomb but thrive on the experience?

This is the letter I wrote to her when she left on her adventure:

“You are young and brave (often impulsive) and that scares me sometimes but I’m also immensely proud of you and I have a lot of faith in your judgement. I know we romanticised travel for you with all our stories and silly journals but backpacking is hard work at times so expect some down days among the amazing memories you are creating for yourself.

I suppose I brought this on myself naming you after Indiana Jones and Sir Edmund Hillary but I haven't been apart from you for more than a week or two since March 1996 so I've kind of got used to having you around.

May the universe be kind to you and show you many wonderful things.”

I also gave her a list of "don'ts" because Mum.

When she walked through the departure gates at Kingsford Smith airport her dad remarked that it was a watershed moment. I guess he was right. She was always going to leave one day and so will Jaya.

I just hope they go knowing how loved they are and that they can always come home.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

About the weather

Sometimes I wonder why I live in the Blue Mountains. Seemingly endless winters that seep into your bones and incur extortionate heating bills; a four hour return city commute to work and the cultural cringe afforded regional towns can take its toll. But every time that commuter train chugs its way across the grimy plains and begins the climb back up the mountain I feel a certain world weariness slip away. As the terrain outside the window gets progressively greener and more wild, as views expand to reveal that timeless stretch of valley and ridge dissolving into a purple horizon where golden evening light magically anoints cliff-faces and treetops, and when the dizzying altitude allows me to breathe deeply once more, I know why I'm still here after 13 years. Someone said recently that they didn't choose the mountains, but rather the mountains chose them. Perhaps they chose me too.

I wrote the following piece about leaving the city many years ago but it still resonates with me, particularly as we hurtle headlong into another summer, when spring’s brief bolshie burst of fecundity will be all but silenced by the shimmering heat. Or not.

Weathering the Blue Mountains

Windscreen wipers on the taxi scrape back and forth.  A grim driver peers past them through dense fog to barely visible traffic lights.  Outside ghost trees shiver and cars around us splutter white steam like dragons.  In the distance an ambulance siren wails down the highway.  “Some weather we’re having,” I say.  “Yep,” the driver sighs, summing me up in the rear vision mirror. "That’s the mountains for you.  Up here, it’s either paradise or purgatory.”  The cabbie’s ominous observation irks me.  Does he mean the weather or life in general in the Blue Mountains? 

It is early Spring, a time of new beginnings.  Daffodils and jonquils brighten skeletal gardens but it is still cold and will remain so until November.  I have recently joined the exodus of tree changers fleeing the big smoke for some fresh air, a change of pace and a mortgage break. I choose to settle in the Blue Mountains - an idyllic World Heritage listed address only 100 kilometres west of big bad Sydney.  But I soon realise there is more to this move than a new postcode.

Initially, there are phobias and misconceptions to overcome.  Snakes and bushfires aside it is the born and bred mountain folk that scare me most.  Goaded by city friends to purchase the correct uniform – ugg boots and flannelette – we are warned of bikies, druggies and rednecks. What we discover is a mixed bunch of artists, greenies, travellers, young families and life-challenged individuals, united by a common bond – climate.

For most people discussing the weather is polite conversation.  For mountain dwellers it’s up there with politics and religion, often controversial and always opinionated.  Perhaps that’s because the seasons are so palpable at 1000 metres above sea level, unlike Sydney’s terrarium-like atmosphere.

Adjusting our lives to mountains time we watch leaves unfurl after Spring sun-showers.  No traffic or large shopping malls, instead just a breath of fresh air.

Finally Summer arrives.  Packing woollens away we revel in the warmth of sunshine on pasty, naked limbs.  Christmas tinsel shimmers in shop windows and blue-tongues smirk when mistaken for snakes under the clothesline. Soaring temperatures keep tourist buses on the coast and locals complain bitterly about the heat.  The bush begins to crackle with drought and the incessant shrill of cicadas.

The almost inevitable bushfires keep everyone on edge.  Unable to sleep we listen as sirens approach then fade into the night.  With morbid fascination we watch the fiery red glow of neighbouring hilltops, creeping across the valleys and gullies, drawing ever closer.  The blow-torch heat from gusty nor-westers whips up blackened gum leaves, scattering them in backyards like sooty confetti. And an eerie quiet descends with the dense smoke shrouding our valley.

Concerned friends ring from the safety of the city offering prayers for rain as overnight fireys and Elvis the mega-chopper become super heroes.  Tuned to community radio, I pace the deck, scan a hazy horizon, cough and wonder how to pack a life into the boot of a car.

Bushfire season passes.  A brief but blistering summer subsides into the glorious, golden hues of Autumn.  A fairyland of falling leaves in blindingly beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow adorn roadsides.  Crisp air and clear skies are ideal for long, restorative walks.

A group of ferals move in next door.  All hair and flares tumbling from a clapped out combi plastered with sentiments that read “Save the Reef”, “No Nukes”, “Sorry” and my personal favourite “Magic Happens”.  They mostly keep to themselves but occasionally the beat of conga drums wafts on the breeze along with some suspicious scents.

By May preparation for Winter is well underway.  I purchase my first proper coat and seriously consider thermal underwear.  My partner re-discovers a long-lost pioneering spirit and is busy chopping wood and collecting sticks, taking great pride in neatly stacked piles of kindling.  The Weather Channel becomes prime time viewing in anticipation of our first frost and I secretly squirrel away marshmallows, cocoa and tins of soup.

It occurs to me that I had developed a peculiar trait inherent in true mountain folk, a pre-occupation with the weather, the more inclement the better.  Bragging to Sydney friends that their minimum temperature is our maximum.  Rubbing numb fingers together with glee whenever the thermometer sinks to 0 degrees!  Wistfully watching clouds, searching for the band of cumulonimbus that will herald the elusive, snow-laden low-pressure system I crave.  I become obsessed with snow.

Winter solstice approaches and residents make ready for a unique local celebration.  The Winter Magic festival boasts street parades, food stalls and fireworks.  Enchanted by the heady aroma of wood-smoke, roasting chestnuts and incense in the chill air, we rug up to watch with parochial pride as fairies cavort with African drummers and circus performers make way for wizards and wanderers.  But still no snow. 

Crunching through brown leaves and duck poo on the lake’s edge, I pause to study the blackening sky, greeting an elderly mountain woman feeding the birds.  The thin winter sun illuminates her lined face.  “Do you think we’ll get any snow?”  I ask, almost pleadingly, nodding skywards. She looks at me curiously, “Not now love, Spring’s on its way.”

I glance out over the lake and spy cherry blossoms on the far side. “But don’t worry,” she smiles patting my arm, “there’s always next year.”

And the year after that…The beauty and drama of the Blue Mountains has taken hold of me.  I can’t wait to see what next year will bring.  

First published in The Australian newspaper

Thursday, 25 September 2014

My (spiritual) island home

My connection with New Zealand started well before I understood that the Australian suburb where I attended primary school, Waitara, was named after a place of historical significance in New Zealand and is in fact a Maori word that means mountain stream (according to Wikipedia).

It existed earlier than my teenage crush on the new wave stylings of bands such as Split Enz and Mi-sex. Went beyond a devotion to big-hitting Lance Cairns and Sir Richard Hadlee's defiant underdogs in the exciting early 80’s new form of day/night cricket (despite their beige strip). Outlived the fully fabricated Kiwi persona I adopted when forced to change high schools and impress new friends. (Sydney obviously wasn't as exotic as Auckland back then.) And was present an eon prior to meeting and marrying my Christchurch-born husband with his outdoorsy good looks and English enunciations.

Somehow it seems inherent, seminal even, which may be closer to fact than fiction. It is well recorded in family folklore that my great grandmother, being a lively lass and one of 26 siblings (yes you read correctly), ran away at age 16, to avoid the drudgery of life as a dairy maid that had killed her own mother (never mind the child rearing) with the first handsome man to ride by on horseback. This swarthy gentleman was rumoured to have travelled from across the ditch. A New Zealander, a Kiwi, a cad! A subliminal connection to the land of the long white cloud? Perhaps.  A growing love affair with Aotearoa? Definitely.

I've only visited New Zealand’s south island twice, once in early 2011 a matter of days before the earthquake that levelled Christchurch’s CBD and forever changed that genteel city’s heart, and again in April this year to revel in the autumnal splendour of Queenstown and surrounds. But what strikes me about the country and its people is the down to earth, no bullshit genuineness of the place. Like Aussies, Kiwis call a spade a spade but there is something else, a quiet confidence and sense of place seemingly absorbed from the land itself: the wild rivers, mountains, forests and beaches. And then there is that rugby team. Both annoyingly and admirably, Kiwis are a hardy bunch of parochial over-achievers.

This is an excerpt from my travel diary on that first trip:

“I feel like I'm trespassing on this island’s grief – welcomed open-heartedly by a people still reeling from the tragedy of the Pike River mine disaster and a destructive series of earthquakes and after-shocks that threatened to flatten NZ’s garden city. But nowhere have we found the depressed or down-trodden, in fact the opposite. The mood is buoyant if not the economy.

As we batten down the hatches and prepare to be lashed by the tail end of tropical cyclones Vania and Zelia which combine with a low in the Tasman to produce a storm system/rain event that will see 90km winds and over 100ml of rain dumped on the top of the south island I am quietly confident that we too will weather the storm.”

You can read my piece on Kiwi earthiness "Bach to the Future" in the spring 2014 issue of Slow magazine.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

My shadow

I’m ironing my husband’s one good shirt, the one reserved for weddings and funerals, when it hits me.

A tsunami of grief that knocks me sideways, washes over me and holds me under until I fight my way back towards the light and surface, god knows how long later, in foetal position on the couch, grief all cried out.

But this is not what happens.

Instead, I get on with it. I continue with the everyday. I remain calm and carry on.

I endure and even enjoy work. I set my alarm and greet each morning with optimism. I make polite conversation with colleagues, strangers, shop assistants and close family members alike. I clean and cook and clean it all again.

I risk delight in sunshine and autumn leaves.

Perhaps if I pretend it didn't happen then maybe grief will go away.

But grief is sneaky.

It catches me unawares at school assemblies and in the car at traffic lights.

Grief travels with me on my morning commute.

It ghosts me in supermarket aisles and stares back from the bathroom mirror.

Tiresome grief will not be silenced.

I am intimate with grief, we are on first name terms and somehow I think I’ve known grief, in one guise or another, all my life.