Saturday, 22 November 2014

... sharing the excellent country

The smell of smoke permeated the main street of town this morning.  It drifted up from the foreshore to let us know in which direction to head. Not a warning of a smouldering scrub fire to avoid or a blazing bush fire to flee, this was welcome smoke — a welcome to country. 
 Our little Rock is in the marr ne bek'excellent country' home of the Kulin clans. We are in Boon Wurrung territory, a place of plenty. But very few indigenous Australians live here. In my time on The Rock, I've met none.

Senior Boon Wurrung Elder Aunty Carolyn Briggs presides over 
 the welcome to Boon Wurrung Country with a smoking ceremony.
 Aboriginal Australians make up a mere three per cent of our nation's population. But that's a story for another time. Today, we acknowledged the indigenous ownership of our home and we celebrated the connections between our community and many others. 

 A Smoking Ceremony cleanses a space, prepares it for a significant event. The smoke connects all present to both the physical world,  the spirit world, and to each other.
Indigenous Australians have always used fire in caring for their land and people. Bushfire promotes new growth in native flora. Lush grasses and freshly shooting trees attract animals for hunting. It's all connected. Planned. Respectful. Smoke is a symbol of healing and well-being. Land. Fire. Smoke. Growth. It's a perpetual cycle.

The Rock is also home to the Yolla. Early settlers dubbed them Muttonbirds because they provided large and fleshy meals — like flying sheep. We call them Short-tailed shearwaters. A million of them have their rookeries here on The Rock. Every year, they travel 15,000 kilometres from the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea near Alaska to reach us. 

In November, each female lays her one precious egg. Her partner shares in both the incubation and the caring for the young, travelling as far as the freezing waters of Antarctica in search of food. And then, in April, when the winds blow, each pair makes the return journey. When strong enough, the chicks set off too. For a few weeks, no lights illuminate our streets or the bridge leading to The Rock. They confuse the birds. And many of us find fledglings that have simply dropped out of the skies. Disoriented and exhausted, they fall onto our porches. 

 Girlchild releasing one of our young Yolla visitors into the dunes near our house earlier in the year.

This weekend in the Shearwater Festival, our little community enjoys activities and performances that celebrate creative, cultural and environmental interconnectedness.There is a street parade, workshops led by indigenous artists, nature walks conducted by local park rangers, and concerts by some of Australia's most prominent Aboriginal musicians.

It all kicked off with a dance troupe and a giant Shearwater puppet telling the migration story on the foreshore. They interwove the Dreamtime creation tale of Bunjil the Eagle with the legend of the shearwaters as Bunjil allowed safe passage to these migratory birds that choose our Rock.
Sometimes,I feel totally inadequate with my 'privileged' WASP heritage. Beyond inadequate...ashamed. Impoverished.
Boon Wurrung dance troupe
Especially on days like today.
An egg
A fledgling

Friday, 21 November 2014

10 things worth bottling... plus a bit

Youre probably way too young to remember Jim Croces Time in a Bottle, but I was listening to it yesterday actually, I was singing along with it rather than listening anyway, it got stuck on repeat in my head. In a nice way. It wasnt bugging me in that pesky earworm way: it was just gently floating around so that I found myself humming it. And it set me to thinking. I do that sometimes.

The Aussie saying Its a bottler is pretty much defunct these days. My dad used it all the time to let us know that he thought something was special, wonderful, impressive. If a school report was declared a bottler, that was definitely a good thing. My guess is that this expression grew from the ultimate of accolades saved for really good blokes: His bloods worth bottling, an idiom that came down to us from the soldiers of World War 1. If someone displays such great courage and loyalty  that you want to preserve some of their essence for the future, bottle it. Stash some in a bottle to enjoy at another time.

Dad grew up in the bush and was full of classic Aussie sayings. If Mum was unable to settle at the dinner table because she first needed to get the mustard from the fridge, and the pepper from the pantry, fill the water glasses and let the dog out, hed say: For goodness sake, Margret, sit down and enjoy your meal. Youre up and down like a brides *nightie.

If it was me buzzing around unable to sit still, Id be told I was flitting around like a fart in a bottle... Which would definitely not be a bottler of a moment.

An expert in any given field was declared, with admiration, to be the full bottle. So, it naturally follows that if you were a rank amateur or worse, were totally ignorant then you were clearly not the full bottle. Yep, more proof that drinking is at the heart of all Australian 'kulcha'.

So, anyway, I ended up wondering, what in the spirit of Jim Croce would I save in a bottle? And, in no particular order, here are the first ten things that came to mind:

µ  The satisfied exhilaration of doing something you were sure you couldn't do
µ  Snuggling
µ  That instant when anticipation collides with actuality, exploding into fireworks inside your brain
µ  The weight of a sleeping baby in your arms on a still silent night
µ  Waking up in a holiday destination
µ  That glorious moment when youve been barracking** to near-exhaustion and your team comes through with a hard-fought win
µ  Rainbows
µ  Being greeted with a smile and a hug or a nudge and a wagging tail upon returning home
µ  A cool change sweeping in after a scorching summer day
µ  The smell of a puppy

I'm kind of hoping that the song runs for the same length of time it takes you to read this post. If this did not occur, your rate of reading is not four words per second. Just sayin'.

NB In the interest of cross-cultural communication: 
* nightie is a very commonly used abbreviation of nightgown
* *to barrack is another Australianism. In British English, barrack is a pejorative verb meaning to heckle and boo someone. In Australian English, it has positive connotations and means to yell support. Americans call it 'rooting' but in Australia you get arrested for doing that in public.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

...just a writer

I cannot keep it in any longer or something is gonna blow! You see, there it is right there. There’s your proof. I’m so fired up I even used an ! and of all the punctuation marks in the universe ! would be my least favourite.

Today’s Nablopomo writing prompt is: Do you have a book in you? Fact or fiction? Related to your blog or totally different? As yet, I have not posted a rant. I haven’t fumed or bristled. I haven’t even grumped and grizzled. Well, that is all about to change. You have been warned.

The next person who utters the words “But when are you going to really start writing? When are you going to write a novel?” — or any combination of meaningful sounds that remotely resembles the aforementioned words — had better duck. Quickly. Coz they’re going to hear the whistling sound my fist makes as it seeks contact with their face.

I have written several books. More than several actually. Yes, lots of them have been for educational reading programs. A couple of them have been teaching texts. And of course then there’s the absolute conversation stopper… the confession I never ever make in a social setting… I have written a Dummies book.  About grammar. Two versions and two editions of it. Thank you, Mr Wiley, by the way, for the helpful donations you deposit into my bank account four times a year.
But apparently those publications don’t count.

“Oh… well… You did write those, but they’re only educational texts. They’re not really books.”

How about the two-part article about infertility and adoption that has been published both in an anthology and a website?
Or the time the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to write Steve Irwin's obituary?
Do I get any credit for those? Coz I can list a few more.

“Again…not really… They’re only articles. And they’re not like REAL stories. You know…like proper short stories.”

Apparently only fiction classifies as REAL writing. And to be honest, that’s why I only ever describe myself as a writer and not an author. Use the word author and people will make the immediate mind-link to the word fiction.

Just a few weeks ago, a friend… a real friend… one I hold dear… commented in response to my having posted my very first blog piece: “ Did you feel weird? Were you nervous about people reading your stuff?”
Ummm…No… I write. That’s what I do. I put words in an order that means something to other people. Hopefully.

And then she said: “ But when are you going to do some REAL writing? Isn’t blogging just a diversion from writing a novel? Isn’t that the whole point of your wanting to write? A novel?”
Ummm…NO…Who told you that? Not me.

Last night, my own mother hit me with: “ I’m enjoying the blog, and have recommended it to Joan. But all your writing is little bits about stuff you know and stuff that happens. It’s all sort of about just everyday things. It’s not like you’re writing anything meaningful. Like a novel.”


Maybe I should take it as a compliment.  Maybe they think that because I love to read fiction, and I also love to write, that there’s a causal link between the two. There’s not. I find writing non-fiction wonderfully challenging. Every one of those not-really-a-book books I’ve written has required a huge amount of creative energy. And research. And editing. Just like a REAL book.

 So YES… I do have a book in me. Several. I also have a book out of me. Several.
 But NO…none of them are fiction.
 That’s why I’m just a writer.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

...the one about being funny

Inspired by the Nablopomo writing prompt for today — Are you the funny one in most groups? What kinds of things do you find funniest?

It must be exhausting to feel the need to be the funniest person in the room. I’m sure there are lots of reasons for it — attention seeking, habit, insecurity, nerves, the expectations of others, having an ego the size of the universe — but it’s not a character trait I share. And I honestly don’t know what social role I do assume when I’m in groups. Mostly I just stand around and drink. Or eat. But mostly drink.

Dr Dad thrives in his high-power high-status job, so several times a year I find myself in the excruciating position of having to be the corporate-wifey at lavish black-tie functions. I loathe them. I feel like a geriatric dugong floundering amidst the fluttering neon tetras and angelfish.  

Before we go, I prime myself with a list of potential conversation-starting questions. I really do. But soon after we arrive, and all the hello-how-are-the-kids stuff is over, I seize up. Well, not my drinking arm. That stays pretty active. My brain seizes up. I go mute. But Dr Dad fires up. At work he’s clearly Dr Chuckles. He breezes right in and pretty soon the laughter follows. And his colleagues love to  tell me what a funny guy he is. I smile glassily. And grab another Moët from the nearest tray.

At home, one of his many other monikers is Captain Obvious. He makes us laugh because of his exceptional capacity to state the bleeding obvious. He’s an absolute master of the No Shit Sherlock genre. Truly.

And he irritates the be-hooey out of Miss 14 with his constant teasing and banter. He finds it hilarious. She finds it groan-worthy. Like his Dad-jokes. Only worse.

His text messages are often pretty funny, though. Never before has one man made so many typing errors in so few words. Fat-fingered predictive text enhanced communications reach us on a regular basis. All three of us have a go at decoding them from Dad-speak to regular English, but often the only response we can muster is : ????  (We also call him Analogue Dad, but I’ll save that for another day.)

He’s damn-near genius in his chosen field  — which is not comedy.
It’s accounting.
The opposite of comedy.

It’s a definite skill, being the funny one in a group. It puts other people at ease and keeps the tone light. Me, well, I think I’m in Woody Allen’s team when it comes to being the funny one:

It’s not my first choice. 
How about you?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Mothering 1950s style

I have many flashback recollections of my earliest years —the feel of my father’s baggy trousers as I clutched them, trying desperately to keep up with his long strides; matching clothes my mother made for me and Barbie, pink gingham with white trim; masses of purple flowers in my nana's garden that smelt bitter despite their allure; the unreachable height of the wooden beds at my grandparents’ house and the almost brittle crispness of their linen sheets; playing shop beneath the peppercorn tree that stood in the vacant block of land behind our house; walking to kindergarten holding Mum’s hand. In fact, walking almost anywhere holding Mum’s hand. Feeling safe. Being certain that I was loved.
Never much of a hugger or kisser like most modern mums, she was a classic 1950s-movie-style mum — great cook, fussy housekeeper. She wore an apron, a ‘pinny’ she called it. Dad was the breadwinner and Mum the homemaker.  She went to work only when we were at high school and she thought we were old enough to safely fend for ourselves. It must have been difficult for her with Dad working long hours and travelling for business but she never grumbled or made a fuss.  They had a particular ritual whereby Dad would kiss her on the lips and the nose every morning before leaving for work and then repeat the process in reverse when he returned at night. And she always slipped into the bathroom to freshen up her ‘lippy’ just before he walked in the door.

For years I thought that the woman holding the flaming torch for Columbia pictures, was my mother. She was as beautiful as my mum.
I thought all mothers were like that, just as I believed all dads read the paper when they got home from work and played golf on Saturdays.  

We were expected always to be polite and honest.  Cleanliness and respect for people and property had to be maintained. There were no rules about eating everything on your plate or taking your shoes off at the door or only watching one hour of television as there were at my friends’ houses. Reasonable limits were set and we adhered to them.  I don’t ever remember her being angry. She never raised her voice. I was going to grow up to be just like her.

Fuck was I ever wrong. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

I got my first wetsuit for my 49th birthday

Apparently it’s weird to get your first wetsuit for your forty-ninth birthday. But it’s weird good, right? Not weird as in whatever-you-do- don’t-look-her-in-the-eye kind of weird. I blame my brother. And my mum. Everything always come down to being the mother’s fault.

Despite being three years older than me, BigBro has been three inches shorter than me since I was about ten. He has olive skin, dark brown hair and a muscular shape. I burn easily, have fair hair, and muscular is definitely not an adjective anyone would ever choose to describe me. And we are as different in nature as we are in appearance. Where I am fussy, he is easy-going.  Where I am willing to accommodate the needs and quirks of others (read ‘collect lame ducks and assorted hangers-on’), he loses patience and ruthlessly kills people off from his life.  I am cautious where he is devil-may-care. I love entertaining and going to the theatre; he would rather be out surfing, sailing, snow skiing or motorbike riding.

 Unlike me, BigBro was a severely premature and ill baby. He was often sick with croup and evil coughing nasties. So, in order to develop his physical strength and lung capacity, Mum had him learn to swim at an early age.  Although a healthy large full-term infant, I suffered from an ugly skin infection on my feet that prevented going barefoot in summer and made going to the beach uncomfortable. My mother made me wear socks to swimming lessons. Hideous. Humiliating. White socks. With frills on them. 

 So it was that BigBro and I unconsciously split the roles between us: I am the academic one, he is the sporty one. BigBro thrives in water: I can barely swim. 

 Well, as I’ve said, there are some pretty sweet beaches here on The Rock.  On countless glorious days I waded out thigh deep into the rolling surf to watch and worry as young Boychild and Girlchild  whooped and shrieked in the white water, challenging each other to ride all the way to the sand on their Mickey-Mouse body boards, crashing and bumping and giggling all the while. 

 Yes, it was always me who fretted and waved, beckoning them closer to the shore, shooing them away from serious board riders, dragging them back out to an acceptable depth and reissuing the safety warnings that followed the safety warnings I’d just issued. Dr Dad was always way too busy whooping and shrieking and crashing and bumping to notice what the kids were doing. 

 Until one day, I could resist no more. Exhibiting all the key symptoms of if-you- can’t- beat-'em-join-'em-itis, I grabbed a hold of one of those floating Mickey boogie things and lunged out to where the water was waist deep. I know. Crazy daredevil stuff. It was bloody freezing. It was also the most I'd laughed since that time Father Christmas actually reclaimed my brother’s scooter because he’d left it out in the rain. Gold.

 So, the kids gave me a wetsuit for my 49th birthday. 

And yes, it really does stay warm after I pee in it.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Seoul 2001 : A Life-space Odyssey.

 On our way back from the Katy Perry concert, I was thinking about how many wonderful memories I have been making lately with Miss 14. It set me to recalling some of the memories I have of her that she doesn't share, stuff from when she was little. 
So this entry comes with a self-indulgence warning. 

We were only ever going to adopt one child. Our age, our depleted savings, the amount of space in the house, the fact that we worked miles apart but still only had one car, the sheer logistics of three kids: there was no shortage of “logical reasons” to stop after one. But a universe lies between love and logic. And it wasn’t long after Boychild had entered our lives that I found myself exploring that logicless universe of the heart.

Yes, we were both already over 40, but didn’t that mean that Boychild would be without parents when he was relatively young? Surely that was a reason why he needed another sibling close to his own age.  Because, yes, there is a fourteen-year difference between Number One Son and Boychild, so the time-space between the oldest and the youngest would be even greater. But the boys’ relationship was wonderful. There were no grounds for believing that another child would be any different. Yes, my home office would have to be converted into a bedroom. So what? Yes, we only had one car. Big deal. And as to coping with three kids… who could say?

Well, to tell you the truth, I felt as if we had two only-children. The family didn’t feel complete. There was a hole, something missing from our universe, a gap in our galaxy.

So, on January 27th 2001, there I was on a plane to Korea; broke, 42 years old and very excited about the prospect of meeting our 5-month-old daughter. For a number of reasons, I was travelling alone and my stay would be only a short one, but it was every bit as magical as I’d hoped, plus some. Plus a whole world.

Like her brother’s, our new baby’s foster mother had looked solemn and grim in the allocation photos we received. But when she hurried in out of the gently falling snow for that first meeting in Seoul, her warmth-generating smile said otherwise. She was an experienced foster mother. For ten years she had been loving other people’s babies, and I hoped upon hope that her calm nature would be reflected in our daughter’s demeanor.

I was expecting a serious, red-faced infant sporting a thick black mane and an attitude that spoke of grim determination —for that’s what I’d read into Girlchild’s allocation photo. When a cherubic visage framed by a halo of fine hair popped out from beneath her foster mother’s heavy overcoat, I shrieked with delight and wonder.

With Boychild, I had been hesitant about taking the baby from his foster mother, unsure of protocol, nervous about my new mothering role. Not so with Girlchild. Propelled by a power surge of joy, love, relief, delight and gratitude, I swooped on that precious poppet. My tears fell as surely as the snow beyond the windows.

It was a fairy tale white world, a scene befitting our Korean Princess. 
Our bright new star.