Sydney with Taylor

Sunday Blog 124 – 25th Feb 2024

The last time I was in Sydney was before Covid. Finally I’m back, travelling for work, accidentally coinciding my visit with Taylor Swift. As I wait at the Artisan Hotel off Pitt Street for my dinner companion I think about it all. The Sydney streets had become smudged in my memory, and I was still getting my bearings, glued to the phone for directions all the way there. And then upstairs through the rooms at Artisan, bypassing memories of dinners I’ve had there in the past.

One of travel’s great mysteries and appeal to me is that a body can return to a place that it once was. Travel measures change, a bit like re-reading a book. The words are the same; the reader is not.

The last time I was in Sydney Dad was alive. Mum was still a wife and not a widow, and they were living in their home for 65 years. Yes, we still had the family home then, although it was crumbling around my parents, invaded by ants, blowflies, cranky plumbing. Busting at the seams every Christmas, Easter, family birthday. Quiet all other times, with simple daily routines of the paper, cups of tea, rotating carers on shifts patching Dad up and prepping and serving meals of over-boiled vegetables. Sure, the clouds of aging and death were gathering around, but the shit storm was holding off.

But time does mark changes in a place as well. This time I could ride the new Sydney trams, travelling the long length of George Street to Sydney Harbour at a bit more than walking pace.

Perhaps a book is the wrong comparison for travel, and a better one is a labyrinth. The labyrinth’s design mimics the brain or intestines, depending on your imagination. You walk into the centre, you walk out again. The paths are adjacent and circle around so here you are again, passing the same ground but a bit farther in, or farther out.

So I wait in the Artisan, re-treading the paths back and forth in my mind, then my companion arrives and new memories are laid on old.

We talk about Taylor Swift, because we have to. The streets are full of women and girls in sequinned outfits, out of their minds with excitement about the concerts they have flocked to Sydney to attend. Hotel costs are even more heinously expensive than usual, and Taylor’s music is piped through the speakers of almost every hotel or cafe. At the entrance to my hotel there’s a couch in the shape of pink lips, with two life-size cut-outs of Taylor. I catch glimpses of fond parents taking photos of their children on the lounge as I pass through.

At the end of my stay I text my Artisan dinner companion to say that I have left all the Taylor Swiftness behind, but it’s not true. The plane is awash with smiling people wearing her merch.

Swanbourne Nostalgia

Sunday Blog 123 – 18th February 2024

This year I promised myself I would attend more workshops at Mattie Furphy’s House, the Fellowship of Writers WA base in Swanbourne. Mattie was part of the Arts and Craft movement in Perth. The home she and her husband created has been moved a short distance away from its original position. It’s now just a few blocks away from my mother’s former family home in the 1930s and 1940s – Reeve Street in Swanbourne.

Living up to my promise to myself, recently I attended a travel writing workshop there. As instructed, I wandered around Mattie Furphy’s house and gardens, taking pictures of the water tank, the outside toilet, a sturdy creepy snaking in and around timber framing. I riffed on the travel theme a little-I went back in time. Here it is, my short piece:

Dad-Dad bought the house in Reeve Street, Swanbourne in the 1940’s. Cheap as chips, no-one wanted to put themselves in the direct line of the bombs that would surely target this military area. Mum’s happiest years until Dad Dad’s  dreadful, fateful decision to sell Swanbourne and buy a shop in Collie. She, a young adult, stayed behind, watched them disappear down the road in the car, down, down and away to domestic horrors that unfolded there.

The Reeve Street house is now long gone, but here’s Mattie Furphy house, a short walk away. The screech and call of birds from the trees framed in blue, blue sky is the sound and look of the past. Then the passing motorbike rips up this fantasy like an unwanted note, tears it to small pieces and delivers me back to Swanbourne today.

I wander around the ruins of the memories that are not mine.  The outdoor toilet with its domed roof, the daddy long legged spiders gyrating madly whenever a human approaches. It still doesn’t work, we can see you and if we want, we can kill you.

The water tank, the little drip-drip which would feed the mint plant placed under the tap and keep it green even in the hottest of summers. The stilts and slats under the house, the wooden lattice that enclosed the outdoor sleeping area.

Everything passes.

It’s complex

Sunday Blog 122 – 11th February 2023

Trauma, that is. I’ve waded through the entirety of the tiny print, very dense The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk in the last week. Because I need to have this seminal text under the belt. Before I get too far into reviewing my single incident trauma memoir. Before I launch myself into progressing podcast ideas. Or so I tell myself.

The book is both for mental health practitioners and every day people who want to know how to get themselves or others out of the post-trauma cul-de-sac.

Reading it raised my hackles about the politics of trauma and mental health care. As a long-standing clinician-researcher, he shares many tales of his professional frustration in trying to bring more effective therapies into the mainstream. And the difficulty of getting recognition of the specific and different impact of trauma when it’s experienced in childhood.

Yes, Vietnam Vets suffered terribly, but they were usually young men before being exposed to trauma. There is something in our society that just doesn’t want to own the reality that harm can happen in the home, to children, and that it can create a specific set of behaviours and wounding that need a different sort of toolkit from that applied to adults.

It was 2019 when I first heard about comedian Corey White. He was being interviewed on Conversations about his memoir Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory. It unpacks his traumatic childhood in a violent, chaotic home and an adolescence in foster care.

The title alone would have sold me but the interview was warm and compelling. I downloaded the audio book immediately – I was in Limnisa in Greece at the time for a writing retreat (middle class wanker alert). There is patchy internet at Limnisa to ensure we get on with our writing projects. But I walked up the hill to get enough bandwidth to download the audio book the moment I had finished the Conversations episode. Then I could not stop listening. I Could Not Stop. I would listen, then get up and dunk myself in the ocean, and then return to keep listening until I had finished.

I was someone who always worried that my parenting was not up to scratch and that I would damage my child. I have my unpleasant memories including when I walked around the block for about fifteen minutes, thinking my toddler daughter was asleep. I returned to find her awake, distressed, banging on the window.

Then I read about the infant Corey being left in a caravan, without food or water for some 72 hours.

A helpless infant. 72 hours.

It’s important we never underestimate the resiliency of humans. It’s vital that we keep the possibility of healing and wholeness, no matter how extreme the trauma endured.

As well as marvelling at his resilience I raged at the systemic issues Corey’s memoir unpacked. Why, oh why was he in his mid-twenties before he learned anything about complex PTSD? He described it as finding a key at last to his many baffling and self-destructive behaviours. Why did this never come up at any time during foster care, mental health, drug and alcohol and prison programs? Why isn’t there some kind of effective intervention for young people in out of home care? Or if there are effective interventions, why are they so hard to access for people who’ve been through experiences like Corey’s?

Bessel Van der Kolk includes a whole chapter on theater for healing. I loved this quote from a convenor of The Possibility Project in New York, a theater program for foster kids.

“You cannot help, fix, or save the young people you are working with. What you can do is work side by side with them, help them to understand their vision and realize it with them. By doing that you give them back control. We’re healing trauma without anyone ever mentioning the word.”

Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, page 342

Reflections on editing

Sunday Blog 121 – 4th February 2024

For a brief period while in London I flirted with acting and improvisation classes. Once I had to try my hand at playing an East Ender talking things over with a mate. I was supposed to be poor, in trouble with the law, in a tight corner.
“Stop!” The tutor said after a while. “You just don’t sound like someone who has no options.”

My drama teacher could hear my imaginative cogs whirring and failing to catch as I tried a patter of hard-talking, imitated cynicism. It just didn’t sound right. I had no mental picture of a life launched from a rickety childhood, crashing into dead-ends, barriers and recurring disasters.

As I continue on with the mammoth task of revising my 2014 memoir, Not My Story I keep on asking myself that key question;

“What is this about?”

Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project. A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life

This week’s answer is that it’s about trauma. And privilege. And post-traumatic growth.

This has been shaping my reading and watching list. I steeped myself in the novel Shuggie Bain and binge watched the Netflix series of the Australian novel Boy Swallows Universe. Both books are written from the perspective of the child navigating to adulthood from a childhood marred with parental abuse of alcohol and drugs. Where the needs of the children fall out the bottom and slide away.

I agree with my sister that Shuggie Bain should be called Agnes Bain. It’s a portrait of a mother, now resisting, now succumbing to the plug hole of alcoholism. Without the upbeat, action-hero ending of Boy Swallows Universe, it left a strong trace of the depth of (self-inflicted) human suffering. How doing the same thing always seems easier than doing the smart thing.

Ah Agnes, how I loved your periods of sobriety and how your boys thrived on full stomachs and the sunshine of your attention. And a break, just for a while, from their an endless worry about whether or not you were drinking that day.

Keeping on the trauma theme but switching to non-fiction, I’m now reading The Body Keeps the Score, Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Then, this paragraph leapt out at me and reminded me of my failed improv;

“Many of my patients have survived trauma through tremendous courage and persistence, only to get into the same kinds of trouble over and over again. Trauma has shut down their inner compass and robbed them of the imagination they need to create something better.”

The Body Keeps the Score, Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.

And back to the memoir and its themes, and the questions it generates. My drama teacher was right. I can always imagine and positively reframe life so there’s always another option. But is this just privilege or is something else also at play? And why don’t we talk more about post traumatic growth as a thing that most people experience to some degree? An imaginative frame to bring forth something better in our lives?

There’s a lot to untangle.

Seeing sepia in colour

Sunday Blog 120 – 28 January 2024

Old photo albums marinade us in the difficult truth that everything passes. A picture from the late 1920s of my mother as a toddler, smiling in front of the rose garden her father created from the heat and dust in the small town of Winchester in mid-west Western Australia.

I mention this photo to Mum and she says “he divided the rose bed in four and put different coloured roses in each quarter.” He was also a keen photographer. He took the photo nearly a decade after emerging from the horrors of World War One behind him. Not quite whole, but able to create a happy family home in the bush, complete with a multi-coloured rose garden.

The trick for me now is to see the roses in colour, vibrant as my steaming tea cup of tea.

The trick is to remember that everything passes.

Glimmer of goodbye

Sunday Blog 119 – 21 January 2024

I was scandalised the first time I heard of the Buddhist notion that we have no right to the fruits of work. Despite stumbling on this knowledge as a teenager, as I near my sixtieth year I’m still constantly falling forward into the future. Especially for those tasks that are dull. The only reward is to have them done. And while I’m completing such tasks, I’m not fully present. I’m visualising when it will be complete.

And as we have been finishing the very last tasks of closing up our family home of 65 years there are plenty of dull tasks, such as cleaning bathrooms. And then of course there was my unbalanced, maniacal devotion to keep the pool sparkling. I wanted the fruits of that labour, goddamit.

And now, it’s all over. The house is all done and settles on Wednesday. It’s time to hand in the keys.

Taking leave, finding the right goodbye to the house seems hard. This morning, I awoke from my very last sleepover in the bedroom I preferred to sleep in when I stayed overnight. And washing over me were memories of when I’d sought refuge in my parents house 22 years ago, the night after surviving a home invasion. The initial waves of flashback I experienced and moved through were had in this very room. To know that this refuge is gone forever has been felt today as a piercing loss.

But a quiet moment in the morning, in the back yard with hazy, early morning sunshine and clamorous bird song opened up a portal to the present. A little glimmer of goodbye, of resting in what is.

The Red Room is empty

The Red Room is empty

Sunday Blog 118 – 14th January 2023

Of all the rooms that posed a challenge in the recent clear-out of my family home, it was the Red Room. So named for the smart red tulip wall paper installed on its walls in the seventies once I’d moved out. This wallpaper covered up the funky riot of purple wall covering applied in the sixties.

I had shared the Red Room with a sibling – we were the two youngest. Our messiness was legendary. We needed to jump from the doorway to our beds, as the floor was foot-deep in crap and not navigable on foot.

As the eldest siblings left home, I would move into their rooms. While I don’t have any issues, honest, I did note that the moment I vacated our shared bedroom it was chi chi’d up with said tulip wallpaper. The Red Room was snappy in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, variety was the spice of my life and I enjoyed trying out my four other sibling’s room for size. As they boomeranged in and out, I would try first this room, then another. My shortest tenure was my brother’s room, which harboured a robust family of flying cockroaches. They are clever, evil beings, half bat, half insect which fly right at you, especially when you have insect spray in your hands. By the time I left, my cockroach anxiety had ballooned so much that I lay gingerly down then leapt as though burnt. The tag of my pillow felt just like one of their creepy barbed legs.

But I digress. The Red Room had become the Junk Room since 1980 and despite many attempts to de-clutter it, the Red Room had remained swamped by random memorabilia. Every available wall space was jammed with shelves.

And now, the clutter had to be removed. It needed to be winnowed, as there were precious treasures hidden among the dross. Our cot cards that were pinned over us in the nursery as our father came to admire us after the mess of birthing was done. The congratulations cards our parents received on our births. Admittedly, as the sixth child and fifth girl, the messages of congratulations on the occasion of my birth were more muted. One person was honest enough to ask if my mother was coping.

Weeks ago, we hit upon the genius idea of boxing up the Red Room shelf by shelf and sending it all to my eldest sister’s house for sifting and sorting. But one cupboard missed the boxing process and my long-suffering eldest sister baulked at any more boxes. The state of her marriage may have hung in the balance had I presented a further half dozen cartons of junk. 

The cupboard remained full over the Christmas break. I looked at it over Christmas and slammed its door shut in despair. Well, the doors didn’t shut properly, but you get the idea.

And finally, post-Christmas as the house settlement stage loomed, we had even emptied this cupboard. Someone even salvaged the empty shell from the verge after we had dragged it there, with a few surreptitious kicks and curses on the way.

Suddenly the Red Room emerged as the relatively spacious double bedroom that it had always been. The Red Room wallpaper still hangs, albeit in shreds here and there.

I shut the door on the room, confident the room was now clear.

“Here,” one sister says. “It came from the Red Room floor.”

A little plastic tag. My name, date and time of birth. The tag that went around my ankle, and would have been cut off when I was 14 days old, when Mum was allowed home from hospital after two full weeks of bedrest.

Now the Red Room is completely empty.

Middle of the night musing

Sunday Blog 117 – 7th January 2024

Middle of the night musing

Perhaps I am strange but I love the gap in the night between my first sleep and my second. A sweet pause where I am refreshed and delivered into the deep quiet of the night. Nothing to do. A clear schedule.

Once I was told that I had an “administrative” soul and a “creative” soul. The administrative soul has enjoyed my career, watching me work hard and smash out those goals. My creative soul has waited, the quiet child at the party, watching on from the sidelines, hoping to be noticed. That I would walk over and strike up a conversation where I admitted that I did indeed want to give this writing thing a proper go.

Two years ago the quiet child roared out from the sidelines, and I quit the career. Even so, my time can get filled up with Things Other Than Writing. Like this weekend, helping clear out the family home of 65 years which has an astonishing melange of trash and treasure jumbled up together. It’s a writer’s procrastination wonderland.

Last night I was delivered into this quiet, gracious space of the middle of the night and was listening to a podcast that is non-stimulating and calming. Except the quote above from Clara Pinkola Estes electrified me. I had to pad around the darkness of the family home trying to find pen and paper to write it down.

You see, I am revising my 2014 memoir Not My Story to re-release it in 2024. It debriefs a single incident trauma I survived 22 years ago. Like all my writing projects it seems to emerge as it wants, wilful and skittish. The book is now demanding relevant quotes and this one from Clara Pinkola Estes was perfect. Wanting Something Good to come out of that trauma was an urgent, instant need. But as time has gone on and on I wonder did I listen carefully? What exactly did I hear, and is it the same message now?

Mulberry Tree

Sunday Blog 116 – 31st December 2023

The last day of year, the last Sunday blog for 2023.

Christmas day 2023 was the last one we will ever celebrate in our family home of 65 years. We had three generations make use of a jar and a notebook to write up our favourite memories from across the decades. We weren’t limited to one but I chose a mulberry tree memory.

Nearly 15 years ago I was married under the mulberry tree in a white dress. Yes, I did have some concerns about how that would all work out. Admittedly, the frock only cost $25 from a charity shop so the stakes weren’t high.

The mulberry tree was planted decades ago and was a generous producer of that sweet fruit that stains permanently. But it was the perfect backdrop for the photos and shade from the hot January sun. And so, I risked it.

At the end of the wedding festivities my groom and I made our way to a nearby hotel. His ute had been festooned with toilet rolls and streamers with a crudely written “just married” sign. I was still in my frock and high shoes when we checked in. I had some vain hopes of an upgrade to the bridal suite.

That was not forthcoming but our room was perfectly nice. When getting changed (at last) I noticed that one mulberry had found its way into my dress, but by some sweet miracle, hadn’t stained it.

David

Sunday Blog 116 – 24th December 2023

With my second-last blog for 2023 I’m sharing a nugget from a recent online writing course I did with Dani Shapiro to help re-boot my writing practice. Dani Shapiro is one of my favourite authors – she writes both fiction and non-fiction and teaches writing classes every now and then. This was an online course but one day, one day, I will attend one of her workshops in person.

Paris 1979 with siblings – me on the right

At age 14 in 1979 I had the opportunity to go to Europe with my family. Do a Tour taking in all the culture, marinade in art. Florence was one destination, and we made a pilgrimage to see Michelangelo’s statue of David. All these years later I can still recall the unfinished marble statues outside and inside the main gallery. You could see the figures, trapped and fighting to be freed by the sculptor’s touch. And then walking into the room where the exquisitely complete David statue was displayed. So much bigger than I thought it would be! And to be live, in person! To be able to walk all around David and realise with a thrill, realise that he has the string of his catapult across his back. While my parents were concerned that I was mainly looking very disengaged, even disenchanted (see Paris photo for an example), in reality I was taking it all in, deep.

So when I participated live in Dani Shapiro’s course, and watching the replay for the sessions from the wee hours, I loved what she had to say about writing. Unlike a sculptor, we don’t start with a block of marble. Michelangelo apparently said that David was already in that block of marble, and all he had to do was to free him. But as writers we have the empty page. And the empty page is nothing. A first draft however, is our block of marble.

It has re-invigorated my editing process and reminded me of the value of re-writing. My statue of David is not quite yet forthcoming (lol) but I live in hope!