Sunday, 15 December 2019

The Year of Delusional Thinking

And so another year draws to a close. For me an unthinkable year, a year where loss and absence have been the backdrop to everything.
All I've achieved is mess. The mess of cleaning out one house for sale, the much worse mess of filling up the other house with all the stuff I swore I wouldn't bring home. The awareness that this is the only goal I have - to somehow get rid of the mess.
Belatedly, I read Joan Dideon's book The Year of Magical Thinking. I didn't read it when it first came out but a recent article in The Age about the stage version struck a chord and I immediately acquired and read it. Her husband died in circumstances almost the same as did my own. Suddenly, shockingly, unexpectedly. Two things she wrote resonated with me enough to make me quiver: the deep belief that of course he would come back, the total inability to believe that he was gone forever. The second was the daily assumption that later she would tell him things, report on the day, laugh with him about something that struck a chord. I do that still, eleven months later. There is a kind of undersong, a constant hum to use Alice Bishop's phrase, in which we talk and laugh and confer and nod, simpatico as always. That sly glance across a room to each other when the same thing strikes a chord with both of us, the telepathic nudge. 'We'll talk about it later'.
But of course we won't. Maybe Joan Dideon should have called her book The Year of Delusional Thinking.
She too dreaded the new year rolling over because then she'd have to say, he died last year, which seems so accepting, so ordinary, such a long time ago.

One of the many consequences for me is the disappearance of any vestige of creativity. Not only have I written nothing and have no ideas for doing so, but all the projects that used to fill my time and my thinking have disappeared. Once I was forever seeing all manner of materials in terms of what I could make but this year, nothing. No interest, no plans.
I don't buy anything. I've given away mountains of 'stuff and things'—even precious objects I've had for decades— with no regrets. Yesterday I farewelled my last crop of sweet peas which thrived every year in the beachside northern sun. I have no regrets about leaving them. That was then, this is now.

My friends have been precious, constant  supports. Some of Philip's friends have been so kind to me it's hard to fathom. And it's high time I crawled out of this hole and became me again. I will travel with my women friends again, I will be lured back into my garden. I will get back to being a transporter for Starting Over Dog Rescue, those extraordinary people who've let me off the hook these past months as I cleaned out a whole house and sold it. Now that's done I hope I can soon be useful again.
Of course I dread Christmas and moreso, the New Year, where Philip was famous for his music quiz, which he spent weeks devising. I won't be there.
But almost by accident, I did somehow grow an impressive crop of hollyhocks and cornflowers just recently, a first for both. That was gratifying.

 And luckily, I still have my personal life support system which has never failed me.

Long may they endure, along with the friends and the friendships that have so faithfully got me through. To them I give my love and my thanks, my deepest appreciation for your patience and your kindness. 2020 can only be better.


Sunday, 18 August 2019

That September Smell

I've tried many times to write something here that's positive and uplifting but every time I get about half-way through the first paragraph and the words dry up. Still, after seven months, it's only sad thoughts that can find expression and I know there's a point where even the dearest of friends might start to think - isn't time she started to get over it?
But here I am, down at the beach where the blue sunny day of yesterday disappeared and produced heavy rain and wild South Gippsland winds. I'm clearing out cupboards, washing glass doors, sorting crockery and wondering again if this week any of the local tradesmen will ever turn up as promised. Because this beautiful house that we transformed from a humble fibro bungalow all those years ago will go on the market this spring to be emptied, handed over and farewelled, a chapter closed.

No, this is not a real estate ad. Most of you won't even know where this is but those who do might be thinking - "How could she?"
And I do too. How can I close the door on all those sublime memories of beach walks, afternoon siestas, beloved dogs swimming in the sea, friends gathering for food and wine and laughter. Philip happy to get up early the next morning and wash load after load of glasses because he loved everyone to have a new glass for each wine.
Friends to stay, neighbours to visit, Christmas breakfasts on the beach and everyone to help in the garden.

It's the silences I find so hard. Where once, when evening rolled around, there he was, playing guitar, singing snatches of the latest new song - 'listen to this and tell me what you think' - or taking over the cooking of dinner when I baulked at more crispy potatoes. Now, inside, there's a deadly silence; outside, just the wind, the blackness of night and the roar of the sea. 

There were always dogs with us - dearest Barney, rescued late in his life and forever joyous, dippy Archie, barricaded out of the kitchen, virtuous Stella who loved a deep and meaningful conversation.
Beautiful memories, too sad to indulge.

With winter set to depart there are snowdrops at the gate, as ever.
The wooden figures that we made in protest at the desal plant ("There are better ways!") still hang on the gate. When we head for a walk 'down the big sandhill' Stella and Archie race ahead to check things out. It's all predictable, all beloved.

 Today though, I knew I had to leave. Heading off down the big sandhill a perfume in the air grabbed me by the heart and made me falter. It was the smell of approaching September, the sweet honey-scented air surrounding the banks of the Bootlace Bush in full bloom. It was one of the first thing we noticed when we bought the place all those years ago and something we commented on to each other every year at just this time.

A smell does powerful things to you and this one brought it all rushing back - the sudden decision to purchase this tiny house when we had nothing in the bank, bringing friends out onto the beach, through the just-flowering native shrubs, to ask their opinion, the annual arrival of that September smell. 'Spring's on the way!'
It is, and should be, a beautiful memory, but one that I find hard to bear.

So soon there will be a turning away - farewell house, goodbye remote and beautiful beach. The friends and neighbours I will keep, I know that. I love them too much to ever be without them. It's just that when the September smell fills the air next year and the bootlace bushes bloom, I need to be somewhere else, where the memories can't get to me and break my heart.

The Bootlace Bush - Pimelia Axiflora


Thursday, 2 May 2019

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Peak hour, Melbourne's notorious Ring Road, rainy day. What could make things worse? Oh yes, a plane to catch.
Although I'm flying to the Gold Coast there's no sun-drenched holiday coming up, no running into the waves at Greenmount Beach, no getting burnt to a crisp on that silky white sand (the measure of a successful day back then), no cool shower, a splathering of Nivea, white dress, brown legs, a contented stroll down to one of the seafood restaurants on the front strip where you listen to the surf as you wait for your table, sipping a campari and soda and watching the passing parade. How easy it is to reminisce, to paint with gold those days back then.

No, this is a visit to someone dear, now suffering from dementia. An hour after I leave she won't know I've been but her partner will have enjoyed this small respite and I will have grown wistful being back on home ground.
Since my husband died so recently I often contemplate where I might live. Stay put in the house we filled up with the evidence of our lives over decades? Shift to the tiny Bass Coast beach community where I feel safe and loved, or head north to where I grew up, where there's family and some friends from school days with whom I can pick up a conversation as if we've never been apart.

Yesterday Today & Tomorrow plant

These days I'm doing a lot of things on my own, things I used to blithely leave to my spouse. You divvy up the jobs and duties in a long term relationship and when that ends there's a multitude of things that are unfamiliar, even if everyone else knows they're a breeze. I booked my car in, for instance, to one of those long term carparks where they park your car and drive you to the airport. A great investment as it turned out but on the way there you might have thought I was facing the hangman's noose. Will I find it? Will the GPS work? (It always does, but that's no guarantee is it, as every pessimist will know.) Will they have lost my booking? Send me away because I'm early? (I'm always early.)

I follow the instructions (turn Voice Guidance On) and end up driving slowly along a wasteland of a suburb, passing a few 1970's brown brick veneer houses, some small factories and miles of brown paddocks where the brown crisp grass has turned soggy in the unfamiliar rain. I must be lost. They can't be here. Heart-sinking panic threatens. I'll have to pull over and ring them, try to follow their phone instructions for how I really get there. But no, Tom Tom announces that I have reached my destination and here, sure enough, is a small sign announcing A1 Airport Parking, where everyone is kind and helpful, my booking is on record and an efficient man is there to take my bag and drive me to the airport. How can it be that this was so easy?
I never learn.
At the airport - over an hour early - I check in my bag and head for the best coffee bar I can find, there to peruse the vagaries of other travellers. I see a large man in an official-looking white shirt, name badge attached, his large, very bald head shining under the lights from the great disco-looking balls hanging from the ceiling.

He's leaning on one hand, staring at his mobile phone as if his heart is broken. He must become aware that I'm looking at him as he straightens up, pushes away his phone and changes the expression on his face to one of swaggering confidence. I look away but soon notice that within minutes he's resumed the sad phone-face and his shoulders have sagged once more.

There's a youngish man with a voice like a pneumatic drill, under headphones, waving his phone and shouting to his mates about his bets on the "f*^%$# neddies". I make haste to leave and get to my boarding gate, noting that the majority of travellers look anxious and uncertain.

The last time I was in an airport we'd just arrived back from 3 sublime weeks in W.A. The time before that, sore and grubby but sublimely happy after walking through the Cinque Terra and Provence for several weeks. Joys and adventures I took for granted, assuming there were more to come for as long as I wanted. But what now?

If I were a different person I might be making plans, the future awash with diverging possibilities. Me being me, the future is obscure, like something seen through a Vaseline lens. I can't make out the shapes, can't see what populates the landscape. I can smile at other people's successes, thrill to the thought of Wolfe Island, Lucy Treloar's new book, reading Nigel Featherstone's Bodies of Men, the fabulous success of Boy Swallows Universe. I  contemplate a planned writers retreat in Tathra in July with my writerly friend Vicky.

Writers retreat cabins
I rejoice that I have good friends, wonderful neighbours and priceless indulgent, babysitters for my dogs.
I just have to wait until the lens clears.

But here, struggling up through the mire to the surface, comes a small realisation. See all those words written above, quickly and effortlessly? Seems there could be a small possibility that I might be writing again, and that's progress.


Saturday, 9 February 2019

Widowhood 101

I never expected to be a widow so soon.
I never expected to be a widow at all really, being married to an apparently healthy man whose father and uncles lived long into their 80's and 90's. When, at frequent intervals over the years, I would say 'we must sit down and go through all this one day, Philip, because if anything happens to you ....', his reply was either 'Yeah, we must' or a jocular 'Don't be silly Gabrielle, I'll outlast you by decades.'
So when he died suddenly in his sleep - a heart attack with no warning signs or preliminary illness - I was shocked into a state of total disbelief, unable to comprehend that he had gone.
We'd never got around to having kids, like the greeting card says - 'Oops, I forgot to have kids!' We were so content with each other, with our jobs, our friends, travel, music, writing, that we just got on with life and loved every minute of it. So I am very alone.
When Philip died he was as happy as I'd ever seen him, loving life, loving retirement, our friends, his music, planning a road trip with the dogs along the south coast, Robe, Port Macdonnell, maybe up to Coonawarra, perhaps Italy again next year. But no. Not Now.
The day after he died I sat alone at the breakfast table looking out onto the garden where the two lorikeets arrive every day demanding apples. It was so quiet, the space around me so vastly empty. My enduring thought - 'this is what it's going to be like for the rest of my life'.

But then the required action kicks in. There's a funeral to be organised, people to notify, and so many things to be dealt with that nearly three weeks on I've hardly made a dent in the list.
When I finally got around to opening his laptop there were 758 emails to deal with. There are subscriptions to hundreds of groups to do with sport, music, wine and entertainment and oh how hard they make it to unsubscribe.
The bank immediately froze our joint credit card because I was 'only No. 2' so the dozens of automatic direct debits found themselves suddenly declined. There, at Which Bank, I dealt with the coldest, nastiest man I've encountered in a long time. At my credit union the scene was very different and in the cool serenity of their building in East Hawthorn I was treated with all the care and kindness I could ever have hoped for and a hundred problems made to disappear.
The online automated times we live in make it impossible, in many cases, to deal with bureaucracy. In all the options from which to select there's never one that says 'He's dead.'
And as yet, no time to grieve. A dozen times a day I still think 'I can't wait to tell Philip'.

Like the day, on my way home from the funeral home, when I was stopped by the police for driving an unregistered car (2 days out of rego.) It was too much and I howled like a baby, tears and snot pouring down my face while I yelled at them that old cliché 'Haven't you got anything better to do than this?' (I paid it - through the tears -when I got home; they rang later and apologised.)

A dear artist friend spent days painting one of those wonderful LifeArt coffins only for us to find out the day before the funeral that Philip, at 6 ft 3 inches, wouldn't fit in it.
None of us had thought to ask or tell.
But the funeral was magnificent and one of my dear friends from my PWE course commented 'I think you nailed Event Management, Gab.'
His friends and colleagues turned up in droves and expressed their love and admiration. Some sang, Philip's own version of Mr. Bojangles was played, others spoke, one conducted the whole service with humour, insight and love. They are supporting me still, every inch of the way.
There are precious guitars to give away, and I love the fact that they will go to true friends he's kept since school days. His copious wine cellar will go to the young couple who, ages ago, promised to take our dogs if anything ever happened to us. Then it was a joke. None of us ever thought it would be realised.
Tonight I sat alone watching yet another re-run of Maid in Manhattan. At one stage they played Eva Cassidy's version of Kathy's Song, a Simon and Garfunkel oldie that Philip himself played often and beautifully. I came undone then and sobbed helplessly until spaniel Archie intervened to lick my face in the hope that I'd stop.
I know plenty of other women have been through this, maybe not so early, but they survive and go on with life, as will I. As yet I can't imagine writing creatively ever again. Who is there to tell, to be proud?
But I try to remember that for over 40 years I had the unconditional love of this beautiful man. He wrote me the first love song in 1973 and the latest one at the end of last year. I shouldn't ask for more than that.


Saturday, 10 November 2018

Dog Rescue? - (Must Love Dogs)

A while back I was tentatively approached by a lady outside Bunnings asking if I'd like to become a foster carer for dogs. I was able to say, with apologies, a firm 'no' - mainly because our own two ex-strays are now nearly 12 and we want their remaining years to be as easy and stress free as possible. No newcomers to the pack. Secondly, despite an enormous backyard, our fences are flimsy and held up mainly by rampant honeysuckle, and finally, I'd end up owning 20 new dogs by the end of the first month. Undaunted, bless her, she then asked if I could perhaps become a transporter of abandoned dogs to their foster carers, prior to adoption to their furever homes - (you dog people will know about this). This proposition sounded easy enough as I imagined me driving the occasional Jack Russel-cross from, say, Box Hill to Mitcham.

Now you know how, when friends return from overseas travels you feel less than enthusiastic about the good stories? It's not exactly riveting hearing about how beautiful was Châtres cathedral, how serene the bike paths along the Rhine, how breathtaking the trip up the Eiffel Tower.

No, the truly entertaining stories are about how they were robbed by a swarm of feral children at Rome train station or chased by bandits from an ATM in Buenos Aires.

After an easy baptism into stray dog transport my nemesis came in the guise of The Fox, a beautiful animal, 8 months old or thereabouts, a cross between a mountain lion and a fox and completely, utterly uncontrollable. Three of us wrestled him into the back of the SUV - kitted out with comforts to please a king - where he proceeded to eat all the leads, chew through the water bottle & container and then bust through the metal barrier (since reinforced) into first the back, then the front seat.

(He's recently eaten through 2 car seat belts I hear.)

But his innocent aim was simply to get to sit on my knee. (Luckily I wasn't driving.) There he proceeded to mash my thighs, leaving me with bruises like a sunset after a storm. They started out red, then turned to blue, purple, brown and ended up that sickly dark yellow colour which took weeks to fade. I looked like I'd been the subject of some unspeakable assault.

After our trip with The Fox & an extra puppy

But this was a one-off. Don't let this account turn you off becoming a foster carer or a dog transporter. Mostly the experience is heartwarming and totally gratifying in all respects -  a small part in arranging a new life for a predictable assortment of dogs whose stories could turn you off humanity forever. They all have a similar look of expecting the worst.

The drop-off point is as far across the other side of the city from my place as you can get. Via the Ring Road, in peak hour traffic. Two men arrive at dusk in a truck towing a massive low caravan type thing full of caged dogs that they have picked up from pounds all across country Victoria - Swan Hill, Mildura, Cohuna, wherever. So the men (bless them) and the dogs  have been on the road all day. (Many come with pups - 6, 8, and once, 12. Having your animal spayed clearly isn't a priority in the country, or maybe it's just too expensive.)

At the appointed time cars start to arrive, gliding silently into the meeting place as if for some secret drug drop. (How would I know? I've never been on a drug drop.) People of all stripes emerge, hang around the truck until their assigned dogs are spotted, offered a wee and a drink then piled into a different vehicle for the drive back across the city to the allocated foster carer.
And what a bunch they are! Unremitting kindness, never a complaint, nothing is too much trouble. Gorgeous young couples rush home from work to be there to greet their new charge. I love them all. I want to give them my house.
And the organisation of this group is astounding. All done through Facebook, it's mind blowing to read. 'Anyone able to take a bull arab bitch and 8 puppies from Mornington to Hurstbridge tomorrow  morning?' Several responses ping up within minutes. 'I can,' says Rose from Mount Eliza/Reg from Frankston/ Emily from Tooradin. Nothing is impossible. At every request from the co-ordinators the network springs into action. This group leaves MI6 for dead. With them onboard, the French Resistance would have won the war within days.
Not every dog has it this good.

In real terms, this organisation rehoused 516 dogs in one year recently, on a shoestring budget raised from small donations and a few kind commercial supporters. In the same year a glossier, more famous rescue organisation with $millions in the bank rehomed 200+.
I know it's not a competition but it does illustrate what a network of ordinary, generous people can do with little else but determination and good will. It also suggests that maybe...

1) more resources should be directed to preventative strategies for animal welfare in the country
2) one of the wealthier rescue organisations might work on a subsidised dog-neutering service for owners who simply can't afford it and
3) any politician who supports the repealing of Oscar's Law ought to be dragged out by the hair to witness the arrival of the poor puppy machines whose lives have been a misery from go to woa.

Meanwhile Starting Over Dog Rescue, we salute you!


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Old Schools and Country Kids

Dungay Public School

This weekend just passed I flew up from Melbourne to go back to my old primary school in the beautiful Tweed Valley for their 125th anniversary.
Oh my!
Most of my memories were happy ones but I look back now on being so small, shy and poor and struggle to fathom how I got here and got to be me - intimidated by no-one and all too willing to speak up, speak out and take on whatever life dishes out.

At the reunion I hugged old classmates and we laughed about our funny little barefoot selves back then and marvelled at the time in between that made us what we've become. One of my dearest friends, who started school with me at Dungay, has just returned from Moscow after a  trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Yet another Chianti climb
She was also instrumental in recently organising 8 of us old school friends to hike for 10 days through Tuscany. So yes, we've come a long way and friendships are held fast.

But the school! I remembered the grounds as huge and beautiful but far from declining into neglect  and dilapidation as some tell me their own schools have done, this one is breathtaking - lush, cared for, flourishing.

The massive camphor laurels and jacaranda trees that I remembered are even bigger and more beautiful. The gardens are obviously cherished with raised garden beds, green with abundant growth, peppered across the lawns.

The principal, Josh Stephens, who must surely have the best gig in the country, seemed to run the whole event effortlessly, though I'm sure it was a mammoth task to make this day happen.

The Principal's Speech

What struck me most was the demeanour of the kids. You may scoff at this but I didn't hear one person swear, saw no-one drop rubbish and not a sign of nastiness or conflict the whole day. The kids who greeted us were confident, articulate and friendly. I was mightily impressed.

Memories of having to master the maypole came back when we watched juniors and seniors, boys and girls, in impressive displays in costumes hand-made for the occasion.

Oh I know! I'm probably romanticising just a little. But I came back from this day smiling and wondering if small country schools nowadays offer something very special indeed, maybe by virtue of their smallness, their ability to know every pupil's name, family, strengths and needs.
When, at the end of the day, the principal and a sturdy volunteer executed the planting of a water gum tree by the oldest and the youngest pupil, I sincerely wished for its endless survival, and the endurance of this small country school and all who have made it the model of education that it appears to be today.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

National Reading day

Today is National Reading Hour Day. I was unaware of this until I saw it on Twitter this morning and I can tell you, it took me some time to process the fact that there might be folk out there who didn't read for an hour a day. One lousy hour!! But then I took stock of my own assumptions and told myself that there were many people too busy, too ill or too uninterested to read for an hour or even ten minutes, reading just not being a priority for them. Hard to imagine, I know.

My attitudes to reading were, predictably, established within my family, probably before I could walk or talk. My mother read every day and we, as kids, could readily identify her impatience if we made demands on her time when, in her eyes, she'd done her duties and it was high time she was allowed escape with a book and read, uninterrupted by us or anyone else. If visitors arrived unexpectedly—it was the country and 'popping in' was common— we could see her getting fidgety, torn between the pleasure of company and the compulsion to indulge in her daily reading time.

Dad? Same. A labourer who left school at 13, he too read voraciously, every evening after work and before dinner, every weekend between chores and yarns with his mates. Wilkie Collins, Emile Zola, Alexander Dumas among others - oh and I confess, for contrast - The Australasian Post.

So my reading habits were set very early and have endured for a lifetime. But if I could only read for one hour a day I would fret mightily!  I read every afternoon, every night in bed and any other times I can fit in.
I committed, on this website, to keep an up-to-date list of what I'd read. Well you know how that went. One anonymous person emailed me and said 'Oh but I count on you for recommendations. Our tastes are the same!' And all that did was make me feel doubly guilty for not keeping the list up to date.

So - I try to read as many Australian debut authors as I can. (Tracy Farr's The Hope Fault my favourite this year.) I love to follow their progress, see on Twitter their joy when the book finally hits the shelves. Although it was sobering to read of one such writer who tweeted that she'd just got her first royalties check and blown it all on an electric toothbrush. So don't go into writing for the money.
Earlier this year, with much ambivalence, I succumbed to a Kindle. I figured it would be handy to read in bed when I can't sleep and don't want to put the light on. What I use it for is to read those things that I read just for the story - crime fiction often - but I still feel like a traitor.
But when I want to read a real book (sorry crime fiction writers everywhere) I somehow acquire the hard copy from some wonderful city bookshop, loans from friends, secondhand bookshops, op shops or just those rediscovered in our own shelves at home.
In a Lifeline op shop in a country town I discovered a newish Anita Shreve - The Stars Are Fire (2017). I was a huge Shreve fan for decades but then went off her when several books in a row proved disappointing. This one was good, original and satisfying. The cover would have put me off if I wasn't desperate for something to read at the time.

In the same op shop I discovered the new Christian White award winner The Nowhere Child, the VPLA winner for 2017. Great story, amazing debut, destined for stage and screen I hear.

From the fabulous resources of The Paris Review I ordered American poet Donald Hall's endearing collection A Carnival of Losses - Notes Nearing Ninety. I don't read a lot of non-fiction but this is one I'll be foisting on everyone as soon as I finish it.

I would never have discovered Donald Hall if I hadn't subscribed to the Paris Review newsletter and now I can't get enough of his poetry. He died just this year in June and I feel unreasonably sad that I'm only discovering him now that he's gone.

One of my best finds recently was a Jennifer Johnson novel that I hadn't read - The Gingerbread Woman.  I love its slightly browning pages and her capacity to immerse us deep into other lives. Along with Penelope Lively, Johnson is one of my favourite Grand Dames of literature.

My problem with keeping up the what-I-have-read list is that, as I approach the last quarter of a book, there grows a tiny simmering anxiety if I don't have the next book lined up at the ready. So instead of turning to update my list I'm fully occupied with finding what to read next. I know I should be borrowing books from some of the wonderful libraries in this city but well, I just don't like the responsibility of knowing I have to give it back. Foolish maybe, but there it is.
The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston

I share a love of books with many friends but with one I also share a love of - don't cringe - knitting. We both insist that the finishing of a book or a craft project of some kind is not the best part. It's the starting. The adventure of diving in knowing what satisfaction lies ahead.

This latest Jennifer Johnston isn't all that big so already I'm wondering what I'll read next. Luckily for me, every day is reading day and like the most committed addict, I just have to keep up the supply.