And then I heard the call of home

“Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

There’s a scene in The Wind and the Willows when Mole, despite all his exciting adventures with Ratty and Toad and Badger, is unexpectedly reminded of home, and then that’s all he can think of. Badger’s Wild Wood and Toad’s Hall lose their shine. He just wants to go home. He longs for it. But his travelling companion Ratty is distracted by something new and Mole loses his chance. It’s wrenching; both because Ratty realises he’s inadvertently broken his friend’s heart and for the violence of Mole’s grief.

‘I went away and forgot all about it–and then I smelt it suddenly–on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat–and everything came back to me with a rush–and I WANTED it!–O dear, O dear!–and when you WOULDN’T turn back, Ratty–and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time–I thought my heart would break.’

Mum used to read this book to my sister and me when we were kids and I found it completely devastating. It imprinted itself on me as one of literature’s great tragedies at the time, and it has stayed with me. But I’ve had my own problems this week. Overnight, I went from flitting gaily through Montpellier, bonjouring anything that looked in my direction including random pigeons, to curled up in bed wracked with homesickness. I cried. Told my husband I wanted my mum. Cried again. Stuck my head in the bag of lemon-scented gum leaves my sister sent me for Christmas for so long that I nearly asphyxiated. Read old books. Not The Wind in the Willows, obviously. I’m not a masochist.

I embraced the sensation as passionately as I had embraced being a visitor in a new and beautiful city only the day before. But even as I pined, I felt a little bit embarrassed. There’s a kind of insubstantial air to the whole idea of being homesick in my case. I’m not young, leaving for the first time. I have a home to feel sick about, I can leave by choice and know it’s there to come back to. I’ve never been displaced or uprooted, home has never been too far or too dangerous to return to. My daughter is grown up and my grandkids have stopped wanting sleepovers. My husband is here to offer his shoulder and top up my champagne.

Homesickness for people like me, well steeped in comfort, brings to mind insipid things like, ‘having the vapours’. In my mind’s eye, I might as well be wafting about in a tie-dye singlet dress, pining for a pie and sauce, reading Tim Winton wistfully on a park bench, hoping someone who speaks my language will happen by and coax me into a game of footy or pour me a large glass of wine. White with ice, please.

I’ve noticed it doesn’t take much to set me off on a bout of mal du pays. Especially in a new country where I don’t speak the language and people I meet don’t speak mine. The following incidents reduced me to a wreck this week;

  • A young boy working at the supermarket laughed in my direction while I was packing my shopping bags. (Here, clearly I was doing something foolish in his eyes, when I had been trying so hard to either fit in or be politely invisible. What an ill-bred tosser. Laughing at a vulnerable old lady. His mama et papa would be mortified, no doubt.)
  • A woman in a fabric shop emitted a definite air of being annoyed or at least not effusively thrilled to see me when I walked in and wandered around browsing. So much so, that I approached the counter so she wouldn’t think I was a time waster, babbled something and mimed in a kind of hacking motion with my hand – do you sell cheese knives? She said coldly in English. No. We don’t. Which, to be honest, I took as a bit of a slap in the visage. And then when I left I accidentally banged the door really loudly on the way out, so in an effort to be conciliatory I pushed it open and shouted pardon! she didn’t wave or smile or in any way acknowledge my largesse. (Speaks for itself.)
  • The Irish man at the local we have begun to frequent because, let’s face it, sometimes you just don’t feel like trying, politely asked us to sit somewhere else because we were blocking the service counter at the bar. (This was the worst. When one of your own turns on you. Likely he was hoping to insinuate himself into the affections of the locals at my expense. I’m onto you matey.)

The combination of all the above was enough to tip me over the edge. The uncomfortable whiff of someone not too far from where I’m sitting being tres sensitive doesn’t help. It only makes me more snivelly than I was to start with and adds a day or two to my recovery. Someone has to feel sorry for me and I have endless patience for the job.

Happily, previous experience has made me aware I’m vulnerable to both homesickness and a tendency to lean in to even benign misery and I had done some preparation in order to get mon tete out of mon cul. Before it set in too firmly.

Far from my romantic visions of self drifting through French flower shops smelling the imported wattle and shedding the odd elegant tear in response, homesickness makes me nervous as much as anything else. I think I underestimated how tiring it can be to brace yourself for everyday tasks, well, every day. Once the novelty wears off, it gets to be a bit of a slog. It becomes more of something that’s good for me and I have to do, unless of course I don’t want to eat or I’m happy to let my husband treat me like les enfant. So setbacks so minor they could be mistaken for entirely fabricated become wearisome.

I indulged myself with tissues and sleeping in and calling my mum but I also noticed other side effects, nothing fatal, but certainly more insidious. I was feeling anxious about going outside, tackling the tram system, going to a shop I didn’t know, trying to make myself understood, preferring to stay in. The idea of facing the market I’ve shopped at most days, felt, if not terrifying, a bit of a bridge too far. The Post Office, ok, definitely terrifying.

A friend at home, who is very well-travelled, unlike myself, tells me homesickness comes in waves, and just when you think it’s unbearable, it changes and turns into something new. My oldest friend, who has been living in Germany for several years now, takes the same approach. And my mum once described childbirth in a similar way, just before I was going into labour with my daughter, and it helped me then too. If you aren’t managing, hang on for a bit and things will change. There’s a lot to be said for pushing it a little bit. Not trying to do everything, but also not giving in to the urge to do nothing. It’s not about feeling completely comfortable or completely uncomfortable. It’s about trying something small to get going. Even when you don’t feel like it much. Especially when you don’t feel like it much.

So, after a fabulous start to my travels, then a tiny, ok big, bout of homesickness, today has been good. I took the tram for the first time on my own to shop, I had a lovely chat in broken French and broken English with a woman at my favourite fruit and vegetable stall and I braved the dreaded Post Office and bought a box and stamps. Huzzah! I couldn’t make myself understood well enough to find envelopes but to quote the great philosopher, Scarlett O’Hara, tomorrow is another day.

I miss you beautiful Fremantle. I miss my loves, (my other loves). I can’t wait to sit on my back deck at home under a high Western Australian sky and breathe the salted air. It’s where I always feel safe. How brilliant right now though, to be a little scared, sometimes.

“Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Je suis un enfant terrible

Confessions of an unseasoned traveller.

I had all sorts of lofty plans to do more writing when I got to Montpellier, but I have been unable. I have forgotten how to speak English. I even forgot this isn’t new, whenever I go to a country where I don’t speak the language I somehow forget how to speak my own as well. It’s like a syndrome or something. I have stood at shop counters and in bars in countries other than my own waving my hands around and – this is deeply embarrassing, please don’t tell anyone – I have been known to utter the words…’ow you say..’ in a bad accent of questionable origins while searching for a word in a language I don’t know. Like a cartoon version of myself. As though mauling an accent makes me more likely to be understood. It is a testament to the enduring patience of the French people that they haven’t yet cancelled my visa.

It’s not just language, my brain doesn’t work quickly with anything when I’m travelling. I certainly don’t know how to function as a French person and I forget how to function as an Australian too. Small things. I walk on the wrong side of the road and faced with even the slightest hint of someone coming in my direction, I dart in front of them in a panic. I cry in public, as noted in previous musings, overwhelmed with beauty in the form of…. well anything really….small children saying ‘papa’ in French accents, dogs in handbags, anyone holding a baguette obviously, bridges set me off for some reason, old buildings, chefs in aprons standing in doorways smoking cigarettes and scowling. I’m apologetic for taking up space. I wear unattractive shoes.

I am slowly improving. This is after a harsh lesson on my honeymoon in Paris in 2012, learning after a month the mea culpa phrase I was saying to endear me to the locals, Je suis desole queue tu ne parles pas Francais, parles tu Angalis? was in fact informing native speakers of the language how sorry I was that they didn’t speak French and did they speak English? If I was looking for an easy way to make a tit out of myself, I may as well have taken to shouting ‘garcon’ and clapping my hands to get a waiter’s attention in restaurants.

In Montpellier where I have landed with my husband for the next ten weeks, the locals are a delight. People have been so friendly and kind. Not everyone speaks English, or they only speak a little, so I’m challenged a lot trying to bumble through basic life tasks I never have to think about at home. It’s a beautiful city, the Old District where we’re staying is a glorious rabbit warren of rambling, narrow streets that shoot off every which way, seemingly at random. It’s easier to get lost here than in any other city I have seen. After a few days, it makes its own kind of sense and it has a fascinating history that explains the layout of some of the original areas that were built in medieval times. I love it here.

I’m trying to use my best manners. I’m sorry to say it’s my fourth visit to France and it only just occurred to me this week that I might make an effort to find out what might actually qualify as good manners as opposed to assuming I know because, yunno, isn’t it obvious? I started by researching ‘etiquette in France,’ and by ‘research’ I mean I googled so I realise I won’t be getting a Legion d’Honneur medal anytime soon. I did read across many sources that it’s both normal and good manners to say hello and thank you and goodbye, have a nice day, in almost every public encounter, from asking directions to buying bread. I’m also sorry to tell you that in the past unless people were smiling broadly at me and sounding clearly friendly when they were saying bonjour, I assumed they had clocked me as a foreigner and were being sarcastic. But here, even people who look like they’re having a crap day and can’t be bothered with you, will still be polite. It’s shamefully revealing that using basic niceties when you approach a stranger has been a huge revelation. And even for someone who is terrible with language, it’s not so hard to learn hello and thank you.

I’m having a slight crisis of confidence where I’m suddenly remembering many, many instances of appalling manners I have displayed not just in the last week, but in the entire 56 years of my life. My brain may be mostly mush but oddly my memory of my own disgraceful behaviour is sharper than ever. So there’s that discomfort. But I’m also loving it. My life has become so much simpler, really fast. I feel like I’ve regressed to some kind of inner childlike state that hippies I grew up with in Fremantle would pay thousands to replicate. I’m moving slowly, I’m not collapsing on street corners howling into my hanky so much, but I am pausing to appreciate so many small moments of wonder I come across all the time. Things I’d overlook at home because of the familiarity or because I’m busy. I face the day with no loftier intention than wandering through beautiful Montpellier, going to the market, buying milk for coffee and not being an asshole about it. I considered it a highly successful series of events yesterday when I found the local swimming pool, bought a ticket and swam. I had a nap to recover. It was glorious.

So I beat on, a boat against the current of my own ignorance, to misquote F Scott Fitzgerald. The impact of my learning on the lovely people of Montpellier is not completely lost on me, so I’m trying to keep my footprint small and spend my money as liberally as I can afford and as locally as I can. I’m trying to learn as much of the language, even badly, as I can manage in ten weeks. I’m in a lot of uncomfortable situations. But also, I’m having so much fun. I haven’t been so effortlessly mindful in years. Decades. I feel happier, less shy, less fearful. And not in any way that means anything at all to anyone but me, I feel a tiny bit braver than I did a month ago. Although I did just that second have to check if I’d spelled ‘braver’ right because it looked weird on the page.

Merci, au revoir et passe une bonne journee.

Going where I’ve never been

Today I cried in Oslo. I was surprised, and then I remembered that I’d done this before. I’ve burst into tears on bridges in Paris, making snow angels in Switzerland, clambering over the rocks on the shores of Kinagoe Bay in Donegal and at the southernmost tip of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Mostly, I just well up, but it doesn’t take much to tip me into proper tears.

Despite the overwhelming emotion, Oslo is not what I expected. It’s much more industrial. It has a whole lot of Nordic Noir vibe going on, offices, apartments, towering hotel blocks, bus stations and vast landscapes of train tracks; it’s a grey-and-white city of ice and shadows. The fjord is either frozen or the surface is like oil, it’s thick and moves in slow pewter ripples.

We arrived just after sunset around 3.15pm. The bloke on high alert as the train pulled in, deeply worried I would not be able to step from the train onto the platform without skidding and falling on my arse. It wouldn’t be the first time. In my defence, growing up on sandy beaches has left me ill-prepared for icy footpaths and we had a hair-raising time in Switzerland on our honeymoon trying to walk the 50 metres from the train station to our hotel, him manfully attempting to hold me up and carry both our suitcases, me clinging to his arm while my feet skidded under me every which way like I was drunk and auditioning for the Christmas blooper reel on Strictly Come Dancing.

Happily, Oslo heats the sidewalks. It’s the most civilised practise I have come across since I discovered a swimsuit-drying contraption in a Nottingham hotel pool last week. I can walk unaided here, at least on the main drag, though I still get around even on well-gritted paths at a slow shuffle, staring desperately at my feet while cyclists, small children and the elderly zip smugly past.

We made it to the hotel with me still standing and the bloke only mildly bug-eyed with tension. Headed straight out again for New Years Eve awash with excitement because small clusters of fireworks had started blooming across the sky from late afternoon. We had strong expectations as a result, but they were quickly crushed when we overheard a barmaid incredulously asking the couple ahead of us what they were doing in Oslo for New Years. It’s apparently not really a thing here. That’s despite the later night efforts of a group of lads who threw a clutch of bangers into the foyer of our hotel which caused no small amount of noise, smoke and general alarm. They were sharply apprehended by local police who caught them so quickly they must hover outside hotel foyers expecting this kind of thuggery. It wasn’t exactly the peak of the crack criminal masterminds I’ve come to expect from Nordic Noir but it was still exciting.

What is a thing here is swimming. Inexplicably. Given the forecast is between zero on the warm days and minus ten degrees when it gets serious. Along the fiord just outside the Opera House – an unmissable architectural triumph, all clean lines and high glass windows, plus you can walk on the roof by the way – anyway just past that you come across what looks like a series of small wooden boathouses which are actually sauna pods. Tourists and locals alike gather in these to sweat themselves silly then plunge off the dock, literally cracking the ice as they land in the water. Then they climb out again, everyone around them cheers and takes photos and they stand there shivering and looking incredibly proud of themselves and invigorated. It’s almost enough to make you want to have a go yourself, but we went and bought wine and four-cheese pizza instead and were ok with that.

In Oslo, it is both very very cold, and very very expensive. I think it must cost a lot to heat those pavements and I for one am all in favour of doing my bit to support that end of the economy. A basic beer costs around $15 – $20 and a standard burger will cost you $30. The food is delicious though. The aforementioned pizza was the best I have eaten anywhere and there’s nothing like crushing poverty to make you really savour one glass of wine all night long.

The cold is fine, I fancy myself well-placed for chill weather with the exception of the whole walking anywhere business. I’m remarkably good with cold weather. Even for a girl brought up on the coast in Western Australia, where peeling the skin off your sister’s sunburnt back was a weekly ritual because Bunbury in the 70s was more a reef oil and face foil than hats and sunscreen kind of town. The sun puts me to sleep and cold weather wakes me up. I love it. Still, today I wore the bloke’s Long Johns as pants with tights and socks and tomorrow I’ll be wearing more socks.

There are white swans here as well as England and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to them. They are both pretty and weird. And the seagulls are enormous and very dignified compared to our gulls back home. There was no sign of any ungainly squabbling over chips. The bloke offered one likely prospect a small piece of his baguette, but it just stared at him and sat there, clearly bamboozled as to why a giant hairy puffball was tearing off bits of his sandwich and hurling them on the footpath. And yes, I did tell the bloke bread is terrible for their digestive system but apparently when I’m around birds I get all interested, full of facts and apparently quite dull so he stopped listening years ago.

Oslo is beautiful. It’s austere, and a little grim in the promise of an exciting seedy underbelly kind of way. But I read a lot of Jo Nesbo, so I am probably just getting carried away.

The art is insane. It’ll melt ye face. Norway clearly values art and funds it. Oslo is alive with art. I’m particularly obsessed with the glass shipwreck in the fjord outside the Opera House. It’s a sculpture called She Lies by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini, it’s enormous and it looks different from every angle, in every light and half light it offers a different vista.

She Lies – the glass shipwreck by Monica Bonvicini

It’s also the home of many more copies of The Scream than you’d think; Mr Munch has his own museum here plus a good part of the National Gallery down the road reserved for his work, and apparently he quite fancied his own work in The Scream himself so made more than one. It’s based on a friend’s expression as he walked over a Norwegian Bridge and there are various studies of a similar expression. The Munch Gallery itself promises at least one of the three they alone own will be on display while the rest are locked up safely in the dark. The gallery is astonishing. He was prolific in his painting, sketches and woodcuts.

At the end of next week, we take the train to Bergen and I think it very likely I’ll howl again. There’s something about mountains and snow and landscapes I did not grow up with that fills me with emotion. It creeps up on me and before I know I am welling up and clutching the bloke’s sleeve and needing a sit-down. Or at least a moment to stop and absorb.

Because, I will never get over the fact that it’s me, here, so far away from home, seeing things I never thought I’d see, with a love I never thought I’d find, and a life I am no longer always too busy to enjoy. And besides, the world is beautiful.

I am utterly overwhelmed.

Sauna then a plunge into the frozen fjord
The Mother by Tracy Emin

The call of the wild

I’m in storied country. Fort Augustus at the edge of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. The stones that line the shallows of the Loch, the trees dripping with lichen lace, the fir trees dressed green and warm for winter. Everything is steeped in myth and you can feel you’re walking ancient paths. It’s so beautiful.

We are staying at an old converted Monastery on the very southern shore of Loch Ness. Today we woke to see the mists rise off the water and settle around the crest of the hills that surround them. They’re not so tall as the mountains, we passed Ben Nevis on our way in, which was mountain country, snowy and rugged, with waterfalls at every turn and the high arched stone bridges you see in movies. Spectacular. There’s no snow yet on the hills around Loch Ness where we’re staying, they’re red with what I assume is heather and lined with the firs. The lichen is such a delicate pale green it’s nearly yellow, it frills everything that isn’t smothered in moss. We saw an apple tree dark with frost, it looked dead except for the russet apples still clinging to its branches. Like a spell had been cast. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a witch slink from the shadows nearby.

We haven’t ventured any further afield today than a short walk around the village. There are five locks on the canal that runs through town and a swing bridge that literally swings away from the road to let tall boats through. There was a ribbon of traffic winding through the whole town today waiting for the man working the bridge to signal for the closure to reconnect the bridge with the road. He did this, not via any technology though I’m sure there’s a lot involved, but with a clear shout that rang across the canals like a bell.

I stalked a robin near the boathouse. Hard to get a good shot, they move so fast. The birds look hardy. The deer stood still for me and the ‘hairy cows’ barely blinked in my direction.

I could stay here a while. I can feel it in my bones.

First star on the right, straight on till morning

I read Peter Pan for the first time when I was about eight years old. I won a paperback copy in a German language class exam at North Cottesloe Primary School circa 1974. Aside from counting from one to ten and being able to offer the observation, das is ein hund in a questionable accent should the need arise, the book was the only substantial impact learning German had on my life. But I was utterly transformed through the gift of reading that book.

I was mesmerised by the boy who could fly and who never grew up. I would do anything to join him. It felt very possible. Maimie, his first friend who appears in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Wendy Darling, were long gone by now, I figured. Neverland was ripe for a Gillian. And if Peter wasn’t coming for me, I was prepared to go to him. Like most children of Irish Catholic heritage in my era would do, I began by praying to God to help me learn to fly.

I said prayers every night before I went to sleep. It was quite the convoluted process even without my aviation ambitions. I recited the Our Father, then the Hail Mary and followed that with a list of family and friends for God to bless if he happened to cast his Almighty eye their way in the night. You couldn’t be too careful. I did this mostly in order of personal preference, swapping mum and dad into first place on alternative nights to be fair, my sister in next and my cat, Tiddlywinks last because I wasn’t really sure how God felt about pets. At the end, I’d add a personal wish list that up until this moment consisted of anything from a pair of patent leather Mary-Janes in powder blue or Gloria and Dawn Paper Dolls exactly like the ones my friend Jenny Harvey got for her birthday.

Those minor desires were discarded forever once I discovered Peter Pan. I wanted to fly. To Neverland. To see fairies and lost boys, pirates and crocodiles and Indian princesses who wore fringed leather dresses and their hair in long black shiny plaits. Most of all to be friends with Peter. I knew the way there, from the helpful instructions supplied by Mr Barrie, first star on the right and straight on till morning. All I needed was a way to launch. Asking God to help out seemed a reasonable first step. I knew it was a big ask, so it came with a promise that if he would grant me this one wish, I would never bother him again. Mum, Dad and my sister and the cat could look after themselves.

Praying was only the start. I also practised on swings, which was the closest I could get to the feel of flying as I imagined it might be. I’m not really sure what I was aiming for, some kind of transcendental crossing of sorts, I guess. I’d swing as high as I could and while I was whizzing back and forth with no small amount of determination, I’d sing the words to the Peter Pan song from the Disney cartoon of the same name which, I took for some kind of incantation. I cringe so much to remember it now because I really put my heart into it. It went as follows…

Fly, fly to Never Neverland

You and I

To Never Neverland

No worries, no cares

Just fly everywhere

And you can live happily

I was oblivious to any audience I may have had on the ground, so focused was I on attracting the attention of a passing Peter or Tinkerbell. Who knows what the other kids waiting for their turn on the swing thought about it, but safe to say it’s a surprise I wasn’t beaten up more often.

I saved up my pocket money and spent it on small tubes of glitter available at the local shop for around 5 cents a vial. To my child’s eye, it looked like genuine fairy dust and even though it took all of my popsicle cash, I thought it was a fair bargain. I would arrange myself on the edge of our veranda, balancing precariously on the railing, scatter the contents over my head and leap off, the very picture of optimism. When I crashed to the ground, I was undeterred. I tried over and over in the hope that one of these pots of glittery gold would come through and I’d finally be borne aloft into the clouds and spirited away. I felt a twinge of guilt about poor mum and dad who would no doubt wonder where I’d gone, but children disappear in fairy tales all the time and adults get over it pretty fast so I wasn’t too concerned.

None of it worked. Eventually, I gave up and accepted my fate as a groundling. Most people would consider my efforts a failure because I never learned to fly. If that’s how you measure such aspirations, then yes, all I got was a reputation as an oddball, a twisted ankle, glitter that would never completely come out of my hair and a shortened sleep cycle because it took such a long time to get through my prayers. But I learned how to dream. And believe in magic. And once that belief is embedded deep, it sticks fast. It may be lost for a time, but it’s never all that far away.

I found it again only yesterday in fact. My husband and I arrived in London for the start of six-month-long trip we have waited for, for a long time. There was a thick snowfall right across the city. Our hotel is on the doorstep of Hyde Park and the first thing we did was walk through to Kensington Gardens to find my holy grail. The statue of Peter Pan commissioned by J M Barrie in 1912. Kensington Gardens in the snow. It was magical. It was as beautiful as I imagined it would be.

There’s a moment in Peter Pan where he tells Wendy that fairies are born when a new baby laughs and every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, somewhere a fairy dies. Near the end of the story when Tinkerbell herself lies dead, Peter in his grief brings her back to life with his longing and his conviction that she is real. It’s a beautiful literary moment when we are reminded of the power of belief.

If you are worried about the state of the world, or you stopped believing in fairies too many years ago to remember, you can be assured of this. There is power in magic and wonder, however you choose to find it. For me, it was waiting here in Kensington Gardens, just behind the big lake where the white swans glide. And the stories and dreams that have given me wings all of my life, saw a statue for the very first time and remembered.

Grief, a dog and sunburn

My dog died and I’m bereft. So I got drunk and took my clothes off.

I’m a well-known vampire. In my youth, I had a shot at fitting in with the cool crowd. This involved donning the smallest bikini I could squeeze my triple-a cup “breasts” into, slathering myself in reef oil, unfurling an alfoil reflector to aim at my face to increase the uv rays from blistering to radioactive and then laying out under a high white Australian sun until nicely browned. Except I didn’t brown. I turned a mottled purple, peeled like desiccated coconut and eventually reverted to a blinding shade of white that would rival the late Shane Warne’s smile.

I accepted my fate early on and went Goth instead. It was so much better for my complexion and I didn’t have to try to smile at boys. Even in the most sweltering of heat, I’d clad myself head to toe in black, including my well-soaped sticky hair which was teased into a Sideshow-Bobesque spiky cloud that doubled as a sunshade. I walked in shadows like the night all through my teens and subsequent decades thus avoiding for many years even a coy flutter of sun on the palest parts of my person.

Then my dog died.

I don’t know what you do when your dog dies. What are you supposed to do? Coping with death has happened before and it is not a case of practice making anything more than its own perfect kind of hell, frankly. I miss him so much. My husband is heartbroken. In the last two years, both of our beautiful dogs have left us and we are not ok. We have become a household without dogs, a soulless, grim, too-quiet affair without smelly beds and barking for no reason at odd hours, without grime marks on the wall or hair all over the sofa. Without the weight of a purposeful steady gaze at precisely five to four every day just before dinner. Without a wet nose pushing under our hands to artfully guide us into a pat, without the clatter of claws on the floorboards at night, without the scrape of a paw at the door to come in, seconds after we had let him out.

Our Huey sunk into a deep depression when his brother Jo went first a couple of years ago at 17. Huey aged quickly then, he slept a lot and struggled to walk any distance. But he still loved the beach, he still visibly perked when he saw us get into our bathers, he still erupted into the water like an arrow from a bow, he still swam in circles around my husband then rested in his arms in deep water, staring calmly into the blue as he had done every single swim since he was a puppy. He still dug for his ball or carried it into the shallows to drop it in water only to snatch it up, drop it and snatch it up again, over and over in a game only he understood. He still waited in studied nonchalance on the shore with his ball in his mouth, ever hopeful another dog might try to steal it away so he could thwart them with a clever feint and dodge. He still loved us. He still sat at my husband’s feet, gazing up at him, chin resting heavy on his knee or his foot in an enviable satisfaction with his lot in life.

When Huey got sick, it was fast. A terminal cancer. We made the terrible decision quickly, without too much doubt. We are both of the opinion if your dog has an incurable disease, is facing any prospect of suffering and you try to keep them alive then you really have to ask yourself who you’re trying to protect. But certainty doesn’t help. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help the guilt, and it doesn’t stem the grief.

Both of our boys died in their later years, and I know we should be thankful. I know to nod or try to smile in agreement when someone well-meaning tells me he reached a good age or even sounds surprised he lived as long as he did. I feel so savage when I hear it. There is no good age. There is only his age. There is only his absence. There is only our grief.

We did not cope. First, we took ourselves across the country to inflict our sorry selves on friends celebrating significant events. A 50th birthday, a belated 50th birthday, a wedding. So much joy and our hearts were full for them. And these were real friends, who take you even, especially, when you’re broken. I’m glad we went, even if we weren’t great company. But you always have to come home, and that’s where the shadows lay in wait. We have been like dogs in pain ourselves since, turning in useless circles, pacing, restless, bewildered, snappy and impatient with each other and ourselves.

We have a lovely love though, even or especially when adrift. However wretched we might feel we can always fall back on this truth. It’s a love that allows for imperfection, it offers room for sorrow and all the various uncomfortable and ugly ways it can manifest. We tread softly when we need to. And we have needed to a lot. Often we have to stop and remind each other, but it’s been the spine of our love for such a long time now, once we remember, we find our way back to what matters pretty quickly. I am very grateful for that.

So, after a stretch of uncomfortable manifestations and no small amount of imperfections, one recent Saturday coincided with the first sunny day Perth had seen for some time. We’d had a long winter, bleak, grey, relentless rain. We had a couple of days with no commitments and the sun emerged, shyly and with perfect timing through cloud like a friend.

Gosh it felt like a long time since we’d had any fun. (Though in reality, we had a very good time at the aforementioned parties even if we did frighten the horses now and then.) We felt renewed, hopeful, like the light could wash us clean. Obviously, this called for champagne. And a lot of it.

Maybe it was the sun, maybe it was the company, maybe it was the three (or was it four) bottles of champagne. Who can say? But suddenly it seemed like the greatest idea in the world to whip off our dacks and sit there in our respective glory, listening to music, soaking up the rays. How we drank, how we laughed, how we cried, how we sang, how we barely ate a thing to soak up the booze, how we didn’t consider the precarious state of our grandchildren’s mental health should they arrive unexpectedly and come round the back. It was, insomuch as I remember, a wonderful, wonderful day.

It was not until the next morning when we woke with piercing headaches, my love arose to make me a coffee and I repaid this gesture of merciful devotion with a wild shriek of mirth. “You’re burnt,” I said, charged with the righteous confidence of one who is so sun-conscious and self-conscious, they never take off their neck-to-knee swimming costume or their wide-brimmed hat even in the dead of winter. “So are you,” he said in return, oily with the glee of one who is handed immediate and welcome revenge. Was I ever. The only parts of my skin spared the sear of the sun were the underside of the rolls of fat on my menopausal belly. I looked like a previously undiscovered species of striped sea slug.

A week or so later the blinding glare of the tomato hue has faded to an unattractive dull magenta and the stripes remain. But worth it. I am reminded there is joy in the ridiculous, peace to be found in speaking your heart aloud to someone who loves you, and that given that I am female, over 50 and invisible, I can wear what I like. Including nothing.

I still miss our dog. I miss our dog. I miss our dog. I love you my boy.

Welcome to our crisis

It’s not so bad in here. I’ll admit to a few existential hiccups. One of them is constantly forgetting we’re in a different world and carrying on for a second like nothing has changed. It’s an odd feeling when I remember a lot has changed. Does anyone else occasionally feel a flash of being in a movie that was written a long time ago?

The thing that weirds me out most is how quickly I seem to be adjusting. I’m not one of those people demanding our governments do things differently. Or writing to newspapers or posting outrage and fear on their Facebook pages or sending home remedies via messenger apps. I’m keen to be quiet and stay small. I am compliant with the new rules on travel and physical distancing. I’m apologetic when I need to poke my head above the parapet to stand too close to people in supermarket aisles or to ask for Ventolin at the chemist where they stress-laugh at me for not knowing they were cleaned out ages ago. There is a lot of stress-laughing going on, I have noticed.

My social media is all about posting my attempts to grow vegetables and uplifting things to read. My online book-club is a haven to escape to after the relentless barrage of news I can’t avoid when I go to work on the radio every day. I’m posting about being kind A LOT. I have become a living meme. I am a poster on your wall of a kitten hanging from a tree by one paw with a caption that says HANG IN THERE.

There is something in me I am only slightly ashamed of, which is ok with having quieter times. The alone times. I am good at this and my life before, just weeks ago was too busy, and too noisy and I kept getting ill because I was running too fast, doing too much, thinking too rapidly too often and full up.

I have wondered, of course I have, if the planet has felt like that too, these last few hundred years since we got a bit too clever for our own good and forgot we are connected to it, that we rely on its good health. I wonder if it feels like many of us do when we have taken on too much, but we don’t know how to stop or what to cut back on because it’s all become too normal, we think we need it. Now, like many of us, it’s sick and gone to bed with a gentle book to rest and rejuvenate and think about making big changes in its life. Who hasn’t considered that maybe we’re the virus, and COVID-19 is some kind of earthy immune system fighting to claw back some room to breathe. Literally anti-bodies.

I have wondered, of course I have, what the world will look like when we come out of this in three months or six months, or a year or more. Will there be substantially less of us? Will our grief cripple us or will it compel us to be present with our hearts? Will the air in our biggest cities remain cleaner? Will dolphins stay in waterways they had abandoned for so long? Will we decide there’s a lot to like about living more quietly? Will we remember the value of community and connection now the gap between the selfish and the altruistic is so clear? Will we stop thinking we can control on our own terms our natural surroundings and realise how utterly connected and dependent and vulnerable we are?

Small things are making me happy in my crisis. I’m re-reading books I read as a child, and I’m planting the off cuts of my kitchen scraps in pots in my garden and watching them grow. I’m particularly proud of my spring onions. Every day I visit the golden orb weaver that has set up an elaborate, glittering web across my back garden. She has chosen her spot well, she has many dinners wrapped up tight and tidy, and hung like a string of beads above her. We call her Mavis, after a song we like. I listen to the small birds shrieking in the trees outside my bedroom window, and it doesn’t escape me they are oblivious to everything but their turn to fluff their feathers in the bird bath.

So, in my crisis, I have learnt some things about myself.

I have learnt to sit with my love for my mum and my dad. I knew it before, of course, but I didn’t think about it. Now I am thinking of it all the time and I’m glad because they’re still here and I can miss them and ring them up even if I can’t go to see them. I’m 53 but I’m still their child and I still look to them both for comfort and find it in their voice. I’ll still be their child when I am older and my face is all deep lines, and my neck is loose and my skin is crinkling on my forearms. I’ll still be their child and my child will still be my child and her children will still be her children and so on. It is as it’s meant to be. I feel that very closely now, and I’m grateful for it.

I am reminded every day that the love of reading is a gift beyond measure and I am as lucky as someone who’s been born with a great talent to have this wonder at my disposal. It’s the comfort and thrill of being wrapped in an other-worldly cocoon crafted entirely and uniquely by the author and me. Together, with their words and my surrender, we spin our own magic never to be re-created in exactly the same way again, even when we read a book twice.

There’s something special right now in the physical books of my childhood. I have once again picked up my old copy of Anne of Green Gables. I found it originally in my own mum’s bookshelf as a kid and adopted it as my own, so I don’t know how long we’ve had it. My copy is tattered beyond being even vaguely readable to anyone else. Its spine is cracked, it’s heavily stained from age and years of eating vegemite toast and drinking milo while reading, whole passages are obscured but I have read it so often it’s easy to fill in the missing bits. Some of the pages are torn from an unfortunate habit I had as a child of absent mindedly tearing off the corners of books and eating them while I read. No I don’t know why either. There is so much love in this one book, of the story, of reading, of my warmest, safest memories as a deeply introverted child. I could not love it any more than I do. If I were a book and not a human being, this one reflects the most of me. I am keeping it by my bed.

I am appreciating the sense of my husband in our home and the feeling of peace that gives me. Even when we are not in the same room, his presence changes the air somehow to something warmer than when he’s not here. I would say, if I wasn’t thinking about it, that I just like it better when he’s here. I would say when he’s not here I can feel his absence as something missing and not right, and I don’t sleep well and I don’t relax in the same way. Even though I need to be on my own quite a lot. Even though I often crave silence. I think I’ll go and give him a kiss on the top of his head right now. (I did, and he was a bit puzzled if I’m honest. I probably did it intensely.)

I would not diminish what’s happening right now in the world. I’m afraid. My chest feels tighter most days, and I’m joking but not really with friends about what to do if we’re dying and there are not enough ventilators. I’m worried about those who are doing it very tough right now and those who find themselves unwillingly on the frontline. Those who have lost their safety net and those who never had one. I’m trying not to succumb to an urge to check if toilet paper’s back in the supermarket even though I have enough.

I’m also holding on to the deep belief that kindness gives you strength and the more tightly you cling on through fear the less secure you become. I think when we come out the other end of this, whatever that looks like, we will want to feel we were kind when we could be and that we looked for opportunities to show one another compassion. We will want to feel that we did our best.

That’s week one.

(pic: Chris Downey)

How to poach a perfect egg

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Skip to the bottom if you want to get right to what is seriously the easiest and fastest way to poach an egg. 

There’s a ritual my husband and I keep to without fail, as we drive into work on a Monday. It generally follows a weekend of excess, too much wine, too much cheese, too much sitting around, resting our over laden plates on our pillowy rolls of belly fat.

Mondays, as we fly up the freeway, bound for the city, a new week and a new attitude, we plan our healthy life from now on. We plan our financial health in a series of money saving goals, we plan the exercise routine that this time we’ll stick with and we plan above all our new diet which will be both nutritious, fabulous and also involve throwing out less food, so good for our bank balance and the environment. Win!

We don’t plan to plan, it’s just a natural progression of guilt and good intentions.

Obviously, nothing much gets followed through or it wouldn’t be an ongoing ritual. We’d have something else to talk about. This keeps us bonded. The couple that fails together, stays together.

There is one small, exciting area of self improvement though where I have managed to make a dent in my complete inability to either motivate myself or follow through on a well-meaning lifestyle change.

And that is the work lunch. I don’t get a lunch hour, so I have no time to faff about and I hate spending money on it. Last week during one of my regular memory lapses, where the lunch I had carefully compiled from left overs from the night before was left sitting on the bench, I found myself yet again paying eighteen dollars for a salad and a shred of schnitzel at the cafe down the road from work.

I resent it.

I’ve added up what I think it costs me, allowing for holidays it’s about two and a half thousand dollars a year. Money I could spend on a gym membership I’ll never use.

So I have several tactics for avoiding buying lunch. One is aforementioned leftovers from home. Much cheaper, even given the cost of the multitude of expensive eco-friendly containers I buy to pack my lunch in then lose. But that involves cooking to have leftovers to begin with and sometimes I can’t be arsed. Spending too much money eating out is one of those issues that comes up most Mondays.

Another tactic is making lunch at the office.  This works pretty well. I have favourites but they’re mostly not as good as stuff I can buy, so I’m easily swayed by take away options.

But just this week, I stumbled on to an excellent and delicious option for making lunch at work. I’m so thrilled with it, I thought I’d share it. By ‘stumbled’ I mean I saw my colleague, social media editor Adam Ballard do it and copied him.

All you need is eggs, a microwave, a deep bowl, access to hot water and you have yourself the makings of microwave poached eggs.

Now if you have ever tried scrambled eggs in the microwave, you’ll rightly scoff. They’re do-able just not very nice. If you’ve ever been the victim of an exploding egg in the microwave then you’ll rightly be afraid. An egg exploding in the microwave has the force of a small grenade, can cause nasty burns and a very large mess.

I have cautionary advice on that to come.

Unlike microwave scrambled eggs which are ok but not great these poached eggs are as good if not better than you can make on the stove. And I say that not as one of the multitudes of those who can’t master poached eggs and have given up, I can make poached eggs on the stove and I still think this method is superior.

Here you go.

Microwave poached eggs. 

Fill a deep cereal bowl about two thirds full of hot water. Not boiling, not lukewarm but hot.

Crack in two eggs. They should be well covered by water. At least two inches.

Cover with loose microwave lid.

Zap for two minutes. Check. If not quite done, zap another 30 seconds. Check. Tip off most of the water when done and scoop out eggs.

Allow for a bit of trial and error around the quirks of your own microwave and the size of your bowl and suchlike. Don’t get cocky and zap for two and a half minutes because that’s the fast way to egg bomb city.

So easy, so delicious, so handy at work. No salt or vinegar or whirlpools required.

Observe in the pictures, my very first attempt at home, plus a handy pictorial indication of the size of the bowl I use, including a teaspoon for perspective. I fill this bowl two thirds full.

Having mastered the marvel of the microwave egg method, I can feel I am one step closer to a banging new hyper healthy me. And my contribution to the Monday commute conversation this week will be nothing short of electric. You’re welcome.

On the forest floor

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“Grief grinds slowly, it devours all the time it needs.” Long Witt Woon: The Way Through the Woods.

Five years ago my friend died.  Not without notice, but it was fast and I felt riven. I’d lost good friends and family before and grieved desperately for them, then and now, but this loss blew me sideways in a different way. It wasn’t just about the death of my friend, it changed who I was and how I saw the world.

I sank into something more than sadness. I suppose it was depression, the pointlessness of existence was suddenly overwhelming and inescapable. Any existence, not just mine. I obsessed over the impending death of everyone I loved, in a kind of lackluster way. The world revolved around the truth of endings and the nothingness that followed.

People going to work, parents playing with their children in the park, even birds squabbling over the pecking order in our birdbath, I would watch them idly and wonder why they bothered. They were all just passing time.

It was hard to get past.

I envied my friends who believed in a god, because I imagine whatever the failings of its institutions, if you’re on board with that kind of stuff, religion gives you purpose, comfort and community. I just couldn’t manufacture personal belief on the basis of personal need.

I envied my mother, who was also grieving, but she’s a hippy so when there’s a death in what she calls her ‘gypsy circle,’ she doesn’t feel they’re gone in the same way.

“He’s still here,” she would chuckle, dragging happily on a cigarette, at the memory of how during their own long friendship they would bicker for hours about past lives and reincarnation. He thought she was very weird but begrudgingly adored her anyway.  She thought he was equally deluded as a result of something inflicted in this or another life.

I on the other hand didn’t believe anything except he was gone. I was so sad. He was so absolutely gone.

Worried, my husband took me to Pemberton, a beautiful small town in the south-west for a holiday, where he felt the old growth forests would soothe me. We walked everyday, down long gravel tracks. We walked through the tall trees, climbed through scrub and clambered down narrow paths that led to hidden misty lakes. We turned our phones off and played scrabble at night and watched birds hop among the grasses and shrubs outside our cottage in the morning. But most of all I felt peace when I was deep in the heart of the forest.

The air smelt of earth and home, the trees towered protectively around me. The ripple of birds as they moved among the trees, the whisper of wind through leaves, the crackle of an unseen creature crawling along the forest floor, sounds that were welcome rather than the assault I had been feeling in the city. Our footsteps fell in with the natural rhythm of the forest and I began to breathe a little more deeply.

Slowly, something happened that had not happened in any of my previous visits.  I found myself staring more and more at the ground. I noticed, with a sense of  interest that grew to wonder, the mushrooms and fungi that lived there. So many varieties, tiny yellow toadstools, bright and clear as a sour sally. Huge flat plates of fungi jutting out of random tree trunks. Brown fancies frilled like a Victorian lady’s nightgown, small red caps with white stems like you read about in fairy stories as a child.

The more I looked the more I saw. We walked past trees that stretched to the sky, in their prime. Breathtaking in their reach. But it was the old and the broken, the long dead stumps too wide for me to put my arms around that I saw now.  Fungi was everywhere. At every stage of life, small and easy to miss on the side of a 60 foot marri tree, dotted among the leaf litter on the forest floor, smothering fallen old trunks in bright green moss, drawing them slowly, slowly into the ground. And all around new life was springing forth, fed by those that had come before them.

The process was beautiful. I started to feel an almost spiritual connection that I didn’t understand and didn’t need to, because it was speaking to me at a level deep beneath my skin.

It was different to my mother’s surety that in death my friend still existed somewhere as I knew him, but it was comforting, because it felt real and it took me out of myself. Everything spiritual that made sense to me in the past, about striving to ultimately release ego was here and happening all around me. Quietly, slowly, inevitably. But not without purpose. The idea the essence of everything would eventually be absorbed into the earth illustrated to me, profoundly, how we are all connected.

It didn’t make me less sad, but it did help the pointlessness that was crushing me.

And I began to heal. I went home. I forgot a little about my mushrooms and stopped staring at parents pushing their child on a swing and wondering why they bothered.

Now five years later I have picked up a book. An epiphany in itself. And a reminder.

The Way Through the Woods; of mushrooms and mourning is written by a Malaysian writer, Long Litt Woon, who went through devastating loss when her husband went to work one day and didn’t come home. She describes her own understanding and relationship with death and grief and she talks about how she found her own way back to life through fungi also. Long Litt Woon’s passage through loss led to her becoming a student of Mycology, the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Her book is both a study in grief and healing and an exploration of this incredible form of life we still know so little about. Science and what it means to love and to be human all rolled into one.

It’s magical. I have been reminded of what it means to connect and I have a renewed fascination with these incredible organisms that play such a role in life and death.

I actually don’t think it matters, really, how you find your way back to connection after loss. I know many don’t like the idea of comparison and will say it’s relative. I’m sure it is but I would not compare my loss with a woman whose husband died. That is just more.  I can only speak for my own experience.

There is, for me, a deep selfishness that overcomes you when you grieve. Not the kind you choose where you take the biggest piece of cake or steal someone’s carpark or don’t appreciate your loved ones. This kind of self absorption is involuntary and suffocating. You lose the ability to connect with anything but how you feel at that moment and how you think you’ll continue to feel tomorrow and the next day and the next. Grief makes its home in your chest and it’s heavy, so even something as natural as breathing becomes an effort. The worst of it is the loss of connection. To anything in yourself other than your loss, to anyone around you. You feel utterly alone.

Nature has a gentle way of reminding us that you are not. That everything is intertwined and you are a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s mystical, peaceful and deeply healing.

To me, it was something as small and as vast as a mushroom that led me back to connection. I still miss my friend. His name was Niall.

Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods, of mushrooms and mourning,  is published by Scribe. She is coming to Literature and Ideas for Perth Festival in February 2020.

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(photo: Albert Shaart, Flickr)

The magic of a best friend

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The fact is that a woman friend is as rare as a true love’- Elena Ferrante.

When I was a child, my mum had a very beautiful friend. She was exotically Irish with an accent. She was fashionable and had a name I’d only ever seen in a book.  Her home was filled with all the things I had long felt sure would transform my life if I was lucky enough to acquire them, i.e. things I’d seen on tv.

Continue reading “The magic of a best friend”