Socks, Chocs and Saris

Socks, Chocs and Saris

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The hectic time of year marking the festive season is thankfully behind me as I write this post. Australians spent an estimated A$48 billion on Christmas gifts in the 6 weeks leading up to 25 December (source: Australian Retailers Association). That’s a lot of socks and chocolates!

It was during this seasonal shopping period that I discovered socksandchocs – a registered charity based in Birmingham England, founded by ex-soldier and policeman Ian Northcott. He has put our penchant for spending to good use by urging the donation of basic needs for the homeless. By Christmas 2016 donations had reached 9601 pairs of socks, 8298 boxes of chocolates, 136 sleeping bags and 4078 miscellaneous items such as gloves and underwear. If you are wondering why chocolates have been included on the list (as I did), I urge you to read Ian’s story. Ian’s charity now operates in over 30 localities between England and Northern Ireland since its inception in 2010, and also provides emergency accommodation.

Closer to home, Share the Dignity’s #itsinthebag Christmas campaign caught my attention. My yoga teacher collected unwanted handbags filled with toiletries for women fleeing their homes at Christmas due to domestic violence. I donated a new Lonsdale backpack that I had originally bought my son for his Birthday, and took pleasure in purchasing personal items to fill it (he didn’t like the colour. I’m glad I gave it to someone who would be more appreciative!).

In addition to the giving and receiving, there is a flurry of socialising in the lead up to Christmas. My first invitation was for early November – to Sunday lunch by a friend in my writing group. Details were scanty: don’t bring anything. It is just a casual get together.

I arrived at a neat wooden home with a large leafy garden in the nearby suburb of Strathfield. As I approached the house I recognised my colleague and host greeting people at his front door. There was a procession of sari wearing strangers pulling up in cars. Their beauty reminded me of butterflies emerging from a cocoon as they navigated their way out of their vehicles in their colourful traditional costumes.

A casual get together with writing friends this was not turning out to be.

I counted a total of 20 guests from the Indian community and to my horror realised that they were all non-alcoholic drinking Hindus just as I proffered my hostess a gift of liqueur chocolates. She politely put them on display (I so wished for them to be placed at the back of the nearest cupboard, and conveniently forgotten until the next spring clean). As I was being introduced to the guests I noticed the men wearing freshly pressed collared shirts, and began to feel a bit underdressed in my casual backyard lunch wear.

We were ushered to the rear of the house, where a large table had been set up under the awning for our communal feast. It was refreshing to see orange juice and water being offered, no alcohol in sight (except what was hidden inside my chocolates!)

The sari wearing guests and their partners were immigrants from Bangalore, all fluent in the local dialect of Kannada, which they eased in and out of throughout the gathering’s conversations. The food was stupendous. Of particular note was hostess U’s dessert, a recipe from her village: pancake stuffed with lentils and brown sugar, with warm milk poured over the top.

Another surprise: the 4 of us representatives from the writing group were asked to give a short informal talk. We sat in a loose circle and took turns. I chose to speak about why I ended up in the group and what impact it has had on me personally: I had found my tribe. Another colleague, a retired French teacher and poet, recited a poem she had written about a garden in Paris she was particularly fond of. Though she had to compete for our attention with a flock of noisy rainbow lorikeets feasting on the banksia tree next door.

‘B’ shared his experiences of travelling around India with his yoga group. An accomplished actor, he had us all laughing throughout the narrative. ‘A’ described her youth on a farm in rural NSW where she was home schooled and a brown snake joined her for a lesson. This sparked immediate interest. Some of the men present stopped fiddling with their cell phones. Even the procession of ants that had gathered under my feet seemed to slow down as she regaled her near miss with death story.

The Indian guests happily shared their experiences when I prompted them. One particular woman stood out: visiting Sydney to assist her 2nd daughter with the recent arrival of her baby. She confessed to being nearly 60 (she looked 40!). Hers had been an arranged marriage – at 18 – and she indicated that she and her husband were ‘out of love’ now. He is a workaholic, leaving home at 7.30am and returning at 9.30pm. Her mother-in-law has lived under their roof since the marriage and still treats him like a small boy. I was horrified. She lamented the fact that she never went to work or furthered her education. She spends as much time as possible travelling to her daughters in Sydney and in the US.

Bare feet were the order of the day, guests leaving their assorted footwear at the front door. Being shoe-less brought an immediate sense of community, of belonging. There were some good healthy feet on show!

Among us there were professors, engineers, self-employed entrepreneurs, officer workers and taxi drivers, even professional entertainers: ‘S’ sang a traditional song in Hindi from her appearance at the Pink Sari Project concert, which raised breast cancer awareness among women in the Indian and Sri Lankan communities. I felt honoured to be included in their company, if only for an afternoon.

The women present wore lined faces and warm smiles, laughing and chatting, touching each other in a familiar way. They could have passed as sisters, so playful was their interaction. The intense colours and patterns of their saris heightened the visual pleasure of looking out to the shaded garden with its magnolia, frangipani and hibiscus .

Most guests chose to eat in their traditional way with their hand, not spilling anything. Those ants underfoot were getting hungry! I opted for cutlery which had thoughtfully been left out for the westerners.

The early afternoon breeze picked up the edges of the women’s saris as they talked and listened. There was a surreal like quality to this gathering – sharing stories and a meal with these friendly, engaging people of different backgrounds and life experiences from mine.

One guest confessed that she didn’t like Sydney at first and they emigrated because her son was accepted at university here. She told him that as soon as he finished his engineering degree she was going back home. Time brought a change of heart: she decided to stay once she got a job, made friends and started to integrate further into society.

All those who had moved here admitted to issues of assimilation when they first arrived from India. And  that their command of English provided a helpful tool. Saris I was told are very difficult to keep looking so beautiful. I could only imagine as I inspected the layers of woven silk at close hand.

I am grateful to be living amongst a diversity of cultures, and for the rituals and mindfulness that come with Christmas. An opportunity to share, meet and celebrate with people and connect with my tribe, wherever that may lead me.

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My speed date with San Francisco

 

The USA is a big place, with a total land mass of 10 million km2 (4 million mi2) and a population of 325 million people at the time of writing this post. I was reminded of this fact when I flew there from my sunny patch in Sydney last month. San Francisco and its bay area was my destination, to visit family, the vibrant city known for its year round fog, hills, pretty wooden houses and streets veined with cable car tracks.

The city of San Francisco is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on its eastern side and San Francisco Bay. A maze of cars, traffic lanes, people, shopping centres, food outlets, churches, warehouses (crossing the San Mateo Bridge for the return flight in my sister’s car two weeks later I felt I was leaving one country for another, so vast was the body of water beneath us).

The bay area measures 11,300km2 (7000mi2) and has 7.1 million residents, urban sprawl interspersed with rural agriculture. California is colloquially known as the ‘food bowl’ of the USA, and is the fifth largest metropolitan district. My 45 minute rides on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) from Fremont station into the city proper gave a sobering view of industry: portside shipping containers and cranes silhouetting the landscape; warehouses that sort used clothing, car yards and car washes, RV hire; rubbish recycling stations; abandoned buildings covered in graffiti; community gardens; dust bowl school grounds – evidence that California has been in drought for 6 years. This also explains the backdrop of golden hills where I could imagine the dry straw coloured grass crackling underfoot were I to explore them (I have earmarked that adventure for my next visit).

Sydney was formally recognised as being a sister city of San Francisco in 1968. To my mind Sydney is more the littler sibling in the relationship. Make that a very little one, way down the pecking order of the English speaking family. Though natives of the bay area where I stayed may argue the toss that we in fact speak the same language. The usual response to my questions were: ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Can you repeat that please?’ I was surprised at how much the locals liked my accent. I thought I sounded awful; my sister, now a permanent denizen of San Francisco (and who sadly now feels so far away) doesn’t want to lose hers, so positive is the experience for her.

Cars are cheap to buy. And to run. A neighbours had 6 cars in their driveway, one for each member of the household. People are a lot more polite behind the wheel than I am used to in my southern city. Is this because of the excellent organisation of the road system? Though I admit to being perplexed when I saw drivers U-turning at traffic lights. It’s legal in the USA. And necessary, everywhere being very wide apart. Despite my sister’s enthusiasm for the ease of driving around I wasn’t tempted to actually get in the car and do it myself! I was out of kilter enough after my long haul flight, feeling that I had popped up into a Dr Zeuss book where life was being played out in reverse.

I’d arrived in Upside Down Land.

There is signage everywhere you go reminding people to conserve water. Yet toilets flush like a mini tsunami. It appears the ½ flush option hasn’t reached this part of the world yet. And there are squirrels to negotiate when one is cycling or driving round the suburbs. Those little critters can stop traffic.

Californians are polite. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Nice to meet you!’ ‘I hope you enjoy your stay’, a trait that sits side by side with a marked reserve. There is an invisible line between them and me and how much they are prepared to talk about themselves (I also noticed this when visiting New York two years ago). So I take note and remind myself not to be too eager to ask questions (which is the default position for this writer!) They are curious about me but not overly so.  And they know how to skirt around the personal stuff. Australians generally have a tendency to overshare. I admit I am a culprit here!

For most of my 2 week visit I was happily holed up in the bay area suburb of Niles, famous because Charlie Chaplin made movies there. It is a picture book hamlet of quaint wooden historic houses bordered by those round golden hills. More recently developed streets display Brady Bunch style faux ranches with pebble features, neat lawns and a sense of order about them.

I didn’t expect Bougainvillea and Crepe Myrtle trees to be growing in such abundance in this quiet neck of San Francisco’s bay. Seeing groves of common eucalypts filled me with a sense of de ja vu.

I ventured into the city a few times on the BART. It is a 15 minute drive from my family’s house in Niles to the station at Fremont (the last stop on the line). I bought a newspaper and asked for directions from a rheumy eyed vendor in the financial district. Not far from his kiosk a young male was sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the pavement; not an uncommon sight for this city.

I joined a small mob of tourists on an open top double decker bus tour to get a quick lie of the land (highly recommended!). We took in Cow Hollow, the Marina, the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and the park of the same name which I have also earmarked for further exploration on my next trip). Haight Ashbury – where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix lived and where I will definitely be returning for a more relaxed inspection – City Hall. Norman our guide liked the sound of his voice a bit too much and in the end I disembarked in the Tenderloin district before our tour was done.

He did shed some interesting facts: for example that there are 93 Starbucks outlets in the CBD alone, yet only one motor registry. Our bus drove past it and there was a queue snaking all the way through the carpark. Also that the most expensive real estate is in the Pacific Heights area and prices have fetched up to US$65 million for a property.

Chinatown was another adventure, on my 2nd visit (episode 2 of my ‘speed date’) – a treasure trove of street upon street of bric-a-brac, souvenirs, fabric, antiques, framed calligraphy, Chinese grocery stores, restaurants. It kept going, like an optical illusion. English language took a back seat here. I also remembered for my return trip to take a heavier jacket. The weather can turn chilly at short notice.

The sophisticated Ferry building and Embarcadero shed another light on this city of many faces, in stark contrast to Fisherman’s Wharf with its obese tourists, overflowing rubbish bins, long queues and smell of fried food. But the busking was world class. The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building near Jackson Square stood out on my map like a treasure chest, X marking the spot to indicate the serious business precinct of uptown.

Receipts are longer. The GST is added at the checkout, and where applicable the tip. In some instances I noticed an ‘employee benefits tax’ had been added on too.  It got to the point where I wondered whether I should be tipping or not, for example the overly helpful assistants in Macy’s at Union Square. Is that the expectation? Or are they being genuinely nice to me?

Ok I will admit I felt like the country cousin at times!

I can confirm the minimum wage in the USA is US$8. I saw this documented on a staff noticeboard at Oakhurst, where we stopped for supplies en route to Yosemite National Park. This begs the question: how can people afford to live? Apart from gas, cars and clothing, other commodities are on par with my part of the world that I could see. One has to pay for quality food here, the same as Sydney, though my green-fingered sister in-law grows arguably the best tomatoes I have ever tasted.

A visit to the local farmers market in nearby Newark is a Sunday routine for this family, where colourful pyramids of fresh produce is piled high and being spruiked by smiling growers – mostly Hispanics who have driven for up to 4 hours from their farms that very morning to set up their stalls. Orchids (at around US$15 each – so cheap!), cilantro, chillies, corn, beans, okra, potatoes in every hue imaginable to name a few.

I witnessed the racial divide when attending a professional baseball game in Oakland, the Seattle Marines versus the local Oakland team. My sis had scored us VIP tickets through her work. We were waited on in our seats by staff of Negro descent. We ensured that we left a good tip. I couldn’t help noticing that the crowd in our enclosure were mostly white.

My 2 week stay was punctuated by 4 nights at Mariposa, near Yosemite National Park. We bundled up 2 vehicles and 4 people, leaving cats, chickens and my sister-in-law’s abundant vegetable garden to the neighbours. The 3.5 hour journey due west (which stretched into 5 with lunch and comfort stops) afforded me a view of the ‘food bowl’ in action: row upon perfect row of grape vines, fruit, olive and nut trees playing tricks with our eyes as we sped past. Still blinking, we would touch on the outskirts of an urban city, its mega mart the flagship indicator.

Yosemite National Park didn’t fail to disappoint and deserves a blog post of its own. Our visit was strategically timed with the end of the official summer break. Though we still jostled for parking, and trying to take photos without wandering tourists in the frame proved difficult. I could imagine the flux of people in high season. Seeing woodpeckers, skunks, chipmunks and deer in their habitat and sequoia trees dating over 3000 years in age still fills me with a sense of wonder. Stripping down to our underwear and taking cheeky dips in water falls and rivers was a highlight (we ensured that the other more sedate tourists were out of view!).

My very active niece kept me delightful company when I wasn’t busy being a tourist. I highly recommend spending one’s vacation looking at the world through the rose coloured glasses of an 8 year old! My memory is a warm fuzz of cooking, craft, cycling, swimming, assembling Lego, playing the piano, jumping on the trampoline. I can still see her ahead on her bicycle, pink tassels on her handlebars flying, her butt marking time as she stood on the pedals, looking back over her shoulder every now and then to ensure Aunty was following. Our destination was the Hacienda, a private pool a few blocks from home for paid up members only. An oasis!

Her energy left me breathless at times and ready for bed when she was. Why walk down the hallway when you can tumble turn / cartwheel / run? I will miss her ability to be totally in the moment, her singing (when she doesn’t have her head in a book – reading it upside down – no sitting conventionally for this one!) and her curiosity for everyone and everything. In short a joy to be around.

On my return flight to Sydney I was reminded that there is nothing glamorous about long distance travel, unless you can afford the ‘big bucks’ seats up at the pointy of the aircraft of course. The fug of unwashed passengers at close proximity, their personal detritus strewn at my feet, queuing for the amenities like bleary eyed sheep in the middle of the night, the smell of mass produced food.

Delayed connections and lost baggage added to my woes, but I reminded myself that when you travel you have to be prepared for anything to happen (actually this was the sage advice of my sister who does a lot of travelling for her job). I have already started a savings account for the next visit so it can’t have been too unbearable!

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Grief Awareness Month

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The end of August marks the conclusion of Grief Awareness Month here in Australia. It also means the coming of Spring in the southern hemisphere, a time of joy and hope. Below is a prose poem I wrote to acknowledge this period. I dedicate this writing to those close to me who have suffered grief and loss in their lives. Thanks to my fellow writers at the Open Genre Writing Group at the NSW Writers’ Centre for their feedback and input into this piece.

Leaving 1

He drew his last breath at midnight. It was early spring.

By morning he was icy cold.

The empty highchair a raw reminder of his leaving.

Pureed carrot still smeared on the plastic tray.

In the blur of days that followed friends and neighbours cleaned, put flowers round the house, left food at the front door.

The grieving mother’s sister took time off work to help with the funeral arrangements.

And to choose the plot to bury the child.

Under a paperbark tree. Sheltered from the weather. As if that mattered now.

The sisters embraced at the site where his little body would lie.

The pock of a golf ball being hit on the course next door anchored them in their despair.

A complaining crow sounded a mournful cry.

The funeral briefly relieved their sorrow; the ceremony and formality of it oddly comforting.

The sister had suffered that loss too; her baby also dying in her sleep.

Now buried with its grandmother. Surrounded by strangers.

Same pointy chin. Same frown. A union under the quiet earth.

She had held her and held her until the policewoman gently said we have to take her now.

They zipped her up in a small blue bag and drove her away in the gathering dark, lights flashing and siren off.

The hardest thing she said was removing her dew soaked clothes from the washing line the next day.

Leaving 2

I didn’t know he was leaving.

I thought he was coming back to make amends, to start anew.

After a ten day absence I prepared our reunion with lighted candles and fresh flowers.

The house held the hushed anticipation of a wedding, a celebration.

But he returned to say that he wasn’t coming back. That after eight years he couldn’t do it anymore.

He closed the front door quietly behind him, as if not to disturb me any further.

He only took his guitar.

I watched him go, his shoulders hunched, and saw that he had lost weight.

After he left, the wedding photos in the lounge room pierced my eyes. I turned them around to face the wall.

The house dissolved around me, as if it was grieving too.

I ate frozen peas for the first few days.

I forgot to shop, to cook and clean, and made a nest on the lounge room floor to sleep in.

This is where I received worried friends who came with hugs, sad eyes and food.

After a month I moved back into the bed. Our bed.

He had come for all his possessions by then. But left the stuffed giraffe from his childhood.

The house became darker, solemn. But for the dust motes dancing in a splinter of light through a part in the curtains.

I rang a cleaner and sat in the bath from lunchtime until after the sun went down, the water cold.

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At the Pool

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Show pony and bald pate bookend my lane in numbers 3 and 5. The former slaps the water with each stroke, his black waterproof watch marking time.

Bald pate is the size of a small iceberg. He glides regally like an ocean liner, keeping his head above the water, performing his own dainty version of breast stroke. This morning he wears a grin the size of his person and nods in greeting when I jump in. Later I see him lumbering up the skinny ladder, panting, his grace and dexterity left behind in the pool. His wide back is covered in dark downy hair.

We swim to our own rhythm, working towards our own goals – a faster time, a longer swim, a backstroke tumble turn that needs improving. We are an uncoordinated group, each of us totally absorbed in our repetitions. Nobody is chatting today. Usually show pony saunters in like he is the owner the place, his suit in a bag hanging precariously by one finger. He backslaps the lifeguard as if they are close relatives or friends. It’s all a bit much bonhomie for me in the pre-dawn.

But today he is quiet. I haven’t seen him here in a while. He looks withdrawn. He’s lost some weight.

In fact the only sound here today is the slap slap of water that is ricocheting off the concrete, steel and glass to produce a stereo effect. It is a calming sound, blocking out any thoughts.

I recognise a familiar thatch of thick white hair in lane 6. A retired regular who does his own version of dog paddle. I wonder if he retains any injuries from repeating the same stroke. Perhaps he plays a sport, to counteract the activity (I picture him teeing off on a golf course, his shock of hair neatly tethered under a cap). He is as coordinated as a synchronised swimmer. After his swim and back on terra firma he resembles a lost child without his spectacles.

The elderly woman in lane 1 shuffles along slowly in the shallows.  She clutches her swimming aid in front with both hands. It is shaped like a Capital C and positioned flat on the water’s surface. I imagine it as a pink magnet being pulled towards her, or perhaps her towards it. Her ensemble is a brightly patterned shower cap and matching costume.  Her pace and her choice of attire set her apart from the rest of us.

With every tumble turn and push off I feel my back and shoulders loosen, make their peace with the water. The first 6 laps are always the hardest. I creak up and down, try to get my breathing in sync with my body, just thinking of this lap, this stroke, not the next drill or turn. Soon I am flying, weightless, all thoughts evaporating up into the steel skeleton holding up the roof above me.

While doing backstroke, I espy the tennis ball still stuck in a corner of the rafters overhead. It has been there for at least 2 years now and has turned completely white from the chlorine vapours.

After 40 minutes I am happily spent. I emerge in one swift pull up out of the water, slippery as a seal, feeling lighter and calmer. I negotiate puddles, damp clothes and wet towels as I prepare to confront the chill morning that awaits on the other side of the sealed door.

A bird chorus is in progress as I emerge into a lavender hued dawn. I pad over the dew soaked grass to my car, the grass sticking to my shoes. My world is narrowed to thoughts of steaming tea and a hot shower, the looming workday still at a safe distance. I choose to keep the radio off on the drive home, still absorbed in the feel-good light-headedness that exercise brings.

I am thankful that I didn’t listen to that other self this morning. She wanted to stay in bed and bury herself further down beneath the warm covers. I feel fully alive and a bit more prepared for what the day ahead may bring.

 

 

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Rites of Passage 3

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I have blogged before about the angst ridden period of growing up, between leaving school and becoming a fully-fledged adult. My teenage son is in the midst of this maelstrom. We, his parents, are becoming experts. Bearing witness at close quarters.

There is a certain freedom to be had for having made it through the trials and tribulations of school life together, of being there for them and with them. Of coming out the other side. However this is juxtaposed with the new worry about their safety out there in the world now that they are untethered, their movements not dictated by the rigours of school life.

I am getting better at going to sleep instead of wondering where he is, how is he going to get home, what state is he in, who is with him, what has he been up to…it helps to have an equally concerned spouse. I now let him do the worrying for both of us, believer as I am in economising our resources.

Last night the adults had the place to ourselves. We played our music with gay abandon, ate what we felt like, watched our favourite channel on TV, waiting for the youngest member of the family to come home reeking of pubs, sweat and aftershave (I ask myself: what’s wrong with this scenario?).

I am often reminded of Alison in Wonderland when she falls down the rabbit hole and everything is not as it should be: he emerges from his darkened den – where I can make out the winking lights of his PlayStation console, his IPad and other detritus of teenager hood – and the room shrinks away from him as he grows in stature before my eyes.

Our 3 washing baskets are overflowing with his clean but not yet folded clothes (he has been washing his own clothes for a few years. There was no way this busy mum was going to be made responsible for a potential crisis in the clean underwear department). He ends up washing everything again before it finally gets put away – just so that he can reacquaint himself with his wardrobe after a lengthy absence.

The other chores remain undone – recycling, dishwasher, rubbish. There is always a reason (‘I was going to do it when I got up’. At 4pm?). We put up with the mounting refuse until one of us loses it. A heated exchange ensues. Then all is rectified and forgotten until the cycle is repeated again.

He tip toes round the house after a late night, bumping into furniture. A gorilla in ballet slippers comes to mind. We lie there in the dark, listening to him foraging in the fridge for leftovers. Knife scraping plate in the early hours.

His day starts (whatever time that may be) something like this: long shower, much preening behind the bathroom door, music blaring. Then he is out of the house, headlong into his future, running late as usual. But not before he has begged his mum to make him some lunch to take (‘because I’ve run out of time/money’), or asked my humble opinion about what to wear – long or short sleeves? – or what to pack – do I need an umbrella?

Funny how parents are looked upon as indispensable when it comes to matters of practicality (‘Mum I can’t untie my knotted shoelaces and I have to leave in 5 minutes!’). Yet if we dare express an unasked-for opinion we are looked down upon as pariahs.

This morning I heard him crashing around the house as usual. He was surprised to see me, forgetting that I had told him about my day off. He apologised for making such a racket (makes a change!). As he stood in the doorway of his room – on his way for some more sleep until a mate picks him up later to play basketball – I saw a calmness in him. I wanted to hug him tight, feel the warmth of his bedclothes on him. He had made it through his first semester at college. Now it is time to let go for a while.

Still some growing up to do yet.

 

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The Blue Boat

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I was inspired to write this short story post after reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

The old man grew up with fishing. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were amateur fishermen. Any spare moment they had would be spent out on the wharf dangling a line or, if time permitted, further out to sea in a wooden boat for hours at a time. Fishing preoccupied his thoughts as it did theirs, waking and sleeping. He couldn’t remember a day when he didn’t think about it.

Picturing himself out there rising and falling on the swell waiting for a tug on the line soothed him.

He became friends with the sea from an early age. His grandfather rowed out with him (no outboard motors then) for miles in his rickety wooden boat with the powder blue paint blistered and peeling from the sun.  They sat out there until the light started to dim or his grandfather felt a chill in his bones, bobbing on the horizon, their lines dangling over the side. The world was pared back, simple then. Not much was said between them as they sat there waiting for movement on the line. He was very young, perhaps six years old.

Later in life when he was a parent himself, he thought back in amazement at being allowed out so far from the shore. Sitting there sometimes all day, in a floating meditation, waiting for the limp line to come alive but at the same time not really caring.

He recalled the deep sense of peace, and eating corn bread for lunch washed down with a flask of sweetened black coffee. Sometimes they ate freshly caught fish – usually snapper but occasionally mahi mahi, sliced up sashimi style by his grandpa with his very sharp fishing knife on the wooden bench. He sluiced the area with a bucket of sea water after his preparations but the stink never really left their crude wooden vessel. It became a smell he associated with happiness.

He recalled feeling small and insignificant in the gently swelling blue. The sea quietly breathing beneath him, the repetition of movement at times sending him into a brief sleep. He sensed his own personal power at these moments, though he couldn’t articulate it.

They would return home in the gathering dark, sometimes empty handed. He felt connected to his grandfather after those long languorous days out there, so much said in the silence between them.

When his grandfather passed he wept quietly in the church, tears streaking his face. The old fishing net that he had watched him repair with his thick calloused fingers many times over was draped across the cheaply constructed coffin like a cloak, his collection of seashells scattered on the lid like jewels. He recalled the smell of candle wax, the sound of shuffling feet and the quiet whirr of a fan somewhere in the distance. And never felt so alone.

As an adult he returned to the ocean less often, the responsibilities of life demanding his time. On these occasions, it was in an aluminum boat with a little outboard motor. He cut the power when out of sight of land and sat, taking in the monochrome view that surrounded him: clouds scudding across the sky, a pale blue path stretching forever over his head completing the tableau. This is where he came to feel whole and at peace. He was tempted to leave his phone behind but his wife insisted that he take it. Just in case.

One Saturday in early July, he ventured out and didn’t come back. A helicopter and water police search ensued. He was seventy four. His wife stopped ringing his number after three days. The family sent a wooden raft out to sea at his favourite time of day, dusk, a week later. Its solemn cargo contained a neat fire ringed with frangipani flowers from a tree in their garden. That was his wish, not a church funeral. The entire village gathered neatly at the water’s edge like a necklace to farewell this quiet man.

They held hands in silence until someone started singing his favourite song, a sea shanty that his grandfather had taught him. Those who knew the words slowly joined in. A campfire fueled by drift wood was lit later on the shore and a few bottles of whisky produced. The singing carried on late into the night, way after the younger families had gone home to bed and the sand became cold underfoot.

His wife, raw with grief, was comforted by the fact that this was a fitting send off and that he would have approved.

His only child, a daughter in her forties, took up rod fishing from the beach after he died. Wearing his favourite checked lemon and grey shirt, she stood calf deep in the lapping waves and thought of him as she cast her line with a flick over her head, the movement creating a question mark in the sky. She imagined him rowing towards her, back into her life, as she looked wistfully ahead where sea meets the sky.

 

 

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Interview with Helen Scheuerer – Writer, Publisher and Founder of Writer’s Edit

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Thanks to the South Coast Writers Centre for posting this interview on their blog.

Helen Scheuerer has squeezed a lot into her 20-something years. She is a writer, publisher and the founding editor of Writer’s Edit, an online literary magazine based in Sydney. She is also a novelist and businesswoman who financed her first anthology for Writer’s Edit, Kindling through an online crowd funding campaign. Prior to starting up the magazine, Helen had already completed a Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in Creative Writing (Wollongong University), and a Masters of Publishing (The University of Sydney).

Our paths first crossed in 2013 when Helen was starting out with Writer’s Edit and was advertising for contributors. From our first email interaction I could tell that here was a young professional with incredible drive and vision. I finally met her in person in 2014 at the first Kindling anthology launch (anthology number 3 is already in early stages of production this year). I was humbled to discover an unassuming, softly spoken person with a warm smile behind all of this achievement.

The success of Writer’s Edit in its short life has been astounding: currently the website receives tens of thousands of visitors each month. In addition, Writer’s Edit also has over 40,000 Twitter followers and over 4000 Facebook followers.

2015 also saw a presence of Writer’s Edit contributors at the Sydney Writers’ Festival for the first time. Click here for some of their articles from that period.

As if that wasn’t enough good news for one year, Helen was also shortlisted for Express Media’s Outstanding Achievement Award for achievement by a young person in the literary arts. And this year is already shaping up to be another memorable one for this busy entrepreneur. Helen has just signed a contract with Melbourne publisher, Inkerman & Blunt for the publication of her debut novel.

Helen has always maintained her big picture view, sense of humour (!) and gratitude to her supporters along her pathway to success. I applaud her for her unflinching commitment and her passion. Her accomplishments are proof that hard work pays off – and being pleasant to people along the way doesn’t hurt either.

  1. You mention the gender bias in publishing and the fact that Writer’s Edit supports women writers in your interview with Capital Letters. How important has this been for the success of Writer’s Edit?

When I first started Writer’s Edit, it wasn’t my intention to become a ‘women’s’ publication, the goal was to be a literary magazine for emerging writers, and hopefully a small press. While Writer’s Edit certainly isn’t exclusively a women writers’ magazine, I’ve come to realise that the majority of our contributors and indeed the authors from Kindling are female.

This wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a result of myself and the other editors simply striving to publish the best writing we possibly could. To my delight, the majority of this writing happened to be from incredibly talented women. I’m very proud of the fact that our community is very female dominated, particularly in light of recent statistics when it comes to inequalities in publishing.

I think it’s our supportive environment and community that has really contributed to the success of Writer’s Edit, and that goes for all writers, regardless of the gender they identify as.

  1. You have spoken publicly about the importance of belonging to a writing community. Is that the main reason for establishing Writer’s Edit?

Yes, definitely. Writing is often such a solitary venture, and to have a supportive community of people who understand the highs and lows makes the journey all the more bearable, and indeed enjoyable.

Through our community, I have met so many inspiring, talented individuals who are such positive influences in my life, and the lives of other writers. Without these people, this career path would be an incredibly lonely one.

  1. Taking on another online literary magazine in an already very competitive marketplace is a daunting task. Was it a case of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’? In hindsight would you do anything differently?

To be honest, I didn’t really think about it at the time. It wasn’t until I’d already set everything in motion that someone pointed out this very valid fact to me. And by then, I didn’t particularly care. I really believed in what we were trying to create, and could see how much potential it had.

Would I do anything differently? I don’t think I would. All the mistakes I made were incredible learning experiences that have made me a better writer, editor and publisher, as well as a more well-rounded person in general. I really believe we learn through experience, and Writer’s Edit has given me so much more knowledge than I could have acquired in a classroom.

  1. What has been the biggest lesson you have learned since the inception of the magazine?

That’s a great question! I’ve learnt so much in the past two and a half years about writing and editing, so I could go on about lessons learnt all day. But I suppose the biggest lesson would be: don’t be afraid to share your work with the world. People will surprise you with their support, and if you’re hoping to do well in the writing and publishing industry, it’s part of the job description.

  1. How important is social media presence and being ‘tech savvy’? How difficult is it to keep up with social media and trends?

Personally, I think it’s incredibly important. Nowadays, every author should have a website (even if it’s just a static page with information), and one or two social media profiles that are regularly updated.

It can be challenging fitting in social media management around everything else, but there are so many free online tools that make this so much easier. Having an online presence allows you to reach as many readers as possible, and connect with them on a personal level.

  1. You have a total of 40,000 online followers at the time of this interview. Did you ever expect Writer’s Edit to get this big so soon?

Haha, I had hoped! I don’t think I really set out with expectations as such, but I did set myself ongoing targets, and so far we’ve been hitting these every month.

Our following is a great source of pride for myself and the rest of the team, and we do everything we can to nurture and grow this continually.

  1. You are publishing your 3rd and final book in the Kindling anthology this year. A brave step in the world of independent publishing! Do you have any advice for would-be publishers reading this article?

Sure! I’d definitely advise against cutting corners when it comes to things like design and editing. Make sure you get professionals, you want to ensure your product represents your authors and your company well.

In addition, I’d say go for it. There’s nothing like bringing a book to life and out into the world.

  1. Congratulations on signing with Inkerman & Blunt for the publication of your first novel. I know that it has been a long road getting to this point. How many publishers did you approach and how long has the process taken from when you started pitching the completed manuscript to publishing houses?

Thank you so much! I’m so happy we’ve finally announced it and I can share the news with everyone!

Hmmm… I think I approached about ten publishers initially. I began pitching/submitting in mid-2014 and contrary to what I’d heard about the publishing industry, I got great feedback and quick responses from almost every publishing house. Most asked to see the whole manuscript, which was very encouraging for a first time author.

It was clear there was a fair bit of work to be done on the manuscript though. Donna from Inkerman & Blunt was one of the initial publishers I approached and she took an immediate interest. She was very supportive and responsive throughout the whole process, and we continued to chat over email for the next year or so.

I had interest from a few other publishers, but I really felt that Inkerman & Blunt was the right home for this book, and Donna really understood what I was trying to do. At the time, she had other books already scheduled in and the manuscript still needed work, so that’s why it’s taken until now to lock everything in.

  1. Do you sometimes miss the time to just write?

I don’t think any writer, whether they’re a published author or an emerging one ever has the time ‘just to write’ (as lovely as that would be).

Being a writer involves so much more than writing now: answering emails, managing social media profiles, making appearances at events, doing interviews and sometimes if you’re lucky, going on tour. And that’s if you’re a published author, which many of us aren’t, and so we fit writing in where we can around jobs and other commitments.

That being said, I mostly miss writing itself when I don’t have a specific project I’m working on. I feel flat, as though I don’t quite have a purpose. At the moment though, I’m loving life as I’ve started a massive new writing project and am waiting to get cracking on more edits with Donna at Inkerman & Blunt.

  1. What is your vision of the future for Writer’s Edit?

Ohhhh I love this question. I think my main motto in life is ‘Aim Big’, which is what I intend to do with Writer’s Edit.

My vision for Writer’s Edit is to become an established publisher of novels and writers’ reference books. I would love to see our books not only in e-retailer stores, but good old fashioned bricks-and-mortar stores too.

But for now, I can’t wait to get Kindling Volume III out into the world, and see what the rest of 2016 has in store for us!

 

 

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Crossing Sydney Harbour Bridge in a Banana Crate

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I asked a number of people to recall their experiences for my article Surviving Big Families (yet to be published). Below is an edited excerpt by my friend Sue Anne Randazzo, a deaf sign language teacher. She sometimes ‘signs’ to me across the room at our yoga class (where we met). In my sheer ignorance and admiration I simply nod in acknowledgement.

What makes Sue Anne’s story stand out for me is the fact that they already had 8 children when her parents fostered another child, at 4 months. That’s dedication! Also in her father’s last 28 years post-stroke he couldn’t speak, read or write. And her mother was profoundly deaf (as were 4 of her siblings).

My mum had 8 natural kids and the 9th, N, is fostered. He came to us at the age of 4 months.I am number 4 and eldest of the 5 girls. I am closest to my next sister M. We are 18 months apart. I don’t have a vivid memory of my childhood. I only remember my youngest sister being born, P. And when N came into the family. I was just thrilled each time.

 We grew up in Beacon Hill in Sydney’s northern beaches area. It was a big house with 5 bedrooms but only 1 bathroom and 2 toilets. Everybody shared. I was in a room with M and sometimes with another sister. 11 of us could fit round the dining table. We always sat in the same place at mealtimes.

 I don’t think we were all planned. My parents used the rhythm method but as my mum is profoundly deaf she said that she didn’t hear the beat. She also has a very good sense of humour! I think they coped extremely well with all of us.

We were on tag team coming home after hours when we were older – the first home waited until the next one came home. Like a roll call. If any of us were missing that’s when we woke up Mum and Dad. One suggested tattooing our names down their arm to make sure they say goodbye to everyone at family get togethers.

My Dad was a ‘professor of fruitology’. He wore a T shirt with this on it! He ran 3 fruit shops. 3 times a week he would go to the markets early in the morning. In the school holidays he would take us with him. I remember driving over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the dark sitting in wooden banana crates tied to the back of the truck, looking at the stars. After school I would help out at one of the shops. I remember the tea towels stopped getting ironed when Mum began working in the business. I was about 13 then. The advent of frozen vegetables and the growth of supermarkets impacted all 3 shops. Even toilet paper was rationed at home.

 I felt that my parents were very much in love. They never argued, only disagreed.

 There was always Saturday afternoon sport. A typical weekend started with going to the fruit shops to work while Mum stayed at home and cooked us a ‘baked dinner’. The shops closed at 12 noon. There would sometimes be 25 for lunch as the siblings brought their girlfriends / boyfriends home. We could smell lunch cooking when we drove into our street. Some of us ate our meal on our laps in the stairs as we didn’t have room for everyone at the table.

 There was a definite shift in the family dynamics when my Dad died. I think due to the fact that we all had to deal with grief for the first time and we handled it differently from each other. These days gatherings tend be at my place as I am the most centrally located to the rest of the family, based in Sydney.

 Sue Anne says that the advantages of being in a big family are that my family will always be there for me. And you get to borrow clothes if you have a lot of sisters! If you need something fixed, advice or support in any way there is always someone there to help. (you have) Your own network. When the women get together we laugh a lot. We get each other’s jokes.

 The down side? Financial disposition. Dad had to work extremely hard to support us. We had very little down time (we all have extremely high work ethics as a result). We didn’t get to travel.

 We have Christmas Day on Boxing Day every year. The venue is shared around the family. We are getting together less and less these days. The women get together once a year. For over 18s only! Usually a weekend. One year we rented a couple of apartments in Melbourne. Recently the sisters all went to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland for a ‘soul sisters gathering’. I can’t wait till the next one!

 Thanks Sue Anne for your contribution and for allowing me to post this on my blog.

 

 

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A Matter of Life and Death

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My first ever guest blogger (drum roll please!) is my friend Caroline Belfanti whom I have known since primary school. She is a Clinical Nurse Consultant in palliative care.

Over lunch recently Caroline shared a piece she had written, about a harrowing and uplifting visit to a patient who had arranged to die at home.

Not only is this narrative a glimpse into the work of a medical professional who deals with death on a daily basis, what struck me was Caroline’s ability to ‘tell it how it is’ –to relay a difficult circumstance with feeling and candour, without any embellishment or over sentimentality. As I read, I felt I was in the room with this family saying goodbye to a much loved father, brother, son, son in law and husband.

Thank you Caroline for allowing me to share your heart rending story on my blog.

‘As I approached the clad house under threatening skies I prepared myself for the hours ahead. The path had been modified for wheelchair access, the garden overgrown and children’s’ toys strewn about: a set of swings, a trampoline and a bike. What struck me when I entered the house was how very much alive he was. Today his BIPAP (positive airway pressure ventilation) was being withdrawn. He’d been living with Motor Neurone Disease for 5 years and only had eye movement left.

Choosing a day to depart this world is more problematic than entering it. You can pick a date for a Caesarean or induction. However departing from the comfort of one’s own bedroom is an ethical and legal mine field.  This event usually takes place in a clinical setting. His regular nurse being away added another dimension to the situation.

There was some apprehension amongst our clinical team regarding who was going to accompany the consultant to the house and if the patient and his wife would have confidence and trust in a new nurse, me.

I arrived at 11 am and introduced myself. His wife asked if the doctor was with me. I explained that I had been unable to make contact with him that morning and reassured the family that he would soon join us. I suggested that if for some unforeseen circumstance he was unable to attend, another consultant would attend in his place.

At this point I was feeling rather awkward and uncomfortable and wondered how he and his family were feeling; this day had been planned for some weeks now. He then said “he (the doctor) must have a holiday hangover and I hope he realises this is a matter of life and death” 

I was moved by his ability to express humour in such a situation. The juxtaposition of imminent death and humour felt surreal. His 6-year-old daughter showed me with great excitement her first tooth that she had recently lost. Then very pragmatically she announced that “daddy is going to die today and we have said goodbye”.

I needed to steel myself and wondered if I was going to be able to manage the hours ahead. Music was playing and he was giving sage advice to the 6 year old. “Take risks my beautiful girl but make sure they are measured, travel and have fun, stay safe….”

Life in the household was continuing in the background; grandparents occupying both children, his wife adjusting the position of his hands and feet, the kettle on, tea poured. 

It was through circumstance that I found myself at this juncture: witnessing intimate conversations and interactions at such a significant time for this family.

The wife’s’ phone rang and it was the consultant apologising for running late. I sensed the relief  in the house. We were back on. He arrived a short time later. A priest and a De La Salle brother had also appeared by then. They waited quietly for their cue to anoint him. The consultant questioned the patient gently to ensure that he was still unequivocal in his decision. We discussed the process and doses of medications,  checking that everything was charted correctly. The syringe driver was loaded and medications drawn up in readiness. 

His wife wheeled him into the bedroom and got him comfortably positioned into bed. In the short time I had been there observing, it was obvious what a capable woman  she is, having cared for him immaculately while dividing her time between their 2 small children and keeping a house in order. The professional staff held conversations with his parents in law while everyone waited for the next cue. There was an air of sadness, but also peace. The supporters agreed what a strong couple he and his wife had been.

Two hours passed and we entered the bedroom. His wife expressed their deep gratitude for allowing the procedure to take place at home. It meant a great deal to all of them to fulfil his wish. I inserted the subcutaneous line and administered the loading doses of Morphine and Midazolam and started the syringe driver. Rosary beads had been placed in his right hand. How long? This question had been asked numerous times during the day. It was uncertain.

The children and family members came in and out of the room during the course of the afternoon. His wife held his hand. When the consultant advised that he was in a deep sleep the family – including his father and 3 siblings – were called and the BIPAP turned off.

We all bring our own stories and history with us. I had a deep empathy for his siblings as they watched their dear brother slip away. I witnessed the grief that creased his father’s face as he watched his son leaving, as my own father had watched his son. There was reminiscence and joy for the life and the contribution he had made to this world. And sadness for their overwhelming loss. He left quietly to the strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

When you take time to pause and empty yourself of personal agendas and expectations you are open and more receptive to what a patient has to give to you, it’s not just about what we have to offer them.

On this grey wet day in Spring I witnessed a death with peace and dignity and the love and strength of family.’

 

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Rites of Passage 2*

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The teenager in our house is squeezing in a lot of socializing as his college start date looms closer. The momentous event of finishing high school only months ago has been discarded like a snake’s skin. He hasn’t given it a second thought.

There’s a pattern to his preparations for a night out. What to wear? How do I look? He wishes he has a sister to consult at these times. I try my best to be a humble substitute. Youth feel a lot of pressure – thanks to social media – to look ‘on trend’, as close to their interpretation of perfection as possible. I think back to my own teenage years. Angst ridden they were too. But personal appearance didn’t play such a crucial role.

When he leaves, always in a hurry regardless of the hours at his disposal to get ready, he routinely slams the front door behind him – despite continued protests from his parents (teenagers have short memories!). The house settles back into itself.  I can almost hear it sighing with relief. As indeed do we, his parents, who are enjoying a new freedom now that he is finding his place in a bigger world.

Last night I gave a carload of them a lift to a friend’s place for a party to celebrate the last of their tribe turning 18 (which is the drinking age in this country). Preened to the hilt and chatting like women they left behind a trail of mens aftershave and hairspray when they got out of my car. I thought how handsome they looked with their button up shirts and comb over hairstyles. In amongst the cajoling and staccato conversation (there were 2 more people on the other end of cell phones partaking in the banter), I learned that one of them was being ribbed for going out with his girlfriend instead of his friends. I smiled at this and secretly applauded him for his strength of character.

(mums are there for transport and for other necessities of life such as food, not for partaking in peer group conversation. It’s amazing though what can be heard by keeping quiet.)

They disembarked awkwardly, bottles clanking together in plastic shopping bags, the promise of an exciting night illuminating their faces. From the Birthday friends’ place they were heading to the city to a nightclub, no doubt to officially mark his ‘coming of age’. My son had already told me that he hoped another friend wouldn’t ‘peak too early’ and thus he would have to escort him home. I admire the loyalty these young men have for each other. Some have kept in touch since they were 5.

I also admire their stamina and energy, happy as I was to return home to the couch and a night of TV. Did I really have that much get-up-and-go at his age?

They are a shrewd lot, preferring clubs and bars in the CBD that have minimal or no cover charge. Their favourite venues sell vodka for A$4 a shot. I shudder when I think about how dismal these haunts must be.

He stumbled in at 5am this morning. We were sleeping lightly thanks to Sydney’s late summer humidity, the hypnotic whirring of a fan our only comfort against a blanket of oppressive heat. As usual his entry was loud, bumping into furniture en route to his bedroom. As if his feet had grown longer since he left the house only hours ago. Or he had forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other in the interim.

Sensing that we were awake he came into our room, wanting to share his adventures before he collapsed into a heap on his island of a bed. They had travelled far: after feasting on T bone steaks at the Birthday person’s house (at least his parents had the sense to give everyone a good feed before any serious drinking got under way), they went to The Argyle in Sydney’s ‘The Rocks’ district. Only to be promptly removed. The security guard was convinced that they must be on drugs by the way they were dancing. They tried to reason with him, explaining that they only had 4 drinks under their belts and no drugs had been consumed. But he wouldn’t budge.

Next they stood at the end of a nightclub queue in Kings Cross for ½ an hour (I could visualise a ragtag ensemble by then), only to be refused entry at 1.29am due to Sydney’s lock out laws taking effect at 1.30am. What a perfect opportunity to sober up! I wisely kept this thought to myself. Next stop Newtown where they found a rooftop bar and DJ. What the law makers don’t get in this part of the world is that people will find somewhere else to drink in the early hours. I empathise with the Newtown regulars who are now having to deal with the fallout from Kings Cross, especially as Newtown is known as a gay friendly precinct.

He said good night as the morning sun made its shy appearance through the plantation shutters. I knew that when he surfaced next, at around midday, the greeting wouldn’t be so warm, monosyllabic at best. Therein lies the Jekyll and Hyde of every drinking age teenager’s DNA.

I am sure I am not alone when I say it is always with another sigh of relief when I hear him fumbling for his key and trying to unlock the front door, a taxi purring behind him in the driveway.

Not that long ago he was running for the bus, school tie and shirt tail akimbo. And now the world is his oyster, for better or for worse.

*See my 1st October 2015 post for Rites of Passage (1)

 

 

 

 

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