Monday, January 8, 2018

Three New Things

Margaret's garden - tea tree and bird houses

A week or so ago my mother asked plaintively if she had been dropped off the blog. My dad then explained that isn't how blogs work. Sorry mum, it isn't you, it’s me. Kind people have been emailing me to see if I'm ok. That is so lovely, and thank you. As you can see, I am still here, and my new year began at the end of last year with a string of good things.

Thing One: Yes, the article in the summer edition of Earth Garden with my name at the top. So very excited and happy to see this. The beginning, and gods willing, not the end, of the rest of a lifetime of writing things to send out into the world. And certainly not the end of sending words out into the world via All the Blue Day. Still so much to say :)

Thing Two: My first gardening job! This is me in my mushroom hat, which I have since mislaid, much to the relief of my children. I am in the beautiful garden of my friend Katherine, where I spent some pleasant and productive hours. Today I spent more hours in Margaret’s garden, which is one of my favourite gardens ever. I feel so lucky to have be working in such lovely surroundings with such good people.

Thing Three: There is.. a man. This was not part of my plan. I have so many plans, and none of them involved a man. All of them involved me being a woman alone. I was so content and happy to live my life on my own terms, make my own plans, think my own thoughts. But what happened? The universe brought me a man. I had no sooner set eyes on him, than I knew. Here he was. That one I hadn't been looking for. He lives in a wee cabin on a mountain where he thinks his thoughts and makes his things and hand-feeds bananas to skinks. And now I have two lives. My normal daily life in a cottage in the city with all the children (so many children right now. All of mine, and then some). And a second, secret life in a cabin on the mountain with the birds, the echidnas, the banana-loving skinks, and that man I accidentally fell in love with..

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Christmas Came

There are so many things about Christmas that I love. Making the Christmas cake. Twinkly lights. Christmas carols. The Kinder kids in their Nativity Play at school. I followed a small child in a three kings outfit through town this afternoon. He loved that purple cape so much. He kept swishing around in it like a superhero. The Christmas tree. Every year I throw everything we have at the tree - all the decorations made by the children since they were old enough to wield a glue stick and the glitter jar. It generally looks like a particularly cheerful explosion. This year, however, Posy put herself in charge of decorating. She chose a colour scheme of silver, red, white and blue. She took control of the Christmas decorations tub and edited. Rosy and I were only allowed to hang the ornaments that she selected. The tree does look extremely elegant this year, but I am kind of missing the yellow and red cardboard and cellophane star that The Boy made at the playgroup at the Baptist Church hall when he was two, and the Christmas seagull Posy made at Steiner playgroup when she was four (at least, I think it is a seagull).

More things I love about Christmas: home made shortbread from the neighbours. Our Christmas lunch with old friends, family, and lots of local food, including great big salads from the backyard. Having all the children come home and sleeping squeezed into corners of the house. Christmas camping with friends.

The one great big enormous thing I detest about Christmas: the buying of stuff. The part where poor people in far away places spend long hours in mines and factories making stuff that we feel obligated to buy and give to each other. Because it is Christmas. The season of good will towards all men.

As you know, I have spent a number of Christmases now reducing the gift-receiving burden. I realise that this sounds quite Grinch-ish but  I think I am in quite a good place with this. My brother and I have resolved to not give gifts at any celebration because we already have enough stuff. The exception to this is when we find excellent old vintage books in op-shops that we each know the other would love, then we buy and post them at any time of the year. I mostly give my parents food and garden-based gifts. I like gardening and my mum doesn't, so that works well :) I always ask for things like goats from my parents. Because who doesn't need another goat?

Everyone else gets jam, dried herbs or other comestibles. Except the children. I buy them one big thing that they 'need'. Concert tickets, plane tickets for the older ones, magazine subscriptions. This year Rosy got her Christmas present in June - a new down jacket to see her through winter. Then there are the Christmas stockings, filled with wee things from op shops and the Oxfam fair-trade shop. And food. What is Christmas morning without chocolate? Locally made, fair trade chocolate. Wicked expensive, but that is why Christmas has always traditionally been exciting. Because you get treats that you wait for all year. If you have cheap chocolate available all the time, you don't get to be excited about it at Easter and Christmas.

I was very proud of Posy. She wanted to go out and buy lots of new tree decorations to realise her grand decorating scheme. But instead she edited what we already had. She has made small tableaus with her own (quite extensive) collection of girl clutter. We bought candy canes and two candles. And glitter. Lots of glitter. Because no matter how much you simplify, glitter still means Christmas..

I would love to hear the practical details of how you are downsizing Christmas 'stuff'.. do you still do gifts, and how do you do them? I know this is not always an easy thing to negotiate..

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stoicism for Beginners

There is tomato sauce on my dining room ceiling due to the incident with the exploding sauce bottle. There is brown poster paint on the floor due to the Grade 7 history project.

The weeds that were ankle high last week are knee high this week and will be waist high next week. There is mould in the refrigerator vegie drawer. I accidentally left the sauerkraut in the sun, and it too developed an exciting mould. The builder stepped on a tray of germinating seeds, and every time he turns up he discovers another problem with the roof or drains which will involve tearing up half the garden and maybe selling one of the children to pay for it. In other words, it is situation completely normal.

I am sitting by the open window with a gentle breeze blowing in, watching the evening sunlight glow golden on the garden, ignoring the paint, the sauce, the mould, the weeds, the dirt, the things I haven't done, the things I have done and maybe shouldn't have, and enjoying the bees and the flowers, and the golden light on the spiders' webs that festoon the dining room windows.

This week I am reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from AD161 until his death in AD180. For many of those years he fought on the borders of the Empire, commanding his legions and living in camp with them. He was the most important man in the Empire, and yet he believed that fame and power were worthless. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. His writings were really notes to self, reminding himself to live a good life and accept what comes. The Stoics taught themselves to live cheerfully whatever their circumstances, to live the simplest life they could, and they believed that much unhappiness stems from restlessly desiring what is out of reach. Their motto might have been: be thankful for what you have, and find the good in it.

Marcus Aurelius began his Meditations with a list of the people who had taught him how to live a good life. Is this maybe the first example of an author acknowledgement page in literature? I am going to use this post to acknowledge my mum, who will soon be celebrating her 70th birthday. It was she who taught me how to appreciate tiny beautiful things. Throughout my childhood she would point out patterns on bugs, flowers made up of other, tiny flowers, dew drops on spiders' webs. She also modelled the importance of appreciating trees, sunsets and good books before worrying about doing the cleaning. Thanks, Mum :)

I like the Stoic philosophy. I would like to be more focussed on inward calm than outward stressors. I don't actually have a life full of big worrying problems, for which I am very thankful. I will practice being thankful for what I have, and being calm about the daily annoyances. Bees and the sunset are easy to be thankful for, and there is possibly even some good in the drainage situation, although I have to admit, I am still looking for it..

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Convict Cemetery

Convict Cemetery in Launceston. A quiet field under the blue sky.

For twenty years or so I have been winding my way up or down a particular hill in Launceston on a semi-regular basis. However, it wasn't until about eighteen months ago that I noticed the sign on a small side road that reads 'Convict Cemetery'. This intrigued me, but it wasn't until last week that I finally found myself with sufficient free time in front of me as I drove down the hill, that I turned off to find out more.

As it happens, I still know little more. The only information provided by the council is a board that reads, you guessed it, Convict Cemetery. Well, yes, but you know, who, what how, when.. I guess the where has been covered. A double row of bricks has been set into the path with the names and details of the convicts who are presumably buried here. I imagine that, at a guess, they have been inscribed by the pupils at the local primary school. This is a charming idea, but not much help if you happen to be doing genealogical research, as many of them are completely illegible. Here is one of the clearest:

Dennis Bien
Age: 23
Ship: Starts with a B
Date of something or other:1848
Sentence: 14 years

Dennis, whose name was maybe actually spelt Denis? To go with his French surname?
I just did some internet research, and the only convict with a similar name who arrived in Van Diemen's Land around 1848 is a Denis Brien. See? This is why you don't get eight year olds to preserve historical data. But it might not be Denis Brien at all. His ship, Boddingtons, as it turns out, arrived in New South Wales in 1793, which is rather early for a death in Launceston in 1848. If that is indeed a death date. And when Denis Brien's age is mentioned, is it the age he was when he died, or when he was transported? So many questions. This is why I am going to be a gardener, not a genealogist.

So let us turn from the cemetery to the woods. There is actually a perfect small forest next to the cemetery.

There is a pine grove, some beautiful oaks,

a thicket of elms.

It's like the Hundred Acre Wood, but it is a one or maybe two acre wood. A perfect pocket of verdant treeness in the middle of the city, and I never knew it was there.

The moral of this story is, always explore down the road that is signposted 'Convict Cemetery'.

In a similar adventure I got lost at a TAFE campus this morning, but in the unregarded tiny parking bay where I ended up, I found a plum and an apple tree. Always a silver lining. Maybe I will remember to head back there in the autumn and pick some well-educated fruit..

Also at the Convict Cemetery - olive trees. Worth a visit in the winter..

Monday, October 30, 2017

What Next?

Every time I look at my last post I have a little chuckle. Sometimes, when I am very stressed about one area in my life, I seize on something else about which I know absolutely nothing and care less (sport, for instance..) and get very impassioned on the subject, in a cunning attempt at misdirection. Not misdirecting you, my lovely readers, but me. It makes me feel better to have an opinion about a thing than to be sitting under the bedclothes gibbering about the unknowns in my life. Mind you, I stand by everything I said in the last post. I may not know anything about sport, but I can see when Big Money is screwing a thing up and spitting out its vulnerable victims after it has chewed them well..

Anyway, here I am, and here is the angst I have been avoiding - some of it is child related angst, so I won't go into it, other than to say, oh, my dears, being a parent, who would have thought that the baby years actually weren't the hardest? People did tell me that, back in the day, and I just wouldn't believe them. What could be harder than NEVER HAVING ANY SLEEP? Well, I am here to tell you, parents of tiny babes, sending your kids out into the world is far more terrifying than any toddler tantrum, and trying to make good decisions for them and with them when they are teenagers - aargh. Who can be that wise? Not me. I have the most fabulous young people in the actual world. They are all crazy and brave and brilliant and kind. I wish I could make the world all soft and bouncy for them so it would never hurt them. Remind me why I can't do that? When The Girl was about six or seven she wrote a (short) novel about what the future would be like. When her characters finally got there, they discovered that the future was...PILLOWS! Pillows are everywhere and bouncing is the thing you do in the future. I want all the children, everywhere, to have that future. I can't stand it that we have conspired to make a pretty crap world for our kids to inherit, and that we are steadily making it worse, day by day.

However, some child related angst has been worked through by everyone, and some child related angst is on-going, and honestly, probably will continue for years, that being the nature of us all being human.. and that's ok. Angst that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

In other news, I walked into work on Thursday and told them I wouldn't be coming back next year. Yes, I quit! I have been second-guessing this decision for weeks and months, and then finally, just did it. I feel a bit lightheaded now. I am going to do two things next year (who knows, maybe more!) - writing, and starting a very small gardening business. I will be offering organic vegie gardening services, and any ornamental garden services that don't require a truck or a chainsaw. I have one tentative client, and the rest is completely in the lap of the gods. When Rosy finishes her exams she is going to design a business card for me, and I will do administrative things to do with tax, and then I can begin.

Jumping off the cliff has the advantage that once it is done, you can't change your mind. You are committed, and the only way is down. To certain death. Hmmm. I don't like where this analogy is going.

There is a Maori proverb, quoted in Ruth Park's autobiography, Fence Around the Cuckoo:

If you climb a cliff, you may die on the cliff. So what?

So what, indeed..

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ban Elite Sports to Improve Mental Health

Welcome to Mental Health Week. This morning I was listening to the radio on which an ex-elite athlete was discussing the hidden mental health issues he suffered from during his career, and how he was now committed to campaigning for changing the culture within elite athlete circles so that athletes could feel free to 'come out' about mental health issues, and be trained in dealing with their emotions. All good stuff. People talking about how they feel? Especially if those people are elite male athletes who are supposed to be tough and win all the time? That is a great and worthy endeavour..


Nowhere in that conversation this morning did I hear anyone question whether elite sport itself might actually have been contributing to the mental health issues to start with. All I heard was that Australia is a great sporting nation so that sport is a great place to be talking about mental health.. well, yes, but what if the sport is causing it?

If you think about it for a minute, if you had to set up some laboratory conditions to cause mental health problems, what would be more likely to do so than to look for a child with talent, train them up to think that winning is everything, and that their talent defines them as a person, then put them under increasing pressure as they get even better at what they do, so that eventually, not only is their whole life consumed by training for one single goal, also, thousands or millions of people live vicariously through their failures and successes, and if that isn't enough pressure, they wake up one morning and realise that they have become a sock puppet in the hands of the gods, er, the sponsors.

Ah, yes, and now we come to The Money. Elite sport wouldn't exist without it. Televised sport makes SO MUCH MONEY for its sponsors. The whole edifice has been built by money, and for money. And all of it creates intolerable pressure for the frail human beings at the centre of the arena. It is around two thousand years since huge arenas were last built for sport. First time round it was for gladiators. They probably had mental health issues too.

Just think, once upon a time, those elite athletes were eight year olds who liked to kick a footy, or play tennis, or run and run with the wind in their hair. What kind of a cruel society would take such a child and force them to waste their youth by practicing the thing that they love, to the exclusion of every other good thing life has to offer, hour by hour and day after weary day, for the hollow twin prizes of fame and fortune, which they may or may not attain? Is it any wonder that their mental health breaks down?

Australia could be a great sporting nation, but isn't, because most of us only watch sport rather than playing it. And the handful of sporting heroes that we watch on the telly? We are actually breaking them mentally just by watching, because in doing so we are siding with The Money.

Ways for Australia to be a great sporting nation and solve mental health issues in sport? Watch where the money is. If it's big enough to attract money, it's probably big enough to mess with your mind.. Playing footy for your local team on a Saturday afternoon? No money there, so go for it. Likewise Thursday night mixed netball, Monday night Div 2 hockey, bowls at the club, capture-the-flag on your local school oval with fifty of your best friends, and running, anywhere, with the wind in your hair.

Brought to you by Mental Health Week Life - Making Society a Nicer Place So That Mental Health Problems Mostly Go Away By Themselves.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Here is the News

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs.
Alain de Botton, The News: A User's Manual, Received Ideas 8

I don't have a TV, so I don't watch the news. Even when I did have a TV, I still didn't watch the news, because I don't believe that the news is healthy viewing for young children. I briefly had a news feed on the front page of my search engine on my new computer, until I worked out how to turn it off. I happen to think that always knowing the latest news about everything is an overrated aspect of modern life.

For a start, news isn't really actually news, in the sense that we believe that the news is some kind of objective window onto the reality of what is happening in the world. Whatever the news is, it isn't that. Watch any commercial news program, or scan any news feed, and what you will see is a selection of salacious gossip about celebrities, some gratuitous and graphic violence, some feel-good stories involving children and animals, a lot of sports coverage, and some token sound bites from geo-political hot spots. National public broadcasting companies are a little more classy and a little bit left-leaning, but essentially the same beast. When I do listen to the news, almost exclusively our own Australian national public broadcaster, the ABC news, on the radio, I am continually exasperated by how much airtime is taken up by speculation - talking heads predicting whether house prices will rise or fall, what politicians are going to do next, whether international heads of state will start a war or who is going to win the Japanese election. This is not news in any sense of the word, so much as it is fortune telling. But by experts, of course. So it is practically news. Because experts are never wrong.

But this is just nit-picking about content. My huge objection to the news is its insidious project of presenting the world view that it favours as a given. I am not talking about politics, the ideologies of the left or right, or international affairs. These are debated endlessly and you can choose your news outlet to reflect your own views. What I am concerned about is that the news fails to reflect thoughtfully on our way of life at all. The chief project of our society is to not question the way we live. It is to assume that we are fundamentally correct in all our ideas and to interpret all news events through that lens.

In my utopian parallel universe journalism would exist to unpack our assumptions about our world, to drill deep, to lift the rug and find all the dirt we've swept under there. Maybe to ask the question about where the emperor's clothes have got to anyway.. Now, of course this kind of journalism exists, but it is not generally featured in any kind of major news outlet. You have to go searching for deep journalism, then you have to wrestle with its conclusions and sit quite uncomfortable with its ramifications.

Several years ago I read an article by a journalist who had travelled to West Africa to visit cocoa farms, and the children who were sold as indentured labour to work on those farms. She secretly met with these children who didn't know where their parents were, who had never been to school, whose lives were endless labour in the cocoa plantations. And she took them chocolate. They had no idea what happened to the cocoa pods when they left the farm. They chewed the raw cocoa to keep up their energy to keep working.

This one article, which I cannot find now all these years later, had a profound effect on the way that I think, and the way that I shop. When we, as consumers, discover that chocolate would need to be ten times more expensive in order for cocoa farmers to make a decent living, it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong with the way that chocolate is currently produced.

It made me aware enough to start hunting for evidence about how other food is farmed and processed, and made me want to find out who makes my stuff, and under what conditions. This kind of journalism asks several key questions - how does our society really function? And what kind of stories do we tell ourselves in order to keep its machinery functioning? For instance, when we buy chocolate, what stories do we tell ourselves about the child slaves who made that cheap chocolate possible? How do we push them to the back of our minds as we stand at the supermarket shelves? That is a story I am quite interested in.

Maybe we could ask different questions of experts - instead of endless predictions about events that are going to happen one way or the other anyway, we could ask about how to make things better.

We might ask ourselves questions such as: who benefits from the news, who benefits from the stories it tells, or neglects to tell about our society?

We might think about our relationship to the news. Is the news entertainment, and are we merely consumers of the spectacle that is the nightly news, or are we citizens, receiving important communications about the truths that underpin our society? If the latter, if we are citizens and journalists are actually bringing us vital information, what are we going to do with that? Are we going to let it change the way we think and act?

These are some of the things I think about in the odd half hours that I don't watch the news..

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