Another year on: where do we go from here?

A year ago today I wrote this post, and these words:

… today is not just any day; it is the birthday of someone very special who is no longer here. The first birthday will always be the worst – at least, I hope so.

I was right in that today is not as bad as 8 February last year. Our lives are changing and the beautiful dog that we inherited when that someone died is now the happiest and most constant thing in our lives. She is eight and a half years old now; her owner would have been 84 today.

The dogs are scattered about the state: M in the city with us; G in Sunbury; another, the little brown and tan kelpie, out in the eastern hills; the old black-and-white sheepdog passed away in Ensay. The cat that went to Perth for a new life is gone now, too; although he settled in well, a year was enough for him.

The dogs and some of the cats were the lucky ones. There are other animals who seem to be alive in the back of my mind, still living as always up there on the farm. But when I stop and think, I remember they are gone: the lone goose, the old brown brumby, the grey horse who had died a few years earlier and who had been there my whole life, the two poddy sheep and the rest of the cats.

It is as though they exist just out of focus until I try to look at them too closely and then they are gone.

But I did not start this meaning to write about animals. I meant to write about loss and beginnings. This date has come up again, and all of a sudden I realise this is the beginning of a departure.

In a few months I will leave Melbourne. In many ways this city has no relation to the person that we lost, but it is much closer to her home than the place I will move to next. It is also the city where we brought M and it is the city where she has become our own.

By June this year things will have changed yet again, and it will be nearly two years since the loss that shook us all. I feel a little more lost, this year, further away from Ensay and from the person that we lost. A year ago my grief was raw. In fading it becomes more complex.

I go outside to sit on the step with M against my knees. These days this beautiful dog stalks magpies on the paths and parks of Melbourne suburbs in lieu of sheep in the paddocks of Ensay. She doesn’t seem to mind.

I think about the complexity of grief. Amongst it, a realisation that a year ago I felt as though I was minding M for someone else. Now, I think of her as part of the family. My responsibility is to her and her happiness, not to her previous owner.

I never thought I would write in such a public space about something as private as grief. But this loss feels that it should be shared, perhaps because of that web of people across the state and across the country who grieve as well. I don’t know if they will all remember the date today, but I know that the loss I feel is present for them too.

Incongruously, the words from a song in Evita come to mind:

Where do we go from here?
This isn’t where we intended to be.
We had it all, I believed in you.
You believed in me.

Where do we go from here?

Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city. Continue reading

Fremantle photos

Today Kill Your Darlings published my piece ‘Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton’ on their blog. Writing about Western Australia prompted me to look back through the Flickr archives and hunt out a few of my favourite film photos from Fremantle, all taken a few years ago.

Untitled

Fremantle harbour in a seabreeze, 2009 – Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400

Untitled

South Fremantle bus stop, 2009 – Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400

Light on Leeuwin

Light on Leeuwin, 2009 – Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400

Letter to The Age

Getting with the times

The Catholic Church really needs to get with the times – not to be trendy and ‘relevant’ to younger people, but to play a meaningful part in a better future for both humans and for the environment that sustains us. While it seems like a positive move to ask the opinion of Catholics around the world on various issues, some of the underlying assumptions to the questions are simply irresponsible.

The worst offender is the question, ‘How can an increase in births be promoted?’ (‘Catholics to tackle the hard questions’, 4/11). With the global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and the current population of more than 7 billion already wreaking havoc on the environment, the church’s attitude to contraception and birth rates is irresponsible.

Published in The Age on 5 November 2013, available online here. The full questionnaire [PDF 376KB] is available on the website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

From the woolshed

From the woolshed – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Ektar 100

From the woolshed, looking out to a familiar scene
Clouds on the hill, weathered boards underfoot
The same old fencelines divide the land
Just as you remember
The Rye paddock and the Lane
The Airstrip out of sight beyond the ridge
Then other people’s land
Land you don’t know
Before the distant peaks slide into the hills
Just as you remember.

On fear and climate change

Image credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service

Image credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service

You’re not supposed to want to cry about climate change at work, but that’s how I felt this morning.

We are good at staying divorced from painful but distant realities. We are good at ignoring the hurt that’s happening to someone else if they are nothing like us. We are good at enjoying sunny winter days and not asking why.

Even the phrase ‘climate change’ almost rings hollow these days – we hear it so often, in so many cold and unemotional contexts.

But climate change has many faces, and once in a while there’s a face that pulls at the heartstrings. The article last week on The Guardian gave climate change a face that most of us can’t fail to be moved by. A polar bear found dead, ‘skin and bones’; a 16-year old starved to death, when most members of the species live into their early 20s.

It’s awful and moving. Yes, it’s the cute animal effect, but that doesn’t make the emotion meaningless. It’s a good thing if it draws attention to an issue that will change the environment for a whole range of animals – and plants and entire ecosystems.

The Guardian article and this response by Freya Mathews on The Conversation are powerful reminders of the harm we have done and the hurt we have caused as a species.

I am overwhelmed by this hurt. It is almost ungraspable. It is so big as to avoid definition, so very nearly unstoppable, so hard to see, yet if you look even a little bit closely, it’s so tangible and so close.

This hurt hits me more and more regularly these days, and it’s intensified by the lack of concern shown by the Labor party and the Coalition in the lead-up to an election. That the issue is not attracting some focus during a campaign suggests that enough of us don’t care, or aren’t speaking out about it if we do.

It’s all too easy to feel the emotion, for a while, and then let it pass and slip back into one’s day to day life, worrying instead about work or study pressures or  money or family or what to have for dinner. It’s also hard to see how an individual can make a difference – political machinery seems to roll on without paying any attention to our views, and sometimes not even to our vote.

But we have to keep caring and keep trying to do something about this if we want anything to change. It’s individuals who make up the collective, and it’s the collective that can change the direction of the nation.

So if you vote on one issue this federal election, vote according to who takes climate change seriously and is committed to doing something about it.

I’m scared. We all should be sacred. Everything else pales into insignificance.

 

Read these:

On The Guardian, ‘Starved polar bear perished due to sea ice melt, says expert’

On The Conversation, ‘Wild animals are starving, and it’s our fault, so should we feed them?’ by Freya Mathews

On The Drum, ‘The election that forgot the environment’ by ABC Environment’s Sara Phillips

On writing, in slivers of time

At different times, life takes on a different character. New pursuits become meaningful, new cares get in the way, one’s time is spent in different ways.

In January this year, I started working full time, and the character of my life from week to week changed dramatically. I have written very little since then outside of work – very few posts for my blog, and very little of my own writing in general. The exception is the six days I spent at sea in late June – then, I wrote every day, mostly during night watch when the others were asleep.

This full-time work life means that nearly everything that’s not official paid work must fit into four types of time.

One is the slim sliver of space that exists between waking and running for the bus in the morning; time that is barely there unless I get up especially early, but on most days is enough for the easy camaraderie of breakfast and, when the days are long enough, for a walk with the dog.

There are the evening hours when, ten hours later, I return from work, tired and usually feeling a little absent; in mid-winter, there is only darkness.

Then there are the two or three hours that comprise public transport to and from work and lunch breaks; again, slim slivers where my mind has no time to shift gears.

And finally there is the rushing, yawning, waking, lazing, busy weekend that sometimes seems to be just a bookend either side of a long week.

This organisation of time into blocks that are largely inflexible is not unusual; it’s reality for nearly everyone in full time work, and I’m lucky because I rarely have to work beyond my 8 hour day. But nonetheless it has been a change – a big change from last year, when I worked mostly from home, had to ‘be somewhere’ two or three days a week, and had the freedom (and pressure) of organising my own time for study. It’s also a big change from years past when I worked on ships – at sea, time is even more regimented but I lived and breathed my job in a completely different way.

I always think about writing, of course, but I often manage not to do it. It’s easier to walk the dog, or clean the house. Most writers seem to face this; the topic of writers procrastinating has been done to death.

But now it is August, and the year is nearly two thirds over. If I cannot write this year, then who is to say I ever will?

And so I must. Minimum one blog post per week? Two? Or a paragraph a day? A page? A few lines? Something published by Christmas?

Maybe these words won’t be about ships and the sea, although there is so much left to write. Maybe they won’t even be about Ensay, yet. These things take a while to write into, and I’m out of practice – so perhaps it’s best to start with the here and now: the character of an office job, and of the other life squeezed in around it.

Letter to The Age

Arrogance on both sides

Kevin Rudd’s promise, like Tony Abbott’s, that there will be no deals in the case of a hung Parliament makes a mockery of our democracy. Our democracy, largely thanks to the upper house, allows for the presence of alternative views in a political situation where the two major parties differ on very little; it is not for Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd to so arrogantly dismiss views that do not correlate precisely with their own.

Mr Rudd’s motivation appears to be to exorcise the ghost of Julia Gillard. He should grow up, and offer her the respect she deserves. She’s the one that got legislation in place to address the ‘greatest moral challenge of our age’, while he skulked in the background biding his time.

Published in The Age on 16 August 2013. It’s the second letter on this page. And the Leunig cartoon here is very good!

The canary in the coalmine, the butterfly on the hill: Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour coverBarbara Kingsolver’s fourteenth novel, Flight Behaviour, is set in Tennessee. The characters are firmly rooted in a primarily pastoral landscape that turns out to be unstable, though most in the novel refuse to acknowledge the changes.

Dellarobia, the feisty young mother trapped in a domestic situation where her only outlet is crushes on local tradesmen, learns to see that the land on which their lives are based is changing before them. In doing so she recognises too the instability of the human landscape.

The book opens with Dellarobia in full flight, albeit in unsuitable shoes, up a mountain towards an extra-marital tryst. But the sight of mountain ranges aflame – not with fire but with something she cannot comprehend – sends her home again, with the sense that running away is not the answer.

The orange flame turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies, a beautiful ‘miracle’ that is the result of a horrible truth. Climate change is rearing its head in a town where people say that the weather is in the Lord’s hands. It changes Dellarobia’s outlook completely. Unlike most of those around her, she doesn’t have much faith in God, and is open to science and to encouraging her intelligent, questioning kindergarten-aged son in a way that few others are.

This is working-class rural America, where college isn’t part of the life plan, where people are judged if they don’t attend church, where floods and orchards rotting in the earth are all attributed to God’s will. But it is the poverty that is an unexpected feature of this novel; while Australians might perceive middle America as overweight and subsisting on junk food, this is a family that hasn’t had take away or eaten in a restaurant in two years.

This is a book about class and about the division of ideas. It is also about denial, and about the lack of security in both the earth and in each other as human beings. Dellarobia, never knowing what else there was to aspire to, sustained herself with crushes on men who were not her husband. Now a world opens to her that is both terrifying and much broader than anything she has ever known.

Kingsolver returns to her theme of religion in this novel – Dellarobia, despite being thrown out of Wednesday bible discussion for having the temerity to actually discuss, weaves bible metaphors into her thoughts throughout the book. Flood and fire: while the bible bashers deny that it is upon them, she is confronted with it through the evidence of science.

The ending of Flight Behaviour has been widely criticised, and while I share some of the criticisms the novel ultimately tells a powerful and imaginative story. It is a book that should be read, because from it there is so much to learn.

Land, sea and misogyny

Broome beach and dinghyWhere to begin?

After three weeks away, mostly thinking of the sea, it is hard to know where to begin writing now that I am back on land, in a cold city, back engaging with the political landscape, albeit slowly and without my usual enthusiasm.

I’m far from the warm northern waters that I have been floating on for ten days. While I was away I wrote often of the sea, as I watched its changing moods from the safety of the cockpit on a six day voyage.

When I reached land on the northwest fringe of the continent, the texture of hills far to the south came flooding back into my thoughts, even as I noted the red Kimberley dirt and tried to divine some sense of understanding of this place where red sand meets blue water.

On the day we arrived in Broome and dropped anchor in Roebuck Bay, just after the nine metre spring tides, we tuned into the news in time for the Labor leadership spill. We had left Indonesia six days earlier with a female PM still in charge in Australia, and arrived in Western Australian waters to find the male PM returned.

Now I am reading Anna Goldsworthy’s Quarterly Essay, alongside Kim Mahood’s Craft for a Dry Lake, while The Long Way by solo sailor Bernard Moitessier waits on my desk. Land, sea and misogyny: three threads that are mingling and meeting now that I am home, away from the sea but with the motion of the waves still in my blood as it always will be.

Where to begin?