A third lost birthday

Geographically, I am as far away from Ensay now as ever; as far away as I was through all the years growing up here in the west and thinking about a tiny town in the east.

J, who we lost on 16th June 2012, would be 85 if she were alive today. On each of the last two lost birthdays (2013 and 2014), I have written about loss and grief.

Among the emotion for a person very dear to me and to many others, place and geography are always present. Perhaps this is because it is easier to write about leaving a place at the end of an era (I can and do go back to Ensay) than it is to write about death, the most permanent of losses.

I am further away now and going back is physically, geographically and financially harder. My much loved kelpie M, from Ensay, lives in Fremantle with us now. It is unlikely that she will ever return to her hometown, and while she may not mind that her life has so comprehensively changed, I often think about her distance from home and it makes me sad.

In the love and responsibility I feel for her, I want her to be happy, even while knowing I cannot really know what she feels. When she runs along the edge of the ocean, with joy in every bound, I think I can safely say that her canine instincts and energy are exercised here despite the absence of sheep.

South Beach winter 2014 crop

M at the beach, part of her new home in the west.

There are figs on the tree in our sandy backyard in Fremantle. Figs are one of those fruits that must inevitably end up in jam, because there are just too many to use them all in other ways, although the lorikeets and wattlebirds would disagree. They gorge on the soft fruit, and from the pulpy mess left behind or from fruit that has split in the heat, pink juice runs down the leaves and drips on the sand below.

So my mind goes from figs to jam, and from jam to J: I still use jars that have her writing on the lid; jars that once contained satsuma plum jam, or apricot or melon and ginger.

I can see that my thoughts are circular today: from Ensay to Fremantle and back again; back and forth across the great distances of this country, from one home to another.

In Melbourne over the five years I lived there, Ensay was close; I felt that we shared the same air. Perhaps it is because I know the route to Ensay from Melbourne so well – the drive is measurable by familiar landmarks.

Here in Fremantle, Ensay is a flight away, and flying is necessarily disconnecting. I feel that I am in another world. M brings me back: she is fully from that other world and yet she is here with us, real and present and connecting us across the distance.

There are times when that distance evaporates: all the space between here and Ensay, between here and J, is gone in an instant. It is particularly so at those times when grief returns, as it does unexpectedly on occasion and always with an all-consuming intensity.

The last time this happened was at The Waifs concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre in December. The Waifs speak to a Fremantle audience because they are so wholeheartedly Western Australian, but they speak to me – and no doubt to others – because they understand what it means to be irrevocably connected to a place.

For me when I hear this song, love of place translates to love of the person who represented that most-loved place – and so a song about a hometown reduces me to tears over her loss.

When I die won’t you bury me,
in the town where I was born.
Most of my life I’ve been wandering free,
but when I die I wanna go back home.

I have transcribed those lines from memory – I don’t dare listen to the song in case that grief returns. It might be an appropriate day for such grief, but life goes on and I have two job applications to write and friends to meet for dinner tonight. Others from Ensay have gone on from this world since J, and I am aware of a feeling in me that grief for one person must somehow diminish as time goes on and as others grieve those they have lost since.

Oh, how distant and unreal this life feels. This life? Is it Ensay that feels so far away, so unreal? – or is it this life here in Fremantle that really feels unreal, today of all days? It is ironic that this town, here, is where I was born – yet that Waifs song makes me think only of J and of Ensay, the place where she no longer lives.

On inclusion and exclusion: Melbourne (2011)

I was a bit shy about reading Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne while on the tram – which is where I get most of my reading done – I was afraid that people might think I was a tourist. I mean, how often do you see a local getting around reading a book with their city’s name emblazoned on the cover?

But read it I did, nonetheless – in cafés, on the tram, while dawdling at the Parkville campus of Melbourne Uni or eating lunch at La Trobe. I was easily hooked, as it moved through a year in the life of the city, from the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 to the following summer’s hailstorm, telling stories of the drains under Hawthorn, the Westgate Bridge Collapse, and the changed meanderings of the Yarra.

It is a brave enterprise, this mission of a series of books about our capital cities (Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Sydney all have versions) – books that are neither history nor memoir; that are definitely non-fiction but which are difficult to categorise beyond this. Melbourne is closest to being a tribute: it is a story and a history in the service of one city, the author’s home city.

The book’s personal element is both its redeeming feature and its ultimate downfall. It is inevitable that a book like this will reflect the author’s own story and experience, and in this there is a beautiful honesty. A pure history of Melbourne would have its own biases; parts would have to be left out while others are told in more depth. Cunningham’s tribute to the city of her birth is, in its form, honestly and openly a biased and personal piece of work without being purely a personal story.

For me, the disappointment of Melbourne lies in that it is a story that made me feel excluded from the city. It is a very different city to that of The Slap, for example, in which the characters inhabit their own narrow version of the city yet the reader does not feel excluded. Perhaps the difference here lies in the novel’s ability to portray so many points of view; Melbourne, on the other hand, can portray only one.

I called myself a local in the first paragraph, but I’m not really – I have only been living here since 2009. In this time, and in all the years prior to that when I visited my grandmother, Melbourne is a city that has made me feel both included and excluded by turns. (I could generalise and, seeking a more poetic sentence, say, Melbourne is a city that makes you feel both included and excluded… but I do not wish to say ‘you’, here, for the experience is different for everyone.)

I began to feel included by this city when, after a short time of living here, I established a few regular haunts: sites of familiarity and comfort that allowed me to spring joyfully into the strange ‘rest’ of Melbourne, knowing that there were parts of town that would welcome me back, as though I belonged, with their familiar layout of streets and buildings, cafés and faces.

Yet she is a fickle lover, Melbourne, and when I did not give her – especially her inner-city heart – enough attention, she soon forgot me. So there are times when I swing the other way, to feeling that there is no place for me in this big and bustling city.

Perversely, Melbourne only increases this sense of dislocation. It reinforces elements of the city that one feels one should know or be a part of. But not everyone cycles down St Kilda Road; not everyone has Paul Kelly and Sian Prior in their circle of friends. Of course, Cunningham has been prominent in Melbourne’s literary scene for some time, so it is only natural that her friends would also be part of this scene. I cannot blame her for the choices she has made in writing this book, and there was much that I learnt and enjoyed in reading it. But nonetheless I can wish that between Cunningham’s story of a city in which I live, and my own experience and interpretation of it, there was something that brought me deeper instead of shutting me out.

Originally written 14 October 2011.