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.

12 days left in the life of Fremantle ED

Walking past Fremantle hospital in the middle of the day, I could have sworn I heard a man yell, cry out in pain. The ambulances are lined up outside emergency. The sound is ghostly, distant: it has not the immediacy nor the closeness of the emergency department.

I walk on into town, wondering. In early February this ED will close, closing with it years of history, of people in and people out, late at night and in the middle of the day. When I was at university, I had a friend who, for our literary journalism project, spent nights in the ED, watching the people who passed through there, listening, writing. I never saw his finished piece but I often think of the image, the student writer in the corner, taking in the pain, the frustration and the boredom.

In reality I can only imagine Fremantle’s ED, a compilation of the external impression of the place from my younger years and all the time I spent in EDs in Melbourne more recently. The two combine to give what is probably an entirely unrealistic picture of the place . But I don’t really want to go inside just to check if the image in my mind is anything like the reality.

From Fremantle Primary, it's barely a stone's throw to the ED.

From Fremantle Primary, it’s barely a stone’s throw to the ED.

Tim Winton wrote an article in The Guardian not so long ago about hospitals and living in the shadow of them. He lived opposite the Alma Street mental health unit of Fremantle Hospital. For me place casts a longer, metaphorical shadow as I live several streets away, removed from some of the drama Winton experienced. He describes visitors to the hospital as operating ‘in an unrelievedly histrionic register’, providing for constant entertainment on the surrounding streets.

Winton writes of people around the hospital bearing ‘their own narratives so openly’ – body language ‘heightened’, discretion gone. For me, living further away, the hospital is more occasional in its drama: secrets and people spill out onto the street with all the untidiness of a fracture, or of a split bag spilling grain onto the ground – but it is irregular and random. Sometimes, walking past, Fremantle Hospital is just a big building and all is quiet.

Living a little further away from the hospital itself, it is not the patients – current, past or future – that I see regularly, but rather the health professionals. They are everywhere: parking their cars in the primary school during the holidays, squeezing them onto the sandy front verges of nice people like us who don’t have respectable lawns. They pack their cars tightly onto the vacant block up the hill from the school and are endlessly creative in finding ways to park for eight or ten hours for free.

12 daysOr they are walking through the park on their way to work at 7am (sometimes they are running, if it’s gone 7 already); they are riding by on all manner of bikes in their blue scrubs and their sensible shoes. They are female and male, young and occasionally old.

In the mornings, they seem organised and focused. The ones on foot almost always have coffee. But I don’t see them in the evenings; our schedules must be out. I often wonder how these same people might look at the end of their day in the big hospital building. How do they feel? And how will they feel when the hospital they work at is out in the suburbs by the freeway instead of right here in the middle of Fremantle?

For Winton, this hospital’s location is defining:

Our hospital was not the modern, discrete, Australian campus set in awesome suburban isolation like a hyper-mall, surrounded by a vast moat of car parking. This was the inner city, a neighbourhood of narrow streets and workers’ cottages, and the hospital had long outgrown its original footprint. The old Victorian building was buried amid hulking brutalist slabs. They didn’t just tower over the surrounding streets; they seemed to project outward.

It is the metaphorical shadow of the place that projects the physical shadow far beyond. This image of Winton’s stuck with me most of all:

I often looked up at that dreary tower as the sun lit up its windows and thought of others staring out in hope and regret as the rest of us went about our day, oblivious. All that yearning spilling down amid the treetops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.

In less than two weeks that shadow will begin to fade. There will be no ED or facilities for children. Emergency mental health services will go too. Parts of the hospital’s specialist functions will remain, including aged care and non-emergency surgical procedures. The rest of it is headed for the new Fiona Stanley hospital, in the suburbs by the freeway.

Does this mean the yearning will cease to spill down across our roof tops? Perhaps, and perhaps too we will no longer be reminded on a daily basis of the fragility of life. It is hard not to think of it, in the shadow of Fremantle hospital.

Place, time and writing

I’m back in Fremantle – not just as a visitor, but back here to live. It’s been five years since I last ‘lived’ in this town, though my time here five years ago was an interlude between travels. By other measures, it’s been over six.

Am I home? I’m not sure, and I’m tired of thinking about it. My sense of place has been disrupted in the last two years: the way I think about all the places that could be home – Ensay, Melbourne and Fremantle – has changed.

Fremantle is familiar; the house is homely; there are people that I care about here. But I am not sure any longer which feelings of ‘home’ matter. Is it having a roof over your head in a building that you call home? Is it the people, the landscape, the community or the work that you do? Is it a confluence of all these?

I am not ‘out in the world’ at the moment, and I know that doesn’t help. Instead I have six weeks ahead with few commitments; with the freedom to do as I choose, within the confines of finance and geography.

Although this is a luxury, it is also a little terrifying. The main ambition in this time is clear: to write.

It is terrifying because if I cannot write or if I do not write, then there are no excuses. Unpacking doesn’t take six weeks. The house is cold but not that cold. The distractions are few. And most of all, I don’t have to spend eight hours a day at a computer working on things that are not my own projects. Yes, put like that, this time is a luxury.

But as a friend of mine, Eli Glasman, wrote in his most recent blog post, staying home and tapping away at ‘whatever’, ‘whenever’, is not being a writer: it’s simply not having to work. The luxury of time to write is in that sense not a luxury at all, for as a writer, one must therefore use that time to work. It is not time that you can watch pass leisurely: you must occupy it by working hard.

Despite the need to work, there is luxury in having a house to one’s self during the day, in sitting near a high window with a view, in glimpses of the ocean, in being back in the west in time for a dramatic winter.

But, enough window gazing for now: it is time to  work.

The beginnings of bicycling

If you look at Google Maps using the beta cycling tab, Melbourne becomes a network of dark green, of cycle tracks spreading out from the city and criss-crossing the suburbs.

The paths wind around the rivers and creeks, then settle abruptly into the grids of the inner suburbs. There is something tantalising about maps, and Google by bike is no exception.

Melbourne by bike

In green, the map of Melbourne suggests a different city – a whole new world, one that I started exploring in earnest in winter last year. Now that I know I’ll be leaving Melbourne in the coming months, I’m very glad I began when I did. Continue reading

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?

When inside and outside don’t match

Walking to the bus this morning, it is a perfect summer’s morning.

The air is cool, the sun is bright but low, the heat of the day hidden for now in the bluest sky.

It is beautiful, even with traffic, even knowing the heat will come, even with a day in an office ahead.

But 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.

Scar

I remember that this is one facet of grieving – feeling this disconnect between inside and out; memories and feelings that don’t match the outside world.

Nothing has changed, yet everything has.

This sunny busy optimistic suburb is a long way from home, a long way from what we have lost. (It is not just me – I imagine us as a web of people, all across this city, up in the high country, across the continent, who will look at the date today and remember, and in so doing will strengthen the shared memories and past that lie between us all.)

Here, on a birthday, I am too far away, unable to go to the place that would offer both comfort and pain.

And I am also too close, for those hills and that skyline and the sound of that river are just there, as they will be forever.

Black and white, textures of the land

In the high country in June, it was very cold but the sun shone. Up high on the hillside, gazing out across the valley, the colours sang. But so too do the textures; the textures of hillsides and shadows, of dead trees and living. Sometimes these are textures best caught in black and white, as No Fixed Address has in these images.

Dead trees and living – Canon EOS 3000V, Rollei Retro 100

Sunlight on her coat – Canon EOS 3000V, Lucky SDH 100

Cattle on the hillside – Canon EOS 3000V, Lucky SDH 100

Frosty morning

From a cold and icy morning on the farm in Victoria’s high country in mid June:

The meaning of the frost

Iced Volvo

Underfoot and into the distance

It’s over two months since I last posted on this blog. These photos, by way of explanation, are from the place that I went to in June and July, and which sharply interrupted my blogging habit. There is no internet connection at the house. In this place, few things seemed less important than the online world.

Images: Olympus OM-1n, Kodak Gold 400.

Weather, essays and the first day of autumn

First of March, and the world outside is swirling – the wind, the bursts of rain, the windows rattling in their frames. It’s swirling because I am inside, looking inwards, so that the weather outside seems to revolve. It’s not going anywhere, not travelling past, but is instead centred on this house. It is a curtain over the outside world: shutting it out, shutting me away.

Inside, I’m trying to write an essay. It’s a politics essay on global environmental governance. I started from scratch in a manner that is quite unlike any essay I’ve done before. For this one, the thought processes have been different: it required more research than usual just to get a grasp of what I was dealing with, before I could begin to form an argument. I’ve never studied international politics before this unit, and with the unit itself having finished a little while ago, my grasp on the content seemed to have slipped. But today inside the swirling weather and the cosy house walls it seems to be coming back.

Much has been written about place, and the importance of place and your own space when you’re writing. This space at the desk is not always all mine and is often cluttered. It’s not normally a place where I can focus – I’m usually better off in the little bungalow in the backyard – it’s sparse and there are big windows full of greenery. Today, there is something about the weather and the possible onset of autumn that makes it okay to be studying here. It’s a good feeling!

Summer

Last year, summer was defined by the presence of the pontoon at South Beach in South Fremantle. It was there when I arrived back in WA in mid-December (I wrote about that in “On coming home”), but one day in February I went to the beach for a morning swim and it was gone. The water was, once again, unbroken from groyne to rocky groyne.

This year I’m a long way from that beach, and from that type of summer heat: in Perth it stretched on in the mid-30s, unbroken for nearly two months but tempered each day by the sea breeze. Melbourne heat feels much more oppressive, and on a really hot day I feel stranded amongst the solidity of the city: it feels so far from the sea. I could jump on a tram or a train and be looking across the bay within half an hour, but on these beaches I am still a stranger. Nowhere do I feel so far from ‘home’ as on a hot summer’s day in Melbourne.

Today is different. It’s sunny and breezy and not too hot, and outside the window where I write there is a fernery, cool and damp and growing riotously after the spring rain. The light is full of gentle colours, green and cream and the palest hints of blue sky. It is a new year, but in that artificial setting of a day and a date as somehow crucial to our lives, there has been no momentous event or shift in feeling. The past year unfolded with an endless steadiness; it was a year where the time always seemed to be running away, because of what lay ahead. The seismic shifts, the things that happened that changed everything, happened with a surprising inevitability.

They happened on days and dates that followed no pattern, and so the beginning of a new year is just a minor shift in comparison: an excuse to hang the new calendar and to realise, in the days immediately after, that writing 2/1/2011 or 3/1/2011 looks correct but isn’t. There is always a sense of dislocation in that: looking at the date and realising you have transported yourself back one year, yet have remained exactly where you are, caught in the new one, with new numbers to signify your place in time.

In spite of this, when I imagine the days, weeks and months ahead, I am ever so happy to be here, with the year opening up ahead of me like the fresh blank pages of a new diary, waiting to be filled.