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.

Endeavour and Eden

This town called Eden is just as green and picturesque as the name suggests, but how that wind blows! On the hill north of Twofold Bay, where a hilly outpost of the town is separated from the rest by a narrow, low spit of land between bay and ocean, the wind tears in from the south. The water of the bay is ruffled and bright in the sun.

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I am here in Eden with the Endeavour replica and her dark heavy rig stands out against the water of the bay. Yesterday 660 people came aboard the ship to see her and imagine something of life in Cook’s time. This interests me less than the sight of the ship herself and the way tall ships are so entirely unique in filtering into their background of wave or bush and seeming so at home yet centuries out of place.

I remember coming back to Endeavour in the RIB when we were on the Hawkesbury River in September and losing sight of the ship against the headland behind her, so well did she blend into the bush.

On Endeavour, I often think of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and the way he describes a ship from the point of view of a young indigenous boy coming into King George Sound in Albany in the nineteenth century, folding away its wings like a pelican coming into land. (I don’t have the book here so I can’t check the accuracy of my memory of the image.)

I thought of Scott’s image as we passed Botany Bay on Endeavour on Tuesday last week on our way south from Sydney. As I wrote on the Australian National Maritime Museum blog for Endeavour, I imagined Botany Bay as it might have been in Cook’s time. I did not expect to see the cranes of a major commercial shipping port silhouetted against the sky on the far side of the bay.

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Pelicans coming into land in a bay… and pelicans floating on the wind above us today in Eden. Seventeen pelicans, seeming to move diagonally rather than forwards then circling and wheeling before returning to a formation of sorts then ascending away from us to the south.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on this blog, but in my absence I have been writing more than usual – for the ANMM’s Endeavour blog, not my own. So far, I’ve written about four voyages on Endeavour and there is one more to come. In some, I could have written many more words of reflection and imagery of the sea, the ship and the wildlife. This post captures just one small element of that which has not made it onto Endeavour‘s blog.

I hope there will be more to come when I am back in Fremantle, with the ocean just visible from the kitchen window.

On stationery and the ideal workspace

Over at London Review of Books, a fascinating review by Jenny Diski of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (by Nikil Saval) caught my eye for the beautiful paragraphs about stationery. To be more precise, about stationery cupboards in offices.

I enjoyed the poetry of Diski’s description enough to reproduce a few lines here:

The perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful … Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets. Boxes of carbon paper. (Children, you interleave a crispy dark-blue onion skin between each sheet of paper, you align them bottom edge and long side, tapping the long and short sides sharply together on the surface of your desk, and if you type sharply you can get as many as six or eight copies, each slightly fainter than the one before.) Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of. Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.

This takes me back to my own delicious experience of workplace stationery cupboards – indeed, a whole room of stationery surrounding the photocopier just across the corridor from my mother’s office.

Most of all I remember the in-trays full of coloured paper – stacks of different heights of every solid colour you could think of: shades of yellow melding to gold and orange; red orange then red and pinky red and pink, and on it went.

I liked to take a sheet off each stack and put them all together, but there they lost their magic and became an untidy assortment of too many colours. The sheets were better off left on their solid, perfect stacks on the shelves.

The fascination with stationery doesn’t seem to go away as I grow older – something Diski understands. Her review talks also of the desire to organise the office space – in traditional office workspaces and in the home office too:

It isn’t just a drive for cost efficiency, but some human tic that has us convinced that the way we organise ourselves in relation to our work holds a magic key to an almost effortless success.

The stationery comes into this ‘human tic’, of course – stationery needed for organising and perfect labelling and sorting and tidying and making sure that whatever you needed would always be at hand – even if you only needed it once every six months. The swivel pins that could be found in the stationery room opposite my mum’s office fell into this category: you could use them to attach a round piece of card with a pizza slice cut out to a square piece of card and have the round one rotate to reveal things like ‘gone to lunch’, ‘not in today’, ‘on holidays’, ‘concentrating’. Clearly vital – on rare and singular occasions.

Cafe wordsGrowing up, I had a little wooden desk tidy designed to hold different sized writing papers and pads and envelopes, with a place for a fountain pen and inkwells: my version of the office stationery cupboard and a remnant of organisational impulses from a century ago.

You might imagine that the impulse for stationery and for organising one’s desk in this way would have vanished with the ubiquitous computer and with the fashion for minimalism. Instead of ring binders and notepads and different coloured pens you just have the laptop and the iPad – right?

Yet the desks of those with an impulse for organisation at my last workplace were still home to stationery organisers, with staplers and sticky tape rolls and envelopes and pads of paper. The desks of those without that impulse inevitably became cluttered with bits of paper printed out by people who didn’t know how to use track changes or didn’t like reading on the screen.

The blank pages of a notebook always seem more inviting than an empty word document open on my fingerprinted laptop screen. But desks these days must always have space for a laptop (at minimum, if not a desktop computer) and the cords that come with it: the organised items of stationery have to fit in around these awkward intruders. When you’re in a hurry it’s the computer that’s in use and not anything else, so the stationery is pushed to the back.

My solution is to have a big desk, with no drawers: so you can shift your chair along to go from paper to screen. Computer and cords on one side; notebooks in easy reach on the other – that’s the theory. Perhaps I’ll reclaim the wooden desk tidy from my childhood.

Above is a photo I took when writing in a café a few years ago. I enjoyed writing from a café then and still do on occasion, but Diski’s take on it is perhaps a bit too close for home:

…there is something baffling and forlorn about the sight, as you walk past café after café window, of rows of people tapping on their MacBook Air. There for company in the communal space, but wearing isolating headphones to keep out the chatter, rather than sitting in their own time in quiet, ideally organised, or lonely, noisy, cramped home offices.

In the meantime, my big unorganised desk is neglected and instead I’m sitting at the kitchen table, away from the distractions of stationery: there is just the laptop and some flowers in a vase. It feels positively minimalist!

Repeal of the carbon tax

Today is a sad day for Australia. After years of political wrangling it has come to this: the repeal of the carbon tax.

It is a giant step back from facing up to the encroaching cliff, a turning away from the erosion of solid ground, a denial of a slow-burn but deadly serious threat.

Ian MacDonald and Barnaby Joyce, in the midst of winter, talk about cold weather as though it means something. Their statements are unbelievably crude, and their experience of the cold means nothing in this debate. Are they silly enough to believe that a cold winter’s day is reason to scrap the carbon tax, or are they heartless enough to spin an anti-climate change line for political benefit? I’m not sure which is worse.

I’m angry and there is no outlet for it. Where do you turn, nearly 4000 kilometres from Canberra, to express your disgust? We can only turn to one another – and we have been doing that for years, to no avail.

All around me people have become tired of caring – I’m guilty of it too. Today’s repeal re-energises my anger, but what good is talking about it to the people around me? I know I should be optimistic that talking about the issue does matter, but I, like most of us, exist in an echo chamber and our opinions don’t change the mind of anyone who matters. All around me people are saying how awful the repeal is – yet nonetheless it goes ahead. Whatever voice we may have had in September last year when we voted is utterly lost.

When I began writing this piece around midday today, I felt gutted and betrayed. Outside my window there was a blue sky and the green branches were waving slightly in a gentle winter’s breeze. Now, the sun has set and with the orange on the horizon there comes a stillness in the air. It is a beautiful sight and feels like the calm before a storm.

Perhaps these years are the calm before the storm.

We will look back one day on the nineties and on the first three decades – maybe four if we’re lucky – of the third millenium and see an idyllic life that we could not bear to disturb for the sake of a liveable future. We will see a time when we had knowledge but did not use it. When whole generations were born and grew up while time passed and not enough was done for their future. A time when we prioritised money and business over the life and environment of the planet.

You might say I am being dramatic. But it is hard not to feel that drama is warranted; that fear is warranted. If so little has been achieved in the last thirty years, what’s to say that anything useful will be achieved in the next thirty? If governments and societies cannot make the change that’s needed now, in the calm before the storm, how will we fare during the storm itself, when things become much tougher than they are now?

In a press conference today, Tony Abbott talked about being part of a ‘conservationist government’; being aware that we only have ‘one planet’. The words don’t roll easily off his tongue – perhaps he’s aware just how offensive they are – a contradiction to the action his government has just taken.

Later, he is back in his native discourse with these words, which roll smoothly: ‘We are certainly not going to do anything that damages our economy or that puts our people and our businesses at an unfair competitive disadvantage.’

If there’s anything unfair here it is that a man instrumental in this repeal – Clive Palmer – owns companies which stand to save several million dollars each year due to the removal of the carbon tax. It is a sign of just how mixed up Australian politics have become.

As Lenore Taylor wrote today in The Guardian, the repeal of the carbon tax today is a ‘complete and catastrophic failure of the political system’. Let us hope that this failure is not replicated around the world and on into the future.

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.

Does the age of human settlement in Victoria rival that of Lake Mungo?

La Trobe archaeologist Jillian Garvey is definitely academic-of-the-moment this summer. I’m looking forward to hearing and writing more about her work in the coming months.

La Trobe University Bulletin

Excavations at Ned's Corner in January Excavations at Ned’s Corner on the Murray River near Mildura are part of a new study that aims to find out.

While many Australians were heading to the beach during the mid-January heatwave, La Trobe archaeologist Dr Jillian Garvey was undertaking an archaeological dig west of Mildura in outback Victoria.

The dig is part of a six-year project led by Dr Garvey at Ned’s Corner Station and in the Murray-Sunset National Park close to the South Australian border.

It is one of the largest archaeology projects in Victoria and the first Indigenous archaeology project funded by the Australian Research Council in the area.

Sand hills at Lake Mungo. Photo: Ivan Burge Sand hills at nearby bLake Mungo. Photo: Ivan Burge

Another Lake Mungo?

Dr Garvey believes the project may find evidence of human occupation similar to that already known from the Lake Mungo area in New South Wales.

The Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, not…

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