Sink or swim

I don’t know how to start this post. Usually when I write it’s the ending that throws me – how to tie everything up in a succinct sentence that leaves an air of interest in further words. I am sorry, but there will be no foreplay. Today I just need to get this done. I don’t even have any graphics! Well, except the photo stock one I got from the net. Sorry, Launderers. I hope you’ll stay for the words even without the pretty pictures.

In my last post I was very touched to have had some people reach out and offer me some kind and reassuring words, mainly to assist with my self-perception. I appreciate this immensely. How lucky am I to have both friends and strangers who would take the time to put their thoughts into writing and share these with me. To those of you who did – thank you. Because of your kindness, I vowed to try to embody this quality more as well, and embarked on being more approachable, sending more Facebook friend requests and volunteering to listen when someone needed to chat (I won’t lie, there were mixed results and some of my friend requests have gone unrequited – I am not sure what this says about me or my Facebook profile but I am open to feedback). I truly hope no one ever feels that his or her kindness is wasted on me, but in saying that, I need to be honest and say that I rarely, if ever, believe what I am told when it is kind. And although I am sure I am not alone in that particular quirk, my reason for having this issue seem to always point to one annoying thing.

Irritatingly for me (and others, I imagine), the peak of my self-worth has historically been related to my upbringing. I have lived with a somewhat polarizing notion that people other than your parents can raise you and that the effect of this arrangement will not detrimentally affect your life. But I am just not sure I believe my own hype: On the one hand is the very valid argument that as long as a child has love, has its immediate needs met and has a permanent network of support to help shape them as they grow, then the fact that someone other than their birth parents raised them is largely beside the point. In theory, I absolutely agree with this argument. I say in theory, because although I have encountered through work and broader community links many people who have been raised under this kind of arrangement, and many children who are loved by their families and who love them in return, in my immediate social circle I have literally only met two people who were in a similar situation as me. They were both being raised by their grandparents.

One of those people is in jail. The other committed suicide.

I do not say this to be dramatic. The above should not be construed as a causal link. Plenty of people are raised families outside their birth ones and it is a blessing for all concerned. It was absolutely a blessing for me. But in my particular experience I have tried so very hard to believe the argument that I was lucky, and that it wasn’t that bad (it was great!), that somewhere down the line I started becoming uncertain as to whether I actually believed what I was saying. In hindsight, perhaps I had just been too eager to drink the socially acceptable Kool-Aid that would guarantee me a spot at the table for people who are respected by others because they do not possess that irritating quirk of feeling sorry for oneself. The people who just “get on with it”.

Regardless of how this all came about, there have in recent times been extenuating circumstances that all but prevented anything in the way of self-reflection on this topic, especially over the past six years. There was a time in my early twenties where once a week I would dutifully meet with the therapist who has helped to shape my emotionally lumpy ball of clay into something more clarified and beautiful. I worked hard to sort my shit out at the time – shit that was largely related to my absent parents and the effects of how their relationships with me influenced my relationships with others. It was important groundwork that allowed me to actually remedy some flawed belief systems in order to live more of an authentic, free life. And luckily for me, that also meant the chance to have lots of sex with lots of boys without the guilt of thinking I had to be in a relationship first. I was with a man who was 4 years older than me from when I was 15 years old until I turned 19; if this does not make me the poster-child for insecure adolescents then nothing will. I then did what any person with abandonment issues would do and found myself another relationship almost immediately, meaning that by the time I was 21, I had really never been single. I made up for lost time in the most wonderfully slutty of ways (and I say this without a shred of shame or regret, for if there is any time in my life where I can look back and say I felt at ease with myself and my choices, it was this). I loved being single. And I knew I would only ever give up this freedom for someone pretty amazing.

Enter: D. I was 23 when we met. By this time I had been in therapy for two years. A lot of the rubble had been swept away. The dust was starting to clear. There was hope.

My chats with my therapist soon became largely centred on my decision to give up some of my independence (and a large part of my social circle who responded with nothing short of disdain for the fact that I would no longer be the ring-leader on alcohol fuelled hook-up benders) so that I could embark on a relationship with D. And it was not without its challenges – D was (is) 8 years older than me. He didn’t have emotional baggage, a dysfunctional family or self-destructive habits outside of getting tackled at football. His calm, balanced demeanour was the antithesis of my own. And although now it is this pairing that has helped us to grow together, namely that our shortcomings become each other’s gains, at the time it was a lot to work through.

In 2008 we got engaged (during a fight – a post for another time), in late 2009 we married and we moved interstate in early 2010. During this time we were geographically and emotionally torn because I kept returning to Brisbane to be present for my grandmother’s worsening dementia, all the while knowing I had to stay in Melbourne because D’s own father’s dementia was avalanching into what would culminate into a premature yet drawn-out and distressing death. And in between the stressors of knowing you are each dealing with the same kind of pain, in 2012 a child enters the world. A sick child, the experience of which also helps to create a sick mother. We kept our heads above water, until we didn’t. But with therapy and medication, I caught my breath and rose to the parenting challenge. I had issues with patience as many people do, but simply by raising my own son with love and affection I reasoned I was in a way proving that I would not be the one to repeat history. My child was wanted and adored. I would not be my mother’s daughter.

In 2013 my grandmother dies in my arms. My head dips below the water but buoyed with love from my little family, I am now able to swim. Friends vanish because I change. Maybe I post too many photos of my children on Facebook. But all that becomes irrelevant when two months later I unexpectedly fall pregnant with N, the baby who would repair the pain from our first child’s birth and who would bring us a joy I struggle to describe. And we needed that joy; we needed those little chubby legs and those bright blue eyes, because by 2014 when N was born, the grandfather I adored with all my heart had cut off contact with me as the family members who were absent for most of my life had come home to roost. My grandfather is dead by mid-2015, and I am not there beside him when it happens. He never meets N.

For the following 18 months after my grandfather’s death I am mired in family litigation. I rarely contest anything. I am anchored to paperwork and phone calls. I want it to all be over. I want to float on the surface, eyes to the sky, free again.

Halfway through 2016 we embark on a quest to chase that freedom, deciding to sell our home, quit our jobs and go travelling with our boys. We love it until we don’t, then we seek out our next move, and can’t make a decision. I discuss with D my uneasiness at feeling as though the decision will come down to what I want. He promises to take over and make a call for all of us. I am grateful for his resolve.

But as these little ships of life – boat-like blips on a horizon that we each navigate – sail over the seas, edge past each other, avoid danger and signal for help if needed, all the while I sense an undercurrent brewing beneath the surface. I know it is familiar because old and unhelpful belief patterns start to jostle for room in my already overcrowded head. I try to drown them out with exercise, with meditation, with affection with my children and intimacy with my husband. But they tug, and before long it becomes a pull from beneath that drags me out past the safety of the harbour and into the waves, where instead of being a mother of a five-year-old who is trying to decide what school to enrol him into next year, I am instead back where I was a decade ago, back feeling as though I am fundamentally flawed, that I am irredeemably damaged, and – most frighteningly – that if given time, not only will I sink, but I will drag my family into the murky depths with me.

Why am I back here? I have a few theories. As postulated in my last post, I first thought it was place-based. I though that geography was conspiring to haunt me. But then I talked to a dear friend of mine who reminded me that one of the times I had felt the worst was in Quebec where I cried in the bathroom into a pillow for the best part of four hours in a quest to not wake my sleeping children and husband. “If you think you’re shit in Quebec, of course you’re going to think you’re shit in Brisbane,” she said. My friends are geniuses.

Another theory is that since the stress of losing two lives and gaining two in quick succession is now in the past, my brain has started to remember that it once had fundamental crack in its foundation that it needed to address, before it got sidetracked. So this is its way of sending me a reminder for a calendar invite to which I’ve not responded. Fix the foundation, Sarah. Your house is crumbling.

The third theory – and one I am hesitant to share because I would hate for it to be misinterpreted as endorsement of this kind of approach to mental health – is that for almost five months, I have been off medication. I very gradually stopped taking my antidepressants in November; by December I was down to one tablet every second day and by January I was off medication completely. It was not a decision I made lightly (I have been on these antidepressants since J was 3 months old) but I have been on and off medication since I was 19; the longest stretch was 6 years of haziness where I managed to somehow stay alive despite ignoring advice to not drink alcohol while undergoing pharmaceutical treatment. But recently I knew I had to come off these little squares of mine – it was time. I needed the mental clarity. I was sick of the dependence. And I hated the side effects.

I resourcefully used exercise and sexercise as a way to flood my body with happy hormones. It worked reasonably well, but was made infinitely harder by the constant headaches, tears, shakes, nausea, fatigue and dizziness that accompanied trying to encourage my body back into making its own serotonin. I also started a new job during this time, which helps to explain one of my earlier posts about crying at work. And to add further hormonal woe to the mix, on some sort of crazed fact-finding mission to try to uncover why I still was feeling pangs of psychological strain, I had my Mirena (IUD) removed. I became convinced there was an external cause for my malaise. I knew of anecdotal evidence to suggest the Mirena can impact a woman’s mood – so out it came.

I was desperately looking for an outward cause. I wanted my emotional distress to be linked to a physical ailment. If it’s the medication withdrawals, that makes total sense! Or it’s just hormonal, I’m normal. Women everywhere struggle with hormonal mood swings. Yay! Yay for science!

And yet, I was not convinced.

Today I went to a Buddhist learnings session at the Buddha Birth Day celebrations at South Bank. It was called “Liberation from Fear and Anger”. A female monk whose name I should have written down presented the session; she was Singaporean, warm, funny and engaging. Her words about anger were familiar to me, and I was grateful to be present for a reminder of how to let go of harmful thoughts.

Quite unexpectedly, she shared an anecdote. She told the room that she too has struggled with anger and resentment. She said for 10 years she cried every day, unclear as to why. Eventually, she figured it out.

“I had a chip on my shoulder,” I hung on her words, “because I was adopted.”

I believe, that at that moment, my heart stopped.

The monk explained that she always felt as though she was unlovable, and unworthy. If her birth parents – who she had searched for, unsuccessfully – did not want her, then there was something wrong with her. “Everyone had parents except me. I had my adoptive parents and they loved me, but I was looking for what I didn’t have. And I was so very sad, for many, many years.”

Predictably, I descended into tears, incredulous as a monk from Singapore used her words to convey a feeling I know all too well. At a time I needed to hear it the most, the words I struggle to articulate to my friends and family were being spoken by someone else who had a lived experience similar to mine but who had none of the trappings of my history. She didn’t grow up in the Redlands and use Jim Beam as a form of self-medication. She didn’t measure her worth by the hotness of the boy she was with. She was a monk, a woman who you would think would have all the tools in the world to understand, uncover and remedy her pain. And yet here she was, describing that for the best part of 40 years she was hurting, and baffled as to why. And if a monk can struggle to make sense of their upbringing, it made me feel like I have a right to do that too.

After the talk, I approached her. I barely got a word out before I started to cry. She held my hands and told me it was good to cry, because it means you are open to healing. “Like an onion, you take off one layer and it’s not so bad. The deeper you get, the more tears.” She told me she cried for years, but with therapy and her Buddhist beliefs, she was eventually able to put her pain and anger aside. I thanked her silently, nodding as I left. It was all I could muster.

So it is with a sense of exhaustion and commitment that I now accept that I have more work to do. I have wanted to believe for years that it’s all behind me; the memories of uncertainty with my childhood living arrangements, the damage of my parents’ involvement which was much worse than their lack of interest; I wanted to believe it was all sorted because I wanted to get on with my happy life. My blessed, beautiful life, where I have healthy children, a kind and strong husband, travels and adventure, friendship and laughs. I didn’t want to be labelled as someone seeking sympathy or being self-pitying. I wanted to be strong, independent and capable. And I was. I am.

I believed for years that the solution to my unease was to let go of the anger I held towards my family – mainly my mother and father. To this day I try to consciously think kind thoughts about them every so often, rationalising that if they are happy and content, they’re less likely to want to come along and fuck up my world again. Then I had a nightmare last week – that I received in the mail photos of my son playing at the beach. There was a letter enclosed. The writing was my father’s – all capitals: “JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW I’M AROUND.”

The unease lingers. But it is enlightening, for what I think has happened is that managing to muffle the anger I held for my family members only relocated the rage. Like the ex-smoker who gains weight, I have misdirected my anger from my parents and onto myself. And unlike my parents, I am always with me. I can’t get away.

So with that in mind, it looks like I have some work to do. I wish I didn’t have to, but I know that I can. Like that annoying blue tang Dory, I will just keep swimming. And as always, I will write about it.

(Told you I suck at endings, so in conclusion, here is my favourite poem: I go back to May 1937, by Sharon Olds. It is beyond fitting.)

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

 

 

 

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The sun also burns

Where to begin? More travels (to Canada and the US – blog post TBC), more questions, more sunshine? More indecision.

I suppose I should pick up from where I left off; that turgid post of doom in which I lamented a misfortune of my own making. Indeed, I felt horrible. I felt trapped. I felt stuck back in a city that I had longed to escape since childhood, and I felt physically and emotionally constrained by our choice of home. There were days where I cried and cried and missed my grandparents, and thought of all the stupid shit I have done in this town, and returned day after day to my trailer park home, where my boys were tanned from a day in the sun, and I was fatigued from a day of trying to wrap my head around laws that protect children from parents worse than my own, and systems that exist so that the State can be your parent when your own cannot.

I don’t know why I described myself in the above paragraph as struggling to understand the legislation I am tasked to review. This is something that is not difficult for me. The problem of course is that what we are skilled to do, and what brings us joy, are not always one and the same. This is complicated even further when a thing we are capable at, but which does not guarantee emotional satisfaction, also brings with it a steady stream of income. The choices are too many for me to compute at times.

Do something you love which pays little? Feel emotionally sated but perpetually poor?
Do something you can tolerate because it pays well and allows you the freedom to spend you income on things that satisfy you?
Do nothing but explore the world, funded by years of work at mundane jobs, in order to allow yourself to build bonds with your children and husband that 40+ hours a week in an office can threaten to erode?
Buy less, love more?

In an earlier post I wrote about finally figuring out – years later – that my reasons for studying law were always flawed. I was always one of those bright and annoying children, whose vocabulary surpassed my elders – a similarity I now witness in my son J. My personality and intellect, like everyone’s, was partly genes, partly nature, and partly situational (because my grandparents read to me often). I was always included in adult conversations and I performed on cue the role of precocious, entertaining child. I brought home certificate after certificate – art, writing, reading, public speaking (maths was noticeably absent from my skill-set) and my grandparents loved it. But while they heaped me with praise for my report cards that were littered with As, for every positive remark, there was a small jab. They were not happy with B grades. They were dissatisfied with the comments that always followed on my report cards about my apparent refusal to work to my potential. They were dismayed that I did not seem to take anything academic particularly seriously, and they asked me regularly what I planned to do with my life, suggesting along the way that with my love of words and performance, journalism or law would probably be a perfect fit (spoiler alert: it was not).

But why does all this come up for me? Why are all these issues at the forefront of my mind?

Because, Brisbane.

In an episode of the Simpsons, Lisa begs Chief Wiggum to not eat the clues. She appears to him in a backwards-speaking, Twin Peaks-esque scene where he is trying to solve the crime of who shot Mr Burns. Lisa appears to guide Chief Wiggum to the answer he already has. The evidence he needs is in his possession, he just hasn’t realised it yet.


Now, a month after my last post, I have figured more out about the evidence before me, and instead of eating the delicious, tropical clues, I feel like I’m finally making sense of them.

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This sunny, water-lined scene is the life I grew up in, with the islands of Moreton Bay my backyard (note: I have only been to Stradbroke Is AKA Straddie TWICE, such was my grandparents’ disdain for the Shire they called home). I grew up around families who went camping on these islands, whose parents threw barbecues poolside, and who spent their sunny weekends taking the family boat out on the bay. And now, as a parent myself, I see the cohort of names I remember repeating the lessons learned in childhood, played out before me on Facebook. Sand, surf, sea, sun. Rinse and repeat.

The life of sunshine and sea-spray could have been mine, but it wasn’t, and it was never going to be. My Nanny couldn’t swim. My grandfather despised the Queensland beaches, only ever surfing in Yamba. It was a shame I didn’t feel part of this scene because I was a reasonably good swimmer and I tanned beautifully in the sun. But I was so hell-bent on ruining my life before it even began, I didn’t pay much attention to all the beauty around me, and how lucky I was to call this place my home.

So now, some 20 years later, where I watch my children play every day in the pool, where my son turns brown in the sun as I do, and where I can walk to work from my apartment in South Brisbane, no longer needing to battle the daily commute, I am again trapped in this familiar sense of disconnection, because I could have everything I want here, but I can’t.

This place would give me everything familiar. Everything, except happiness.

I can’t stay in Brisbane, my home town. There are too many scars. The wounds are still raw in places, such was the force with which they were inflicted. I am re-truamatising myself continuously – with wonderings about the could-haves and what-ifs and the ongoing sense of guilt and shame for all I have done. And it’s not that I ever did anything particularly horrendous – I didn’t rob any one at knifepoint (or otherwise) or steal a car. I just view my past as all being missed chances to have been a better person, a kinder granddaughter, to have been more present, nicer, more caring. But I wasn’t that person. I’m playing catch-up now trying to become that person. So all Brisbane tells me is that I will never get that time back, and being here, in this place, is a constant reminder of what I have lost.

Family. Friends. A different kind of life.

I try to be kind to myself, and to console myself with words like, “Sarah, you were young when you were here. You didn’t know any better. You did the best you could. You didn’t have support or guidance. Everyone makes mistakes.” But the problem is that I am, and have always been painfully, frighteningly hard on myself. I have never understood the self-love movement as I am mired somewhere between dislike and apathy. I have tried for years to remedy this, but I fear that when you are told in your formative years that you are a burden, a mistake and a failure, a future in which you outwardly champion your own existence is asking a bit much.

As I alluded to in my last post, D and I decided to bite the bullet and make a financially stupid but psychologically astute decision to rent an apartment near the city and forego our caravan for a little while. A borrowed queen sized bed is our only furniture, other than a small coffee table and a little kids table for the boys to eat at. Our boys are sleeping on mattresses from the caravan; we have pushed the two single mattresses together and sometimes when we are lucky, little N will snuggle up to his big brother and leave us in peace for a whole night.
We borrowed a television from my best friend and a bar fridge from her aunt. While I am at work the boys hang out in the nearby parks playing outdoors or swimming the pool. Sometimes they will go to GoMA, or play in South Bank, or walk through the museum. The local public school – pretending I was to send J to it – is down the road, and I have heard coworkers speak of it glowingly. D’s boxing gym is a short jog away. We spend our weekends catching up with friends we have missed since moving to Melbourne seven years ago, or we drive to the beach. We are healthier than we ever were in Melbourne, thanks to almost endless sunshine and fresh air.

We could have been really happy here.

And, yet.
It’s me.
It’s not you, Brisbane. It’s me.

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There are days when I feel irreparably broken. When I believe with abject certainty that I will never be fixed, that I will never be ‘normal’ and that my father was right in all he ever said about me, and that my mother was right to flee. How could a parent not want to cradle the smooth, perfect skin of the life they created? My only answer for that is my own utter lack of worth, visible since I was merely minutes old. I can grow older, amass a new family, develop coping strategies and self-awareness, gain employment, earn a wage, buy nice things, but it means nothing if underneath it all I am undeniably ruined.

Does this come up more for me because I am back in Brisbane, the scene of so many crimes of the heart (and a few garden variety street offences)? Or is it because of something more sinister, something within me that I can never change? The creatives in the world are often the ones cursed with thoughts like these. I take comfort knowing I’m in good company.

But putting aside my oscillating thought processes, the other burning issue at hand is of course what we should do next. In no particular order, here are the options D and I have narrowed down for our family.

1. D goes back to work, I stay at home with the boys.  We want to be with them but the past 5 months of D being the stay-at-home parent have been fraught. He is a wonderful father and plays with the boys for hours. But he isn’t a great housewife, even if he looks good in an apron.  So if anyone is going to work, it will be him. And yet despite knowing this, and agreeing to it, I still complete job applications to random employers all over the world, because I am addicted to rolling the dice.

2. Stay in Brisbane. D would be happy with this. I would be happy for a few weeks before descending into some kind of psychotic break that paralyses me until I can be brought back to consciousness with a plane ticket.

3. Return to Melbourne. D is not keen on this idea, for reasons that make complete sense, namely that if it didn’t feel right a year ago it’s probably not right now. But yet, I do miss Melbourne. To me it feels like home, but that could be just because it’s the last place we were settled.

4. Find a smaller town somewhere and buy a big block of land. D claims he would love this. He wants to repair old motorcycles and have a shed again. We want our dog back. But I am terrified and unsure if my immediate response is a valid one or just one that has been honed from years of telling myself that I needed to live in a major city because that was the only way I would escape the small town mindset I came to view as normal.

5. We go somewhere rural. D is a country boy at heart, and assures me that the boys would have plenty of space and we could do cool stuff on the property to make it AirBandB worthy when we aren’t there. But how would we travel when we would have animals to look after? And how does a vegetarian get by in dairy and cattle farmer territory?

6. We try a new Australian city, e.g. Darwin. We like the idea of the tropics without the familiarity of the Eastern seaboard. We like the proximity to Asia. We like the multiculturalism. D could find work easily. Baby N could eat mangoes all year round. And we could have our crazy cattle dog Clancy back with us again. It’s an unexpected front-runner at the moment, though with everything we discuss, that’s subject to change at a moment’s notice.

7. We go overseas again and do some volunteer work. What better way to teach our kids about the world? We could find a villa in Bali, help with turtle conservation and help little kids to speak English. I have thought about doing post-grad study in education for years and for some reason I always back out. Maybe this would be a nice way to test the waters given that I did a 6 year double degree only to set foot in a law firm and realise I’d made a terrible mistake. But then I worry about the kids, and mozzie bites, and illnesses, and how we would manage it all. I want to challenge my children, but I don’t necessarily want to scar them for life.

8. In addition to all of this, I should add that D has a job offer in Vancouver. It would be a great job – perfect for him and would also let him work from home for most of the week. I love the idea of taking the boys out every day exploring a new city. But – Visas. We don’t think he can get a Visa without the assistance of the company, and for them to hire a foreign worker involves a lot of work on their part to illustrate that they tried to find a Canadian to do the job and could not.

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9. D could find a job overseas (Australian company with an international posting). But D will only go if it helps advance his employability; he won’t go if it is going to cost us money and makes no financial sense after you take away accommodation expenses/cost of living etc. I’m no mathemagician but he has a point.

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10. We pack up our lives again and just drive with the van. D is happy with this, and I am as well, although remembering how cramped I was in that tiny bed wedged between a sideboard, a toddler and my husband is not without its concern.

11. We go back to what is safe, D gets a job, I get a job, the boys go to school/daycare, we buy a nice house in a nice neighbourhood and we have a walk-in pantry and a big fridge and I drink wine in a coffee cup to quell the burning realisation that I had a chance to do something amazing with my children before they got too big, and instead I got scared, and returned to what is familiar. Maybe I could save turtles during school holiday breaks?

So there it is, Launderers. Now you know everything. Feel free to pass on your worldly advice because each day the weight of these decisions are eating away at the usually calm soul of my indecisive Libran husband, and are threatening to drive my erratic nature to doing something impulsive. Like, announcing to my employer that I will finish up in June.

Which I have already done.

But before I finish this post, let me stress that having options is a wonderful thing. We are blessed to have so many possibilities we could explore. We are fortunate to be educated such that we can find employment in various locations and forms. And above all of that, we are so very lucky to have two little children who are healthy and happy, and who could not care less where their crazy parents take them, as long as we are all together.

And that – that, I can promise, we will be.

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The good, the bad and the ugly.

I write this in January, on the halfway-between-a-double-and-a-Queen bed in our caravan, where all is dark except for the light from my laptop, and other than the sounds of my fingers tapping keys, the only noises are the snores of my youngest son who is asleep on my bed, and the whir of the air conditioner that is rarely, if ever, turned off.

It is 7.30pm. My children are asleep because they are overactive boys who need to rest, but who refuse to. They’ve both collapsed in a heap after tears and a tantrum and a cavalcade of books read to them by the parent who loves the sound of her own voice.

Soon, wine.

My husband is at the gym.

He needs to punch something.

He needs some alone time.

We are in Brisbane. We have been here for almost two months. We elected to stop here as I – on some strange tropics-infused whim – decided I would like to try my luck at being employed again. Just temporarily! Just to make sure I am still employable! So a few months ago from our van parked near Palmerston in the Territory, as my children slept I churned out a few job applications, and ended up getting a three month role in the Queensland government that was presumably to wrap up at the end of February. It has since been extended.

This will be great! We thought, for we are idiots. I can work and give D a taste of what it’s like to be a full-time stay-at-home dad! We can see if that set-up is one that might work for us! And we will only stay in Brisbane for a little while because, Brisbane. No we aren’t going to stay in Brisbane, are you kidding? As if we want to get stuck here again in the city that holds memories of most of my sins and years spent dodging bullets and firing even more.

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Lousy memory-ridden city with your glorious weather I WILL NOT FALL FOR YOU AGAIN! (Let’s do lunch?)

We will be fine, my husband said, as I went to work that steamy December morning, leaving him with the children. We will hang out in the pool, visit friends, do the touristy stuff.

We are two months in.
We are two months in to our three-month gig.
We are two months in.
And we are miserable.

Now, I could smack a lick of gloss over this crumbling conundrum and reassure all and sundry that EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! LIFE! YEAH! #BLESSED I could post photos of children playing with flowers, and me with my sun-kissed legs outstretched on a beach and of melamine cups and barbecues and sunsets and beauty and moments and gratitude.

It would be bullshit. That’s not reality anymore.

Before I elaborate I am at pains to explain that up until the Brisbane hiatus, things were awesome. Well, they were difficult (we do have two children under 5) but they were fun. Exploring new places, turning up in strange towns, making do in the surroundings, trying to be creative when cooking with a can of tomatoes, tuna and pasta for another night. It was challenging, but fun. We were a team, hubby and I. We rolled our eyes at each other when our boys screamed blue murder over misappropriated ninja turtles. We listened to podcasts as we drove through kilometers of nothing as our children watched episodes of Deadly 60 as our car sped along a highway. We talked about life on the rare occasions that both our children fell asleep as we drove – where we will settle? Is J ready for school? Where should we go next?

There are days, now, that we talk to each other in such a spitting, irritable way, you could be forgiven for thinking that we never liked each other, and that we are just inmates thrust into the same cell, trying desperately to get out of a prison of our own making.

How did this happen?

I don’t know. If I knew, I imagine I would be able to stop it. But I don’t know the cause. I know some contributing factors, but how relevant they each are is a bit of a mystery.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Bedtime.

Oh co-sleeping, you mistress of doom. You won me over with your promises of baby cuddles on tap, which I love, I do. And I have loved it for some time…the baby in question is nearly 2 and a half. The baby can sleep on his own, he just chooses not to. Oh, what’s that, unsolicited opinions? I should be firmer with him set some boundaries? HOW THE FUCK SHALL I MANAGE THAT IN A CARAVAN? The little bugger can simply roll out of his bottom bunk, wander up to us and scream until we give him what he wants (our bed). He slept in a bed on his own while we were housesitting; I was able to lie in bed with him until he fell asleep and then creep out. Do you know how hard it is to wedge oneself in the base bed of a triple bunk? Thank Christ for my years of yoga or I may have snapped a tendon by now, having to contort myself into place where I am resting half on the floor and half on a mattress that is supermodel thin, all the while cradling N’s enormous head in my bicep and trying not to swear.

So the baby ends up in bed with us. We try to make peace with it. We try to be sexually adventurous using locations other than the bed. Well, we try to try. Apparently my glaring and constant bitchy resting face isn’t sexy (who knew?).

Space

In families that are packed together like sardines in tiny apartments,  is there any data to show their quality of life? Because if I were a betting woman, I would wager that the proximity one is to one’s immediate family is inversely proportionate to the amount of affection felt for that family. In other words, I NEED SOME FUCKING SPACE. But I am the lucky one, now. I am at work for a glorious 8 hours a day. I get alone time on the bus, at the gym, on my lunch-break. It is absolutely marvellous and simply confirms to me what I always knew – that the stay at home parent has it much, much harder than anyone who gets to leave the house and go to work.

The SAHD

Poor husband. He is actually coping quite well as the primary caregiver and to be honest I never really doubted his ability. He is patient (though that quality is waning), he is engaged and he loves his kids. Plus, when we decided to have a family we were both VERY CLEAR on the fact that it would not be solely my role to raise our children. He could have found a woman who wanted to be homemaker. Instead he found me, a decision that I imagine he regrets far more than he used to of late.

So the problem isn’t so much him. It’s how I see him.

Imagine you are at work, doing your job day after day, a job that challenges you and one that you enjoy, and one which you are an expert at because you have been doing it for so long. Sure you might make mistakes from time to time but you know how to fix them and you know what works. You have it all figured out. You = boss.

Now imagine that you’re moving into another area at work, to take on a new role. Someone else has been hired to replace you. But they already know how to do your job, or at least they think they do. They might listen to a few tips you have, but they really want to do things their way. So when you see them about to make an error that you yourself have made and are now able to avoid, naturally you want to warn them. And when they ignore your warning, you want to slap them. Why aren’t they listening to you? This was YOUR JOB! But no, your words have little relevance now. It WAS your job. Now your job belongs to them.

And when, on a relatively easy day (by your standards), you hear your replacement moaning about how tired they are, how tricky the job is, how exhausting it can be, you feel some sympathy, because you have been there. But mostly, you feel annoyed, because you felt this way for years while you were in the role and WHO THE FUCK HELPED YOU?

Welcome to the world of watching your husband be the primary caregiver.

It is heartwarming to watch a dad with his sons. It is fantastic to have married a man who never believed that a woman’s place is at home. It is wonderful to finally be focusing a bit more on my career, having shouldered the majority of the parenting role for so long. But the bar is already set so goddamn low for fathers, that all they have to do is turn up and be affectionate towards their kids and immediately they’re nominated for Sainthood. So many people have said to me how lucky I am to have husband who is happy to stay home with our sons. Err, THEY’RE HIS CHILDREN! I didn’t create them myself on some journey of immaculate conception. And where was my parade when I gave up my career to stay home with the kids? Oh yes, that’s right, it’s just expected of us women folk, isn’t it?

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The love

Where is the love? The love that used to wrap me in its big strong arm and kiss me on the neck? Let me tell you where it is – that love has been squished into a wall by a baby who sleeps sideways. What about the love that stayed up late with me and drank wine, or let me read on his lap while he watched Game of Thrones and stroked my hair? That love has been silenced by small children who demand we tippy-toe around our 22ft can of a home, thus eradicating opportunities for conversation unless we wish to do so underneath our caravan awning, outside. Do you know what invades my senses when I sit outside my caravan? THE SIGHTS, SMELLS AND SOUNDS OF OTHER CARVANNERS. And I get attacked by mosquitoes. So no, there are no chats after dark unless they’re whispered, and no, there is no Netflix watching unless we can get the caravan park’s dicky WiFi to work and even then we have to aim the Ipad away from the baby because we have to sit on the bed where he is sleeping to watch it BECAUSE WE DON’T HAVE A COUCH.

Peace of mind

Oh yes, I did a course on mindfulness therapy. This technically means I should be espousing all manner of calm and soothing processes to chill one out. But I bet you couldn’t pick that now, could you? I have no patience and that is partly because I have no chance to just sit by myself and calm the fuck down. We have a fixed cabin looking down at us in our current van location; not sure I really want the glaring eyes of my transient neighbours watching me as I try to get some inner peace. I have been going to the gym regularly and THANK CHRIST for that outlet. I snap at the children. I yell at my husband. I use the word ‘fuck’ too much (and rarely as a verb, sob). And my husband is just as disgruntled. He shrugs at me, looks at me with a weird glare of incomprehension and occasional disgust. He wants to go back to work. He wants some semblance of normality back. But I am not kind about this; I am just angry.

Birthday

My stupid birthday is coming up and what is even worse is that it’s the day after a major public holiday so even if I wanted to forget about it, I can’t. What are you doing for the long weekend, Sarah? Oh I think I will just cry in a corner if that’s okay but as I can’t get any privacy I will just have to muffle my tears in the communal fucking shower block.

Nanny and Gran

I miss them, I miss them, I miss them. I always miss them. My friends complain about their mums being annoying and I find my immediate (internal) response not one of support but one of irritation. At least you still have her, I think to myself. I am not a nice person. I am probably going to hell. I will be easy to spot among the brimstone as I will be the one towing a caravan behind me as my penance for being a bitch on earth.

But…

If I have a talent (I don’t have one, I have many, the problem being they are fairly useless. For example: I have beautiful handwriting. What a blessing that is in this digital age), it is perception. I know this is temporary. I know that life comes in seasons and this is just where are at, for now. Et hoc transibit – this too shall pass.

There is a Japanese saying that goes something like “After the rain, the ground hardens”. Basically it means the soil is primed for growth after a downpour. Maybe this is our downpour? Or maybe we are just over living in a metal box?

When we started this adventure, we had no idea where it would lead. We didn’t know what to expect or where life would take us, nor did we consider a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to have this experience. Now, having journeyed for over six months, we have decided to take a break from our current situation and take a family holiday, a proper one. So we are off to Canada in March. Four weeks, six cities, including New York. While we are away we will stay open to new opportunities – will hubby find a role he loves overseas? Will we relocate and have new adventures abroad? Or will we miss Brisbane, that city we struck off our list so sure were we never to return?

Whatever happens, at the end of our holiday, I hope we will be ready to carve out our own little home somewhere. And while renting a house might mean our adventures have been curtailed at least temporarily, what’s the point of navigating the earth if you’re angry with your copilot?

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One hundred and thirteen days and counting

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It has been 113 days since I started my new life on the road, unattached and unfettered, and the freedom has gone to my head such that I have not written as much as I should. Writing for me feels a lot like exercise – something I may not necessarily feel like doing at any given moment, but an activity I do for the feeling afterwards which is my reward. Right now, I am doing virtual burpees as I type this post when I would rather be reading. You see, the silence in this van of ours is so hard to come by thanks to two loud and crazy little men, that when the cloud of quiet descends upon me, it is all I can do from succumbing to the lull of rest.

As I type this, we are in Karumba. Karumba is a small town on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland where the water is loaded with barramundi and banana prawns, where the ground is a pale, sandy gravel and the turquoise water stretches for kilometers. It is hot, very hot, and the flies are relentless. The people are friendly, the local café sells good coffee, and the owners of our caravan park will provide us with 1 kilogram of cooked prawns for the stately sum of $22.

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When I last posted, we were in South Australia and it was freezing. Our initial plan when we left Melbourne was to test-out life on the road for a couple of months before returning to Victoria in October for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. After that, we would travel to Tasmania for a month before returning to Melbourne and beginning the journey north, along the coast.

That is not at all what happened.

By the time we got to Victor Harbor in South Australia, and had rugged our children up in more layers than we thought we packed, and had trudged them out to Granite Island to peer at penguins who had more sense than we did, and who hid in their burrows out of view, we accepted we needed to change our plans. So on a Sunday morning, as our boys played Lego at our kitchen table, my husband D and I looked at each other, uttered the immortal words, “Fuck this” and decided to head north to warmer climes.

We flicked through a random South Australia/Flinders Ranges brochure we had picked up somewhere, circled a sheep station that sounded nice, and called the Spirit of Tasmania to change our booking. Then, we spent a frantic hour in the Victor Harbor mall, buying all manner of summer clothes because we had packed none, such was our certainty that we would return to Victoria at which time we would collect our summer clothes from storage. Our boys walked out of Target with fake Crocs to replace their gumboots, wide-brimmed hats to replace their beanies, and shorts to replace their track-pants. My husband walked out with a couple of t-shirts. I left with nothing but excitement at encountering heat for the first time since March.

We drove to Noarlunga, where we visited the local BCF and bought swimming vests for children who were no longer going to be forced to crouch in wet tufts of grass to play as their parents gripped their jackets tightly and asked them to hurry up, but who would instead float in the thermal pools of Mataranka, the place in the Northern Territory that we pictured as an oasis on that cold, dreary day.

Then, we drove.

Through Adelaide, through the Clare Valley, stopping at Burra for supplies, a kick of the football and petrol, on we sped along the highway until we reached Almerta – the antithesis to our grey, drizzly days in the city and suburbs. Located in the middle of the Flinders Ranges between Orrorroo and Carrieton, we pulled up our van and the beautiful Shane – who essentially runs the entire station on her own as her husband travels for 7 months out of the year doing shearing/crutching for sheep across South Australia and New South Wales – pointed to our space on her sprawling property.

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We were the only visitors there, and it was incredible. We had no power, no phone reception, and limited water. For four days we rode our bikes through the red dirt, navigating stony hills and tufts of saltbush. By day we spotted emus, kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles and cockatoos, played lego and cars in the dirt, and hiked around the property to explore the natural springs that emerged from the ground. At night we ate by the campfire, and when the boys were in bed, my husband and I sipped wine, placed more logs on to burn, and wondered why we hadn’t thought to do this earlier. The silence, the stars, the colours of the dirt and the sky. It was bliss.

It was bliss? Yes, it was. I can say that with certainty, even though for most of my life I have been a camp-phobe. Being raised by the elderly can do that to you. My grandparents were never going to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere, so my experience of childhood did not include this kind of pastime. My husband’s childhood was the same – his family owned a farm so disappearing for camping trips was not something workable or even desirable. D’s experience of roughing it came directly from being in the army, and until I met him, my experience of roughing it was staying in a 3 and a half star motel. This is partly why this whole experience of travelling on the road has been so educational for us, because we are repeatedly amazed at what we are discovering about ourselves in the absence of any outer influence. As it turns out, we do like camping. We like being offline for a little while and just appreciating being connected with each other and our kids. And we don’t even mind the dirt. Who knew?

From Almerta we continued north, stopping overnight at Wilpena Pound before another random and unexpected win when we stumbled across the tiny, deserted town of Farina. Farina was once a thriving community and many of its local sons fought in World Wars 1 and 2. We know this because we stood in awe as we read all about Farina’s history on a monument that was a couple of kilometers from the highway, surrounded by dirt, but which lead towards a huge clearing complete with trees, hills, and families of emus huddling close to each other. We rode our bikes around, chatted with the grey nomads whose language we are fluent in, and taught J about war, about soldiers, and even about the Coat of Arms, and that yes, it’s true, emus and kangaroos cannot go backwards. Neither can we.

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From Farina we headed further north, along the Oodnadatta Track. This wretched patch of road is considered a highlight for some – for me, who had elected to share driving right at this very spot – it was hellish. For four hours I white-knuckle gripped the steering wheel and endeavoured not to slide our 4WD and 22ft van into a ditch. The corrugated dirt did a number on our van, with our shower screen door falling off the rails (but not shattering, fortunately) and a kitchen cupboard being loosened from its hinges and snapping off. The landscape was eerie and lunar-like – no towns for hours, few cars passing through, just a flat expanse of blue-grey that melted into the sky such that using the horizon as a reference point became impossible. By the time we slid into William Creek, we could not get to the pub fast enough.

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The next day at the crack of dawn we headed west to Coober Pedy. Without offending the local townsfolk, I can say with certainty that our one night there was well and truly sufficient. The mines, the holes, the life underground…well, it just isn’t for us. I’m not even that big a fan of opals. But kudos to the local supermarket and its impressive range of goods, including lemon tarts in the adjacent café that kept our boys quiet while we enjoyed a much-needed hit of caffeine.

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From Coober Pedy we continued up the Stuart Highway to finally – under drops of rain and a grey and ominous sky – cross the Northern Territory border. For one cramped and uneventful night, we hunkered down at the Kulgera Roadhouse. It is essentially a petrol station with space to park a van and connect to power. We left in the morning, heading towards Yulara.

Yulara is the home of Uluru, and the enormous rock in the middle of Australia did not disappoint. It is a special, sacred place, but what I found the most beautiful thing was not the rock itself, but rather, the prevalence of a small ecosystem on the rock’s periphery. I had imagined Uluru to be a big red boulder in the middle of nothing, but I was wrong. It is home to a huge number of plants and animals who have all made this space their home. We took photos of flowers as we rode our bikes around the base, J pointed out lizards on our way back to the car, and we spotted tadpoles swimming in puddles close to caverns. We felt so blessed to share in seeing such a special place which has for centuries been an important part of Indigenous Australia, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t angered and ashamed of my Caucasian roots when I watched incredulously as tourists mounted the rock for photos. At one point I may have shouted abuse in the direction of a pack of oldies wearing Queensland State of Origin shirts and who were not content with viewing the rock’s splendour from the ground and who instead hoisted their loud, entitled asses off the ground for a better photo opportunity. “Always speak up if you see something that isn’t okay,” we told J. “Sometimes you have to be the person who says something.”

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We stayed at Yulara for 5 days, including a day of hiking through the Olgas, a somewhat ambitious activity given that we had to carry a child each for most of the way. During our time at Yulara we sold our house at auction. A stressful, harrowing Saturday morning was spent with my husband on the phone to his sister who was in attendance at the auction, and me entertaining the crazy children with dirt, cars, and a football. But it sold, we got a good price, and finally the freedom that comes from having fewer responsibilities and assets became closer to being realised.

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From Yulara we detoured to Kings Canyon for a night. I have heard many people speak glowingly of this place but with two young children, a prevalence of dingoes and walking tracks that require more sure-footedness than my 2 and 4 year old possess, it was not a place of magic for us. We headed back to the Stuart Highway the next morning, heading towards Alice Springs where we made our home for 4 days. It was nice enough and I was grateful for the chance to clean out our van, do loads of laundry, and visit the local Flight Centre to book a quick sojourn to Bali.

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We continued north towards Mataranka, but the lure of the Daly Waters pub drew us into its grasp and soon we were drinking jugs of beer under heavily worked fans, while our children slurped ice blocks and coloured in their free activity books. The next morning we arrived in Mataranka, home of the aquamarine thermal pools. Our little N was not a fan, but J and his dad swam for ages spotting turtles and fish and relishing in the tepid water’s gentle current. Although it was a magical experience, my dislike of algae swimming against my skin freaked me out somewhat. The Bitter Springs pool was more child-friendly, and both boys had a ball, at least until J got swept over the waterfall’s barrier and remained upright only due to his strength at holding on to the rocks, and my own strength at hauling him one-armed back to safety.

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From Mataranka our next stop was Katherine, where we stayed at a sprawling property covered with shady trees, and where a large proportion of our days was spent in the shade-sail covered pool. We liked Katherine’s uniqueness combined with its quirky charms – J was amazed that the entire town had flooded so severely in the 80s that crocodiles were swimming through the middle of the shopping centre, and D couldn’t speak more highly of the lovely lady he met at the Tourism Centre, who not only guided him as to the most child-friendly spots to visit in Kakadu, but who also advised us to purchase Solicite from the Chemist to help with our sensitive little N’s reaction to mosquito bites. I too was impressed, albeit mistakenly, when I was asked for identification at the bottle shop. Apparently this has nothing to do with my appearing younger – it is a request asked of everyone buying alcohol.

Before we left, we took a trip on a boat down Katherine Gorge, marvelling at the rock formations, and the next day we left town via Edith Falls where the boys swam and I drank Coke Zero on the grass.

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After Katherine we drove to Litchfield National Park and for two nights we stayed in another green expanse of grass and trees, and where our neighbours had three boys who were all Port Adelaide supporters. J was thrilled to have met some like-minded souls and played with the boys constantly when we were at camp. We took day trips to Florence Falls and all around Litchfield, swam in clear waters and smelled the scent of the ground being quenched with an afternoon downpour. The tropics – oh how we missed you after our six years of living in Melbourne.

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Finally – after weeks since our decision in Adelaide to head north – we reached Darwin. We fell in love almost instantly – the heat, the sunsets, the seafood, the mangoes, the laid-back lifestyle, the existence of Casuarina Shopping Centre which but for a lack of a Myer/David Jones has pretty much everything someone who has been deprived of a shopping centre for weeks could need, our caravan park’s epic pool and the bar’s $20 jugs of Pimms, our proximity to the Palmerston library where I retreated to complete online job applications…Darwin had it all. We became regulars at the Mindil Markets of a Thursday night where we ate a smorgasbord of food on our leaf-strewn picnic blanket before heading on to the sand to watch the sun set over the water. We were in Darwin for over a month, and although we did spend one week of this time in Bali and another week in Brisbane (N and me, for a wedding and a job interview) and Melbourne (D and J, for D’s mum’s 70th birthday and to clear out our house prior to settlement), we could have stayed longer, and we were sad to say goodbye.

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Bali was of course as one would expect from Bali – relaxing and invigorating – but what was even better about our short vacation was that it planted a seed for a life we might be able to pursue now that we are free from material attachments. Why can’t we relocate there for a period of time and just enjoy life by the ocean, teaching our kids about different cultures and lifestyles? Why is that out of the realms of possibility? It’s not, not now anyway. And what does that mean for our kids? Maybe it means they get to see the world through another’s eyes.

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One night after we were walking back to our hotel after dinner, a woman begging on the ground reached up towards J with an outstretched arm, her hand gesturing for money. He asked us immediately why the lady was on the ground. This prompted a long discussion about poverty, about the act of begging, and about being grateful for the kind of life we have that means we do not need to ask others for money. J seemed to understand, but when we stopped off just before our hotel to buy water at a convenience store, he burst into tears and asked if we could buy that lady a lollypop. She doesn’t have any money for a lollypop and i want to give her one. The poor lady.

He cried and cried and cried.

And although I was sad to see my son distressed by what he had witnessed on the streets of Kuta, I was also grateful. How can I teach him to be thankful for the life he has if it is in a vacuum, if he has no context? If he has not seen that there are people in the world who are poor, who do not get a chance to become educated, who do not have the privilege of clean water and nutritious food, and who for whatever reason find themselves on the pavement of a thoroughfare asking strangers for spare change, how does he learn about them? That night, he learned something powerful – that the world is not just limited to his protected circle and that there are many other people living very different lives than the one he knows. I dropped to my knees and held him close to me, and I told him that he was a beautiful and kind soul for feeling sad about the lady he saw. I told him feeling sad about her situation means that he cares. And that sometimes caring hurts, but that having a caring nature is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I will stop my recount of our adventures there – 3000 words is quite enough for one blog post. Suffice to say that after 113 days the experience has been unforgettable, the lessons learned innumerable and the connection with my boys even stronger than it was 4 months ago.

The journey continues.

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Lessons learned in a van

Sarah,

Remember when you were 14 years old and blasting that Garbage song about only being happy when it rains? You had your yellow Sony Walkman in your ears, the one constantly attached to your head as you wandered the sunny, bright, blue-skied streets of Cleveland, your hometown in the sunshine state? Remember how you longed for the grey, dreary, cold days where you could be for given for huddling inside away from the world? You ached for that weather, the kind of respite from the cheeriness of sun. And yet now here you are, some 20 years later, and guess what – you are goddamn sick of the fucking rain.

One month in a van, at least 75% rain.

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It rained in Melbourne, as it always does, all through winter, making cold, unpalatable days even harder to navigate, especially when you had two small children to entertain. You left Melbourne for Echuca where it was cold but sunny, and where you sat outside drinking wine with your husband as your children played (briefly) at your feet. I could get used to this! – or so you thought. Of course then it rained in Bright, the picturesque town at the base of the mountains, minutes from the snow. It rained so much the ground squelched under your every step. You wore gumboots constantly, as did your boys, and despite your best efforts, your caravan was soon streaked with mud.

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It also rained at the snow, your first trip to what you expected to be a powdery white wonderland. It rained so much you could barely see, your face hurt from the ferocity of the droplets smashing against your freezing cheeks. Your eldest son, J, cried from the sensation as his olive skin turned a blotchy red. Your baby, N, wailed as wetness covered his face, when even the warm embrace of his Dad shielding him from the onslaught could not abate his tears.

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It rained in Mansfield, that freezing little town at the base of yet another mountain. You didn’t even bother trying to entertain your children outdoors in these conditions – instead, you cleverly sought out a DVD from the local Target and played it repeatedly with the boys perched on your bed (God bless you, Zootopia).

It rained when you came back to Melbourne, literally dampening your efforts to prepare your house for upcoming sale. With every job performed outside, you trudged dirt and debris into your momentarily pristine home. Your husband sought refuge in the shed as he completed carpentry tasks with his knuckles clenched and his fingers frozen to the bone. You managed to plant flowers using your bare hands, scraping soil from a pile on the ground and filling planter boxes to line your deck. You didn’t have a spade; it had been packed away, so instead you used a random piece of wood to aid shovelling. By the end of the sixth planter box, your hands were numb.

It rained when your children succumbed to one of the worst colds they’ve had, a heaving, hacking cough your accompaniment to drizzly days of nothing but grey. It was perfect weather to curl up inside in front of a fire, snuggling on a well-loved couch with your sick little people. But you don’t own a couch anymore, and you couldn’t risk your kids damaging the hire furniture used to present your home in its most appealing light. You mooched at the home of your sister-in-law, taking over her lounge room and playing hours of lego with your boys, while your husband tended to last-minute jobs in preparation for your home’s advertising photographs. When the photographer arrived, it rained. It rained so much, they photoshopped in a sunset sky.


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You set off on the next leg of your trip, stopping at the beachside town of Torquay where finally there was sun. You inhaled the scent of the ocean and walked along the sand with your children. It didn’t rain once. In a typical response, you almost decided to relocate your family to Torquay permanently.


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You scoured the jobs in the area, noting one position with a past employer who has relocated to Geelong. You looked at the houses for sale in the area, marvelling at the serenity of life by the ocean, the four bedroom homes with open living areas and clean tiles. You told yourself that – after days of wrangling sick, cranky children in close quarters – you could be the one to return to full-time work, bringing in a generous wage that would allow your husband to be the stay-at-home parent. You might have even applied for this job, had your laptop been operational but alas, your husband had accidentally taken the battery lead to your storage shed, meaning it was packed away. By the time you reach Warrnambool, you are so desperate to tap your keyboard that you find the one Apple outlet in the region and fork out $130 to quell your angst. By then, the job applications for that role you were eyeing off had closed, which as you know, is a blessing.

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You drive to Port Campbell and a combination of your own onset of illness and entertaining your children in the cold has caused your already short fuse to be rubbed down to a nib. You think back to what you had imagined this journey to be like – mornings of sunshine, pancakes, smoothies and family bike rides. You wonder how you could have ignored the critical fact that you would not see summer for months. You want to fast-forward time so that you get to that place by the beach, the rolling waves and the yellow streams of sunlight. You want the ritual of slathering up chunky legs with sunscreen and affixing hats to not-so-little heads that try to wriggle free. You want the look of delight when your husband throws one of your children up in the air in the water, the splash of warm liquid on your face, the cool afternoon breeze that moves your maxi dress between your calves.

Dresses! Oh, you miss them too. You packed your corporate attire away so frantically you never even paused to consider you might miss the sensation of a zip running up your spine or sliding on a pair of heels. You live in tights and jeans, hoodies and sneakers. You didn’t bring anything else into the caravan with you. Why would you? You dress for practicality now, not style (although in your defence, you still have most of your jewellery with you because you know it is amazing how one statement piece can transform an otherwise pedestrian outfit).

You drive on to Mount Gambier, where there are shops, a library, cafes and even an art gallery. You quite like Mount Gambier, and how could you not – it is the fertile, stoic ground from which your husband grew. You can tolerate the rain – yes, more rain – because like Melbourne, Mount Gambier’s weather can never quite commit to what it wants to be. When the rain passes, there is a glimmer of sun. But it quickly disappears. You imagine living in a town like this and how you would cope with the extremes in temperature throughout the year. You know you would survive, but suspect you would probably complain constantly.

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You drive through the Coorong to Adelaide and the sun follows you the whole way. Since being in Adelaide it has not rained once. You’ve had bike rides into Glenelg, teaching your son about resilience when his little legs refused to keep pushing for the last leg of the 8km round trip. You have played lego and trucks and cars in a sun-filled annex that keeps you warm. But despite the reprieve of the elements, you finally succumb to the ache of your sinus infection, collapsing in tears as you beg for an ice pack to relieve the pain in your face. Your husband puts you to bed, closes the blinds and makes the space as dark as it can be in spite of the happy sunshine hovering overhead. In a brief moment of desperation you find yourself wanting to call out for your Nanny, for her to make you well again and to push the pain away. But she can’t, Sarah. She can’t.

You chat with the oldies in all of the caravan parks and you like them; they remind you of your own grandparents even though you realise your grandparents would never have considered life in a caravan. Your Nanny would never have agreed to bathing in a communal shower block, and besides, where would she get her perm set every month? “You know I don’t let just anyone touch my hair!” – her words ring in your ears even though it has been years since she said anything like this, to you or to anyone. You also think of your grandfather. The sun-chaser in him would be baulking at the thought of completing a lap of Tasmania in September, “You’re not driving north?” he would question, noting his own hatred of the cold; the boy from Goulburn for whom a winter in Queensland was barely tolerable.

Your children have grown before your eyes. Your baby N responds with a vehement “No!” when he feels like refusing something, his once angelic eyes narrowing to a piercing glare. He is no longer the chubby infant permanently on your hip, who only wanted you all the time. Instead he will squirm from your grasp and run after his brother, copying everything he does. But at lunchtime when N needs his nap, you will no longer have to sit in a darkened room, hunched over at his cot and patting him into sweet oblivion, all the while hoping that J doesn’t make a sound that will wake him. Instead, you darken the caravan and snuggle into him on your bed. He guzzles his bottle and burrows between the safety of your left bicep and your chest, and there he will sleep for an hour, maybe more. You will hold his perfect, plump little foot in your hand as the fine blond hairs on his warm skull tickle your nose. You will stay there for as long as he needs you, because you can. Your husband takes J out during this time – to kick the footy, to ride his bike, or today – to wash the car. So you still have your baby, but now you get him in one concentrated hit.

J has moments of baffling turdiness which you respond to poorly because you forget regularly that he is only 4 years old. He is the boy who asks you questions about the world and who offers suggestions for improving the space around him that never occur to you. He proposes that giant flying foxes be affixed to all street lamps, allowing pedestrians a new form of public transport. “The people could just swing from one to the other, and then they don’t have to worry about driving their cars!” You agree that this would be a far more enjoyable form of public transport than any you have experienced thus far. J accompanies your husband to a night football match and you take a photo of the two of them together that makes you swell with sadness at the disappearance of your chubby toddler, but fills your heart with pride at the handsome, smart young man you are helping to grow.

And as for your husband – that man with whom you butt heads, snap at or pester for an explanation for the occasional stressed, sullen mood? That man is gone, replaced with a relaxed, eager co-parent who tends to every one of the household duties for which you used to be (mainly) solely responsible. He takes the children solo for trips to the bouncing pillow in the caravan park grounds, he smiles at you across the table where you eat breakfast together as a family, and he sets up the barbecue to make dinner, allowing you to continue lego helicopter making duties with J. On sunlit mornings he goes for a run, returning with coffee for you both. Panting and sweaty, he removes his skin-tight running top to reveal the broad shoulders and strong chest you have  clutched for the past eleven years. You run your eyes over his physique, noting the athleticism etched in his muscles, his firm calves, his wide thighs and his ridiculously round derriere. You wrap your arms around his back, running your finger down the shallow trench at his spine, the place where two sides of his back converge. In your wedding vows, you wrote that you had never felt safer than when you were in his arms. You note that this is still true.

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It has been just over a month since you started this journey; since you said goodbye to your jobs, your house, your things. There has been tears, laughter, fury and delight. There has been life lived, edges explored, patience tested and affection shared. You wanted to shake things up, remember? You wanted to get away from the mundane, from labelled Tupperware and frantic Sunday nights. You wanted space and time together, and you must remember this.

Even when the children test you. 
Even when you long for a shower that doesn’t involve the need to wear thongs. 
And even when – ultimately – the rain comes back again.

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(The sun will come back too.)

-S x

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Sweet Child(care) of Mine

Today I advised my son’s child care centre that we will be leaving in a couple of weeks, meaning that we will no longer need our place for both boys. J currently goes to sessional 4-year-old kinder twice a week; N goes for a play one day a week. This centre – for which there is an approximate wait-list of about 2 years, so coveted are its vacancies – will no longer be part of our weekly routine, a role it has played for the best part of 4 years.

To say I am mourning this impending loss would be an understatement.

Childcare often gets a bad rap; people think of it as a babysitting service where snotty nosed kids are neglected and left to wallow in their own filth.

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This has never been true for me. I have been  blessed with our experience at the centre my kids they have attended for the last 4 years. Quite frankly, I don’t know what we will do without them.

So, I did what writers do, and I wrote them a letter:

Dear V, S and M,

It is with a heavy heart and sadness that I write to advise that J and N will be finishing up at the Centre on Wednesday 13 July 2016. Our caravan will be ready in the coming weeks and we intend to set off after this for a 3-4 week trip around Victoria to get our bearings and see how we take to caravan life.

We have picked 13 July as our last day as it is the first day back after holidays, meaning that J can say goodbye to his friends and teachers in the kindy room.

As you know, the centre has become a second home to us over the past four years, and the staff have become an extended family. When J first started attending he was only 9 months old and was one of the chubby little babies loved in the babies’ room. He went on to Room 9 where he learned to eat more than just bread at lunch, and painted huge artworks that have until now hung in his room. Before long, J was in Room 6 with and it was here that he became a big brother to N, who eventually joined him at “school” and who has been smothered in kisses and cuddles all the other staff. J has made friends here that I hope he will stay in contact with; the crazy band of boys and their fondness for role play makes me smile whenever I watch them scurry about in the yard.

I do not have a family network on which to rely for advice and/or assistance, and when J first started attending the Centre I had few friends (having moved to Melbourne from Queensland only a couple of years earlier). The chats I have had with staff when I have dropped my boys off became invaluable tools for understanding both my role as a parent, and my child’s view of the world. Over the last few days I have shed tears as I removed J’s artwork from his room, marvelling at the changes in his skills – skills that the carers and educators have taught him. From the honeybee song that B taught him a couple of years ago that still makes him giggle, to the encouragement in getting him to try his food; from the unveiling of the Dinosaur Park to the exploration of the nearby parklands, the memories from the centre are extensive and meaningful. I have no idea how we will replicate or replace the lessons our boys have learned while in your care; I just hope they can one day remember the special place they used to call ‘school’.

We have no set plans for our itinerary and no definitive idea as to whether we will return to Yarraville. We plan to sell our home and have given ourselves 6-12 months to see how we like travelling, but as I have been at pains to remind myself, we can always come back at any time. I really hope if we end up back here, I can once again be a parent at the centre, so that I can watch N embark on the same path of learning that J did, in this special, loving setting.

Once we have our caravan, I wonder if perhaps we could arrange a “show and tell” type occasion where J could show some of the kids his new home? We could just park out the front somewhere. We will also be encouraging J to write postcards to send back to you so that you can keep track of our travels. I also have a blog where I will post regular updates on how we are surviving.

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for creating this safe, happy place, that has become a haven for me on days I have been desperate for a break, and which has helped our little people to grow into confident, smiling little men.

I will never forget our time here.

With best wishes and a sincere hope to keep in touch,
Sarah

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Just write to Jesus, care of The Pentagon.

I really hope we keep in touch. I am going to miss them all.

 

 

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Countdown to D-Day

Since my last post much has transpired in preparation for our upcoming departure with caravan. Our new home is near completion and packing is underway. How exciting! I would love to say. I do feel excited, and I feel grateful for that when I do. But I also feel a range of other emotions, as is expected when one makes a life changing decision that affects their whole family. The anxiety is the worst; in the past few weeks it comes to me just at bedtime, just as my muscles begin to unclench from their permanent state of arousal, and just as my mind begins to blur into slumber. My legs, restless, kicking and jerking as though possessed by the blood of an athlete, my breathing frenzied and erratic. An overwhelming desire to scream as loudly as possible and to do something, take something, to just melt the friction away.

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I don’t though. I try to calm my breathing. Sometimes I’ll do yoga nidra. Sometimes I’ll annoy my husband. But most times I’ll do what seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world when faced with a sense of chaos – to read about the worsened state of chaos of another. My method for doing this is simple: coronial reports. Publicly accessible, these PDFs have lulled me to sleep more times than a lullaby ever has. The stories are harrowing, traumatic, often graphic and at times incredibly cruel. And yet despite my knowledge that feeding the beast that is anxiety is often fraught with danger, for me, sometimes, this is the safest way to view catastrophe without actually having to be within it. And while it is true that working as a lawyer and in public policy meant that there were times that I needed to read these stories for reasons purely related to work, I can’t rely on this exposure to the reports to make me seem less macabre and sadistic, because I would have probably sought these documents out anyway. Not just because I am a voyeur of tragedy, but also because I have an at-times insatiable need to explore and examine daily life. And to write about it.

Over the years I have of course examined my own life (mainly to confirm what I once suspected, namely that I possessed insurmountable flaws; fortunately these ended up just being superficial marks of wear and tear) and while doing this in recent times my husband and I agreed that we needed to shake things up a bit. Well, not just a bit. A lot. Hence the decision to quit our jobs, sell our house and go travelling around the country with our boys in a caravan.

I like those odds.
I like those odds.

I am writing this post in the one remaining chair that I own, which now has the honour of being the sole piece of loungeroom furniture in a pleasingly uncluttered room. The couch I nursed my J on for hours on end has been given away; so too has the side table I used to use to rest my makeup on in our old house in Queensland. We have sold our television cabinets, and given away our business suits. I have parted with more toys owned by my sons than I care to think about, not pausing to be sentimental as I pictured the joy they would bring to another child who has gone without for too long. I have taken down lovingly etched artworks done by my son, and I have photographed each piece, vowing to turn the stack of squiggles into some kind of memento. I had all his pieces in a box, ready for the recycling bin, and then it hit me. The bubbling waves of sadness that caused my stomach to flip. The gritted teeth. The clenched jaw. Then, the onslaught.

I wept, and wept, and wept.

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This home, this cozy, quirky little home is the place where I fell pregnant with J. It is where I looked down blissfully to see two pink lines on a test that confirmed I was to become a mother. It is where I paced the floorboards for hours with my unsettled first baby as he thrashed restlessly in my arms. It is the place where I warmed bottles in the night or rolled to my side, hoisting up my top to feed my child. It is the place that kept us warm on grey Melbourne days and where the sun shone in streams through the back deck on springtime afternoons.

This home is the location from which I have walked kilometres with a pram on bleary mornings after nights that involved pitiful amounts of sleep, determined to source a hit of caffeine. On these walks I have discussed the mechanics of ‘mixer trucks’ (which may or may not have been accurate), taught J to read numbers from the letterboxes we passed, and sung to baby N as he watched the world pass by from his cushioned, blanketed seat. I have walked my boys to our childcare centre, an amazing gem of a place that has become a second home to me, and where I’ve had long chats with staff who have become family. And while I can leave the material things behind, knowing I am saying goodbye to this friendly place, with its bright handprint paintings and its adjacent dinosaur park, and the staff who smile at me even when I am wearing food stained hoodies and a baseball cap to hide my hair, is too hard for me to even contemplate yet, so I won’t.

In the 34 years I have been on this planet, our home in the inner west of Melbourne is the only space in which I have ever felt as though I belonged; not just within the walls of my house but as part of a community. By the time I was 7 years old I had already been to five different kindergartens and schools, spanning three different states. I had said hello and goodbye to parents who dipped their toes into the murky water of family life, only to hoist their limbs away with a jolt. After living in the Redlands for almost 20 years, the only feeling that consumed me about my neighbourhood was the desire to escape it in one piece. Until adulthood, my experience of life was always on the outer, and when it wasn’t, I usually found a way to extract myself from attaching to anything with even a whiff of impermanence. My skills at building walls were impressive in their efficiency.

After making the agonizing move to Melbourne from Brisbane, away from the grandparents for whom I felt solely responsible and desperately conflicted, I rationalized my absence by telling myself I would last only a year here. One year south of the border, and then I would return home. But I didn’t, because something strange and unexpected happened, and that was I fell in love with my new home. I made friends with other mums who I visited with my sleep deprived, cranky children, women who fed me cups of tea and chocolate biscuits as we lamented our lack of slumber. My son made friends with kids from school with whom he acts out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle moves (he is Leo), and spends part of his weekend on the swings or running in the green expanse of one of the nearby parks. I have watched both my children grow in this place; our little house in the inner west, minutes from the city, minutes from parks, walking distance to the shops, surrounded by families, and soon, on the market for someone else to buy.

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I tend to do this – I leap into decisions with an air of impulsivity, only to have my emotions catch up with me as time moves forward. Now that my husband has resigned from work and our house is strewn with boxes do I realise the gravity of the choice we have made. But even so, I know it’s the right choice. I know it’s what we need to do. If we had felt fully content and settled, the need to shake things up would never have crossed our minds. So as we move forward to D-Day, I am optimistic about having no itinerary and no set ideas of where we will live next, although part of me hopes that one day we will come back here, to the place I never expected to live or love, because as much as I believe that home is where the heart is (and for me, it is with my boys), there is something beautiful about carving out a special place of your own in a world where you have often felt on the periphery.

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Evergreen

“Isn’t it lovely here?” my grandmother says, her wrinkled hand gliding across a green, glossy leaf that shines with dewy droplets of water. She bends down to take a deep inhalation of the flowers that grow on the raised garden bed. “Gardenias,” she says, closing her eyes. She walks on, lighting patting ferns and shrubs jostling for space. “Remember we used to have them all over the garden at home?”

My grandfather sits on the edge of a concrete fountain, a two-tiered dome shape behind him from which dainty streams of water jump into the sky before landing in a pool. Briefly separated, this poetic choreography rejoins droplets of water in an aquamarine puddle in which their individual parts vanish, succumbing instead to the collective mass of liquid. Still with his gold-rimmed glasses on, he closes his eyes and lets the gentle sunshine warm his face. “Lots of them,” he says, crossing his legs at the knees, his olive skin basking in the stream of light reflecting from the water.

My grandmother looks at the ground and carefully studies the edges of her shoes. “Don’t you slip here,” she says to me, lifting her left foot off the ground in a delicate kick. The sounds of crickets chirp around us, the gentle rush of breeze rustles the plants, and the heady scent of dampness, moss and wood rush into my sinuses. I sit on the wooden park bench opposite my grandfather, and pat the space next to me, gesturing for my grandmother to come closer. She sits as close as she can, our legs touching, hers beneath a light cotton green and white skirt that blends perfectly with our tropical surroundings. I notice her white linen shirt with a scalloped neckline and roses embroidered at the lapel; her frangipani brooch – the one dipped in gold, clasps together what she considers an immodest plunge from her chest to her first button.

I remember this brooch vividly as an accessory to the outfit I buried her in.

She pats my thigh twice, “So, pet, what’s the news with you?”

I smile and reach for her hand, telling her about the baby born almost a year after she died. I tell her about my elder son and his cheeky disposition. I ask my grandparents if I was just the same, if, when they raised me as their own, I drove them to the point of madness with my argumentative ways. I ask them if I was a baby who slept well, explaining that both of my children have been hideous sleepers. I tell them that other than my husband, I receive no assistance, no meal delivery, no folded laundry, no babysitting on call.

“Well you didn’t expect me to do that, did you?” my grandmother asks, laughing.

A ladybug lands on my grandmother’s shoulder; its tiny wings come to a standstill as it navigates new terrain. I place my fingertips out like a bridge, beckoning the bug to walk towards assistance. It delicately treads across my fingers, up into my palm, and as I roll my hand in a circle, it takes flight and lands steadily on the tip of a fern, scurrying back towards the familiar.

“So, two little boys, that must keep you busy?” my grandfather asks, taking an ironed hankie from his pocket and wiping his brow. “I met one of them, didn’t I?”

I tell him about the two occasions he met my elder son, the only great-grandchild he would live to see. I tell him that he has deep brown eyes like my own, while my younger son has piercing circles of blue like his father. As we chat, I rub my own scratchy, weary eyes, explaining to my grandfather that since his death, my already minimal sleep has become fitful. I tell him I dream of him often, that I feel responsible for how his life ended and that I blame myself for allowing vultures to prey on him when protecting him with my scarecrow-arms outstretched became too much of a burden to bear.

“You never were real good with death, were you?” he says.

I nod silently. The pervading theme of most of my childhood was fighting against the only certainty of life, namely that the two people entrusted to care for me in the absence of my own parents, were sure to die. Each time they were sick, or late to collect me from school, or unable to answer the phone, all of these times pointed to what I reasoned was an inevitable outcome: I would be orphaned; of this I was certain. I would be alone in the world until I was able to leave it myself.

“But we held on, didn’t we?” my grandfather says, chuckling as my grandmother smiles proudly. I blink back tears with the bittersweet knowledge that he is right. They both survived until I was in my early thirties, and by that time I had made a family of my own, a new anchor. My fears came to fruition in that they both eventually passed away, but my resolute and anguished belief that they would abandon me to a world of street corners and sleeping bags was inherently flawed.

“But I still miss you,” I say, as tears spill down my cheeks. My Nanny, who has been unable to comfort me since dementia ravaged her mind in my early twenties, holds my face in her tiny hands, and instructs me to stop.

“Now, you know seeing that upsets me. We might be dead but we’re not gone. We are still around you whether you like it or not.”

And with that, she dusts off her hands on her skirt, rises effortlessly from the bench, and wanders further into the garden, my grandfather trailing behind her.

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The road ahead

A few months ago I wrote a piece about my longing to get off the wheel. It was a watershed moment where I realised what I wanted my life to look like and what it actually looked like were very different things. In the past I have been reasonably judgmental towards those who complain about situations they have the power to transform, be they an unsatisfying relationship, an unfulfilling job or something even larger, for example, the very make-up of their beings. I am not immune to this malady – I lament a number of my own personal failings and repeat mistakes often; my only redeeming feature in this is that I try to improve the things I dislike. Slowly, much like a snail wading through mud, I am gradually propelling myself toward something more than the version of me I believed I was for so long. No longer am I the bratty, angry child who never thought much about her life, so sure was she that it was bound to end before she reached double-digits, presumably by her own hand.

Now being well into the double-digits and of (reasonably) sound mind, I find myself in a life that is both confronting and inspiring in its departure from what I believed my life would be. For most of my adolescence I did not consider what my adult life would look like, because I reasoned that the chances of me making adulthood seemed so slim, to gaze into the future was simply frivolous. As I got older I lived day to day, stumbling through in a haze of antidepressant medications that sedated me more than boosted my awareness, which I paired with nights of binge drinking to the point of blackouts. I cannot recount the number of times I woke up the next day with what can be eloquently described as fuck-all memory of the night before. And while this kind of experimentation can all be chalked up to youthful exuberance, for me it was always a shade darker, because deep within my soul, I knew that drinking really let me forget who I was, and how utterly futile my attempts at happiness would be.

Of course, the universe has a way of teaching those of us who want to learn, and for all my failings and self-hatred, I had an interest in unraveling the tightly wound knot that had formed around my soul. I wanted to understand who I was, and what had caused me to become all the things I despised. I wanted the anger to subside, I wanted the burning hateful rage towards my parents to at least be more akin to a manageable back-burning activity than a fiery inferno doomed to engulf me in flames. I wanted to be a better version of myself, but short of self-analysing in what was then the DSM-IV (and becoming convinced I suffered from a number of personality disorders), I had no other tools at my disposal.

It was a work of both luck and kismet that I started seeing a therapist in 2002. For fourteen years we have waded through my psyche, studying the blocks within my own foundation for flawed belief patterns and crumbling debris that leads to self-sabotage. And with a chance to unlock my own story, I have re-written the ending. So now, having overcome (most of) my own demons, I find it difficult to simply exist in an unconscious life. I cannot wed myself to the idea of working long hours, away from my children, in a job that does not satisfy me, so I can pay for a mortgage.

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All I really need is my health and the health of my family, somewhere to write, time with the loved ones I never believed myself worthy to have, and a chance to nourish my soul. And another twist of fate, I have found myself a partner in life who holds the same beliefs as I do. My husband D has been in the workforce for over 20 years and he has worked his ass off to get where he is. And guess what?

He has just resigned.

Why?

So that as a family, we can take 12 months off, away from the daily grind, to rediscover what motivates us and brings us joy, and most importantly, so that we can spend quality time with our children.

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We have bought a caravan that will be ready late next month, and have traded in both our cars to buy a 4WD that I struggle to park. I have commenced the culling process, donating scores of goods to charity, selling some bits and pieces, and throwing out what remains.

Our family will set off on our adventure sometime after July. We have no concrete plans; no itinerary. We have a rough idea of which part of Australia we want to be in at various months of the year, but that is it. We intend to sell our house, and most of our belongings, and commit to a life of minimalism. Instead of the frantic rush out the door of a morning, we will eat breakfast as a family. Instead of frenzied Sundays spent preparing for the demanding week ahead, we will take each day as it comes, without reference to looming deadlines. We will parent together and apart, ensuring we each have space to re-energize and decompress. Our children will learn about life not in a classroom but in the long walks we take as a family, exploring our surroundings and marveling in nature’s beauty. We will read books, play games and rest at midday, without fearing the flow-on effects of naps on bedtime.

We will create the type of life we want to have. And if during this time, we find that we hate being in close quarters and that the only thing that makes our family work is time apart from each other, it’s okay. We can re-jig our plans, because we are answerable to no one but ourselves.

This time away from the typical ‘9-5 hang out with the kids on weekends’ approach to life is also motivated by our combined desire to reevaluate how we interact with the world around us. At present, we live in the inner-west of Melbourne which has a strong community vibe but whose sense of neighbourliness has not graced the street in which we have lived for the past five years. Our neighbours think nothing of calling the pound if our dog accidentally enters their backyard; something that has happened three times in about four years. As an animal lover, I struggle to understand the course of events that sets off such a response to an issue that is part of suburban residential life (if I found a dog in my backyard the owners would be lucky to get it back). Likewise, a neighbour who lives across the road from me, thought nothing of marching over to my house at Arse Hour (i.e. the time between feral children wanting dinner and feral children eating dinner) to school my friend who was visiting on why it was inappropriate for my friend’s car to be parked immediately outside her house. On the road.

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My family got back from Fiji a few weeks ago and while we were there I looked into visiting one of the remaining villages where people still live traditionally. In the tour information booklet, visitors are advised to feel free to compliment villagers on their belongings, but to be careful not to be too complimentary as villagers will always offer the item as a gift, even if they cannot afford to do so.

In the space of two weeks, I went between engaging with people who would share with me even if doing so was to their own detriment, to dealing with the pettiness of someone who feels enraged by their yard or the public road outside their home being infiltrated by some kind of interloper.

I may not be able to move to a traditional Fijian village, but I can create a village of my own with my tribe, where we harness our energy to enjoy the little things in life. And while it means a huge departure from the norm and what is ‘safe’, what is less safe for me is to remain fixed in a lifestyle that no longer reflects the person I am, or the kind of role model I wish to be. I want my boys to question the norm, to be kind to the environment, and to know that there is more to life than exhausting one’s energy at work which leaves nothing to draw from once the work day is over.

I have no idea where this will lead us, but I know it’s the path we are meant to travel, and naturally, I will be writing about all our (mis)adventures.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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You were loved

Tomorrow is your birthday, Nanny. I don’t remember the last one we shared together; the last birthday of yours that is clearest in my mind was when I’d just moved to Melbourne. I knew you liked flannelette nightgowns so I posted two new ones to your home – the home I used to share with you – along with several of those marshmallow filled chocolate bunnies that you stockpiled every Easter.

You didn’t receive them on your birthday, even though you should have; I sent them in time. By then, you didn’t actually know it was your birthday, which is probably a blessing, given that you celebrated your 82nd birthday with a fractured cheek bone and so much bruising to your face that by the time I found out you were in hospital, your husband told me emphatically, Don’t go, not yet. She doesn’t look very good.

You had woken early that morning – maybe you thought it was your birthday, and in your ever-present quest to locate your mother and find your way ‘home’, you had embarked on a search for your birthday gifts. For whatever reason, you left your home that day, sneaking out the side gate like a wayward truant, wandering down what were once familiar streets to you, until, sadly, you lost your footing and connected your face – your beautiful, kind face – with the corner of the gutter and the road.

We don’t know who called the ambulance; who got you to safety. Just like we don’t know who called the police when you were found wandering through West End one summer afternoon, or the name of the man who drove you home when you decided to walk to ‘the beach’ one morning. We don’t know the names of any of these people. If we did, I would tell them one thing.

You were loved.

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In a blood-stained nightgown with an unchanged adult diaper and hair that had not been permed for months, the person who found you on your last escape might have mistaken you for someone that had been forgotten. An old person condemned by her years, waiting to die; for whom life and the promise of living had escaped.

That was not you.

You were the brave non-conformist who divorced her first husband less than a year after you’d wed, because you discovered he had a violent temper.

You were the 5” ebony-haired spitfire who hurled abuse at two men while you were on holiday in Taiwan in the 1960s, such was your horror at learning that a monkey you’d talked to lovingly as you passed it in the street, was actually en route to have its brains removed for a delicacy.

You were the mother and grandmother to a scared little girl, who is now 34 years old and who at times feels consumed by loss, but who clings to these memories of you instead of the memories of your descent into darkness.

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It is your birthday, Nanny, but I don’t know what I will do to mark the occasion, because I can’t bake you a cake and I can’t buy you nightgowns and I can’t take you out for lunch. I can’t do those things anymore; those things – just like making you laugh,  driving you to the club, placing my head on your shoulder – died when you did.

So I will do what I can.

I will spend the day with my children and I will just be present with them. I will kiss their chubby faces, I will let them have another slice of cake (there will be cake), and I will tell them I love them. I will do all of the things that you once did for me. And although they cannot understand the ache I feel because of how much I miss you (I can barely understand it myself), I know they will hold me just as close as you once did.

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Sometimes when I think of you, I remember your intonation; your phrases. A few days ago, I was buying groceries. I happened to be wearing black pants and a black top, along with a hat (mainly because my hair looked bad). I’d picked up a bottle of milk and noticed the use by date was your birthday; I put it back.

Moments later I walked past an elderly woman who smiled at me as I wheeled my trolley out of her way.

“You look very smart!” she said.

Your words, Nanny. Your standard compliment if I had dressed up – better than being beautiful, or cute: Ooh! Don’t you look smart?

A couple of weeks ago I was feeling the loss of you more than usual, and after I had put my eldest son to bed I heard him making noise in his room. I went in to tell him to be quiet, but instead he called me over to his bed. I complied, and he wrapped his arms around my neck.

“Mummy, I always wanted you,” his words.

But they were your words, Nanny. The words you spoke to me every time I doubted my worth or questioned your role as caregiver: I don’t care what anyone says – you were my baby; I always wanted you.

If you’re around, Nanny, in whatever form that may be, I hope you know that I always loved you, I always wanted you, and I would endure every day of pain my upbringing gave me, again and again, if it meant one more minute of comfort from you.

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So happy birthday to you, my beloved, loved, Nanny.
Tomorrow, I’ll have your share of the cake too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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