Wednesday, September 9, 2020

What I miss

… stage four lockdown unprecedented pandemic covid curfew border closure quarantine failure economic collapse mental health crisis road map out and on and on and on… 
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got 
Till it’s gone 
('Big Yellow Taxi', Joni Mitchell) 

Actually, a lot of what I had I don’t necessarily miss.
I don’t miss cramped tram rides at peak hour 
Or crowded shopping centres 
Or crowded railway stations 
Or crowds of any description. 
I don’t miss noisy, bustling cafes. 
On the whole, I don’t miss social gatherings, dinner parties or rooms full of people. 
I don’t miss small talk. 
I don’t miss the stress of school mornings and getting out the door on time. 
I don’t miss being busy and yearning to have time to sit and read a book in the daytime when I am not about to fall asleep. 

For the most part, I have what I need. 
I have regular and secure paid work and so does my partner. 
I have my health. 
The people I love have their health. 
We have a home and a garden and some pets. 
We have plenty to eat, enough money to pay the bills. 
We are fortunate and I am grateful for that. 

But there is a heaviness to it all. 
Some days I feel like I am wading through treacle. 
Or so lacking in motivation and energy that even looking at the garden makes me tired. 
I have walked all the local walks over and over and over and they hold little joy. 
My quiet paths are now muddied and churned by the many other walkers and their dogs and their children. Early on in the lockdown there was a kind of camaraderie, a “we’re all in this together” spirit, strangers smiled and said hello as they passed each other on the not yet muddied paths. Now I keep my gaze down, almost resenting the intrusion of my fellow travellers in these ‘unprecedented’ times. I just want to be alone, to have space to myself. 
Most of all, I want to take this f***ing mask off my face and take huge greedy gulps of fresh air, to breathe in and out without feeling anxious or reckless. 

As I sit quietly, reading a book in the daytime, my mind wanders. I remember a warm summer day at the beach. I am in the sea, floating on my back, feeling the gentle bobbing of the water as it holds me. I am free and weightless and utterly relaxed. I look up at the ridiculously blue sky. I smell the sea, the salt, the seaweed. I listen to the sounds of the waves as they meet the shell-gritty sand, of kids laughing and calling, of sea-gulls overhead. And I remember thinking at the time - “remember this moment”.  I made a conscious decision to store the richness of the experience in my memory, to keep it safe and treasure it. And this afternoon I retrieved that moment from my memory bank.  I sat in my suburban living room on a glum September day, with the weight of our current reality sitting like a bag of sand on my chest, and I remembered what it is like to breathe, to float, to feel utterly free and suspended and weightless, and it made me cry.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


I went for a walk this morning.  A beautiful Autumn morning: some warmth in the sun but not too much.  Walking has become a kind of mental health necessity – get outside, breathe air, look at trees, sky, breathe more air, listen, keep walking.  There is a stillness and quietness - one of the more positive bi-products of the ‘shut down’.  I find people are quieter, more respectful of each other’s space.  In nearly an hour walking along our creek I saw four people, a quiet ‘good morning’ and a smile as we pass each other, and then solitude again.  

There is a bend in the creek where it comes up against a stone escarpment and an ancient gum tree hovers over the creek at an angle.  This place feels old and sacred and I am drawn to spend some time here, listening, watching the tea coloured water as the sunlight glints and shines through to the stones beneath.  I could stay here for hours.  

I look up to the trees framing my view and see first one, then two kookaburras sitting quietly above, watching.  I get a little closer but not too close.  The kookaburra nearest to me turns and looks at me, and I look at the kookaburra, fascinated and honoured that it deigns to look at me and not take flight.  I feel like time stands still.  

I have in this moment a glimpse of something profound, a small window of connection to the people of this land who for thousands of years have looked at the animals and birds and woven stories and meaning around them. In this moment I can believe that the kookaburra knows things I will never know, that they have a connection to the land and its history and its people that I will never truly understand. Although it is only a glimpse, I feel intensely moved and honoured and humble and awestruck and comforted and curious and full of joy.  And then the kookaburra turns, stretches his wings and lazily flies off, following the creek as it winds around the rocky outcrop, out of sight.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Randomness and Unpredictability

Ink on wet watercolour paper.

Never entirely sure what you're going to end up with until the ink is dry.
Not much control but the results are often beautiful and surprising.
A bit like life really. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

On Typing and Typewriters

I bought a typewriter.  I’ve been wanting to buy one for a while and I always keep a look out as I wander through op shops and second hand 'retro' markets.  I found a Brother Deluxe 760TR in working condition for a reasonable price.  Its carriage return was a bit stiff so I took it to be serviced by possibly the last typewriter service person in Melbourne – on Johnston Street Carlton, in a shop I have walked past hundreds of times over the last 30 years.  I brought it home, smelling of oil and working like new.  I put it on the dining table, found some scrap paper, and started typing*.  When I left my place for a moment, one of my children sat down and had a go – slowly at first and then picking up speed.  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog several times.  Then my other daughter took a turn, bringing with her some poems to type out but quickly getting irritated at the challenges of this new way of typing.  Then I started writing nonsense Haiku as a way of practising but also an entertaining pastime as I read them out and then typed out new ones dictated by my younger daughter.  We laughed and shared our ridiculous efforts with the older child who had returned, recovered from her frustration and ready to try again.  I went out to do the grocery shopping and when I returned my older daughter showed me the pages of neatly typed poems she had produced (from a distance so I couldn’t actually read their content).  The day had passed with no time spent on ipads or watching television, but instead time was spent exploring something new (and old) and interesting.  I think I might be onto something here.  There is the appeal of all things ‘retro’ of course but I think there is something else going on.  The extra effort to create a typed document seemed in itself to be satisfying.  And there is something significant in the nature of typing – that you have to live with your mistakes – you can’t just backspace them away.  They are there to remind you of your efforts; that you made mistakes, that is wasn’t perfect, and the imperfection is there to see.  It doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal of Kintsugi – the Japanese method of repairing broken vessels with gold – but it reminds me of this.  That imperfection and the visible reminder of our mistakes can be accepted and even appreciated for what it represents – the effort that it took to get it right.

*Here's what I typed...

Monday, July 15, 2019

Nora's Onions

Nora Heysen: Still life with onions (1927) Private Collection, Melbourne

Today I went to see Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art at the NGV Federation Square.  Having read an excellent biography of Nora Heysen by Anne-Louise Willoughy, I was really keen to see more of Nora Heysen’s work in person. Willoughby’s biography refers to the impact of being the daughter of a famous artist (Hans Heysen) on Nora’s work and development as an artist in her own right.  As I worked my way around the exhibition of both their work, I was left in no doubt that Nora was very clearly an exceptional artist, regardless of who her father was.  The exhibition at times focuses on the common ground of the two artists with examples of their work on the same subject material.  In a particularly striking example, two paintings, side by side, tell a story.  Referring to Nora’s work ‘Still life with onions’ (1927) the exhibition notes state: “Anecdotally, this composition was a source of minor irritation to Nora. Having arranged the vegetables to paint herself, she went briefly away and returned to discover her father painting his own version” (which is displayed alongside it). As I looked at these two images – and I have to say I prefer Nora’s – I felt irritated on her behalf.  I can imagine sixteen year old Nora (yes, SIXTEEN) feeling annoyed at her father for barging in and taking over, helping himself to her still life set up, creating his own work almost as an unstated criticism – ‘watch and learn’.  Then I remembered something that had happened in my own life the day before.  When my teenage daughter had expressed an interest in doing a particular craft project, rather than let her do it her own way, I went ahead and started it off for her, outlining how it ‘should’ be done, even though she’d explained how she wanted to do it.  Here was my own ‘Hans’ moment.


I continued to make my way around the gallery, walking around it several times, all the while reflecting on how this particular parent/child dynamic may have impacted on Nora’s work.  Once she had left home, moved out of Hans’ orbit and spent time in London and Europe honing her style, it becomes very apparent what an accomplished and unique artist she became.  Her self portraits are the works that strike me the most – the gaze always direct and uncompromising.  She stares out of each portrait with a powerful sense of identity and conviction that I find both inspiring and very moving. She found herself, her own style, her own voice – not as the progeny of a famous parent but as her OWN PERSON.  She may have grown up in her father’s shadow, and been known for much of her life as the daughter of Hans Heysen, but her work transcends this.  Reflecting on her own experience of parenthood, Sylvia Plath expresses this reality in her poem ‘Morning Song’ when she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
(from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber, 1965)
As I left the gallery, still mulling over what I’d seen and thought, I was left with a refocused sense of what parenting can be.  Rather than projecting ourselves into and onto our children and imbuing them with OUR hopes for their potential and future, can we perhaps let this go? Perhaps we could aim to step back and give them space to become themselves.  And let them paint their own onions.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Power of Listening - Part One

In my early twenties it seemed clear to me that my life was going to revolve around Music and Sound – and Listening is clearly central to this enterprise.  As a composer, a 9-5 kind of job had limited appeal and for the next ten or so years  I embarked upon a mix-and-match of different, generally compatible, part time jobs that would help sustain my own creative practice (and pay the bills).

After finishing my PhD I finally achieved what I thought was my goal – a full time job at a University, as a lecturer in Music and Sound.  I found a lot of satisfaction in this work, and although I found it difficult to compose as much as I would like, the collegial and creative environment felt like a safe place to land.  Several years later the decision to start a family and relocate to my home city meant walking away from this ‘safe place’ and embarking on a new, less clearly mapped out and altogether riskier journey.  I chose to be the primary carer for our two children while my partner re-trained as a teacher and established a new career path.  I juggled parenting with part time sessional work and my own creative practice – a mix that functioned up to a point.  

As children grew and life responsibilities increased, I felt increasing anxiety around the tenuous and insecure nature of sessional teaching work and the reality that composition is not a reliable way to pay the bills.  It became clear to me that for the sake of my own mental health and our mortgage, I needed to reconfigure my working life and find a new way of doing things.  I listened to my instincts and came up with a plan. Through necessity and inclination I undertook further studies and qualified as Creative Arts Therapist, focussing on the area of clinical Pastoral Care.  

So at this mid point of my life, I find myself in quite a different place and certainly not one I would have imagined five years ago.  My working and creative life is a new mix-and-match of working with people and working by myself but the one element that connects these diverse strands is the power of Listening.  When I work with patients and their families who are experiencing quite extreme challenges in a hospital environment, I listen.  When I am working with residents in an Aged Care facility, I listen to their life stories as we make art together.  When I teach, I listen to the music and the words and the things unspoken.  When I write music, I listen to the sounds and shapes and textures in my imagination and bring them into the audible world so that others can listen to them as well.  And as a parent, I am discovering that Listening is perhaps the most important thing I can do.  So now, along with my list of skills - composer, teacher, writer, parent, art therapist, pastoral care practitioner – I would add LISTENER as the skill that underpins pretty much everything I do.