These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You

My little brother died in 2011, but I think of him every day.

One of the reasons for that is because a strange, and, sometimes, seemingly random range of commonplace items can remind me of him, out of the blue. Here are some of them:

A pair of boots I own – because he was with me when I purchased them. He had stayed at our house overnight, it was a Saturday morning, and I had planned to buy some boots. In his typical easy-going fashion, John accompanied me by bus into town, and to go shoe shopping. He hung around patiently while I deliberated over boots, probably had a cigarette out the front of the shop, and even bought himself a cheap pair of black sneakers (trainers – his signature shoe) for work while he was waiting for me.

We hear that men are not big on shopping, and even less keen on accompanying a woman when she shops for clothing. Surely there are not too many guys who voluntarily go clothes shopping with their sister, but I also have a skirt that was purchased while shopping with John on a separate occasion, so it seems his good-natured personality allowed him to be unfussed about roaming with interest around a shop and then amusing himself as he waited outside and watched the world go by.

An old, dark green couch, that was ours, now given away to my youngest brother. This was a gift from my parents many years ago, and the purchase was organised by John, who held his first job, in a furniture shop, at the time. He was probably about 19 when I visited him at the shop and poured over the fabric samples, before selecting one for our couch.

A receipt, found amongst old papers, for removal truck hire – John drove it for us. From the time he held a licence until he died, I don’t think any member of our family ever moved houses without enlisting his help, usually to drive a truck for them, since he had a licence to do so, and was always so happy to help out.

The storage facility on a main road near our house. John drove our stuff to, and from, this facility, and helped us stack and unstack items into and out of it at the appropriate times. Perhaps because of his early career in a furniture shop, he seemed to be particularly skilled at judging spaces and shapes and knowing exactly how to manouvre a piece of furniture through a door or into a tight space without any mishaps.

My new nephew and niece.* That’s because, of all my siblings, John was the one who spent the most time hanging out with my daughter, his niece. His first job at the furniture shop had come to an end when the owner, an elderly man, had passed away and the business closed, and after that, there was a period where he found it hard to get any long-term employment, so he went from one short-term contract to another, working on jobs ranging from telephone linesman to doing maintenance on railway lines. This might not have seemed like an ideal situation for him then, but in hindsight, there was an upside for us, which was, that in between contracts he often spent time staying with us for a few nights at a time, and hanging out with his god-daughter.

A particular hoodie jacket I have, with holes in the sleeve, because John notoriously wore the same brown hoodie everywhere despite the state that the well-worn sleeves were in.

Other things that make me think of John:

Turning on the air-conditioning in the car – because I remember he had some theory about how to maximise the efficiency by opening the car windows first.

Hedgehog slice (he ate a lot of it)

Pear cake (he was so impressed with my pear cake that he learned how to make it – the sincerest form of flattery)

Satay chicken (his signature dish)

Sonic Youth (his favourite band)

Massive Attack (a band we both liked and should have seen together but fate intervened and I had to give my ticket away.)

Certain men, usually younger than me, both in real life and in films, can at times remind me of him.

and

My other brothers, for obvious reasons.*

 

*

*not commonplace items.

 

A short play for two people

Scene: a kitchen.

Two elderly people – we’ll call these characters Mum and Dad, are seated at the kitchen bench looking through a pile of photos from their son’s recent wedding.

A third person, looking to be in her forties, is drying dishes nearby. We’ll call her Daughter.

Mum: (squinting as she peers closely at a photo) Who’s that?
Daughter (steps in and looks at the photo): um, that’s your husband of, what….nearly 50 years now?
Mum: (tone of surprise) Oh! (directs next question to Dad, as if trying to get her head around a complex scenario): So…..you were standing next to [son] and…….his friend was standing on the other side of him?
Dad (takes photo to verify): It sure looks that way.

 

mg-cartoon-dad-paul-g-paul-b-at-pauls-wedding

An Artist’s Impression of the unbelievable scene that took place that day.

 

*
PS: on formatting – many thanks to Silver Tiger for emailing me with the tip on how to finally get a space to appear in the published version of this post, between the text and the image. I’ve never had a problem before but for some reason on this post, in the draft it looked fine but in the published version there was no space. Now fixed and I’m 100% happy with the result. I knew some lovely reader would have the required know-how. Hurray for readers! Hurray for know-how!

Into the air

Today I noticed the sky.

 

The light. 

 

Sharp shadows in the late afternoon.

 

Cold air, warm patches in the sunlight, the last month of Autumn.

 

The shapes of buildings.

 

Dates on old buildings: 1878. 1926.

 

Today I noticed how easy it is to forget an idea that flits through your head. An idea for today’s writing flitted through my head just as I emerged from the dingy stairwell out onto the rooftop car park where my car was parked, at about 5.15 this afternoon. I recall that, as I stepped out the door, I was contemplating the blueness of the sky and the view of the city buildings spread out below me. 

 

What was that idea, that I pondered momentarily, thinking, naively, that I’d write it down later? Was it to do with the surprising blue of that sky, given the chilly temperature, or the shapes of the clouds? Was it something about looking out over a town in the late afternoon in late Autumn, when the sunlight is yellow and soft and the shadows are starting to lengthen?

 

I’m sure, in fact, that a whole sentence came to me as I walked to my car, and whatever it was, it struck me as interesting, worthy of inclusion in today’s piece of writing. This makes me think that it must have been a different kind of sentence than the ones I usually write. I liked it for that reason. Usually, I write in a habitual way – all my sentences are structured the same way, and as the writer of those sentences, I have to admit that I get a bit bored with that. Even as I am writing this next one, I can hear them – all sounding the same as always. The same sort of voice. The same rhythm.

 

(Rhythm: a word I always mis-spell, ever since I was tragically knocked out of the inter-school Spelling Bee in Grade 6 by mis-spelling it. Although it’s already a tricky word, being stuffed full of silent letters, including not one but two silents “h”s, and containing no vowels at all, my mistake is not to leave out an “h” or put something in the wrong place – it was, and still is, that I persist in thinking there’s a silent “n” at the end.)

 

Blah. And then, blah, BLAH, blah.

 

Anyway. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Another idea, forgotten, and – who knows? – maybe it was a good one. I can pretend as much. It’s lost now, floating somewhere in the Autumn sky, above the rooftop carpark.

Hot Air Balloon over Melbourne at sunrise, 2005

Some idea that I’ve forgotten

Oh, the wondrous passages you would all be reading, dear readers, if only my memory could store an idea for more than a few seconds.

There’s a phrase, I’m sure you’ve heard it, “in one ear and out the other.” Well, “in one ear and out the other” could aptly describe the traverse of ideas for new posts I’ve had since last Wednesday.

(Incidentally, the very same phrase could have been employed to describe the journey of many spoonfuls of mashed pumpkin when my youngest brother was a baby and strapped into his highchair eating dinner.)

There is a distinct pattern emerging in my week since I’ve started trying to make a concerted effort to publish a post weekly. Writing is a creative activity, and creative activity staves off an existential crises, or so I find. Publishing is an outcome of that creative activity, so therefore, getting a post published at least once a week provides a huge, if temporary, reprieve from that endlessly niggling question, am I just totally wasting this minute/hour/day/life away? which, if not checked, is followed by the more insidious, what is my purpose in life?

(Publishing one post a week is a fairly unambitious goal for an entire life, sure, but it’s good to aim low and give yourself a reasonable chance of achieving your goal, or so I’ve always thought.)

So the pattern is that, once the post is published – lately this has been on a Wednesday – I sit back and relax. I can rest easy for at least 24 – 48 hours, only peering occasionally at my WordPress stats to see if anyone has actually read my latest post. (Where are you Mum??)*

Thus fortified with purpose, Thursday can come and go, bringing not the slightest niggle about wasting time. Next comes Friday, and I’m still pretty smug about having recently published a post. So much so that last week, I took a wild step and set some new writing-related goals for the day.

Never fear, I wasn’t overly ambitious. I only set more than one goal, because as each goal failed, I thought of a new and less challenging one.

Last Friday I first determined that, as I enjoy writing so much, I would find some freelance/contract work as a writer to supplement my part-time job. I scoured websites advertising writing work. Some were clearly scams looking for a sucker to exploit. Many were for temporary full-time contracts, which are no good for me, or for writing tenders, business contracts or real estate copy – things I’m not interested in.

What exactly was I hoping for, you may well be thinking at this point. To be honest, I think I was hoping that someone would be advertising for a creative writer with almost no publishing history apart from a personal blog, to write whatever they liked, in flexible hours to suit themselves, and offering a handsome sum for the work. The nearest thing to this was a job writing “content” for a bollard company. They need someone to work a few hours a week, writing the company newsletters, e-news, website content, flyers and any other digital and written materials.

As a side note, I must say that it came as a total surprise to me to find that the humble bollard generates so much interest that there are people subscribing to bollard company e-news in order to stay abreast of the latest advances in bollard technology. Sadly, however, the bollard company were looking for someone with formal qualifications in Marketing and PR, so my dreams of writing bollard-related content for a living have as much forward momentum as a car that has just been stopped short by a row of these bad boys:

Some particularly shiny bollards. Pic: Stephen McKay, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

A babble of (particularly shiny) bollards.

Pic: Stephen McKay, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

But back to my attempt to use my time productively: Friday afternoon was passing by and I hadn’t landed a highly paid job writing my own column for the New Yorker, (in fact they were not even advertising on writingjobs.com!) so fear of wasting time, and subsequently my life, was starting to play at the edges of my mind.

By about 2pm, I decided to throw in that search and take a different track. My new writing-related goal was to find a magazine or other outlet calling for submissions. It didn’t even need to be paid, just an opportunity to publish something. I started out hopefully, and spent probably an hour or so on this search. In the end, I earmarked one literary journal, although only half-heartedly. I don’t hold very high hopes for my chances with literary journals as I’m sure my writing – and no doubt my terrible sentence structure – not to mention my severe over-use of the dash – is not literary enough. (Also they’ve helpfully confirmed this by rejecting pieces previously).

I guess I was looking for something more along the lines of the bollard company newsletters, if only they had specified “looking for a creative writer who will write weekly columns of about 1000 words on any topic they like and include reference to a bollard.”

(Surely some forward-thinking bollard company should do just that? I may consider starting an entirely separate blog dedicated solely to bollards.)

Anyway, I digress. At about 4pm, desperation was setting in – another day totally wasted! – so abandoned the submission idea, and developed a third writing-related goal. This goal was unambitious, administrative, and there was no question that I was capable of achieving it, only whether I could be bothered to achieve it. That was, to sort out the writing I’ve saved on my computer.

As of 4pm on Friday, my “Writing” folder contained about 100 unsorted Word files, all pieces of writing, (obviously) ranging from entire essays/articles, through to documents containing one paragraph, or even just one line that I had apparently deemed worth saving for posterity. It seemed I hadn’t bothered to file any writing for that last 4 years.

So my ambitions boiled down to an hour on Friday afternoon spent on “writing administration”, ie, creating folders and moving all that debris around so that at least now, on the surface, it looks as though there is some kind of system behind my, um, thinking processes.

And among the 100-odd unsorted documents was one called some idea that I’ve forgotten. It was an attempt to capture an idea I’d had a few weeks before, but forgotten the specifics of within hours. The notes were like those of someone trying to recall a dream “…something about Millennials v Generation X but NOT making fun of Millennials….the benefit of being slower…maybe to do with cooking?….” I had hoped that the process of writing would trigger the entire memory. Alas, it did not, and I still haven’t remembered what that idea was.

This has been happening more frequently lately, so the title of that document seemed to symbolise my life at the moment. An idea starts to formulate in my mind, I think I’ve got hold of it enough to remember it – and then rapidly forget it. I don’t know if it’s happening more often because I’m trying to develop ideas for posts more frequently, or because I’m getting older, and my memory is disintegrating.  I should learn to write ideas down, I know, but they don’t always occur in circumstances conducive to doing so – especially now that I can’t write anything without putting on my reading glasses.

To illustrate: after Friday comes Saturday. By Saturday, I usually start, in the back of my mind at least, to try and formulate an idea for my next post. Since publishing a post on the Wednesday, at least 3 or four ideas will probably have occurred, and sometimes they may have been very quickly followed by a catchy opening sentence. When I’m on a roll, I’ll think through an entire first paragraph. But the results of these moments of lucidity rarely make it to the blog. (as I’m sure you can tell.)

I wrote virtually a whole opening paragraph to a potential new post in my head on Saturday evening, as I was rushing to get dressed to go out. As I pulled on and then discarded various tops, trying to find something to team with a pair of wide-legged pants that wouldn’t make me look like a pavlova, I was distractedly thinking of an idea, and sentence after sentence came to me. I even chuckled, no doubt impressed at my own wit.

Alas, I had no time to stop and write anything down, because when I’m going out, I usually allow about 15 minutes to get ready, and fail to allocate time for capturing ethereal concepts that will melt away into the air if not grasped and made concrete as soon as they are thought of.

So whatever Saturday’s chuckle-inducing idea was, it went down the gurgler and you ended up, instead, with this. Sorry about that.

*

*Mum doesn’t have a computer, let alone know what a blog is.

Is that coffee?

I was early for my train yesterday morning, so, unusually, I decided to go and buy a coffee.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Let me start again.

Yesterday morning I was running late for my train, so of course I hit every traffic light between my house and the train station, missed the train by 3 minutes and thus had 15 minutes to wait for the next one. City trains run more frequently, but I catch a country train, because I commute out of the city for my current job.

Sometimes – in fact, frequently through the long, icy-cold winter that has only just come to an end in Melbourne – I board the train at 7.58am for that 50 minute journey, rubbing my gloved hands together to warm them up, and look with envy at the people holding, casually sipping, a warm take-away coffee. I don’t quite do the Homer Simpson drool, but I probably do stare a second or so too long, my mind drifting, imagining the brief joy of holding and sipping a warm, delicious coffee. Mmmmm, coffeeeee.

I rarely, if ever, buy coffee on the way to work, before catching a train, or, in fact, on any occasion when I would need to drink it while walking or driving. In fact, I rarely buy takeaway coffee anywhere, except when I’m at work, where the “take away” part refers to me taking it back to my desk.

Contrary to what you may be starting to suspect, I’m not building up an introduction to a witty anecdote about some halarious past accident with a hot cup of coffee. No, I don’t suffer from FOSHCOM (Fear Of Spilling Hot Coffee On Myself)* – although given my clumsiness, it would be quite rational of me to take that risk into account.

No, the reasons why I don’t buy coffee to drink in transit, is because of my attitude to buying coffee, and, now that I think about it, to values around what is a luxury. In that set of values, takeaway coffee is a luxury, or so it appears.

Let’s take a few steps back.

I can clearly remember the first time I saw – or registered – someone drink a coffee that was not made at home from a spoonful of [Brand Name Removed] Instant Coffee. That someone was my mother, on an afternoon in town with me, when I was probably about 7-8 years old.  I was the oldest of 6 kids, so any kind of time with just myself and my mum was very rare, and this annual “day out” was structured around the very prosaic activities of catching the bus together (my mother didn’t drive) and going in to town to buy new school shoes and school uniform to replace those that were outgrown. (Most of our clothes, including school uniform, were second hand, so perhaps this annual trip was to purchase the really essential items like shoes and underwear.)

Next to the bus stop in town, there was a little run-of-the-mill cafe. Picturing it now, I imagine chunky pine furniture and checked plastic table cloths, but even that “memory” could be a construction I’ve come up with. I think that cafe was gone a few years later when I was catching the bus in and out of town by myself so it really does exist only in my earliest memories.

It was Mum’s little treat, at the end of the shopping, to stop at the cafe, sit at a table and have a coffee before catching the bus home again.

For me, this stop for afternoon tea was significant in many ways. Not only was the time spent with Mum a rare treat, but in addition, this was probably as close as I ever got to “eating out,” or even setting foot in a cafe, throughout my childhood – eating out was not an option for a family of 6 children, living in a small country town in the 1970s-1980s. It was not until I was about 16, earning my own part-time income, and quite competently able to catch a bus to town and get myself kicked out of nightclubs for being underage, that I and my 16-17 year old friends would end up spending many dismal Saturday nights in [Brand Name Removed] cafe as a sad second option, staring into a packet of fries or a goopy ice-cream Sundae.*

Eating out, as an event in itself, was a concept that I was not aware of as a child.  I doubt that my parents ever ate out, even without us. Yes, we were occasionally left with babysitters, but I think this was so they could go to a “show” – some amateur theatre production, or to the “trots.” Take-away pies, or fish and chips, eaten at home, or [Brand Name Removed] fried chicken eaten in a park on the way to my grandmother’s place, were the most exciting food items I encountered for most of my childhood, and I suspect my parents’ dining experiences were just as limited as my own.

Anyway, at the cafe near the bus stop my mother ordered the standard Australian Housewife Special circa 1978 – a cappuccino.  I have no memory of whether anything was ordered for me, but we’ll pretend I ordered an orange juice, just to keep this moving along.

This is my first memory of seeing someone enjoy the indulgence of sitting in a cafe, sipping a coffee. It must have really had an impact on me; the pleasure my mother took in enjoying this little window of relaxing time to herself (well, as close to being by herself as she’d ever get) and her sense of treating herself – the extravagance of ordering, not merely a coffee, but a cappuccino.

"Cappuccino with foam" by Johnny Lopez - http///www.flickr.com/photos/jrok/267218761/

(These days, my coffee of choice is, unsurprisingly perhaps, a daggy old cappuccino. I like to think it’s because it’s less milky than a cafe latte – we all know how much I hate milk.)

Surely this memory is the reason why, despite the years that have passed since that shopping trip, many of them filled with scenes of me ordering coffees on morning tea breaks – first at art school, and then in the various jobs I’ve had – I still consider a purchased coffee as a luxury. It’s something to be savoured, sipped slowly, ideally while sitting down and able to be fully appreciated. To me, buying a coffee to drink while rushing on foot, or in the car, to be somewhere else, is akin to wasting the price of the coffee, and the whole experience of indulging in it.

Luxury has its time and place. A coffee as a treat each day at work is allowable – I deserve a small treat to get through the day, surely! But I’ve never been able to justify picking up a takeaway coffee at my local corner shop when I get the paper, only to bring it back home to drink. At home, I make coffee in a pot, or go without it for the day, because a luxury that’s taken for granted no longer feels like a luxury. Maybe my upbringing in a country town with no cafes is the reason why it has never felt right to me, the idea of paying for a takeaway coffee a block or two from home, just to bring back home to drink. Going out for coffee should be an event. That’s what I learned on that shopping trip with my mother.

So, on the morning in question, I was preparing to do something that I hardly ever do – buy a takeaway coffee to drink in transit, on the train. As it’s a 50 minute trip I figured that a coffee could be focussed on and savoured, along with the book I planned on reading. I ordered a takeaway cappuccino from a local cafe, and took it back to the station, where I stood sipping, waiting for my train. But, inevitably, the experiment was a disappointment. The quality of the coffee was nothing to write home about, and the experience didn’t end with me settling smugly into my seat on the train with a nice warm coffee. By the time the train arrived, I’d finished the drink and thrown the cup away.

On all counts, it failed the standard set by the cappuccino my mother ordered in that daggy pine-furnitured cafe, all those years ago.

*

 

Pic Credit: “Cappuccino with foam” by Johnny Lopez – http///www.flickr.com/photos/jrok/267218761/

*FOSHCOM – a term I’ve only just coined, but surely bound to become a familiar part of the lexicon once this post hits the airwaves.

*Actually,  I remember that in primary school I was once taken to dinner at the Pancake Parlour, when my friend won a dinner for 4 there. It was probably the most exciting night of my life to that point.

 

These Precious Things

Every time I wash my kitchen windows, a memory comes back to me, of an unhappy, self-conscious 13 year old girl, washing windows in a classroom. Of course that teenage girl was me, and the window-washing in question took place decades ago.

Kitchen window Oct 2015

 

At the all-girls Catholic secondary college I attended, the well-worn tradition of dividing students up into “Houses” lived on. Divide and conquer, so they say.

Unlike more famous schools – like, say, Hogwarts – our “Houses” did not determine our class groupings, or our lodgings, or really much at all. They remained largely symbolic, a reminder of their namesakes, who were all women, probably nuns, who had founded schools for girls, or done commendable charity works in poverty-stricken countries. (As a side note, one of the few good things about that Catholic education was a strong social justice message combined with a powerful message that women could lead all sorts of things, including social change. That seeped into my consciousness without me realising it at the time.)

As far as I can recall, the main, and almost only, time our division into Houses came into play was in the lead up to, and on the day of, the annual sporting carnival, where they achieved their main function: to harness our natural sense of competitiveness and focus it into fierce loyalty for our respective teams.

The only exception to this is that in my first year of high school, students were assigned classroom duties on a rotating weekly basis, broken up into small teams based on Houses. I assume that we must have got points for our House for doing all tasks satisfactorily. So, for example, when it was the week for our House – let’s call it Gryffindor – the next three girls on the class roll, who were from Gryffindor, were nominated as responsible. We would then work out between us who was going to clean the blackboard, dust the shelves, water the plants, wash the windows, etc.

Actually, to be honest, I just made up most of those tasks. I don’t remember ever seeing shelves in our starkly boring 1980s classrooms, which still had blackboards at the front, and nor can I recall any plants, not just in the classroom, but within the entire grounds of my Year 7-8 campus, which, in my memory at least, was constructed entirely of asphalt. The only variation in the asphalt landscape was that part of it was underneath the school building, filled with lockers, and as an area to hang around in, it had all the ambiance of a dingy underground carpark you wouldn’t want to be stuck in after dark. The remainder was just one big open space, where, in the warmer weather, the sun’s hot rays could reflect off the shiny, dark asphalt and burn you a second time. Which was a bonus for the many hopefully optimistic 13 and 14-year-old girls, who would lie flat out on the asphalt at lunch time, their dresses hitched up as high as they could get away with, their legs smeared in coconut oil, in the hope that this would assist them to burn faster and turn an attractive shade of brown.

Of course, in this endeavour I was unable to join them for very long, as, with my white, freckled skin, all I would gain from time spent in the sun, coconut oil or not, would be a painful, bright red sunburn. I would have to leave the enticing surrounds of the hot asphalt yard, and retire with the other fair-skinned social outcasts, to the shaded, gloomy, undercover locker area, or alternatively, naturally, to every lonely teenager’s haven, the library.

But to get back on track, the only task that I’m certain we were allocated is the one that sticks in my memory all these years later. Yes, I remember washing the windows.

What I remember about washing the class room windows is how I felt when I was doing it. I felt ashamed and incompetent – feelings that were a common experience for me back then.

What strength of feeling I must have had, to have etched such a mundane moment into my brain for so long! Even now, 30 or so years later, I can still see myself at the window. It was a warm Friday afternoon, and I was scrubbing away at the glass, choking back my rising dismay as I tried vainly to get rid of the smears I’d made. It seemed as if the glass looked worse than when I started.

The background to this memory can be filled in from what I know about myself back then. I know that I was a timid, anxious girl, who, when forced to take part in any kind of “team” discussion, would allow the others to do the talking, and make all the decisions. I would have let the other two girls, both confident, assertive types, decide who did what, and allocate me to cleaning the windows if they so chose. I know that I had a severe lack of confidence in executing any task that others could see me do, and that lack of confidence was multiplied if it was a task I was unfamiliar with. I know, therefore, that I would have approached cleaning the windows with the same level of dread that a normal adult might approach the task of climbing down onto a railway track in front of a crowd to retrieve an object, in full knowledge that a train was shortly due to arrive.

It’s significant that this sense of complete incompetence applied to physical tasks that others could see me do.  There was an area of life in which I was confident, and that was in my abilities to do my school work. I was “bright”, and got mostly As and Bs all through school in all academic subjects – and in drawing or painting, which I was also good at, and received constant compliments for. What I liked about school work, or art, was that much of the “work” was done in my head as I drew, or wrote, so even the action of putting pen to paper was the second step in the process – and even that step could be executed on a piece of paper in private, without others’ scrutinising my work as it developed. In that zone I was comfortable, whereas I was highly uncomfortable undertaking a physical task that meant exposing the entire process to others’ scrutiny. Subjects I did not do well in at school (though perhaps for other reasons as well) ranged from sewing to sport, and any subject where a team project or a presentation was a large component of the assessment – and both were a major part of the assessment in my final year of English, unfortunately for me.

As an adult, I’m not the most confident person around, but compared to my poor, pitiable teen self, I’m doing fine. I’m still not fond of tasks that people can see me doing, particularly anything that requires me to know the right steps to take and the right order to do them in. For example, I don’t like cooking in the kitchen with dinner guests standing around talking to me, so I always plan meals that can be ready to go when guests arrive.

It is so often the case, when you expect to do something badly, that invariably, you will do it just about as badly as envisioned. Particularly, of course, if someone else is watching you do it.

And that is what happened in when I washed those classroom windows. I’d probably never been asked to clean glass before, and had no idea how to tackle it. No-one gave me any advice on the method for cleaning glass. And when it became obvious that it wasn’t going well, I assumed, as always, that the rest of the world knew how to clean glass properly and I was the weird misfit who obviously did not, or was too incompetent to get it right instinctively.

So there I am, at 13, despairing as to why the glass is all streaky. My cheeks are burning with a familiar sense of shame, because yet again, I’m unable to do a task that, to my mind, anyone and everyone else can do. Shame because I’m letting down my House. I’m not just a failure, I’m a liability. It’s just another reason to feel like a social outcast – what team would want a quiet, fair-skinned, non-sporty girl who can’t even clean glass properly? I look anxiously around to see if anyone is witnessing my incompetence. Sure enough, I see the other 2 girls on my team watching me and talking in low voices to the teacher.

I knew what they were saying.

Worlds above and worlds below

Is it just me, or does everyone, visiting a town they have not been in for, say, 11 years, walk around town recalling moments from their previous visit with a slight sense of melancholy? Does everyone – or just me – walk past a park in the middle of the CBD and spend a little too long trying to imagine the ghost of their former self still sitting there?

I used to have a tendency towards indulging in nostalgia quite a lot. This was unsympathetically pointed out to me years ago by a teacher at art school – I was about 22 years old at the time. One wonders what could make someone nostalgic at the age of 22.  I’ve certainly wondered about that quite a bit, and have some ideas on the matter, but I’ll save those for another post.

At 22, my tendency to feel melancholy about the passing of time, to the extent of mourning the past, as if it was always better than the present, contributed to me frequently feeling depressed. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

As I got older, I was able to recognise that this thought pattern was illogical. I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, so there was no sense in feeling sad about it being over. Even taking into account that I wasn’t exactly upbeat every moment of my twenties, given the choice I would definitely have stayed there rather than go back to my miserable childhood.

My flawed thinking was brought home quite clearly one time in my early thirties, when my daughter was about a year old, and I found myself thinking with melancholy back to a year earlier, feeling overwhelmingly sad that it was in the past.

Now, it’s not unusual for parents to feel poignant from time to time at how quickly their child grows up, but the specific memory I was projecting all that melancholy onto was a memory of myself walking my daughter in the pram, around and around in the back yard, crying, because I couldn’t get my daughter to go to sleep and I was so utterly exhausted myself. It wasn’t a happy memory, and what’s more, it wasn’t a once-off moment – it was indicative of a whole year where I suffered from insomnia, usually lying awake most of the night while my baby slept, and then struggling through the days on maybe 2-3 hours sleep while she would not sleep at all, or at most for maybe 30 minutes once or twice – not long enough for me to doze off if I tried, being as tightly wound as I was.

When I found myself idealising that specific moment of crying from exhaustion a year earlier as if it was better than the present moment, I knew I had to do something about that mindset. I went to counselling – for a variety of reasons – and learned to use cognitive behavioural therapy to work on not automatically feeling nostalgic and sad when I thought about the past. That seemed to work for me.

Since that time, I haven’t been victim to overwhelming and illogical melancholy about the past – at least, no more than any other parent. I’m sure all parents occasionally feel a little bitter-sweet sadness when we notice that our once dependent, adoring child is now a surly teenager, complete with independent thought and the tendency to roll her eyes when anything is asked of her!

And, for most of us, visiting a town we were last in 11 years earlier probably is going to bring back memories, memories not just of being in that town, but also of how we were “back then.”Memories of whether we were happy, sad, depressed, single, in a relationship, whether our child was then a toddler and is now a teenager – all of that is normal. Perhaps also normal is the tendency to mark the first time you see, do, or go somewhere that you last saw/did/went to when someone now dead was still alive. Or perhaps that’s just me.

This week I went on a short trip to Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and most southern island state, separated from Victoria, the state where I live, by the cold waters of Bass Strait.

Hobart is a picturesque little city, (population of the entire greater Hobart area is only around 217k), Australia’s second-oldest city, after Sydney. Its age is illustrated by the lovely old sandstone buildings in the CBD, and down at Salamanca Place, that probably date back 200 years or more – that’s pretty old architecture in Australia!

Hobart is also picturesque from a distance – travelling along the river on the ferry, or into town from the airport, I felt as if I was seeing what Sydney might have looked like about 120 years ago. Hobart’s suburbs are little pockets of houses built into the foothills of mountain ranges all along the Derwent River. It’s not over-developed – in all cases, buildings peter off about half-way up, leaving plenty of bushland around and above them. It’s a town that is still very closely connected to the bush, the mountains and the water. Looking along any street in the Hobart CBD, your view will almost always end with water, or a mountain range, or both. The city is snuggled up to Mount Wellington(Kunanyi), which towers in the background, 1269 metres (4163 ft) above sea level. Drinking coffee in a cafe in the CBD I could clearly see the remnants of snow on its peak, glistening in the winter sun, as if it was just a few blocks away.

Winter afternoon sun in Salamanca Place, Mt Wellington in the background.

Winter afternoon sun in Salamanca Place, Mt Wellington in the background.

I relished having two days to myself to wander around this pretty little town, which offered all the luxuries one expects in a city (good coffee, and great corn bread!) while feeling as friendly, and as close to nature, as a country town.

The other time I was in Hobart was about 11 years ago, with my partner and daughter, when she was about 4 years old. Thinking back to that time, it’s as if I was another person back then. I was still struggling with all my own insecurities, with being a parent, married, in my thirties, not having any career – basically any cliched anxiety you can name. I was still much closer to the slightly depressed person I’d been in my twenties. Perhaps that’s why, of all the memories I have of that trip 11 years ago, a negative incident stands out – we ran for a bus, and our little 4 year old girl, running, tripped and fell on the footpath. She cut her lip and nose, blood gushed from her nose and all over her clothes, and she howled – all difficult to deal with when you are tourists in an unfamiliar town. I felt terrible, and guilty, though probably not with any good reason.

But I know that we had fun, too. We took a ferry ride, and rode a double-decker bus to the Cadbury chocolate factory. We shopped in the local op (thrift) shop. We ate out at some nice cafes, wandered around the Salamanca market area, went for walks and, on at least one occasion, we rested on a bench seat in one of the parks in the CBD area.

I only recall that last detail because we have photos of us sitting in a park, although as I walked around Hobart this week, I couldn’t identify with certainty which park they were taken in.

So in an effort to take stock of the changes in my life in the past 11 years, I decided to take the time to sit on a bench in a park for a few minutes. Perhaps with the ghost of my past self beside me, who knows. I wanted to think about layers of memories  – because of course, in contemplating the change in my life since I was last in Hobart, I’d need to contemplate the fact that my younger brother was alive when I was here last, and now he is not.

I chose a park at the edge of the CBD, before you go down to the piers at the water’s edge. The park seemed a little run down and uncared for, and a group of young men were hanging around doing skateboard tricks. I have nothing against young men skateboarding, but a combination of factors, including the time of day and their attire, made me feel that it would be better to sit as far away from them as possible, so I chose a seat half-way around the park.

With a view to writing something on my blog about this trip, I started to make some notes on my phone. I had just enough time to write, Sitting on a bench in the park with the fountain, off Elizabeth St – when, glancing up, I saw that one of the men was approaching me – clearly he was going to ask me for money. I’m not scared of people asking me for money – sometimes I give it to them. My policy is to decide quickly, and if giving money, to give it respectfully, making no judgement about what they are going to use it for. But his approach ended my hardly-begun reverie.

In this case I didn’t even consciously think about whether to give him money or not, possibly because, being seated, and alone, it was a no-brainer as to which course of action would bode better for me. Before he had even opened his mouth and begun the speech I had anticipated – about not wanting to ask for money but needing to catch a bus – I was reaching for my purse. As I gave him some coins, and chatted about where he was going on the bus, I stood up, making it obvious that I was getting ready to leave. That was another unconscious decision – it was only as I walked away that I realised I’d chosen to get up and leave. I guess instinct told me that that staying seated there was no longer an attractive option.

So that little interaction brought an abrupt end to my short-lived moment of pondering the layers of memories that were swirling around me as I walked the streets of Hobart. I never did quite see the ghost of my past, who may or may not still be hovering around on a park bench in Hobart.

Perhaps she didn’t want to be discovered.

Hobart, seen from a ferry on the Derwent river, Mt Wellington in the background.

Sunny Hobart, this week, from a ferry on the Derwent river, Mt Wellington in the background.

 

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  • for those playing at home, the title of this post is a lyric from a song by New Zealand band Crowded House. The song is Four Seasons In One Day (which, I think it’s fairly safe to say, is an ode to Melbourne.)
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