Little slices of life

IMG_3635

See this picture? My phone thinks it’s me. It filed the photo under “selfies”. I’ll admit
I don’t often take selfies, so perhaps it doesn’t know what I look like, but this is going a bit far! If Oliver Sacks were alive he could write a book and call it The Phone that Mistook its Owner for a Lamp. I’ll let you know if it thinks I look like any other inanimate objects. This could be an ongoing thing. Perhaps it’s trying to tell me something: lightbulb moment/shady/let your light shine. Feel free to add any other lame puns.

Life in the small, quiet, pretty house is humming along quietly, which suits me fine. There was a new arrival a couple of weeks ago…a working oven. Cue the fanfare. It’s been a while, so as soon as it was plugged in I started baking like a woman possessed. There was date cake with caramel icing. There were monte carlos. There was Persian love cake. There were coconut sugar cookies. There was gluten free bread that was, though I say so myself, a triumph. It sliced beautifully, was the right combination of crusty and soft, and toasted well.

I was planning to share the bread recipe, but when I made it again it came out looking like a mountain in Norway:

Can you tell the difference? Neither can I. I’ll experiment a bit more and post the recipe once I know it’s reliable.

Baking again has reminded me just how much people appreciate home-made food.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but I love the ritual of baking and sharing and it makes me happy that such a small gesture makes other people happy. My colleagues at work devoured everything I brought in. A friend bought me the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, purely out of self-interest, she said. My mission is to bake my way through the book. I think there’ll be quite a few willing taste testers.

On another creative front, a while ago I said I was going to try to make myself some clothes. In fact, I think I said all my clothes. Progress has been slow. There’s been a lot of cutting out and pinning and tacking but no actual completions yet. As I cut out the latest project on the floor it occurred to me that this could be how the phrase “to cut a rug” originated:

img_3637.jpgOne thing I’ve learned already is that making your own clothes is time-consuming and sometimes tricky but it’s definitely MUCH cheaper than buying them. And it’s fun!

There’s also been a bit of sashiko stitching happening:

There’s been nodding and guffawing while listening to Russell Brand and Ruby Wax discuss meditation on Under the Skin. It’s probably the best discussion I’ve heard on why meditation works, in whatever form it takes for you: mindfulness, prayer, guided meditation, mantras, walking or focusing on the breath. Or baking and sewing! It’s certainly been my experience that being able to step back from your own thoughts is
life-changing, and the more you practise it, the more able you are to do it.

So there you have it: a little bit of what’s been going on here. There’s been just enough time to bake, make, observe and listen in between the busy parts. All those little slices of life: small yet so satisfying and very much enjoyed.

 

 

Connected

 

IMG_3598This week’s pictures are brought to you by the colours yellow and pinky-orange. That’s what’s going on in the front garden at the moment: so many plants blooming in radically different shapes and sizes but fundamentally all connected. I didn’t really have to do anything to make them grow and blossom, other than a bit of pruning (inexpert random chopping) and weeding (futile but surprisingly soothing exercise). And up they all popped in their sunny colours.IMG_3608I’ve learned a lot from the garden just lately. Plants are blooming this year that didn’t produce a single petal last year. Perhaps we’ve had the right conditions. Perhaps they only bloom every other year. Perhaps I wasn’t really looking last year. There was a lot going on.IMG_3606Last year there was no fruit on the plum trees. I wasn’t even sure they were the fruiting kind. This year one of the trees is invading the verandah and it’s laden with fruit. I’m already getting the jam jars ready.IMG_3612The garden’s bursting with so much life that it’s hard to take it all in. It keeps on growing and producing and following the story of the seasons while we forget to look. Instead, we follow the stories in our head. We follow our thoughts and sometimes we get stuck in them, tangled in imaginary roots and pricked by pretend thorns. We don’t always see what’s real.IMG_3604So I think what I’m saying, mostly to myself but to anyone else who gets stuck in stories, is look at the story outside. Look at the garden that we’re all in together. IMG_3607A friend sent me this poem today. Perhaps you know it. I didn’t. I wanted to share it because it expresses so beautifully that extraordinary, limitless, exhilarating fact of existence: connection. We’re all in this together. Go well, my friends.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Pool!

IMG_2428

The pool’s open! I’ve been swimming! And it’s warm! Excuse the overuse of exclamation marks, but I’m very! excited! It’s been a loooong, cccccold winter here in Canbrrr. When I look back through this blog I see that the heating went on in May—or, rather, it would have done if it hadn’t been broken. And even when the heating wizard had fixed it the temperature indoors was never exactly balmy. It doesn’t seem many weeks ago that a friend from Sydney was here, sitting by the fire in his coat. He looked outside and said incredulously, “It’s snowing.” He couldn’t believe that it could be so cold here when his family were in t-shirts.

But all that’s forgotten now because the pool’s open! There was a slightly unnerving sign on the gate: “Lock is faulty! If locked in, try lifting gate. Good luck.” It’s a heavy metal gate with two-metre brush fencing attached, so I didn’t like my chances. I was on one of my marvellous days off and everyone else seemed to be at work, so I had the pool to myself. But the fact didn’t escape me that if the gate had slammed shut I would have been locked in the pool area until one of the neighbours got home. As I swam the first few laps I cased the perimeter for holes in the fence or places where I could possibly climb over if I piled all the outdoor chairs on top of each other. Luckily I didn’t have to do that, but I was in the Girl Guides so I know all about the importance of being prepared.

The water’s solar heated, so it was lovely and warm. The sun sparkled on the ripples as I swam, drawing beautiful turquoise patterns on the bottom of the pool. I wish I had an underwater camera so that I could show you those patterns. The jasmine and the westringia were flowering (another green and white garden!) and a noisy friarbird lived up to his name, chortling his leathery head off in the gum tree. I swam and swam and swam. It was blissful beyond words.

Coogee

Whenever I go to the doctor or the dentist and they say something like “Go to your happy place” because they’re about to do something ghastly, in my mind I always go to a pool. It used to be Coogee women’s pool because I swam there for many years. It was like swimming in champagne, except with fish in it. There was a resident octopus, and once there was a baby Port Jackson shark, looking vaguely embarrassed. He wasn’t there the following day so I guess the tide took him out again. The pool’s at the bottom of steep steps cut into the rock. The view down the beach is spectacular. Even the changing room has a view. It’s very basic, but the glass-less window lines up perfectly with Wedding Cake Island.

Dubai

A few years ago, on the way to Europe, a friend and I had a stopover in Dubai, where the hotel had a beautiful pool. It was indoors and warm as a bath and there was a garden planted around it. After a long flight with my knees pressed up against the seat in front, it was heavenly to swim and stretch out. Afterwards we had massages then drank tea in the hotel foyer, under an enormous chandelier in the shape of a pineapple. Then we went back to the pool. I’d be willing to spend 14 hours on a plane just to go back to that hotel. Whenever someone mentions Dubai now, my friend and I both sigh and say, “I love Dubai.” The truth is we’ve never really seen Dubai. We didn’t leave the hotel. Why would you?

Woonona

I spent a summer swimming in Wollongong, which has sea pools strung along the length of it. Woonona pool (above) was the closest and most scenic but it wasn’t my favourite because it’s not tidal. The water gets pumped out once a week. Bulli pool was also close and better than Woonona for swimming because it didn’t get a layer of sunscreen on it on hot days, but some days it filled with fine weed, like swimming through underarm hair. My absolute favourite was Towradgi pool, a short drive away. It was tidal and clean. There were schools of little fish coasting around in the clear water and cormorants sitting on the rails watching. Some days the waves crashed all around it, outside the pool walls, but inside the water was calm. A group of mostly old men, grumpy and leathery skinned, with huge bellies, sat on the concrete steps all day like walruses. After a swim I would stroll up the path to find an excellent coffee in the unpretentious caff at the caravan park. I’ve gone to my happy place right now, just writing about it.

But the best pool of all, the one which will probably never be bettered, is this:

Bali1

It’s at the Pita Maha in Ubud, Bali. I’d be surprised if there’s a happier happy place. I’d always wanted to swim in an infinity pool; I guess you could say it was on my pool bucket list. When I went to Ubud I’d had what the Queen would call an annus horribilis: a pretty crap year…or two. My relationship ended. My friend died. My dog died. My job ended and I was unemployed for six months. I got shingles. I had to sell my house. My car carked it. I got another job at half my previous salary, working for a terrible bully. So when I got an unexpectedly large tax return (unemployment has an up side after all) I went to Ubud, only for four days, but it was the best four days of my life.

I didn’t do much. I walked around a bit, looking at things. I ate amazing food. I sat in the garden of the hotel listening to the sounds of geckos and gamelan music and the wind in the trees every evening as the rain came in. And I swam in the infinity pool with swallows diving and frangipani blossoms falling around me and was absolutely enchanted.

IMG_1203

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. One day I didn’t have the pool to myself; a very loud woman got in with a group of friends. She splashed around noisily in the water and threw blossoms in the air and shrieked in a voice that echoed across the ravine: “THIS IS THE BEST FREAKIN’ POOL I’VE EVER BEEN IN IN MY LIFE.” To which I replied, “I completely agree, but please could you use your indoor voice?”

No, I didn’t, but I thought it.

She was right, though. It was the best freakin’ pool. No doubt, like me, she still thinks of that pool as her happy place. What about you? Where’s your happy place? I hope you have several. I’ve got another day off tomorrow. Can you guess where I’m going?

Bali2

 

Perspective

IMG_3573

There was an outbreak of lack of perspective in Canberra this week. I heard a lot of people with public profiles talk about what’s wrong with this city. One person even went so far as to say that Canberra’s crime rate rivalled that of Detroit or Mogadishu. What’s extra funny about that is that this week Lonely Planet rated Canberra the third best city in the world to visit. And which city was in second place? Detroit!

I don’t know if it was because I spent the week listening to people moan about their actually very fortunate life, but I caught the bug and lost perspective too.
I was dealing with a few annoying things, such as long hours at work, unexpected and expensive car repairs, a dead possum on the roof, a difficult conversation with a family member that needs to be had, and I let them blow out of all proportion until I started to feel that life was hard. I was near to tears this afternoon when I went to meet my sister, who’s in town for a few days.

We met at a beautiful restaurant/bar in a building that’s won awards for its design and eco credentials. We ate delicious, unusual food. We were well fed and sheltered and looked after. I mention that because my sister’s just been in Cambodia, where every day for a week she helped out at a charity that provides food for school children. Kids who otherwise wouldn’t eat a proper meal now get a substantial lunch. On Saturdays the volunteers pack up rice, omelette, soup and stirfry and take the food out to the villages where the kids live. They started off by serving 100 people on Saturdays. Now they feed 700. An Aussie who volunteered at the food charity started a spin-off organisation that, among other things, pays for kids to go to school and stay in school.

IMG_3581

My sister brought me some gifts from her trip. One was an iron fish, developed as a way to combat anaemia in Cambodia. Putting it in the pot when you cook rice or broth is an easy way to add iron to your diet. As someone who suffered from anaemia for the first 35 years of my life I know how debilitating it can be, and I lived an easy, middle class, Western world lifestyle and had access to doctors who eventually worked out the cause of my deficiency. Holding this solid iron fish in my hands reminded me how lucky I am to have access to good, affordable medical care, how lucky I am to have the means to buy and grow food that sustains me.

img_3580.jpgThe second gift my sister gave me was a tin star made by a man whom the charity also supports. It’s rough and chunky and wouldn’t win any craft or design awards, but I’ve hung it on the lounge room wall as another reminder of just how good life is.

We finished our meal and walked to the car park. As we stood chatting, I glanced at a couple nearby and realised that I knew them. We’d met in Wollongong years ago, but now they live in Thailand, in a community that offers meditation, meals, creativity and friendship to anyone who shows up. They live on a shoestring and they’re devoting years of their life to people who need their help. As if talking to my sister about her experiences in Cambodia wasn’t enough, bumping into those two really rammed the point home. I got my perspective back in spades.

IMG_3574

 

Green and white

 

IMG_3559

Hello!  How has your week been? We’re getting towards the pointy end of the year, aren’t we? Life seems to be speeding up and everyone’s busy. Someone told me that a major department store had its Christmas decorations up this week. Do you see me pulling a face and making a gagging sound? Yes, you do. Retailers, it’s still October. Cool it.

This week I came home to the small, quiet, pretty house to find a garden in full bloom. When I left it a few weeks ago there were notes of spring, but now she’s in full swing. What a change! I’m very grateful to the former owner for planting so many white flowers. The whole back garden is green and white. It’s the absolute last word in relaxation to sit out there and just stare at a green and white garden, in sunlight and in shadow. There’s a fair bit in the front garden too, with hints of scarlet and purple just to mix it up a bit. So I won’t talk anymore here. I’ll just share some of the pictures so that you can relax too.

First up is intoxicating jasmine. Breathe in and swoon:IMG_3542Then there are two unknown (to me) but very pretty white shrubs. If you know what they are, please tell me: IMG_3543IMG_3548Here’s a gorgeously showy rhododendron:img_3549-e1509259090177.jpgAnd a dainty dogwood:IMG_3555IMG_3551Last, but never least, the happy, humble daisy. May it spread all over the garden:IMG_3553

 

Have a green and pleasant week, my friends.

Taking stock

IMG_3480

Friends, it’s been an odd couple of weeks. It started with a racist clown at the petrol station. I’m not kidding. Two weekends ago, when I went to pay for my petrol, I found a man in his mid-fifties dressed in a clown suit, with white make-up on his face, shouting racist comments at the petrol station attendant. When I said, “Hey! Don’t be so rude!” he turned on me and said, “I’m sick of people who don’t speak proper English and I’m sick of f@%*kers like you who defend them.” He was shaking with rage. As I took a step back I thought, “I can’t believe this. I’m about to get punched by a man in a clown suit.” I was enormously relieved when he stormed out, clown curls bobbing, and roared away in his car. The unsettling tone of that incident has hung around since, really. So today I’m taking stock in an effort to shake it off and nut some things out. Here’s my list:

Living: Somewhere else. I’m not at home. I’m house-sitting and dog-sitting for a few weeks out in the country, which is a bit unsettling. Here’s the rainy day view today.

IMG_3506

Every morning when I walk the pups through those paddocks we pass countless kangaroos. They all stand and stare as if they’ve never seen us before, even though we went the exact same way yesterday and the day before. Other wildlife I’ve encountered so far: a shingleback lizard in the laundry, who obligingly got in a box for me so that I could put him outside before the dogs found him, and a mouse in the lounge room this afternoon. Eek! I shooed him out the door. Also, the spiders are BIG out here. And they hang around in doorways.

Reading: The Art of Frugal Hedonism, which is a funny, thought-provoking book that came along just at the right moment, since I’ve chosen to work part time and live on less. It’s making me see how often I buy things, even small things, to try to do away with feelings of discomfort/inadequacy/boredom. It’s also highlighted very starkly how easy it is to forget to be curious, to have a sense of wonder and to take delight in the small things. I feel my attention span and ability to concentrate have shrunk in this fast-paced soundbite world and I want to bring those skills back.

Eating: Shed loads of vegetables and brown rice and fish, influenced by my reading of this book: The Scandinavian Belly Fat Diet. It’s just common sense, not a diet, really. I can’t say I’ve noticed any difference in my waistline after two weeks but I sleep much better and that’s worth its weight in belly fat. I’ve discovered that a smoothie for brekky is my new favourite thing. Also, when you’re eating lots of veggies you need something absolutely out-of-this-world delicious to sprinkle on top and it turns out there’s a Japanese spice that fits the bill: togarashi. Go and get some or make some. You won’t be sorry.

Making: Well, that’s another reason for feeling unsettled. I didn’t bring any craft projects with me. My hands need something to do, so today I went to a craft shop and found this:

IMG_3512

I’ve got pre-printed sashiko material at home but this kit gives you stencils to make your own patterns. Brilliant! It’s such a slow, satisfying way to sew that I’m hoping it’ll work its meditative magic. I also found some gorgeous fabric, which I’ll go back for in a few weeks to add to my stash. Summer dresses, here we come!

Worrying: That things are not what they seem. Ah, now we’re getting down to it. I could write a whole post on this, and maybe I will when I find out what’s going on. I recently dipped my toes into the turbulent waters of online dating and was contacted by someone who is either exactly what I’m looking for or a total hoax. I’m increasingly thinking it’s the latter, which makes me so angry I don’t have the words to express it.

Wondering: Where to next? With life, I mean. I seem to have reached a point where the things I used to be passionate about aren’t passions anymore and I haven’t found replacements. Has that happened to you? What did you do? All suggestions very welcome. A little brainstorming is in order, I think, to come up with some direction. Everyone needs a star to steer by.

IMG_3481

 

Precious time

 

IMG_3470

What’s the value of a day? Every day that we go to work, we’re paid whatever our employer thinks our time is worth. If you’re self-employed perhaps you can name your price, within reason. But what is a day really worth to you? If you could have more money or more time, which would you choose? I guess the answer to that depends on the stage of life that you’re at. I choose time. Oh boy, do I choose time.

IMG_3048

Recently I bumped into a former colleague I’d worked with years ago. He looked fit and relaxed and happy. He’s retired now, so I asked him how he spends his time. He said he does volunteer work, spends time with friends, goes to lectures run by the University of the Third Age and is learning the harmonica. (The cat, he said, leaves the room when he plays.) I once discussed with a psychologist what the important ingredients are for a good life and we came up with three: connection, purpose/meaning and discovery. My former colleague, I would say, has hit the jackpot. And he’s got time.

When my former colleague asked me what I’d been doing, I gave him a potted history of my working life since he last saw me. “And what do you do to relax?” he asked. I was stumped. I’d had a super-busy month and my head was a whirlpool. For the longest moment I just couldn’t remember.

IMG_3471

That conversation has stayed with me because it so clearly showed how we can let our downtime be filled with work-like behaviour. We can find ourselves being efficient/effective/productive (insert any other workplace buzzwords here) when we’re not being paid, when we’re not even at work. It showed me that I’d forgotten to switch off. Even when I’d been doing relaxing things like yoga and gardening and sewing I’d been doing them in a hurry, as if they had a deadline. I’d been doing them as if they were work projects, as if my fun, relaxing activities, done in my own time, were going to be judged.

Obviously, that has to change. Today was my first non-work day in my new incarnation as a part-time worker, and oh.my.goodness it was the best, shiniest, most delicious, beautiful day I’ve had for a long time. It was a much-anticipated day. It shone in the distance like a sparkling jewel. I was talking about it with a friend a couple of weeks ago and he said, “Don’t squander it!” I thought a lot about what squandering it might look like. To some people, a free day means filling every moment, being busy, using up every drop of time. To me it means the absolute opposite. The best days, I think, are the slow ones, the days where you have things you’d like to do but it really doesn’t matter if you do something else instead.

IMG_3465

So what did I do on this jewel of a day? I had tea and toast in bed. Luxury! I pruned some branches from the silver birches while listening to crimson rosellas ting like bells in the gum tree next door. I pulled up weeds while eastern rosellas made their soapy, squeaky sounds in the birches above me. I noticed an unknown triffid about to flower in the front garden and I said hello to a neighbour.

I went to a friend’s house for a cuppa and a good chat and made a huge fuss of her lovely dog. I listened to a podcast about a guy and his brother preparing to drive from London to Ulaanbataar in a Nissan Micra. That’s a story I’m going to enjoy following! I took yet more photos of the bunch of poppies I’ve been obsessed by this week. I found an important piece of paper that I lost a few weeks ago. And I made a huge bucket of tea and sat in the back garden watching the late afternoon light dancing on the spring leaves. If someone had paid me a million dollars, it still wouldn’t have matched the value of this day. I wish you days like this.

IMG_3462

 

 

 

 

Moderately wild

track

“Let’s hike the Pacific Crest Trail,” said my friend S, standing on the doorstep in a big floppy black hat and carrying a small bottle of water. “Hmm,” I said, “The Pacific Crest is hard. Let’s start with the Appalachian. More people do that and it’s supposed to be easier.” Like I knew what I was talking about. I’ve just read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, so that makes me an armchair expert on extreme hiking. I didn’t read it when it first came out because I hate hype. But this book is hype-worthy. The writing is beautiful. I could not put it down, and now that I’ve finished it I’m going right back to the beginning to read it all over again. S hasn’t read it yet. She can’t borrow mine (see re-reading) so she’s ordered it at the library. But she knows all about it from the Gilmore Girls, so she’s an expert too.

We weren’t kitted out for an extreme hike, but we did go on an expedition to look for the Murrumbidgee River, which has turned out to be an obsession of mine since I moved into this house. We could have driven to the Murrumbidgee. There’s a beautiful swimming spot 10 minutes away by car. But someone told me that I could walk to the river from my house, so I’m determined to do that. The first time I tried it, I couldn’t even find my way out of the golf course. The second time I tried it, the temperature was minus 4 and there was thick fog ahead, so I gave up. Finally, this was the day. There was a hot wind blowing. It was the first warm day we’ve had since May, and we couldn’t quite believe that it would stay warm, so we headed off with an extra layer wrapped around our waists just in case.

We tried to cut corners before we even started. Rather than walk 200m to the left, we considered rolling under the fence to get on to the track. Then, when we got on to the track we remembered that we hate hills. I was soon out of breath, which was annoying because I’ve been walking for charity for the past three weeks and doing 10,000 steps a day. But on this day I just had no oomph. It was all gone. But we kept going.

hill

We strolled along, watched by surprised kangaroos who were smart enough to rest in the shade until the day cooled down a bit. The track wound through a wide, hot valley. “If we were in a cowboy move,” said S pointing to her black hat and then my white hat, “I’d be the bad guy and you’d be the good guy.” And suddenly it felt as if we really were in a cowboy movie, except we’d forgotten our horses and we were doing exactly what all sheriffs and do-gooder cowboys know you should never do: we were walking right out in the open, in the middle of the valley, instead of up on the ridge or in the tree line, where we could see the baddies but they couldn’t see us.

I spent a lot of my childhood watching cowboy films. There was often a cowboy film on telly on Saturday afternoons and I don’t remember the names of half of them, but I did love Rio Bravo, and especially this song, which was playing in my head for most of the walk after that:

 

We wouldn’t have been surprised at all if John Wayne and Dean Martin had shown up.

We came to a fork in the road and one track was clearly more well worn, so I said, “Let’s take the path most travelled.” Ten minutes later, we came to a dead end and had to turn back and take the road less travelled, which is a lesson in life I’ve been taught before but pretty much always have to relearn. Soon afterwards we saw a little sign and realised that we were on an actual recognised trail, the Centenary Trail, which made us feel even more Wild-like.

Up ahead, a stand of trees appeared. “That’s it!” I said, “That must be where the Murrumbidgee is.” We picked up the pace, looking forward to cooling our toes in the waters of the mighty river. Instead, we found this:

creek

Which led to this, which was cool and green and lovely but SO not the Murrumbidgee:

oasis

It was at this point that I thought, “I really should have looked at a map.” I remembered the man who’d told me I could walk to the river. We’d met on the track and said good morning. He’d waved his arm behind him in a vague gesture and said, “If you walk that way you can get to the Murrumbidgee.” I guess my interpretation of “that way” was a little off. Also, you really shouldn’t believe everything that everyone tells you.

When we came out of the oasis a weird thing happened. Up on the hill a man and woman in identical shirts were watching us through binoculars. “We’re being watched,” I hissed to S out of the corner of my mouth. “Why are they wearing matching shirts?!” she said, at which point they swung their binoculars into the sky and pretended to be birdwatching, then they turned around without a wave and walked off. “Do you think they went to the same outdoor clothing shop, he went to the men’s section and she went to the women’s section and then they met in the middle ten minutes later with matching shirts?” I asked. “It’s kind of cute.” S disagreed. “No,” she said disapprovingly. “She bought them matching shirts on purpose.”

As it turned out, the matching spies did us a favour, as we had no idea which way to go at that point and they appeared to be standing on a track that we hadn’t known existed. We sat down for a rest, to let them get ahead of us, then wished we hadn’t because we soon became lost again. The sun began to slide down the sky and the wind cooled considerably. Clouds began to build. I was glad I’d brought extra clothing. We’d finished our water, though, and our legs were aching. “I don’t want to walk up that hill,” said S, and neither did I. “If we can’t find a path around the hill,” I said, “we’ll go down there, under that fence and across country until we get back to the track we came in on.” As soon as we’d made plan B, a clearer path appeared ahead, albeit with some disturbingly large marsupials on it.

roo

On and on we walked, along a flattish, green section on the side of the hill. We knew we were heading in a homeward direction but we didn’t know how far it was. We’d passed a small dam and were discussing how to light a fire without matches and how to boil water without anything to boil it in. “We can use one of my Birkenstocks,” said S, which just goes to show that necessity really is the mother of invention. I think the Birkenstock company could really take that idea and run with it: the shoe that doubles as a billycan.

Then the cavalry came over the hill. Or, rather, a young couple walking a pair of schnauzers, which meant that we were almost back in civilisation. “It’s just over that hill,” they said. And it was. Over the hill we went, and suddenly we were back in suburbia, with houses and gardens and the road home. “We made it!” I said. “We kept going!” said S. We were elated and exhausted and so damn pleased with ourselves. But we’re still searching for the Murrumbidgee.

clouds

 

Road trip, part 2

IMG_3354

A hint of gentrification had crept in since my last visit to Bermagui. An artisanal bakery had appeared. At the wharf I found a shop selling trousers that cost nearly $300. Two blocks back from the harbour an old country cottage had been knocked down and replaced by an architectural box, beautiful and shiny but out of place. For now, anyway. “You’re way ahead of the game, mate,” I thought as I looked at that house, “but you’re right: change is coming.” I hope they keep some of the old Bermie charm when that change comes.

I quite enjoy motel kitsch: chipped laminate furniture, a nylon pastel bedspread and bath towels fanned like serviettes in a Thai restaurant. The motel I stayed in was a cut above the rest, though, because they’d bothered to cover up the breeze block walls and paint the room. Bare breeze block depresses the hell out of me, so I was glad. I hunkered down for the night, drank multiple cups of tea and wrote a lot of things down. When life throws a wobbly, I find writing things down immensely soothing. It helps to get things out of your head. Work Stress and Anxiety tried to push their way in, but I beat them back with pen and paper.

When I woke up the next morning Bermie was blue and shining all over again. I had no idea what the time was: my phone was dead, there was no clock in the room and the info ribbon on every TV channel said it was 4.56. Clearly that was wrong, because the sun was up and people were out walking dogs and saying hello to each other. The dogs were barking at pelicans in the harbour, who took no notice and hung around patiently in case anyone was having fish for brekky. Little Black Car and I headed off to Cobargo.

Cobargo’s been my escape fantasy destination for a while. Do you have those? When life gets too busy I start planning an alternative one in Cobargo. Most recently I’ve been saying I’ll buy a block of land, build a straw bale house, keep goats and get a Labrador. This is pure fantasy on so many levels. For a start, I have no building skills. And my sister tells me that male goats smell awful because they wee on their own beards. (True goat fact. Got to admire the level of skill involved in that.)

The houses in Cobargo and nearby Quaama are so quaint. I almost bought one a couple of years ago. It was old and characterful. The kitchen benchtop was made of a huge slab of polished tree trunk, so tactile that you just had to run your hand over it. The back garden sloped down to a duck pond. “How will I ever keep the Labrador out of the duckpond?” I thought. (I didn’t have a Labrador; I was just playing out the fantasy in my head.) The house was cheap and I wanted it, but I knew in my heart that it was too far from the points of my compass—Canberra, Sydney and the Illawarra/Shoalhaven. I knew I couldn’t really live there. I’d miss my people too much.

On this sunny Saturday in September, though, I indulged in the fantasy again, just for a while. Outside the bookshop in Cobargo the owner was drinking tea in the sun and greeted me with a cheery hello. I had a good breakfast in the Chalk and Cheese, where everyone knew everyone else and I overheard someone excitedly talking about a white whale that had been spotted off the coast. As I walked around to the School of the Arts for the woodblock printing workshop I heard an “ooof, ooof” sound and found an old man doing press-ups against his front gate. “Ooh, you caught me out,” he said, laughing. “I’m just building up my strength for the walk up the hill.”

Image result for Japanese Woodblock Wave

This is probably the most famous Japanese woodblock print: The Great Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai. Now that I know how it’s done, I’m even more in awe of it. He didn’t actually do the carving or printing himself, I learned at the workshop. He had minions to trace the design, carve the wood, prepare the paper, mix the pigment, position each block precisely and make multiple copies. It probably took them years of training to do that. An apprentice probably had to shuffle on their knees to the doorstep of the master every day for eight years before he let them prepare a piece of paper. We had two days to do all of it. Dreamin’.

In the old wooden hall with a minty green ceiling, we learned to lower our expectations. I was originally planning to draw this:

IMG_0351

The teacher looked aghast. So I simplified it to a child-like drawing of three flowers and a stick. Another student drew a beautiful, intricate wren. Someone else drew a waratah. We oohed and aahed over their work then watched them gnash their teeth as they tried to carve the detail in wood.

Wood carving tools are not my friends. If you are left-handed, it helps to use left-handed tools. Tip number one. When the teacher tells you to create a gently sloping valley, do not gouge out the Grand Canyon. Tip number two. If you are trying to print a small dot, it helps not to accidentally cut that bit out of the design entirely. Let’s just say we’re lucky I left my phone charger in the washing basket because there’s no photographic evidence of what I created. At the end of the day I had a butchered piece of linden wood in front of me, I was covered in wood shavings and my left index finger was completely numb. I said a cheery goodbye to my fellow artistes and drove off knowing that I wouldn’t be going back for day two. Life is too short.

That night I stayed here: Moonrise on the River. On the way there, driving on a dirt road through a forest at dusk, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. But when I arrived I found a place that was welcoming and peaceful and downright beautiful. I said hello to the owner and her dog, Topsy, then walked around the property and down to the river. I spent the evening alternating between snorting with laughter at parts of this book, Everywhere I Look (Helen Garner=genius), and just staring out of the window at the moon and the trees and the silver river. All of the week’s tension and worry dropped away and a wave of complete relaxation washed in.

In the morning Little Black Car and I went home, back through the wide, sunlit valley, past the Bega cheese cows, up the honey-smelling escarpment, past the concrete elephant, back across the treeless plain to join the line of traffic creeping home to Canberra from the ski fields. I thought about what I’d learned from the weekend. Some people shouldn’t use woodworking tools and I am one of them. It’s nice to escape to the country but it’s good to come home again too. Some things in life, like concrete elephants, just can’t be explained. And a road trip is balm for the soul.

Road trip

IMG_3327

When the wheels fell off at work and I had no idea what would happen next, Little Black Car and I went on a road trip. Ages ago I signed up for a Japanese woodblock printing course in Cobargo, in the beautiful Bega valley, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A long drive and a two-day workshop making art seemed like the perfect antidote to the week.

As I shoved a few things in an overnight bag I thought, “Mustn’t forget phone charger.” Then I remembered all the work trips I’d been on with federal and state politicians where at least one pollie always forgot their phone charger. I laughed, “Doofuses!” then somehow between the kitchen and the front door managed to leave my phone charger in the washing basket and drive off without it.

Little Black Car and I headed out to the Monaro Highway. We had three extra passengers who showed up uninvited. In the back seat were Anxiety and Work Stress, while General Worry About Everything rode up in front with me. “Don’t stop in Cooma for a coffee,” said General Worry. “You haven’t got time and you’ll never find a park.” What?! On a Friday morning in a country town?! Of course there was time and of course there was parking, but at that stage I was still listening to General Worry so I bypassed the town and headed out on to the Monaro plains, coffee-less and in a not very good mental state.

IMG_3329

Out on the Monaro there’s a whole lot of…nothing. “Good place to bury a body,” I thought. Then, when a huge ute roared up behind me from nowhere: “Uh-oh! Serial killer alert!” It’s an easy place to freak yourself out. After 30 kilometres of it I was starting to wonder if I’d ever see a living thing again. I’ve never been so relieved to see a flock of sheep in my life.

Then an oasis appeared, a huddle of cute wooden houses and springtime trees out there on the plain.

There were two pubs, one with a huge bottle sticking out of the side of it. There was a shop selling biker gear and a shop selling fruitcake. This, my friends, was Nimmitabel, population not very many at all. I got out of the car and walked around and that’s when I found this:

IMG_3359Yes, indeedy, it’s an elephant—a large, concrete, highly embellished, wrinkly kneed elephant. There’s no plaque near it. There’s no sign saying, “This elephant is here because.” It’s just there. So if you’re a biker who needs a new pair of leathers and you fancy a beer and some fruitcake and a look at an inexplicable elephant in a little hamlet right out in the middle of nowhere, Nimmitabel is the place for you. I loved it.

After Nimmitabel the trees came back and suddenly they were everywhere. The road wound down Brown Mountain, through incredibly tall eucalypts and tree ferns and wattle bursting with golden powder puffs. I stopped at Somebody’s Lookout for a pee and found that someone had thoughtfully put a window next to the loo so that you could enjoy the view through the trees and down the mountain.

IMG_3340

At this point General Worry was telling me to get back in the car and keep going, but I ignored her and wandered off down the path to the lookout. I bumped into an older couple who were obviously intoxicated too by the sudden appearance of trees and the smell of honey and the fact that it was several degrees warmer here than up on the windy old plains. “Walk to the end of the path!” said the woman, her eyes shining. “You can see the sea!” And that’s when I knew that, like me, they were from Canberra and had had enough of inland winter.

IMG_3343

After I’d walked to the end of the path, where you could indeed see the sea, far off and blue like the hills, I realised my three uninvited car companions had become silent. I drove on down the mountain without hearing a peep from any of them. Even General Worry was quiet. At the bottom of Brown Mountain the land opened out into a wide valley. The last time I came this way the grass was as green as Ireland. This time it was brown. The local radio station was dishing out advice to farmers on whether to plant sorghum in dry conditions. It was the only station I could get reception for, so now I’m an expert on sorghum. Ask me anything. Also, I can give you a round-up of cattle prices at the Bega saleyards if you’re interested.

Bemboka, population more than Nimmitabel but still not very many, sits in that wide valley. It’s a beautiful, beautiful spot. On the right-hand side as I drove into the village was a little white church made of royal icing, shining in the sun. The whiteness against the blue sky was gasp worthy. It reminded me of being in Florence and wandering around dark, narrow streets, past austere Renaissance buildings, and suddenly coming out into the square and seeing the Duomo, that wedding cake of a building, for the first time. So pretty.

After that it was serious Bega cheese country. Cows everywhere. Cows, cows and more cows. I love cows. The road from Cobargo to Bermagui even had a spot where the cows crossed the road to be milked every day. A trail of mud and hoof prints spilled from the paddock, across the bitumen, to the dairy. I’ll be thinking of those cows next time I make a cheese sandwich.

Finally, I reached my destination. In just over three hours I had crossed the plains and avoided being murdered by a serial killer. I’d seen a pub with a bottle coming out of the side of it and a concrete elephant nearby. I’d driven past some of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen and across a dry but still beautiful valley full of happy cows. At the end of all that was Bermagui and the sparkly-arkly sea. And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, with the sun on our faces and the smell of salty air in our nostrils. To be continued…

IMG_3355