Of all the pictures on display in the National Portrait Gallery, there are two that I particularly love. You see one of them from a distance and your brain says, “That one,” and your feet begin to walk towards it. Then you spend a long time in front of it, staring, because it radiates character. If you move closer to it, you find yourself wondering how that black line here or that gold smudge there can end up representing light and shade so accurately. It’s Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Lowitja O’Donoghue and it glows off the wall. There’s a disappointingly flat photo of it here, but I urge you to go and see the real thing. It’s much more impressive.
Around the corner, tucked away on a side wall, is another of Robert Hannaford’s paintings. It’s of Robert Dessaix. “Robert,” you feel like saying, “how are you? What are you working on?” because he seems really to be there. You could almost walk into the painting, sit down and have a cup of tea with him.
The Portrait Gallery is my second favourite building in Canberra. I’ll tell you about my favourite another time. I love the concrete, the soaring geometric ceiling and the lighting. Hell, I even like the toilet doors, but I didn’t take a photo of them because that would be weird.
I’m in love with the tactile orange blob that greets you as you arrive. I adore the shop, with its eclectic book selection and imaginative gifts. Yesterday I treated myself to a book and took it to the airy, light-filled cafe to read while drinking real leaf tea from a teapot the colour of the sky in winter. I once took a friend from Yorkshire to the Portrait Gallery, and now I hear his voice in my head every time I go there for tea: “Ooh, I loov a posh gallery caff.”
A possibly little known fact about the Portrait Gallery is that it contains Ned Kelly’s death mask. Two things strike you when you look at it: he seems to be smiling in death, and he had an extraordinarily small head. “Surely not?” you think. “Surely if that were true, someone somewhere would have mentioned that Australia’s most famous bushranger had a teeny-tiny head?” Then you realise that the guy who made it must have plonked the face on to a little blob of plaster and made some not-at-all-in-proportion shoulders. At least, I hope he did.
Not far from Ned Kelly’s puzzlingly small head is a carte de visite, a photographic calling card, of Madame Sibly, phrenologist and mesmerist. Apparently she travelled around with her daughter, Zel the Magnetic Lady, feeling the bumps on people’s heads or hypnotising them and making them do silly things. She also claimed to be able to cure gout. That’s quite a CV. If she’d ever had the chance to feel the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head, no doubt she could have warned his mother: “This one’s trouble.”
A short walk from the Portrait Gallery are the Old Parliament House rose gardens. I wasn’t a big rose fan until I moved to Canberra. Even in my first garden here, I took a hard line: only vegetables and native plants. But the next two houses I lived in had roses climbing up the brickwork and they were so cheery and bright that they changed my mind. Also, they required very little effort from me and still looked bloomin’ marvellous every year. So now I’m a convert.
There are two rose gardens, one each side of Old Parliament House. When you walk through the gates of the first one, a cloud of scent hits you. The roses are arranged by colour: a garden of white, a garden of pink, a garden of yellow and so on. There’s a loggia and a rotunda thingy and it’s all terribly picturesque. People like to get married there. In fact, there was a bride-to-be there on Sunday, planning where to stand for her wedding photos, while I wandered around sticking my nose into Fragrant Cloud and Golden Celebration and Taboo. She seemed tense and distracted. “Don’t expect it all to be perfect,” I wanted to say to her. “Just enjoy the flowers.”
While the first rose garden is pretty and manicured because it’s looked after by hundreds of volunteers, the second rose garden is like the Secret Garden or something out of a fairytale by the brothers Grimm. It’s overgrown and much wilder. If you had your wedding there, your expensive dress would become snagged on trailing thorns and you’d end up with big spiders in your hair.
This is the garden where the year 5/6 primary school classes that come to Canberra to visit all the important buildings stop to eat their lunch. On a weekday you’ll find kids running in the maze of rose bushes or doing cartwheels on the grass. It’s a wilder garden and you can run wild in it.
Or you can sit on a bench in a secluded corner and take in its quiet charms. In its own way, this garden is as enchanting as the other one; you just have to look a bit harder for the pretty things.
Portraits and petals: a good day out.
I’ve never been a fan of February. In the Northern Hemisphere it’s cold and dark and gloomy and you wonder if spring will ever come. In the Southern Hemisphere it’s so hot and dry, day and night, that everything wilts, including the people. It’s a month to be endured rather than enjoyed.
This year, February has been particularly unkind. It’s been one of the busiest times at work. I’ve had a lurgy that just wouldn’t leave and insomnia that seems to have dug its heels in. But those things are nothing, really, because my Dad has cancer again, this time with complications, and has spent most of the month in hospital.
I could write about pain (his) and grief (ours). I could write about shouting in my car while driving home from work, pleading with God/the universe to give him more time and a quiet, peaceful death years from now. Perhaps I’ll get my wish. As things stand, it seems unlikely. A year ago we were talking about him beating cancer. Now we’re talking about him buying time. They were the specialist’s words: “Basically, we’re just buying time.”
If you’re seriously ill, it helps to have a specialist with gallows humour. A recent conversation went like this:
Dad: I think I was in the same bed last time I was here.
Specialist: Yes, we kept it for you. Your name’s up there in permanent marker.
One conversation he had last year with Mum still makes me smile:
Mum: Will he be well enough to go on our overseas holiday?
Specialist: Is he going over in a box?
Mum: No, and I don’t want to bring him back in one either.
How do you keep doing the everyday things when uncertainty, pain and death are looming? For a couple of weeks, I didn’t know if I could stand the futility of so many aspects of my day. I wanted to spin myself a cocoon and hide inside it for as long as possible. I wanted to make caustic remarks in reply to the endless discussions about inconsequential things. I wanted everything and everyone to go away.
But everything doesn’t go away. Whatever personal hell you’re going through, you have to go through it while still doing the everyday things. The garbage still has to go out. The house still has to be cleaned. You have to keep feeding yourself nutritious food. You can’t walk out of work because, actually, it’s a good job and it pays for your lifestyle.
Watching someone confront their mortality makes you face up to your own. And it turns out that there’s an up side to insomnia: it gives you extra time to think. It gives you time to question whether you’re where you want to be, doing what you really want to do. It gives you time to plan how to get from here to there. It gives you time to ask questions like: what do I need to do right now to start going down that path?
Today, finally, the hot weather broke. I went to the garden centre and stood in the teeming rain choosing white flowers to plant in the back garden. By the time I got back to the car I was soaked through, but it felt exhilarating to be out in the rain. Back at home I tucked the plants into the wet soil and their bright little faces cheered me up.
The only way to keep going is to keep going. The Nike slogan works: just do it. I’ve fitted more into this weekend than I normally would. There’s no time for apathy and lethargy. There’s now, today, and maybe there’s tomorrow, but we really have no control over that. I don’t have any answers. I wish I did. I just wanted to tell you about my February.
The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Oh dear. Guilty as charged. I think I overdid it: three trips away in under three weeks. For those of us who live on the Southern Tablelands, a trip to the coast takes several hours, usually ending in a drive down a long and winding road. Whichever route you take, there’s always that last bit with the hairpin bends. I calculate that Little Black Car and I drove around 34 hairpin bends. Excuse me while I have a little nap now…for about a year.
But wait! No napping allowed because it’s back to work time and it’s busy and already two weekends are filled with obligations. Going back to work was a shock. “This is what I do?!” I thought incredulously. “This can’t be right. Who on earth thought it was a good idea for legions of us to sit all day in front of computers, shortening our hamstrings, our forearm tendons, our sight and our attention span?”
While I worked, I allowed my mind to escape into a Thomas Hardy‑esque fantasy of scything in the fields with my fellow villagers, stopping at morning tea time for a hunk of bread and a lump of cheese, washed down with a tankard of local cider. In this bucolic vision the sun (not the artificial lighting) was shining and the carthorses (not my co-workers) were snorting and sighing. Clearly I chose to focus only on pastoral loveliness and to ignore all the bad things that happen in Hardy novels, but it got me through the day.
That rambling introduction is my way of saying: I’ve got nothing. I felt the urge to write something and had planned to take you on a day trip to a historic town not too far from here, but that will have to be postponed because there’s nothing left in the tank, mine or Little Black Car’s. This weekend I’m dog-sitting in the country with my furry friends Mr Drooly Scrumptious and Ms Leaps and Bounds, and all I can manage is a walk around the garden and a few photos of interesting native plants. Here’s a picture of some kind of flowering pea (looking very much like a fairy toothbrush):
And here are some banksia pods, looking every bit as cunning as the Big Bad Banksia Men in May Gibbs’s stories:
Now, while one of us chews sticks and one of us snoozes with his head on his paws, the plan is to switch off, and to sit and look at the big sky while drinking tea and following some sage advice. I declare this afternoon a holiday.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
This 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.I’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.Last 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.The 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.So 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. A 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.
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:Then there are two unknown (to me) but very pretty white shrubs. If you know what they are, please tell me: Here’s a gorgeously showy rhododendron:And a dainty dogwood:Last, but never least, the happy, humble daisy. May it spread all over the garden:
Have a green and pleasant week, my friends.