I left my blinds open and woke with the sun, lorikeets screeching out their bitchy hierarchy in the gums above my head.
I could hear my housemate clanging in the kitchen in that way that early risers do, figuring morning is for waking, and you can sleep when you’re dead.
It felt good to rise as nature intended, though it required going to bed at gramps-o’clock.
I was splitting my day between matters of personal happiness and annoying, obligatory jobs begging attention before Christmas, so I ate a good breaky of eggs and caffeine. I wouldn’t be back til late afternoon.
Last week the fantastic news that I’d received the green light for my Colombia job arrived without fuss in my inbox.
You have been accepted to the English Teaching Fellowship to work in Cartagena de Indias.
Its brevity was great, though a little shocking. I looked up from the couch on my ordinary Tuesday night and let my little heart soar.
Then I googled Cartagena.
“The jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with a charming colonial, old city.”
Heck yes. My kite surfing dreams would at last come into fruition.
Absentmindedly I thought about what to pack for a year in paradise. All I could think of was bikinis and my favourite pen.
I hoped I could track down somewhere safe to live, that didn’t cost too much. I wanted to spend most of my monthly stipend on Spanish lessons, attending theatres and scuba diving.
I would be teaching English to the poorer people of the nation (all ages), and would be well out of my depth for the first couple of months at least.
That week I bounced around. Someone could have pelted me with eggs as I rode to work and I wouldn’t have minded. I had a secret and it was a good one.
I knew I’d be in for a pretty tough year, but I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
For now, reality beckoned.
I packed my laptop, an apple and some water and pedaled off to my psychologist appointment. I looked harder than normal at our fabulous Aussie trees. I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while.
I’d decided to deal with some stuff that had been getting me down. As a naturally happy person I woke up one day realising I had lost some of that somewhere along the way.
It was time to delve into that mental back drawer that most of us spend our lives ignoring.
I had been recommended to an amazing, professional woman who spoke the language of the heart, through the tongue of the brain.
Sharp as a tack, passionate and sensibly analytical she was just the kind of person I needed to shine my reflection back at me.
I cannot recommend seeing a psychologist highly enough if there is something troubling you. I think we should see them as frequently as dentists to be honest. Probably more.
It was an hour’s appointment and I left with that satisfied feeling you get when you fish a grape out from under the refrigerator. Dealing with something that had been out of sight, out of mind, and would just have festered.
I had a letter to write to someone important in my life, so called into an op-shop to buy the cute vintage writing paper such an occasion demanded.
On my way out I spotted a sex shop. I hadn’t been into one since college days, when we would leave notes on the cork ‘meeting board’ up the back saying “looking for open-minded orgy companions, call me” and signed off with out friend’s number. Haha!
“Morning,” said the young male behind the counter a little too brightly.
I was somewhat ambushed.
He sprung up like an erection.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Um, I was just walking past and thought I’d look,” I replied.
Ha. Bet he hears that one a lot.
I walked towards the nearest shelf, which of course was a beautifully arranged display of vibrators. One had bunny ears on the business head, obviously designed by somebody not in possession of a vagina.
“They’re great,” said the vagina-less man.
“What size are you looking for?”
“We’ve got a great range of realistic ones,” he said, sweeping an arm in the direction of the well-endowed shelf.
“Or these little ones are great for travelling, and super quiet,” he continued, putting a buzzing one into my hand.
It was all a little amusing; I relished impromptu experiences like this.
Things became a little awkward when he started a paragraph-like (though very informative) description of the benefits of clitoral versus penetration options.
I didn’t want to interrupt him, but the buzzing in my hand was becoming a little strange to hold, and I didn’t know how to turn it off.
The button would have to be on the erm…dry end I reasoned, as he chatted away. Close but no cigar.
When he’d stopped talking I handed the small instrument back, and he shut it off like a pro. He would make some girl very happy one day, with or without battery-operated help!
“Well, thank you,” I said sincerely.
“You really know your stuff. I might pop back on the weekend.”
When I’d left I thought of a hundred great puns I could have used. Dammit!
“Great G-spot you’ve got here, it’s got a real buzz about it.”
“Been open long or short?”
“I’ll just go out the same way I came in.”
I made my way to my favourite Mooloolaba Café, Envy. I’d done a trial here a while ago and the atmosphere was so relaxed it felt like you were hanging out at a friend’s place.
Sometimes it was hard to identify the actual staff, as they floated by with the urgency of a Bolivian storekeeper.
Like most places on the coast it was overpriced, but I paid my $5.50 for a mug of flat white made on almond milk (YUM) and pulled up a pew.
I wrote a six-page letter. Pausing to laugh, cry and sometimes look up to catch the approving glance of an elderly person who thought the art of pen to paper had long been killed-off by our generation.
It was $5.50 well spent; good tunes kept rolling, the coffee was excellent and no annoyingly bright waitresses bugged you like on the esplanade.
I had forgotten the pleasure of writing a letter rather than an email. The slow pace of penmanship forces you to think about each sentence properly before you blurt it (something I am direly missing in conversation.) It was a great cure for my ever-present foot-in-mouth disease.
I popped it in the post box across the road, like sending off an old friend on the train, and went to finish my Christmas shopping. As usual I bought one for them and one for me…..the only way to get through the drollness of Christmas shopping.
As I paid with cash I shouldn’t be spending a warning rumble of thunder sounded.
I peered up into a menacing sky, got on my bike and prepared to race nature. The sky darkened with a smirk as I waited for the lights to change.
I could feel the air changing in that way it does when it is about to absolutely piss down.
I had gift-wrapped presents dangling from my handlebars and my laptop in my backpack. It was on.
Green light, I gunned it across Venning St, the sky rumbling smugly overhead. I must look like a tiny ant running home.
As I sped past Ocean View Av the drops started coming. What Forest Gump would call “Big ol’ fat rain.”
No!! I pumped my stumpy legs faster, feeling the burn. This is what Lance Armstrong must have felt on those ferocious hills during the Tour de France.
Oh, that’s right, he had drugs helping him. Lucky bugger.
More drops, my sunglasses ran rivers.
I thought about sheltering under someone’s garage but it looked like the kind of rain that would set in for a good hour.
I was only a few blocks from home, and I’ve always enjoyed a challenge. I kicked my steel steed into racing gear, and put my head down as though on the velodrome.
Racing speed on my bike was similar to that attained by a nanna on a slight downhill slope. As I passed the beckoning shelter of the local fish and chip shop, I knew I’d made a rookie error.
One street from home and the heavens opened.
I could imagine them up there (whoever they were) yelling, “Get her! Drown the little ant! It wore a yellow shirt today, how silly of it!”
I arrived home transparent and delighted with the adrenalin of it all. One present to re-wrap.
The rain kept coming down, soothing and beautiful, soaking into the thirsty coastline.
I put on Double J in the background and prepped dinner while the thunder belted its way across the sky.
Is there anything as good as a stormy day when you’re not at work!
You who loves them fierce-red through your veins
I love all the more for refusing –
to let motherhood define you
– to let it constrictingly bind you.
Instead you pin it
Strong brass, clotted with a hundred clammy prints –
from babana-bread-hands, squashed sandwiches, spilt yoghurt –
To the gilded arc of triumph that you are
And wear it as part of you. Of Sarah.
For you never can decide
What you mean to others
But to me you mean strength
and depth and reality.
A refreshing fuck-off reality
So rare is sears like welding flash
At once raw and immeasurable
Sometimes we talk practicality
And you perch Zan on my hip, to fold clothes
Sometimes you make my eyes water
As you lay bare your tenacious soul
Refusing to quit, lie down, sit pretty
Bleeding the ochre from mediocre
And blazing it across your warrior cheeks
Today, surrounded by women
Remember you will always have grace and strength.
Because that is you.
And will always be.
I watch your boys playing against a bright Cecil sky,
I watch Ben lift up his daughter
And I am so glad you are bringing another life in to share our world.
The problem with being vague is that amusing events, weird people and small scenes of disaster tend to magnetise towards your general portion of the universe.
….as though drawn by your aptitude for not having much aptitude for things.
If a weirdo gets on a train or bus, they will inevitably sit down beside me and begin telling me their story. Tangent by confusing tangent.
If I have a simple task to complete and someone else is waiting on the other end, it will invariably go wrong.
Life is a battle!
Here is a story from the front line, for your amusement.
God Bless You Frank… Whoever You Were.
I had been working at my new job as a carer for people with mental illness. There was a sign on the lunchroom door that said “Out of my head, back later.”
The job was a fountain of bemusing scenarios as it was, but this particular day the event happened before I had actually started for the day.
I arrived at work to find my shift had been changed and I was now three hours early. Sigh.
My fuel light had been on for a couple of days and I had no dollars. Driving back to Paddington and risking an empty tank on my return to work wasn’t an option, so I set off on foot through Red Hill to kill the time.
For weeks now I’d admired the old, Roman Catholic church that stood on the hill. An austere mass of red bricks, it loomed in solid splendour above us mere mortals, just as the Catholics would have liked.
They were fond of stark reminders that enjoying sex, coveting your neighbours Merc or eating pizza on the Sabbath would send you directly to hell….without passing go, and probably after PAYING $200.
I loved old buildings like churches, and this one was grand enough to be a cathedral (by Aussie standards anyway).
I decided to sneak up to the bell tower for a pigeon’s gander across our fine city of Brisbane.
As I approached I noticed there was a mass on. On a Monday! Give it a rest Catholics.
This should fill an hour, I thought, and stepped inside to take a seat in the back row. Perhaps they would hand out wine.
Though I was an atheist, I was interested in the concept of religion, and it wasn’t often I got to see it in action.
While I waited for my morning coffee to kick in I was pleasantly lulled by the monotone drone of the priest, swathed in folds of white that dropped from his shoulders like iced waterfalls.
I gazed skyward, remembering with discomfort how hard the benches had been in Sunday school, and how rigidly Inow sat.
After a while I began to actually pay attention to the sermon. (This can take some time with the roundabout preaching style of the snow-clad).
“He was a man of many communities,” the priest was saying, “giving not only his time to his family, but also to those in the many clubs he was involved with over the years.”
So Jesus was a clubs man! I knew it. I could almost picture him kicking back at the bar of Jerusalem’s local bowls club with a jar of the good stuff, after a tough day on the green with his 12 mates.
I looked up at the Jesus upon his lofty heights on the internal arcs.
“Today we come together not to mourn the loss of Frank, but to celebrate the life that he led…..” the priest went on.
The lightbulb inside my brain also went on. Finally.
I was in the middle of a funeral.
I looked with fresh eyes at the assembled congregation, noting I was one of approximately eight people under the age of 100.
Shit. They probably think I’m a secret mistress here to argue the will.
I became acutely aware of everything in my surroundings, and tried to ignore the feeling that I stood out like an extra finger on a Simpson. One of the congregation breathed heavily and the priest looked sympathetically in her direction.
I nodded solemnly at the milestones of Frank’s life (which were remarkable and humbling to hear by the way) and considered the most low-key exit I could make.
A woman dressed in a lavender two-piece dress suit turned her head slowly to look at me.
I nodded subtly to her in a way I’d seen jockeys do at country races when other jockeys trotted past them in the warm up ring.
This was arguably not the appropriate response.
I had to get out before the procession and mingling occurred or someone would inevitably ask me, tears pooling in their earnest eyes, “And how did you know Frank?”
And I would be forced to think of an innocent way I could have chanced upon the friendship of this man in his 70s (gathering by the demographic of mourners), so as not to answer with honest disrespect, “Oh no, I don’t know Frank, I work up the road but I don’t have enough fuel to get back to my house so I thought I’d kill time here. Not kill, pass. No, shit, not pass…..um…look an eagle.”
There was a brief pause in the proceedings and I took this moment to dust off my acting skills.
Looking directly out the large door to my right I pretended I was being hailed by a fellow mourner.
Perhaps one of the aged who couldn’t lift their walker up the stairs unassisted. A friend of Frank’s who I’d met while I was over at Frank’s place….cleaning his fish tank. As I did. Each Wednesday. Yes, yes he was a lovely man, madam.
Calmly I nodded and made the motion for them to stay there, that I would come out to them.
From his position at the parapet only the priest could see the empty stairs I was signalling at.
“We would like to thank those of you who have travelled to celebrate Frank’s life amongst family and friends on this day,” he continued.
Bless you father for your silence.
I took my leave, wishing Frank well in the next sphere, and hurrying off down the road, taking several metres to extricate myself from the far-flung shadow of the great building.
“I see you child,” said the God I didn’t believe in, “I know what you have done.”
Ironically, though the remainder of my day included explaining to a lovely man with dementia that his debit card was linked to his own money, and not a scheme by us carers to replace his hard earned cash with a small plastic card, that was the most surreal part of my day.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered the ‘normality’ of my workplace, all the while thinking Frank seemed like the kind of guy who would’ve got a chuckle out of my story.
I recall many summers, gazing out my classroom window, stuck to the little brown chair with sweat, watching magpies pull grubs from their safe places on the lawn.
It was so hot the air seemed to buzz, a languid drawl against my 12-year-old ear drums. I tried to focus through the audio-haze on my teacher’s voice.
“Who can tell me why the Aborigines didn’t want the new settlers to build houses in Australia?”
Ha. What a can of worms that one was.
The clearest thought I remember, however – because it has never truly gone away – is: “There’s got to be more to life than this.”
Even at that young age I was not wholly satisfied with the options being served before me.
That thought roars loud as as a Harley through the channels of my brain. I think of it as I brush my teeth, run on the road, check my emails, dive deep under water, wash the dishes.
We get up, live our lives for a day and then sleep, only to do it all over again.
When we are young we have wild and wonderful variations of this, but ultimately for most people, it is too difficult to maintain a life against the grain. All that swimming upstream is exhausting. And we eventually succumb to a doldrum existence.
This is not the case for everybody. And finding those sorts of people is the inspiration that can change your own life. Through inspiring you to change it yourself.
Today I finally watched the second Australian Story (ABC – excellent program) on Aussie Tara Winkler. Do yourself a favour and view the link.
This woman, aged just 22 at the time, pulled 14 kids from an abusive and corrupt orphanage and set up a better one for them. She then realised orphanages weren’t the answer and embarked on an over-abitious project to turn her efforts into an NGO instead, that places kids with families and puts on programs from karate to schooling.
And she pulled it off.
She didn’t just complete a token ‘kid rescue’ to save 14 children and stop there. She looked at the systemic failings of childcare in the country and tackled the problem with vision.
As I watched her story I cried and laughed at several points. I have always had a big heart and in recent years grown increasingly frustrated by not knowing what to do with my pent up will to help, desire to use my brain, do work I love and find something ‘more to life than this.’
Over the last year I’ve felt a pull towards the NGO sector. I love journalism, but I want my years on this spinning ball of rock to mean something at the end of it all. For me journalism is fulfilling, vitally important for a fair and open society and hard, brain stimulating work.
But there is a part of me that hasn’t been allowed to stretch its legs.
As I sat at my computer in Mooloolaba, on one of the Sunshine Coast’s lifeless, overcast days, I was struck like a gong by a long-overdue realisation of what I wanted to do with my life. Mostly epiphanies sneak up on you and hit you full in the face to announce their presence.
Tara’s story made me proud of a stranger, meditate on the beauty of romance in whatever form it comes, remember that we all have strength and should blaze ahead with our plans regardless of the doubters, who will never risk or achieve anything grand.
I took a photo of my puffy, red face to use as motivation in years to come if my mission got tough.
I made a list of the skills I possessed at that exact point in time.
1) Good at talking to people and engaging them to share their story with me.
2) Resourceful. Can enter most places with or without consent of security. Possibility to apply this in professional/legal capacity.
3) Good with kids.
4) Horses trust me.
5) Fast, efficient writer.
6) Good creative writer.
7) Good at having ideas. Not so good on follow through. Working on it.
8) Handy with a camera and video camera.
9) Excellent at finding hidden corners of cities.
10) Good networker. Good at deciphering jargon. Good at rewriting jargon to normal speak.
11) Good at cheering people up. Highly empathetic.
12) Good at climbing.
It was a mixed bag. I felt with these as my specialties I could live a fulfilling life, without crusting over.
Spurned on by a desire to make up for lost time, I applied for two positions with NGOs. One in Cambodia, one in Colombia.
I felt this life clarity was a little late, but better late than never.
The miserable day looked down on me miserably. So much for my planned swim today.
While I was thinking of all the exciting options that lay before me, and the mountain of work it would take to get to where I wanted to be, I was aware of one thing.
I would have to look at this not as some phase, but as a way of life. A way of looking at life. If I had a bambino in Colombia while helping set up a domestic violence education program it would be no big deal. My kid would grow up speaking Spanish and English and we’d swim in the water together and watch whales play during their breeding season.
If I didn’t achieve the lofty journalism heights I had planned by 30 I would just have to relax and accept that life works out, partially through your actions as the liver and partially through circumstances out of your control.
I felt I had gained something and let go of something all in one morning. It was mentally refreshing and spiritually uplifting. It reminded me life was good.
I felt like I’d just taken the mental component of who I was through the car wash, to emerge a little better, and ready to wear another ten thousand bugs to the windscreen.
I returned to my Spanish study, frequently pausing the CD to decipher the curly and confusing language that the tutor demanded from me.
The horizon looked challenging, but it looked really good too.