Coming home

An old upright piano sits in the park, near the public toilets. It is wooden, painted white, and a bit dishevelled. I sit at it and open the lid. The keys are discoloured, some of them chipped. 

I play. 

I play a little piece I’ve made up over many years. I don’t even remember when I started playing it. Maybe in high school. It’s very simple. Based on a single chord in the left hand, and the notes of that scale in the right hand. It’s different each time I play it, and that’s the point. This is the piece I play when I really just want to play. This kind of playing, where I’m just making it up as I go along, takes me to some other place. The whole of me becomes this music, this play. 

It is a relief to become something else for a time, and a joy. 

I’m in Sydney Park. A place I must have walked a thousand times when I lived nearby some years ago. I’d been wandering around the park before I found the piano. Noticing what had changed, noticing what was the same. 

I haven’t lived near here now for years. I’ve lived in another state for nearly three years. I’m visiting Sydney with a man—a little adventure we’re having together. He’s somewhere else in the park now, writing. Later we will walk down King Street and Enmore Road, my arm looped through his, and we will talk about how important this part of Sydney—the park, Newtown, the Inner West—is to me, to my story. To who I am and who I’m becoming. We’ll talk about what home is, what coming home means—a conversation we’ve been having on and off for quite some time. 

By the time I find myself sitting at a piano in Sydney Park, I’ve been home from my travels overseas for a few weeks. I’ve been confused and a bit lost for most of that time. More than a week of the fog of jet lag, not being sure where I was in time, wanting to eat at strange hours, sleep when I should be awake. Actually, just wanting to eat and sleep pretty much all the time. 

But the confusion is more than just jet lag. 

Home is strange to me. That feeling when you get back from being away, where the house looks different in some way you can’t put your finger on, that has lingered.

It’s something to do with time, and something to do with change. Time has passed for me and time has passed for my home, and things have changed, but it’s happened separately. I have an ongoing feeling of needing to catch up, and of needing to catch others up, but not having the words with which to do that. 

The beginning of this year was incredibly difficult for me, in ways I’m not ready to talk about publicly. My mental health took a pretty heavy beating. I’m okay, mostly, but I’m changed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m changing. 

The overseas travel was difficult for me. I was fragile when I left Australia, and frightened. 

The trip helped me find myself, in the way that travel often does. I found my courage again, my capacity to make decisions and deal with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. But it also helped me lose myself. Things that were really important to me no longer seem quite so vital. I’ve changed my mind about some things I thought were more solid. A lot of this is good, of course, but there’s a certain quiet kind of grief involved in letting go of parts of oneself. Saying goodbye. 

And so coming home is strange. I’ve come face to face with an old version of myself, a person I sort of still am but also am not. It will take me some time to make something of the threads between these different versions of myself. 

In Sydney Park at the piano, I play as people and their dogs walk past. I’m not much of a fan of performing; but I’m not feeling self-conscious about playing in front of people like this, which is new for me. 

Some of the piano keys don’t work, and there are pauses in the piece where I don’t intend there to be. Many of the keys are slightly off in their tuning. The sustaining pedal doesn’t work. The piece I play sounds both the same and different to any other time I’ve ever played it, on this different piano. The keys feel different under my fingertips, the piano stool different under my sit bones. 

The sameness, though, is me. The threads of me that link all these different selves. The memory that’s in my fingers as they play, in my body as it sways with the rhythm of the piece. The part of me that was always at home.

Cycles

The compost bucket is heavy in my arms. It is so full that the lid won’t stay on properly and through the gaps wafts a smell that means I can’t possibly ignore the fact that what I eat is something that was once alive: the smell of rotting, mould and decay. Of something that was once alive but is no longer. I walk quickly, and the liquid in the bucket sloshes around. I make a mental note to be aware of this when I empty the bucket into the bigger outside bin in a moment, lest there be any stinky splashing. 

The compost bin lives about halfway down our backyard, near the shed. To get there, I leave the house by the deck doors, peer around the side of the bucket to make sure I don’t trip down the stairs, and then make my way across the patchy grass, hoping there are no bindis popping up yet.

As smelly as the kitchen compost bucket is, it is the outside bin I find most confronting. It doesn’t smell, but it has bugs. Thousands of them. Once or twice I’ve also found mice out here. 

When I reach the bin, I put the bucket down and squint as I open the bin’s lid. The insects rush out at my face in a cloud, heading for my nostrils and squinting eyes. They take a few moments to clear, and I shake them away from my face. I empty the bucket, holding it firmly while I tap the bottom to dislodge the slimey bits of pumpkin from the bottom of its insides, trying to avoid dropping the bucket into the dark cavern of the bin. The pumpkin goop is thick and squelchy sounding and reluctant to leave the bucket, stretching and sliding around the bottom of the bucket instead of falling. But it does eventually fall and lands somewhere in the large bin with a satisfying muffled thud.

IMG_0434.JPGWhen the bucket is empty, I put the lid back on and skip back to the house, pleased to have completed the smelly chore. 

I am perhaps eight or nine in this memory. But it could also be cobbled together from any evening in my childhood. Empyting the compost bucket into the outside bin was a regular household chore throughout my entire childhood. 

There was a point sometime last year that I realised I was a bit obsessed with organic waste — and that maybe I always had been. The empyting of the kitchen compost bin into the outside bin, and all the sensory grossness of the task, looms large in my childhood memories.

IMG_0435.JPGI’m not sure now whether these experiences were unpleasant for me as a child, but I tend now to think of them as confronting but worthwhile. Lessons of a very visceral kind in how life works. Certainly they’re not unpleasant memories — just vivid. And they have not in any way made me want to avoid food scraps and food waste.

As an adult, I’ve initiated and emptied compost buckets on behalf of whole sharehouses, and I’ve acquired and become bizarrely fond of thousands of composting worms.* I’m not disgusted easily (except, perhaps, by bugs, but then maybe that makes sense too, given these memories) and my hands have touched and held much food that is very far from being at its best.

And now I find myself undertaking a major research project on food waste that will see me making things from food scraps (albeit before they’re too stinky or slimey) and making a radio feature about it. 

IMG_0436.JPGIt occurs to me know that when I started this blog years ago, I called it ‘avocado and lemon’ because those were two foods that I have always loved to eat together, and now two of the food scraps I’ll be making things from will be lemon and avocado detritus (the third food item is spent coffee grounds). It occurs to me too that the reason that I chose those particular food items is that they’re problematic in large amounts in the compost.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how life seems to move in circles?

*I called all the worms Barry, in case you were wondering. Known collectively as The Barries. I’m not sure why. Barry just seemed like a good name for such an immensely helpful critter.

Pausing

20140728-195347-71627070.jpgIt’s been a long time since I wrote here. 

This afternoon, still heavy with the virus that’s pestered me for two and a half weeks now—never quite enough to make me rest completely, but never quite loosening its woolly grip on my brain—I sat in the backyard and watched the garden. I watched the garden that I’ve built these last three months from what was basically a patch of grass. The kale and broccoli are nearly knee-height now, the garlic not far behind. The various beans and peas have climbed up to hip height, and all the leafy greens are beginning to look less like seedlings. I’d just mown the grass and it smelled like a Sunday afternoon.

And it occurred to me all of a sudden that I’ve been here instead of doing any of the writing I usually do for myself. I’ve been building and digging and watching and hoping and imagining. I’ve been letting myself settle into this place, to the new house, to the new research, to what feels like a new stage of my life. 

20140728-195348-71628304.jpgIt fascinates me, the way that life moves on without me even realising and without me really being ready for the shift. Watching myself try to catch up is interesting too. It’s funny how I so often think that to catch up I have to walk faster, maybe even run. What I’m beginning to realise is that the best thing to do is exactly the opposite: slow down, maybe even stop.

I’ve ended up in a place I never really expected to be. Even though I’m not sure what it was that I expected instead. I’ve ended up in a place where my household bakes bread every weekend, where the neighbour shares his sourdough starter with us. Where other neighbours bring over bags of lemons and pieces of furniture and lace curtains.  Where after just three months in the house, I know the names of half the people on the street. I’ve ended up in a place where I’ve lost count of the different plant varieties I’ve put in the ground in the backyard, where I’m teaching and writing about yoga, where I’m researching a topic that I’ve realised in retrospect I’ve been inadvertently preparing for since the compost bins and septic tanks of my childhood. 

20140728-195349-71629295.jpgWhere I’m about to undertake a major creative project that’s not exactly writing. Something that’s more making and recording and a little bit performative. This, especially this, I never expected. 

To be perfectly honest, it’s all been a bit overwhelming. Success and failure each have their own set of challenges, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two, especially if I’m trying to run in all the different directions to keep up with it all. 

So here I am, I thought to myself in the garden this afternoon. Just breathing. Just watching the sun go down. Just feeling grateful.

And it’s been a long time since I simply sat here.

Wandering, place and muscle memory

20140417-214025.jpgWe are walking down streets we don’t know, ambling, listening, looking, taking it in, and talking, always talking. The sun is out and I have to take off my cardigan as I warm up from the walk, but then put it back on again as the sun disappears behind a cloud.

There is a tiny homemade market in a little park, the stalls set out on picnic blankets. There is a little old woman sitting on a park bench with her granny trolley, squinting at us. A string trio dancing around on a street corner, and further up the road a brass trio in an open arcade. A woman out the front of a men’s suit shop, spruiking its wares, referring to the plain suits as “staplers you have in the cupboard for years”.

The sun comes out again, disappears again; I remove my cardigan and put it on again.

We have been walking for more than an hour when we decide to catch the tram to get where we’re going on time. We catch it to the end of the line and start walking again, but abandon the journey about ten minutes in, realising we’re not going to make it in time after all. The tram takes us back to the open arcade, and we wander through a market, where a sign tells us that, yes, in case we were wondering, one of the stalls sells organic chia. A man talks in short bursts into a fuzzy microphone about the vegetables he’s selling. A few doors down there is a gourmet grocer and deli, and further down still, a bakery where we eat tidbits off pretty little plates before we begin walking again.

Back in the quiet streets, we take several wrong turns, some on purpose, to explore, others by accident. We walk down cobbled back alleys and peer into gardens. We listen to the breeze through the trees, and get acquainted with neighbourhood cats.

We are looking at houses, but, in doing so, also exploring a possible new stomping ground, a possible new life. Walking streets that we might later frequent, guessing (probably incorrectly) at short cuts we might take. We walk steadily for three hours.

Life is strange in transition; the softer autumn light and cooler air seem apt. And the walking, the slow, continued movement, the tiring feet and legs—these things help a sense of the place settle in a little, become somehow a muscle memory as well as a mental one.

Walking and talking: on bicycles, training wheels, motorbikes and change

20140320-204423.jpgA little girl on her bike rides slowly around the park several times with her father walking by her side. Her bike is pink, it has training wheels that take turns in taking her weight as the bike wobbles from side to side, and pink shimmery streamers flowing from its handlebars. Her helmet, pink with blue flowers, is fastened firmly on her head.

“I think I’ve seen you riding on your motorbike to work,” she is telling her father. “With your helmet.”

I do not hear his reply from my spot lying on the grass with a book; they are too far away. But I hear more on their next round of the park, five or ten minutes later. 

“A motorbike isn’t exercise, is it?” she says. 

“No,” says her father. “The motor does all the work.”

And then they are gone again.

I wonder if they have been talking about motorbikes this whole time. Perhaps she has been asking him all sorts of detailed questions about his motorbike. Perhaps she will continue this fascination as she grows up. I imagine her as an adult, riding a motorbike. 

Watching them move slowly around the park, I remember the period when I first started school, when my Dad would walk me there from home each morning. I don’t remember our conversations, but I do remember how much I valued that time. I remember how I’d have to walk a few steps, then run a few to keep up with his pace. Just me and Dad, possibly talking about motorbikes. Or tractors. Or school. Or my favourite doll, Jessica.

I still walk and talk with my Dad sometimes. I do so with other members of my family too, and with good friends. There’s something in the walking. So many of those conversations I’ve had while walking, at least past the age of about ten, I still remember parts of; their significance somehow etched into my memory through their link to the physical act of walking. Perhaps too I’ve walked and talked when I’ve needed to talk things out—or when my walking companion has. The conversations so often have led to shifts in my thinking that have in some way shaped how I’ve moved forward with my life.

Things are changing in my life just now. Lots of things. In ways that are significant, though perhaps not big. I don’t know yet, really, because they’re still happening and I haven’t had a chance to reflect on how they fit into the greater pattern of my life. I need to take more walks. 

The little girl and her father do a few more slow rounds of the park, and then they leave. I can hear her still chattering, though I cannot hear her words. I imagine them returning to the park when she rides without the training wheels for the first time, wonder what their conversation will be. And I wonder how and if that walk will alter her life. Will it be one of many?

Conversations about bodies I wish I’d had with my grandmother

Feet in sandI am sitting on the sand, hair in a sopping wet lump of a braid down my back, face tingling from the cold water and the thin veneer of salt that has lingered on my skin all week. The sand is warm. It is gritty between my toes. The sun too is warm on the bare skin of my upper back; I can feel it drying the swimming costume that covers my lower back. I am on holidays. I am, unsurprisingly, feeling rather content. 

Gazing towards the waves, I spot an old woman walking very carefully out of the shallows, on the arm of a middle-aged woman I assume is her daughter. The uneven surfaces and the small waves are difficult for the old woman. Perhaps she will not be able to come to the beach for much longer. 

I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother years ago—I’m not sure how many, but long before she died—where she told me how much it saddened her when she realised she could no longer walk safely on the sand. When she had to give up on going to the beach. I think too of the many hours I spent on a beach as a child with her, the story—well known in our family—about the time as a young woman that my grandmother ran into the surf with her glasses on, such was her joy at being on the beach, only realising she’d done so when she came out of the water later, noticed she couldn’t see and realised she’d been able to when she went in. I think too of her feet. Of the olive skin and scrunched toes. Of her troubles with bunions. My grandmother’s feet in the sand. 

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about feet and knees for the blog of the yoga business I teach corporate yoga through. About how to look after them so they work well for longer. Remembering my grandmother’s feet, it doesn’t surprise me that she found that she lacked stability on the beach. But it saddens me. And the full meaning of that conversation with her all those years ago—although I must have guessed at the strength of her sadness at the time or perhaps I’d have forgotten the conversation—sits with me suddenly here on the beach. And I miss her. Immensely. 

I miss her because I am watching another old woman who may one day soon say something similar to her own granddaughter. And the old woman probably knows this now. I hope so much that the knowledge doesn’t mean she is frustrated or sad, I hope it means she is enjoying this time on the beach now. 

This is the difficulty of bodies. They break down, they slow down, they fall apart. They waste away. And when they do it’s painful, it’s confronting, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. My own body has fallen apart in its own way at times. The most significant so far was in a big and lasting way, when I was just a teenager. I used to feel hardly done by about this—angry, resentful, ashamed even—but now I feel grateful. Yes. Grateful. Because this happens to everyone, in some way, eventually, and that it happened for me in my teens was shock enough at an age when I was old enough to be pushed into finding out more about this thing I get around in. Actually, this thing that is me, just as much as my mind is. 

On the beach, my own feet are covered in sand, stuck out in front of me here, off the towel. I am suddenly hugely grateful for them. I have my own issues with stability (baby-sized, perhaps, compared to so many elderly and not-so-elderly folk), and my earlier run-in with bodily dysfunction has left its mark, but even so, this body is incredible. The processes that happen under this skin, the things that keep me breathing and eating and moving around, really are amazing. 

I just wish I’d been able to talk about these things with my grandmother, that I’d known how to respond when she talked about the challenges of ageing. I wish this was a conversation more people knew how to engage in meaningfully and compassionately—about the challenges of having/being a body. Because not talking about these things means we feel isolated when things go wrong. I see it again and again in my yoga teaching work. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my own response to a lack of these kind of conversations. 

More than anything, in this moment in the sunshine on the beach, I miss my grandmother intensely and wish she could be sitting here with me on the sand now, water dripping from her hair and dribbling down her spine. Watching the waves come in.
~
The post on knees and feet I wrote can be read here.

Stories and objects: a lost bracelet

Watch locketWe are talking about the frying pan I’m about to buy when the woman behind the counter notices my necklace, a locket.

That’s lovely, she says. Is there anything in it?

I open it to show her the watch inside. My parents gave it to me some years ago, I tell her.

Her face softens immediately. Oh, it’s lovely. I bet you love it. Gifts like that are special, aren’t they?

She begins to tell me about gifts, of jewellery in particular, her now deceased parents gave her. She is one of those women who have worked in a department store for twenty years or more: immaculate blonde hair, just a little too much foundation, long manicured fingernails, rings with big stones on at least two fingers on each hand, just the right amount of some age-appropriate fashionable perfume. As she talks, I notice suddenly how small she is—she comes up to my chest, at most.

She tells me the story of her falling on the way home from the train station one day and losing a beloved bracelet her parents had given her.

Half way through the story, just at the part where she injured herself falling over and walked the twenty minutes home only to discover the bracelet was gone, she starts laughing at herself failing the necessary steps to put my frying pan transaction through because she is distracted by her storytelling.

Hang on, let me put this through first, she says. I laugh too. We finish the transaction and fiddle about sticking receipts to boxes and deciding about whether I need a bag. I am about to leave when she remembers—

Wait, let me tell you the rest of my story. Please do, I say.

When she realised she had lost the bracelet—which she never usually wore to work, but this one day, of course—she called her Dad in tears. At this time her mother was in a nursing home, but her Dad still lived in their home. Her Dad listened and soothed her distress with all the appropriate words. The next day when she could walk okay again she went back to the spot she had fallen, but the bracelet, predictably, was gone.

Some time later, she went to visit her father at his home—I still get teary thinking about this now, she tells me—and at the end of her visit her father remembered suddenly, and disappeared to his bedroom. When he came back, he had a small jewellery bag. In it was a replacement bracelet. Not the same kind, nothing like it, she tells me—he probably wasn’t involved in buying the first one, even. But this one, this one was even more special than the first, and she would never wear it to work.

Oh, Dad, I say to her, touched.

I know, she says. I miss my Dad. He was the kind of man who’d be thinking about whose birthday was coming up in the next month or two, so he could be sure they’d have a gift. He loved giving gifts. She gazes out past my shoulder. But I should let you go, she says.

And I do go, but I thank her for sharing the story with me, feeling that what she shared was so much more than a story about a lost bracelet. What she showed me, a complete stranger, was grief. Not the kind we usually think of—sobbing, distressed, wild—but an everyday kind. The kind where a person is suddenly reminded of a hole that’s been left.

Walking back through the department store with my frying pan under my arm, on my way back to work, I am, for a few moments at least, a little less overwhelmed and irritated by department stores and shopping centres and crowded places where people seem to forget that other people are moving in those places too. Instead, I am aware, in a way that makes my skin tingle, of what it is that all these people might carry around with them that stops them from seeing other people, and I am reminded of this speech by David Foster Wallace about the world and people and changing our attitude to others. And this reminder, perhaps, more than the story itself, lovely though it was, is why I will remember that small blonde woman’s story, and the image I have of her elderly father holding out for her a small velvet bag containing a bracelet.