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Last night I was drifting off to sleep, finally, when a thought pulled me suddenly back into the waking world: this weekend, I’ll be able to visit the bakery of my childhood.

This weekend, you see, I’m heading back to Forbes, the town I grew up in. It’s the first time I’ve been back in four years. My immediate family all live in Canberra now, and most of the people I still keep in touch with from school no longer live in Forbes. Family friends still live there, but somehow I’ve not found reason to visit.

I very rarely think about Forbes. I mean, I reminisce about high school, and childhood, but I hardly ever think about the place itself, and the impact it had on me. The last time I did, I wrote an essay, which ended up being published in issue 77* of Voiceworks.

But I do often think about the concept of ‘home’, and the places I associate with that word.

My brother and his girlfriend are in Forbes today. This morning they sent me a picture of a roundabout on the main street. I’m sentimental at the best of times, but my propensity for nostalgia has been higher lately. The instant I opened that picture file, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, and I wondered how I could possibly have excluded Forbes from the list of places I call home.

Melbourne is home for me. Sydney is home for now; Canberra sometimes home. Forbes doesn’t even get a look in. But I think it should. I lived in Forbes for many more years than I’ve lived anywhere else.

I guess, being the home of my childhood, its impact on me is something subtler than those other places, part of my subconscious.

Last year sometime, I got in a cab to go home late one night, and was chatting to the driver.

“You’re a country girl, aren’t you?” he said, suddenly.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a country girl, but he guessed that I hadn’t grown up in a city because I got into the front seat of the cab and struck up a conversation. City girls, he said, sit in the back and avoid eye contact. Conversation? Ha.

Of course the cabbie’s guess is based on a huge generalisation about ‘city people’ and ‘country people’, but I did start wondering how many other aspects of my everyday behaviour might be related in some way to me having grown up in Forbes.

I’m not sure what to expect from myself this weekend. As I write this, more and more memories find their way into my thoughts. Sometimes it amazes me that one human being can have so many memories, so many that a whole period of your life can be tucked away somewhere safe. Sometimes so safe that those memories are never found again.

Judging by pensive mood, just anticipating the trip, it’s probably safe for me to assume there’ll be more of the same over the next two days. (I’m going back for a party though, so I’m sure there’ll also be plenty of plain ol’ fun.)

I get the feeling that some of this wistfulness will become writing. Fiction, maybe. Watch this space.

~

* Express Media’s website is down at the moment, so you might not be able to access that back issues link. I’ll keep an eye on it though, and update it when I can.

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Whimsy and web-spinning

After a weekend with my family — a weekend of stories, memories, tears and laughter — I feel like I’m brimming with words. Characters I’ve written about before, and new ones, are floating in the air around my head, as if they’re attached to the end of spider webs caught in my hair.

I hope I can gently capture some of them and spin them into something before they float away.

Grief

My beloved grandmother, Mamie, died early on Friday morning.

It brings tears to my eyes to type that, and I’m sure it will for quite some time. My Mamie had class. She had a sweet tooth, and a fondness for a G&T or a whiskey. She also had a wicked sense of humour, which she retained until the end. I loved her dearly.

Fridays are usually quiet days for me, work-wise. I made yesterday a quieter Friday than usual. Mum had called me with the sad news just before I went into my usual Friday Yin Yoga class (as a student, thankfully), and I’d spent the entire class watching the waves of tears and quiet calm come and go. Yin Yoga has come to play such an important role in my life. It’s a quieter form of yoga than the Vinyasa that I mainly teach, and often practice; it’s passive, reflective, it allows you time to notice things that are sitting below the surface. The challenge of this style of yoga is to just let those things be, even if they’re not pleasant or ideal, which is really tough sometimes. Yesterday was one of those tough times for me.

The poses were more challenging physically. Every time I moved into balasana (child’s pose) the tears would come. As I sat in stillness, they ran down my face and dripped onto my mat. My nose blocked, and I had to breathe through my mouth if I wanted to breathe at all. Keeping my breath slow and even was extremely difficult. Hip stretches were almost unbearable (according to yogic teachings, we store the effects of strong emotions in our hips).

But more challenging still was my mind. It traversed a lifetime of Mamie-memories, and fixated on other members of my immediate and extended family, who I knew would be feeling grieved too. Every time a new thought arose, the lump in my throat would return, and my breathing would become shallow. In Yin Yoga, the idea is to notice your mind wandering and continue to gently bring it back to focus on your breath. For so much of that class, my mind was so far away from any kind of breath focus, and it did not want to come back. Being patient with myself, rather than being angry at my lack of focus, was extremely difficult.

After class, I realised that attempting the editing or research work I had been planning to do would be completely ridiculous. So for the rest of the day, I pottered around, catching up on some reading I needed to do, writing a few bits and pieces. And crying a whole lot more.

Mamie is not the first person close to me to die. Grief is not new to me. But this way of dealing with it — actually allowing myself to just sit and cry — is. And it feels far more natural than anything else I’ve tried. Not denying those feelings, actually expressing them, while not pleasant, is liberating. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel sad, but I feel like I’m allowed to feel sad.

My Mamie was not at all well by the time she died. She’d had dementia for quite some time, and in December last year, she’d had a stroke. She was frail, and she was ready to be free of this life. I am truly glad for her that she can be now.

My sadness is all for myself and the other people left behind. I’ve often thought this about grief: it’s so strangely selfish. Understandably so, obviously. But it’s still an odd thought. And it’s such a mixed bag of feelings. There’s just plain sad; there’s regret and guilt; there’s anger, frustration; there’s holding on for dear life; there’s fear. In the last two days I’ve felt all of these things. At times I haven’t known where the tears were coming from, I haven’t been able to attach them to a specific part of my grief. They’ve just come, almost spontaneously. And I’ve let them.

But maybe I’m wrong; maybe grief isn’t entirely selfish. Grieving for someone shows they meant something to you, it acknowledges that they’ve made an impact. And I can’t say that’s entirely selfish. Mamie was very dear to me — and indeed to many people who knew her. That saying goodbye to her is difficult shows how deep the groove she made in my heart is.

One of my favourite bloggers, Claire Bidwell Smith, writes beautifully about grief. (You can read some of her posts on the subject here.) She has known so much grief in her life. Both her parents had died by the time she was 25, and she often writes about how much she misses them.

I already miss my Mamie, and I will continue to — probably for the rest of my life.

I will miss her smile. I will miss her voice. I will miss her saying things are ‘glorious’ and calling me ‘darling’. I will miss her soft hair, which resisted grey for so long. I will miss her big old glasses, without which she could hardly see a thing. I will miss her telling me I’m in her prayers, which I always loved even though I’m not religious myself. I will miss her asking me how old I am, and being shocked each time that the number is so high. I will miss her silliness. I will miss her wicked sweet tooth. I will miss her handwriting. I will miss her hands. I will miss so many more things about her — many I’m yet to think of or realise, I’m sure.

Goodbye, dearest Mamie. You will stay in my thoughts always.

~

When I first heard the sad news, we were unsure of exactly when Mamie had died, and I was under the impression that it was sometime on Thursday evening. It was, in fact, early Friday morning. I’ve updated the beginning of this post for the sake of accuracy.

Writing as activism

Things seem to be pushing me lately to get writing again about the things I talk passionately about. Heated discussion (not necessarily heated because of disagreements) has always been a part of my life. My parents always encouraged me to think for myself, to find out when I didn’t know, to constantly question.

Talking about literature as activism (and activism for literature) at the Academy of Words started this ball rolling. Then I went back to uni and my teacher talked about how we use words to explore the consequences of the world’s happenings (“If this is so, then what are the implications?”). Then I read some of my uni texts and found myself sobbing by myself on my couch, hoping my housemates wouldn’t come home in time to see me like that (even with the explanation “Kids with cancer”, a red-eyed 25-year-old with tears running down her face, unable to speak properly, is not a pretty sight). Then my brother posted this to his new blog. He’s doing what’s basically an environmental science degree at ANU, and it’s not unusual for a phone conversation between us to be entirely about worm farms or gardens or cooking or food or what’s wrong with society. Our conversations aren’t short. But I’ve never really spent much time writing about them before.

Everything seems to be pushing me back towards writing about what intrigues me, what sets off that fire in my belly.

See, I tend to write to explore issues or relationships that intrigue me.

In fiction I write about characters with dementia, or men who are trying to deal with grief and still be ‘manly’, or middle-aged siblings trying to deal with their parents’ old age and death. These are situations I’ve not been in myself, but things I’ve observed in other people’s lives. And I just wonder, you know? I just wonder what it’s like to be them, how it feels. I want to come closer to understanding, and in sharing it with other people, I hope to provide an opportunity for others to at least think twice about people they pass in the street.

In non-fiction I write about food and cooking, yoga… Well. See, I’d like to write a whole lot more about some of the things that anger me, or frustrate me. Like some of the muddy definitions of ‘climate change’ that my brother refers to here. I’d like to write about lots of the ideas that he and I discuss. And lots of the ideas that I discuss with other members of my family, and those of my friends who are willing (or have no choice but) to listen to me ramble on in such a non-sensical way.

I’d also like to write a little more about the concepts I ramble about in my yoga classes (and write about on my yoga teacher blog), while my students hang their heads in paschimottanasana. I wonder, sometimes, if they’re wishing I’d just shut up and tell them about their hamstrings, or hurry up and get to the bit where I make the little relaxation-inducing adjustments on them. But they keep coming back, so maybe they don’t mind (or they suffer through it to get to the relaxation bit).

Anyway, I don’t really know what I’m getting at here. This is a bit of a rant. And this is me telling someone what my ideas and goals are, rather than just setting about achieving them — which apparently I’m not supposed to do if I actually want to achieve them.

I feel like my brain’s switching back on after a little rest. I guess that’s not a bad thing.

Reading inspiration

This last weekend I’ve been in Canberra for my brother’s 21st (it was a dress-up party; I may put up some pictures when I get them from Mum — I did my usual trick of forgetting to take any). To get to Canberra from Sydney, there’s a three and a half hour bus trip each way, which I often look forward to. I love staring out the window, musing over things in my life, making plans or just playing make-believe. I also often use the time to catch up on my podcast listening.

I subscribe to a few, but hardly ever listen to them. I’ve probably got about fifty episodes of the Book Show left to listen to, for example.

So on the trip back yesterday I got through a couple of them. In one episode Ramona Koval was talking to Sarah Waters, who is known for her novels set in the Victorian era, usually with some kind of lesbian storyline. They were speaking about her then-new (the episode was six months old) book, The Little Stranger. I’ve not read the book, but its gothic nature appealed to me and I suddenly remembered the books I devoured as a teenager: Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, Northanger Abbey, Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I loved gothic literature. As Waters mentioned in the interview, the supernatural is a wonderful space to explore anxieties and uncertainties, dysfunction and, possibly, mental illness. Of course, these are things I am obsessed with in my own fiction, albeit in a more realist way.

But as a teen I wrote creepy little gothic stories, which were probably really very bad. Unexpectedly empty houses with all the lights on, stormy nights, taps turning on by themselves, steep hills to walk up in the dark, footsteps coming from nowhere. All these things appeared in my stories. And they were fun!

I feel a return to the gothic coming on, at least in my reading. Now if I could just find my copy of The Woman in White