Tim messages me late on Thursday afternoon: We can get to Tassie for $750. Will I book it?
I thought for a nanosecond and despite not having been to Tasmania so far this year, and despite my usual ‘nothing will keep me away from Tasmania when I have a few days off’, this time something was different. I simply didn’t want to go.
Tassie is known and familiar and I wanted, desperately needed, intuitively knew I needed to be somewhere unknown and unfamiliar. And somewhere a long way away. As far as it was possible to go in the six days we had available to us. Somewhere we hadn’t been before. Somewhere where all the people were strangers and all the roads new.
I wanted to go to Broken Hill.
Tim turns to me late on Thursday night: So. What are we doing over Easter?
It’s 9pm. I mention Broken Hill for the first time. Tim doesn’t blink an eye. It’s no wonder I love this man!
By 11pm our trip is organised, accommodation booked, distances calculated.
By 9am we are on the road, bags packed, keep cups full of tea/coffee, water bottles full, lunches tucked into the cooler bag along with a rudimentary first aid kit, snacks, tea bags and a tea towel – just in case!
I drive out of Melbourne – our usual arrangement – and then over the next six days keep driving.
Driving means I’m present, aware of ‘now’, focussing only on the road not on writing rubrics, determining how to publish the children’s stories I’ve written and had illustrated, responding to online discussion threads, reporting on how many law academics I’ve worked with, drafting journal articles and performance objectives, organising photo shoots, exercising, keeping up with social media …
… all left behind, all fading into the increasingly hazy distance as the road unwinds ahead of us.
Importantly we have a bag of CDs, all compilations we put together for my radio shows over 10 years ago. It’s only on day 6 we have to replay a CD. We have music for every part of our journey, even if it means pressing pause on Damien Rice’s Eskimo until we’re out of Wentworth because it’s a song that deserves space and the open road.
I drive and am present, focussed on this moment, on seeing new landscapes, new combinations of colours, new horizons, new destinations.
I drive and keep my eyes looking forward, into the distance, into the immediate future. I shed the city like a skin by the second day and there’s only the road and the wide-open spaces to contain me. I can feel myself expanding under the warmth and width of the bluest of blue skies.
The ribbons of road shimmering into the distance are my favourite – endless horizons full of possibilities and discovery, full of newness and unfamiliarity. Roads without curves, one line on the map, taking us to the edge of the outback.
The road stretches out before us. The compass says west and then north and they’re the only directions I want to head.
Warmth, colour, distance, the unfamiliarity of the landscape … the only place I want to be.
Away … so far away … into the desert where the hills gently whisper, and where, right before sunset the silence is audible. The desert where the horizon sits in some distant space way, way over yonder and where time and space mean different things. The desert where my grief for Dad pales against the vastness of the landscape, and I can drop it here, knowing threads of it will return to the city with me but also knowing that it’s safe out here in the warmth and almost limitless space between the far horizons.
It’s a hard reset on a hard start to the year – a chance to stay in the ‘now’, to not think beyond the next bend in an arrow-straight road, to simply be.
Away … so far away … and then home.
A few days after we came home, we made a book about our journey and published it on Blurb. You can see a preview here if you’re interested. I wrote the blog post above for the book, which also features essays Tim wrote and a selection of our photos from the trip.
It was one of the most significant and important trips I’ve ever taken.
I started this post a few months ago … and have added a sentence here and there in the time between now and then, but for some reason it’s been difficult to put together.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’m beginning to think it’s because it’s intensely personal and I’m not sure I want to share it.
It’s also more than that. I want to skate across the top and just describe our weekend, rather than deal with what lies underneath – and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s okay. I don’t have to deal with the underneath here, in these posts that others (some familiar, some unknown to me) may read.
And there’s more still: I feel others’ judgements – the questions and voices I can hear from some of those unknown and some of the familiar: “Why blog about something so personal?”, “Why put this out there for others to read?” – questions and voices that I can choose to ignore, particularly as they’re in my head and therefore not real, and they’re stopping me from finishing this post.
So, here I am, on a sunny Saturday morning, finishing what I started months ago.
“The forecast is for rain all weekend”, my Queensland-based students reliably informed me during a web conference in early March.
“The forecast is for a hot weekend”, my Melbourne-based husband reliably informed me the next day.
I felt torn, but my ticket to Queensland was booked. I would just have to deal with the rain. At least it wouldn’t be cold, I thought.
I was wrong.
It was freezing!
I flew into Coolangatta on a Friday morning after an early start. Mum, Debbie and I talked and ate and talked at our favourite cafe – Mervyn Roy’s at Bilinga – then after a quick detour to Robina for some shopping, we headed into the hinterland.
We found our accommodation at the end of a tiny road, surrounded by giant trees being whipped furiously by the wind.
We are not known for letting a little bit of wind (read lots of wind) deter us, so we dressed for the cold and headed out. Dressing for the cold for me meant putting on all the clothes I’d packed. Luckily one of those things was a jacket. Also luckily, it did up even though I was wearing all my other clothes. As you can see, my footwear left a little to be desired. When I got to the (very) muddy track, it become patently clear that my footwear left a lot to be desired!
Importantly, I was wearing beautiful earrings!!
We clambered (elegantly, it has to be said) down a short but very steep embankment and found our way to the proper track. It was getting dark, the wind was still whipping the trees, and it had started to rain. Undaunted, we soldiered on. We had a goal: find Purling Brook Falls before dark.
We had ten minutes before the sun set – although, to be honest, the sun wasn’t exactly on show – and nine minutes before hyperthermia set in. We dawdled as fast as we could – Mum really does need one of those hiking sticks – except Deb didn’t dawdle quite as slowly as Mum and I. You can just see her charging ahead in her red rainproof coat. I actually think the lack of rainproof coats was slowing Mum and I down.
A quick snap of the falls and we were back to the house and the roaring fire (thanks to Bernie for lighting it for us).
The rain continued to pelt the roof all through the night. I admit to not hearing it despite being upstairs, but Deb let me know the next morning as she’d slept in the sleep-out with its alsynite roof, not known for muffling any sound let alone the sound of continuous and heavy rain.
Despite her lack of sleep, she was up bright and early making pancakes and bacon for breakfast. Thusly fortified, we headed out into the rain and wind for another look at the falls.
We quickly realised the falls we’d seen the night before were not in fact the main attraction. We also quickly realised that we were no better prepared for the conditions than we’d been yesterday. Plus the rain was heavier.
We found the rockpools we’d bathed in many (many) years ago on a summer camping trip – and were reminded of the ‘soap incident’. When I say ‘bathed’ I mean just that. The rockpool was our bath – and so we’d taken soap and towels and worn our bathers (decorum is important in the bush, particularly when you’re 14) and gone to wash in the pools. What we hadn’t counted on was the water’s flow – it washed our soap over the edge, never to be seen (by us at least) again. I can still hear Dad yelling, “don’t follow it! Let it go.” Sound advice which I distinctly remember following.
We walked through one continuous downpour, neither Mum nor I were adequately prepared (as you can see if you watch the video).
We eventually found our way to a lovely (warm and dry) cafe, where moments later our brother Warren appeared.
Finally, we were all together.
We were all together to spend the weekend as a family celebrating what would have been Dad’s 80th birthday. It was a weekend of quiet contemplation, of reminiscing, of doing things that were slightly uncomfortable (walking on muddy tracks in the rain and cold is not something we generally do for fun) because we could hear Dad encouraging us to get out into the outdoors and enjoy them, no matter what condition the outdoors threw at us.
We spend more time in the rain – I had to take my glasses off as they were so wet I couldn’t see through them – walking through the bush, taking photos as we went so we can look back in years to come and remember how daggy we were (and how okay we are with that), how important and comforting it was to be together and how we could enjoy each other’s company even though we were all grieving. As hard as it was to acknowledge, it’s true that life really does go on.
The last time Warren and I had been to PurlingBrook Falls was a number of years ago when we were both visiting Mum and Dad over the summer – Warren from out west and me from Tasmania. For about five or six summers we’d gather at Mum and Dad’s with kids in tow and spend time in shopping centres and McDonald’s playgrounds because they were the coolest places we could find … and of course, much more time at Currumbin Creek estuary, a quick walk from where Mum and Dad lived at the time.
One year, Dad had the ‘good’ idea of taking the kids bushwalking. It’ll be fun, he said enthusiastically, but their faces remained sceptical. We headed to Purling Brook Falls and tackled the track from right of the falls to left, heading down the steep track (which is now closed for repair) one side, under the waterfall at the bottom, then up the other side. It’s a steep walk up and Emma, my youngest who was about 8 at the time, and Carly, Warren’s eldest, who was 7, complained the whole way! None of grandad’s enthusiasm or stories of the beasties lurking in the bush made an impact on their determination to hate it.
Despite the complaints, it was a lovely walk and I was sorry (kind of) that the track wasn’t open this time around, because I’m sure we’d have done the walk again. Although, really, we were being considerate of Mum – we didn’t want her struggling through the mud and rain – she’s getting on you know! 🙂
On Sunday, before heading home, we venture to the Best of All Lookout which generally has the most gorgeous views over the Tweed Valley and out to Byron Bay. Not this day though!
We take the obligatory selfie, just to mark the occasion, and as there isn’t anything to see, we head back to the warmth of the car.
Even though we could barely see our hands in front of our faces let alone Mt Warning or Byron Bay, the Best of All lookout has more than views.
It also has a stand of antarctic beech trees. As soon as I walk into this short forest walk, I feel immediately at peace. It is these trees that provide me with the sense of consolation to which the title of this post refers. Each time I’ve been here, I’ve felt that same sense of consolation – the stresses of the outside world seem to slip away just a touch, my hands uncurl, my shoulders drop, and some of the tension I hadn’t known I was carrying in my body eases away.
It’s the same today. I can feel my grief loosening just a little, easing back on the tension I barely knew I was feeling.
We drive back to Mum’s the scenic way and she whips up a batch of scones for lunch in the way mothers have done for millenia: a no nonsense pragmatic approach to feeding her family. Jam, with spoons, cream, tea, a hodge-podge of plates, and the comfort of familiarity and togetherness.
We sit, as we always do, outside in the warmth and looking around I realise I’m not yet ready for Dad not to be there. I keep this in, and am convinced the others are holding their grief too, even though this weekend has been important and significant for us all. We each have our private grief, as well as the grief we share, and right now it’s still too soon to speak of it.
I know, deeply and intuitively, that while the consolation of trees soothes me, this time I need something more … this time I need wide open spaces, far-away horizons, warmth and unfamiliarity.
It was an important weekend for us all, spent in a place so rich in memory and remembrance, honouring Dad in our own way, mostly by being together.
My family’s good like that!
You can read my sister Debbie’s blog post about the weekend here.
Flicking through Instagram on Sunday morning, I came across a quote attributed to Winnie the Pooh.
There was something about the simplicity of that little sentence that touched me deeply and at that point my morning dissolved into tears.
When I remembered it was Tim’s father’s birthday, the tears threatened to overwhelm me.
You see, it’s my father’s birthday in a few weeks and it’ll be the first birthday he won’t be with us. Oh, there were birthdays when he was away – but he was always within reach of a card and after the Navy years he was always reachable by phone.
But not this year.
It’s one of those firsts I’ve been warned about but haven’t fully understood, in the way you just don’t until you actually experience it.
After big and comforting hugs, we headed into the forest to the north-east of Melbourne, into the consolation of trees.
As an added bonus, there was water.
Never underestimate the consoling power of trees … and a waterfall at the end of the path.
Dad lies completely still apart from the rise and fall of his chest, his breathing regular though shallow: a quick breath in, a just-as-quick breath out, count to four, another breath in. On the odd occasion his body misses a breath my heart races and I watch closely for the rise and fall of his chest.
Music wafts gently around the room Dad’s called home for the past 18 months and despite the scurry of nurses outside in the corridor there’s a sense of peace and calm here in this room.
I never imagined keeping watch over my dying father, but here I am, sitting on the hospital bed the nurses brought in and placed next to his, thinking about what I know and who I am because Noel Pittaway has been my Dad.
I know the importance of spit-clean shoes – polished and buffed till they shine. People notice shoes, Sharon, he’d say as I’d present them to him for inspection. Make sure they’re clean.
I know how to spell by breaking words into pieces and sounding them out.
I know that it annoys Mum when we do that (you’re just like your father, she says in that tone she has that indicates she thinks we’re clever but a bit show-offy.)
I know to eat my vegetables first before even touching anything else on my plate.
I know it’s best to eat cauliflower and cheese sauce while it’s hot.
I know how to swim because Dad insisted I stand in the shallow end of the Nowra pool and while all the other kids got to muck around I stood there and practiced my strokes and my breathing. I was never a fast swimmer but I had a nice style (just like your father, Mum used to say in that tone she has that speaks of admiration).
I have an eclectic musical taste because Dad had an ever-expanding record collection that ranged from Rachmaninov to Ray Charles via Ravi Shankar.
I know how to be comfortable with silence; that I don’t have to fill it with words and that in the silence there’s still warmth and togetherness.
I know that reading fiction opens up worlds I would never have been able to imagine on my own. Some of those worlds were beyond the comprehension of my 11,12,13-year-old self, but I discovered that being stretched imaginatively is important and immensely beneficial to a teenager’s developing mind and spirit.
I know the thrill of the rollercoaster, big slippery dips and rides that spin and whirl and fling you upside down and inside out and the added thrill of experiencing that with your granddaughter. Again and again and again.
I know it’s wrong for a girl to swear.
I know how to snorkel. And not to be afraid of the ocean. And the delight of walking on the squeaky white sand of Jervis Bay.
I know that travel is an adventure to be indulged in whenever possible and part of that adventure is the spontaneity of a detour or an unplanned destination or heading down a one-way street the wrong way.
I know that creative expression is an important part of life, whether that expression is theatrical, literary, artistic, musical or photographic – and the importance of taking the lens cap off.
I know what love for your wife(husband) looks like because of the depth of love Dad has for Mum … and I know that romance is not dead.
I know that people are deeply complex and that an external quiet doesn’t necessarily mean an internal quiet.
I know that laugh-yourself-silly fun is contagious and being surrounded by your grandchildren and great grandchildren is joyous and delightful in ways that can’t be described in words …
and that when you’re in your 60s and you think you can still somersault off the 1 metre board at the Murbah pool and get up there only to find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, that a poolside cheer squad led by your grandchildren will push the fear down and turn you into a hero as you run along the board and somersault effortlessly into the diving pool.
I know that the rougher the sea the more you enjoy the ride. Just hang on tight and ride the swell.
And I know that while the taste of beetroot is a flavour they serve in hell, Dagwood Dogs are a tiny taste of heaven.
I know that what your dad teaches you can be hard to learn and that you can fight against it (and him) and that what you learn might not have been the intended lesson, but I also know that Dad has influenced my life enormously and I am who I am in big measure because my Dad is Noel Pittaway.
The movement of Dad’s body … the rise and fall of his chest … stops in the afternoon of Thursday 25 January … but the movement of his life and his legacy have transcended his body and spread through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren … it’s a legacy that moves invisibly yet steadily across and through the generations.
On February 14, 2016 Dad and I flew over Antarctica. It had been a life-long ambition of his. Here we are ready for our 14-hour adventure.
*Many thanks and huge appreciation to Alison Cosker for providing feedback on this post. It has been strengthened because of her input.
The hours between 7 & 9pm dragged. We’d made lists, checked them twice, decided who was naughty or … no, wait … that’s the old fat dude in the red suit!
We’d made lists, put together an itinerary, forgot to send it to Mum, got caught in a whirl of activity at 9pm as it hit us that this was really going to happen.
We showered, found backpacks, packed them with those things we’d need in the next 30 hours – passports, entertainment of all kinds (movies, TV shows, music, books all downloaded), snacks, toothpaste – and then it was time to go.
Our Uber driver was non-communicative, the car was rattly and old, and the traffic was at a standstill miles before the airport, but we made it, checked in, felt the thrill of excitement walking through the yellow doors to international departures, passed through security without being explosives tested or body scanned, slid my passport into the scanner then looked into the camera (how it ever matched my face with my hideous passport photo I’ll never know- although that suggests I actually look as bad as my passport photo and that’s not a good thought), and we were into the world of duty free.
We passed through that world unscathed and make our way to the gate. I sat and tried my best not to fall asleep.
12:30am – we boarded and before too long were on our way!
Nine uneventful hours flew by – literally. I slept intermittently, and watched the sun come up over the South China Sea.
The number of boats in that sea surprised me, although when I think about it, it makes sense. China makes a lot of stuff to send out into the world.
The number of islands also surprised me – Hong Kong is like a fishtail jutting out of the water, a thin slice of mountain poking up from the ocean. It has a dystopian feel – the height of the mountains, the number of them, and then the concrete tower blocks on the mountain side of the airport. Strange. And strange to think that many (many) years ago people made their way here without the help of social media and mass communication. How did they find it and how (and why) was a massive shopping island constructed here?
Three hours later and we’re in the air again – this time for 13 hours. We fly over China, Kazakhstan, Russia … I fall asleep and wake up moments out of Paris. The clouds are low, and we’re just out of them before we land. The Australian pilot says a cheery ‘welcome to Paris’, we collect our things, and before we know it we’re on the shuttle and heading into the city. Almost two hours later we’re at our hotel, which as we’re soon to discover is not far from Republique Square.
It didn’t mean much to us either at first, but we were quick to find out it meant lots of restaurants – and a metro station. We ate, then caught the metro to the Trocadero, watched the Eiffel Tower twinkle, then desperately tried to stay awake on the train so we didn’t miss our stop on the way back.
I was asleep within nano seconds and 10 hours later woke up feeling refreshed and ready for our first proper day in Paris.
My jumping days came to a crashing halt when I tore the medial meniscus in my left knee. I didn’t even know I had a medial meniscus (I also have a lateral one which I didn’t know about either), yet I’ve somehow managed to tear it, preventing me from jumping on the trampoline at Rochelle’s place on the weekend with 11 of my grandchildren!
It’s also preventing me from walking too far (more than 10m and I’m done), standing on it, bending it (putting shoes and socks on at the moment is a source of some discomfort (for ‘some’ read ‘lots’)), and jumping.
Not that I did a lot of jumping it has to be said, but I liked the fact that I could.
And now, for the next few weeks at least, I can’t.
Not being able to jump won’t change my life too much, but it’s one of those things we do that we quickly take for granted, and then when we can’t do it anymore, our lives are changed and somehow (strangely, in this case) diminished.
I felt the same way last week when a water pipe burst outside #12 and as a consequence we had no water. I had been to the gym and as a consequence was on the pong, so went to have a shower. When I turned the tap on however, nothing poured forth. I trundled off to work unwashed, and sat there, in my open plan office, convinced gentle wafts of eau de Sharon were circulating to all and sundry. I admit to leaving sheepishly, and somewhat early.
Meanwhile, a plumber had been to fix the water pipe. When I returned home from work, even more ready for a shower and a cuppa (not, I hasten to add at the same time), it seemed that not all was fixed. The water pipe was, and #12 was happy, but when I turned the tap all that came out was a trickle of muddy water/watery mud – it was hard to differentiate.
We quickly sought shelter, and a shower, elsewhere for the night.
But that incident caused me to reflect on the ways our lives can be diminished by a small change in something we generally take for granted – in this case, the ready supply of water. I turn the tap, and water comes out.
But for one day last week, it didn’t.
And my life was somewhat diminished.
Imagine the ways we could change people’s lives by giving them taps to turn on, and even more joyfully change them, by having clean water pour forth.
In February 2016, I went to the gym. Not for the first time, I hasten to add, but this particular occasion was quite memorable because it was my first ‘seniors’ class.
Yes, I snorted too – but it appears, in the world as we know it today, ‘seniors’ means those over 50. I had not, until that point, considered myself a senior and even though it’s a year later and I’m a year older, I still don’t consider myself to be a senior.
But I went anyway. I wasn’t working, the class was included in my gym membership, and it was on a Friday morning when I had nothing better to do with my time.
It may come as no surprise to you that I was the youngest person there (apart from the instructor) … by at least 10 years. And I quickly realised that’s a highly motivating factor. Here were all these oldies doing things, sometimes more quickly and with greater flexibility than I was doing them.
It got me moving I can tell you!
But I also discovered something important that day. I discovered that I couldn’t jump. I stood in front of the box I was to jump on to, and all sorts of thought processes went through my head but none of them helped get my feet off the ground and onto the box. While my mind was very willing, my flesh was anything but.
I simply stood there and stared. And then when we moved to the next exercise, I watched the old lady following along behind me nimbly jump onto the box, and off again, then on again as if she’d been doing it all her life. Well, let’s face it, she probably had.
But not me. I thought back to the last time I’d jumped and drew a blank. It wasn’t something I’d been called on to do in my professional life – metaphorical hoops are much easier, I learnt, than actual boxes, to jump through (or on as the case may be).
And it wasn’t something I’d had any reason to do in my personal life either.
So there I was … a non-jumper. I went home and in the privacy of my loungeroom, turned my attention to jumping, but to no avail. It seemed I was destined to be a non-jumper for life.
Fast forward to three weeks ago when I remembered my inability to jump and mentioned it to Josh, my personal trainer. “Josh”, I said as I was pushing 80kgs of metal with my legs on something appropriately named a ‘leg press’, “I can’t jump”.
He looked at me, slightly stunned that I would say something so outlandish. “What do you mean, you can’t jump?”
“I can’t. I just can’t do it. I try, but I physically can’t do it”.
He saw that as a challenge, and once I was vertical, he held my hands while I launched myself off the ground. With both feet. At the same time.
It turns out I can jump, and now not only can I jump, I can also star jump, and squat jump, and rope jump (as in skipping) and do burpees, and forward bounds, and I’m even getting the hang of running man (my coordination still needs a little work).
So there you have it. When you think you can’t jump*, hold someone’s hands, start out small, gain some confidence, and you’ll be jumping* all over the place in no time.
*Insert any other thing you think you can’t do here 🙂
In June 2014, I moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to live with my husband who’d moved here 5 months before. That move meant I stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.
I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.
And then, in 2015, I taught at university again – for one semester. And when semester ended I again stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.
I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.
And then earlier this year a former colleague from the University of Tasmania asked if I’d like to teach at university again.
I would. I did. It was great. One semester of interacting with students – students who were keen to learn, who were mature in their attitudes and capacity to think for themselves; some of these students I’d taught when they were in their first year of university. They remembered me, as I did them. It was great to reconnect, and interestingly, they thought so too.
And then the same colleague asked if I’d be interested in teaching the post-grad version of the unit in second semester.
I would. I did. It was great. Another semester of interacting with students – challenging their ideas about teaching, gently encouraging them out of their comfort zones, helping them see that they are more than deliverers of content, more than transmitters of what they know, and that students are more (much more) than empty vessels waiting to be filled.
I had marking to do, and I did it, and now I’m finished and the relief I feel is real and very (very) sweet.
So, am I a pre-service teacher educator? It appears the answer is ‘sometimes’ … and that’s way better than never!
A message pops onto my screen as I’m scrolling through my phone one day last week. It’s an invitation from my sister, Debbie – an invitation to write a guest post on her blog in a new series she’s starting called ‘person of interest’.
If you’ve been a long-term follower of my blog, you’ll know that I blog for days and days on end, and then go quiet as other areas of my life take precedence, or as I search for something to blog about. Those silences have been known to last for months. I blogged yesterday, for instance, but it was my first post in a month.
Life’s like that. Fits and starts, slow patches where nothing much happens and you wear a dent in the couch, then suddenly it starts to warm up and still moments are hard to find.
At least, that’s what life’s like for me. A burst of energy, blog posts pour forth, images are taken and posted, creative thoughts engulf you and you make plans for projects and then teaching takes over, there are provocations to record, discussion posts to write, ideas to be shared and explored and challenged and questions to be asked, responses to student posts to be crafted to ensure warmth and encouragement and generation of thought, assignments come pouring in and feedback needs to be given that’s warm and encouraging and generates thought, and your daughter falls ill and you fly interstate to support her in her recovery and prepare nutritious and delicious meals like vegemite on toast to tempt her to eat again, and your dog is run over and you spend a week crying in the shower, while you’re walking to the station, in bed late at night, eating breakfast, and your dad gets sick and is taken to hospital and spends days not being able to talk walk eat stay awake and you hold your breath and prepare yourself for news you don’t want but know will come one day and days later he wakes up and is able to feed himself breakfast.
And then stillness, quiet, time for contemplation and an invitation pops onto your screen from your sister, inviting you to be a guest on her blog and you write responses to her questions and think about what those responses say about you but you send them in anyway, in the end knowing that you’re you and you own your responses and the person they represent.
Life’s like that.
And writing responses for my guest post sparks something in me that’s been dormant for some time and I figure if I can do it for my sister, I can do it for me too. So here I am …
… except more assignments have just poured in which means more warm, encouraging, thought-generating feedback needs to be written … and my blog will have to wait just a little longer.
If you’ve been following my blog (or even my Facebook feed) over the last few days, you’ll know I’ve been reaching for something … looking for some answers to questions about the type of photographer I am, what I do it for, what I find enjoyment in photographing, if I have any feeling or sensibility for it (notice I didn’t use the word ‘talent’ 🙂 ).
After much thinking and reflecting, and responding to questions Tim posed, I have come to some important realisations.
1. I don’t have to take the same sorts of photos that others take.
This might seem self-evident and hardly worthy of days of contemplation, but for me it’s an important realisation. When I first started taking photos I predominantly photographed flowers. Up close. I even had a few exhibitions of my work and lots of my photos are now hanging in others’ houses. That’s immensely satisfying now that I think about it. But along the way I lost confidence in my ‘style’ or didn’t recognise that I had one, so I started taking photos that looked like other people’s or photos that I thought other people would like … and then I stopped taking photos, or at least stopped taking photos I was really happy with. My realisation came in the shower – that place of many realisations – a few days ago, and it was an acknowledgement that it’s okay to take photos that reflect my way of seeing the world.
2. My way of seeing the world focuses on the detail, not on the environment in which the subject exists.
My portrait work can be slightly confrontational for those who are being photographed. I get in close. I am interested in faces, in the diversity of faces, and what a face can tell us when there are no clues about who the person is or the environment they’re in apart from their facial features; when we can’t see the clothes they’re wearing, or the way they stand or sit. What interests me is the detail. It’s the same in my flower images. The way particular petals curve slightly differently from the others, the variations in colour across a flower or even a single petal, the shapes, the perfectness … even when its dying. They speak to beauty and dynamism and decay and … and life. And my way of seeing the world also involves a process – a process of envisioning, of thinking, of reflecting, of experimenting, of playing, of looking at different perspectives.
3. I enjoy the process.
I started working in community radio in 1991. I was an on-air presenter as well as a producer, a news gatherer and newsreader, an interviewer, and eventually music director. After three years and a move to a new city I had the opportunity to produce and present programs on ABC Local Radio. Throughout my 16 years working in radio, one of the elements I liked the most was getting the technical details right: making sure there was no dead-air, knowing a piece of music well enough to know when to fade it in (or out), making sure there was variations in pace and tempo of the songs across the course of an hour and of the program, knowing how to edit an interview to ensure it was coherent and told a story, leaving space for breaths (my very first ABC radio interview had no breathing space – it wasn’t good to listen to), finding the right piece of music to fit with the mood of the interview … it was in the process of making radio that I found most enjoyment. When I was a drama teacher, I enjoyed the process of developing a production. I wasn’t a ‘find a script and put on a play’ kind of drama teacher. Rather, the students and I (and for one memorable production we engaged the help of the amazing Lisa Roberts) workshopped ideas, played around with images and sounds, how to create them, and how to add them meaningfully into the production. We played around with how to use the space, how to light it, how to confront the audience or how to keep it at arms length. We played and experimented and even if we didn’t know where we were headed at the beginning, or quite how we ended up where we did, we worked our way through a process of experimentation and play and ideas and representation.
When I started taking photos, I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed working out where to put the light, how to reflect it, how to shape it. I enjoyed the process of figuring out which part of the flower to focus on, where to put it in the frame, what else to include in the frame or what to exclude. It was a creative process, and I liked the process as much as, if not more than, the product. It was a deliberate process, one I had to think about because I was so new to it; over time I have lost the deliberateness of the process. One of my realisations was that I need to become more deliberate about my process, because it’s not just the product that excites me; the process gives me a real sense of meaning and purpose.
4. Meaning and purpose.
In some ways I am a very pragmatic person, although I am also an idealist. But the pragmatist side of myself is the one that often causes me to derail. The question ‘but what is it for‘ bounces around inside my head with sickening regularity. The big existential questions are one thing, but to bring that thinking to the little things in life can rob them, I’ve realised, of joy. For me I mean. I’m not talking other people here, just me. If photography is for a pragmatic purpose – if it’s to exhibit or to sell – then it’s important that other things happen: you get clients, you know how to engage with people and make them feel comfortable, you spend your weekends shooting weddings and then the days in between getting the photos ready for the happy couple. You bill people and have contracts and meet people’s expectations. But what if that’s not the sort of photography you want to do? What if you just want to take photos? But what for, was a question I would ask. Constantly. To what end? What will I do with these images? Why am I taking photos? Those questions nag at me, tug at the edges of my mind, wear me down. Why am I spending time and money on this pursuit? What is it for?
Tim asked me a question the other day and I answered “Yes I really should”. His immediate response was: “Don’t use should. Use ‘will'”. And that was enough for me. Just that change of thinking. ‘Should’ has an expectation attached to it or a judgement. For me, the final image isn’t the thing I find of most value in the photography process; it’s the process of creating that image. That’s what brings me joy and excites me about photography – about anything creative. It’s in the experimenting, the exploring, the playing with ideas, with ways of representing the world around me (a world primarily of flowers and faces) … that’s where the meaning and purpose of my photography resides.
I went through many years of not thinking that was enough, but if I don’t have that, then I find little joy in using a camera. As it’s my only creative outlet (apart from the occasional piece of writing I do) it’s a very important part of my life.
Last week, for the 52 Week photography project I’m involved in, our theme was photographer’s choice. I decided to photograph a flower and initially I took the kinds of shots other people might take (sunflowers against a white brick wall in a jar) and used one of them for the final image for the project.
I like it as an image. But the process of taking it didn’t excite me, there was little enjoyment for me.
So I decided to go back to what I find enjoyment in and took a series of close-up shots. I used light, natural and otherwise; I played around with positioning, with framing, with considering what was important. I was deliberate in my process. What surprised me, no it was stronger than that, what amazed me was the excitement that came flooding back. It reinforced for me that it’s the process that gives me meaning and purpose in my photography work.
So after all that, here is what I came up with. This is not about which is the ‘better’ image, or which one I like the most. This is about which one was taken in a way that gave me a sense of enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose.