Posted in Life, Nature

The consolation of trees

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.

Posted in Learning, Life

Because you are my Dad

Monday 22 January 2018

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.

Posted in Life, Writing

Life’s like that: On being a guest blogger

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.

I love the light in Tasmania. This image has nothing outwardly to do with my post, but I felt the calmness and serenity captured by the light suited my mood.
Posted in Flowers, Photography

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From the archive.

I’m thinking of doing more flower photography – just for fun and to continue learning about telling stories through images – and so I returned to some of my early work to see where I was ‘at’. I think I still have a lot to learn!

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Posted in Learning, Life

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I pack the car, pick Tim up from the train station and we head up to my sister’s for the weekend. Along the way a bird, pecking at something on the road, continues to peck as if oblivious to its almost certain death. I remain poised as we drive ever closer, knowing with calm assurance that it will fly out of the way.

We arrive in time for morning tea. This is a regular ritual: every Saturday morning Debbie and her husband get together with a group of friends for a cuppa and a chat at a local cafe.

Tim and I are well known to this group of my sister’s friends. We have spent a number of Saturday mornings drinking tea and chatting, as if we too were their friends.

I have done this my whole life: latched on to my sister’s friends rather than making my own. I find it easier that way – Deb does all the work of making and keeping friends and every now and then I pop along and have conversations with them as if they are my friends as well.

Many years ago, when we were in primary school Stacey, one of Debbie’s friends, invited her on an outing to the beach. Somehow I wrangled an invitation too. Even then, I didn’t have friends of my own, preferring to hang out with my sister and her friends. [I don’t think Deb was as in favour of this arrangement as I was.]

As Stacey’s Dad drove us all to the beach, we sat in the back chatting, and laughing at nothing in particular as eight and nine year olds do. I nearly jumped out of my skin though when Stacey suddenly screamed, Dad, slow down. Please, Dad, don’t hit it!

Was there a person on the road, I wondered? A baby perhaps? Maybe a kid had fallen off his bike and was stumbling bleeding down the centre of the road. It must have been something momentous for Stacey to react like that, I thought.

It was a bird.

But Stacey’s Dad slowed down, the bird flew away unscathed, and we continued calmly to the beach.

To say that I was impressed with this interaction between father and daughter would be a mammoth understatement. Stacey had been able to influence her father’s behaviour in, if not exactly an hysterical way, a decidedly dramatic fashion! Stacey’s father, the man who had built the house we lived in, a big burly man who bossed others around for a living, took notice of what his nine-year-old daughter had said.

I sat with this racing and rolling around in my mind for the rest of the drive to the beach. Once we arrived it flew straight out of my mind of course because there were sandcastles to build and shells to collect to make a number eight with (eight was my favourite number that year).

But the episode lingered in my mind, swirling beneath the delight of being at the beach with people who weren’t my family.

The following weekend, I was again on my way to the beach, this time with my own family. A bird was on the road up ahead. I hesitated, then decided to go for it.

Dad, I screamed, slow down. Please don’t hit it!

Dad didn’t slow down.

It’ll move, he said, in that quiet, dry way he has. And it did.

I learnt a lesson that day. I still ponder about what that lesson was even after all these years of working it over in my mind. I think I learnt a number of lessons actually: lessons about emotional responses, pragmatic thinking, the capacity to influence behaviour (or not), and other things I still can’t articulate.

But it meant that when I saw the bird on the road yesterday morning I just knew that there was no need for histrionics.

We drew ever closer, and I heard my Dad again: it’ll move, and at the very last moment the bird flew lazily away.

Thanks Dad … I think.

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #10

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Today’s topic is a free association one: Write down the first words that comes to mind when we say … home … soil … rain. Use those words in the title of your post.

Title: Farm-earth drinking

I used to live on a farm. We moved to the farm after living in Brisbane for a few years when an opportunity arose that my then husband couldn’t turn down.

The farm was in Tasmania, just outside a little town, population: 400.

The farm had a few cows, fewer fences, a lot of thistles and even more sheep.

The farm was on a hill and on the eastern boundary, halfway down the hill, above the river, was ‘the race’. I didn’t know what ‘the race’ was when I first arrived (I didn’t even know what a race was, let alone the race). I discovered that it’s kind of like an aqueduct, but far less grand.

It used to carry water from up in the hills behind the town to the tin mine at Derby. Even though I lived there in the mid-1980s, I have only just learnt that it was a 48km-engineering feat, built in 1901, and the first release of water took three weeks to reach the mine. Thanks Internet – we didn’t have the internet back then, so there’s no way I could have known that :).

One farmer I heard about used to tie her son to the clothesline on a long line so that he wouldn’t fall into the race when she was milking the cows. Can you imagine the furore that would cause these days? Still, she was keeping her son safe, so props for that, as the hip people say.

Anyway, the race was dry by the time we moved there; it had fallen into disrepair many years before, but was still an interesting feature.

One of the other interesting features of the farm was the sound the earth made after rain. It rained a lot and so I had many opportunities to listen in to the conversation the earth was having with itself when it rained.

It honestly sounded as though the earth was drinking and taking a great deal of pleasure in doing so.

The farmhouse we lived in burnt down a number of years ago and as I happened to be in the neighbourhood (months after the fire, I hasten to add) I thought I’d stop in to see what remained. Only the bath and a chimney remained. But what hit me as soon as I got out of the car was the silence. It was nothing I’d ever heard before. Sure there were the sounds of birds in the distance, and the tinkle of a cow’s bell from the farm across the valley, but the air was unbelievably quiet. It wasn’t something I’d remembered from living there, although with four children at the time, it probably wasn’t silent too often.

And in that silence I heard it again: the sound of the earth drinking.

If you haven’t heard it, head out after the rain, plant yourself on a patch of earth and tune in.

What do you hear?

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #9

This post should have been yesterday’s post, but I was rushing to get out of the house to have dinner with my son Chase, and so postponed posting this until now.

The theme I have chosen for today is: Take two – Run outside. Take a picture of the first thing you see. Run inside. Take a picture of the second thing you see. Write about the connection between these two random objects, people, or scenes.

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The bird is blue and the leaf is green.

Blue and green must never be seen without a colour in between. That’s what my Sydney Nan used to tell me.

Sydney Nan would know because she was a very stylish woman. Her handbag and shoes always matched. When she was younger she wore gloves and a hat. Every Sunday night she would paint her nails, and they always looked beautiful, just like she did.

I argued of course. But Nan, the sky is blue and the grass is green, and they look good together.

Yes, Sharon, they do. But it’s not the same in fashion, always put a colour in between.

Okey dokey. I knew when to stop arguing with Nan.

Pink and green, on the other hand, are fit for a queen.

Really?

Pink and green? Together? Hmmm …

Nan didn’t tell me that. I read it somewhere.

We have a proclivity for making connections between things. We see an animal act in a certain way and we connect it with human emotions or actions. We see a puddle and connect it with a painting we once craned our necks to see over the heads of hundreds of cameras in a museum on the other side of the world.

We connect a loathing of maths to our high school maths teacher.

We connect our aversion to wooden spoons to the fearful voice of our mother and finding socks under the bed.

We connect the scent of vanilla to our fridge and then make the leap to food and then realise that you’re writing a blog post and it’s after past nine and you haven’t had breakfast and you’re hungry and your mind is fuzzy and you wonder why you don’t stop to eat.

And you connect the leaf that’s been rained on in Melbourne to the rain coming from Tasmania where the bird was given as a gift.

Connections.

Between people and things. Some more tenuous than others, but we can make them if we try.

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #8

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Today’s theme: What’s the 11th item on your bucket list?

This is a strange prompt for me to respond to because I don’t have a bucket list, let alone an 11th item.

I think about things like this from time to time – the ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’ type question, and the ‘who would you have dinner with if you could have dinner with anyone from the past or present’ type question, and the ‘if you could live in any other time in history which period would it be’ type question.

And do you know what I conclude, when I do spend two point six seconds thinking about those types of questions? That I don’t respond well to those questions.

Maybe I should spend more than two point six seconds thinking about them, I hear you suggest encouragingly.

It won’t work. I won’t do it. I have no interest in questions like that. In thinking about them, in responding to them, in asking them of others.

I worry that it’s a failure of imagination, or an inclination for the serious over the fanciful, or a need for certainty over a capacity to speculate.

But who would I have dinner with? If it could be anyone, how do I choose? What if I chose someone who wanted to eat dogs’ breath and cucumber sandwiches? Could I take that risk? And what would we talk about? What if I chose a non-talker? Then where would we be? Sitting opposite each other, chomping away in silence, me wondering how I ever thought they might make a good dinner companion and them wondering why I disturbed their eternal rest.

And which period of history would I choose? On what basis would I make that decision? How much would I need to know about periods of history to be able to decide? More than I do now, obviously. Would I get to choose my status? I mean, living in 1771 would be okay I guess if I could be a landed gentry, but I don’t think I’d like to travel to Australia on a convict ship. Especially if I was a convict. What if I chose a period of history that hanged witches and I happened to be a witch? Or if I went back to the Renaissance period but ended up in South Australia at that time?

So that doesn’t work for me either.

And if I was to put together a bucket list I would have to know an awful lot of things about an awful lot of places and/or activities. Out of all the things that it’s possible to do or see, how do I choose? On what basis would I narrow it down to just ten? Or eleven in this case.

STOP THE PRESS

It’s hit me. An idea for my bucket list! Not the whole list (are you crazy) but the number 11 thing.

So here it is: [big fanfare]

My number 11 thing on my bucket list is to be more like Murwillumbah Nan. If you didn’t meet my Murwillumbah Nan you really missed out. She was funny, and humble, and kind, and generous. She called her grandchildren darling, and had the softest skin. I didn’t ever see her in pants, only dresses. She didn’t like talking on the phone much. She hated having her photo taken, and she loved poetry. She wasn’t stylish, she wasn’t flashy, she didn’t use bad language, and she was warm and loved by everyone. You weren’t allowed to say bad things about your family when you were with Nan – she wouldn’t hear it. She told great stories and loved to laugh and she lived a simple, good kind of life. All 94 years of it. We held each other and cried and cried together when we knew it was the last time we’d be together.

So there you have it. The 11th thing on my bucket list of one thing.

Be like Nan.

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #7

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Today’s theme is Ode to a playground.

My little oasis was there for me when I needed a place to hide, a place to sort through the thoughts whirling through my head, a place to work out excuses for my terrible, terrible behaviour, or to take time out from the turmoil of life as a ten-year old. It remains an integral part of my childhood, a place of both safety and stomach-lurching glee.

I could swing away my troubles within its white-rail fenced perimeter, feeling that frizz of pleasure as I put my head back as far as I could while swinging as high as my little legs would push me. Dragging my hair along the ground, sitting up suddenly, winding the chains into a tight corkscrew and then whirling like a dervish as it unspun.

I could spin away my troubles on that thing you had to hang on to and run beside then jump on when it was spinning faster than you could run. The thing that was best when it was only you there and not a whole bunch of other kids wanting to push it faster and faster till you knew you were going to have to sit really still for at least three minutes and seven seconds before you could walk coolly away.

I could slide away my troubles on the big metal slide that would burn the backs of your legs in the summer, and take some time to warm up in the winter. I would rush head first down the slide, or feet first on my stomach, ending up in a rather crumpled heap at the bottom and rush around to the ladder to do it all over again. The slide was also great for swinging under. I’d hold onto the slide from underneath, then walk my hands up till my legs were swinging from the ground. Each time I’d try to go higher and higher.

I could seesaw away my troubles on the long wooden boards with a funny handle on either end. Some people think that a seesaw is play equipment for two, but you can do a lot of balancing on a seesaw when you’re the only one there. Or running up one side and down the other. Carefully. I was already in trouble; I didn’t want to get into any more!

The black wattle tree with the sticky sap was the only downside to that oasis of stomach-lurching glee.

A white fence ran around the outside, one rail. You know the diagonal sort that made it difficult to hang upside down from? Paling fences separated the park from the houses that backed onto it, the houses that were on my street where the Bywaters and Brunswicks and Aulsebrooks lived.

The paling fences are still there, but there is no longer any white rail fence, no ugly, sticky, sappy black wattle tree, and no swings, slide, see saw or merry-go-round. Just an empty, grassy space with a single, solitary piece of play equipment.

That play equipment might be safe, but it wouldn’t help any ten year old swing, spin, slide or seesaw away her troubles.

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #6

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My challenge for today is to set a timer for ten minutes. I have to open a new post. Start the timer, and start writing. When the timer goes off, publish.

It rained today. Just about all day. A constant trickle of water ran from the sky and pooled in inconvenient places, causing great splashes to leap up to my knees when I dared to go outside.

The drip drip drip drip outside our lounge room door continued metronomically into the afternoon, then all of a sudden stopped.

The silence ran to four minutes, then extended to five. We were on the edge of our seats, hushed, breathless, ears akimbo, waiting for the next verse of the drip

drip

drip …

Silence.

Bliss.

***

I can’t do this. I’ve started five different posts and deleted four of them. I can’t write under this pressure when I have nothing to write about. I should have been more prepared. Thought of something, a topic, an issue, a situation, something, anything to write about before I started the timer.

But I didn’t.

I don’t know what I expected when I pushed ‘start’ – that inspiration would hit me and something would leap into my mind and out through my fingers as if by magic?

I seriously don’t think I was thinking that far ahead, to be quite honest.

And so, a blank page.

This is what some teachers do to children.

‘Alright children, it’s story-writing time. You have ten minutes. Go.’

It’s not right. Writers need more than a time limit. They need ideas. They need thinking time. They need time to craft and organise and structure and develop.

One of my grandsons is in Year 3 this year. That means that late in May he did the NAPLAN test for the first time. In their preparation lessons, they practiced writing persuasive texts. He wrote about burning the school down.

I don’t know how persuasive it was, but it certainly caught the teacher’s attention.

He has more imagination than me though!

Time’s up.