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 Melbourne, Portraits

201

The tram pulled up in the city and before the doors opened I heard a beautiful voice. The workmen sitting on the steps appreciated the beautiful voice as well.

pb240003

Posted in Life

Ordinary stories

The road twists and turns around gently wooded slopes that rise up to form part of the caldera. We travel through farmland where lumpy cattle graze between old-fashioned fences, and then through bushland with shards of red and a thousand different greens. Tufts of grass draw a seam down the centre of the narrow potholed road whose edges are battered by heat and too many vehicles. An occasional house, a school, a rash of letterboxes: signs of human occupation, but you’d be excused for thinking that you’d travelled to a different time. It’s hard to believe that the shiny brashness of the Gold Coast is less than an hour away.

We turn left at Chillingham towards Tyalgum and I ask if Nan and Pop had ever lived here. No, they lived at Limpinwood, 15 minutes away (although possibly longer then), in a hut on the farm where Pop worked. And Nan worked there too: she cleaned ‘the house’. The hut Nan and Pop lived in had a dirt floor and my Dad, a baby at the time, slept in a box. Or so he tells us. The owner of the farm was ‘mean’ – but my mother isn’t sure what Nan meant by that.

I realise that while I have my own memories of Nan and Pop, I don’t know their stories. I am fascinated by my grandmother’s life because it’s so removed from my own. But I won’t ever know much of that life because the stories of ordinary life and ordinary lives get locked away; they remain untold. Not deliberately untold, but they seem not worth telling, unremarkable, just ‘how life was’. We lived here, we worked there, we drank tea, cooked meals, danced, laughed, cried. Ordinary things done by ordinary people.

And still I’m fascinated. And not just by Nan’s story but of other stories I hadn’t considered before.

I hadn’t ever thought to ask before how my sister came to be born in Murwillumbah when my parents lived in Sydney. It turns out that it was something Dad wanted. My mother, living alone while Dad was at sea in the Navy, lived in Sydney – the same city in which her parents, brother and sister lived. My father’s parents lived in Murwillumbah, with Dad’s two younger sisters and his (much) younger brother.

As Mum answered my questions, I started to think about how each family member’s story was different and unknown – at least to me. How did Nan react when Dad told her that her daughter-in-law would be moving in so that the baby could be born in Murwillumbah?

How did my mother react when she was told that she’d be having her first baby a thousand miles from home?

How did Dad’s teenage sisters and 7-year-old brother Robert react to the reality of a new ‘big sister’ living with them for an indefinite amount of time?

How did Mum’s mother react knowing that her first grandchild was going to be born in a little country town so far away?

How did either Pop react?

I have a thousand other questions. What drove the decision to move from a dirt-floored hut in Limpinwood to a room in a cottage in Byangum Rd Murwillumbah in 1938? Who was the decision-maker? What conversations went on between my grandparents to initiate the move? Who was the decisive one? Was ambition a part of the decision? Did my grandmother insist, or was my grandfather the decision-maker, as my father had been in the decision about where his eldest child would be born?

***

Dad and I went to the Tweed River Regional Museum in Murwillumbah through the week and read stories of the prominent people of the area: pioneers, entrepreneurs, business leaders. Mostly men, but stories of women too; people who nurtured the town into existence.

I sit at the kitchen table that has been part of my life since I was a teenager and think about all the generations who have come before me, nurturing the families of which I’m a part into existence.

In the centre of the table is a fruit bowl that is part of a set that was given to my great-aunt as a wedding present in 1934.

There are many such things tucked away in this house. Bowls that Dad brought back from an overseas trip in 1959 not long after he joined the Navy, the wooden tongs hanging in the laundry that Mum used when she washed clothes in the copper in the early 60s, the drawers that used to be in the bedroom I shared with my sister in the 70s.

Ordinary things that have stories wrapped around them. Things that have been, and will be again, passed down to those in the next generation – or the one after that.

What stories there are in the midst of the ordinariness of family life.

Which ones will be passed on?

Which ones will stay locked away?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Learning, Life

Living and re-living

Do you ever think “I’ve been here before”? I don’t mean that you lived in a different era in a different form (that you’ve re-incarnated from a cockroach into a human) but that you’ve lived an experience that now, at some slight remove, you’re living again. Re-living.

Maybe at the start of a new semester, when you read the unit outline at the end of Week 1 and realise that you’ve missed the deadline by two days for one part of your first assessment task. Or vacuuming the floor when it felt like only yesterday that you tried to get that same spot out of the carpet? Or reading the start of a book you didn’t think you’d read only to find that it’s so familiar that you know, at some point in the past, you’ve sat in the same spot, legs curled up under you, puppy pushed in beside you, the winter sun streaming through the windows … that you’ve been there before?

Life can be like that.

Years ago, you packed a bag, walked out the door, changed your life.

And then, twenty years later it happens again. Bags are packed, doors close, lives change.

Only this time it’s not your bag or your door or your life. But close enough to get a sense that you’ve been here before.

It comes as no surprise to find that life doesn’t happen in a straight line.  There are turns, and deviations, and unexpected detours that lead you down paths that are overgrown with lack of wear and just a tiny bit spooky, but interesting if you have a spirit of adventure and just a touch (or more) of courage – which you don’t realise you have until you’ve travelled that path and have the benefit of reflection and hindsight.

And there are seeming circles … you tread a path, and then without any encouragement or persuasion, your daughter treads a similar path.

The lines you once heard, she’s hearing (she’ll come to her senses – just give her time and she’ll be back). The fingers that wagged at you, now wag at her. The system that seemed stacked against you, now seems stacked against her. The sense of dislocation you felt, she’s now feeling. The questions you asked yourself, she’s also asking.

There’s living, and then there’s re-living.

Circles.

Different actors. Different lives. But so, so familiar.

Age gives me an advantage. I can see from a distance – having made it to the end of that dark and gloomy path she’s now treading. I know that it’ll  get lighter the further along she goes. That there are more options than she first thought, more warmth from others than she initially envisaged when everyone (or so it seems) was turned against her, more resilience and strength than she ever imagined was there, lurking within.

Living

and re-living.

Life.

Posted in Learning, Writing

Writing challenge (Day seven) – Free choice

My mind is a blunt pencil.

Sharp pencils draw clear, precise lines. Lines of elegance and sophistication. Lines that are clean and crisp and sharp.

Sharp pencils generate delicate images/imagination/thought that evoke feelings of beauty and energy. Sharp pencils show subtleties, cadences and rhythms. They flit across the page, dancing from one well-drawn idea to another, making connections, drawing distinctions, bringing forth meaning.

Sharp pencils rest lightly and touch softly. They allow the delicate rendering of shadows and light, and their precision creates a final image in which it is possible to see individual lines/ideas/understandings while also seeing broader/deeper/richer meanings.

My mind is a blunt pencil.

Blunt pencils plod onto the paper, stepping heavily, trudging, stumbling, clumsily treading from one idea to another. There is no clarity with a blunt pencil, no grace, no lightness, no sophistication. The lines lack crispness and distinction and the final image is fuzzy and ill-defined. Blunt pencils don’t allow for fine detail, or for precision, or subtleties. There is no sophistication with a blunt pencil, no flitting, no dancing.

My mind is a blunt pencil.

There is no self-denigration here. Just self-awareness. No self-pity. Merely enlightenment.

When I read good writing, when I listen to others speak their ideas, when I hear clear thinking expressed crisply, when I see delicacy and subtlety in thoughts and ideas and words and images, I recognise that I am not like that. What is different about their knowledge, their ideas, their words, their thinking, their intellect?

They are sharp.

And I am not.

It bothers me sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes. I am having a conversation with a colleague on a late night walk through an industrial wasteland in Melbourne and I say something that I realise later is blunt thinking, blunt expression, blunt intellect. I feel embarrassed for myself: for my lack of sophistication, my lack of intellectual adornment, my lack of knowledge, subtlety and delicacy.

I am writing a chapter and have only roughly drawn, fuzzy ideas to wade through, ideas that aren’t thought through to the end. I don’t make connections/distinctions/meanings easily or lightly. I don’t use sophisticated language that dances across the page. My ideas tread heavily; no tripping the light fantastic here.

I read others’ writing and it’s poetic and finely wrought. Individual strands of thought meander gently and smoothly across the page. I am entranced. I am reminded of why I fell in love all those years ago.

Sharp pencils draw clear, precise lines. Lines of elegance and sophistication. Lines that are clean/crisp/sharp.

A blunt pencil.

*****

This is the final piece in the write a post about writing every day this week challenge.

I have been set a new challenge by Jill: How about spending the next blogging week writing each day about something you have learned, not from teachers or lecturers but those things you learn when you least expect to learn something and from someone or something you didn’t/wouldn’t expect to learn from.

I’ll put my (blunt) mind to it 🙂

Posted in Learning, Writing

Writing challenge (Day Six)

Um

Well um

No, I’m sorry, I can’t do this. I can’t think of anything to say.

She sits down in a fog of embarrassment and dismay and silence.

Or the inverse.

Yeah well like my name is like Kimkourtneykhloe and I’m like 14 well almost like I will be next month and I’m sick excited because me mum, mum said that she’ll take me to like Devonport for the day and I’ve never been there before and I hear it’s a exciting place and I just can’t wait because I might get to buy like a new like clothes yeah. What else? Yeah well like I live with mum and six brothers and four sisters and seven dogs and five chickens and yesterday I got a new like kitten she’s called Kendallkylie because mum reckons that name’s really like cool and she said that if she had another kid it would be called that but we told her that she can’t have another kid because like me dad’s not here he’s having a stretch mum calls it and it only seems to happen when he’s around – or Uncle Max – but he’s in prison too, so that won’t happen which is good because there’s not enough room in the bed for us all anymore so yeah that’s it.

Three seconds start to finish.

People hear our voice when we have something to say. Or when we think we have something to say. For some of us, if we have nothing to say we say nothing. Our voice won’t be heard. I think mothers are responsible. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. I don’t know if you’re like me in this regard, but over the years I’ve tended to substitute many words for ‘nice’: Intelligent. Funny. Inspirational. Witty. Imaginative. Clever. Interesting. Astute. Insightful.

I’m silent a lot!

I was unhappy with yesterday’s post.

I asked Tim what he thought. (I ask him that every day and he says the same thing: Yeah, it’s good with the rising inflection that gives me a little bit of encouragement but not too much.) Yesterday he said, I liked the picture of the kids jumping off the bridge.

I like an honest man, I honestly do, but yesterday I secretly wished he’d listened to my mother. A. Thousand. More. Times!!

I was unhappy with yesterday’s post because I felt that I had nothing to say. I had nothing intelligent, funny, inspirational, witty, imaginative, clever, interesting, astute, insightful to say ….

I had no point to make, no advice to give, no wisdom to share. My words came haltingly, it took three times as long to write as my posts generally do, and in the end I clicked the ‘publish’ button quite reluctantly. I felt like a student who knows the deadline is NOW but needs one more day to figure out their argument, to push the fog away so that their point becomes clear. And then a strange thing happens. It’s not one more day you need, because within an hour of the submit/publish button being clicked, it all becomes clear in your head.

It’s too late. It’s submitted and you know your reader/marker will be saying to him/herself I can see what you’re trying to say, but it would be better if you just said it. 

Finding your voice is hard if you have nothing to say: if you don’t understand the topic, if you don’t have a view on it, if you are unclear about the point you want to argue, if you don’t have an angle. Writing a blog post, or writing an assignment will feel like torture, each sentence wrung out a word at a time. Ideas will scurry to the darkest corners of your mind and hide under boxes labelled one hit wonders of the 80s, or tram stops from South Yarra to the city, or high school teachers I’d like to see today so that I can say see, I did make something of myself.

We tell students to plan their assignments. I tell students to plan their assignments. But I can’t write like that. I can’t plan. I do however, need an angle. My voice will be weak, will desert me, if I don’t have a hook: that first idea, the approach I’m going to take. My first sentence is the most important one for me. It shapes my whole post; when I was an undergraduate the first sentence shaped each assignment. Until I had my first sentence I couldn’t write.

My first sentence sets the scene, gives me ideas that grow as I write. Once I have the first sentence (the initial idea, the angle, the perspective) then I can write. From then I write by writing not by planning. I understand through writing – I write to understand.

When I know I have something to say – something intelligent, funny, inspirational, witty, imaginative, clever, interesting, astute, insightful – then my voice will emerge.

How does it work for you?

*****

Tomorrow is day seven of the writing challenge. The final day. Free choice says Tim. Yikes! That’s a challenge.

But I’m up for a challenge.

Do you have one for me?

Posted in Learning, Writing

Writing challenge (Day Five)

Since when has there been seven days in a week? I ask rather indignantly.

Tim just looks at me in that way he does: head on one side, hands by his side, eyes saying can you hear yourself?

Apparently, according to Tim, there are seven days in a week, not five. I thought today was the last day, the final day of my writing challenge … but no. As a week is seven days in length, your writing challenge will continue for another two days.  But I cannot guarantee that there won’t be another challenge when this one is done.

The man has a warped sense of reality.

That’s my conclusion.

I’ve drawn other conclusions over the years: he is a gifted teacher; a beard suits him; his photography should be shared; he’s the right husband for me.

Conclusions are what we do when we wrap things up: people, arguments, criminal cases, university assignments. We look at the evidence and come to a conclusion. 

I have jumped from a few things over the years including:

Cudgen Creek Bridge, Kingscliff NSW
Natural Arch (or Natural Bridge), Qld

and my conclusion is that you should keep your arms firmly by your sides as you hit the water!

My other conclusion is that, unlike the water under the bridges, conclusions are not things to be jumped to.

I also had a learning the last time I jumped through the hole at Natural Arch/Bridge: the older you are, the longer the drop feels. I was in my 30s the last time I jumped and it’s going to remain the last jump. They don’t let you jump anymore though – there’s a fence there to stop people doing it. Dad and I didn’t see the fence as we climbed through it all those years ago. Mum was cross, but then mums often are.

We need conclusions in our writing and in our teaching. When students are tasked with writing an essay, they must write a conclusion. When we teach a lesson/tutorial we need a conclusion. When we give a lecture we must conclude.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg concludes that if a teacher only teaches in one way, then they conclude that the kids who can’t learn well that way don’t have the ability, when, in fact, it may be that the way the teacher is teaching is not a particularly good match to the way those kids learn.

I wonder how many teachers would agree with that conclusion? It means that the teacher cannot blame the student for not learning, but must reflect on their own teaching practices to see if they need to make any changes. I wonder if it’s the same for those of us who teach in universities?

Interesting.

In Life of Pi Yann Martel makes the point that it is important to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.

That kind of conclusion is not quite the same as writing a conclusion to a journal article, or a chapter, or an essay. But it is still important to not leave things unsaid, or there might be remorse when the assignment/chapter is returned: if only I’d taken a bit more time. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put your writing away for a few days and then come back to it with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.

Tim wrote the conclusion to our chapter yesterday. I’m going to put it away for a few days so that I approach it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind (can you hear Tim saying but you didn’t write it?). Still, my eyes need to be fresh.

Actually, that’s not the real reason.

The sun is shining. My conclusion: it’s a great day for a bushwalk!

******

Tomorrow, finding your voice. Where did it go?

Posted in Writing

Writing Challenge (Day Four)

Tim starts reading and says you’re a dag. And smiles.

He finishes reading and says you’re so clever. And I smile.

Daggily clever? Cleverly daggy? Daggy and clever?

Voice.

When I ask students to write a reflection or a statement of philosophy about teaching, I want to hear their voice.  I dealt with a student this week who had found someone else’s philosophy statement on a blog and pasted it into her assignment. It wasn’t her voice. It was an easy pick-up. It happens way too often. I’m happily reading along and suddenly it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife pops into the middle of the sentence. My ears prick up. Hang on, I say inside my head, that’s not Student A, that’s Jane Austen.

I keep reading and lo and behold it seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days and I recognise the very distinct voice of Stevens. It seems strange that his voice would appear in the midst of a student assignment on the fundamentals of communication in the classroom. I pause, I puzzle, I shake my head to clear it, only to read on and discover that I remain transfixed by Stevens’ voice.

Stevens’ voice comes about through long sentences and parenthetical comments: An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days. It’s a voice that takes me instantly into the complexity of the character and slows me down. I move to the couch to be more comfortable because this is one of my favourite books, but I read on only to discover that many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. I am transported into the magically real world Gabriel Garcia Marquez paints in One hundred years of solitude.

I am confused. Student A (let’s call her Anna and in that way flesh her out a little) is writing about communication in the classroom, but her voice is lost in the other voices that keep intruding on her paper. I would go so far as to say that Anna has not found or established her own voice yet. She has let herself be distracted by other readings, others’ thoughts, others’ voices. She has not done her own thinking (which, let’s face it, is difficult); rather she has relied on my mother is, like, a totally confirmed A-list [expletive riddled passage deleted] *** hole cretin [expletive riddled passage deleted] ***head of the highest order. Fact. In fact, I, of this moment, officially declare my entire doubt of the fact that she is in fact my actual real mother.

My head is spinning, I flick backwards and forwards through Anna’s paper wondering where that voice came from. There’s no acknowledgement of her source, but it really doesn’t sound like Anna.  I do a Google search and find that it is the voice of Dora from Dawn French’s A tiny bit marvellous. Possibly not the best source Anna could find for her paper, but I suppose that all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

Tolstoy? Wow. 

Voice. Use your own. I know, believe me I know, it can be hard to develop your own, but your audience wants to hear First the colours. Then the humans. 

No, Marcus Zusack, now is not the time to intrude. I’m trying to establish my voice. A distinct voice. A voice that emerges from the snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks … excuse me, Donna Tartt, please don’t do that. I’m trying to write in my own voice. A voice that is uniquely mine, a voice that is worth being heard, that emerges from this is Albion Gidley Singer at the pen, a man with a weakness for a good fact.

Kate Grenville, seriously, this is so not the time. I cannot finish on someone else’s words. I have to finish with my own because the war had ended as wars sometimes do, unexpectedly.

****

Tomorrow, the conclusion.