Archive for the 'australia' Category

body-memories

Of course all you have to do is brag about your distress tolerance one time and the panic attacks come back.

There’s definitely a component of “I’m in a safe place to process shit, so shit’s coming up” going on. I’m trying to write about Australia and (surprise!) I have a lot of complicated feelings to untangle about Australia. I need to talk about it in a kind of Darmok way because it’s not rational, or linear, or English.

A book I think about all the time is Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood, a memoir of finding your birth mother in Korea and then losing her to cancer, before you have time to learn enough Korean to say what you need to say. My mother and I didn’t communicate very well until very close to the end, when I had slowly, painfully taught myself enough about kindness to counteract my habitual ruthlessness. Immigrants are ruthless, my mother included. We jettison the past. We buckle ourselves into the geographical cure, and we don’t look back. If you look back, you turn to salt.

My bitterest memories of living in Australia are memories of living with untreated, out-of-control mental illness. What I’m feeling now are body-memories of the days when I had panic attacks 24/7. In Ireland, I found some distance (“some” = the width of the planet); in California, I found SSRIs. Now at last I can let myself understand what I gave up in exchange for these: the outlines of sacred animals on the high rocks, the Southern stars, the smell of eucalyptus trees hot under the summer sun. A landscape that made sense to me somewhere deeper than language.

distress tolerance dinner theatre

This one is for all the other adult orphans out there. Yesterday was the third anniversary of Dad’s death. Tuesday is the fourth anniversary of Mum’s. I call this Shark Week and even though I don’t believe in astrology or the significance of dates, I always find myself glum.

That’s all right though. When I was younger and recovering from depression, I was flinchy around any negative emotion, in case it dragged me down into the dark again. But with age and having watched a lot of sad movies (on dates that Jeremy and I like to call distress tolerance dinner theatre) comes the ability to sit with my grief and not try to stuff it away in a box so much.

I will be 47 this month, and it turns out that I can think about Jean and Robin and how complicated and flawed and wonderful they were, and how their awkward and hilarious and tragic love affair is literally what I am made of, and have a bloody good cry about it, and not die.

bird minds, by gisela kaplan

currawongs are intelligent, resourceful, adaptable and utterly loveable (affectionate, patient and accommodating – those who have raised one or two will know what I mean)

galahs

We walked out of the airport terminal into a wall of humidity and cicada song. I had forgotten how good Australian summer smells. I see it now in a way I never could before I left. The ferry ride to Cockatoo Island through a working harbour surrounded by old-money waterfront property. (My family’s steadfast refusal to laugh as I called it Cockapoo Island and claimed that it was made entirely of cockapoos.) Inner western suburbs with their beautiful brick terrace houses and bullnose verandahs and tall and spreading trees. Oyster leases on the Hawkesbury. I can feel my own settler-colonial culture as a shallow, temporary film over this weirdly ancient place. My family has been here for nearly 250 years. The Aboriginal people have been here for 250 times as long.

In Barraba now, I am haunted by my parents. Here’s my mother’s craft studio. There’s where Dad had his market stall. In front of the doctor’s office is where I broke down when Dad said he was sure Mum’s cancer was cured. Last night I sat on their front porch while galahs and lorikeets threw a sunset dance party. Petrichor, all around. Behind me a sun shower and in front of me, rainbow’s end. Today, my brother and I took two cars and a whole expedition party out to Horton Falls. We surprised mobs of kangaroos. We had both forgotten to check if we had full tanks. It’s alarming to drive on a single-width bush track with the fuel light on. We glided back into town as smoothly as we could, running on fumes. But here we are.

dark emu, by bruce pascoe

…‘desert’ is a term Europeans use to describe areas where they can’t grow wheat and sheep.

the biggest estate on earth, by bill gammage

In time, a long time, bark and branch will conceal the scars as though they never were. Some eucalypts are much older than we imagine.

The water has changed. Once it ran slower and clearer. The Darling below Bourke was ‘beautifully transparent, the bottom was visible at great depths, showing large fishes in shoals, floating like birds in mid-air’.

People today think of what animals need. In 1788 people thought of what animals prefer. This is a crucial difference.

bird minds: cognition and behavior of australian native birds, by gisela kaplan

The southern hemisphere is not a mirror image of the north.

the crows approached the female banteng, somehow indicating their intention. The banteng female then rolled onto her back and held her legs up, straining to hold her position, so that the crows could get to the belly and the area between belly and leg. The crows then proceeded to quickly peck at the exposed areas, the authors assuming that the crows extracted ticks and the cow then rolled back onto her belly.

Here is a bird exceptionally endowed for song and yet so much of what is produced seems to have no easily identifiable function.

australia

flight

In Sydney, after a fairly peaceful flight, a day of intractable jetlag and a night of proper sleep. All four of us are on our devices on the bed in Jeremy’s and my room, watching the sky lighten behind the ferns on the patio, girding our loins to head over to the little cafe we like. It is humid. I’m reading Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, which is unlike any other book I have ever read.

the lost daughter, by elena ferrante

In fact, despite my breaking away, I haven’t gone very far.

The world in the meantime had not improved; in fact it had become crueler for women.

there have been good moments

Lots of them, in fact. Snow in Central Park. Laughing, giddy, with Leonard and Sumana and Brendan and Kat and Claire and Julia, saying “What do you wanna do now? Shall we go see that show, what’s it called, the one about Hamilton? Yeah, let’s go see Hamilton!” Sitting around the evening campfires on Diamond Beach, toasting Mum and Dad with gin and tonic and love. Walking into La Sagrada Familia and feeling my knees buckle. Christmas Eve, when we saw the Bernal coyote, her golden eyes, her wild face. And every single moment with Sam Horse, my wisest, kindest teacher since last January 1.

When I went back to church in November, I chose an Episcopalian (Anglican) church because of a dark wave of rage and grief and protest that rose inside me, to the effect that it was my mother’s church and her mother’s church before her, and terrible men tried to take it from me, and they can’t have it, because it’s mine. So too this year. So, too, my life.

forgotten war, by henry reynolds

If there was no war then thousands of Aborigines were murdered in a centurylong, continent-wide crime wave tolerated by government. There seems to be no other option. It must be one or the other.

ancestors

A fresh new irony in my life is that I have become fascinated with Aboriginal rock engravings, 20 years after leaving Sydney where they are present in magnificent abundance, 25 years after graduating from the Department of Archaeology where John Clegg taught and a year after John Clegg’s death. I never could see the precious things that were right in front of my face.

This one’s a little hard to make out, but it’s a whale shark, its nose pointing to the left, two eyes on the white patch of rock, and a fish inside it, its nose pointing down. It’s on the cliffs above Tamarama, on the spectacular walking path from Bondi to Coogee. We walked up there one late afternoon as the sun set behind the city and set the sky on fire.

The next two turned out beautifully – we found them at blazing high noon – but the shaming part is, they are part of an incredibly rich field that is walking distance from my childhood home, on a track I regularly wandered down, but I didn’t even notice that they were there until shortly before I left the country for good. They weren’t signposted as they are now, but also, I just wasn’t paying attention.

I remember a visitor from England saying very snottily that he couldn’t live in Australia because there wasn’t enough history here, compared with where he grew up. I wish I’d known enough to drag him to this place and point out that the people who made this art lived peacefully on this land for 40,000 years before there even was an England.

Murri stockman Herb Wharton wrote:

The old tribal elder who had spoken before said that he did not trust people who could leave the place where they had been born, to go to another country. For him, for all of them, their land was their mother, a sacred place. No matter what injustices they had suffered, nothing could ever break that tie with their own land and with the Dreamtime. Yet every one of this boat mob had left his own land.

I am boat mob twice over – my English mother, my exile self.

This site was the hardest to find and the most beautiful. Again, it was a few metres off a bush track I knew well, where I used to let my Arab horse Alfie stretch out and gallop; almost exactly halfway between my godmother’s house and that of Jeremy’s Aunty Jan. The kids were incredibly patient as I searched and searched for the obscured beginning of the footpath, and uncomplaining about the spiky grass and prickles they endured along its length. When we finally found the site it was as obviously holy a place as any church.

It’s believed to celebrate a successful hunt; that’s a spear between the kangaroo’s shoulder blades. I think your family of choice includes ancestors of choice as well. You choose which writers and painters and musicians and activists you want to emulate, and which you don’t. I recognize the people who made these images and the people who work to protect them. I acknowledge them as parts of myself, debts to ancestors I never knew, a motherland that will not leave me no matter how often I leave it.

one life, by kate grenville

One night she watched the tram light coming towards her, the rails gleaming, the road slick with rain. The trams had been a little adventure in the beginning but now they were the emblem of the hard machine of her days. I could step out in front of it, she thought. That would put an end to the misery and the loneliness and the feeling that every day would be like this forever. It would hurt, she supposed. But if she was lucky it would all be over in a second. In the moment she stood with that choice, she was free of everyone else in the world…

cité des sciences

We braved the Metro (Jeremy deftly blocking a pickpocketing attempt) out to Parc de la Villette to visit the Cité des Sciences et l’Industrie, which according to Wikipedia is the biggest science museum in Europe. It is pretty big! We bought tickets to all the temporary exhibitions, which was a bit of a misstep because the permanent exhibitions were exquisite and we didn’t get to spend anywhere near enough time with them.

As we were touring the Argonaut, a decommissioned submarine, I got mail from the neuroscientist in London who is writing the case study about Dad’s blog. We had hoped to move Dad’s brain to a brain bank for further study but unfortunately this won’t be possible. The neuroscientist reassured us that although Dad’s brain has already been embalmed and used to train surgeons, the resulting anatomical report will still be very helpful in establishing the diagnosis of fronto-temporal dementia.

Dad used to take us to the Observatory and the Australian Museum and the Powerhouse and its precursor, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, all the time. He took us to Taronga and Western Plains Zoo and Tidbinbilla and Parkes. His factory built fire control systems for the Collins Class submarine. He would have loved the Cité. I feel a space where grief should be. Proposed Site for Grief. What happened to Dad is so huge and terrible I can’t even get there yet. All I have is these tiny, inadequate glimmers of what he was. Of all that we have lost.

cafe in brisbane with baby ross!

Maybe 2000 or so? Sarah guesses Mt Coot-tha, ’97 or ’98. That’s Original Dad for sure.

friday five

1. Yeah so that happened and it was awful. I ordered flowers for Milton’s funeral which made me mad and sad, not that I grudged him the flowers but that I was so angry with him for being dead. I think I also wanted to be at the funeral so that I could be with other people who knew him and could understand what his death meant. Jeremy met him a few times but didn’t know him well and otherwise I was alone with it, which always sucks and is boring.

2. Otherwise and weirdly I am feeling much better, having shaken off the last of the horrible Chicago cold and consequent lingering bronchitis and what was evidently some kind of post-viral malaise that plunged me back into the worst days of having an undiagnosed anxiety disorder in my teens and 20s. I gotta give myself credit for spending the last dozen years taking meds and getting enough exercise and sleep and healthy food, because given the opportunity to directly compare my current and former emotional states, it’s clear that in spite of all the, you know, wrenching grief, my baseline mood is way better than it used to be.

3. I am finally reading (listening in the car to) And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’ beautifully furious book about the early years of the AIDS epidemic; uneasy stuff when you are well, let alone when you are paranoid and sick. Excellent narrative history turns you into the Doctor visiting a Fixed Point In Time: it is 1980 and I am standing in the Ice Palace on Fire Island at 1am, looking at all the gorgeous men on the dance floor, knowing that there is nothing I or anyone else can do to save them. I am so, so sorry.

4. Speaking of beautiful fury, the new Mad Max movie is an exquisitely-researched and historically accurate documentary about my childhood and it gives me life. I got properly into the spirit of it too, getting rear-ended hard on the way to the cinema, jumping out of poor banged-up Mercy of Kalr in the middle of Van Ness and screaming at the other driver and kicking his license plate. He was at fault like San Andreas, of course, so his insurance covers everything including the rental on the piece-of-garbage Chevy Sonic I am driving around while Mercy is at the body shop. Her name is Lieutenant Seivarden, and she self-identifies as a small war rig.

5. Last night I dreamed I checked into a hotel where I was shown to a suite that I had to share with strangers who invaded my personal space, and when I complained to the staff they made fun of my accent and lost my favourite jacket, and when I realized that I was in a dramatization of my own mundane fears and insecurities I decided I was probably dreaming and that if I was, I might as well see Mum, so I turned around and there she was, wearing red and orange and gold and looking radiantly well and laughing. So I hugged her a lot.

milton

My poor sister must be so sick of giving me news she knows is going to ruin my day, week, month, but God knows it’s better than finding out from someone else. Milton had a heart attack on Friday. He collapsed at home and his wife Nic revived him, but he died before the ambulance got to the hospital.

I don’t remember meeting him; our friendship was of such long standing that the bulk of it pre-dates this blog. He was in kindergarten with my older brother, and I was in kindergarten with his younger brother and the kid who would become his stepbrother. In our teens his family washed up at the same church as mine for whatever reason. He was a youth leader there, although in retrospect it’s obvious he already had one foot out the door. He and his brother were blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed Australians who would have been almost boringly conventionally attractive if not for their obvious intelligence and the anarchic gleam of mischief in their eyes. (Also they were both short-arses, barely taller than me.)

He was the first of our little cohort to travel, and he did it properly: to Europe and Asia for more than a year, so that his name had become something of a legend by the time he showed up at church again, brown and glowing with a huge grin on his face. Other people glazed over at his stories (memorable quote from someone else at the time: “Why would anyone want to travel? God’s love is the same everywhere.”) But I wanted to see every photo, hear every anecdote. In retrospect it’s obvious I already had one foot out the door. It must have been around then that he started treating me as a pesky little sister and I him as another all-knowing big brother. We all had nicknames then: his was Stilt Man, maybe because of his height? (Mine was PL, short for Poor Little Rachel, baby sister to Big Sar, Big Man and Big Al.)

Travel became his focus for a while. He was working at the student travel agency in the Wentworth Building at Sydney Uni when he sold me my flight to Dublin in 1993. He was not long back from LA, where he’d gotten caught up in the riots. It sobered him a little: “I’m falling in love with Sydney all over again,” he said, and for months afterwards I looked at our hometown with new, more respectful eyes. He parlayed his travel agency experience into early Web jobs and we overlapped in San Francisco during the dot com boom. He had an apartment in North Beach and rode his bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to his job in Sausalito. Gotta hand it to him, the man had panache.

After he moved back, we met up at Petit Creme in Sydney a time or two on my visits home. He worked as an information architect at IBM, and he and his girlfriend adopted a Pharaoh Hound. But I didn’t do a good job of staying in touch. I knew vaguely that he’d broken up with that girlfriend and married Nic, another old acquaintance. It turns out that when you leave home you make the unconscious assumption you’ll come back one day to share your war stories with your comrades. It turns out that in fact, they might not always be there.

I didn’t always like him but it turns out that he was family, he was one of mine. And now he’s gone. I think of Nic, a new-made widow. I think of his kids in ten or twenty years, seeking out his friends to try and find out what kind of man he was. Most of all I think of Milton, and in my mind he is about twenty, having a bloody good time at the beach, wearing a green sarong he’d picked up in Bali, of course, with that self-satisfied smirk and his blue eyes dancing with laughter.

five things for a friday blog

1. I spent most of the week in Chicago, a city I love for no reason other than that J and I once spent a very happy weekend there. The light over the lake and the severely beautiful architecture always bring back how giddy I felt then, gazing at the Chagall stained glass in the Art Institute, laughing because we had both noticed that the lake sounds like the sea but doesn’t smell right.

2. Despite which, I barely slept the two nights I spent in my (stunning, lake-view) hotel room. By the second night, with my throat raw and my dreams shallow and repetitive, I realized I had caught J’s cold, which he in turn picked up from Julia. I sat through a presentation on Thursday morning with cerebrospinal fluid leaking out of my nose. The plane landing in SFO almost made the left side of my face collapse into a neutron star.

3. This morning when Claire made her customary plea to be allowed to stay home from school, for some reason I agreed, and I’m glad I did. By ten she was feverish. It was a gorgeous dry sunny San Francisco spring day, with all the nasturtiums and roses already in bloom, but the loveliness was largely wasted on us. We ventured out only briefly, for coffee and soup and cold medicine. Claire has spent most of the day asleep on the couch, I on my bed, attended by our faithful kitten doctors.

4. I tried several times to expand on my winter soldier post with a description of how 1980s Australian patriarchy worked, but remembering the microaggressions is painful, and trying to convey their emotional weight is difficult. Pinned down in words, they are dry and seem manageable. It is only the accumulation of hundreds and thousands of them over the years that buries and suffocates you in the end.

5. Turns out I would rather remember the micro-non-aggressions, the people who startled me by saying exactly the opposite of what I had come to expect them to say. Gregan saying Well you are a nice person, why wouldn’t I like you. Professor Brown saying You were one of the most highly qualified candidates, we are glad to have you. Alex saying That must have been difficult. Grant, most of all, saying lots of things I still cherish, but mostly just scooping me up into the sunshine of his solar system, showing me a way to be happy that I had never thought of before. Four cheers for non-toxic masculinity.

Moments, too, where I cried because the pain stopped; like the first time I heard Mary Lambert’s “She Keeps Me Warm” and read that Mary is an out lesbian Christian. Well, why not? This one is fresh in my mind because Skud mentioned the other day that she’d met a member of the Sydney Anglican liberal resistance, and I thought, what a glorious thing to be. But then I realized that I was always a member of the resistance, even when I didn’t know it.

I want so many things back that I can’t ever have, not only Mum and Dad but being young again and in a world so full of possibilities (the twilight sky above Dublin such a rich and light-filled blue, Bjork in her own before-time singing “I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to.”) Most of all I wish I could have been in less distress so that I could have been kinder and more kickass. But I did make it out alive and here I am, with my cats and my children and my J, our sunny little village in the city, our found family, perspective, time to read and think and make sense of what happened so that maybe one day I can write about it without jumping all over the place like this, without having to glance quickly into it and then just as quickly look away.

the winter soldier

So I did a podcast! I can’t bear the sound of my own voice but if you can, you may endure it here. I hasten to add that Sumana and Brendan are delightful and so are their voices. Like most of the people I know, they were bewildered by how completely I succumbed to Captain America fandom last summer, and wished to inquire further.

I’ve complained often, most recently in the context of Pym, about how never I or characters resembling me show up in fiction. This was a feature, not a bug, for many years. Books were windows, not mirrors. But representation is important, and eventually the lack of representation of genderqueer financiers who grew up on mining asteroids started to get to me.

Of course, when I eventually encountered myself in fiction, it was as a traumatized amnesiac supersoldier, so go figure. I mean that literally: I had to go and figure this out. It took me months to unpack why it was Bucky – and not even really MCU Bucky (lovely and brilliant as Seb Stan is) but the Bucky of chapter 2 of part 2 of Feather’s epic novel Your Blue Eyed Boys, Bucky sitting on a roof panicking because something good has happened, because he has made a human connection. (I misremembered in the podcast: this scene takes place after he hooks up with Steve.) What, exactly, about this did I recognize?

The full answer is beyond the scope of this blog but the short answer is trauma. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, a period that future rachaeologists may term my Nightmare Phase, I ran away all the time: I panicked, I fled, I lost my fucking shit. I did not know why. I thought I was just broken. Spoiler! I was, but not innately. I was a product of a society that had no better use for me than to try (and fail) to wipe my personality and shape me into a weapon.

Back then I did not have the names I have now for my child-abusing church or my rape factory of an undergraduate university. I fell for the cover story, which was that Australia was egalitarian and a worker’s paradise. It took me a long time to notice the blindingly fucking obvious, which is that Australia is ruled by cruel and complacent old money undertaking wholesale environmental destruction, and that every institution depends on the unpaid labor if not outright exploitation of women and people of colour.

This is the point at which Liz always likes to jump in and say, that’s not just Australia. Which is true. But my metal arm has the Southern Cross where Bucky’s has just one red star.

Anyway so, I have spent the last nine months or so reading up on why some people (Spoiler! Me.) have crippling anxiety and are hypervigilant and kind of agoraphobic and don’t know when they are hungry or tired or whether things hurt. Trauma is not the defining fact of my life by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a model with explanatory power, like how for example people lying to children about important things makes me feel dead inside.

Still, as Salome always reminds me, mine is a very mild case and even the things that happened to people I love were not the worst things, and have proved to be largely survivable. The only real gift of suffering is compassion, and I hope that the fucked-up things that happened will make me more patient, more empathetic, less apt to judge, more able and willing to listen.

The name winter soldier comes first from Thomas Paine’s These are the times that try men’s souls, and second from the investigations into war crimes in Vietnam, instigated by the veterans themselves. To be a winter soldier is to own the shitty things that you have done and to believe in a better world even when that seems impossible. In this sense, Steve is a winter soldier too. He’s the America I want to believe in: the supersoldier who remembers how it felt to be skinny, the superpower that remembers what it meant to be a colony. I am the mining asteroid and I am the weapon. But that’s not all I am.