Category Archives: friends

Things on a table

I took this photo as soon as Judy left, struck by all the stories flowing from the things on this table. And the table itself. And the tree you can see through the window. The more I look, the greater the orgy of gratitude. That after everything, I get this table, that shaft of light, that tiny kookaburra with a hole where there was once a tinier black plastic snake.

So, to explain: Judy came round to drop off a stretch of the crocheted Macquarie River that a group of us have been making. We’ve been doing this since the end of 2015, when we heard a gold mine was sniffing around wanting to divert river water into its cyanide-laced belly and excrete the leavings into the water table feeding the Belubula River. We began stitching, and completely forgot to stop. The river is now about 80 metres long. The decision about whether to sell water to the gold mine is on hold, but as soon as it goes back to Council, our river will be ready to join the fray.

So Judy came to drop off a stretch. This contained a very neat green length stitched by Mum during a visit here, and some orange-bordered fish created by Judy herself. On the weekend, Vi and I will occupy the Girl Guides Hall, stitching the river in the company of local Aboriginal women making a possum-skin cloak. The possum skins for this exercise have come from New Zealand, because possums are a feral animal there.

Judy was in a hurry, had errands to do, is off to Western Australia with her husband, but I convinced her to sit down and have a cup of tea. The house is in uproar, dozens of work-in-progress projects strewn about, but the table was wonderfully bare and inviting. We soon changed that. On the way to the table, before she even got to the table, Judy spotted Gribblies. This is her name for the plastic cereal toys you used to get at the bottom of packets of Cornflakes. A long time ago. Cough. These Gribblies were lying about amongst bits of half-dead succulent and tiny stones in a dusty terrarium on the kitchen counter. She told me they were very valuable. We fished them out and while we drank our tea I lined them up in a circled wagon around the wooden vase in the middle of the table. The pokerwork vase itself (a bit like this) came from my Newtown friend David Haag, who’d found it in an op shop, the design mostly rubbed off. The dried flowers in the vase were everlastings. I told Judy that in Spring, parts of Western Australia are carpeted in these flowers, and the ones in the vase were grown in my back yard in honour of them. Judy is the sort of person who likes such details. She really liked the Gribblies. When she married, she brought her small box of Gribblies and added them to her husband’s bigger box of Gribblies. The Gribblies solemnly mingled together in holy matrimony. The marriage produced two children, and these children obliviously played with them, chewing on them, losing the tiny black snake out of the mouth of the tiny kookaburra.

Talk of collections moved on to a discussion of buttons. Judy said a button tin was one of the “sacred possessions of a woman”. I’m not willing to generalise but I will admit that this is true in my case. I ran and got out my grandmother’s button tin, which lives in the cabinet holding her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine. The round tin itself, which you can see there on the table hails from 1981, which, in the context of my grandmother’s long life, makes it quite “new”.  It celebrates the marriage of Lady Di and Prince Charles, son of the man who is, as it turns out, Not Dead.

Judy’s hands moved swiftly. These are war buttons, she said, grouping them together. I peered more closely. Gee. Yes. Buttons from army uniforms, and what looks like airforce uniforms, or are they all army? These are buttons from work shirts. Fancy buttons from coats from the 1930s. I went for the self-covered buttons. Mum was a dressmaker when I was little, and I enjoyed watching her cut a circle of fabric and use a special contraption to press them into something so neat and perfectly stretched. Judy wasn’t so into the covered buttons. Her Mum never used to do that. In all of this, my grandmother’s hands. Here are her hands at work. Here she is carefully sliding small buttons onto the shaft of a safety pin to keep them all together. Here she is wrapping a piece of wire around a finger. Here she is dropping a round plastic Tiddlywink into the collection because it is round and plastic and button-like. Here she is snipping the metal pieces out of the back of a bra because they might come in handy, later. She is here.

And there was a tiny glass jar with some white covered buttons in it and a tiny scrap of paper, hand written. A message in the bottle, written to the future. To her descendants. “Buttons from my Moroccan wedding dress”.

And then Judy and I confessed our love of picking things up out of the ground. A shard of willow pattern plate. A nice piece of green or blue glass. So I ran back to my study and brought forth the large jar labelled Blayney Road Common. I pick things up when I go walking with Bertie (and earlier with Taro, when she was still walking; her bones are now resting peacefully in the back yard). The jar had a bit of dirt in it still clinging to bits of metal and a whole bakelite light switch, so I grabbed a bit of newspaper off the pile to protect the table. Newspaper. Such an ordinary thing, but threatened. It will be quaint, in the not-too-distant future. Yellowed newspaper will be like other things of the past that nobody uses any more, like box Brownie cameras or  manual typewriters. Fairfax reporters are on strike. It’s important to fight, but we all know it’s over. Not for journalism itself, hopefully, but for newsprint. For piles of inked paper lying carelessly around houses, ubiquitous, used to wrap scraps or start fires. Still, today I have a house with a pile of newspapers in it, and I used a bit to protect the table that was passed on to us by Steve’s Mum. It’s a piece of light mid-century furniture. It pulls out to a longer version if there are more people to seat. Judy and I talked about how found bits of glass and ceramic are more interesting than gold. Gold may be beautiful but it doesn’t exercise our minds. This tiny bit of pink flower might have been a teacup that might have been used by a woman a hundred years ago. She might have taken sips of tea as she sewed buttons on her children’s coats.

What else is in the picture of my table? The tree through the window where our own possums – protected native animals, not allowed to surrender their skins to Aboriginal women who might like to make a cloak – spend their nights prowling for something to eat, things to do. They clatter across the roof at dusk and dawn. There are three of them. What looks to be a teenager and a mother with a joey riding on her back. I love their big eyes, their cute pink noses They are wrecking havoc in the ceiling cavity. They have to go, but that means another project on the to-do list that is already very long and doesn’t include stolen mornings over tea and a button collection. And on the wall there’s the cockroach painting created by my artist friend Karen Golland out of sequins and there are the little woven mats Steve and I bought in Peru? Bolivia? and the Country Women’s Association cookbook, a new one Mum gave me only last year, and the collection of ring-pulls from Mount Panorama telling the stories of wild weekends of beer and car races and a spider plant that I call Deb after my sister because she gave me the plant (or its ancestor) and there are more stories in that picture but this will have to do for now.

Judy and I admitted we were borderline hoarders and discussed the minimalist movement that is fighting the good fight against clutter. But I don’t see clutter. It’s only clutter if there are no stories attached. Until the stories have finally and fully leached out, I’m quite happy to live amongst these things.

Goodbye Sue

afternoon_tealColours. Some of my life is in pink and grey, the colours of the galah; some of it is in the red of outback earth and some of it is in teal, the colour of the awareness ribbons for ovarian cancer. I have an ambivalent relationship with teal. Sometimes I’m happy to be part of Team Teal, hosting fundraising afternoon teas for cancer research. Sometimes it’s a colour I don’t want to see. When I was in London in June, a woman in a striking teal sari walked past in a sudden shaft of summer light that broke out from behind a cloud. I don’t want a fucking omen. Fuck off. I was miserable for a while, convinced I was in for it all over again.

But I wasn’t. Back in Sydney, my routine checkup was all clear; the specialist shifted my checkup intervals from three months to six months. After that, yearly, and after that… you’re back out in the world with everyone else.

That teal sari wasn’t for me.

sue_2010It must have been for Sue, my cancer buddy. We were diagnosed at around the same time, and compared notes. We were friends before we got sick; she was a long-time colleague of my partner Steve. Not long after Steve and I got together, we popped in to see Sue in her house in the Blue Mountains. She had three gorgeous little boys, triplets that were everywhere at once. Steve threw them on to the sofa, one after the other. They ran back, wanting to be thrown again. Sue struck me as amazingly calm in the midst of the whirlwind.

We were in overlapping environmental circles. She came to Bathurst to give a talk about the Transition Towns movement. We chit-chatted on Facebook about climate change and wind farms.

When I was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer, a variation on ovarian cancer, she sent a message:

Hi Tracy. Wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you & Steve and hoping for the best. Also, you wouldn’t believe it but I’ve just had a pelvic scan myself this week – I have a “complex ovarian cyst” which my doctor seems slightly (but not overly) concerned about. Having a CT scan next week and seeing a surgeon at Westmead the week after. I’m trying not to feel worried – no history of cancer in my family, but surgery is never fun.

I wrote back:

The teal brigade is a wonderful club but we don’t want any new members! Fingers crossed and we’ll both be thinking of you. Tracy xxx

Reluctantly, though, I had to admit her to the club. Our CA125 levels were “through the roof”. We started chemo, both trekking from our homes to Sydney for treatment (she at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse at RPA; me at Westmead). We lost our hair, started wearing beanies. Got our dates for “debulking” surgery. Looked at the stats on ovarian cancer. Not good. Very not good. I kept thinking about her children, the three boys (Kalang, Milo and Tallai) and their older sister Kittani.

After surgery, our stories began to diverge. When I woke up – complete with colostomy bag and half my guts out – I heard the magic words: “We got all of it.” Wow. But for Sue, the news wasn’t so good. They’d had to leave some behind – to take more tumour would have killed her on the spot.

We both went back on the chemo treadmill, me for “mopping up”, Sue for holding the beast at bay.

She came to my Afternoon Teal fundraising event in February 2015, and I went to hers at the gorgeous old Paragon Cafe in Katoomba. I went back to teaching. For Sue, being ill became more-or-less her full-time job. It was wearing.

I’m in pain most days and every dose increase of painkillers just means more sleepiness and fatigue (not to mention nightmares & nausea!). I can’t drive and I struggle to do basic household tasks.

But she was still keeping a hand in as an active citizen. From her hospital bed at the O’Brien centre, she held a spontaneous working bee for The Colong Foundation for Wilderness. She urged us all to support her boys’ team (the Migrating Wombats) in the Trek for Timor. And she celebrated an enormous achievement: seeing her boys through to their 18th birthday.

When she announced on Facebook that she was back in Katoomba for “palliative care”, it was still shocking, despite all I knew.

I messaged her:

I’m hoping that you can feel as well as you possibly can for as long as you possibly can. And enjoy whatever there is to enjoy and be as comfy as possible.

And she replied:

Thanks Tracy. I know you will carry on the awareness raising for us Tealers. I’m okay now that I’m back in Katoomba. Love to you and Steve. I know he will update old work colleagues where appropriate. Look out for the published research on BGB-A317 down the track. ????????

She was signing off. But I still thought there was perhaps a little bit more time. I was going to reply – at least with a “hugs” emoticon – but got distracted and the next thing I knew, there was a message from Sue’s phone, but it wasn’t Sue’s voice in the recording. It was her ex-partner Wyn, the children’s father, who had been at her side through all of this, asking me to call him back.

Goodbye Sue. Thank you for all you gave the world while you were here sharing this little blue planet with all of us – human, plant, animal, rock, sea and sky. Go well Kittani, Tallai, Kalang and Milo and their extended family. And go the Teal!

A special birthday

Keith_Dawn_May_2016_webThis weekend, I’ve been celebrating the 90th birthday of Keith McEwan, father of my dear friend Dawn. We gathered in the community hall at his retirement village in Canberra to toast the life of this veteran campaigner for social justice. Keith grew up in the shadow of Pentridge Prison in Melbourne. He loved reading and thinking and in other circumstances might have had a career in any number of fields. But his family was dirt-poor – his childhood coincided with the Great Depression, and his father was unemployed from 1930 to 1941.
Keith had to give up school early to help contribute to household income.  From the age of 14 he worked in a sheet metal factory and a series of other unskilled jobs. He gravitated to left wing politics and joined the  Communist Party at the age of 21.

His work in the party took him into the heart of union and cold war political struggles of the 1950s. He was a committed comrade for many years, before his sincerity and desire for genuine democracy within the party saw him leave in disillusionment.

Afterwards, eventually, he became a real estate agent and settled into life as father, grandfather and, more recently, great-grandfather. While he left party politics behind, he never stopped supporting progressive causes or quietly supporting those about him who were struggling.  He visited prisoners, supported land rights, campaigned for the rights of the Stolen Generation, civil liberties, marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia. He is well-known in Canberra for his letters to the editor of the Canberra Times on all of these issues and many others.

So, on Saturday, family and friends from all over the country gathered in the hall and toasted Keith. Keith mostly sat in his motorised wheelchair, but stood up from time to time, very tall, and received all his well-wishers with his customary wit and warmth. Afterwards, we went back to Dawn’s place to continue the celebrations without Keith, because by now he was pretty tired and needed an early night. The evening turned into a good old fashioned soiree, with banjo playing, magic tricks and people reading from a giant book of the poetry and short stories of Henry Lawson.  As I listened to a reading of The Loaded Dog, I felt a direct connection to an all-but-vanished Australia, the Australia of mateship, solidarity and tall-tales hilarity that really did exist before it was refashioned to fit the empty, ignorant jingoism of more recent years.

But it hasn’t entirely vanished. Keith is still with us, and there are still people working towards the sort of world that Keith was thinking about all those years ago in the sheet metal factory before the second world war: a world of equality and respect for all.

In October 2012, I recorded a long interview with Keith at his home in Castlemaine, Victoria. His life is quite well documented, both through his own writing (including the book, Once a Jolly Comrade) and through other projects, such as an oral history kept by the National Library but I had always wanted to get some of the stories down on video. We got Keith talking for about three hours, almost non-stop, and even then we were just scratching the surface of the stories of this long and interesting life. After that, editing the footage properly became and outstanding item on my To Do list. Now that Keith has turned 90, I’ve decided to simply upload a chunk of the interview to YouTube as is, without any editing, because it’s material that is better going out into the world than sitting in a drawer in my study waiting for me to get a moment. It’s a big file (it’s only 6% loaded at this point) but eventually it should be available for viewing at this link:

https://youtu.be/US3XGiYpr18

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.

This (invisible) body

It’s ten to eleven pm on a Thursday night. Am I really going to start my post at this late hour? I suppose the answer is yes. I’m still limping around, Googling “meniscus”, rubbing my right knee. My moment with the 422 bus continues to haunt me. It’s funny – having survived much worse bodily assaults over the past year or so, it’s this minor injury that’s getting me down. I don’t like to limp. I like to dart. I like to dart across the room when a student calls me over to their computer so we can peer at the thing that won’t work together. I like to dart from one end of the house to go and get the thing I forgot to bring from the other room, and dart again because I got distracted and still didn’t bring it. I like to jump into the car with nine seconds to spare, get there, slam the car door and hurtle into whatever it is with no seconds to spare, breathing hard from the exertion. All of that has been impossible over the past ten days or so. I have to move slowly and limp. This body. This &^%$# body. This temple, this vale of tears, this jewel, this England. Nar, not England. Just knee. Stiff. Sore. Making me limp. Making me feel more like the other slow, stiff, limping people of the world. They come out after morning rush hour to do a bit of slow shopping, a bit of slow post office and bank.

I walk slowly across campus and meet two juvenile magpies who don’t bother to move because such a slow-moving being is unlikely to be dangerous.

A lot of other people have bad knees. They’re all over the Internet, next to pictures of knees with red halos of pain.

Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be rehearsing for Invisible Body, a short  performance piece three of us are doing for the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve been learning my part by sitting on a chair, doing the movements from the waist up. If worst comes to worst, I’ll do it on stage like that, on a stool. But I do want to be up on both legs for this one. And then on the Sunday, I’ll be part of a panel titled The Joy of Blogging. Note that blogging isn’t always a joy. Sometimes it’s oh-hell-it’s-Thursday-and-I-have-to-write-something. But mostly it’s a joy.

Oh yes, and not one but two people in my Thursday morning TAFE class have only one knee. Both have prostheses for their other leg. There’s always someone worse off, as they say. But then, there’s always Arlo Guthrie’s last guy. The one for whom there’s absolutely nobody worse off. Here it is on YouTube. He starts talking about the last guy at about 2.22 minutes in on this clip.