Category Archives: Steve

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!

Of Pokémon and pillows

With the world going to hell in a handbasket*, I walked out into the sunshine on Torch Street and headed for Milltown Park, the tiny scrap of green at the top of the street with some play equipment and a sign. Overnight, Milltown Park had become a Pokémon Stop, and I wanted to know a little more about it. I was delayed in getting there because about three houses down, my phone began to vibrate, announcing the presence of a crab-like creature on the road, a little virtual pocket monster. I had to stop and shoot it! I flicked the red ball at the bottom of my phone in the crab’s general direction. Ridiculously easily, my ball felled the creature and swallowed it up. The crab-thing was now mine.

IMG_1168 Today I’ve been gathering Pokémon and feathering my real-life nest with some cosy winter pillows and cushions. Other than the deliberate excursion to Milltown Park, I’ve been able to catch my Pokémon seamlessly, without going out of my way. In Bunnings, as Steve bought an aluminium set square and mulled over how he might custom-build some bookshelves in the middle room, I found a bat flapping about at head-height near a Bunnings customer service person. I was the only person aware of and reacting to this purple bat; it was like being the only person able to see a ghost. I flicked my red ball at it. It bounced fruitlessly down the concrete aisle and disappeared from view. I tried flicking my red ball in different ways, from different angles. I took a few steps backwards to get the angle right, taking care not to knock over the hardware stacked on a display stand behind me. It took a few more goes, but I got my bat. I pocketed my pocket monster.

As we went about our day, feathering our nest, Steve and I talked about how augmented reality could be a wonderful way to get to know local layers of meaning not visible to the naked eye: historical facts about a building; pictures of insects that live in a particular tree. Point your phone at things and find out more about them. That could be good.

Next stop Spotlight to buy some fabric for new cushions. As I walked across the vast expanse of asphalt that is the car park at this new bulky goods retail paradise, I whipped out my phone to see if there were any Pokémon hereabouts. Nothing. The carpark and all the world around it were Pokémon free. I looked up at the buildings, the cars, quietly sitting in the sun and realised I was already seeing the world in a new way: a space that was now somehow negative, because of the absence of something. The absence of something that didn’t actually (or yet) exist. And yet the absence itself felt kind of real.

Within a very short amount of time, the world has been blessed in some parts with Pokémon fairy dust and left languishing in Pokémon black spots in others. Why was the bat in Bunnings? Did Bunnings ask it in, as bait? If people come into your store hunting Pokémon, presumably their eyes might also be caught by the tangible objects available for sale. However these decisions are being made – or whatever algorithm is making decisions for us – for now, Bathurst Bunnings is a have, and Bathurst Spotlight is a have-not, in this brave new augmented world.

Yup, Brave New World. While developers and gamers have been tinkering with augmented reality for many years, there is something decisive about the release of Pokémon Go. Unlike earlier projects, this is fun for all the family. I suspect reality may never be quite the same again, just as it was never the same again after the telegraph, or radio, or television, or the Internet (or fire, or the wheel).

But in the meantime, glitches.

Later, with Steve, I took my old flesh-and-blood black Labrador to the Blayney Road Common for a gentle walk. Bertie ignored the kangaroos solemIMG_1177nly watching us in the golden light. I fired up my app. No Pokémon hereabouts, but I could see a Pokémon stop in the virtual distance. Ah. I tapped it and discovered that this PokeStop had attached itself to a real-world sign that says DANGER LIVE AMMUNITION IN USE – KEEP OUT. I was beginning to see how quickly this Pokémon Go thing could end up in tears. Having children shimmying the fence to get closer to the PokeStop in the middle of the local rifle range can’t be right. There is something eager and ignorant about Pokémon Go. It’s as oblivious to local sensitivities as the tourist who wanders into the Balinese Hindu temple in a bathing suit, tracking sand.

The game will either learn how to work this stuff out, or risk being banned like the clackers. The clackers were acrylic balls on the end of nylon string that you’d clack together. They were a fad that took over my primary school one year back in the early 1970s. The concrete corridors reverberated to the clacking sound. Kids were soon sporting great lumps on their foreheads where they’d been struck in the face by fast-moving hard plastic balls. The school banned them and suddenly they were gone.

Whether Pokémon Go is banned like the clackers or irons out its glitches to spread the fairy dust over the smartphone wielding world, one thing is certain: the way we inhabit physical space and tell stories about it is changing decisively. Robotic surgery means that surgeon and patient need not be in the same place, although at this point in evolution they still need to inhabit the same parcel of time (although even this could conceivably change, with a piece of surgery programmed in and the patient settling herself on the trolley at her own convenience to go under the knife). There was a woman on TV the other night with cerebral palsy who was playing a musical instrument just by moving her eyes.

At moments like these there’s a sense that the limitations of our human bodies are being swept away, allowing us to enter some sort of cyborg otherworld that is part flesh, part code.

I’m happy to catch some Pokémon on a Saturday morning, but I’m not sure I like where we’re going with all this, even if it’s bristling with benefits. I feel a bit like Rose R., the woman in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, who didn’t really like the world of the 1960s, with its blathering radio and television sets. She preferred her earlier, simpler world of person-to-person connection. Sometimes I’m not sure I really want to take these next steps, whatever they are. To take those steps is to enter a world with an operating system incompatible with the one currently installed in my brain.

It’s friendly and fun but we’re also being colonised. My street, my town, the way I move about in space is being tracked and manipulated; layers of meaning are being added from some remote place (company headquarters are in San Francisco) by people who can’t tell a firing range from a park bench, because it’s all just coordinates to them (or their robots).

I have some pocket monsters in my smart phone. They exist in my mind, and they exist in this nebulous thing called the Internet. They’re sitting out there in Torch Street right now, nebulous creatures waiting for children to find them. But these pillows – you can touch them, you can rest your head on them. You can count on a pillow.

And when I go to sleep tonight, I must resist the urge to slip my phone under my pillow and wake at three am to check on my pocket monsters.


*A man driving a truck through a crowd watching the fireworks; attempted military coup in Turkey; others.

 

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.

The snow job and the murder-suicide

Snowy back yard.
Bertie in the snow-covered back yard, Bathurst, July 17, 2015.

Last Friday was strange. We were up at about one or two in the morning, standing in the pool of light just outside the back door, looking at the white dots gently, steadily, coming down out of a black sky. The black dog was being speckled with white stuff. We had white stuff on our shoulders. Snow. Snow, for most Australians, is an unusual thing. It’s something to get excited about. It’s transient. And then it was daylight. I’d hardly slept because I don’t sleep well these days and being awake for the snow had made it worse, so I was snuggled far down under the doona, but Steve was making me get up to have a look. Out of the bedroom window, everything was white. In the back yard, the little tree we’d planted over my dead cat ten years ago was half its height, branches touching the ground, weighed down by snow. Steve made snowballs in his bare hands and threw them at Bertie, who caught them in his teeth. Unlike a tennis ball, they had no resistance. His teeth snapped down over them as though they were made of nothing. He wagged his tail furiously.

Snowmen appeared all over town.

When Steve got home after work, he asked if I’d heard the news. This seemed odd – I’d been living the news of the day along with everyone else. It was Snow Day. What more news could there be? So you haven’t heard about Elie’s Cafe? No. What about it?

Elie’s Cafe is one of the town’s most popular cafes. It’s diagonally opposite the Council chambers, not far from the Western Advocate, in the main street, near the war memorial. It’s housed in the old Royal Hotel where town leaders once addressed the citizens from the balcony. That Cafe. Well, Elie Issa, the owner, was found dead in his living room today. Everyone knows Elie. He’s the jovial man in the corner opposite the counter, laughing with friends who join him at the table, poring over the day’s papers. To go into Elie’s Cafe is to also see and hear Elie, a permanent fixture. Oh. He is dead. Not only that, but his girlfriend is dead, too, and they were found in the living room with a gun nearby, and there are no other suspects, and they’re saying it was a murder-suicide.

And you go into cognitive dissonance. You hold the two ideas in your brain – this jovial, laughing man greeting his customers and friends, and the bloody aftermath of violence – and they don’t match up. This is what it is to be shocked: the world is not quite what you thought it was.

And then, in the hours and days afterwards, a narrative framework  begin to emerge that might hold these ideas together. The next day, in the Sydney Morning Herald, there’s a story based on interviews with friends and family of Nadia Cameron, the beautiful woman found dead with Elie in the living room of the ordinary house on Rosemont Avenue, Kelso. They say she’d broken up with him, and he was trying to win her back. They say he’d been jealous and controlling and she wanted nothing more to do with him, but she felt sorry for him. And now the story begins to settle around a national conversation about domestic violence and women dying at the hands of men who would control them. A new Elie Issa emerges, a Jekyll and Hyde: jolly at work, murderously jealous at home. Laughter as snow job; as a thin veneer over the darkness.

There’s a story, and then a shock. But we can’t stay in shock, in the fact of our not-knowing. As quickly as possible, we want to build a new story so that we are not left hanging in that strange space between ideas that seem to have no connection.

The next day, the sun was shining. Snow Day had vanished. There were just tell-tale patches of white in the shade, and odd white piles that had been snowmen. And the day after that, just damp ground.