Friday, 30 January 2009

Moving impulses

The Jaeckels managed to pack up their entire lives, get onto a small boat, sail across the ocean, arrive in a new country where German was not spoken, find some land, clear it of forest and make a home and life for themselves. I am stuck on a nineteen-page ethics clearance form. So stuck in fact that the thought of picking myself up and moving to another country seems attractive. I wonder sometimes if that is why people emigrate. The thought of leaving all complications behind and starting anew must appeal in some way. (Though I must remember that I am being paid to do the ethics form and that the Jaeckels are imaginary.)

Last week I was unpacking bits and pieces and moving furniture out of storage and into the house. It made me really happy, not just because the house is finished, but because these things are my history, my past finally blending with my present. Blithe Girl’s chosen bedroom furniture was bought by my grandfather for my grandmother as a wedding present. An oval red cedar coffee table was made by my grandfather. He also made the dresser with a cheval mirror as a wedding gift for us. The bedside table was made for me by my brother as a 21st birthday present. The palm stand was made in woodwork class by my grandfather around the time this house was built. I drink coffee from mugs made in his pottery. That storage trunk was given to us by friends in Minnesota that has travelled to Burkina Faso and back to the United States and then by ship to Australia. The desk my computer sits on was made by my great-grandfather and stores some of my great-aunt’s architectural rulers and drawing equipment. An elderly armchair was a gift from a long-dead friend with whom I used to argue about the merits and inherent problems of technology.

As I told the children stories about the furniture I asked if I had told them the story about one particular piece. Merry Girl answered in the negative and added “But I bet it starts with ‘someone was going to throw this out.’” I laughed but it is true. I like stuff to have stories. That’s one reason I never really felt at home in the United States. Stuff there had stories but they weren’t my stories, the layers of personal myth and history that build up when you collect generations of family things around you. I like to have these layers wrapped around me. To me they are the inherent value in things, not what they cost or some kind of outside merit. To others, this is stifling. My brother dislikes “stuff” and would like to live like some kind of ascetic nomad. Others don’t want to be stifled by the past and are happy to have everything new and shiny.

And the newest and shiniest thing would be to leave everything behind – family, possessions, land – to go create something for yourself. While that doesn’t appeal to me, at least as a permanent option or only in times of stress, that certainly has appealed to many. My father-in-law migrated to Australia based on the fact that it was further away from Italy than Canada. Others are attracted by the promise of riches (the various gold rushes, opals, diamonds, vast swathes of land), others by the offer of adventure.

The irony is that having shucked off the past like an old skin, many rushed to reproduce it in the new country, busily acquiring families, land and possessions. I plan to stay in one place and create a few of my own stories for my children to tell their children and grandchildren.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


To answer the vital question: yes we survived the inspection. The interior has been approved and two minor points remained. One was a document that needed to be submitted (a letter had been written when the council wanted a form) and the second was a small section of railing that needed to be higher. Both details have been attended to, and we are awaiting the official sign-off.

We have however, moved into the new part of the house and spent the long weekend shifting furniture. Never people to turn something into a small job when it could be bigger, we’ve rearranged most of the house. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re at the fun part now.

And school has begun for the year. The house is eerily quiet today, but writing and paid work may actually recommence. I’m busy dreaming up the “next big project” and trying to catch up on such vital tasks as coffee drinking, model train playing and reading “Bananas in Pyjamas” out loud umpteen times (to Blithe Boy not myself).

The mystery of Mavis

Who was Mavis Cullum?

Well I know exactly who she was. It’s stamped in black ink on pattern paper:



The paper lay between the hoop pine floor boards and a heavier layer of lino paper in our hallway for many years. On top of the lino paper was a layer of very old crackly lino and on top of that was extremely worn Axminster carpet. The carpet is very old. Where it was joined to the grippers near the front entrance, the tacks were entirely through the carpet. You had to step carefully over the join. Pathways were worn into every room except the bathroom. Five years ago the bathroom door was moved from its original position opening into the kitchen, to open into the hallway to meet council hygiene regulations. In five years the carpet, though old, showed no trace of wear in that spot. So the wear must have come over many, many years.

I don’t know when Mavis was a milliner and if she worked for herself or for someone else. I don’t know if she laid the paper in that position herself or if it was simply paper left over from a millinery purchase by the lady of the house. The architecture of this house suggests construction in the late 1920s. I can’t imagine that the carpet is that old although the lino certainly could have been. The lino was only loosely laid without any of the heavy glues or pressed backings of later linoleum. What makes me suspect that either Mavis or someone who worked for her lived here was that every crack and crevice of flooring and covering harboured pins: rusty, shiny, long, short. Great piles of pins had worked their way down to floor level. We pushed them into piles, swept them up and vacuumed them out of the crevices.

a) Mavis lived here, sewed/made hats in what became our bedroom and is now Blithe Girl’s abode and dropped lots of pins.
b) Someone who worked for Mavis or was related to her and had a use for her leftover pattern paper lived here, sewed and dropped lots of pins.
c) Someone who was fashionable, possibly well-off (buying hats in Ipswich when it was a significant journey away), used that room as a sewing room and dropped lots of pins.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Chaos resolved?

My January so far.

Chunk of first two weeks, Mr Blithe away, chaos at home. Calm restored with arrival of Oma to organise, feed and soothe (and that’s only me). She also played endless games of Lego with Blithe Boy, read to the children and administered the kind of stern talking-tos that grandmothers can get away with while mothers are shrugged off. The day after she arrived we made 24 jars of jam from the cases of fruit she brought. Having orchardist connections can be very handy.

Mr Blithe returned safely in spite of travelling part of the time of US Airways (yes the airline that landed a plane in the Hudson). We spent the next week and a bit frantically working on the house. Result: house completed, he and I exhausted. Final “reinspection,” as the council likes to call it, scheduled for tomorrow first thing in the morning. I still have a set of windows to paint but we also need to re-jig them a bit so we’re sticking with just undercoating them for the moment. After all, we wouldn’t want to get bored in the coming weeks.

This week I have entirely cleared out two bedrooms. Imagine, if you can, the detritus of the bedroom of three messy children of a messy mother and a bedroom where everything has been “temporarily” stored for the last six years. Last night at 10 o’clock we finally got to the point of ripping up the old carpet. Horrible brown and yellow carpet gave way to…old lino! We had no idea that there was linoleum under there and it wasn’t exactly what we wanted at that time of night. By one in the morning, lino (and in one case, two layers of lino – a brown daisy pattern and a colourful starburst design) gave way to pristine, bare hoop pine floors. It is amazing the condition of these floors protected under their layers of lino and carpet. We think the hallway carpet has been there for at least thirty years judging by the wear and the old-fashioned lino underneath (splodgy large polka dots with heavy paper underlay).

Today, the new carpet is being laid. Then we will have the grand family reallocation of rooms provided the inspection goes satisfactorily.

And then perhaps, I can finally turn my mind to writing again, although I do have a work deadline or two to meet. Work so far hasn’t stopped me writing, but work + school holidays + house renovations have been remarkably successful. The kids are eagerly awaiting going back to school next week and hopefully the house can slide down my scale of priorities very soon. Here’s to a more (or is that less?) interesting rest of the year.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Old habits resurrected

I am not a morning person. Please do not call me and be perky first thing in the morning. I will only hate you. It makes it hard having young children who by definition are perky in the morning. Some mornings I am overwhelmed simply by the exuberance of their morning greetings. Me, I take a while to rise to the surface and once there I like to float for a while and regain my bearings (work out what day it is, where I am and what needs to be done). Children drag you to the surface kicking and screaming (me not them) and immediate focus and clarity are expected if not demanded. Blithe Boy finds it very hard to understand why I don’t immediately respond to his imploring “Play with me Mummy, play Lego, read to me, play with me, open your eyes, Mummy, Mummy, MUMMY.” Deep sigh. Plaintively. “Someone play with me.” It is surprising how often I do give in although I tend to read more than play Lego first thing in the morning. I do have a rule though that I don’t adjudicate any fights before coffee.

In my twenties I was very much an evening person. Nighttimes were the time for getting work done free of the interruptions of the day. There is nothing like quiet darkness surrounding a pool of light for inspiring thought and effort. Then I had children and my time was no longer my own. I told people that I used to be a night owl and now I wasn’t anything other than tired all the time.

The only good thing about this current unusual conjunction of school holidays and absent partner is that I’ve rediscovered the evening hours. Most nights the time between about nine and midnight is my own and I’ve easily slipped back into old habits. I’ve almost finished typing the manuscript and I’ve decided that I need to get the Jaeckels to Ipswich, if not to their first sight of Marburg before finishing this first book. It makes sense in the flow of the story and also in relation to length. As this is a novel aimed at young readers, I’m aiming at about 40,000 words although there is no hard and fast rule about book length. I just want it to be more than a flimsy story but not too much of a mouthful – a real book that just happens to be aimed at nine to twelve year olds.

It’s kind of nice too to discover that my old self still exists although I gave myself a fright last night realising that it’s fourteen years since I started grad school in Minnesota (though only eight since I officially completed my degree). No wonder I’m no longer a night owl. My advancing years are affecting me.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Less than perfect

No this is not a confession. You already know that I am less than perfect and I hope that you like me anyway. Yesterday my mother-in-law visited bearing a big bag of the most delicious apricots and white plums that you could imagine. Plump, deep orange, bursting with juice and flavour apricots and cool, green smooth plums dripping with juice. Neither the apricots nor the plums would be considered for sale in a shop. They were too ripe, too ugly, too mottled in texture. And yet the flavour…I barely restrained myself from gulping the lot. I had to put the fruit away before Blithe Boy over-indulged. The girls were more circumspect. Already they know that fruit should look good. They checked if it was okay to eat and had to be reassured as to the harmlessness of the blemishes. Dark brown flecks discoloured the surface, the result of inopportune rain.

Life is tough for farmers. Some of course are whingers, most are not. They struggle in the drought and in the rain. Hail is an ever-present threat. Rain can be too little or too much, too early or too late. The timing of frosts is a matter of success or failure. They balance on a knife-edge between surviving and going under. The fruit that I was lucky enough to eat came from a grower, a family friend, who couldn’t sell the fruit. There’s a limit to what they can bottle or turn into jam. Value-adding is less a mantra than the way that they can get something, anything, for produce rejected at the markets. Their livestock feast on vegetables and fruit fit for royalty by taste if not appearance.

They’ve had contracts with the huge supermarkets, those ones selling hard green apricots for $12 a kilo, impossible multiples of what the orchardist is paid. Now instead of shipping produce to the Brisbane markets they give fruit to friends, drive to Toowoomba and sell produce, preserves and baked goods at the market. It’s enough to live on and they own the land. The children are handed the task of producing perfection for the mass market. The parents are thinking of ripping out the trees that are left as they can’t bear to see their years of hard work going to waste.

It all seems a horrible indictment of modernity. We think that looking good is more important than being good, that appearance trumps flavour, that people can’t learn that something wonderful lies under the surface. And yet, look at the stories. The ugly duckling has to turn into a swan before it is accepted, the servant becomes a princess, the toad a prince. Where are the stories where the ugly duckling becomes an ugly duck and survives because no-one is hunting him for his plumage? Or the servant stays a servant and the prince marries his cousin just like mum wants or the toad meets a lovely warty lady-toad and lives happily ever after? Or becomes a lonely curmudgeon toad living in the pond scum?

We dream of perfection rather than accepting the less than perfect. Maybe I should make that a resolution for 2009 – to enjoy less than perfection and hope that it is as satisfying as those apricots and plums.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

And then comes fear

As a Neil Gaiman fan I had a very satisfying Christmas as we received both our own copy of American Gods (which I have previously mentioned as making my all-time top ten list of favourite novels – which actually hasn’t yet made it to the full complement of ten) and Neverwhere. One brother-in-law shot to the top of favour. I also gave Mr Blithe The Graveyard Book for his immediately pre-Christmas birthday (yes I do admit to a level of self-interest there). Between them and the 700 or so pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is a marvellously meaty and fantastical read from Susanna Clark, I’ve read almost my fill in the last few weeks.

I especially enjoy reading books at the same or similar time as my children or Mr Blithe as we can discuss them and haggle over the finer nuances. Gaiman always includes interview material at the end of his book, which provides more opportunities for analysis. In the supplementary material for Neverwhere I noticed the interactive process of his writing. Neverwhere originated as a television series script and Gaiman turned it into a novel when he got frustrated at what was removed in production, along the lines of “Fine, take it out. I’ll put it back in the novel.” It was further refined and rewritten when Avon Books wanted to republish it. The version we received was the “final” and “author’s preferred” version. Mr Blithe pointed out how Gaiman seems to work alongside other writers and gets a lot of input from readers and critics including family along the way. My favourite illustration of this is when he was on a train with Terry Pratchett hashing out difficult plot points in their respective novels. I would love to have been there.

Flying with this point, I was brought back to earth by Mr Blithe’s observation that no-one has read any of my book. So he has gone off to “North America” as Blithe Boy insists on calling it with the manuscript so far tucked into his hand luggage.

Great, now I not only have to worry about intercontinental planes falling from the sky, his flying in small commuter planes to icy places and the possibility of his return to a wife finally driven around the bend by children on summer holidays, but also exposing my narrative baby to someone else’s eyes. I blame Gaiman entirely and that brother-in-law’s star is rapidly fading.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Here’s to hope

Some people make resolutions for each new year. Others try not to. I fall somewhat in the middle, tending to reflection on the previous year and thinking of hopes for the year to come.

Six years ago in February we moved to Marburg, loading all our earthly possessions into a truck and grinding for the first time up “the driveway.” It wasn’t yet the driveway from hell that it is now, but my mum who was driving my car did manage to stall it halfway up and had to be rescued. I didn’t even know how to drive a manual car at that time and was no help at all. Blithe Girl had simply fallen asleep in the back of the car from exhaustion. Now I tackle the driveway with vigour if not aplomb.

Last night, Mr Blithe and I sat on our steps overlooking the Marburg valley and had an evening cup of coffee in the slightly cooling air. When we moved here, the house didn’t have a view of the southern end of the valley. Tiny windows at the back of the house gave onto a lean-to laundry with a view. Now the valley and surrounding hills seem to leap into our living room.

Those six years ago, we came back early from our Christmas break to look for a house. Everywhere we searched was too expensive or awful or both. One day driving around Marburg, we spotted a road and went up it just for a look. At the top a magnificent fig tree guarded the view. We sat under its spreading branches and I nursed Merry Girl and thought how lovely a spot it was. We drove down into Marburg and the agent asked “Do you know where X Road is? I think there is a house there that you would really like although it has a dump of a kitchen.” And yes, it was the very road we had just visited for the first time. And we loved the house from the first minute even with the kitchen. Kitchens after all are fixable.

These holidays we took a short break with family and came back early to work on the extension. Mr Blithe is off to the United States in a few days for a work trip and we wanted to make the most of our time. We’re not officially “in residence” but the extension increasingly feels part of our house and not something tacked on. We’re hoping to have the final inspection on Mr Blithe’s return. He feels that he should be here for such a momentous occasion.

At the last midnight of 2008, the dark hills foregrounded the lights of Ipswich and fireworks bloomed silently along the horizon. We could see four different sets of fireworks and the sky was full of stars. In the time we’ve lived here, we haven’t been able to see the stars from the house at night and didn’t even know that the Ipswich fireworks would be visible. It was magical and peaceful and hopefully a sign of things to come.

2008 was for us the year of the house. My hope for 2009 is that it will be the year of living: in the house and doing new things; having time for friends and doing things on weekends; more time for gardening; new opportunities with work; finally finishing the book; having some time to write; and in the short term, cooler temperatures.

And for everyone, I wish a year full of hope and good things.