Monthly Archives: June 2013

No Place Like Home

How much do we take for granted? I mean really take for granted. Don’t even notice that it’s there?

For example, when was the last time you stopped to think about the air you breathe? Did you actually appreciate that perfect blend of oxygen, carbon dioxide and whatever else was thrown in the mix?

Yeah, right. You probably think I’ve been sniffing way too many roses!

It’s school holidays and we are “glamping”. This is what’s known as a glamorous way of going camping. We are in a house but it’s waiting to get furnished so we’re making do.

This whole experience is making me appreciate just how much goes under the radar and unappreciated in life. What we take for granted.

Right now, my dog who is stuck outside thanks to my Dad’s “no dogs inside” ruling is probably putting himself at the top of the list. I’m not exactly sure whether he has realised that he is a dog and that dogs are indeed not people. He’s a smart dog so he’s probably worked that out but he no doubt feels superior. After all, he sticks to the rules, is caring and loving and would give up his life to protect his family. The kids won’t even make their beds without a “why me?” The dog knows he is the most popular member of the family…the most loved!! I’m sure he can’t understand why us mere mortals are allowed inside and he’s not!!

But that’s his gripe not mine. Right now, I’m appreciating chairs. I’m not fussy. I’d love anything with four legs that isn’t a stool.

Anyway, we’re staying at my parents place. They’ve just bought it and the only furniture is what was left behind by the previous owners, which means we have quite an eclectic assortment of things and many of the things you just take for granted aren’t here.

Like a chair.

Well, there are some chairs but they’re the dining chairs and there are some chairs in the boatshed but it’s very, very wet today and unlike the dog, I’m not going out there.

Geoff watching the car racing from the comfort of the bean bag.

Geoff watching the car racing from the comfort of the bean bag.

So I am currently sitting on a stool hunched over the desk and Geoff is sitting on a beanbag watching TV. This afternoon, I went into Avalon and had a hot chocolate at Bookacino, a bookshop cafe. All I wanted to do was sit in a chair and read the paper but there was only one table and chairs and so I had to wait for what seemed like eternity for two girls to stop chatting so I could flop into the chair and relax. A chair has never, ever felt so good!

Cooking is also going to be interesting. So far, all I’ve cooked here has been rather evil bacon and eggs…a fry up. It’s been over 10 years since I last cooked bacon and eggs but there was something about going away for the weekend that made me feel like loads of artery-clogging fat and cholesterol. A heart attack on a plate!

There is only one saucepan without a lid here and one frying pan…some French looking thing which only just managed to fry the eggs and bacon. It’s not what you would call a family frying pan. You know…one with sides so all the stuff doesn’t fall out. There’s no way this swanky little French thing is going to handle one of my meals. It’s a bit like trying to squeeze Miss Piggy into a g-string.

So cooking meals could be tricky. I am considering whether I should turn this state of affairs into a cooking challenge. Become a one pot wonder. Perhaps, I should just be realistic and pick up my electric wok when I pop home tomorrow. I might even visit the op shop. I incinerated two saucepans recently so this might a good idea. These were good non-stick saucepans too…wedding presents. However, with my track record with burning rice, I’m surprised they’ve actually lasted this long. We’ve almost been married 14 years!

The other thing I take for granted is going into my pantry and the ingredients are all there. Every small little thing I generally need to make a meal or bake is already there. We’ve had to shop from scratch down here. I don’t really plan on doing any baking (especially as we don’t have a mix master or baking tins let alone ingredients) but I still had to have flour in the house just in case. Be prepared.

Being in a near empty house has been quite a new experience for me. Our place is cluttered and becomes more and more cluttered as I compulsively buy things from the op shops. I have such good luck there and I get bag loads of fabulous books for the grand total of $10.00,. I buy designer clothes for a couple of bucks. Geoff will tell you that I also collect tables but that’s another story for another day.

So it feels quite strange to be in a near empty house.

It feels stranger still to have hooks on the walls without any pictures. I collect antique wooden picture frames. I paint and I’m also into photography. All this means is that we don’t have anywhere near enough wall space for everything to go up. I don’t rotate what’s up there either so that even though we have an over-abundance of works, many of the same pictures have been up  since we moved in 12 years ago.

I am always trying to fit more and more stuff on our walls and so I find it almost distressing to come here and see these empty picture hooks just sitting there going to waste. It’s like a red flag to a bull. I want to stick something, just about anything up there. I can’t cope with blank empty walls. Those hooks are screaming out for attention! Pick me! Pick me! What’s wrong with me? Aren’t I good enough?  It’s almost as painful as running fingernails down a chalk board. Ouch!

I have stuck one photo up and I noticed that my brother stuck one of his paintings on the wall too but it’s not our house.

Just being in different house makes us realise how much we take for granted. After only one night, our daughter is already asking to go home. It doesn’t help that it’s raining here and it’s been too wet to go outside. She’s also one of those people  who love their own bed, their own space and firmly believes “there’s no place like home”.

On the other hand, I tend to take our home very much for granted. It needs so much renovating and it was bought as our first home and was never intended to be our last. But things could always be worse…much, much worse!! Today, our daughter asked me what is special about our house and I told her that it has us in it.

That should be enough!

It’s our home!

Mother and Son

This morning our son curled up next to me in bed and held my hand and warmed my heart.

Yesterday, it was a different story:

Sometimes, as a parent you feel like your heart has been broken into a thousand and one tiny little pieces and the worst part about it is that it is your child, your own flesh and blood, who is the culprit. They’ve done it. That gorgeously cute little baby face which has clearly grown up into someone, or something , else has hurt you in ways you never thought possible.

Of course, although we all had issues (at least at times) with our own parents, we all knew we were going to be different. We weren’t going to make the same mistakes. We were going to be Super Parents even though we shared their genetic heritage and grew up in the same environment. That didn’t bode for good tidings.

I also have to mention a phrase his pre-school teacher used to say: “tomorrow is another day” but I never really believed her. I never really believed that such radical, overnight change was actually possible. I just expected more of the same and perhaps that’s where the problem lay. I didn’t expect change. I didn’t believe it was possible, not that I would have said as much or acknowledged that at a conscious level. These were my subconscious, deeply held beliefs and the chains which were holding me back.

Part of me feels like I am betraying my son by posting his antics on my blog but at the same time, his behavioris more extreme at times, it is not all that unusual and sometimes we parents need some support instead of just maintaining the code of silence and the stiff upper lip.

Right now, my upper lip is anything but stiff. It’s quivering.

This post started out as a recount of last Wednesday when Mister did what we in Australia refer to as “the Harold Holt” after our illustrious Prime Minister Harold Holt who went for a swim at Cheviot Beach in Victoria in 1967 and disappeared. His body was never found. His was the ultimate vanishing act and all sorts of rumours abounded, including that he had escaped on board a Chinese submarine. You can read about the story here: http://www.abc.net.au/gnt/history/Transcripts/s951005.htm

Anyway, last Wednesday Mister did the Harold Holt and despite getting into trouble and not quite getting the whole prodigal son treatment, he took off again on Monday morning. This time I notified the school and a friend joined me in the search. Monday’s escapade fortunately turned into an anticlimax because after dropping Miss at school and raising the alert, he’d come home and was standing disconsolately behind our side gate by the time we’d returned. My friend had a good chat with him very much like an aunty and slowly he came round while I rang the school. We managed to get him in the car and in the school gate. Fortunately, they’d had a long assembly so he managed to blend in with the rest of the kids going into class. The ordeal was over. Over in a sense but it had just begun. I started making phone calls. I needed HELP!

When Mister went missing again this morning, the post I had been working on about the prodigal son became a lot more serious and I didn’t know if I should post it. These disappearances are serious. They’re not a joke and while we live in a pretty safe area and so far we have experienced the benefits of the village stepping in and helping with our child, there are no guarantees that his antics won’t result in tragedy. We are doing everything we can to protect our son at the heat of the moment and to try to keep him calm. 95% of the time he is a cheerful , very warm affectionate little boy and I would hate that 5% to have devastating consequences.

He has now been told that he is not to bolt out the front door but to have space in his room to calm down. We just have to keep reminding him of this and hopefully this will work!

I am also trying to spend more time doing things with him. We play Old Maid together, for example, during our daughter’s swimming lesson and do the same with her while he is at football.

Anyway, I decided to post my original post because we as parents need to share our struggles and offer each other support and encouragement. There will always be someone who has been down the same road and it’s really encouraging to share that journey.

The Original Post

Last Wednesday, our son went missing. He vanished without a trace and was gone in a proverbial flash.

It was the moment every parent dreads. Your heart stops. You can barely breathe. Your legs turn to jelly.

What has happened to my boy?

Before I drag you down into the emotional depths, I’ll let you know at the outset that this story has a happy ending. No doubt, you already knew that because I wouldn’t be blogging about it if the worst had happened. You’d be hearing about it on the news instead.

Our son wasn’t kidnapped, abducted or anything like that. He ran off.  I had picked him up from school. We had successfully made it to the car without any kind of mishap but before I drove off, then all hell broke loose. He got into some kind of huff with his sister and stormed out of the car and took off down the  lane way. I say “the” laneway because this wasn’t the first time our son has taken off down there. I now view this laneway as some kind of runway with our son taking flight.

As annoying as these flights down the lane way have been, the laneway is usually very quiet. It’s not exactly safe but not dangerous either. Once, he took off bolting down the footpath after school heading towards a busy road. That was terrifying. I had no idea whether he would stop and with my muscle disease, I couldn’t really run after him. I had to jump in the car instead. He was spoken to at school and at home after that and he calmed down for a bit but this running off business seems to be a part of his psyche…his “modus operandi” and somehow has to stop.

Last Wednesday, what had been a routine flight became serious when he vanished. I couldn’t see him anywhere.  I’ve never been very good at “Where’s Wally?” and even though he was wearing his bright yellow school shirt, I couldn’t see him. I drove around to the other end of the laneway intending to intercept him but he wasn’t there. I looked up and down the street and couldn’t see him anywhere. He’d vanished just like magic. Poof!

The pressure was on. Not just to find Mister but also to get to the kids’ after school music lessons. You know how things always go wrong at a bad time. I know that in the overall scheme of things and especially when it comes to the life and death safety of our one and only son, the cost of the music lessons is nothing. Yet, this wasn’t what was going through my head at the time. I can be a bit of a train stuck on a railroad track and was quite averse to missing music. The music lessons aren’t cheap at $30.00 a pop and I really don’t like the thought of flushing $60.00 down the toilet just because Mister was in a bad mood. The kids have to be dying to miss music and I mean having a real, actual physical death – not some bunged on melodrama! Aside from the money, the kids need to learn to stick to something…those all important lessons of perseverance and persistence! Besides, despite his protests, I know Mister loves his guitar. He just needs to get over beginner’s hump. Believe in himself!

I was already stressed with trying to get Mister to his guitar lesson and trying to find him but if he wasn’t going to turn up, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity either. I’d had a very productive song writing session with his guitar teacher a few weeks ago and I would love to have some more sessions. I’m already having violin lessons and can’t quite justify the cost and to think Mister was just wasting that valuable resource, really annoyed me. If Mister was just going to waste his guitar lessons, work on my songs instead. But that would be too easy. Mister needs to learn his guitar. Stick with it. As I said, get over this discouraging beginner’s hump to a point where he could play songs and really enjoy it. I could really see him getting into it if he didn’t shoot himself in the foot first.

So you could just imagine my inner turmoil. I was going round and round in so many, many circles while still trying to keep the car on the road and actually drive in a straight line, which was becoming increasingly difficult!

By this stage, I was feeling pretty lost myself. What was I supposed to do? I’d driven around the school block a few times and had even driven back home retracing our steps back to the school, driving  round and around and around. I still hadn’t found him and had no idea what to do. I was so completely lost and out of my depth. I am just his mother. I have no professional training whatsoever when it comes to looking for lost kids. I’m not a psychologist, a detective or some kind of  a psychic. I’m a writer. All I can do, is write about things after the event, which is a lot of use when your child is missing, angry and you have no idea how to find them, get them home or in this instance, take them off to their guitar lesson. I was feeling so powerless…completely and utterly powerless.

Just to add to the whole pathos of the situation, I’d forgotten to charge my mobile phone so I couldn’t call anybody and they couldn’t call me. My phone was as flat as a tack. I was on my own.

Well, I wasn’t on my own because our daughter was in the car.

Moreover, I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought. We had a guardian angel.

We were driving along and Miss is looking out one side of the car while I’m driving along trying to look out my side. I see people walking passed and I feel like a crazed maniac. That person crossing the road in front of my car has no idea what I’m going through. That they are standing in between a desperate mother and her lost child. Their life isn’t in danger and yet in a strange way it is. Everyone knows you don’t stand between a mother and her child.

Where is he? Where has he gone? He isn’t in any of the usual places. I’m concerned that he’s gone back to school and am wondering whether I should stop in and have a look. If the teachers find him playing on the equipment without any sign of a parent,  I’ll get busted. Well, actually, he’d be the one in trouble but I’d still feel guilty.

I keep driving. I decide that my daughter and I will go to music. That’s only half an hour. Then, we’ll go looking for him again afterwards. It’s a tough call as a Mum. You don’t know whether everything’s going to be alright or whether your very worst fears are about to eventuate. A white van has approached a number of kids in the area recently and virtually every Australian has heard Daniel Morcombe’s story and how he went missing. How his body was found many, many years later. We have seen his face plastered on the side of buses, in magazines, newspapers, the internet. That could be my child and yet I know he knows the way home from school. He’s walked home before. He’s quite capable of getting home but I don’t like him being out there when he’s in a mood and potentially not so conscious of his safety.

There’s another part of me that’s also very much into tough love. He can jolly well go home and wait for us. Suffer just like we are suffering now trying to find him. This is what the child training people call “consequences”. Yes, he can sit there and wait if only I could be sure that he would sit still. He’s never sat still before!

By this stage, I’m starting to think about calling the school, calling the Police but as I said, my mobile is flat and I’m not really sure how long you have to wait until you can turn to the Police. Surely not the proverbial 24 hours?!!

We’re almost at music when my daughter suggests that Mister might already be there. She’s trying to be helpful. Trying to keep her own hopes up, I guess. As much as they might fight, the kids are particularly close. My illness has drawn them together. They’ve had to support each other. She is noticeably concerned about her brother.

I’m still not sure what I’m going to do. Whether I should drop Miss off and keep looking or whether to squeeze in that song writing lesson with his guitar teacher and make him wait. How am I supposed to know what to do? Nothing prepares you for these moments as a parent…except perhaps  yourself. You see, the seed doesn’t fall far from the tree.  I used to storm off as a kid myself. I was always wanting to run away and I hear echoes of my own voice in Mister’s tones.

He will calm down and he will come home.

We arrive at music and you know whose standing triumphantly out the front, don’t you?!! Yes, it’s the prodigal son. He beat us there. A friend had found him wandering the streets and had kindly dropped him off…our beautiful guardian angel.

I am so relieved!!

I suppose you are wondering how I greeted the boy? Did I rush up and put a ring on his finger and kill the fattened calf or was I the older brother in the story and punished the boy?

Well, I can tell you that he was marched straight into his guitar lesson, which was remarkably productive. He is now learning “We are the Champions”.

I didn’t feel like much of a champion but I was pleased and relieved to have our son back.

His ipod is now in time out and he is on notice. We’ve warned him that we’ll reset the child locks in the car and even use the wrist-strap to get him to and from school safely if that’s what it takes.

That was before he took off again on Monday.

We now have a pretty rock solid communication system with the school and I think that by working together, we will have a better chance of containing these issues. He does feel like he’s being teased a bit and is a sensitive soul. I will be trying to spend some more time together and next term, he’ll be joining cubs.

It is sometimes hard to let our guards down when we’ve been hurt or had troubles but that’s what I’ve done with him this week. Every morning, he’s come in for a cuddle in bed before breakfast and held my hand and that has certainly helped to bridge the gap. We are taking some baby steps and hopefully walking towards a brighter future.

Xx Rowena

Adventures of a Backyard Dog

Last weekend, our dog joined us on a huge adventure. It was his very first holiday and his first sleep over.

Bilbo is a rather large and often somnolent Border Collie.  What I’d describe as a “backyard dog”. With my mobility issues, walks are infrequent but he often goes out for local trips in the car. So you see, he leads a fairly quiet, simple life and his world is about the size of a large pocket handkerchief.

That was until last weekend.

View of Careel Bay and local racing pigeons.

Palm Beach looking towards Careel Bay and some local racing pigeons.

Bilbo hasn’t been away from home overnight before. Whenever we go away, he usually stays home and is looked after by the beautiful Jess. However, last weekend we were only going across the water to Palm Beach (albeit via a circuitous route through Sydney) so we decided to take him along. I was really looking forward to taking him with us and thought he’d love exploring new worlds, expanding his horizons.

Bilbo is 6 years old. That’s middle-aged in dog years, even it’s still very young in human years (42 being  the new 21!!) That makes him not quite an old dog but certainly no pup. That being the case, I wondered how he would respond to his big adventure. Would he love his new found freedom and new horizons or would he be thrilled to get back to the familiar comforts of home?

We were soon to find out.

The fun all began when Bilbo saw me packing the suitcases. I didn’t need a degree in dog psychology to see that he was starting to panic. As far as he was concerned, the suitcases meant we were about to disappear and he’d be home alone- albeit with the gorgeous Jess who spoils him rotten. It was bad news. The end of the world!

So while I’m loading the car, he decided to be proactive and loaded himself. I tried to explain to him that he was actually coming with us this time and took him back inside. No use. He was straight back out to the car again with the next load. I was reminded of a song by Mental As Anything If You Leave Me. It has the great line: if you leave me, can I come too?

That’s always appealed to me too!

Anyway, soon the dog is happy. He’s in the car with the rest of us and all the bags. Don’t know what thoughts were going through his mind. He was probably just relieved that he wasn’t being left behind. Bilbo had the luxury of sitting up the front. We had all our bedding in the back with the kids and as much as I love my dog, I didn’t want our bedding contaminated by any dog germs. Dooners and dog smells definitely don’t mix!

Bilbo’s fun was only beginning. You see, Bilbo has only ever been in the car at about 50-60KPH and he’s only ever been a ten minute drive away from home. The trip to Palm Beach started out with a good hour’s drive to Sydney down the freeway at 110KPH. As much as you might think that a dog would enjoy all that speed, we’re talking about a backyard dog here. This was double our local speed limit and he looked decidedly uncomfortable. He wasn’t quite clinging to his seat by his claws but he definitely looked like this drive was taking him well beyond his comfort zone. He was leaning over towards me for reassurance. The trusty car had morphed into something like a rocket and it was going way too fast!! Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!

We arrived at my parents’ place and this was his first taste of dogs not being allowed inside the house. Glaring through the back door, Bilbo was looking mortally wounded. Stabbed in the heart. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed inside along with the rest of us.  After all, he still hasn’t worked out that he’s a dog yet. He still firmly believes that he’s human…our third child…the baby of the family!

We picked up Geoff and continued up to Palm Beach. Bilbo was really confused by this point. He was still sitting in the front but was now beside Geoff. I was now in the back with the kids. Geoff always puts Bilbo in the back and the dog seemed quite confused. Why was Mum sitting in the back and he was sitting in the front?

Arrival at Palm Beach meant Bilbo “the inside dog” was now an “outside dog”. This was definitely a significant change of status…a serious retrograde step. Nobody had warned him about that when he’d signed up for this holiday. Not that he’d actually signed up for anything. He’d just jumped in the car. Now, he had no idea where he was or how he’d got there but his food bowl and his water bowl had somehow made the journey with him. It was almost business as usual but not quite.

A dog doesn’t need to understand every twist and turn in life and is just supposed to accept what is. Somebody forgot to tell Bilbo. Bilbo persistently tried to come inside. He just wanted to be with us…especially in such a foreign environment.

Where was his bed?

I think he found a sheltered spot under the balcony.

Father & Son take on the high seas.

Father & Son take on the high seas.

First thing Saturday, Mister and Geoff took the kayak out for a paddle at high tide.

Mad dog

Crazed dog

Come back!!!!!

Come back!!!!!

That’s when things really started heating up for Bilbo. He’s a very protective dog and he really doesn’t like us getting in the water and feels compelled to save us. The only trouble is that he won’t get in the water himself. He might get his paws wet but that’s about it. He’s certainly not a swimmer. So you can just imagine what Bilbo was like when Mister and Geoff took off on the kayak. He was beside himself with worry whimpering and running all over the place. He’d run down the slipway and get to the very end and just when his paws were about to get wet, he’d stop. He really wanted to rescue them and bring them back but he just couldn’t bring himself to jump in. I could sense the stress in his body. Every single nerve and muscle was switched onto high alert. He was ready to pounce and yet he couldn’t. Miss and I tried to reassure the crazy mutt. To be honest, Miss wasn’t faring much better. She didn’t want to go out in the kayak and also has a bit of a fear of the sea.

Dog on board

Dog on board

Well, you wouldn’t believe it because after Mister got off the Kayak, somehow the dog, despite all his phobias and fears, climbed onto the kayak. Before we knew it, Geoff was paddling out with Bilbo on board. It was hilarious to watch at first, especially after writing my poem The Surfer’s Dog. In my wildest dreams, I’d never expected Bilbo to climb on board a kayak, especially after being such a nervous wreck!!

Perhaps, he’d wanted to go out there all along. He wasn’t afraid. Perhaps, he was crying out: “Wait for me! My turn!”

Trying not to rock the boat.

Trying not to rock the boat.

Somehow, I don’t think so. Perhaps, he just had a momentary lapse when he climbed onboard.  He was happy to climb on but once he realised he was no longer on terra firma and the thing started to rock a little, he wanted out. The poor dog! Instead of trying to jump out, he actually lay down and dug his claws into Geoff. When it came to getting off, his fear seriously intensified. I have never seen him so frightened. He dug his claws in and clung to the kayak like glue and wouldn’t budge. He was visibly shaking like a leaf. It was pretty intense but short lived. It became very evident that Bilbo had bitten off more than he bargained for with that adventure. He was very pleased to be back on dry land.

That said, he did show a bit of interest in having another ride in the kayak on Sunday and Geoff thinks he might even have another go.

After all that excitement, you would think that Bilbo would have had enough adventure for one day. That he had well and truly exceeded his quota of character-building adventures for a life time. However, Bilbo had other plans.

We all decided to go out in the kayaks. Mister was paddling in a single kayak and Geoff and I were paddling in the “banana boat” bathtub kayak and we had Miss in the front.

Bilbo had been a bit unsettled to say the least with us in the kayaks and so we decided to secure him safely in the backyard. We didn’t think anything of it. Bilbo is a pretty mild-mannered dog and he’s never tried to escape before. The kids will be playing out the front and the front door will be wide open but Bilbo just lies there with his claws curling over the doorstep staying put. He’s busting to join in but he doesn’t. He’s a very good dog! We can trust him and he’s usually much better behaved than the kids!

Well, we hadn’t factored in the panic. The sheer terror Bilbo felt when he saw all four of us take off.  He had to come and save us. The only trouble was, at least as far as he was concerned, that he needed to get in the water and he still couldn’t muster up the courage. He was stuck on the shore feeling useless and very overwhelmed.

We had paddled past the mangroves over to the Careel  Bay Marina and were heading back when we spotted a Border Collie running haphazardly on the shore about 10 houses away from home. We didn’t realise that it was Bilbo straight away because he was at home and as I said, he’s never escaped before. He’s a really good dog. But once he saw that we’d seen him, there was a very definite look of recognition. It was him, after all! Bilbo had escaped.

When we arrived home, we discovered that Bilbo had chewed solidly on the wooden gate and had even pulled off four planks. There were nails sticking out and all sorts. He’d all but demolished Dad’s gate. He’d gone ballistic!!

This is how all big adventures come to a screaming halt. When you go too far, you get brought back into line.

Bilbo was in time out.

Geoff was off to the hardware store.

Neither was happy.

Bilbo wasn't invited sailing!

Bilbo wasn’t invited sailing!

Fortunately, it was a long weekend and Bilbo had a chance to redeem himself.

I don’t know how Bilbo felt about his big weekend away. It’s not always easy when all your Christmases come at once and it was a huge change for a backyard dog to suddenly explore the world and even the high seas. He had fun but I kind of suspect there was also a sense of there’s “no place like home”. Driving home, he looked particularly comfortable curled up in the back seat in between the kids. The three of them were sound asleep. Bilbo also slept in the next morning and I can’t help wondering how much nervous energy he’d expended on our weekend away. He was pooped!

Yet, something tells me that when the suitcases come out next time, Bilbo will be back in the car ready to join us on our next big adventure.

See! You really can teach an old dog new tricks, after all!

The sun sets on a perfect weekend.

The sun sets on a perfect weekend.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013

Last week, I went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. As you could imagine, I was in absolute seventh heaven. As a passionate writer, it doesn’t get much better than this. That is aside from getting published, of course!

I can barely convey the sheer exhilaration of being fully immersed in the writing world… attending author sessions, meeting other writers, discussing all things literary and being surrounded by all those scrumptious books. It was mind-blowing.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was Sydney. How can I possibly encapsulate a place let alone a city into a few words? I won’t even try. This isn’t about Sydney the icon anyway. It’s about my Sydney… our relationship…our story.

Me at the Sydney Writers' Festival, Walsh Bay on Sydney Harbour.

Me at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Walsh Bay on Sydney Harbour.

Sydney is home. It’s where I’m from. It’s made and shaped me, even though I technically don’t live here anymore. At the same time, when I come here now, I now feel a little distant and almost removed becoming more the visitor, the outsider,the observer. It’s a place which isn’t quite past but is definitely somewhere interwoven with memory. There are a lot of “was-es” and “remember whens” and even these have aged. When it comes to the City of Sydney, these memories are now almost two decades old. You see, I used to live in a converted warehouse apartment and numerous terraces houses all just a shortish walk from the CBD. These days, with so much water under the bridge, I tend to view Sydney through a different lens. As much as I hate to admit it, I have almost morphed into that most detested of species…the tourist. I even look the part with my Nikon hanging around my neck and my trigger finger permanently twitching.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge viewed from the Walsh Bay precinct

The Sydney Harbour Bridge viewed from the Walsh Bay precinct

I’m absolutely in love with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and our relationship has never waned!! Seeing her peering over my shoulder surveying the magnificent harbour, which is glistening like a diamond carpet in the glorious autumn sunlight, is like greeting an old best friend. The Bridge has been with me through thick and thin in hospital reassuring me with the occasional wink and a smile through the window. I used to watch the two little flags on the very top of the arch when the nurses were jabbing me with the canula, desperately searching for a vein. I’ve also walked across the Bridge a number of times before my muscles played up. I still remember how the whole bridge shuddering whenever a train roared past. At least, that’s what I remember.

Then there were the people. I don’t know whether Sydney is generally considered “cosmopolitan” but I certainly observed a kaleidoscope of people, personalities, nationalities and sub-cultures. It was like someone had cut up pages of coloured paper and glued them back together again in a haphazard maze of images. I was almost overwhelmed by the mass of people. During the day at home, there’s just the dog and I and it’s very quiet. Watching all these people was incredibly stimulating yet at the same time, it was also a little overwhelming and a bit too much. I was like a hungry, starving skeleton let lose at a smorgasbord. There was almost too much to take in and consume. I was literally devouring everything in sight…Gobble! Gobble! Gobble! It was the sort of pure gluttony which usually sends your stomach into reverse cycle.  With such sensory overload and all my neurones firing at once, I’ve been all jibber jabber ever since, unable to articulate it all.

It was that good!

The Sydney Writers’ Festival unofficially begins each year when the program appears in Spectrum, in The Sydney Morning Herald. I’m usually out of bed like a rocket. Before I’ve even considered my constitutional morning coffee, I’ve retrieved the paper from the front lawn and I’ve circled my favourite events. Time is of the essence. I have to be quick. I don’t want to miss out. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! I flick straight through to the workshops. They only take around 15 participants so I they book out quickly. There’s no time for procrastination, deliberation or dithering around. It’s decision time. I certainly don’t want a repeat of last year’s stress. Last year, I managed to secure the very last ticket for children’s author Andy Griffiths. That was an event in itself when I somehow managed to trap the ticket online and couldn’t access it. I was literally sweating blood but it was mine.

Yet, as much as you need to rush, you also need to plan. Be organised. There is a booking fee so if you forget or overlook an event, that’s another booking fee. That means reading through the entire program for a second or even third time to be absolutely sure.

On top of this, there’s what to do with the kids. What am I supposed to do with them while I’m swanning around Sydney being the writer? As much as I might consider my writing “work”, so far it’s not paying the bills and certainly isn’t earning its keep. This makes it hard to justify further expense. Fortunately Mum, Geoff and friends usually help out but that means generally trying to cluster my events on certain days and being very organised. For this reason, I tend to go for pre-booked tickets. I know I have a seat and it’s worth the trip to Sydney.

Anyway, this year I had a genuine panic attack. I hadn’t read the paper and had missed the supplement entirely. I was one week late.  I was one week late and that was before I’d even started getting the organisational juggernaut in motion. The entire festival was going to be booked out. I was going to miss out!!!!! I don’t like missing out. I really don’t like missing out…especially when it comes to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s my big hurrah every year where I get myself…my real self….out of the closet and strut my stuff. I am a writer!

Phew! It wasn’t the end of the world.  There was one event I couldn’t get into but I managed to secure tickets to hear Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald (of the movie Breakfast Club fame) talk about her new book: When it Happens to You. Wow! I was so excited that I was almost hyperventilating! I loved that movie, even though I can’t quite remember what it was about anymore. Just the thought of meeting Molly Ringwald set my heart aflutter. Wow! I couldn’t wait! I also booked in for a talk with Australian social researcher Hugh McKay about his new book The Good Life, which debunks the happiness myth.  I also booked in for a mid week editing workshop about killing your darlings. I wasn’t too sure about killing my darlings but I felt some advice with editing might help me structure things better and actually get some of my writing out the door. Finish something, in other words.

Bronze Pig and sunflower outside Sydney Hospital just down from the Mitchell Library

Bronze Pig and sunflower outside Sydney Hospital just down from the Mitchell Library

Last Tuesday, I attended my first session…Editing Your Darlings. It was held at the historic Mitchell Library just across the road from Martin Place in the Sydney CBD. I arrived in Sydney a couple of hours early and bought myself a very rich and decadent chocolate cupcake, a cappuccino a chicken burrito and found a bench in Martin Place. There were so many people. It  was like a sea of people….a veritable tsunami! I particularly noticed numerous men in suits swooping through Martin Place like magpies, heading somewhere in a flap. As I looked around Martin Place and the imposing sandstone tower of the old GPO (General Post Office), I noticed sunflowers everywhere as part of an advertising promotion and grabbed one. I couldn’t believe my luck. Back in my 20s, I had adored sunflowers. They were my flower and one of my signature poems was called Sunflower and was about a bloke I’d liked. I only come into the city a couple of times a year and I couldn’t believe the timing. That I would be in Sydney on the very day they were giving away sunflowers in Martin Place. It was serendipity…meant to be.

I must confess that it took me two hours to realise that the sunflower wasn’t real…even after taking a gazillion photos of it around Martin place and Macquarie Street. Good one, Ro!

Me outside the Mitchell Library

Me outside the Mitchell Library

Anyway, I went off to my editing workshop and briefly mentioned my book concept to the presenter and she said to get in touch once I had finished it. She genuinely seemed quite interested.

Now, I just have to finish it. I mean get started. Well, do something with what I’ve started. There are a lot of words just busting to get out of my computer and into print. It seems like a very long journey but I suspect I’m already a good way down the track.

Saturday, I was back down to Sydney and meeting up with my close friend, Jennifer to hear Molly Ringwald speak. Her book is a collection of interconnected short stories centred upon the theme of betrayal. I have to tell you it was amazing to meet Molly and hear her talk about her life, her book and read an excerpt. She was amazingly grounded and down to earth. She is a great actor but she is also a great writer so hearing her read her work out loud was amazing. I could really picture the characters. They were people I knew. People I could touch and I could readily walk in their shoes and view the world through their eyes. I couldn’t wait to dash out the door and buy the book but first there is question time.

Now, the audience actually gets to interview the illustrious Molly Ringwald. Little me…humble little old me…decides that I have to ask Molly Ringwald a question. Wow! I mean it’s the opportunity of a life time except  asking a question at the Sydney Writer’s Festival is extremely intimidating. Your question has to be incredibly witty, insightful and it actually needs to be a question and not, as I have heard in the past, an extended monologue.

The only trouble is that as much as I’m desperate to ask a question and seize the moment, my mind’s gone blank. I can’t think of anything. I’m shifting nervously in my seat staring up at Molly Ringwald who almost has a golden halo at this point and angel wings. Looming overhead, there’s the  huge and very magestic Town Hall pipe organ. Just to intimidate me even further, I’m surrounded by a huge crowd of very erudite and sophistocated opinionardoes. As I said, this place is very intimidating. Hands are going up all around me but I still can’t think of one simple question. There’s just the point Molly made about writing two of the stories from a male perspective and that made me think of my Dad wanting to write a novel from a female perspective. If I could wonder how a man could think like a woman, shouldn’t I also question how a woman could think like a man? Tentatively, I raised my hand. I was the very last question and I had to get out of my seat and walk over to the microphone. My heavy boots echoed on the polished wooden floor as I walked up the aisle to the microphone. I was dying on the inside but at the same time, this was the chance of a life time. I had to do it. It would be a moment that I’d never forget.

Molly was quite delightful and her response was actually quite insightful. She talked about how men and women notice different things about people. For example, she mentioned how her husband wouldn’t notice her new haircut but a man would notice how a woman’s body moved, for example.

Molly Ringwald signing her book at Sydney Town Hall

Molly Ringwald signing her book at Sydney Town Hall

Books signed, Jennifer and I had the rest of the night to ourselves without any kids or interruptions and we could actually talk. For us, this was almost a sacred moment!

Jennifer and I at dinner

Jennifer and I at dinner

We walked up George Street and had dinner in a swanky restaurant in the old GPO building in Martin Place.

I could get used to this!!

I could get used to this!!

We enjoyed watching people pass through Martin Place. I noticed a bloke carrying his groceries home which looked a little out of place in the city on a Saturday night until I remembered that people actually live here…right here. The rest of the time, we observed a veritable parade of young women out on the prowl with all the usual…too much makeup, death trap heels and very dubious fashion sense.

H! Well might you scoff, Rowena. That used to be you.

Oh how I’ve aged! I even have a walking stick to prove it but I tell myself the walking stick is “just in case”.  That I don’t really need it.

Rainbow light tunnel at the Vivid Festival

Rainbow light tunnel at the Vivid Festival

This stunning light sculpture was made by illuminating plastic witches' hats (ie as used in for road works).

This stunning light sculpture was made by illuminating plastic witches’ hats (ie as used in for road works).

With my usual commitment to carpe diem, Jennifer and I are squeezed two festivals into one night. Now, we’re off to check out the Vivid Festival down at Circular Quay. There were elaborate light sculptures and stunning laser displays and a philosophy behind it all that passed us by.

Customs House during the Vivid Festival

Customs House during the Vivid Festival

However, we were sadly struck by the huge amount of rubbish spewing out of the bins and onto the footpaths. I’m not sure who you blame for that but I couldn’t help find it a bit odd that an event could both beatify and desecrate the city simultaneously. Unfortunately, the rubbish was just as much a comment on what it means to be human as the art.

Art and rubbish side by side

Art and rubbish side by side

At least someone's happy with the mess.

At least someone’s happy with the mess.

Jennifer and I were like Thelma and Louise: seizing the day…seizing the night. By now, it was getting close to 11.00 PM and we were starting to think about getting home…but not without having an ice cream. Even on a cold, frosty night, you can’t go to Circular Quay without indulging in an ice cream. The ice cream was so lush and creamy and being a cold night, for once it wasn’t dripping all over my shoes faster than I could eat it. I had a Royal Copenhagen which had crunchy chunks of honeycomb set in a vanilla base in a gorgeous waffle cone. The best thing about the ice cream was that I could enjoy it in peace without being badgered by the kids and having to spend a fortune buying only 3 ice creams. Buying your kids an ice cream shouldn’t send a loving mother broke!

We caught a taxi back to Jennifer’s and she dropped me round to stay with my friend Sue. Sue and I  will be going to hear social researcher Hugh McKay talk about his new book The Good Life in the morning.

Sunday morning…

This is my first trip down to the Walsh Bay precinct during this writers’ festival. The Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay is the main hub of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Being a converted wharf, it is the perfect venue for a writer’s festival. It is very atmospheric. The wharf was completed in 1919 and was quite derelict when it was converted into theatres back in the 1970s. Richard Wherrett, who was the artistic Director at the time, said: “I liked the metaphorical notion that every time you went into the place to see a play, you went on some kind of journey”.

That’s also what it’s like when you experience the Sydney Writers’ Festival here.

One of my personal favourites is how the buildings intermingle with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can see the Bridge reflected onto a bank of louvre windows which creates multiple reflections.  I’m sure even one of the thousand photography students who has ever taken this shot has claimed it as their own, as “their” very unique interpretation of The Bridge. You also see fragments of the infamous “coat hanger” framed by all sorts of windows. It’s like the Bridge just wants to remind you, reassure you: “I’m still here. I haven’t gone away.”

You can quite literally dangle your toes in Sydney Harbour down here but I’m not game. There are sharks in that water. These are nasty sharks of Jaws proportions with great big teeth and even bigger appetites.  You see, being a writer, I have a very vivid imagination. Actually, it’s not just my imagination. Sydney Harbour is full of sharks and they have been k­­­­­­­n­­own to munch.

The Wharf Theatre home to the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Writers' Festival

The Wharf Theatre home to the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Writers’ Festival

As I said, Walsh Bay is the hub of the Writer’s Festival. It’s where I go to “experience” the festival and get into “the scene”. I don’t know if all these people are actually writers but I sure hope they’re all readers and wannabes. Surely, all these people don’t believe they’re actually going to get published? I sure hope not. They all look and sound like better writers than me with their slick haircuts and creative outfits something like a vintage 50’s frock. Hair dyed red, or black or perhaps even purple. Dark rimmed glasses… You know the types. I don’t know whether they’re just wearing the glasses for effect or whether they are just like me…as blind as a bat. There’s also the black brigade. For some reason, a lot of creative people seem to dress head to toe in black even though it really doesn’t show much creative flair at all. After all, aren’t you just casting yourself as a shadow?

Sue and I

Sue and I

I’m pleased I bought Sue along this year. We chat and it relieves some of the performance anxiety I have experienced in the past. It’s the first time she’s ever been to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and she’s not a desperate writer yearning to get published but not sending any material within cooee of a publisher. She is much more relaxed and not overcome by existential angst. I can feel my heart rate starting to ease. Sue is my rock.

Author Hugh McKay is moving to the mic. McKay has written a number of books which I’ve found very insightful. He is an Australian social researcher and he has interviewed thousands and thousands of people about their attitudes to just about everything and in the process he has absorbed a good overview of life, developing great insight and a very strong moral compass. He makes no secret of his mission to bring out the best in humanity and to make the world a better place.

I have only read about a chapter of the Good Life. He classifies the “good life” as a life that is characterised by goodness, a morally praiseworthy life, a life valuable in its impact on others, a life devoted to the common good.

Of course, he mentions the golden rule.

This was all great stuff particularly how he debunks the utopia complex and our quest for constant happiness. Happiness, he stresses, is just one of a range of human emotions.

I was particularly interested in his comments about parenting styles:

Children are likely to struggle when confronted by the demands of independence if they have been cosseted in a state of prolonged dependency and fed a diet of self-esteem-boosting praise. (Good try! is the response to failure currently favoured by parents, even if the failure was actually the result of zero effort.

He also emphasised these points in the talk. This interested me on a personal level because I often worry about the negative impact that my health issues are having on the kids. I really feel it puts an unfair burden on them. I know they get angry at me at times because of this or perhaps it’s just because I’m their mum and it’s their job.

Anyway, once again it came around to question time and me being me had to get my one question out there. Eventually the microphone comes my way and this is my question:

“I am a mother with a chronic illness and I am often concerned about what sort of effect this is having on my kids and yet I often hear about successful people who lost a parent when they were young or had sick parents. What are your thoughts?”

Well, his response showed great insight. Hugh McKay had never met me before and he said one word “relax”. It was exactly what I needed to hear and even more importantly, what I need to put into action. Relax Rowena! Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay.

Perhaps, real life can have a fairytale ending after all!