Friday, May 28, 2010

A wave of isolation...

Joe and I had to spend a lot of time alone together before his operation.  After all the trips to Melbourne I've started  wondering about whether a valley 60kms  out of Albury Wodonga is the right place for us, and I've been having fantasies about saving up for a two bedroom mc-apartment in the big smoke.  I'd get more work and inspiration, Joe would have play mates just around the corner...the land of culture, cool-craft, cocktails and coffees beckons.

Isolation has been a key element in the many lives I've led.  Alienation, a sense of separateness, and the need for solitary space are often quoted as pre-requisites for living as a writer. It doesn't really lessen the sneaking sense of betrayal in the writing process, but it's great for perspective and focus. My whole life has been a sequence of journeys, punctuated by repeated returns to isolated places.

Last Wednesday I drove 50 km to a writer's evening at the Laurel Hotel in Mitta Mitta.  I'd never heard of the author, it was a mad rush to get there by 7.00 pm,  and the narrow and winding highway was peppered with potentially lethal wombats.  I took along an Austrian friend who has been in the area for a number of years, and who also wonders how choices in her life have lead her to a place  so untainted by cosmopolitan influences.  We arrived 5 minutes early, to find that Ber Carroll and her minder from the mobile library were the only customers in the joint.  A fire was burning in the dining room, the bar was selling drinks.  We got down to talking.  Three other people arrived.

The questions Ber asked were as interesting as the stories around her life and work.  She reminded me of the importance of staying open and listening - being simultaneously alert to the stories inside us that clamour to be told, and to the stories that flow around us, wherever we are.  Mitta Mitta and its people came alive in the scraps and anecdotes we offered up to her. Various writing projects were discussed, and became more real for the discussion.

I talked about my habit of trying to escape the valley. My last attempt involved a doing a runner to a cattle station 500km north east of Alice Springs.
"That's not an escape," said Ber.  
Up to that moment, I'd never really seen the joke in my great escape from a lonely cottage on a hill in North East Victoria to a 5,00o square km property 500km out of Alice Springs.  Ber had left a small town in Ireland and landed in the great glamour and clamour of Sydney, so perhaps escape for her meant a leap away from isolation.

My escape into the "nothingness" of the outback turned out to be a trip into the heart of many matters - personal, cultural, geographical, historical and mythological.  Today, I made my start at this story, in novel form, as seen through the eyes of a seven year old cowboy.   Joe's in kinder today, so I set up my laptop in the back room at the Mitta Mitta Store.  The owner got talking to me, made a quick phone call, and now I find myself welcomed at Mitta Mitta Primary School.  As I writing this I'm sitting in the Withdrawal Room (!) at one side of the big old schoolroom,  fibre-optically connected to the superhighway and surrounded by the background babble of kids at work. Research just got a whole lot easier, and the wave of isolation seems to have washed me up on a brand new shore.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Note to Readers

Joe's successful surgery was a massive event, and I am brimming over with the amazing things that have happened over the past month.  We are both well and happy now, but scattered, and I'm not sure I trust myself to post responsibly.  The photographs below communicate a little for the moment.  The rest of the story will emerge over time.  Thank you to everyone who has expressed concern, sent healing wishes and supported us through this experience.

watching sirens

surgery postponed


polish therapy

smile medicine

red running bare nose

The Cliff

bravery laundering

still a little scattered...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Subconscious Potatoes

It’s been a wet autumn, the first in about twenty years according to my father’s calculations.  While he was overseas, he rang in for reports and was glad to hear about the grass leaping away.  Just before he came back, I dug up a few potatoes from the three big rows at the top of the vegetable patch.  They looked fine, but when I cut into them I found that the centres were starting to go grey and soggy.

I always thought that potatoes were fine in the ground, but each time we visited the vegetable patch while the folks were away, I had visions from The Potato People by Pamela Allen.  In that picture book, a little boy and his granny dig up mountains and mountains of potatoes. Tambourines and Treacle Tarts! exclaims grandma.  Relying on a half memory of potato clamps, and leaning on the excuse that farming and gardening are my parents’ domain, I ignored that subconscious call to action. We usually relish our home grown potatoes and it was sickening to imagine them all rotting in the ground as a result of my laziness. Not that I did anything about the situation.

Dad came home and the next day he suggested we might get a bit of fresh air and exercise and dig up those potatoes.  I protested all the way, as I always do when fresh air and exercise are suggested.  

The crop was obviously ruined. 

I didn’t want to feed Joe blighted potatoes.

Surely we should cut open a few….

Dad went up first and started work.  Joe and I wandered out at our own pace. When we arrived, there were two little piles of potatoes glowing on the ground like golden nuggets.  Dad was on the long handed spade, Joe commandeered the short handled fork, and  I started to tickle them up with my fingers.  It reminded me of one of those Dali Lama lists.

Every year go somewhere you’ve never been before.

Every day, get some earth on your hands.


Most of the spuds were long, like yams, and many of them were magnificently malformed.  It’s exciting enough to discover potatoes with heads and bodies and potatoes with three legs, but a penguin, complete with flipper wings and a beaky head and capable of standing up…wow.

My friend Nick, who both writes and doesn’t write as fervently as I do, once quoted me a Tom Waites metaphor about creative process:

The best songs come out of the ground, just like a potato. You plan and plan, and then you wait for the potato.

Potato grubbing triggered thoughts for Dad too. His father was an award winning potato grower, on a farm just outside London.

My first love was a potato picker, Dad mused. A gypsy. She used to sneak up and grab me from behind.  I was so…scared.  We arranged to go on a date. She didn’t show up.

Later, we had harvesting machines. I remember one wet year.  We had to pick by hand, squeezing mud off the spuds like you squeeze wet soap.  There was plenty of swearing.  We never planted that field again.

We got a barrow and a half out of the  rows, not much of a crop really.  We graded them and will store them separately.  The ones that had been spiked with the fork were put in a bucket, to be cooked first.

These are bakers, said Dad, Can’t do that with new potatoes.

That night, my Kitchen Muse was out bar-loitering.  Dad cooked the spuds down at the homestead and brought them up to our place for dinner. Those ruined potatoes, baked slowly and loaded with butter, were so good.