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Having written my last blog post about how much I enjoyed my almost empty house, as if to make me eat my words, we had an unexpected visit from one of our far-flung family members. My older son’s girlfriend was back from London for one week, to attend her much-loved, almost-95-year-old grandmother’s funeral.

Having her back in residence for three nights, coming home to her bubbly, elfin presence and shared G&Ts reminded me of how lovely it is to have young people around. In the evenings, the four of us lounged over dinner, talking and talking. It’s the same when our oldest and her bloke visit from the bush. Phones, emails and skype are all very well, but there’s nothing quite like sitting across a fire place from someone whose company you enjoy, tummies full of a good meal you have just shared.

The two girls went out on the verandah and their light voices wafted into the house, chattering endlessly, words tumbling out and over each other in their excitement at being together again.

We hadn’t seen her for a year, and I had worried needlessly that we might feel shy and awkward together, might run out of things to say. But it couldn’t have been easier, and there was the satisfaction of having time to ask about the minutiae of their lives in London. Had they been worried on the days of the rioting? What did an ordinary working day consist of? Did they think they would come back to Melbourne eventually?

On Thursday night the four of us went to a concert in the ornate intimacy of the Athenaeum. Clare Bowditch was performing Tales from the life of Eva Cassidy who, like another of my heroes, died at the age of 33. The two singers are very different in just about every way, but they are among my favourite artists, and I had booked tickets months in advance.

It was a foretaste of heaven. As Bowditch walked slowly onto a darkened stage and launched softly into Time after Time, her musicians creeping on, one by one and joining in, I was aware of a mounting sense of sheer joy. ‘We’re in for a treat,’ whispered my husband, as we joined in the applause.

I didn’t want it to end. The Blues Alley Band – five brilliant jazz-blues musicians put their own stamp on Cassidy’s stamp on so many classics. Their artistry was breathtaking. Their obvious enjoyment of the music, their instruments and each other was infectious. They felt like our friends, offering us the gift of their soulful, passionate music. They gave their all.

As for Bowditch, I’ve seen her live several times, and she never disappoints. This gig, however, gave more scope for her acting and story-telling skills and comedic timing. ‘She’s really funny Mum,’ said my youngest to me at interval.

She is seriously beautiful too, aware of her own sexiness but never taking it too seriously. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m a woman who enjoys a good meal!’ she said, standing before us in all her Rubinesque glory.

In between the songs Bowditch (who spent a year researching) and the lead guitarist told stories about Eva’s short life. And interwoven were experiences of Bowditch’s own life as a musician. A past boyfriend, she told us, who loved gravelly-voiced male singers like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, had ambiguously told her she sang ‘like a girl’.

Through the evening a vivid picture of both singers emerged – the Cassidy who was almost unknown in her own life time and refused to play the game in the 90s music scene – wouldn’t conform, wouldn’t sing ‘crap pop’, wouldn’t wear anything but leggings and oversized lumber-jack shirts, absolutely refused to schmooze.

It was a packed house and we lapped it up - the humour, the poignant tales, the ad libbed one-liners, the down-to-earth Australianness of the whole night, the glorious mixture of music. Eva, Clare told us, derived pleasure from giving other people joy when she sang. I can’t help hoping that somehow, where and whatever she is now, she knows of the extent of the joy she is still bringing to vast numbers of listeners. 





At home in the empty nest

Last time the census came to town, we had a full house. This time around, I perch up at the kitchen bench in my PJs, mug of peppermint tea at my elbow, the empty house rattling around me, the sad-eyed dog at my feet.

‘It’s just you and me girl,’ I say to her, as she gazes up at me mournfully, wondering where they have all gone. My recently acquired status as empty nester hits me. It’s now official; it’s on the census. That long, crazy, exhausting and wonderful era in the Macrae household is over.

I’m exaggerating. I’m not really on my own. My husband is still in residence, but he is away about half the time. Our youngest still lives here, but she is often out and about, and on census night happens to be staying at the home of one of her mates.

Our oldest left several years ago, leaving us with three kids. But then our older son’s partner moved in, and we were back to four live-in kids. Then in six months, starting about this time last year, three of them moved out. And not just out, say, to Moonee Ponds, or Collingwood, or even New South Wales, but to the UK.

To say it’s different at our place these days would be an understatement. There’s not as much washing, there’s not as much cleaning. It hardly seems worth going to the supermarket. ‘We’re a shadow of our former selves,’ says my husband as he wheels the bin out, one pathetic bag of rubbish skulking in the bottom.

If all this sounds a bit morose and miserable, it’s not. Maybe the novelty just hasn’t worn off yet, but so far, I’m quite delighted with this new state of affairs. I keep wondering when I will start to feel my life no longer has purpose, but to date there hasn’t been a hint of it.

Night after night I come home to an empty house and it is so restful. I make myself a slow cup of tea, walk the dog, start thinking about dinner when I’m good and ready. There’s no rush. There’s no one else to consider. I can be as selfish as I please.

Mostly, I loved my 25 years at the hub of a big, bustling household. I enjoyed my dozen years as a full-time, stay-at-home mum. When the time came to do more study and then get back into the workforce, that was great too, mad juggling act and all as it was.

I was besotted with the kids when they were tiny but, quite frankly, I enjoyed them more when they grew up a bit. These days, there are few people whose company I enjoy more. I’d love it if they all settled back within a kilometre radius of me eventually, but I have no desire for them all to move back in.

They are a long way away (the closest is in Beechworth) but they are all happy, doing what they want to do, and are as safe as a human can be in this world. They keep in touch, which, with skype and chat lines and email, is a darn sight easier than it use to be.

I am more than ready for this new stage of life. I now have my own writing room. I have my own little corner for prayer and meditation. There is so much more time and head space for me to be still, read, write, pray, dream. There is a chance for uninterrupted time with my husband when he’s around

As for our youngest, she misses her siblings terribly, and I feel for her. But the upside of her still being around is that now we are friends in a way we never had a chance to be before. Some days, when we have both been at work and we get home and divvie up the chores, it feels almost as though we are a pair of house mates.

Maybe they’ll start moving back in again. I know this happens with today’s boomerang kids. It’ll be different though. They will have been away and run their own lives. Whether they come back or not, though, for now I am quietly relishing this new stage of my life. For one thing, it’s a damn sight quicker filling out the census form.


No walk in the park

I’ve walked a lot of places that are wild and beautiful and remote. Wilson’s Prom. Mount Bogong. Gorges in the Kimberley. The foothills of the Himalayas. The walk I do twice daily most weekdays is neither remote nor wild. It would be a bit of a stretch to call it beautiful. But I love it. As well as keeping me moderately fit and clearing my head at the start and end of every working day, it provides me with some heart-warming encounters. And some etiquette dilemmas.

The main challenge is how to overtake other walkers politely. I used to swim laps, and although there is more wriggle room on a pavement, the same issues arise as in the lanes of the local baths.

There are wandery, dawdling people who are infuriatingly hard to get past. This mainly happens in Lygon Street in the evening, when most people are there to relax with friends over a bowl of pasta and a bottle of red. So they mosey along, checking out the menus on display in the restaurant windows, letting themselves be tempted by the waiters spruiking outside.

Five thirty at night, I just want to get home as fast as I can. It’s unreasonable, I know, but I get cranky trying to squeeze past rows of four abreast, meandering casually along the pavement as though they own it.  Grumpy old woman that I am rapidly becoming, my chief gripe is groups of school kids, bags strewn untidily, hogging the entire footpath and ignoring anyone trying to get past. Or others, nose in their mobile phone, oblivious to me bearing down on them, muttering about manners.

Morning is easier as most people are intent on getting somewhere. But there are still groups of twos or threes who chat as they stroll, women tottering in towering heels, and some who are just seriously slow walkers.

As I get closer to the city, and the traffic lights become more frequent, the walkers I overtake catch up with me at the next red light. Then off I go, striding out till I am stopped at the next intersection and they catch up with me again.

The more delicate problem is when you are walking at exactly the same speed as another person, and you start off at the lights at exactly the same time. You walk along in perfect sync for twenty metres or so and then it gets awkward. You slow down, to let them get ahead. They do the same, having, presumably, had the same thought. So then you both speed up again, simultaneously. This can go on for a while, until you get the timing right. Once one of you is ahead and there is a decent space between you, you have it sorted.

Till you achieve that perfect distance, however, there are a few agonizing minutes, as you are in close proximity to a complete stranger. You can see their calf muscles bunching and flattening under their stockings or trousers, you can feel their body heat, you breathe the same pocket of air.

It’s not all etiquette dilemmas of course. There are some lovely moments. Feeling smug as I see the poor crowded suckers hurtling past on the tram. Greeting the friendly regulars. The old Spanish couple who take their dog out early. The Indian man who jogs in jeans and a woolen jumper. Arthur, our local mechanic, who gives me a cheery wave as he opens up his garage, as do the guys at the panel beater’s on the corner where the tram veers into the park. There are clusters of retired guys playing golf who wish me a courteous good morning.

Sometimes there are unexpected encounters. Maybe it’s because not many people walk, or that I look reasonable friendly, but I am frequently approached by others. An old Chinese lady asks for help interpreting an ATM. Some people ask directions, others want money. I have also been chatted up, asked out for lunch, propositioned and told I am beautiful. The most recent incident involved a young guy who looked Spanish and sounded American and expostulated with a disarming grin as I powered past, ‘Godammit, you look good!’

Somehow, and I hope I am not speaking too soon, I have never felt threatened by these interactions. They leave me surprised and amused and give me something to make my kids laugh about in the evening. Not to mention my colleagues – when I told one co-worker about this last one she asked, ‘Was he high on something?’

Of course, I’m sensible. This time of year, it is dark when I knock off, and I walk up busy Royal Parade and Sydney Road rather than taking the short cut past the zoo.  But at eight in the morning and six at night, there is little sense of menace. Just a lot of people – some jogging, some hastening home like me, others meandering along in search of a good night out.

Fresh air, free exercise and time to see a few of the unusual things between Brunswick and the CBD. A daily attempt to mind my manners and some surprising encounters. Sure beats driving.


Death in Brunswick

A few days ago, a woman had her throat slashed at my local railway station at 6.15 in the morning. A man grabbed her from behind and demanded she give him her handbag. She gave him the bag but he slashed her throat anyway.

The woman survived, as did another young woman exactly a year ago who was walking her dog in the park across the road from my house when she was struck on the forehead, dragged along the ground and sexually assaulted at knife point until her dog bit the attacker, who ran away down my street.

It’s not exactly the Bronx, but in Brunswick we aren’t strangers to violence. Hardly a random attack, but in March 2004, Lewis Moran, father of slain underworld brothers Mark and Jason, was shot dead at the Brunswick Club, directly across the road from the church where I worship most Sundays.

It’s hard to feel quite as upset about the likes of Moran meeting what seems a logical end, but even in the gangland killings, innocent bystanders can be literally caught in the crossfire.

You could get complacent about violence, in a country where most homicides are committed by a person known to the victim. This week’s completely random attack at the station our family members use daily was a reminder of the fragility of life. 

And this week, no one needed to be told, as the horrific events in Oslo and on Utoya Island unfolded. It was Port Arthur all over again but worse, the body count climbing horrifyingly higher than when Martin Bryant took to the blood-soaked penal settlement with his gun.

Yes, we need reminding. Not about random violence so much as about the fragility of life - a thing large populations of the planet know intimately. As we reel in horror from the Norwegian massacre, on the other side of the world, in the Horn of Africa, several million people face likely death by starvation.

In countries in South America, in Myanmar, university students go to take part in protest marches and their parents never see them again. Not so long ago, in Uganda and Southern Sudan, school age kids were forced into The Lord’s Resistance Army and trained to kill people in their own villages.

Until comparatively recently, people everywhere lost as many babies as survived. Women died in childbirth. In Indigenous communities this isn’t just something that happened in the past.

We know this, of course. At some level we are all aware of the brutality of the 21st century world, despite the advent of human rights charters and antibiotics. I sometimes think this awareness is like a cloud we carry with us wherever we go, or a chill undercurrent that leavens every occasion of euphoria and saddens every moment of pleasure.

This week’s events in Norway and in Albert Street Brunswick didn’t make me want to barricade myself and my loved ones in the house and never brave our parks and streets. But it did remind me of what my sisters and brothers in other places know from vivid experience – that life can end or change dramatically at any time, for anybody.

Which means I need to protect it, treasure it, value every moment. Be grateful for every morning I wake up breathing and functional, healthy and safe and loved.



The misery of the long term writer

‘It’s a horrible, horrible thing, being a writer,’ says my beloved. ‘A burden you carry everlastingly.’

This as I look glumly at him when I should be enjoying a perfectly good holiday. The rain is lashing down outside, the open fire is roaring, we have a pile of good books and a couple of bottles of pretty nice wine. What’s not to be happy about?

He’s not being unpastoral. Just saying it like it is. I seem unable to stop writing, but more often than not, all it brings is frustration and misery. 

The current torment arises from my umpteenth attempt at writing a half way decent novel. This week, this holiday week we both need badly, I have promised myself I will only spend two days writing and the rest of the time I will relax. But the first day’s writing was so bad, I am in despair. I can’t do it, nor can I stop trying.

‘I’m glad it’s not me,’ is another thing he says from time to time. ‘I don’t know how you keep at it.’ Sometimes I think that the certifiably insane compulsion to keep at it is what makes me a writer, not the fact that I’ve been published, or the quality of anything I might have produced.

Over and over, during the past 15 years, since I decided with a burst of rapture that I wanted to ‘be a writer’, I have asked myself why I don’t just give up. I could be a really happy person if I wasn’t always trying to write. 

My day job involves administration and event management and I love it. It gives me challenges, company, fun, and great satisfaction. It also pays the bills. That should be enough for anyone. On top of that, however, there are all sorts of other good things – aforementioned beloved who still makes me laugh after all these years, kids who seem to enjoy our company, friends, books, walking, so many delights. Life is bloody marvellous, or could be if I could just give up the freaking writing dream.

The last thing the world needs is another ‘artist’ carping on about what a tough road it is to hoe. I understand completely the impatience of normal people with our agonised outpourings of inadequacy, bitterness and gloom.

I am generally a cheery person, however, and maybe it does no harm to let my readers in on how difficult I find this writing caper a lot of the time.

Partly it’s the lack of publication opportunities, even once you have a bit of a track record. 

But a lot of it is that you’re only ever as good as your last article, and even that lasts only a day or two, a week at most. I don’t know any creative people who are happy to say, ‘okay, I’ve produced a lot of reasonable work in my time, now I’m going to relax and just be a mum/admin assistant/gardener/beach bum.’ It doesn’t seem to work that way.

There’s this thing inside me that has to keep getting out, and maybe this is what makes me a writer as much as the hundreds of thousands of words I have written, my publication record or the fact that from time to time, other people seem to be touched by what I have to say.

Always, I want to be a better writer. To be less glib and smug sounding. To be funnier. To write with more lyricism and power. To write fiction – ah, that’s the big one, these days. I dash off short non-fiction with comparative ease, why is writing a novel like drawing particularly massive and impacted wisdom teeth? With no anaesthetic.

So why do I keep trying? Because I only know what I think once I have written it down. Because the world seems even more beautiful and funny and sad when I have noticed it and then put it into words. 

Because I know from long experience that the way I feel about the writing when I am actually doing it has no bearing whatsoever on its quality. Time and again I have produced what felt like inspired prose, only to find, reading it back next day that it is overblown and pretentious. Other times I have struggled, eking it out, word by laborious word, convinced it was rubbish, to come back later and find one of my better efforts.

Because I know that what matters is keeping the faith – just turning up and doing the writing, week after week. Trusting in the process: that if I keep doing it, I will, slowly, learn things and maybe even become a better writer.

Because I know that this is part of what I am. Being a writer, although sometimes an unhappy or not a particularly good one, is as much a part of what makes me me, as being a parent, one who sometimes finds it tough and who regularly stuffs up.

Overall, despite everything, it is one of the endeavours in life that gives me most satisfaction and joy. It makes the whole crazy adventure of life a deeper one.

And now that I have reminded myself of this, it is time to tell my beloved it isn’t so bad, return to the novel in better heart, and just get another damn chapter down on the page.