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Winter - bring it on!

Why does winter get such bad press?

In popular songs, summer is the time of love; winter is when your sweetheart leaves you. In literature and theatre, winter is the metaphor for all that is barren, tragic, oppressive and melancholy.

On the street, in homes and offices, most people whinge about the cold. Few of us are game to complain about rain these days, even after the floods of the last 12 months, but it’s open season on winter.

I’m glad I don’t live in Canada; I would resent having to put on multiple layers every time I head out the door. And I know even an antipodean winter is very tough for some: the elderly and isolated, the arthritic, those at home with a bunch of little kids, most of all, the homeless, for whom winters must be bitter.

But in Victoria, for those of us lucky enough to possess four walls to keep out the elements, I propose a new take on what is my favourite season.

For starters, this decade, even in Victoria, summer is the most brutal and relentless season. Rivers run dry, parks and gardens wilt, cities are torrid and airless and it’s impossible to get cool. Worst of all, there is constant worry for those living in bushfire prone areas and sometimes devastation when their worst fears are realised.

Winter is when the natural world looks lush and green again and when human beings can be active without expiring in a sweaty, breathless swoon.

This time of year I get excited at the prospect of several months of cold. The chilly snap this last week has had me cheering – bring it on!

Why do I love winter? Partly it’s a question of genetics. My Anglo-Celtic-Germanic DNA means that I am energised by cold whereas heat leaves me listless, lazy, pathetic and cranky to boot.

Upbringing is a factor too. I spent my primary school years in a boarding school at an altitude of 8000 feet. There was no heating of any kind, and we were only allowed three thin blankets on our beds. The fleeces and down jackets and thermals that protect us these days hadn’t been invented. So I don’t really feel the cold. I rarely use a heater on winter mornings.

Another factor is that I love being out of doors especially if I’m walking. In summer, I’m forced to take my constitutional early in the morning or late at night. Even after dark, it’s sometimes unpleasant – when blustery north winds keep temperatures in the high 20s all though the wee hours. I walk to work, and can’t bear getting there flushed and sweaty. Whereas in the winter, doesn’t matter how cold it gets, a k or two of brisk walking will always warm me up.

Then there is the sheer cosiness of winter, and all the delicious things that come with it. Sure, there’s something magic about long summer evenings and spilling out onto the verandah for a gin and tonic before the barbeque. But it can’t hold a candle to an evening beside the fire, curtains drawn, pitch, freezing black outside, hands curled around hot mugs of tea, or, better still, hot chocolate.

Or coffee on a cold Sunday afternoon with all the bits of the weekend papers lying haphazardly around as you work your way through, the laundry on the clothes horse steaming gently by the heater, creating a fragrant fug.

The winter clothes that, unlike their flimsy summer counterparts, cover a multitude of sins: jeans and boots and thick socks, scarves and gloves and woolly beanies.

What about the romance of cuddling under a doona when it’s six degrees outside? Summer as the season of love? I don’t think so. Beds are so much better in the colder months, whether you’re kept warm by a partner or a hot water bottle. Summer nights are horrible – I toss and turn on sticky, crumpled sheets and can’t sleep. On a cold night, I feel like a little kid again – surrounded and protected by warmth.

And of course, the rain. This year has been a wonderful aberration, but over the last ten years, all year round, I have longed for rain. The sky pouring bountifully on the garden. The sound of rain on a tin roof, its patter on my bedroom window, driven against it by a bitter wind, with me safe and warm inside. Nothing makes me sleep better.

So even if you’re a summer person, see if you can change your mindset about winter. You’re stuck with it every year after all. You might as well enjoy it.


The original Kettle

Having taken six months to work out how to get a subscriber button for my blog, I am still fine tuning the facility (when I say 'I', I mean my son Paddy - I am doing precisely nothing.)

Anyway, after this week's post about revisiting The Kettle in the Apricot Tree, I thought I'd put up the origianl article, written 12 years ago - the first of nearly 100 pieces I have had published in The Age since 1999. Happy reading!


The Kettle in the Apricot Tree

Last week I went back to a house I lived in until four years ago. It is a big house in the main street of a country town, but no one lives there now. After we left, it was used as a day-care centre, but that didn’t work out. Although it is not used for anything now, they keep it well enough. It doesn’t look abandoned.

In the back garden, I noted with satisfaction that most of the native shrubs we put in were flourishing. Then I saw the apricot tree. This tree was a favourite playing place for our kids. They spent hours up there, picking the fruit, reading, sailing the seven seas, building treetop cubbies, spying on the neighbours and giving cheek to the passers-by.

The tree was laden with big, luscious, orange fruit. And one old brass kettle.

How could I have forgotten the kettle? I bought it on one of my pre-children India jaunts and the kids, deciding it was magic, commandeered it. It did lots of exciting things: it contained magic potions, it was boiled over pretend campfires, and, finally, it ended up strung off one of the branches of the apricot tree, stuck up there during some game and forgotten. And there it will stay, probably until the tree comes down. The branch it is on, once slender, has thickened and now, short of lopping the entire limb, it would be impossible to get the kettle off.

I stood in my old back garden, childless this particular weekend, and felt a lump gathering in my throat at the sight of that abandoned kettle. I was reminded of our tenth wedding anniversary, when my husband and I had gone to considerable trouble organising a minder for our children so that we could have two days on our own. We had looked forward for so long to this time. When we got to our little unit in the Grampians, I went outside to sniff the clear air and get a feel for the place.

There was a clothesline, a Hills hoist with one lonely little bootie hanging on it, left behind by the previous holidaymakers no doubt. I promptly burst into tears.

Well, I was pregnant at the time. But I’m not now, and I still cry at the sort of thing. I’m still prey to waves of fierce nostalgia when I see little reminders of the babyhood my children have left behind.

This year, my baby, child number four, started school. Not long after, I turned 40, and life began for me in a new way. Thirteen years I have been at home raising children and, at times, the exhaustion and sheer relentlessness of the many tasks have almost driven me to madness. I have looked forward for so long to having six hours a day I can call my own, to having time for writing after years of fitting it in during babies’ sleeps or complicated childcare arrangements.

But on the first day of school I was a bit of a mess – as I was last week when I bundled up all our old bibs and put them in a St Vinnie’s bin. Motherhood is a rich and wearying dance between bliss and despair, and I am painfully aware that this will continue as long as I live.

But back to the kettle. Why do we feel this powerful pull of the past, even when it is a past we may not particularly wish to return to? Much as I loved it, I have no desire to go back to nappies and night feeds, babies and toddlers. But there’s this ache, just as there probably will be twenty years from now when I look back on the kids’ teenage years.

Perhaps it is the awareness of death that gives nostalgia its power and makes it such a universal emotion. All things pass. In no time at all, I myself will be no more than a pile of photographs and letters and jottings in old notebooks. Perhaps that is why we ache for the past. Because it is all going so quickly. And hard and all as life is, it is all we know. So we grieve fiercely at the thought of letting it go.

And I see a battered kettle hanging in a fruit tree and am glad no one is around to see me cry.


Nostalgia be damned – the kettle in the apricot tree revisited

Not so long ago, we spent a weekend in a place where we had lived for six years in the nineties; a small coastal town in the west of the state. I reckon it’s eight or ten years since I was there last.

A visit a dozen years ago had inspired The Kettle in the Apricot Tree – the first article I ever had published in the Age, on 9 May 1999, and the opening piece in my first published book.

Kettle was a reflection on nostalgia triggered by going back to our old home and seeing, despite all the changes, an old brass kettle hung in the apricot tree in our back yard, where our kids had left it years before.

This time, 21 years after we moved there and 16 years since we left, the apricot tree is long gone. Indeed, our entire back garden has transmogrified into an Aldi carpark. Our family home is now a café and art gallery, nicely done, with decent coffee. A plus for us, as we were able to poke around every last room, slowly, pretending to be admiring the artwork when what we were really doing, of course, was indulge in memories.

My husband and I stood in front of art pieces, from an immense carved wooden eagle, to delicate water colours, to tacky mirrors encrusted with sea shells. But what we were really doing was saying, ‘Remember when we had the kids’ bunks in this corner?’ and ‘We used to light the fire in here when it was your study sometimes and tell bedtime stories,’ and ‘They’ve still got this cruddy old lino – do you remember when my waters broke all over the floor right here?’

We agreed it was the weirdest feeling – poignant and funny and happy and sad. It was like looking at a barely recognizable version of ourselves, through the wrong end of binoculars. I feel so utterly different from the young mother who lived and often struggled through those years. I guess it was nostalgia of a kind. But not the kind that had me longing to go back.

In fact, I can never remember yearning to go back to past eras in my life. On the contrary, as we shared the long drive home, I listed for my husband a litany of gladness.

‘I’m so glad it’s now,’ I started, ‘and we don’t have tiny kids anymore. I’m so glad I’ve had therapy, that I’m no longer depressed. I’m so glad I discovered writing and have a day job I love. I’m so glad you and I are so much kinder to ourselves and each other than we used to be.’

It’s not as though there weren’t many good times, happy times. Mostly, I thrived on the fresh air, the lack of traffic, the long walks, the friendly community. I was besotted with the children and grateful for the years I was able to spend at home with them without the pressure of a job or much concern about a career I might have been missing out on.

But now is the best time. It always is. So far, I’ve never resented getting older. Even in my darkest times – what I think of as my depression years – I didn’t want to go back in time, because at least I was becoming aware of problems that had always been there and was learning to tackle them.

A lot of people hark back to some bygone golden age. School days for instance (my primary school years weren’t a lot of fun). Or when their kids were little (I prefer them as young adults, or even teenagers).

I’m aware that there may be a time when it all goes pear shaped. If a member of my family dies. If my partner or I fall prey to some awful, progressive disease, to Alzheimer’s, to any of the heartbreaking afflictions I see in so many of the older people I love. So far, I have been lucky in health and in relationships, and that may not always be the case.

But right now, there is nowhere else I’d rather be than here, and no one I would rather be than my 52-year-old self with all her limitations. I go back to our old house, full of shoppers drinking coffee, and our old garden covered in asphalt and strict white lines and parked cars. I look at where the apricot tree and its resident kettle used to be, and I am grateful for those times. But I have no wish whatsoever to go back to them.


At last - a subscriber button!

Hello readers all,

With some welcome technical assistance from Paddy Macrae in Glasgow, I at last have an easy way to become a subscriber. If you'd like to receive an email every time I post - just type in your email address and hit subscribe.

I'm off camping with the gang, as has been my Easter practice for the last 18 years. Hope you all have a wonderful Easter break.


Google magic

This morning, when I was supposed to be working on the novel, I called up the magic of google earth and keyed in, one by one, the far-flung places where half my family are at the moment.

My husband’s in Honiara. Nice alliteration there. Or perhaps the title of a silly love song. Or a ‘he done me wrong’ song. I type it in: HONIARA and hit the key and we whiz dizzyingly around to the top of Australia and then some.

Ah, so that’s where the Solomon Islands are. There are so many of them – strung out along the ocean between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. I click on images of Honiara and it looks very much like Port Vila the only time I’ve been to that part of the world, except more parochial and empty.

Older son. I know exactly where he is, but still I type it in and spin around the serene blue globe. Glasgow. If I want to take the time, I can home in on his street.

Younger son: Isle of Mull. Not so far from his brother. As far from me, both of them, as they can possibly be without leaving the planet.

I spoke to Hamish just last night. Got straight through to the remote little outpost of Mull where he is staying in old stone miners’ cottages, working for six months with kids from Glasgow. They even have internet access, I can skype him if I have the inclination.

I love this modern ability to communicate instantly across vast distances. I do. Although it doesn’t stop the longing to just have them there, solid and human and real, putting on the kettle as I arrive home from work of an evening. It doesn’t replace the spontaneous little comical interactions that happen in families at the oddest hours – late at night, early on dark winter mornings, when one of you really should get going but doesn’t want to end the conversation. It’s never the same as the warm presence of my husband on his side of the bed.

But I’m not complaining. My forbears lived with communication via sailing and then steamship; I grew up with slow letters traveling by train and then by plane, which still took a week or two, winging between my loved ones and me.

In the Narnia chronicles that I was raised on, there’s a scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that fired my juvenile imagination. On the island of the hilarious, bumbling, newly-visible dufflepuds, the magician gives our heroes, the intrepid but weary travellers, a gift. It’s a map of the known world, which they are sailing rapidly to the end of.

But it’s no ordinary map. Hold a magnifying glass to it, anywhere, the magician demonstrates, and suddenly, you zoom in on wherever it is, and can see miniature hills and valleys and streams, minute houses, tiny town squares and people going about their business. As a kid I longed for this map. Now I have it, at the touch of a button.

So much of the technology we have at our fingertips – literally – would have been considered sheer magic even ten years ago. The whole search engine thing is crazy when you stop to think about it. I can ask anything at all, and in a jiffy, I have the answer in front of me.

This is the kind of thing I used to fantasize about when I wanted to remember the lyrics to a favourite song. Even more, when I had seen a movie and couldn’t remember the last film I’d seen that actor in. These days, I type their name in and bingo, there’s the list.

Back to the spinning blue of google earth. One of the things I love about it is the sense of direction it gives me. As it takes me to the Solomon Islands, I am able to see exactly where they lie in relation to me.

Even more important, it gives a powerful sense of connectedness. Everything, even Glasgow, is just around the corner really. Just over an ocean and a desert and a continent or two and then you’re swooping down and there’s the street of your loved one. Like in a plane only a billion times less boring.

It’s the phrase ‘global village’ made manifest, or maybe made virtual, but whichever, it is here on my little computer screen on my desk in my study in my weatherboard house in West Brunswick, connecting me with the people I love, all around the world.