if I knew where I was going…

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Many times over the years Don and I have philosophised about golf being a metaphor for life. It is often uncannily so. Lately, I have been thinking of my journey with painting in much the same way.

Some weeks ago I painted a small experimental piece, based on a YouTube lesson I’d watched. As I was finishing it I tossed the pastel in my hand over into the little pile I’d been using and murmured to myself ‘No, no, no, I’m just not getting it’. I turned out the light and that was it for the day. The next morning I came in and looked at it with fresh eyes, expecting to loathe what I’d done, and instead realised I loved it. I had learned a very good lesson. My discouragement had been that my piece didn’t look like the artist’s in the lesson. Silly me, that’s not what I want at all! I want it to look like my style, not hers—and it does! It is not great, the composition is was not wonderful at all, but the ‘look’ of it is a step closer to what I have been dreaming of, and there it was right in front of me. I didn’t recognise it because I was so preoccupied looking for the other artist’s style.

There are many things to learn when one is creating. It is equal parts thrill and frustration. Frank Gehry, the well known architect, described it well: 

For me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did. And I get the sweats. I go in and start working, I’m not sure where I’m going. If I knew where I was going I wouldn’t do it.–Frank Gehry

For me it’s boring to repeat the same journey over and over. I too ‘get the sweats’ every time I start a new painting–as if my life depends on its success, which it certainly does not. Such is the standard to which I hold myself, the self flagellating behaviour I have learned, and am trying to unlearn. But once engrossed in the process everything else falls away when I get those colours in my fingers and see where both my conscious mind and intuition wants them to go. Being swept along in that flow is the payoff.

We need to explore our inner depths, solve new problems and gain new insights. Part of that for me has been the very basic task of sourcing supplies. The challenge of living in a remote area with few resources for art supplies has meant that some weeks I spend almost as much time sourcing materials as I do painting. A lack of good paper has been my biggest problem. I can order it and it will be here in two weeks, if I know what to order. Which I don’t. Until very recently, when I had completed enough painting on different surfaces to finally have a preference, I was stumbling around with this one. I watch videos and learn techniques for applying marks to a variety of surfaces. And then I practice. At this point in my learning trajectory it is hard to know if the problem is with my technique, or the surfaces…probably both! I’ve even learned how to apply a rough surface to smooth boards and papers making homemade pastel paper. Now, if the ordered supplies do not show up as scheduled, I won’t go completely without. It’s all part of the process and no doubt will change time and again over the coming years.

I’ve had a couple of worrying breaks in the process while we had more urgent things to attend to in our life. Always I reminded myself I only needed to return to the task for one minute. One break was planned–the pastel dust was a problem. I was trying to paint in the office with carpet on the floor–light carpet at that! So I made the decision to move out to the little space that is our ‘shedio’. Two thirds of the space is my studio and one third is Don’s tool shed–so christened ‘shedio’. It is not a glamorous space, but it is very practical and not unpleasant, having been renovated about ten years ago. It is surprising how far that journey is, however–those ten steps between the front door and the shedio door. And because of break-ins in the town I have to always lock the front door behind me when I’m in the shedio, and likewise the shedio door if I come into the house for a break. That transition happened a few weeks ago now and along with the new car, I’m starting to feel comfort with both situations. Always in the back of my mind, though, is the thought that if I feel pressured or lost, I only have to be there for one minute…no matter the result.

Gum tree looking over the MacDonnell Ranges

We don’t know what we don’t know. With every painting I am finding new problems to solve. Somehow the information I need to keep moving ahead comes into my life and I move forward one baby step at a time.

Sweaty hands, learning, solving problems, making preparations, small victories, crappy results, baby steps…how is art anything but a metaphor on Life?

Eucalypts at Simpson’s Gap

the slutmobile and the spider…

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It’s been a busy few weeks since I last checked in with you, promising to report more on my revived creative journey. In those weeks our 18 year old car needed some repair. Covid conditions of shipping to remote places like ours proved to make that a protracted process. It was our only car so we hired a rental for a couple of weeks. When it looked like that wasn’t going to be enough, we quickly agreed, we deserved a new car. With the money we saved from the lack of travel over the last year, happily, we could afford it. And as it turns out, so can a lot of other people. The car dealer says they are selling cars as fast as they can get them into town! It’s interesting to see what areas of the economy are leaping ahead, while others languish behind.

Fortunately, our modest needs were only for a town car that was small enough to fit into most of the parking spaces at the grocery and other places we frequent. But after sitting in the smallest car we thought we would buy, the salesman said he had one that was a step up, both in comfort and size if we wanted to sit in it for comparison—a tried and true sales tactic, I’m certain. This salesman was very laid back and applied no pressure whatever, but he didn’t have to. The minute I sat in the driver’s seat of the Corolla it was evident the comfort and amenities were better. Since we are of an age which means it may possibly be our last automotive purchase while we are able to drive, we decided to treat ourselves.

Let me digress a bit. The aforementioned 18 year old Barina (Holden/General Motors) was purchased new when our daughter was testing to get a driving license. The agreement was that we would purchase it, in all its spearmint-metallic-green-glory, and that when she decided to purchase a car, she could buy it from us, knowing she would have a car that was looked after and that she could afford. There were a few errors in judgement on her part (and an obvious one in ours!) that meant the car had a couple of dings in it, which we had deemed a fools errand to repair, given that many people will open their doors and not care if they dent the car next to them. So the dings stayed.

Then one night our daughter drove the car to a party. Alice can be a rough ole town at times. Lately we have been all too aware of it as our house, and many others, have had attempted break-ins. On this particular night about 15 years ago, a young woman set her sites on revenge when she thought Allison was flirting with her ex-boyfriend. Seeing Allison get out of the mint green chariot was all the inspiration she needed. Allison returned to the car after only dropping off a friend and visiting for few minutes to discover the rear windscreen wiper wobbling at a very odd angle, the radio antennae broken off and the word ‘slut’ keyed into the relatively new paint. We knew who it was because as most criminals do, she had to brag about her handiwork to someone, and that someone was friends with one of Allison’s friends and by the next morning it had gotten back to us. But we couldn’t prove it. So we paid for the antennae and the windscreen wiper to be replaced but we were loath to repair the paintwork, for obvious reasons. Allison’s detractor was still in town and she had friends.

When Allison decided to buy a car, it was not the dinged up Barina she longed for, but a flashy, used silver Honda, one of the early hybrid cars. Right thinking, but wrong car and wrong time of her life to make that expensive decision. Live and learn, right? We have generally let her make these decisions on her own with some guidance but knowing whatever we tell her she must do, she would do the opposite back then.

So, for the ensuing 15 years we have driven the small mint green car, emblazoned with ‘Slut’ on the side. Fortunately you could only read the word when the car was very clean. Living in Alice Springs, a car is rarely that clean. Dust storms see to that. I have always felt it was good penance, for what I wasn’t sure, to have to drive the slutmobile around town for all to see. No one would claim I was living beyond my means, nor that I had exquisite taste, and I never had to worry about someone stealing it or parking it where someone would ding the paint! The years caused the paint to chalk and peel and the poor little thing looked like it was peeling from a bad case of sunburn. But when we bought the Corolla, they actually paid us $1000 for the 18 year old Barina, that was clean on the inside, generally in good driving condition and had only 54,000 kilometres on the clock! It will have a new life with someone else and served us well.

My deepest anxieties have been realised, however, learning to drive a brand new car with all the advances that the automotive industry has made in the last 18 years, not to mention that it is about six inches wider and about 20 inches longer than the old car. It really adds a layer of anxiety to my days that I could do without. 

Take the day recently, when I went to the grocery store…

In my relatively calm and controlled life there is not much that scares me more than a big Huntsman spider in the house or a deadly Eastern Brown snake in the house both which I have experienced…unless it is either species in the CAR! That morning as I pulled into the parking space (having backed in and was so proud of myself) I looked toward the passenger window and crawling down the outside of the window was a large huntsman spider the size of the palm of my hand. I tried to get out of the car quickly so that the spider couldn’t crawl across the car and get inside. They do bite but are not aggressive or terribly poisonous but I didn’t fancy testing that bit of scientific knowledge. And the shock of having one drop down from the roof of the car into one’s lap, could easily cause an accident.

I did my shopping and stopped at the pharmacy and by the time I returned to the car I’d forgotten about the spider. After putting things in the boot I came around to the driver’s door and there was that blinking spider again! Shivers. The only thing I had to swipe at it was my grocery list so I swiped—trying to get it off the car. But they JUMP. So it jumped back to the windscreen and across to the other side of the car again. I walked around and found it, cleverly trying to flatten itself out so as not to be seen. I took one last careful aim and swiped at it and it disappeared.The other worst outcome. Where had it gone? I quickly tried to locate it and thank goodness it was on the ground out in front of the car a couple of feet. I quickly got into the car and closed the door. Because I had backed into the space I pulled out fairly quickly and left Mr Spidee behind.

Clearly my days of penance are not over. 

Updating you about my continuing creative efforts will wait for another day.  Have a great week.

take a minute…

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I have been psyching myself up and out–for months, years even, trying to re-establish an art practice. I have gone the way of the parent who decided to stay at home and raise a child(ren) and then never went back to work outside the home. Having done freelance work from home for years I thought I would just naturally drift back into that once the child had left home. But the husband was used to someone to run the home while he traveled for work, and the child didn’t leave home until she was 23…and then there was breast cancer. The practice was well and truly buried. Deeply.

I drifted from dribs and drabs of painting, to jewellery making, to various crafts but I never developed a discipline. That was probably because I didn’t have to. But something in me really wanted to. It felt like I wasn’t finished yet. I’d gleaned all these amazing shapes and colours and textures from living life where I wanted to be and it felt like they were meant to live through me in another form.

In recent years I’d have a burst of creative energy or ideas once or twice a year but somehow I couldn’t convert it to a sustained practice that was taking me on the journey of discovery I wanted to have. What to do?

Not even the stay-at-home days of the pandemic had given me the push forward I needed. I searched and read and listened and scrolled to get inspired. While all of that was interesting, I had not yet figured out how to convert it to a practice.

One podcast inspired me to take an online course presented by an artist who came to her practice in her middle life. I enjoyed the course but when it was over once again I found myself with a few new skills and no practice, no direction.

The next time I was inspired by an online course, I was not even that successful. I followed the instructor’s lead, but realised it just wasn’t my thing. The next course I never even started. I loved the idea and his lessons were good but it just didn’t float my boat. Once again, it felt like I would be working in his style, rather than developing my own.

The holidays came and I was back to doing what I’ve become pretty good at, being a homemaker, wife and mother. I love all those things and don’t want to abandon them, but I want more. So when the holidays were over and I had caught up on rest, I was back to trying to get myself inspired. I thought what was lacking was inspiration so I followed more people on Instagram, watched YouTube, read inspiring stories and occasionally visited my drawing table with sporadic and unfulfilling results.

And then on January 14th came a TED talk. Even they had been falling a little flat for me in recent months. Everyone was trying to communicate their idea of something great. I didn’t want someone else’s ‘great’, I wanted my own. The TED recommendation came via email, and didn’t interest me. But I scrolled down the same page. An unassuming small talk by a woman I’d never heard of, piqued my curiosity. ‘The one minute secret to forming a new habit’…and it was only ten minutes long. I was in.

The talk was given by a novice video editor presenting from home, as per the covid-norm, and so it was a little annoying, but I kept telling myself, ten minutes is not that long unless you are having root canal work done, so hang in there. She stated her case for taking one minute out of every day to establish a new habit. Her new habit had been running. Her only stipulation? You have to be okay if you suck at it! C’mon, that is doable, right? I can suck with the best of them! That very day I began. I would take one minute and sit at my drawing table and doodle. To be honest, from day one, I took more than a minute. And I did suck most of the time. But I loved that sitting down, and embracing the suck-ness freed me up to keep coming back. It wasn’t about the quality of the work, it was about showing up.

Every day I sat down, and curiosity would take over. In seconds I was wondering what this colour or this mark would look like with that one and where it would all lead. And I reminded myself it didn’t matter if it sucked, I was just establishing the habit. Even the days when I didn’t feel like doing it, I sat down and did a little something.

After a few days my mood lightened. I felt happier within myself. Maybe it was just coincidence, I thought. After a week or so I noticed that I was having more creative moments throughout the day. I would look at something and immediately wonder what kind of drawing or painting that would make. I was taking more photos again, and not to post on Instagram, but as reference for potential drawings or paintings.

On day 10 I had taken a striking photo of the light at sunrise, of the houses and trees that we see from our place. That day I made the first pastel work that I have ever liked out of several attempts in years gone by. The next day I went back to sucking again.

Even though this piece was one of my very first it is still a favourite for the energy and simplicity of the image.

But the day after that, I still showed up for another minute…and another minute…and then more than a minute and then more than an hour! I couldn’t believe this simple change could make such a big difference so easily. Soon I found myself watching YouTube videos to learn how to use the soft pastels that are my new enthusiasm. Watching the videos was not included in my one minute session, that was in addition to the one minute, which by then, were almost never only one minute but stretched into half hours and more.

This was an early piece and I still didn’t have a grasp on how to layer the pastels, but I started learning rapidly.

I began to employ a little trick I used to use when painting more regularly. Years ago I’d noticed if I began a painting and had it, say, two thirds completed, enough to see where I was going with it, I would walk away from it for a day or two and then come back. It beckoned to me to come back and finish it, so it got me back into the studio again. This time, I found that I would not fret about how much time I had spent on an image, but I could leave it to return to later. As I walked in and out of the room, passed the table, I would glance at it and mull it over all the remainder of the day. Then, fresh with enthusiasm I would return and finish it next day. For many artists this doesn’t work. They find the mood is broken and they can’t get back into the flow of that work again. But in my case, it works. For me it’s important to self evaluate, not judge the work good or bad, but evaluate effective procedures and practices, study the colours and composition so I can modify things or use the time to advantage.

This was also a fairly early piece. I was just beginning to grasp how to work with the pastels.

For me, this little one minute change relegated my relentlessly judgemental self to a position that was much less inhibiting. It reduced the task to the smallest increment and allowed that to be crappy. I just had to show up. I’m good at showing up, just not very kind to myself about the results—or I wasn’t, until now! I will be writing more about my journey which is now beginning the sixth week. 

I have not missed a single day, but if I do, I will know how to begin again.

watching and the watcher…

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This time last year we were watching large swathes of Australia burn. I rescued a little kangaroo joey, that sadly died a few weeks later, too. As we watched the very disturbing video of our country on fire and the animals and humans in deep distress, so began a year of not wanting to turn on the news, but being afraid not to. I felt powerless. Of course things only got worse in that regard, as the year went on. I tried to focus on the things I could do something about…self, home, communications, donations and everyday life.

One very gratifying thing I did was donate to The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. They have done something that few recipients of my donations have done over the years. They send updates via their ‘go fund me’ page and by email. The most recent update brought tears to my eyes and I thought you would find it interesting to read. One of the main targets, funded by the donations, are drinking stations used not just by koalas, but other wildlife as well. It’s fills the most basic of needs, water, in a very dry land. And it involves humans to keep them maintained, which seems like a great way to raise our consciousness about what we can do. So here is their lovely update.

Mulla Mulla are lovely wildflowers, in varying colours from purple and fuschia to greenish yellow.

We are still reaping some rewards from the rains at Christmas, though we’ve had days filled with hot, dry wind and so things are drying out and looking tired again. There is no real rain in sight, but we watch the horizon with hope.

Cicadas are having a bumper year, if the number of nymph shells I’m seeing, and the deafening din are indicators. They are incredibly hard to see until they are lying dead on the ground. I gaze up at the trees and can never find them, though the tree is screaming with their presence. I did watch one flying a few days ago–a strange noisy blur as it went singing along overhead. I’m sure I’ve come across some mythological tale of the sound of cicadas being used to drive one of the gods insane. What chance does a mere mortal have? At least the carnivorous birds will be feasting well. Here is another little treat for your viewing pleasure, the work of artist Lucienne Rickard in Tasmania. She has spent the passed sixteen months drawing exquisite images of extinct Tasmanian animals and then erasing them for her Extinction Studies. Get the reference? In some cases she spent over a hundred hours doing a detailed drawing of an animal, and then erasing it while viewers watched on. Recently on her Instagram feed @luciennerickard she drew the loveliest life size image of a cicada nymph, not included in the extinction studies, just for ‘fun’. Her work is really superb and I highly recommend having a look.

Speaking of carnivorous birds…a family of Pied Butcherbirds (Cracticus nigrogularis) has settled around our place for the time being. They are mostly insect and small animal feeders, and they have the most beautiful song, similar to that of a Magpie. The two youngsters are nearly the size of the parents, which are about the size of crows, but their behaviours are that of teenagers–still wanting parents to feed them, and still wandering about, curious to test all kinds of things in the environment. One day a young one found its reflection in our windows and it pecked at the image, trying to get a response. The parent came along and tried to distract it, but the youngster was determined, so the parent must have thought, ‘Well there’s one that’s occupied for a while, I’ll go check on the other one!’ and flew away. Eventually the teenager departed, but it was back the next morning, peering into the glass deeply, turning its head side to side trying to figure out that alternate Universe on the other side.

Watching the watcher.

I feel a kinship with that young Butcherbird sometimes…wondering if there is some great intelligence watching me peer into the everything-ness, trying to figure out what to do with life on my side of the glass.

all the weather and love too…

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We worked our way through all the seasons in five days over Christmas. Three days before, it was pouring rain, which we badly needed and was an absolute gift. It was also unseasonably cool. My winter track suit even made an unexpected appearance one morning, but the high humidity had me changing again before lunch time. Ok, so our version of seasons is less extreme than most, but it was still quite unusual. We went from the hottest November on record, to almost the coolest Christmas on record. We only missed by about 2 degrees celsius….it was 26C (78F) and the record was 24.2C(75F)

The additions of daughter and sausage dog added their own weather pattern to the immediate environment. When the house that I had tidied within a hair of its existence suddenly looked like a whirlwind had hit, she laughingly swept her hand through the hair and sang ‘I’m home’. I realised I had missed all of the disarray and young energy.

The river flowed energetically for the first time in a couple of years. We’ve had other trickles and teases, but nothing that would lead one to believe the water table was being replenished. This one hinted it might just happen by the time La Niña is finished with us.

The normally dry Todd River five days ago after the last rain of 2020. Today it is dry again.

There are amazing changes that happen when you live in an arid zone and the rains come. First of all the smell is delicious…once you get passed that first shower that highlights the smell of decomposing things. Eew. The eucalyptus and rain trees perfume the air like walking into the soap factory we visited earlier this year. The factory made their own herbal and other essential oil essences and I could feel myself being uplifted with every breath. It is the same here, after a good rain. Driving to pick up my husband from the airport which I hadn’t done in almost a week, felt like I had been transported to another planet—the one with green stuff on the ground and a landscape that has been sharpened by a high definition filter.

Another change that rapidly takes place is not just the growth of plants, but the very appearance of them, where previously had been barren soil and rock. The wild Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) first emerged after a rainfall of only 10ml a few weeks ago. By the time another 80ml had come, it was filling every available space and growing larger each day. Surely I had just missed it in years passed, but it seemed to be everywhere! When we visited the soap factory at Babylonstoren earlier this year, we had taken a tour of the gardens. We learned that our common jade plant, growing with abandon, was edible! I’d seen kangaroo eating the tips of it but until our guide showed it to us and mentioned it was edible, I had not equated the kangaroo experience with a human one. She said, watching what animals eat can often give us a clue to what we can eat, and then there is chocolate which is toxic to dogs. Never mind. Wild Purslane is also edible, and has a salty, slightly sour taste and a slight crunch. It reminds me of the texture (but not the flavour) of Japanese wakame salad.

As well as the Purslane multiplying, the Naked Lady lilies positively raced toward the heavens with each day of cloud and rain. The day the cloud cleared, they opened their pinkness to the world. Their life is brief but there is no sadness to it. The blushing blossoms nod in the breezes, rejoicing a short, happy life.

Once the rain stopped, the cloud cleared fairly quickly but unfamiliar humidity remained heavily in the air and morning dew sparkled on the newly emerged green shoots. Insects flourished too, everything from mosquitoes to flying ants, bees, dragonflies and bush flies, a veritable feast for birds. We’ve already discovered a few intruders, attacking the refreshed garden. And so it goes. Temperatures returned to the more normal range, but on the very tolerant side through Christmas, and headed toward hot for the New Year. It was a wonderful break.

My usually quiet days turned to a happy mixture of baking and cooking, sausage cuddling, the occasional short nap, tv viewing, drinks with friends, gift exchanges and basking in love. Four days and a hundred photos later, the house was suddenly silent again. Only the orchestra of Pied Butcher birds and Cicadas singing, and the tumbling of the washing machine remained. There was no warm little body squirming into my lap, no funny quips or gorgeous smiles from our daughter, no reliable assistance and generous compliment from my husband. Armed with ham sandwiches and Christmas baking, at day break they slipped quietly out of the driveway and began their 1500 kilometre journey to her home. Faced with a pile of clothes, sheets and towels to wash, only the sheets now remain. Her perfume clings to them. Maybe they can wait until the scent has faded to nothing. Then I will be able to bear washing them. This was the first time in 8 years she had been able to be here for Christmas. Of all the years, this one would have been my choice.

Long may the memory last.

**The long drive happened because the airlines are not yet transporting animals and there was no place Allison could leave Leni while she came home. Her lovely Dad offered his driving services and flew down to drive with her north, and home again, and then flew home from Adelaide. It was a big effort for all of us, but so worth it.

memorable, forgettable, edible…

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I’ve been thinking of you. Hoping the demands of the season are not weighing too heavily. With that in mind I have a few things for you to think about in between wrapping, baking and decorating–because apparently it is no longer good for us to multi-task.

Last March, after the pandemic was declared but before we were home yet, we were having an adventure, isolated as we were, in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Around March 10, 11, 12 we visited an archipelago mostly known for the name of its largest island, Tristan Da Cunha. Due to Covid-19, we were not allowed to actually set foot on the island, as had been planned. But we viewed it from aboard zodiacs on several fascinating visits. The British holding is one of the most remote populated islands in the world. A week or so ago an article came into my awareness, that this tiny little population of about 250 people has announced that almost 700,000 sq km of its waters will become a marine protected area (MPA), the fourth largest such sanctuary in the world. It is always a thrill to see such news, but doubly so when it is a place you have seen with your own eyes. When you click on the article here and scroll down, you will see a sunset photo with albatross, that is very similar to one I took from the deck of our ship, shown below. (Do go see the photo of Rockhopper penguins, they are the funniest…think of Ramone in Happy Feet)

The next interesting thing that I have come across is touted as ‘the most striking images of 2020’–subjective, I know. However, if you take the time to read the articles paired with each of the eleven photos, you will have a deeper appreciation of why they may be considered such striking images. I’ll leave you to your own thoughts, but at the very least it is a noteworthy collection, recalling the incredible events of the year.

And then there was the podcast that nearly blew my tiny mind. In an interview with a scholar of ancient Mesopotamia and Cuneiform writing I learned that Noah’s Ark was actually round. Round! You can listen to Irving Finkel’s detailed description of how he learned this fact here. (Or watch the YouTube video here, it is even more entertaining!)

On a more local news front, the little garden project I began in May, at the beginning of last winter, has limped through the hottest November on record. And I do mean limped. Things went to seed, or burned in the sear of unseasonal heat. New seeds have failed to even sprout. Pests have been persistent and much of the time invisible to my untrained eye, except when I see the after effects by way of withered or newly munched leaves looking like lacy green decorations rather than viable edibles. I only use organic and non-toxic methods to get rid of diseases and pests, otherwise I wouldn’t want to eat them. In one case, however, my persistence has paid off. Call me Popeye, the spinach is very happy now.

In the case of the cherry tomatoes, I have failed miserably. I think by the time I figure the cost of the shade cloth, the tomatoes’s share of the pest control sprays, and the original seedlings, each of the 12 tomatoes I harvested before the plants died cost me about $2.75. I will be buying tomatoes from now on. And I will not be judgemental of tomato growers if there are a few blips of availability or quality in the grocery.

Herbs are growing well, except for parsley which has decided it really doesn’t want to play in this heat. Chillies have been a massive success, so much so that I harvested two cups of them in two weeks and had to make chilli sauce to use them all, and there are still over a dozen fresh chillies on the plant for day to day use. Score!

Not to labour the point, but… it’s been a year of uncertainty at the very least. At worst it has been a time to delve into our inner resources. Deeply. I truly wish each of you a peaceful holiday season and a new year of hope and strength.

Fear, uncertainty and discomfort are your compasses toward growth.–unknown

(just as well)

a year to be thankful…

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Poetry…Art…such small words holding such enormous and mysterious content. I grew up in awe of my grandmother’s poems and her brother’s art and have spent most of my life trying to make and understand both. Every birthday our cards would contain one of her works. They are saved in a box I can see from where I work right now. I would never throw them away because they were part of our shared story and my heritage. 

Her simple kind of poetry was all I understood for many years. Somewhere in High School when we studied Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare, poetry lost me. But I kept looking for it. I have collected a few favourite poems in the last couple of decades. Occasionally I’ve shared them here with you, but few whose work I consistently relate to. Mary Oliver is a favourite, also Kahil Gibran (Grandma also liked his work). Recently I have discovered a poet whose work has so moved me, I listened to the interview with him three times over and intend listening again…and possibly another time after that. I bought his most recent work ‘how to love a country’ because it spoke to me of both the country of my birth and the country of my self discovery. It is a very fun interview and if you are not too busy making pumpkin pie and basting turkey, I highly recommend it here.

Richard Blanco was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain and migrated with his family when he was 45 days old to Miami, Florida. Many times when asked about my unusual name, I have told people ‘my family heritage is Italian and German and I was born in America but have lived most of my life in Australia’. As far as I know my parents never asked the person whose name I have, where it came from. Maybe in the early 1950’s one didn’t ask such questions. All I have been able to find out is perhaps it is ancient Greek. If all of that doesn’t make me a citizen of the world, I don’t know what will. Richard tells people ‘I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States’. I understood immediately.

I found, after all these years, that I could love narrative poetry–poetry that tells a story…in particular, his narrative poetry. This week of America’s Thanksgiving, in this year of two thousand and struggles, I thought would be a good time to share the work of Richard Blanco. At my first Thanksgiving in Australia there were only two native Australians out of twelve at our table. Having shared Thanksgiving dinners with Australians, visiting nationalities and Immigrants, I can relate to the many humorous questions and explanations of the traditions. If you want to hear his reading of their family experience, below, (which I highly recommend) go to the link above and download it or go to your favourite podcast provider and download On Being with Krista Tippett/Richard Blanco.

América

“A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita (granny)
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s majesty,
‘one if by land, two if by sea’
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the ‘masses yearning to be free’
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey …
[laughter]
as well as pork.

[laughter]
Abuelita prepared the poor fowl
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamà set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I had to translate from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolus,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworths.
Everyone sat in green velvet chairs
we had upholstered with clear vinyl,
except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated
in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.
I uttered a bilingual blessing
and the turkey was passed around
like a game of Russian Roulette.
‘DRY’, Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly–‘esa mierda roja,’ he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie—
pumpkin—calabasa—was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
[laughter]
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family
began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,
sweating rum and coffee
sweating rum and coffee until they remembered—
it was 1970 and 46 degrees—
in América.
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.”

While this may not be the year where we get everything we want, it may be the year to be thankful for everything we have.

small things…

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I spent the morning in a brain fog that simply left me feeling zombie-like. It was just the tiredness that accompanies fibromyalgia but nonetheless, immobilising. At 9am I had a nap. It was a dreaming sleep that removed the fog, if not completely restoring my sense of self. Restful and adequate sleep has eluded me most of the last 20 years. Some days I can nap and compensate but others life demands more from me. 

None of my creative endeavours will flow when I am in deep, sleep deficit. Just over a week ago I received notice from WordPress that my subscription was due, so I renewed. And then wondered why? I sometimes go ages without the muse visiting me, or without being able to act upon it when she does, because my brain is so tired it simply doesn’t want to play.

But here I am clicking along on the keyboard after my dreamy nap, wanting to tell you that there is still magic in life. That is always my intention, though my writing skill may not always accomplish the goal.

We seem to have dodged another bullet…or two. Last week we were in Adelaide, primarily for me to have my yearly oncology check. As the years tick by and things remain clear I sometimes wonder if this is a waste of resources to keep checking. But it is part of the self-care we need to do for both mental and physical reasons, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. This year was particularly difficult to organise due to Covid restrictions and regulations, but we did it…a few months late, but we did it. The bright spot is that we always get to visit with our daughter who lives in Adelaide when we go for the appointment. And that is never a small thing. A parent loves to see with their own eyes that their child, who has been through a difficult time, is doing well.

We always enjoy our time in Adelaide, good food, coffee, a little shopping, a little nature, more coffee, and a change of scenery.

This time we also enjoyed new street art that has appeared and enlivens the place.

After a couple of days in the city, I usually feel the need to get closer to nature. A botanic garden is seldom far way here. It was such a lovely morning spotting all kinds of native and wild flowers and plants, as well as some exotics. As we were leaving the Mt Lofty Botanic Garden something called me to look back, and up, the way you feel when someone across the room is staring your way. When I turned around there were eyes looking at me…from trees. Do you see them? Thinking I might be the first weirdo to have seen this, I photographed them. Turns out an Australian, artist Joshua Yeldham, observed the same thing in Aspen trees of Colorado. I have only today learned of the trees and his short film, called ‘Providence’. It was a tiny little gift to see this after having that recent experience. Had I not seen the eyes with my own, I might not have believed him when he spoke of feeling the woods looking at him. These marks are made when a limb falls off. What if the woods can see us, but by means we are yet to understand? Read The Hidden Life of Trees if you think I’m being silly. I would almost believe anything is possible after reading this.

On Wednesday, November 11 we returned home. Four days later it was announced there was a new Covid outbreak in Adelaide, where previously there had been no community transmission since April. It has now been a week since our return and we appear to have once again had good juju on our side. Yesterday we have learned of the hard lockdown of Adelaide for six days, in an effort to create a ‘circuit breaker’ and keep the virus from becoming transmitted more widely. It was brought into Australia by a person traveling from the UK and the strain is a different one than we have previously had. It appears to infect people more easily and make them infectious to others more quickly. It began in a quarantine hotel, probably from a contaminated surface, and then transmitted to a large family group. Tracing practice is gold standard and they are on top of it, but things are changing daily, of course. With holidays nearly upon us…we wait…and hope. Our governments, both state and national have looked after us during this time. That is no small thing either.

Meanwhile, I have harvested my first cherry tomato. A very small pleasure, to be sure, but very enjoyable. The garden is demanding regular care and attention at the moment as our temps hit the 40’s (105F-111F) last week. The pests are out and have my juicy morsels in their sights! I have erected shade cloth and added more watering to my schedule. The promised rain did not reach us here in town, but 15 kilometres away at the airport, where the official gauges are, they measured 14mm. Who said nature was fair? We have had more dust and hot, dry winds. With the din of cicadas whirring at high pitch, The Apocalypse is seeming more possible.

Those three small falcons that hatched high atop a sky scraper in Melbourne six weeks ago, are no longer small. The day before we left for Adelaide they looked decidedly ugly, but on our return they had nearly finished with their downy feathers, looking as if they had put on fine suits to attend their launch into the world. The next day…they were gone. I miss them, but am so happy to have seen them grow and that all three survived is a testament to the miracle of nature.

November 5, and one week later they were gone.

There is always a small thing to be grateful for, whether it is the sleep of dreams, the miracle of nature or a small red orb that disappears in a single juicy mouthful, pungent with the warmth of summer sun and dispensing childhood memories.

Appreciating small things is no small thing.

the waiting game…

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This morning on my walk I looked up and noticed in the distance over Mt. Gillen, virga falling from the clouds. We long for it to reach the ground but too often it doesn’t. We wait for rain…nearly always. Since the clouds were especially pretty and the ranges were still in sunshine I scrambled up a rocky outcrop to get a better view. And perhaps a photo.

By the time I reached the best photographic viewpoint, the virga was nearly finished. In my head, there was a niggling little voice saying ‘wait’. It brought back the memory of a recent lesson learned while photographing the wildlife in the Southern Ocean. Our generous and skilled National Geographic photographer, Ken, stood over my shoulder as I was trying to capture a particular shot of penguins. He whispered ‘Wait…….wait……wait….NOW!’. For him it was a teaching moment, for me it was a crystal clear moment of insight. Since then, I try to remember that one thing when taking photos…wait. Sometimes it is waiting for the animals to do something special, sometimes it is waiting for them to appear at all. Other times I wait for the light, because that is really what makes photographs sing, the quality of light. It is only light that makes a photograph, after all.

As I looked at the ranges with camera poised, waiting, a small flock of Galahs wheeled by in the distance. I tapped and captured them flying in front of a tree with the ranges in the background.

I returned home, reminded of that valuable lesson months ago, and began a sort of out of my mind experience watching myself in various waiting modes. As I sat in the courtyard getting my daily dose of UV light to make vitamin D, I waited. I ruminated over the seeds I’d planted in the garden, wondering how long I would wait for this new batch to sprout. Had I waited too long to plant the new ones…perhaps…more waiting required.

Later, I peeled mandarins for breakfast, the intense citrus aroma returning me to days of Christmas passed, when as children we waited with great anticipation for that special time. I waited for the sourdough bread to become golden toast. Once covered with butter dripping through the holes and onto the plate I did not wait to eat it. Having licked the plate mostly clean, I rinsed it while looking up and out to the garden. There, two precious native lilies nodded in dappled sunlight. The blossoms were perfectly imperfect and there was no sense waiting any longer to capture that moment forever. 

Later for morning tea I sliced a serving of what has become my most savoured treat. Almond croissant. Having refused previous offers made to purchase my favourite pastry, I deemed this morning the wait was over. During the winter Don had enlightened me about a piece he read stating that some expert or other had researched and reported tea is the perfect drink with pastry or cake…not coffee. Having tested this theory with a few willing sweet sacrifices, I concluded that for me at least, it seemed correct. But perhaps a bit more research was required. And so I added the perfect amount of organic tea leaves to a pot and waited while the kettle almost boiled so as not to make the tea bitter. I waited three minutes for the tea to steep and poured a cup to marry with my long awaited sweet.

We can hold multiple things at once in our minds. That is one of our human superpowers. We can be miserable and still grateful, sad and still laughing, and we can wait for things while still doing something…and that something is breathing. Waiting can bring the best of results, if in the waiting we understand it is part of the fabric of our life. It just is.

just to be alive…

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I love it when things in my life collide with one another—in a good way. I wrote a couple of months ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) about the garden I built and planted this winter. It continues to be a revelation in all kinds of unexpected ways.

I have learned that it is better, in most cases, to plant seeds in situ, rather than be tempted by the faster route of seedlings that are bobbing their little heads fetchingly from their tiny pots in the nursery and garden centres. Seeds sprouted in the exact place they will grow seem to understand they are at home and can grow accordingly. So, given enough water and some sunshine they get on with it. Whereas seedlings, sprouted and grown in their little pots thousands of kilometres away, in most cases, in hothouse conditions or entirely different places from where they finish up, are in shock when they end their journey in the middle of dry Central Australia. Even taking all care, I’ve watched them struggle and  eventually not yield very well and then go to seed quickly. Whereas the things I’ve planted from the right, well chosen seed, take a couple of weeks longer but kick on and look hearty and the yield is very good. Don’t we all do better when planted in the right place?

I’ve also learned I can plant less than I thought, now that I have a good growing base. We are about to drown in lettuce and rocket (arugula), for example! And don’t ask why I thought I needed 7 basil plants! Must be a throwback to the Italian genes. I’ve already put away one lot of pesto in the freezer and it’s not even summer yet. I dug up and gave away one of the basil plants because things were growing into one another. My lovely friend who does little paving and brick laying jobs was the happy recipient. I traded him for some pieces of old pavers on which we could sit our pots up out of the excess water that sometimes accumulates in the saucers.

In addition to the plant growth, it appears a potential family of Magpie Larks has moved into the palm tree that overlooks the new garden bed. They are not my favourite bird in appearance or sound, which is rather strident and irritating, but there is no bird who shows more joy having a bath in the residual water after rain. And I especially love the way they patrol the garden and eat insects! Whichever of the species builds the nest, I assume the female, decided this was a friendly place to raise her chicks. I keep a bowl of water for animals, there is soil around to build the mud base of the nest, and sugar cane mulch to fluff out the upper layer, ready for eggs and long spells of sitting. We also have a lot of native vegetation to attract birds, and no pets to bother them.

Can you see the white underside of the tail of the Lark? It is near the centre of the fronds. It has wrapped mud around the palm frond and is now adding a layer of sugar cane mulch to make it comfy.
As I tend the garden I can look up (carefully) and watch the Lark’s building progress.

A few days ago I was tending my garden and there was a noisy crow sitting atop that chimney on the neighbour’s roof, only about six or so feet from the Lark who was working on the last stages of the nest. Suddenly the crow, about four times the size of the Lark, lunged at it, hoping, no doubt, to eat eggs in the nest. The little Lark loudly called out, threw her little feet in the air, flapping wings wildly to fight off the crow, just as her mate flew up from very nearby to assist and save his lady love. The crow was chastened and left immediately. I fear he will return, however. It’s a bird eat bird world out there.

Today I have seen the Lark sitting on the nest as if there might be something worth sitting for. I hope so. Or maybe she was just testing it for the fluff factor. It has been National Bird Week here and I participated in a bird count every day this week. Wouldn’t it be nice to boost the count with some little hatchlings? A bit too soon I know, but a girl can dream.

I’ve been doing further chick checks on the Peregrin Falcons in Melbourne, and taking photos for those of you who don’t have time to check. There isn’t always much to see except sleeping chicks, and gathering debris. Ugh, it’s a very unhygienic looking area now. Today I was watching the three somewhat comatose chicks rearrange themselves when one in the back raised its bum and squirted poop in a very impressive arc all over the one in the front–still asleep. Siblings, eh? Feeding time is not appealing either, but very interesting. I was lucky to catch both parents there for one feeding session and snapped a screen shot for you. The female is the larger of the two and if I may anthropomorphise for a moment, looks quite unimpressed at her mate who is doing the feeding and perhaps sneaking a bite for himself? Imagine raising triplets! These two are really working hard at this parenting thing.

The female is the one in the back, looking unimpressed. The male wondering what he’s done wrong now?
Look at the size of those feet!

We have had rain. Not a lot, but enough to green the place a bit. We had 21mm a couple of weeks ago and another 6mm since. For those of you who regularly get rain this will seem like a drizzle, but here it is substantial enough to bring changes. Rain is magic for gardens and everything, in fact. It washes the leaves free of their red dust and everything looks crisp and clean again. And the smell of eucalyptus and whatever magic is in moistened desert dust is divine. The La Niña weather pattern is predicted to bring us more of the wet stuff over the coming few months and we are all feeling a bit greedy for it. We dusted off our rain gauges and send text messages…

Can someone please let us in, there’s a lot of wet stuff out here.

‘Did you get rain?’

‘Yes, we got 5mm, how about you?’

‘No, it missed us completely.’

And so on.

Good soaking rain for the garden.

The cherry tomato vines are growing like stink, the fig tree has its first babies and they are growing daily, and my lovely Bay tree that is about 15 years old and has survived my benign neglect for most of those years, has hit its stride and joined the happily growing throng.

My treasured Bay tree with chartreuse new growth.
I haven’t bought a bay leaf in over 10 years!

And finally. Filling in the spaces of time between the many and varied activities of a domestic engineer/gardener/tech consultant/sporadic blogger, I’m trying to again find my mojo as a practicing artist. To take away the intimidation of a white canvas, I cut up a cardboard box, primed it and painted a loose little scene of my beloved Spinifex Pigeons and Finches from our recent trip to Kings Canyon.

Spinifex pigeons and Finches

There are plenty of unpleasant things going on around us too, but I choose to spend as much time as possible in the realm of nature, Rilke and Mary Oliver…

Invitation

Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy

and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks

drink the air

as they strive

melodiously

not for your sake,

and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude-

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.

I beg of you,

do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.

It could mean everything.

It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.

—Mary Oliver