Friday, December 30, 2011
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Our oldest daughter started school at The Local three years ago. It was a small school when we chose it. We shopped around because that’s what parents seem to these days, looking at three schools in the area. We were impressed by the big school 10 minutes drive away, charmed by the little (but not as little as The Local) school adjacent to Fred's kinder about 8 minutes drive away with its mix of new and old buildings. Both these schools are serviced by a bus that passes on the main road, five minutes walk from our house. But Fred loved The Local the best, and I favoured the idea of a local school, one we could walk to. When we chose it we thought there were about 85 kids, by the time Fred started there were 65.
Her class size, a combined prep/1/2, was fairly normal, about 25 kids total, with two teachers in the expansive double unit. It seemed in many ways an ideal set up. The extremely experienced prep teacher was kind and gentle. I have never in three years heard her raise her voice. The other teacher in the room was also experienced, but with a different style. They seemed to complement each other.
By the time Fred was in grade two, the numbers of the whole school had dropped dramatically to 37. Her grade of ten was down to eight. My other daughter, Una, started the school as one of only two preps, for the second year in a row. The art teacher had left, as had several other staff members. The school was down to three permanent teachers (all very senior), and there was no longer two teachers in Fred's classroom - it was her third year in a row with the same teacher.
The Local School offers many opportunities to students, inter-school sport where everyone gets a turn from grade 3 to 6 (sometimes combining with other smaller schools to make a team), a lovely music program, PE, and a larger than usual number of whole school excursions and incursions. There are discos and bush dances and this year the parents participated in a progressive dinner party. The whole school is performing The Wizard of Oz tomorrow night. The kids care for a small but productive vegetable garden. The students host assembly each week. The OSHC program is staffed by a dynamic and creative young woman.
In the winter terms the kids have Cubbyland: using found objects they make little houses in a gully of trees. They form tribes and beg, borrow and steal supplies (one year a talented boy sang for sticks). The cubbies are dismantled every Friday, new tribes form on Monday. The politics of Cubbyland are intricate and impossible for an outsider to really fathom, especially a grown up. The self governing works pretty well. It's kind of like Lord of the Flies, but, as the Principal once said to me, 'without the Piggy killing.'
We’ve had problems at the school, some of them resolved easily, even elegantly, and some not to our satisfaction. I am sure this is true of every parent at every school, but it can be hard not to take it personally in a school of 37 kids. Still, mostly our kids' experiences at The Local have been great. Fred particularly is devoted to the school.
I have to admit, it’s been a little demoralising to be part of a school that feels like it’s dying, that doesn’t have the support of the local community – so many parents travel out of the area for school. It’s a vicious cycle. The smaller the school gets, the less people are inclined to choose it for their own children. 'Our school is not very popular,' Una said to me out of the blue in the car a few weeks ago as we drove up the hill out of Warrandyte where - a long time ago, a whole year - she'd gone to creche. 'No,' I admitted. 'It's not very popular.' She sighed. 'I'd like to go to a popular school.' Una and I have had a conversation along these lines every few weeks since before she even started at The Local. In fact over three years ago, when I was looking at schools for Fred Una came with me. She walked out of the Big School and said, 'This is my school.'
When Avery was born last year a friend commented (on this blog I think) 'You’ll populate that tiny school yet.' Unfortunately she was wrong. In the last two weeks we have made the decision to move our children to the Big School ten minutes away.
So we are saying goodbye to our tiny school and it's a sad goodbye. I love the school. I love the staff: I respect them as educators; I like them as people. I feel invested in the other children and the idea that I won’t be there in 2015 to see Fred’s class graduate is a sad thought. Although I know my children are ready for the challenges of the big school, for a busy and vibrant program, and for a larger circle of friends, I do feel that I am taking something precious away from them as well.
Mostly though I am mourning for myself. I love the walk to school in the mornings. I like feeling a part of the place, the relationship I have with the teachers, the easy, casual vibe with the other parents. I’ll miss arriving early to pick up the kids and wandering the corridor with Avery. I’ll miss the relaxed school uniform, that I can send them in streetwear if we're behind in our laundry. I'll miss the way I can hold the whole school in my head, I'll miss knowing who they play with. I'll miss miniature army, and the way all the older kids are ascribed family titles "mother", "uncle", "aunt".
We told them on Saturday, after their Friday night school disco. We decided to tell them separately, so we took them out "Christmas shopping". I took Una. I pulled over by the side of the road, opposite the Big School. I told her to climb over into the front seat, I had something to tell her. She looked at me very seriously. I explained she was going to change schools, that she was going to go to a more popular school. Her face lit up, her eyes shone. Everything pleased her - the Italian and violin lessons
Martin told Fred. I couldn't, I was worried that if she cried I would cry, and it would send the wrong message. I've been crying a lot about it. For the week after we signed the forms and before we told them I'd been sick with anxiety over it. Every time Fred hugged me or just simply looked happy and at peace I felt like a traitor. And as I thought would happen Fred burst into tears. But almost immediately she was okay. She knew she would miss her school and her friends. Yet the idea of a big bustling population of kids was undeniably exciting, and her outlook now is positive.
The teachers who haven't taught Fred yet are sad to see her go, they've both been looking forward to having her in their classes. 'I just hope,' says the 5/6 teacher, 'that conventional school doesn't take away her spark.' What I don't say, but have discovered, is that there is more pressure to conform at a small school, perhaps not from the institution but certainly from the other kids. I think socially at least Fred will be able to be more herself. To some extent she'll be able to create the community she wants to be a part of, instead of being forced to fit in with the 5 other girls in her class, or risk being an outsider.
So far the other parents have been disappointed but understanding. The sick feeling is slowly subsiding. As my friend Jelly said, coming and going is part of school life, even (perhaps especially) at our small school.
Yesterday the girls did a practice at the Big School. We got there during the lunch hour and the girls went off to explore the playground. I tried to keep both of them in my sights, worried that they wouldn’t know what to do when the bell rang, and got a little panicked as Una chased a boy she knew from Kinder in one direction and Fred wandered off with two preps interrogating her in another direction.
Instead of a bell they played music to signal the return to classes. I found Una staring at three rubbish bins, oblivious to the sudden tide of kids heading back to the school buildings.
'There’s music coming out of that bin,' she told me.
I delivered Una to her teacher, a warm woman who lives out our way and used to be the library teacher – so I think we will like each other. She was expecting Una and greeted her by name. One of Fred’s prep groupies from the playground was in Una’s class and volunteered to take care of her.
I took Fred round to her room a small, slightly pokey portable - so different from the expanse of space at the Local. The kids were lined up outside and Fred recognised a girl from kinder who lives near us, who we see regularly at the library bus. Her new teacher is tall and smily and used to captain the Australian volleyball team. Apparently he asked the class if anyone knew what an acrostic is and Fred-the-poet stuck up her hand and explained it to the class. Her acrostic was:
Doesn’t like eggs.
I love that she chose Funny and Reading to describe herself.
As I write this I hear the Local School bell, signalling recess. I love that sound, it makes me think of my children, I can picture them dropping their pencils, running outside to play.
I know they’re going to be fine. I just hope I can say the same about me.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Sunday, November 06, 2011
In St Andrews, as in many suburbs and towns all over Australia, kids go trick or treating on Halloween. My kids went last year as part of a group, up the main street with a couple of plucky parents. They asked to go again this year, this time just with me. I angsted about it. It's not part of our cultural tradition and it felt wrong to let my girls go round knocking on doors caging lollies off the neighbours (though I know that wasn't the main appeal - they just wanted to dress up and parade around the area). I said yes with all sorts of caveats, with a plan that I would email our immediate surrounding neighbours to forewarn them or that I would send the kids out with treats to deliver rather than simply to receive.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
What was your earliest inspiration to write?
I was born with an ear for stories. Composing (music, songs, poetry, plays) seemed a natural thing to do, rearranging found objects into new structures.
Who is your favourite book character (any book) and why?
I’m going to be cheeky here and pick one of my own – I don’t think you ever really love a book character as much as one you have created. At the moment it’s Clara from Only Ever Always. She is brave and stern and fierce, but so vulnerable and has an enormous capacity for love. Her very existence is a philosophical conundrum, and I like that in a girl.
What is the best feedback a reader has ever given you?
Before my first novel Undine was published, Random House sent the manuscript out to teen readers for feedback. One girl answered the form questions in a positive but fairly perfunctory manner, but then added a note at the end saying she couldn’t put into words how the book had made her feel and how it was unlike anything she’d ever read. Her speechlessness was very touching.
What was your favourite picture book as a child?
John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I find it impossible to put into words how that book makes me feel, and I suspect it's more in the pictures than the words. So I'll tell you about another book, an odd little number called The Little Slipper Man. It’s a German picture book, quite nihilistic, about a miniature invisible man who no one can see. One day he steals a pair of psychedelic slippers (his little stalk legs slipping around inside each one) and runs down the street and feels very special and important until he realises everyone is looking at the slippers and not him. So he goes back into the meadow, disappears into the long grass and continues his insignificant, inconsequential existence. Not sure, now I have recounted the tale, why it appealed so much. I must try and track it down.
What are you reading right now?
Reading has been a challenge this year. I've wanted desperately to do it, but I am short on space. Avery sleeps in our room during the day and we only have one living area so in winter when the girls are home I have nowhere to go. Still, I am managing to find some reading spaces. This year I've been reading books concurrently, frustrated by how long it takes me to get through a book. I always have one or two collections of short stories on the go because I am enjoying them so much and sometimes I can even manage a whole one in a sitting before the baby cries or the television fires up or a child wants a snack.
I am reading quite diversely in terms of genre, though looking through this list I see that nearly everything is Australian, except for The Lottery. I had a deep craving about a month ago for Australian writing, which is what led me to seek out Patrick White. I am hooked, and plan to read another after this one. The only other I've read was The Vivisector in my early twenties. I am keen for recommendations.
Novel: Patrick White The Aunt's Story
Non-fiction: Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham and Kinglake 350 by Adrian Hyland
YA: Merrow by Ananda Braxton-Smith
Audiobook: The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Short Stories: Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
If you could set a story in any time or place, where would it be?
44 rue des Écoles, on 25 February 1980.
If there is one book you wish you’d written, what is it?
The Gruffalo. I greatly admire those effortless rhymes. How gloriously smug Julia Donaldson must feel, and so she should.
If you could sit next to any historical figure on a plane, who would it be and why?
An ordinary person with a tale to tell from any period in history (which is why I like Malouf’s Ransom so much).
If you could give one sentence of writing advice what would it be?
Which literary quote best defines you?
“There is an extraordinary charm in other people’s domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else’s garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens.”
C.S. Lewis, Time and Tide, 16 June 1945
*Originally answered for the Ballarat Writers and Illustrators Festival, though I've updated my reading list.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Friday, September 02, 2011
Monday, August 29, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Saturday, August 13, 2011
3/4 cup caster sugar
1 cup SR flour
- Into a 1 cup metric measuring cup break your eggs and fill to the top with thickened cream.
- Beat 1 minute.
- Add a splash of vanilla essence and the caster sugar.
- Beat 3 minutes. It will go lovely and thick.**
- Sift the flour in and fold into mixture.
- Spoon into 12 patty pans (about half full). Bake in moderate oven until light golden and cakes spring back when lightly touched in the centre (I think this took 12 minutes in my fanforced oven).
Sunday, July 31, 2011
And a new month brings a new book. Come out and see me.
And if you can't come, you could buy a book, stand for about 30 minutes, eat a biscuit, smile and nod to someone standing next to you (real or imagined, kudos if you manage to get someone to do it with you), applaud politely, mingle and pretend you are there.
I will blog a little more about the book in the days to come.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Ship Song Project - Sydney Opera House reinterprets Nick Cave's iconic song. Performed by Neil Finn, Kev Carmody and The Australian Ballet, Sarah Blasko, John Bell, Angus and Julia Stone, Paul Kelly and Bangarra Dance Theatre, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Opera Australia, Martha Wainwright, Katie Noonan and The Sydney Symphony, The Temper Trap, Daniel Johns and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Directed by Paul Goldman.
Arranged by Elliott Wheeler.
Photography by Prudence Upton.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Martin: They were bright. I flashed my lights at him to tell him his lights were too bright.
Una: (thoughtful pause.) He or she.
Una: Why do you always say he when you're talking about someone you don't know?
Martin: Do I?
Una: Yes, when you mean she or he, you always say he. Why do you do that?
Martin: Social conditioning.
Una: I know why Daddy always says he. Because he likes boys the best.
Una: I am going to close my eyes and dream about Raphael. I am going to dream he gives me the true love kiss and then we will dance the tango.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Fred: I'm hiding.
Una: From you.
Fred: Well not from you. From a person called You.
After watching Justin Bieber (Una is an out and proud Belieber and I suspect Fred is a closet one) on the Tubes I said, "Do you want to see someone I used to love when I was a teenager?"
They were both extremely keen on the idea. So I searched for the film clip of Never Tear Us Apart, my favourite INXS song. My goodness, what a festival of eighties New-Romantic glam-pop gender-bending aesthetic that is, I had to keep pointing out which one was Michael Hutchence and which the random wafting girl. And of course the whole thing is filmed in Prague. Of course it is. Wikipedia describes the song as "a sensuous ballad, layered with synthesizers and containing dramatic pauses before the instrumental breaks. Kirk Pengilly lends a cathartic saxophone solo near the end." You gotta love a cathartic saxophone solo. You just don't get that anymore. Music today. Etcetera. Everytime Frederique sings "I'm wearing all my favourite brands brands brands" a little part of me dies inside.
As I watch the clip I think how young Michael Hutchence looks, how soft in his jawline, how clean and safe.
"Did you really like him?" Una asks.
"Yes," I say.
"I like him," Frederique reassures me.
"Do you know the really sad thing?" I say. "He died."
"Was he old?"
"Not very old. About my age I think."
"How did he die?"
"Well, he was all alone in a hotel room. No one's really sure if it was an accident or if he did it on purpose."
"Maybe he was murdered," Fred suggests.
"Mm," I make a non-committal noise.
"Maybe," says Una with relish, "it's one of the world's last mysteries."
"Like Tutenkahmen,' says Fred.
"Yeah," says Una. "No one knows how he died."
But later Una comes up to me and says "I think he must have done it on purpose. If he was all alone in the hotel."
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
‘I’m going to wake her,’ Dad says.
Not yet. You squeeze your eyes shut. It’s too soon.
‘No,’ Mum urges. ‘Let her sleep.’
Climbing the stairs are the steady, dogged tones of an arpeggio. There is no magic in the relentless rise and fall of these broken chords. This is earth music, hard music, the most grounded music there is. It marches into your dreaming, and though you try to hold onto the dream, you can’t.
You are awake.
From Only Ever Always, in bookshops August 2011
Monday, July 11, 2011
Saturday, July 09, 2011
Friday, July 08, 2011
So the rest of us went to the zoo. It was free for kids. It would have been a reasonably inexpensive day out if I hadn't got a parking ticket. Turns out you have to pay to park at the zoo. I am sure I would have noticed that if I hadn't been busy wrangling three children on my own. OH WELL.
Snake charmer (I freaked Freddy out by telling her the snake was trying to hypnotise her. She never wants to go in the reptile house again. Which is a shame because it is my favourite part of the zoo. Also it was warm.)
The butterfly house was also warm. This butterfly hung out with us for ages, allowing itself to be passed between the girls, then to another boy, then back to Fred again. Finally it flapped slowly away. It was either new (drying its wings) or very old.
The bears I love the bears the best.
Just to prove he was also there, this is Avery in the butterfly house. He liked looking at the butterflies, but his two favourite things at the zoo were the people and the fat greasy pigeons at the caf where we sat and ate our sandwiches and peanut butter and white chocolate blondies (another holiday activity).
Yesterday we went to buy new boots but the shoe shop lady poked the toes of Fred's beloved old boots and declared them fine till the end of winter. Fred was extremely pleased and we saved, ooh, about the cost of a parking ticket. We wandered through the dark dim shopping centre to the scrapbooking shop to buy some paper for making with. They were doing classes and on a high from not spending money on boots I booked the girls into an afternoon class.
Thursday, July 07, 2011
I have a story Trick of the Light in July's Kill Your Darlings. Apparently they spelt my name wrong, but I have forgiven them because I am a magnanimous mammal.
Doesn't Kill Your Darlings look evil when you put fullstops in it? It's actually writerly advice from Faulkener - it basically means delete all extraneous writing (which is usually those frilly self indulgent bits, in my case it's nearly always in the form of a prologue or extended character thinkery).
Friday, July 01, 2011
It clambers the fence
and waves purple flowers.
The dusky green haze of
on the high side of the house
is suddenly shocked with gold.
The sun looks down
on the early jonquils,
surprised to meet itself
in my winter garden.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Anyway, Una and I wended our way to the crossing.
"No Freddy today?" the guard asked us.
"But she's already crossed hasn't she?"
The crossing guard frowned, trying to remember. "I don't think so." But she wasn't sure, though there's probably only half a dozen or so families who regularly walk to school (there's only about 30 familes at the school, and many of them are too far away from 'town' to walk). Anyway, Una and I crossed over and looked around the playground. No sign of Fred. I wanted to leave Una with the pram so I could run back and look for her, but Una, also worried, wanted to come too. I was making a plan (leaving Avery and Una with Jools in the office) when Fred came hurtling into the school yard, tears streaming down her face, followed by one of the other Grade Two mums.
She was crying and shaking, still frightened, in shock I think. Seeing me safe and well, with Una and Avery, also made her a little angry I think. I took them into the classroom and then Fred and I went to the staffroom where I held her while she calmed down. It took her a long time to stop shaking.
"I called out," I told her. "Didn't you hear me?"
It turns out Fred hadn't heard me. She had run ahead to talk to Jake the dog. When I didn't follow she got increasingly worried. She walked back up the road, realised I'd "disappeared" and began howling.
"What did you think had happened to me?" I asked later, guilty, exasperated.
She couldn't tell me.
Anyway until Saturday I thought that the next thing that had happened was the other mum had picked her up, driven back to our place to see if we'd gone home for something and then taken Fred to school. But on Saturday night we had a progressive dinner in the area, moving from house to house to eat the various courses. It's not something I've ever done before, but Martin used to do it as a kid. It was a great night, a fundraiser for the school, and the cooking was exceptional - a few foodies among us I think (highlight was the slow roasted tomato tart with pistachio crust). It was an utterly charming occasion, like everything out this way, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. Anyway, during the soup course (one long table in the big kids wing at the school) I was sitting opposite Jake's owner and she told me of her encounter with Fred.
"Jake was barking this really weird bark," she said. "I knew something was wrong. It was very strange."
She came outside and found poor howling Fred.
"My mum's disappeared," Fred told her. Fred has dramatic tendencies and has a flair for following things beyond their logical conclusion. "She was right behind me and now she's gone."
This was when the grade two mum saw them talking and stopped to pick Fred up.
I apologised to Fred a few times that morning before I left her (I stayed in class for an hour to do some reading activities with the prep/one/twos) and again when I picked her up.
"Don't worry about it Mum," Fred said, but she looked hollow and haunted every time I brought it up.
We've been playing scrabble together on the iPhone and her iPod Touch.Okay, so it's not like in my childhood where a game of scrabble was a companionable hour or so with my Nanna, but I really enjoy playing with her. One of the best aspects is the chat feature. It's like a meta-narrative:
"Mum, I don't want to talk about it." That took the wind out of me. I wanted to talk to her. I like to think I am a persuasive talker, and I wanted to convince her of my version: she was never really in danger for a start. It was a misunderstanding.
"Are you angry with me?" I asked her that evening.
"A little bit," she admitted. Then, not looking at me. "I don't want to talk about it."
We've mentioned it since then, in passing mostly. This morning I told her what Jake's owner said about his unusual bark, she liked the idea that Jake had helped her.
You know it's not a big drama. If it's the worst thing that happens to Fred this year then she's a pretty lucky girl. And look at what a great community we have, how quickly she was cared for by other mums, and by the neighbour's dog.
It's funny these hairline cracks. So faint they hardly show. But it's a faultline (a fault line) between mother and daughter. It's part of the continental shift, the stretch and pull and collision and rupturing of our two selves. How can such a thing like maternal separation not leave scars? It's almost like this had to happen. Oh not exactly this, not necessarily this sequence of events. But somehow: the acting out of the conflict within, the dramatisation of the internal drama of the self in which the archetypes, mother and child, each play out their role, like puppets on a string. She had to know that one day she could turn around and I will be gone.