Settled, happy and loving Hobart. (I’m breaking my no-photos-of-the-kids rule, just this once.) Here we are, set up for Mummy School while Keith beaver away on his real job in a little bungalow out the back. Missing the last 5 weeks of terms is giving me the chance to live out a few of my teacher dreams… full report later on whether on not it all pans out or the children band together to have me sacked (in which case I will be forced to bring back the cane.)
We had an excellent road trip down here (two pairs of shoes lost, obscene mess created in car), with lots of stops at museums and parks, a great stopover with family in Melbourne and a smooth, thrilling run across the Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania, the boat that connects Tasmania with the mainland.
It’s an overnight trip. I woke up in the early hours of the crossing in our little cabin and felt so, so happy. It was a busy, intense time leading up to this long trip away. Non-stop action. And there we were, the five of us, floating across the sea, tucked up together in little bunks, sleeping peacefully under clean sheets as the huge boat pitched and rolled gently. Made it! It was a lovely moment.
After a few more road-trip shenanigans we arrived in Hobart a couple of days ago, to a cute little cottage in the inner city. I located the coffee machine, tuned the radio to ABC Hobart, put a load of filthy washing on and ran a bath. Home, home, home.
The food is amazing so far and should you care to hear the details (or not! It’s too late!) we have all been pooing like elephants. (I think that’s good. Robust! I wonder if all Tasmanian do this? ‘Crap like demons’ as my friend Sally would say?) I’ve had some hot tips on where to eat and shop from Mums and Dads at the park, where all the best information is shared. We’ve had the most delicious fruit and veges and I’ve driven past but not stepped inside the Mullet Cafe and the ‘Legs N’ Breasts!’ chicken shop.
Yesterday we visited Port Arthur, and shut ourselves in the terrifying ‘punishment cell’ at the Separation House, where well-meaning prison reformers devised a ‘silent treatment’ intended to help prisoners think about their sins by removing all distractions. The gaolers did not speak, no contact with other people was permitted at all, and for especially transgressive prisoners, the punishment cell was a small room behind four heavy gates that blocked out all light and sound. You can go in it and shut the door, and you cannot see your hand in front of your face. It’s freaky. Amazing museum.
I’m reading The Tin Ticket, which tracks the lives of four women convicts, and the kids and I are reading some of Jackie French’s Fair Dinum Histories books. Tasmania feels soaked in history, and there is gorgeous architecture everywhere we walk. The clouds are beautiful, and we’re off to see a show about mermaids at the Salamanca Arts Centre in the morning.
Right now Keith is watching the cricket, drinking beer and eating a Kit Kat, and when I finish writing here I’m going to make a cup of tea and read the Nigella Lawson article in the Vanity Fair mag I found on the bookshelf. The kids will wake up early and start playing in the dog flap; the most brilliant toy they’ve ever encountered.
All is well in Hobart Town.
I hope you are all healthy and happy out there too. (And enjoying a vigorous gastro-intestinal reflex. Have a Tasmanian banana, why don’t you? See what happens! Let me know.)
Saturday night right on bedtime, I was so exhausted. Keith was out and I was trying to keep the vibe calm so I could cajole all three kids into bed when T-Bone suddenly ran inside with a frog in his hand.
‘A frog!’ he yelled. ‘I’ve got a frog and he’s my new pet!’
The girls shot off the coach where I was reading Eloise and threw themselves into the spirit of the thing.
‘Little froggie’, moaned Pudding, poking at the poor amphibian with her dirty little paws.
‘Let’s call him Trevor,’ said Peanut.
‘Where did you find him?’ I asked T-Bone. ‘In my slime bucket’, he answered. I enquired no further.
Before I could regain control, Trevor jumped out of T-Bones hands and ran behind the fridge.
I was in it now.’No!’ I said. ‘It’s hot back there! He’ll cook!’
I found a torch and shone it into the dust. There sat poor Trevor, just out of reach. I managed to scoop him out with a long spoon and T-Bone grabbed him.
‘Out of the house,’ I ordered, but before they could make it, poor befuddled Trevor took a flying leap onto T-Bones face.
‘MY EYE!’ T-Bone shrieked, running in circles. He ran around so much that it took me a while to grab him and pluck Trevor off. ‘My eye!’ he screamed the whole time. ‘My eye! My eye!’
Poor Trevor finally got back to his slime bucket, and I did eventually get the children to bed, but it was not the peaceful bedtime I had dreamed of.
We’re off this morning to Tasmania for a month and we’re almost fully packed. In fact it feels like Keith and I have been cleaning and packing for seven years. At the dinner table last night, I served up a selection of all the leftovers in the fridge. T-Bone made a wrap with scrambled egg and leftover spaghetti bolognaise, and pronounced it delicious. Peanut mused on her future and decided that she might be a doctor as well as a comedian. ‘Why don’t you combine the two?’ Keith and I suggested. She liked the idea and started imagining how it might work. ‘Oh, hello Mr Patient, ‘ she said, ‘Your…heart, is that the problem? Shall I…jump on your head?’
Pudding stopped her running commentary on the adventures of her imaginary friends Cauliflower, Big George and Lucy to get in on the comedy too. ‘I dot boobies on my gina!’ she shouted.
One of my kids invented the idea of the ‘Lifetime Wee’ once. They decided that there was a set amount of wee each person did in a lifetime, and every time you went to the toilet, you just let out a little bit of it, or a lot, as the case may be.
‘That was a good old chunk of my Lifetime Wee,’ I like to report sometimes as I return from a visit to the smallest room. ‘Oh yeah!’
I love the Lifetime Wee and I have thought about it a couple of time lately. I’ve been thinking about the Lifetime Conversation, or the talks you have with people you have known for decades. There is nothing like the perspective you can get from friends who have seen you in all your incarnations. They have watched you evolve and change, struggle and triumph, wear appalling things (hello, hooded catsuit) and have shameful meltdowns. They have held your hair as you threw up into nightclub toilets and composed their faces so as not to reveal their pity as you make excuses for terrible boyfriends. They have been crap to you and you have been crap to them, and it doesn’t matter.
(The past is a different country. They do things differently there.)
Over decades of coffee and ciggies and drinks and babies and cake and conversation and tears and laughter, old friends compile an incredible dossier about you. This folder holds scandalous and incriminating information about your flaws, your annoying idiosyncrasies and the negative patterns you are doomed to repeat, over and over, amen.
But with age comes maturity and wisdom, and part of that wisdom is knowing what to do with that shit-bomb of information you hold on your friends, and they hold on you. The Lifetime Conversation will loop around and around these things, over and over, and if you are lucky, and have kind old friends, they never pull a Snowden and release the tumbling avalanche of data that could upset and topple the protective fictions you hold on to.
I’ve got a number of lifelong friends like these, lucky me, and the older I get, the more I appreciate them. Good friends are a powerful force. They talk you through your worries and your problems, reminding you of your capabilities and your strengths. They are gentle with your bullshit. They let you disappear and return again, if you need to. They shine a light on everything that is true and worthy about you, and they help you to gain, over time, the incredible blessing of aging: context. From context comes wisdom, I hope.
That idea that women are pitted against one another in a battle for moral supremacy – this is not something that I experience in my life at all. I have stay at home mum friends, part-time and full-time working mum friends, and any conversation I have with any of them revolves around the same idea: that some parts of each are great, and some a sacrifice, and nobody gets off easy. Also, we talk about hair. I don’t know who these women are, these angry ones supposedly roaming around spitting bile about mothers making different choices. They are not any women I know. Do they even exist?
Last weekend, away in the Blue Mountains for a night with friends I have known for almost thirty years (and a sister I’ve known for even longer!), there was the same approving reaction to the new-season Country Road outfits to the Target outfits (‘Full-price!’ was pointed out, and ‘Fancy!’ replied. ) Different kids schools, different socio-economic situations and different family structures were all represented, but this was all irrelevant. Kids, relationships, aging, work issues and illness all transcend the trappings, and in my experience, women discard their differences easily for common ground of conversation.
At midnight, we found ourselves in Coles, a couple of wine bottles in, picking up some food for one friend who was unwell back at the hotel. We had a little dance party , laughed like idiots, and behaved like we always had. It wasn’t until the next day that we realised that the young checkout girl must have thought we were nuts – a handful of women in their forties wandering about late at night snorting with laughter, taking pictures of each other pulling dance moves and trying on supermarket clothes, then buying a yoghurt, a banana and a bunch of flowers.
What a bunch of outrageous, middle-aged crackpots. Vive le crone, I say.
We might all wear reading glasses now, but inside, we’re still all fourteen. May we always be so lucky as to have dance parties in the supermarket and the rich blessing of Lifetime Conversations.
Disclosure: The family visited Trees Adventure as guests of the Park, but all opinions are my own.
Last weekend, I questioned my life choices. I was standing on a timber platform five metres above the ground, wearing a safety harness and contemplating the swaying obstacle course before me. It was being buffeted by a considerable wind, and I had no way out but the way through, as they say.
Bug-eyed, swearing like a French sailor and apologising in whimpers to the kindly teenagers behind me, I staggered my way across the wobbly poles, the woven basket and the evil mid-air skateboard.
I was an outlier. All around me, children and adults were having a marvellous time at the Trees Adventure Park in Nowra, where ziplines and obstacle courses thread through the trees beside the Shoalhaven River. It’s like a real-life Survivor challenge, minus the bikinis and thebackstabbing.
Eight year old swinging like a chimpanzee. (Fathers genes.)
My eight year old Girl Guide, my plucky six year old son and my outdoorsy husband were in their element. They scrambled and climbed and sailed through the air with the greatest of ease and pronounced it the best fun they had ever had.
I’m trying to play it cool but I am moments from shaming my underpants.
Me, I remembered how much I loved Survivor. Watching it, that is. On the couch with a cup of tea and a blankie on my knees. And I had never felt so much like a middle-aged lunatic as I did that day as I made my awkward, halting way through the course, muttering to myself and wailing like an atonal cat.
That’s me. On the cliff.
For the kids, it was the most thrilling physical challenge. Roped up to safety harnesses (the entire course, designed in Germany, meets stringent European safety standards), they can’t actually fall. But they climb to decent heights, clip caribiners on and off, and launch themselves out into space. I love the idea of the children testing their physical limits and feeling that sense of mastery over their bodies. By the end of our session, they were exhausted.
Keith did the ‘black run’, which involved some good climbing up the cliff that borders the course. It was tough, and he loved it, the crazy bastard. I only wish I had that kind of physical strength and agility.
Nowra Trees Adventure is set inside the grounds of the Shoalhaven Zoo. Although tickets are not linked to zoo-admission, you walk through the zoo to get to the park, and the central harnessing and prep area is ringed by the water buffalo, camel and alpaca enclosure. Their calm observation (no judgement here, lady) just adds another layer of charm to the bucolic setting.Staff were kind and careful, taking us through the practice procedures of hooking on and off. There are four levels of difficulty that adjust according to height and age.
It was a step outside normal life for all of us. My creaky spine means I am careful, thinking before I lift and bend, and moving through the world with a certain second-guessing of my body. So I was really out of my comfort zone up on that platform, facing that rope bridge. I may have even got something in my eye when I finally set foot on terra firma again.
6 year-old T-Bone had a blast.
My friend Jen always knows the right thing to say. ‘Don’t worry, Rach, ‘she said.’ ‘When I was there, a massive bikie guy covered in tatts froze on the middle of a zipline and they had to get him down with a sort of crane.’
I felt a little less ashamed after that. And in fact, I’m really glad I did it. Even the juicy bruise I ended up with feels like a little badge of glory. I earned that haematoma, dammit! Swinging through trees like an aging mama orangutan! The kids and Keith are dying to go back, as soon as our youngest turns four and can have a go, but next time, I think I might pack a beautiful picnic and watch from the ground with the alpacas.
Best family day out, though. It’s a thumbs up from me. A big, shaky, weepy, middle-aged thumbs up.
I’ve been a bit frazzled this last couple of weeks. I nuggested myself on a ziplining adventure course (review to come) and my back and old-lady hip has been giving me curry, as we say in the old country. Also, one of my best friends had a sudden breast cancer diagnosis and surgery (all went very well, she is marvellous and bursting with fuck-cancer life-force), and also, I lost Pudding in Target for a long enough time that I felt the adrenalin and anxiety fallout for two days.
You know those weeks?
It’s all a bit out-of tune?
But things are looking up.
Here is a twerking dog!
And also! Eighteen awesomely awkward kisses!
And finally, Keith and I have gotten really into the British comedy Peep Show. It just keeps getting funnier. Mark has so much of the Adrian Mole about him, my favourite literary character. We’re loving this. Have you seen it?
Spinach, roasted beetroot, chorizo, walnuts and feta for dinner tonight and tomorrow, I am going to the Blue Mountains to spend the night with my old school friends. We will all need a Bex and a lie down after the intensive coversation-and-cackling festival that will ensue. I can’t wait.
Happy weekend to all of you out there. May it contain old friends, baby spinach, twerking dogs, laughing on the couch with a beloved, or a combination thereof.
In November of 2013, Sarah-Jane Staznak underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in her neck. She awoke from that surgery a quadriplegic, and has spent the last year in intensive rehabilitation, coping with both the physical and the emotional aftermath of what has happened to her.
Meet SJ. She’s pretty amazing.
SJ, you have done some really incredible stuff in your life, like cycling around Australia, South America and various parts of the world, as well as working as a Cross Country Skiing, Rock Climbing and Canyoning Instructor. Let’s just say that you have not been a couch potato. Can you tell us a story from one of your adventures? What was the biggest challenge you faced in life before this massive bastard you’re dealing with now?
Towards the end of my eighteen-month long cycling journey around Australia ( we did a Figure 8 on a pushy), I was heading up to Cape York on a rough corrugated road full of dust in a bad headwind.We’d been on the road for sixteen months, it was so hot and it was so challenging to put one foot in front of the other to reach the tip of Australia. I kept plugging away but I was spent. My partner was way ahead and it was, I think, the first time in my life I just lost it. I remember I threw my bike down on the ground and ran off into the bush and screamed with exhaustion.
If it’s not too painful to talk about, what do you remember about waking from the surgery? Did it take some time to understand or believe what had happened to you?
I woke up to hear the voice of this little registrar saying ‘The surgery went well.’ And then he was getting me to wiggle my toes and then I couldn’t sit up. He had no manner appropriate for the moment, and I started to panic and he started saying shit like ‘On wow, this is bad, I haven’t seen this before…’ And then I ended up in emergency with a massive hemorrhage in my spinal cord.
After that I have very little recollection. I had so many anxiety attacks in that period – I thought I had some experience with anxiety but they were different – really, really intense. In those first few weeks I was in a bit of denial – I was happy, had really intimate relationships with the staff, and I was pumped full of steroids, and I kept thinking ‘OK, once these steroids kick in, it will be fine…’ But as it became a reality, it was tough. They tell you these benchmarks: after 3 weeks, this. After 6 weeks, this. Each time you reach one it’s terrible. I was a basket-case really. It’s all a bit of a blur.
A year on, do you feel that your shock and grief is at a different stage?
Grief is right. I have times I struggle with ‘I’m never going to ski again – I love to dance, and I’m never going to dance again.’ I suppose I’ve gone through all the stages of grief. I even became quite close to the surgeon, in the early days and weeks. In one encounter we both cried and I told him ‘You have to let this go.’ I understand that shit happens. I haven’t seen him since those early weeks though, and I’m advised not to have contact with him now.
SJ, you had an extremely active life before that surgery. Do you think that your fitness has stood you in good stead for the rigours of rehabilitation?
It’s beginning to. Really, I’ve spent the majority of this year dealing my with mental health. It’s a year next week since my surgery, and I’m starting to get my head in the place where I can tap into that. Now I can feel my body kicking back in. At the minute I am working on a stationery bike. I lie there and talk to my legs, tell them ‘Come on, you’ve done this. You know what to do.’
SJ, are you a person that relies on black humour? Have you ever, in all the stress and trauma, had those ridiculous moments where you just have to laugh?
Oh my god yes, definitely. I don’t know so much about having to laugh, but I remember there was one time when they moved me from my room to one room down and I was lying in bed and the buzzer had dropped to the ground. I was completely unable to move and I couldn’t call out because at that time I couldn’t breathe well,and I had all these sinus problems. And I told myself ‘OK, I can either have an anxiety attack, or stay calm, and just accept this moment.’
I mean, I’ve has so many bowel accidents that in the end I have to laugh. At the start I cried, but now I have to laugh, or I’d be a basket case.
Sometimes people talk about a ray of sunshine in the shit where, when faced with trauma and struggle, you realise what love and support you have around you. Have you experienced that?
Oh my god, yes. In a less broken phase I used to think ‘At the end of all this there’s a big gold nugget’. Now what I have to keep reminding myself is that there are little gold nuggets along the way. For example, I’ve always thought that my Dad is a wonderful man, but he’s been so compassionate and amazing. Plus, I live in the most amazing community – so helpful, so kind. I’ve always been really social, and I feel like I’ve been a bit of a magnet to bring people together, so it’s kind of come to bite me on the arse in the best possible way! But I am having to learn to receive and receive and not give back, which is one of the hardest things for me. But I don’t have any choice at the moment.
SJ, you’ve got a 5 year old son, Hamish. How have you coped with the busy emotional intensity of mothering a small child along with all the huge psychological life-shift you’ve had to undertake? How has Hamish coped?
Oh, it’s been tough. Me and Hamish’s dad separated a week before the surgery, and Hamish and I had such a special relationship, he was so close to his Mum. I was his person. But after 7 months in rehab I felt like I came home as a stranger into my own home. Instead of ‘Mum, canI…?’ it’s ‘Dad, Dad, Dad.’ The loss of that mother role, and the grief of losing that relationship that we had, and having to reestablish a relationship ship that’s not the same, and having to accept that it will never be the same, and stop grieving for what it could be – that’s probably the hardest part about it.
But Hamish is the most gorgeous 5 year old. Sometimes I’ll melt down in front of him – and I’m upfront with him about stuff – and he’s so helpful, he’ll help with my catheter bag or push my wheelchair. He’s becomes a lot more independent. Now, he can sit on my lap in the electric chair and I can take him to school, which I love. That’s what I really want to be able to do, stuff like take him to school.
SJ, you are trying to raise about $300, 000 to go to America for therapy, and to buy equipment that you need. Can you tell us a little about the therapy, tools and equipment you are hoping to raise funds for? And how can people help you raise those funds?
I need equipment that’s specialised. I’d like to be able to do more cardio – my physical and mental health is so much better when I’m being active, but I’m going to need to set up my own rehab gym and that equipment is so expensive. The program in the USA is an intensive spinal rehabilitation program that runs for between three and six months. It breaks my heart to leave Hamish again for that time but I have to think of it as an investment in our future together. The big picture is to get as good as I can get to be more functional as a parent. And also, I want him to see and remember that his mum and be proud of his mum and how strong she was and how hard she fought.
Thanks SJ! For me, the phone conversation I had with you is one of life’s ‘little gold nuggets’. What an inspiring, eloquent and thoughtful woman. I wish you all the best for your future and I hope some of my wonderful readers – so many of us mothers of small kids like you – are able to help with your fundraising efforts.
Blog silence brought to you by man-flu, sore backs, towering laundry piles, travelling husbands, wet beds, kid birthdays, power blackouts (especially hilarious when the fan on the composting toilet stops working!) Slapped Cheek virus, head lice, worming tablets, caffeine, Nurofen Plus and Too Much Information.
Here are K and I dressed as the Ugly Stepsisters for Peanuts book-themed 8th birthday party. I am channeling ‘ugly’ much more than Keith is and I’m not thrilled about it. I have a monobrow and a square head, whereas Keith just looks like a ritzy party girl who’s probably wearing a lacy nylon g under his leopard skinnies, and a cheeky vajazzle under that.
Pudding’s newest imaginary friend is Dr Meat. He’s angry. He treats all her stuffed toys for ticks, but he doesn’t like Cauliflower, because of how often she says ‘poo poo’. I get it! Dr. Meat is a busy man. He can’t be dealing with Cauliflowers naughty word bullshit when Peanut Butter, Dodo, Puppy and Olivia Dog just keep getting infested, over and over. Plus Dodo keeps having sleepovers at his office which I’m sure is against some sort of Health Department regulation.
I’m not going to report Dr. Meat though. I’m too busy trying to keep the family one step above feral on the domestic scale.
(Just quietly, failing.)
Could be worse. I could be Robbie Williams wife in labour, frinstance.
How’s things with you guys? Every family is this gross, right?
ps – we just lost power on the water pump. No water.
A friend once described mothering a pre-schooler to me as ‘being with your best friend, who is drunk all the time’. This is so apt. Two-year olds are up for anything, and they do odd stuff. Pudding, for instance, insists on wearing most outfits back to front. Out and about, she will suddenly shout ‘Backwards walking!’ at which point our movement forwards becomes 50% slower than normal.
She is so much fun. But no matter how even-tempered the child – and Pudding, child number three, is the most easy-going of my crew – this stage of development demands that they begin to assert their independence from the Mothership. Two-year olds will pick their moment to stand their ground in defiance of you, and you never know when that moment will come.
For my Pudding, that stand-off for power comes at bedtime, specifically at the moment we need to switch off her light. There she is, all wrapped up in her sleeping bag, teeth brushed, tummy full of milk. We’ve read Olivia and the bloody Wiggles book and we’ve done the Green Sheep, with all the voices. We’ve said goodnight to the siblings and we’ve made it to the bedroom, where the last step of the ritual is where Pudding switches off her own light before being tucked in to bed.
I hoist her aloft, back aching after a full day of chauffeuring and distributing biscuits and hauling laundry. ‘Now turn off your light,’ I tell Pudding, at which point she hovers her finger over the switch and looks at me with mischief in her eyes.
My heart sinks. Here we are. It’s Wounded Knee. It’s the Eureka Stockade. It’s Ned Kelly’s last stand. I try cajoling, like a camp counsellor on happy pills. ‘Come on, yes! Let’s make it a good one. Switch it! It’s really fun to switch that button!’ She waves her finger to and fro, enjoying the game. I shift her weight on my hip and go stern. ‘No more games Pudding. It’s bedtime. Switch the light off right now.’
Pudding hovers her finger over the button, drunk on the power. She’s totally in charge here and she knows it. She’s heavy and I can feel my frustrated anger start to rise. Holy cow, I have been available all day for games and food and cuddles. Now it is BEDTIME.
‘Not switching!’ Pudding sings in delight. I am so tempted to reach out and turn off the light myself. ‘There!’ I will say. ‘That’s it! You took too long. Maybe you will be quicker tomorrow!’ But I’ve done that before, and Pudding is enraged by it, so mad that she then screams in her bed, creating an intense new bedtime drama to manage that will negate the whole half hour’s calming routine we have just been through.
No, there’s nothing for it but to wait out Pudding’s blaze of glory, this golden moment where she holds all the cards. I adjust her again on my hip, take a deep breath and say ‘You’re so funny, Pudding. Now show me how you can do that switch.’ ‘It’s a couple more minutes, and I’m crying on the inside, but she does eventually tire of the gag and switch the light off. Only then does she allow the last steps of tucking in and kissing and animal-arranging.
Finally, I’m free to hit that couch, where I can rest up for another busy day ahead with my tiny, drunk best friend.