Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Scones* Smirnoff** Snakes*** & Song****

From 3 pm Saturday 11 December

Come farewell my Burringbar sojourn, reflect on the year, practise soothsaying, swim and chill

21 Geles Road, Upper Burringbar (first house on left)

BYO togs, plate to share, musical instruments/voice and happy heart.

RSVP: 66771551/0431600138

* while they last
** be early
*** for the keen of eye
**** no shrinking violets catered for

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On Loss

Green is the pool, its colour reflecting nature’s quiet melancholy. Slimy leaf matter, a bloated dead bush rat and mangled avocadoes float on its surface. This is what happens when you abandon duty for a few weeks. Things go to the pot. I look out the window at its wrongness, and watch the ripples, ripples of grief extending their wide circular arms into our community. Three more deaths. Three more young men. Tragically whisked from this life overnight by the dark hand of fate. I can’t help thinking it could have been one of mine. But for the grace of God. It feels like it is one of mine. How could it not. When you live in a small community it’s like that. You know all the young men and women, you know the mothers and fathers, you nod at them in the street, at the supermarket, you recognise their masks. Alongside their suffering you stand. You’re helpless, but to feel. I’m taken back, 26 years, and see myself screaming ‘nooo’ into the dappled sunlight of the afternoon, bellowing my despair through the gum trees in the back yard, out onto Gardiners Reserve and way beyond recall the day I returned home from hospital without my baby. I was numb, disbelieving, and full of rage and guilt. It’s real. Unforgiving. Solitary. It’s a slap that stays with you forever, a scar that defines your very being, that reminds you of the sanctity of the everyday. I remember all these things like it was yesterday. Our great loss.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Loads of Codswallop!!!!!

If only the beach was closer

If only men were more like women

If only I had a coffee and nicotine drip

If only guilt and pride could be assuaged

If only the nightly news made me smile

If only I’d listened to paternal real estate wisdom

If only Jesus had boobs

If only I could turn off my worry gene

If only the sun didn’t dazzle so happily off the pool

If only I had an income

If only I had someone to clean the house

If only I wasn’t obsessed with the past

If only I could hear the creaking of the bed springs

If only Julia Bishop’s glare didn’t remind me of my own

If only Tony Abbott dematerialized

If only I wasn’t so old

If only I could find the key to my imagination

If only the trees didn’t block my view of the mountain

If only the neighbours weren’t so surly

If only I could gag the rambunctious dog

If only my extrovert would come home with me

If only I didn’t have parents with Alzheimers

If only there was some red meat in the fridge

If only I had straighter legs, a smaller nose, whiter teeth …

If only I was someone else I’m confident I’d be a good writer!

Monday, August 9, 2010


One constant has dominated my life here in the northern rivers. Snake. Not surprising really since I was born in the Chinese year of the Snake. Clearly snakes feel quite comfortable inhabiting my private life … I’m a sibling!

There was the time I was sitting up in bed reading one hot night a few years ago and noticed in my peripheral vision something move to my left. A large python was making its way out of the slightly ajar door of the wardrobe less than a metre away. I tracked its slow pace for about an hour, into the toilet, obviously thirsty, then down the corridor into the loungeroom. I opened the glass double doors in an effort to encourage its exit and went back to bed. A few hours later I woke with an acute sensation, reached my hand through the mozzie net and switched on the bedside lamp. It was curled comfortably around the bedhead. All three metres of it. To say the shock was intense is an understatement, but there was also awe.

Shortly after that incident, Raf, my son, lifted himself up into the manhole, armed with a torch. ‘Mum, there’s dozens of snake skins up here’. Sure enough, we were inhabiting their home, not the reverse.

Then there was the python at around the same time who found my sock and undie shelf a comfortable place to hibernate for weeks. So enamoured was I with its choice of ‘home’ I moved most of my smalls to another shelf, lined newspaper around it and even provided a bowl of water. Bad behaviour a little while later demanded I take evasive action. I didn’t know at the time what exactly I was looking at. Tiny white eggs in a slimy clear liquid. My first thought was vomit. My second, aborted snake eggs. My third, poo. I still don’t know what it was, but it was messy.

A couple of weeks ago I witnessed two pythons mating on the solar panels on my roof. It was a vigorous and sexy action, a dance of love. They could have been fighting, but methinks they were being amorous. Damned camera had a flat battery.

This morning I sat down at the sewing machine by the window to make amends and that sensation of something going on was around again. I looked up to see a snake vertically descending from the gutter toward the window sill, inches from my face. She’s beautiful. This is her in the photo.

There’s no-one more aware of the symbolic references attributed to the serpent than me. It portends transformation, a change of way, a shedding of the skin of the old for the skin of the new. Over the years I’ve felt equal measures of humility and frustration. A great honour is bestowed on me by its presence, a great responsibility to heed its message, a great uncertainty as to what it is I am meant to see or hear. Who am I to become?

Rainer Maria Rilke, the great 20th century German poet’s words act as a constant reminder … ‘you, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing'

Just whimsy

Sophie’s blue eyes are as big as the Pacific. She wears a perpetual smile and an asymmetrical hair-do. She moves like the proverbial road runner. I wish I’d had a drama teacher like her. Annie’s a doctor, has an enviable collection of aboriginal art on her loungeroom wall, an astonishingly handsome Indian husband, and a broken finger. She’s pissed off and doesn’t want to talk about it. You can tell from the dark wells in her eyes, wary body language and small voice that Uma is often sad yet when the melody begins something instantly changes in her. I feel protective of her. Alex is the one I look to when I’m in musical discombobulation land, and being the ukulele virgin I am, that’s often. She’s an amazing muso, and when she plays the dimples in her cheeks are an exaggerated animation in action. Katey serves freckles, bullets, licorice allsorts and wine gums in huge bowls when we practise at her place, and is generous with her Coopers stash. She’s a town planner in local government and talks endlessly about the big bloke with abominable body odour, bad teeth and attention deficit disorder who’s her assistant. Lee’s an occupational therapist. That’s all I know about her. I think she must be a scorpio. She rarely looks at me and when she does it’s with that glare! Takes one to know one! Mel’s a tour guide, and what she doesn’t know about crocodiles is nobody’s business. Did you know crocodiles grow new teeth every two years? I want to be a crocodile! Grace is a systems analyst with a sharp tongue, a bogan swagger and a penchant for expletives. Whilst fuck’s a relatively common word in my vocabulary, around her I feel like a nun. Luke’s a blow-in from Liverpool, an artist with a gentle personality and a torso riddled with piercings and dozens of colourful tattoos of karma sutra positions he humbly claims are his norm. Our honorary girl. They’re all in their 20s, young, vibrant, on the mark. And there’s me. Weighing in at 55 years I’m old enough to be grandma but try not to act it. I’m welcomed like one of the flock. We’re the DUKES (Darwin Ukulele Kollective) and we’re closing the Darwin Festival at the Lighthouse … ACDC, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Village People, Dolly Parton, Beach Boys, Patsy Cline. Ah, the whimsy!

Names have been changed, and characters partly fictionalised … but thanks for the good times Darwin.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Is 'downward dog' in the morning light on the veranda watched by an audience of kookaburras, butcher birds and magpies

Is the precarious assemblage of lengths of bamboo supporting the broken and rotting guttering

Is the spectacular sight of pythons mating in the sunlight on the solar panels on the roof

Is mildew growing on every wall in every room and in probably every cell of my body

Is the quiet at midnight, a pause that allows me to feel my grief and longing for far away family and friends

Is shy platypus living amongst the lilypads that carpet the surface of the dam

Is the box of a dozen pairs of gumboots under the house and the joy in finding one pair size ‘large’

Is the generous space and multiple rooms in which to lose my reading glasses several times a day

Is white ant, industriously and silently crumbling away at the foundations of my belonging

Is the constant burden of privilege I feel as I sit here on my arse and pray for the millions of homeless, hungry and abused beings living in a parallel universe, right now.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Medicine or Mischief?

Cleary, it’s a witchetty grub. Or is it? I retrieve it from the mound of wood chips, grateful I haven’t sliced it in half with the shovel, and take it inside to show my sister Margaret. Dad and I used to eat these in Barrabool Road in Geelong, I quip. Down by the row of pines on the back fence. He’d pluck the grubs from the wood pile, one for him, one for me. They taste like coconut but sweeter, and gritty. The experience was one I shared exclusively with dad, and one-on-one experiences with dad were a rarity in the 60s. Simple, yet full of warm fuzzy feelings. There’s a dozen more where these came from, I add. Should I eat it? Up to you, she says. Something about its size makes me feel a bit queezy, I’m used to much smaller ones, and that greyish bit on its nether regions looks kind of weird. I burrow it back into its home in the wood chips and continue barrowing loads of mulch. Later on, with my new found knowledge of a secret harvest of witchetty grubs in the garden, and having just read ‘The Songlines’, an inspirational account of the aboriginal dream time, I set about trying to find some reference to witchetty grub dreaming on the net. There’s dozens of artworks, but little or no explanation. I stumble on a site that suggests that witchetty grub fat when rubbed on the skin makes a sick person better. Novel! A dispensary of therapeutic fat squirm at my back door. I flick onto google images and chance upon a surprise discovery. What jumps out is a comparison of a grub that is sometimes mistaken for the witchetty grub but is actually the white curl grub, or scarab beetle. A serious little pest that kills lawn and other flora. Mischievous Mr Curly has been masquerading as medicine, naughty blighter!

Just as well I hit pause on the culinary act.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A life in scraps

It’s unusually cold tonight, eerily silent. The fire’s burning and there’s enough wood to last the night. This means tomorrow I’ll have to confront the dragon at the sawmill to buy another $15 boot load. Worth it I suppose.

I just went outside to break a dead branch off the tree to give the fire a boost and clumsily stepped into a bucket of putrid water. Now I stink and my only thick socks are wet. Ma che stupida!

Tonight I need kindness, a healing massage, or divine inspiration, but instead I find myself obsessing about the slow and cunning osmosis that happens through the flimsy wall that separates my writer and critic. I’m practising some voice dialogue and even think sometimes a session with the therapist might be a good idea, but mostly I'm just arguing with myself and trawling through the scraps. Scraps aplenty. Nylon scraps, brown, fawn and crimson swirly abstract bits; cotton liberty prints, crushed velvet lengths in ivory from the Fatherhood Festival, scraps of faux fur, skin print, tapestry, emu skin, calf hide, vinyl. There’s scraps from opulent teal quilts and scraps of floral upholstery weave in rich mauve and eucalyptus green, leftover from the cape i made for my new and virtuous non-smoker years ago. Trimmings and cords and ribbons, braids in intricate hand-made designs, tiny bronze elephants and coins sewn in, and woolly hearts, and pom poms. Victorian tassles and Spotlight tassles. Dark blue pinstripe wool and violet and magenta felt that reminds me of my sister Margaret. Linen and poplin, fleecy and drill. Olive green rayon. There’s 50s white cotton lace, 60s daisy flower-power. Bits of old rugs and geometric black and white and red retro cuts, a cut above the rest those pants! Exotic strips of golden raw silk from Varanasi, ah, the bridal dooner cover fashioned when I was certain my internet date was the one. Peacock blue silk from Hyderabad and silver sari scraps from Byron Bay via Calcutta. Pinwhale and brown jumbo corduroy. Scraps of lycra in happy orange. Netting and tulle in rainbow hues. Dark night taffeta, even darker chiffon and organza. 20s black lace from the gothic wedding I dressed. Red leather ... the prostitute’s hot pants. And so much more. All locked away in the storage shed, miles away. Why it's taken me so long to give them a voice I'll never know!

Oh, did I say lots of scraps of relationships.

Monday, July 5, 2010


He came to challenge, inspire and calm. They ate. Pasta with chilli, sitting on the white-sheeted couch. He said do you like my new shoes. She said I hate them. They laughed. The fire paid homage to the mood with a dance from its Book of Memory. They spoke of long ago, laughed and scoffed in condemnation, sipped red and talked. Of a country of songlines and mysterious beginnings. He cracked macadamias on the hearth. They smoked. Leonard Cohen called from the back room, there's a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in! They spoke of the heart’s longing to satisfy its hunger and of the vascularity of the gut. They sipped Rooibus with honey. Watched the nightly news and wished they hadn’t. He descended the stairs, lined with fallen camellias in the cold dark night to feel for wood. They ate Lindt in tiny broken squares, it had to last. She touched on her drowning plimsoll line and He of children and death. He answered her call, this messenger of good fortune. He came back

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fear, Loathing & Sleep Deprivation

I’m tossing and turning under the doona like a hooked fish, my mind a grand prix. It’s 3 a.m. and even in the dark I can clearly see crabby written all over my face. The new pillows are too thick, one doona isn’t enough, two too many. At the boxing ring in the back of my head, I’m ringside at the showdown. The bookies are calling it evens. In the blue corner, a look of defiance on her face, grandiosity flexing the oiled muscles of her tanned arms is Commitment, bouncing around on the spot in restless anticipation of the face-off. In the red corner Discipline pants, thin lips stretched into a snarl, arrogance staining itself into semi-circles under her arms, a mocking sway gyrating from her hips. The bell sounds. Discipline lunges into the centre, bearing crooked teeth. ‘Fraud’ she spits with vehemence. ‘You and your hollow fucken promises’. Below the belt calls the referee. Commitment, white knuckles clenched, lurches to within inches of her opponent’s face. ‘Liar’ she counterpunches, spraying saliva in her adversary’s face. ‘There’s not a skerrick of self-control in your bones.’ Warning, calls the referee. Saboteur! jabs Discipline. Procrastinator! returns Commitment. The missiles fly with increased ferocity. Bully! Fool! There’s no backing down. With violent precision the adversaries hook into each other … Thief! Addict! Annihilator! Rebel. Foul, foul yells the referee … both of you … to your neutral corners, NOW! The opponents retreat. No Decision, call the three Judges unanimously.

This antagonistic couple used to be buddies. It appears something or someone is causing an existential crisis and blocking their vision. Is a reconciliation likely or do I just need a good night’s sleep? And a homoeopathic?

Monday, June 7, 2010


Who is this tall thin woman with the pale complexion and what’s she doing in the loungeroom?

Strange things occur when you invite people to stay, especially when the place you call home is not really your home and the belongings of somebody else’s life fill the spaces. How many years she’s lived in the studio is anybody’s guess but last week, when I traipsed up the stairs to the studio to show Sal and Dave the large vacant room with scatterings of the owner’s art, I decided it was time for the lonely cold shape to share the winter with me in the house. She’s heavy, mysterious and larger than life and it took the phenomenal muscle of the three of us to navigate her safe passage into the house.

I’ve christened her Avenue which derives from the Latin advenire and means to arrive. It seems appropriate. I think she has something to say, but what, I don’t know. Perhaps she’s here to inform my writing, perhaps not. Perhaps she’s my Venus de Milo and has a thing or two to teach me of love and beauty. A week into her lodging, the fright that accompanied her initial sighting is beginning to wane. I welcome her presence and wonder about the truth of my inner life, that which created a path for her arrival.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bliss and blockheads

There’s great comfort in the sound of the water rushing over the rocks at the end of the driveway. Yesterday it was a trickle, today a modest but raging waterfall, powering its way down the gully toward the ocean, 10 kilometres away. The water tanks are overflowing and the pool's burst its banks. The wet adventure continues to fall relentlessly from the sky in heavy curtains. The decision I was grappling with about whether to head down the range to the farmer’s market this morning has been answered. I’ll make do with a can of kidney beans, and some crackers. I’m hardly going to starve with the bouquet of citrus burgeoning the kitchen bench. I brave the wet to take a happy snap. ‘What a nice bit of rain, aren’t we lucky’ I call across to my new neighbour, standing on his verandah checking out the mad woman covered in plastic, a fag hanging from the side of his mouth, a surly look furrowing his brow. ‘If you say so’ he grunts. ‘I doubt the Austar guy is going to get through tho’. For some people, like my happy neighbour, nature is a distraction to endure, something that just occurs, rather than a raison d’etre. Così è la vita!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


There’s no mistaking the face of beauty.

It’s a flame tree in changing light; blue opal wedged in rock. It’s the perfectly formed ears of a newborn; the tired and contented amble of men returning to community after the experience of initiation.

But primarily, it‘s the face of woman.

It’s her eyes, eyes that unwaveringly meet you, that say I see you, I hear you, I empathize with you, I meet you in your struggle, I meet you in your triumph.

It’s her tranquillity, the way she sits in silence with you, without fidgeting, distraction or discomfort listening to your every word.

It’s her recognition that duty must be abandoned in order to support your loneliness and grief.

It’s the audacity of her fierce wrath, a wrath that must be expressed when justice is denied, truth mocked, or her honour smeared.

It’s the sleeplessness she endures, the resilience and strength she musters for the sake of the children.

It’s the humble vision and wisdom she upholds that one day war will cease and harmony will return to the people of this vulnerable earth.

Rarely is it acknowledged however.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On flirting

I’m of the sanguine/melancholic personality temperament. This means I’m an extrovert, the perfect person to invite to a party, randomly seeking and thriving on spontaneous acts of communication with strangers, or alternatively, in the quiet solitude, sadly wading through the fetid pond of tragedy and cruelty. I’ve developed a fondness for both.

Extroversion is often mistaken for flirtation. Regardless of the difference however, I’m a natural. Some of the lesser evolved amongst us consider flirting shameful, a come-on, a threat to the natural (relational) order of things. From my point of view, the reality is very different; there’s nothing remotely sexual about it. I see it as engaging in the art of interpersonal communication, exploring the links that connect us, the differences, similarities. The primary thing that interests and excites me, besides my kids and writing of course, is people. How they think, feel, act. I’m thankful therefore for my Italian-ness, as flirting, a noble tradition in the land of my ancestors, and akin to running a bath, is something I do well, and enjoy. And it’s not hard. Really! I’ve thought about running classes in it! You’ve just got to be a bit expressive, show who you are through your face, accentuate the positive, and be interested. Ask questions. Men love it, love to talk about themselves. So do women of course but women are far more adept at conversation than men. I see flirting as an opportunity to practise confidence, self-assuredness. God knows we need that kind of medicine much as we need breath. When you live alone in the boondocks and listen to the sound of your own voice 24/7, a continent of space and time and silence between you and your twin, the social butterfly, one’s melancholic tendencies can’t resist the opportunity to swing violently between self-deprecation and turbulent emotion. Keeping the drama on the page is a useful technique in redirection, but despite my practises to quieten this lumpy terrain, eliminating the negative can be hard work. Needless to say, when I pop on a frock and venture out of the hills, I pop out of my self-centred maudlinism and into the space that encompasses others, that invites dialogue, that craves their knowledge and stories. It’s an elixir, the wheels that turn this woman’s lot into a fortunate life.

Sooner or later my well-honed skill is going to attract somebody strong enough, open to be challenged enough, charismatic enough, or interesting/interested enough to make flirting a thing of the past. Or will it?

Lessons in the art of flirting offered for a reasonable exchange.

Monday, April 12, 2010

This (avocado-inspired) Burringbar life

Other than the fact that the word Burringbar means ‘an implement of war’ or ‘long boomerang’ in Aboriginal mythology, I know precious little about the history nor habitants of my new surrounds. Given my aversion to war however, this association strikes me as rather ominous, a cause to worry even, and I’m damned if I need that, since my motivation for being here, according to the oath I penned a couple of months ago and which I’ve pasted in super large, middle-aged-vision-challenged text on my wall, is to devote 7 hours per day, 5 days a week to the process of writing, researching and reading. This requires commitment and discipline, so listen to me demons, there’s no seat in the house for war around here!

But regardless of whatever someone else’s version of Burringbar means, it’s time for the inventory of what brings me pleasure in this haven I’ve chosen as my inspiration.

Directly outside the window where I sit, two large avocado trees stand, impressively dignified and heavy with fruit, acting as constant reminders of the abundant nature of this thing called life, and when they fall, which they’ve taken to doing half hourly, it sounds like the exacting cut of an axe on a seasoned log (an aural prompt for winter perhaps?). This veritable mountain of creative dip - a dash of lime, a liberal sprinkling of cumin, some crushed garlic, and a lot of mashed avo - guacamole - is poised for invention, if only I had the time or inclination. Beyond the trees rests, wait for it, the avocado-shaped pool whose slimy walls career at 45 degrees from its rim into the centre making entry akin to a visit to Wet ‘n Wild, and exit something of a comedy routine. Mandarin, grapefruit, orange and lime trees overhanging the driveway stoop precariously under the weight of their crop and knock their way into the panels of my guilt each time I move the car. All that marmalade and juice, going to waste! Glossy black cockatoos and currawong carol and screech across the skies while Gladys and Gloria hen and their numerous cousins, wander the perimeter of the property occasionally engaging in a friendly banter with Travis the terrier and occasionally tormenting the octogenarian caretaker’s prize horses. Quack and her entourage skim across the surface of the dam, zigzagging their merry tracks through the green algae (mmm Peking Duck … where’s the gun?) while the bottom pond is awash with lilypads and teeming with the happy symphony of resident croak.

I’m living in botanical zoo heaven. I can hear myself think, I can feel myself feel, and I have the space to finally witness my every action without distraction. Methinks the likelihood of the occurrence of any conflict around here is destined to be merely a manifestation of my beastly mind!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Missing you

Signs of life and death proliferate, and those I hold dear are far away.

Spirited are the sugar snap pea seeds I planted a week ago, delicately but robustly pushing their way free of the soil and straw in the raised garden bed, their vulnerable white stems supporting tiny leaves which seem to tenuously defy the challenging dark clouds racing across the eastern sky. Meanwhile, rotting avocadoes, brown and cracked like soil that has endured decades of drought, are scattered randomly throughout the decaying leaf matter under the mossy gnarled trunk that supported their nurturance.

In a parallel universe, my best friend Sal sits in discomfort in her home across the Arafura sea waiting anxiously for news on the state of health of her beloved who has returned to Australia for tests. Pia weeps through our skype connection, floundering through the depression that has plagued her since her difficult transition back to the first world after the profound experience of community development work in India. Listening to their fears and uncertainties I feel a moon away from the companionship I so yearn to provide. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t take flight and land on the door of these dilemmas as my car has a potential cracked head and awaits its own diagnosis. What an interesting symbolic reminder of my need to stay put, to extend the hand of empathy and comfort from my new home on the Burringbar range and practise, with grace and humility, the traditions that cultivate the strength required to be a rock.

This melancholic moment.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Farang (aka Fugly White Man)

My problem is I’m too ready to speak my mind. Sometimes I should learn to just zip it. I know it’s improper or impolite to interfere in other people’s business, however having succumbed to silence on one too many occasions, and bearing witness to his intimidation again, the voice of my social justice gene is screaming pick me, pick me. Clearly, it's not time to zip it!

Farang (a Thai word meaning ‘foreigner’ but sometimes used as an insult) or fugly white man (FWM) as I prefer to call him, lives with his Thai girlfriend Lily in her massage studio in Pattaya, together with 5 other women who all practise healing arts. FWM pays the rent on the shop. Naturally, this entitles him to absolute power! Noi, get me coffee! Rose, give me 100 baht! Parn, fuck off! He interrupts their work by sidling up behind them and massaging their backs. He believes showering with his harem is his birthright. He believes respect is a western construct and doesn’t apply here. Beware the certainty of a closed mind.

The drawback to the free accommodation I’ve foolishly accepted in ‘his’ home, is I’ve become his scribe. Two days ago it was novel, excuse the pun, today it’s grave.

This morning FWM has invited a 78 year old woman to the house to massage him, as if he doesn’t get enough, because he wants me to meet her. ‘She’s amazing (everything’s ‘fucking amazing’). He tells me she gets up at 3 a.m., has a cigarette and coffee, gambles every day, and is as young and healthy as a 16 year old’. I’m suspicious. I’ve been instructed to sit in his bedroom during the experience, write my impressions, and photograph it so he can then send my views and images to his accomplices overseas. If I didn’t know better, I’ve already begun hatching my departure plan. In the past 48 hours I’ve heard little else but how many people he’s saved from despair, his meetings with remarkable men, and how lucky the women under his roof are. I’m utterly befuddled by his narcissism.

In the process of setting up, I chance upon a discussion between FWM and Lily. It appears she doesn’t want me to photograph in the room, their bedroom. Fair enough. I wouldn’t want a stranger taking happy snaps in my bedroom either. Clearly, she feels strongly about this, and I’d hazard a guess that there’s some custom or tradition that informs her choices here, but the hostility she is met with concludes he’s made up his mind. I see red. Lily, I won’t photograph the walls in your room, or any of your things, just the bed, I say, gesticulating around. Her English is very limited! Like a projectile vomit, FMW explodes. You will do exactly as I say! I want everything photographed. What about respect for Lily’s wishes I suggest. Get out of my house! Go! Now! he roars.

This departure is bitter sweet. My motherly instinct wants to protect these smiling, subservient, emasculated women; on the other hand, I’m damned if I’ll accommodate his abuse any longer. With pleasure, I want to say.

‘I will see you hanged, like clotpoles, ere I come any more to your tents’ Shakespeare

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Art or Science?

Have a look for yourself? Elephant Art: I challenge you to voice your certainty that art is a human construct!

An elephant in the room

What is it about elephants that speaks so ardently to my soul, that triggers some curious latent memory of support and friendship, that makes me want to sit endlessly and savour their presence? Is it their lumbering grace, that heavy sure-footed gait which, seemingly against all odds, guides their bulk in such a dignified way. I’m reminded of a comfortable, dark-chocolate coloured, dilapidated old leather couch I once had years ago. I see myself collapsing into an elephants folds, warm in her embrace, like a mother protecting me from harm. Is it their immense girth, a girth that appears to defy nature’s ability to sustain them, given their impressive appetite for 300 kgs of vegetable matter a day. Holy cow, that’s equal to the produce on the shelves at the greengrocers, surely. Is it the footage I’ve seen of displays of their wrath, that stampeding, trumpeting fury channelled from the bowels of their being, a knowing fury, a fury that says I told you so but you didn’t listen. Is it my recollection at seeing elephants displaying what scientists believe is a state of grief, the way they surround the remains of the bones of their kind, brushing their trunks up against them, picking them up, fondling, respectful. Or is it all these things.

Recently I attended the National Elephant Day celebrations outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was no ordinary worldly celebration of the kind us humans engage in, the kind that sees us gorge greedily on nature’s harvest, often without a moments thought for its origins. This instead was a heavenly feast for the elephants - sugar cane, watermelon, bananas, pineapple, sugar melons and acres upon acres of grass, tied into convenient great clumps, arranged high on trestle tables snaking the length and breadth of the showgrounds at the camp. This was a celebration to honour and give thanks and blessings to a revered national symbol, an animal who once aided kings in battle, and one who is noted for his hard work, intelligence, memory, and power. Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant - the husband is the front legs, the direction, and the wife the back legs, providing the power! I’ll buy that!

But it seemed the best was yet to come. I’d heard about elephant art but ignorantly thought it was some quaint experiment/exercise, probably with the mahout (trainer) leading the elephant through the motions, that eventually yielded a canvas something akin to a 5 year-olds expression. Mmmm.

Elephant art was the brainchild of two provocative Russians artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who saw it as a way for the elephants and their trainers to raise awareness and funds for conservation following the ban on logging. The artists set about teaching the elephants to paint, with surprising results. Seeing it I was shocked. Shocked not at the concept nor the movement of the brush on canvas which is held so deftly by the elephant in its trunk, but at the clear pleasure the elephant seemed to gain, the obvious mindfulness when the brush needed re-dipping, the way it moved excitedly when it handed it back, the way it swayed its trunk in eager anticipation of its return, the way it stood back after each stroke or splash of colour, observed it, and moved in closer for another go. The method of this apparent madness beggars belief. I think I want to be an elephant when I come back!

“The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind” Aristotle

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blind Faith

Afternoon Tea: Mango spiced with chilli & fish sauce.

Such is my need to belong, during my first week in Chiang Mai, I called into the English Language School and the Dog Shelter in the hope of engaging in some useful service. Despite my best efforts, it appeared too difficult for the staff to conjure productive ways and means in their day for an Aussie at loose ends. For the subsequent couple of days, I fell into a kind of malaise, with an inner dialogue running something like ‘bugger them’, ‘what the hell am I going to do with myself’, ‘I hate being a tourist’, ‘I’ve tried’ and ‘surely there’s something I can do’.

At National Elephant Day in Mae Rim province on the weekend, I spoke with a couple of ex-pats from America who’ve retired here and who, despite the government’s insistence they engage in no work including voluntary work, spend time helping out in the kitchen at the The Northern School for the Blind Under the Patronage of the Queen. An aha moment! Interestingly, while out walking on my first day I passed the blind school and my intuition said ‘go in’. As is sometimes the case, I ignored it.

So I’ve taken to spending a few hours there every day, in the massage school. The students range in age from 13 to 16, and all have nicknames, thank the lordy, because their real names are incredibly long and very difficult to get your mouth around. There’s Jip, Pop, Noi, Toy, Moo and Sa. And Irene! Often given by friends or an older family member, nicknames are typically one syllable, often humorous and/or nonsense words and translate into English as fatty, pig, little one, frog, banana, green, or girl/boy.

Every morning the children learn practical life skills and in the afternoon, under the tutelage of dedicated massage teachers, practise their hands-on massage technique on each other. Today I was massaged by Pop, a chubby 16-year old with a very persuasive nature. Because I’m twice as gangly as anybody else in the room, barely fitting on the mat, she threw my limbs around irreverently, giggling endlessly at my good-humoured gruffness and my ‘very goods’ and ‘mmmms’ and ‘aaaaahs’.

It seems however that my primary purpose is for the teachers to practise their English. I’m more than happy to be their guinea pig. With word getting out daily there’s a new girl on the block, teachers in the other campuses at the Institute are constantly walking through the door with grins as big as christmas.

I love them all and am beginning to feel quite attached!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Khun Khao

In my foray away from home, and to carry on a tradition bestowed upon me by my late mother, I like to keep abreast of current affairs. So it is with interest that I’ve followed the media coverage of the new elephant calf born to Porntip at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. When it was reported that the calf had died in utero, I felt great empathy for its mother. With over 2000 stillbirths a year in Australia, I expect there were thousands out there who felt the same.

When the calf was born alive a couple of days ago, I was reduced to goosebumps.

This morning I woke with elephants on my mind. What to do? I shared the story with Moo, the manager at the guesthouse here, and commented that the zoo were inviting submissions to name the little blighter. ‘Resilient’ I suggested to him; did he know the word? No. When I showed him the translation on my English/Thai dictionary on my laptop it was clear I was way off track - ‘oh, no … not right name for baby'.

Not one to be discouraged however, I repeated the story to SaSaKorm, the delightful Thai woman out the front who takes bookings for tours. In broken English, I asked whether there were Thai rituals associated with naming people or animals and she told me that it is often custom to seek naming advice from a monk. So off I headed to Wat Suan Dok, a temple on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. It was there I was fortunate enough to speak with the Venerable Dech, one of the resident English-speaking monks. For the third time this morning, I repeated the story. He rubbed his head and thought for a moment. ‘Khun Khao. Khun Khao good name (pronounced Koon, as in cook … Cow) it mean ‘like a mountain’. ‘Mountain strong. Calm. Nature kind, elephant happy, sound of bird and wind, have peace’ he explained. I smiled, placed by hands together in prayerfulness and respect, and thanked the Honourable Dech for his time.

Naturally, I’ve transmitted the auspicious guidance, by email, to Taronga Park Zoo.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thai Tooth Tales

Like it or not, teeth are tied up with identity. If your teeth are bad, as mine are, it goes without saying your identity will be a bit wobbly and loss, shame and despair all chisel into the roots of your individuality. Despite the mantra “I am not my teeth” which I fashioned during my last tooth casualty, and which I’ve repeated ad nauseum, ego continues to mock me. The nerve! It occurs to me that my life-long obsession with mascara has had a purpose. It’s taken the focus off my mouth. In spite of all the fault lines occurring in my cavity and a genetically-enhanced intense disposition, I’m basically happy, and happy people smile, right? Sadly, a cracked, broken and decaying smile is more like a frown, or worse, verbal abuse. You just can’t win.

Buttermilk’s OK on your walls, it has a calming effect, but as far as a tooth colour, it would seem there’s a universal conspiracy out there that renders it somewhat hip or cool to have perfectly formed nice white teeth. Bollocks! We don’t all have blue eyes, straight noses and
curly hair so what’s with this obsession with canine conformity. As Helen Garner once said, in another time and place the lines on a woman’s face would be prized as her life map. So it is with tooth colour. Mine were never white, nor were my mother’s, or her mother’s.

But the question of self-esteem remains. Sepia teeth or not, mine are peri-poly-diabolically-done-in! Thanks to a few modest dollars left to me by my mum following her death last year, and after an outrageous quote of $13,000 to improve my confidence, I’ve succumbed to the great tooth rot, sorry trot, to Asia. So enamelled, ah, enamoured was I with the website promoting the dentist that had been recommended to me by three separate friends, complete with colourful state-of-the-art looking equipment, comprehensive listings of treatments and cost, and perfect Queen’s English, the choice was locked in.

So here I am in Thailand where a colossal amount of crown work is under way. I’ve sat, or rather laid in the high-tech dental chair for 8 hours. That’s a lot of anaesthetic but much more scraping, drilling, hacking, chipping, sawing, picking and prodding. I feel like a working mine! Thank Christ for the Arnica. The positive effects are I’ve become intimate with the ears, and porcelain-like skin of my pre-pubescent looking dental experts. How did I get so old? Despite having to constantly and consciously remind myself to relax, their touch is positively Zen. It’s a real pity muscles have a memory of their own that say contract each time an instrument comes within a foot of my face.

But virtually half the way through my dental work I’m now facing what can only be described as reverse identity shock. I want my old mouth back. Several of the teeth that have been drilled back are now wearing, ah, plastic jackets that are more or less the shape of teeth but immeasurably whiter, acutely more prominent and astonishingly unattractive. I feel like Mr Ed! Needless to say, I’m spending an inordinate amount of time, between visits, in my guesthouse. I’m an oh-so-vain freak show!

I loved my buttermilk teeth and should I come out of this experience with white teeth, I’ll, I’ll … sue.

To be continued ….

Friday, March 5, 2010


It’s taken a couple of beers and a lie down (not necessarily in that order) for me to feel remotely like blogging. I’m not sure whether it’s jetlag from virtually 24 hours travelling, 2 hours of root canal treatment last night, the visceral effects of my moral objection to being a ‘tourist’, or the fact that it’s the anniversary of my mum’s death, but I’ve been feeling, well, like shit! Beer helps!

My dig here in Chiang Mai’s eastern district, just beyond the moat that defines the ‘old city’ is well placed (especially in relation to fang specialists), quiet and worth $13 a night because the internet is free and if all else fails and my dental work is too painful or a too excruciating symbolic reminder of the circumstances that precipitate my need to be here in the first place, then I can always stay in my room, direct the fan onto my face, trust my creative imagination, and surf the net for hours!

This morning I walked. Down the spine of the city, and around the western/southern perimeter, following the moat and ancient dilapidated brick walls that once bordered the city. The moat looks clean, and has been gentrified with western-style fountainesque installations since my last visit 30 years ago. The snaking canals on the other hand are not. Much as those gaudy-coloured fruit drinks look enticingly cool and refreshing, I think not when I consider from where that ice originates. Better beer! Typical and atypical signs of life proliferate … rickety bamboo scaffolding heralding progress, McDonalds, the slow, dark, prolific and insistent creep of rot, the Irish Pub! In the food market I marvel at skewered frogs and unidentifiable masses of small grey things that are probably innards, swimming in brownish oily matter. Mmm! Perhaps I’ll be brave and try some later!

Back at Chiangmai Thai House I drink expensive espresso, ruminate, and have a frustratingly fractured skype chat with Sal in Bali. In an attempt to find some nourishment I type ‘socially and environmentally-conscious elephant tours, Chiang Mai’, ‘underside Chiang Mai’ and ‘subversion Chiang Mai' into google. Despite the obvious propaganda, I’m partially pleased with the result as I locate the Writer’s Cafe, which happenstance is just down the road, the local independent rag published in English, and a splattering of consciousness-raising eco organizations. Things are looking up!

Back out onto the street, I head off to walk the eastern/northern section. Discombobulated, I turn right instead of left and wander, aimlessly content. Wat upon Wat I trampse, holy, holy, holy. Gold inlay upon gold inlay. Belonging to a distant past … reflections of reverence, of veneration, of memory.

Ambling past a street food vendor I stop momentarily to salivate at what looks like sweet pork, dripping with goodness. It must be lunchtime. Pointing to the man who’s dish I've just seen served, I awkwardly order the same. Soup … wanton, noodles, sweet pork, greens – delicious. Really delicious. 80 cents.

Night has come. I’ve walked miles today, my first day, but I must get to the Night Bazaar.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Why should I fucken apologize? she hisses. I don’t even say sorry to Jim. Under her claret-coloured fringe, the glare is arctic. I shift in my seat. Willing her thick calves into action she rises from the couch. Her heavy dimpled arse wrapped tightly in beige disappears around the corner. They come up by the busload to watch the game and it’s packed to the rafters with beer …. and, she pouts, the fucken government pays for it! My skin crawls. How could she possibly believe this? Speaking to an empty room isn’t normally my style but I press on. I think the apology was about empathy, I offer quietly. Feeling the pain and suffering of others. Bullshit, she jeers from the next room. It’s got fucken nothing to do with me, and it has jack shit to do with Kevin fucken Dudd. Hey Ben, she calls to her brother, are you coming to church in the morning for Ash Wednesday?
How can it be that last night, a few hours after meeting this woman of strong opinion, I’d said to a friend I felt I’d met a soul mate. Clearly my perception needs a make-over.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

On superciliousness

So I said to myself, what’s all this antsy moodiness about?

And she said it’s about a lot of things. Should I go on?

And I said, yes please.

And she said, well, I think it’s got to do with being over-sensitive, and hyper-critical, and feeling trapped and uncertain, and silence and family, and well, lots of things really.

And I said, I thought you’d say that, I know all that - what are you trying to tell me?

And she said, so know-all, if that’s the case, if you really know, then you also know that all this thrashing of self is an ego trip to keep you in misery. The millions of missives the mind dictates to you in a day, and its supercilious nature, especially in its treatment of self, are all the more reason for you to remember what’s needed to quieten that neurotic space. Right?

And I said, yep!

And she said, so what now?

And I said, where’s the candle ….

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Keen as Green

What better place to begin a blog than with one of my enduring passions. Food.

From my perch at the kitchen bench in Tyagarah, the hills in the distance are shrouded by a grey misty damp but inside, there’s a flourish of green worship going on.

Having just returned from the Byron Farmers Market, I’m compelled to honour my green friends with a photo. Smile for the camera! Their leafy and leguminous genius is reducing me to a salivating mess. Is it legitimate to have salad for breakfast? I’ll be the judge of that!

A trip to the Byron Farmers Market is the closest I’ve come to gastronomic heaven since my gypsy days in the Dolomites in northern Italy, 30 years ago. Minus the salami!

My budget this morning, after counting coins and rounding things off - $33. I've got much more than that in my wallet, but that's what I'm allowing myself. I know, you can’t get much for that these days, but there is only one of me remember! So I think to myself, that’s do-able. Everything’s a bit more expensive than at the corner greengrocer but hey, you can’t have a latte at the greengrocers, you don’t get serenaded by Spanish guitar at the greengrocers, you can’t buy fresh out of the oven spelt apricot and apple flans at the greengrocers, and you don’t walk over a carpet of freshly scattered rose petals at the greengrocers. It’s eminently worth the experience.

Now at home and going through the wallet, I’ve blown the budget and spent $47. It’s the free-wheeling happy hen eggs and local brie that’s done it. Should I give a shit?

If plump, wet, charismatic and longing to be held were words used to describe leaves, which usually they’re not, that’s exactly what this display of chlorophyll is. I suspect I’m in danger of going completely loopy in my enthusiasm here, but I just can’t help it.
l'insalata per favore!