Tag Archives: parenting

Lost and Found In the Kimberley

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It is a grim scene. The cane toads have been flipped over, their soft insides eaten by crows. They now lie in a mass grave, blackened by the sun and dried to a leathery finish, looking very much how I do after registering for online banking.

There is no better place than the Kimberley in Western Australia to contemplate the passage of time. Home to the oldest continuous culture in the world, its landscape is desiccated and crumbling. Just like I feel sometimes in this super-tech world. But it is also dotted with deep gorges full of cool water, the bright yellow blossoms of the kapok tree and exudes an aura of mature resistance.

I have come to this part of Northwest Australia with my Australian husband, my sixteen-year-old son, and our two closest Australian friends. We four adults range from late fifties to early sixties and we plan to sleep in tents and dine by camp stove for the next fourteen days in the rugged outback, tender hips be damned.

The Kimberley is almost exactly the size of California and you have to make, as in life, tough choices when visiting. We have chosen the Gibb River Road—a 412-mile former cattle track between Derby and Kununurra–and so must hire a 4WD. We glance mystified at the pile of tents, stove equipment, chairs, and cots lined up next to the car. We have been left to figure out how to fit them into the canvas sac rigged to the top. It’s a test before the company signs off its $60,000 Toyota Landcruiser to a bunch of aging city slickers. We ask the manager what dangers to watch out for. ‘Stupidity,’ he replies and goes back to counting his money.

First stop–the liquor store where we become octopus-like, reaching for Shirazes and Merlots to pop into a 12-bottle box. Plus a couple of Chardonnays for the American Sheila (that would be me). Oh yes, we remember, as we glance at our son who watches his alcoholic parents with a studied eye, ginger ale for the boy.

The ‘boy’ is sixteen, 6 foot 2 and glowing with young skin and righteous living. He squeezes into the back of the car, pulls out his book and looks soulfully out at the bush. He has left his phone back home. He is not an addict like his parents whose fingers will twitch regularly to see if we’re in cellular distance throughout the trip.

At the sign for the Gibb River Road, we stop to change the air pressure on the tyres. It is deemed (by the women) to be men’s work and the elders teach the boy to the sound of snapping iPhones and the chorus of ‘Look up, smile! No, do it again…’

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That evening, we notice we don’t have a gas bottle for the rented cooker. Nor do we have glasses, matches, or a beer bottle opener. We do, however, have reduced salt soya sauce, smoke salmon, Lebanese bread and 70 percent dark chocolate.

We watch as all around us the camping pros drape their tables with cloth, sizzle juicy nuggets of beef on state-of-the-art cookers and sip from wine glasses glinting in the dying sun. We stare at each other and our stomachs growl in unison. Our son turns his watchful eyes upon us and for the first time in his life I see panic.

Our friends, Shaz and Jamie, set to work and in no time make a salad of spinach, canned chick peas, and red canned salmon which we wash down with a Houghton Shiraz from Margaret River. No need to go to the dogs just yet. When the next morning greets us with the fine scent of coffee percolating on gas stoves in all the camp sites surrounding us, Shaz shakes the partially frozen milk (we forgot to turn off refrigerator), mixes it with ground coffee and voila: city-style iced coffees. Never underestimate the wisdom of age.

As we drive along the Gibb River Road we pass miles of cubist red rock cliffs on which delicate eucalypts balance like chorus girls. This is the King Leopold Ranges, land of termite hills as big as VW Bugs and pot-bellied boabs with their crazy limbs. When we stew impatiently behind road trains belching clouds of dust, we pull out our baby boomers collection of Leonard Cohen, Moby, John Fogarty—yes, 110 degrees in the shade, of course, KD Lang, and the more local Nick Cave crooning “It was hot…we drove on and on.”

Our son laughs. He is stuck in a car with four adult friends who tell the same stories over and over, ones we have been telling for the duration of our twenty-year friendship. But we are trying to pass down age-old Shakespearean truths. Like ‘All that glitters is not gold,’ ‘To thine own self be true,’ ‘Don’t forget to hydrate.’

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A quick stop at Imitje, an aboriginal-run roadhouse, scores us a new gas stove with its accompanying gas canisters, and we finally arrive at Mornington Wilderness Camp after two and half hours on its rocky cattle gate-strewn road. The outdoor dining area boasts amazing views, handsome tourist souvenirs and a dreamy wine list. The camp is dedicated to tackling extinction and land degradation while providing camp spots, safari tents and first-class dining to the intrepid few. Their remit, which includes feral herbivore fencing and aboriginal-style burn-offs, is to rejuvenate the bush. Good luck, I think, rubbing my sore muscles.

After a dip in St. George’s gorge where my husband falls splat on his back and rips open his elbow, we dine that night on roasted lamb rump and orange cake with passion fruit puree. Discussion turns, naturally, to new knees and blocked prostrates. Did you know you can drill? Jamie, asks. My son winces, his eyes trained like a falcon’s on my last bite of cake.

 

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Later, we gather around the fire ring and sit back to contemplate the pulsing stars in the black sky, so numerous they look like a dusting of icing sugar. It is muscle-tightening cold and in the distance dingos yip in the night. The Southern Cross with two of its bright stars pointing directly to the celestial South Pole, is blazing, even if it doesn’t exist anymore, having burned through its energy long ago.

The Kimberley knows about the mysteries of aging. The continued renewal after the Wet, the aching resilience of the Dry, all combined to create a landscape of utter beauty. My son stares out at the dead trees curled in haunting elegance as they reach for the sky. The bush is majestic in its cyclical demise. Unlike his mother.

Our favorite spot along Gibb River Road will turn out to be Manning Gorge. After hours of rumbling along the potted road, spying bustard birds walking cockily through the bush, yellow finches flying overhead, and poor kangaroos and wedge-tailed eagles struck dead by the side of the road, we arrive at Mount Barnett camping site and immediately attack the hard, rocky sun-drenched hike where dead trees look like broken branches stabbed into the ground. And yet when I peer closer I see bright green shoots emerging. We’re not through yet. At the end of the walk, we find a sparkling waterfall cascading into an emerald pool, surrounded by Pandanas trees. Manning Gorge is so beautiful I would gladly die there. But, like the roasted trees on our walk, not quite yet.

A few days later, at the cleverly-managed El Questro hub which features two restaurants and an outside bar, we settle into some well-deserved R&R. We have, after all, been on the road for five whole days. We munch on pumpkin-spiced pizzas and listen to folksy good ‘ol Australiana entertainment. The warmth and cold beers and the general bonhomie of all the families around us remind us why civilization truly is the civilized choice.

 

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Because let’s be frank: the camping cot feels like stone under my hips. Any appendage left in the open shrivels with cold. In the more crowded camp sites, snores fill the night air like the buzz of mosquitos. I’m too scared to relieve my bursting bladder in case I encounter a marauding crocodile. And so every morning at first light, I stagger from the tent, adding a string of expletives to the deranged cackle of magpies and white galahs swooping overhead.

The boy in contrast seems to emerge from the small tent stronger, straighter, taller every morning. An amble to the table and he wolfs down a bowl of muesli, his taste buds adapting to his older companions’ preference for sawdust. He now drinks coffee, taking his turn coaxing the water to boil on the tiny stove, at home in nature as he is in the computing ether. I envy his comfort in our changing complex world, his commanding way with a browser, his ability to remember more than one password. The stance of the dying white gums with their bare branches raised to the sky reminds me of how I spend much of my life lately, imploring I don’t understand how anything works!

But this trip is about the peace promised in ‘getting away from it all’ and I look forward to soaking in the three main watering holes of El Questro. At Emma Gorge, a clear dazzling bowl of ice water, we are struck with shoe envy as toddlers walk by with newfangled protective water shoes while we pick our way, barefoot, through the sharp rocks, jerking like electrocuted puppets. Luckily, we discover a small tub of warm water hewn from the red rock and we submerge our bones like blissed-out hippos.

Tragedy strikes in Amalia gorge. Not one but two of our iPhones fall into the water. We walk back in stunned silence, our minds focused not on the possible broken bones averted but on all those fabulous photos–which got our best sides, ignored the wrinkles and showed us looking fabulous, darlink—now stewing into oblivion. The boy walks ahead, whistling, deeply unconcerned.

Midway through our walk to El Questro gorge we are stopped by a large boulder. To continue on the trail you have to wade chest-high in water and scramble up steep slippery rock. We stop and stare at each other warily—who is up to this? Just then a couple in their early twenties appears at the top of the boulder. They shimmy down, swim across with their backpack on the young man’s head and emerge before our eyes like the god and goddess of all things we once were. They stop for a happy chat and when they finally wave a cheery goodbye, the boy glances from us to them, his thoughts traveling on in their back pack.

We are quiet on the last drive of the trip, on the Great Western Highway back towards Broome as we contemplate our return to a world we have trouble sometimes understanding, politically and mechanically. But I have seen bright green shoots grow at the base of fading trees and it gives me hope. The boy smiles in anticipation of his return to his friends. He is our green shoot. And when I look at him I feel like a sugar-dusted star, hoping the best for humanity.

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Home Sweet Home

Another neighbor moved away yesterday. I watched her and her husband clean the place, haul their personal things to their car and watched the moving van drive up to take care of the rest.

(You must think I spend all my time spying on my neighbors. Well I do, actually. In between typing a word or two…)

Anyway, I brought her over a cutting from our jade plant which had grown from a cutting an old neighbor gave to me when we last moved.

“I hope it brings you good luck in your new home,” I said.

She was so moved she couldn’t speak.

“You’re having a hard time with this?”

She nodded vigorously.

When she finally found her voice she said, “I don’t know why–it’s just a house.”

But of course we both knew it wasn’t just a house.

Even though it looked like every other house on the block, the ubiquitous London terraced house built along a ubiquitous North London road, her daughters, now grown, had run up and down its stairs, had hid in its rooms, had gathered around the dining room table in its kitchen, had practiced their violin in its living room, had fought and laughed in its every room.

They had become who they were surrounded by its four strong walls.

Later when they left, she and her husband gave the house–the red brick, the white trim, the very smart dark green they had chosen for the door–one last look before they drove off.

An hour later a new moving van pulled up, along with a younger couple and a small child.

Inside, their home awaited, the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms, and its walls still ringing with the laughter of two little girls, now grown.

photo by Alissa Osumi

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Frankly, words fail me.

My daughter turned 12 this month. And I’ve been struck hard with the realization of how little time I have left with her. Six years until she goes to university. Which is tomorrow. Because yesterday she was six years old.

I was sitting having coffee the other day with a young mother whose three year old was hilarious in her attempts to derail our conversation and naturally bring it round to her. She first demanded food, then started chucking things out of the fridge, until she finally sauntered into the kitchen naked with a towel over her head.

Her mother slid back and forth between laughter and exasperation.

I said She will be your companion in a couple of years. This little girl who quacks for snacks. She will suddenly blossom over night into a being who not only mesmerizes and entrances you but who can offer advice and solace. Who will steal your best clothes and reflect back your parental mistakes and successes.

And you will be the one wondering how to get her attention.

You will see that far off look in her eye and know that she is floating on another plane.

You will see her turn from you to zero in on another’s conversation.

You will be the one to hold on just a little bit longer in your hugs.

It is an extraordinary feeling, and frankly words fail me.

And then, like my sister this past summer, you will possibly watch her walk away down the aisle with another. Or at the very least, you will wave from your doorstep as she steps out on her own into this vast, vast world.

I try to remind myself of this when I’m itching with irritation, Have you done your homework?? And wondering for the zillionth time, Where is my leather jacket??

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What are you teaching your children?

My daughter came home the other day with an ethics assignment. She was supposed to comment on a story about a man who went to an ATM and instead of receiving £100 as he requested, he received £10,000.

And the receipt still said £100.

When he got home and checked his account online he discovered that his account had only been debited by £100. He put the £10,000 in a safe place and waited, fully expecting the bank to ask for it back. But months passed and nobody did.

Ethics question: Should he have returned the money to the bank? After all he hadn’t stolen it. The money was a drop in the ocean for the bank. And wouldn’t they be insured for such an eventuality?Or is it always wrong to take money that is not yours?

When my daughter brought up the question, both my husband and I snorted and said he should definitely keep the money. Damn banks! Look what they’ve done to the country. Look at what they’ve done to the tax payers. Of course he should take the money and run!

Our daughter blinked, surprised at our reaction. Here were her parents, two normally rather reticent, law-abiding adults, seething with resentment and bile. Of course, it didn’t help that I had just watched Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, a paean to banking greed and incompetency.

And after she left with a last look askance at her still jabbering parents, I felt like I had been caught with my pants down. My normal Do what is right, Take care of your neighbour, Do as you would have done to you parenting stance had been completely shredded.

This financial crisis has not only hurt our pockets but has tainted our moral teachings. Do we continue to teach our children to play by the rules even when some obviously don’t, profit enormously, and get away with it?

Discuss.

Please.

photo by wait.ti (flickr)

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Zen and the Art of Doing Handstands in the Pool

I took my son to his swimming lesson today and afterwards, instead of rushing away to complete a long list of errands, I let him play in the pool.

For the next half hour I watched him splash and make shapes in the water. He made circles and question marks, even triangles with his sleek body. He swam and dove and thought of nothing but the wet water and its silky feel against his skin.

I watched him in his funny little swim cap and his blue goggles which gave him the air of an elfin super hero. His smooth body encased in regulation blue swim trunks. His little pink toes sticking out every which way as he yet again flicked his body over and dove for the bottom. Where, as anyone knows, lies the power and silence of an aqua universe.

Around him swam an assortment of people, executing frog kicks and breast strokes–even a half decent free style. The winter light outside darkened and the huge window on the side of the building became a mirror, doubling my moment of zen. I listened to the whaa whaa of the pool acoustics. And watched the worms of white light wiggling on the sparking blue water.

My wristwatch ticked at me impatiently but I decided to do nothing but look and listen and be in the moment.  I remembered my son as a baby and pictured him as the young man he so soon will be. And I thought how much I wish upon him a life time of these moments when nothing is accomplished except for bliss.

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Broken Britain

I read interesting article in The Economist about whether Britain is broken. It concluded that actually it was going to be OK. But that the media was whipping things up.

I know what it means.

I can’t click on Yahoo without some gruesome story popping up on the home page. It rattles me and adds to my view that life is going down the tubes, that everyone is horrible and that if we’re not constantly, exhaustively vigilant, horrible things will happen to us and our loved ones.

I have been railing for years now among my friends about the sensationalism of our local papers. They are propped up on boards in front of the local shops to scream the local horrors.

It’s insidious and I worry about the effect this has on children.

There is a sweet shop near the school my children attend. After school it is swarmed with little kids who are just beginning to read, buying their bag of sweets. (I know, I know, their teeth are going to fall out—but one crusade at a time.)

I have watched as both my children came of reading age and began deciphering the headlines. The shocked look as they worked their way through the line and the startled look on their faces. Then their turning towards me for an explanation. Unfortunately, I don’t have one.

So now if I see a particularly nasty one, I hurry them past, talking loudly about other things.

But I’m angry. I’ve often been tempted to take pictures of my kids licking their ice creams and standing on either side of one of these boards. Smiles on their little faces as they contemplate headlines like:

Body Found Hanged in Woods

Acid Rape of Local Girl

Girl, Sexually assaulted,  Snatched from the Street.

Last week it read, Mum of Four Found Beaten to Death.

I’d had enough. I walked into the shop and asked for the owner to take it down. “Children come in here. That’s terrifying.”

It’s in his contract with the local papers, he said, he has to put them up. But to his credit he understood the mother angle would be particularly distressing to young children. So he took this one down.

I felt good about myself for about two days until the next headline appeared:

Boy Drowns in Puddle

photo by Martin Deutsch (flickr)

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Young Love

My 11-year old daughter waits like a sighing lover by the front door. She has invited her new friend for a playdate. But the girl is late. Well, we don’t know if she’s late because she said on our message machine that she’d arrive after lunch but it is now 2 pm and as far as we’re concerned it’s after lunch. But maybe it isn’t. My daughter is worried that her new friend might not come around again like yesterday when there was a bit of miscommunication and she waited all afternoon and the girl never showed up.

It is a delicate moment. My daughter is in the thralls of a new love. So she avoids making dates with her many other friends who call her and then finds herself at loose ends, waiting for her new friend to respond.

She slinks up the stairs and hovers by my office door.

“I don’t want to call again,” she says.

“Just call and tell her you got her message and ask what time she was thinking.”

“But I don’t want to be seen as…pushy.”

“You’re not pushy.”

“I’m not calling,” she says resolutely.

I look at the clock. I don’t want to wait another hour with my daughter drooping around the house like a sick dove. I want to get some work done.

“Just tell her you got the message and she can come over whenever and then maybe you’ll get a sense of when she will come over.”

You see, I know exactly what she’s going through. I’ve been here before.

“No.”

“Fine. But then stop bugging me.”

“Ok.” She huffs out. But is back within five minutes.

“Do you think I should call?”

“Please call.”

“I don’t know…”

“Look, just tell her I need to know what time she’s coming over. Because I have a life I’d like to get back to!”

I hear her voice on the phone in the kitchen. She then reappears to report. She is beaming. The clouds have passed.

“She’s coming in five minutes.”

“Halleluiah.”

When the girl finally arrives, they stand in the hallway, so busy giggling and talking, so completely on each others wavelength, that they forget to move into the living room. I hand my daughter a box of biscuits to sweeten the deal and leave them to it.

I then sit upstairs in my office and write, remembering my first loves as well.

photo by Eric in SF (flickr)

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Run Run Run, it’s FUN!

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This past weekend was the Crouch End Fun Run. It’s a wonderful yearly event where adults and children of all ages come out to compete in races.

Someone in our family, however, didn’t seem to understand the point. Which was to run really fast and beat everyone they could.

In fact when we hollered at our son to run faster. As in RUN FASTER!!–he looked at us curiously.

Why?

Because it’s a race! It’s what you do!

My tummy hurts.

Power through it!

Why?

Because it’s fun! RUN!!

Later we logged onto the results.

So. Let’s see how you did.

Why?

Well, just to get an idea.

Of what?

Of…hmmm, you’re not on the first page. Well, let’s go to second page shall we….hmmm, so and so ran faster than you. That’s surprising.

Why?

Well, he’s two years younger and a bit of a tub to be quite frank. Oh, found you. You’re…you’re…well, that’s not very good is it?

Why?

Well, because…I don’t know. Don’t you want to be closer to the top?

Why?

To make you feel better.

About what?

About… I don’t know. Tell you what. Next year why don’t you try a little harder, run a little faster.

Why?

To make Mommy feel a little better. And, please, don’t ask me why.

OK.

Good.

Can I play the computer?

Why not?

photo by Quo Vadis (out of towner) (flickr)

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Broccoli Wars

broccoliMy husband insists my family eats plenty of fruit and vegetables. Thank god for him. Left alone I could go weeks without touching either. He’s probably lengthened our lives by a decade.

Still it can get quite heated at dinner time.

I hate broccoli! My seven year old son will shout.

You need to eat it, my husband will say.

If you don’t you’ll shrivel up and die and all your teeth will fall out, he’ll add helpfully.

My daughter is better at eating her vegetables but even she balks at broccoli. She prefers to avoid confrontation though and is usually so busy talking whole food groups go uneaten. In fact there are some nights she outtalks the dinner and arrives at bedtime famished.

You need to eat your broccoli, my husband will remind her.

I am eating my broccoli.

No, you are not. You’re pushing it around.

I’ll get to it, she’ll say with a steely smile.

Just get it over with.

I will. No need to micromanage.

And my husband will glance over at me for support. Which I give unreservedly, joining in the fray with all sort of clever threats.

I then try to give him an encouraging smile. I also want him to notice my gleaming plate devoid of all vegetables. Because I eat them straight away while they’re still hot. In fact I tend to gulp them down. Been even known to hold my nose to avoid the taste.

And then I sit there afterwards with a smug smile, not wanting to divulge that actually, I hate broccoli, too.

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Julie, how could you?

julieYes, the furor over Julie Myerson’s decision to write about her drug-addicted abusive son.

I’m for it.

Mainly because it gets me thinking. Will my son’s Nintendo addiction mutate into skunk addiction?

I’m completely serious, but the way.

I blog about my children but I avoid the less salutary. Like the little accidents someone in my house makes that has me tossing whole packs of underpants into the garbage. Oops, was that too private?

Of course, I don’t have real dirt yet. My kids haven’t hit puberty and its gateway into parent/teenager hell. And I don’t think I would divulge any real horror. That’s why I’m a fiction writer.

But I’m thankful somebody wrote about the dangers of dope. I, for one, will be keeping a very close eye on it all and will not be lenient about its use. So thanks for warning me, Julie.

So is there a greater good being performed by her airing all her family’s laundry? I think yes.

Is it at the kid’s expense? Definitely.

But writers are not nice. We might smile, we might even offer to clean up occasionally. But deep down we are predators. The reason we are so interested in you is that it fuels our need for stories. We are vampires. Every sorry pathological thought of yours, we take note.

Feeling depressed? Tell us all about it.

Not sure what to do about your husband? We’re all ears.

Just lost your sibling in a horrific accident? How awful, we’ll murmur, reaching for the notebook in our bag. Tell us, how exactly did it happen?

Of course, novelists have it easier. We change the names and genders and hair color. And keep on smiling.

photo by Mahyar (flickr)

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