When it came to funeral planning, my mother had only two requests. She dictated them to me a year ago, when she could no longer write. Margot wanted ‘no church but lots of music’, and she wanted her body to be ‘left to science’. When she died seven weeks ago in the middle of Melbourne’s lockdown, we were able to fulfil her first request, but the second proved impossible. The bodies of those who’ve had Covid19 are not currently welcomed by the medical research establishment. Instead, Margot’s death is being co-opted by those preaching a brand of politics she loathed.
On Monday the Victorian opposition leader held a press conference on the lawn beside state parliament. Around him was planted a battalion of small plastic Australian flags. The flags represented the 791 Victorians who had died from Covid19 – including, presumably, my mother – and were aimed at embarrassing the Labor state government. I know exactly what Margot would have said about this stunt: ‘Users.’
When my mother wanted to voice her disapproval, ‘user’ was about as strong as it got. Professor Margot Prior was a peacemaker. One of the many achievements of her long career in psychology was co-founding the Psychologists for the Prevention of War. She abhorred aggression, bullying and machismo. She found the selfish individualism at the heart of conservatism deeply upsetting. She was suspicious of the flag-waving nationalism embraced by the right. It would have made her sick to the stomach to know that the Opposition had traded on her death in this way. If Michael O’Brien had bothered to consult with grieving families before planting his forest of flags, we could have explained this to him.
A day earlier I was walking with a friend by the Yarra River. It was the 13th week of lockdown in Melbourne. Her face mask had slipped and was hanging from her ear. As she tried to wrangle it back in place, a passing jogger slowed to a halt beside us.
‘Don’t do that!’ he yelled. ‘You don’t need it.’
‘What do you mean?’ my friend asked.
‘There’s no such thing as the virus. Take off that mask!’
‘The virus killed my mother’, I said slowly and clearly. But he was on a roll.
‘Nothing killed your mother! It’s a hoax.’
I wanted to punch him then, right in the middle of his mask-less face. Instead I swore, turned and sprinted away before grief and rage got the better of me. ‘Punching people solves nothing’, my mother would have said. ‘And conspiracy theorists are lazy thinkers. They have no respect for the evidence.’
Science is complex. Politics is also complex, and humans are infinitely complex. To save lives in a global pandemic, you need to look carefully at how those three layers of complexity interact, using the best evidence available to you. Margot died after contracting the virus in a Victorian private aged care facility. As The Saturday Paper has reported, the evidence shows that the private aged care sector was woefully under-prepared for this health crisis. There were over 100 infections in the facility where my mother lived and, despite the best efforts of the dedicated staff, a dozen Covid19 victims lost their lives.
Here’s where things get even more complex. The word ‘victim’ doesn’t accurately describe what happened to Margot, because she was ready to die.
The last few years of her life were horribly hard. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 80, Margot understood better than most how the decline in her cognitive functioning would play out. That brilliant mind of hers had been honoured many times, as a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, an Officer of the Order of Australia, and with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society of Autism Research. She had been Senior Victorian of the Year and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science for her distinguished contributions to psychology research. Now her beautiful brain was disintegrating, taking speech, memory and the capacity for joy with it.
A decade earlier, Margot had prepared a Living Will. Her mother had recently endured a slow, painful death and Margot was determined to make sure her own life wouldn’t end the same way. My grandmother’s suffering provided her with the evidence she needed to fill out her advanced healthcare directive. It clearly stipulated that if she was diagnosed with a serious illness – including dementia – that left her independence and competence compromised and caused her psychological suffering, then she did not want any medical intervention or treatment to prolong or sustain her life.
After her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2017 my mother slid into a profound depression. She fished out her Living Will from the filing cabinet and pointed to the word dementia, demanding to know why she shouldn’t be allowed to die. Her suffering was contagious, and our family became singularly focussed on how to restore her will to live. We weren’t ready to let her go. With treatment, her depression eased a little and she worked hard to find meaning in an increasingly constrained life. A year later, though, Margot was diagnosed with bone cancer. This was her chance. If she opted for no cancer treatment, she would potentially have an escape route from the rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s.
What a dreadful choice – a physically painful death of limited duration, or a physically and psychologically distressing slow decline of unknown duration. My valiant mother struggled to decide and consulted her family. We suggested she try the treatment, keeping open the option of pulling the plug if she changed her mind. We still weren’t ready to let her go.
The balance was finally tipped when Margot was offered the chance to take part in a drug trial. If she participated, she could contribute to science. If the drug treatment failed, her death would at least provide useful evidence for her colleagues in the field of medical research.
Margot beat the cancer, but the Alzheimer’s was relentless. It made this calm, courageous, outspoken woman angry, fearful and inarticulate. In the final year of her life she repeatedly asked us why she didn’t qualify for the new Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Scheme. When the corona virus hit Melbourne, she was locked down in her aged care facility for many weeks. Prevented from visiting, my siblings and I sang to her over the garden fence, and our father spoke to her on the phone, but her illness made these conversations incredibly challenging.
Human emotions are complex and often contradictory. When my mother tested positive for coronavirus, I was terrified and relieved in equal measure. She was tormented by loneliness, confusion and physical disability. Loss of independence and competence. Psychological suffering. No medical intervention. It was all spelt out in Margot’s Living Will. Time to let her go.
Ten days later, my mother passed away. We held a small socially distanced funeral for her with no church, lots of music, face masks, funny stories and tears. In spite of my grief, it was one of the happiest hours I’d had in weeks. My family were together at last, and our precious Margot was no longer suffering.
Some right-wing commentators, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have been urging governments to re-consider the value of an individual life in a pandemic. Specifically, they appear to be suggesting the lives of elderly people are less valuable than other lives, and could be sacrificed in order to re-start the economy. My mother was ready to die, but her husband is alive and well, and spends every day of the week helping other people. Margot would horrified by the idea that his life was considered expendable.
I refuse to concede my mother’s death to the politics of conservatism. She believed in kindness, equality and science. If her death in a pandemic can be used to inform kinder, more egalitarian, evidence-based policies that might prevent deaths in future pandemics, maybe Margot’s wish to leave her body to science will be granted after all.
(This essay was first published in The Saturday Paper in October 2020)
(The following obituary was written by one of my mother’s colleagues and published in The Age in October 2020.)
Margot was the best of us. She was a life affirming humanist, artist, environmentalist and scholar. She was a mentor to many and a much-loved friend. But at the heart of it she was a deeply passionate member of a large and brilliant family who sustained her through loss and love.
A classical musician who trained at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, Margot was a brilliant pianist and oboist who played in orchestras in the UK and Australia, and in recital on the ABC. She married a musician, Glenthorne Prior, who she met when she was a student, and with whom she had three children, Yoni, David and Sian.
While the couple were living in Brisbane and Glen was playing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, he drowned while saving two colleagues who got into trouble in the surf. Margot was left a widow, with her youngest child just three months old, and the eldest five years old.
Through necessity, Margot returned to Melbourne and study, retraining as a psychologist at Monash University. Having distinguished herself with a master’s degree which was focused on the then little-known condition of autism. She was offered a tutorship and began a PhD, the latter also on autism, which she completed in just two-and-a-half years, a rare feat. Margot published the first Australian journal article on autism in 1973, later to become known as autism spectrum disorder.
Margot remarried in 1969 and is survived by her adoring husband John Hansen, who had four children of his own, creating a large and blended family.
In the midst of this busy time, Margot completed her PhD and took up an academic position at La Trobe University in 1976. It was here that she shone most brightly. Her interests grew to encompass many other early childhood conditions, including attention and language disorders.
Her interests in clinical and developmental child and family psychology led to her research in childhood temperament, and she is well recognised as the architect of the Australian Temperament Study, which began in 1983 and continues to this day. This study, one of very few that has examined three generations in a single project, has had a major impact on social policy in Australia, and developmental science more broadly.
Margot made highly distinguished contributions to the scientific investigation of child psychology and the application of developmental research to clinical practice and social policy in Australia and elsewhere.
During much of this time, she continued to play in orchestras, which made for a full and busy life. Music remained a core part of Margot’s life to the end, but she eventually stopped working as a professional musician as the demands of academia and family life consumed much of her time.
Margot’s career blossomed and she was recognised as a leading figure in the field of psychology, becoming the first female professor of clinical psychology in Australia in 1989, and establishing the first clinical psychology doctoral program in the country.
Beyond her scholarly and academic work, Margot has been a prominent voice for child welfare, peace and social justice initiatives. She was one of the founding members of the Psychologists for the Prevention of War and co-established the La Trobe Institute for Peace Research. She also co-founded the Victorian Parenting Research Centre in 1997 (now the Parenting Research Centre) and contributed to the development of diagnostic standards for autism in Australia.
Margot moved to the University of Melbourne to take up the position of inaugural director of psychology at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 1995, where she continued her stellar work. In addition to leading research in the area of developmental psychology and psychopathology, Margot mentored a generation of early career scholars and clinicians and was well regarded for her warmth and generosity and well as her fierce intellect and commitment to social and welfare issues. She was a widely read newspaper columnist and media commentator for many years, her advice and opinions doing much to raise the level of public understanding about child development in Australia, and autism in particular.
Her work frequently led her overseas to present at many academic forums, including chairing the Social and Human Sciences Network for UNESCO (2005-2007). She would also travel on missions to places like India and Vietnam to undertake development work including training clinicians to support children with developmental challenges. She was often the go-to person for issues on child development, being invited to write reports for government, and even providing evidence in court for cases involving children. She had a keen interest in indigenous affairs and volunteered in an inner-city Aboriginal Health Service for many years.
Following retirement from her position at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 2002, Margot continued her involvement in research at the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University. She was the inaugural chair of the Advisory Committee of Australia’s first autism research centre at La Trobe, the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, established in 2008, and held this position until her 80th year.
The Victorian Autism Specific Early Learning and Care centre at La Trobe was named after her in recognition of her long contribution to autism intervention science and service. She was also a patron of Amaze, the peak autism body in Victoria.
Margot had a long and illustrious career during which she received many honours including being made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2004 and being named Senior Australian of the Year for Victoria in 2006.
She was a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and of the Australian Psychological Society, where she also received the President’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in Australia. In 2016 she was awarded a doctor of science (honoris causa) for her distinguished contributions to scientific and clinical knowledge of developmental psychology, and in 2018 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Autism Research.
Margot was a pioneer and leaves an important legacy. Hers was a life well lived, to the fullest, and one that will be celebrated for a long time yet. Those of us who knew her, worked with her and loved her were indeed blessed.
She is survived by husband John Hansen and three children Yoni, David and Sian Prior.
Professor Cheryl Dissanayake is director and chair, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre School of Psychology and Public Health La Trobe University, Bundoora campus.
I used to think the greatest gift my mother gave me was music. She taught me to play the piano, encouraged me to join choirs and orchestras, and accompanied me as I sang. At her surprise sixtieth birthday party, my siblings and I thanked our mother by singing her favourite songs in four-part harmony, including Ian Dury’s ‘Sex and drugs and rock and roll’.
I’ve recently changed my mind. Music makes me happy, but the greatest gift my mother Margot gave me was a respect for science, and for what she calls ‘the evidence’. As a professor of psychology, she set up rigorous research projects, then worked out how the evidence they produced could help people live better lives. Margot had no time for snake oil sellers spruiking miracle cures – ‘there’s simply no evidence’, she’d say with a beatific smile.
Three decades ago, in my work as an environment campaigner, I looked at the scientific evidence of ozone depletion and used it to argue for phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals. More recently, as a journalist, whenever I’ve read or heard something that seems implausible, my mother’s voice echoes in my head – ‘where’s the evidence?’ – and I delve a little deeper.
In this frightening new age of fake news, conspiracy theories and ‘feel-pinions’, Margot’s advice has never felt more urgent. Conspiracy theories might make you feel good, allowing you to believe that nothing is your responsibility and that malevolent forces, rather than complex human behaviours and systems, have created All The Problems. But most conspiracy theories are without credible scientific evidence, and ‘feel-pinions’ are usually feelings that morph into opinions that morph into antisocial behaviour.
Take those protestors who’ve been dismissing the threat of Covid-19, for example, and ranting against mask-wearing and social distancing. They could do with some stern advice from my mother. Their protests may have given them fifteen seconds of fame on the nightly news, but their views are not supported by scientific evidence.
Unfortunately I can’t organise for Margot to speak with them. Turns out the health experts were right about the dangers of Covid-19. A month ago, this virus took my mother’s life.
So to all those anti-lockdown, anti-mask, antisocial protestors, here’s a tip. If a bunch of highly respected scientists advise you there is no evidence for your conspiratorial feel-pinions, please think again. Lives may depend on it.
(This column was first published in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2020)
Want to hear a good news story? Fifteen years ago I travelled from the north to the south coast of Timor Leste to visit some friends. We hadn’t met before, but we were officially friends, courtesy of an agreement between my local council and theirs. In 2005 there were a handful of ‘friendships’ between Australian local governments and East Timorese communities. The City of Port Phillip, where I was living, had befriended the town of Suai in the district of Covalima, and I was curious to see what that friendship looked like.
It was a perilous drive over the mountains, a reminder of how isolated many Timorese towns are from the capital Dili. In mid-winter the town of Suai was dry and dusty, and skinny chickens pecked hopefully in bare yards. Evidence of the violent Indonesian withdrawal from Timor Leste could still be seen in Suai’s churches, where 200 people were massacred in 1999. Only half the town had electricity each day, so every second night the Suai market was lit by candles. But there were signs of recovery.
In the new community centre, computer and sewing classes were in full swing, funded by the Friends of Suai/Covalima. I camped on a stretcher bed in the community centre, and the next day visited the local hospital, where the Friends were funding a program to feed malnourished patients. At a local pre-school partially funded by the Friends, children sang songs for me and demanded a song in return.
In the decade and a half since I visited Suai, the Friends group has helped the community centre set up a Rural Women’s Development Program, allowing local women to run campaigns against domestic violence, and sell traditional handicrafts. There’s a reforestation program which has led to 10,000 trees being planted. Port Phillip residents have volunteered as election monitors and English teachers in Suai, and scholarships have allowed 160 young locals to train as teachers and health care workers. Right now, some of those trainees are raising awareness about hand hygiene, to keep Covid-19 at bay.
We’ve all become anxious about statistics since that damned virus appeared. Here are some happy stats: there’ve only been 25 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Timor Leste, and no deaths. There are now 50 friendship groups between Australia and TL. It only takes 100 minutes to fly from Darwin to Dili. When we’ve beaten the virus, let’s go visit some friends.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2020)
Sometimes you get lucky with family. I have an aunty who’s taught me so much about the world, it’s hard to know where to begin. When I was a child, she spent an hour with me every Sunday evening, introducing me to the joys of pop music. She loved the classics too, and together we listened to the great works of Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler on the radio.
My aunty also knew heaps about science. Stars, planets, birds, whales, ozone depletion; she kept up with the latest research about all of them and shared her knowledge with me. She stayed abreast of current affairs, too, and educated me about political parties and elections.
Hard to believe, I know, but my aunty was also an arts aficionado. She’d seen all the latest movies and plays and gave me potted reviews of the books she was reading. But our interactions weren’t all about education. We both loved a laugh and my aunty introduced me to the genius of The Goon Show and those Clarke and Dawe interviews.
As I grew older my aunty looked out for me in different ways, offering me interesting jobs and showing me how to tell engaging stories. Eventually I moved on to other work, but everything she taught me has proved to be useful in everything I’ve done since then.
My aunty has always been great in a crisis. I don’t know how our family would have got through the catastrophic bushfires last summer without her, or the COVID 19 lockdown. She’s been calm and clear and comforting.
Mind you, not everyone in the family is enamoured with her. Some envy her talents and resent her popularity. They bad-mouth her all over the place, claiming she has more money than sense, even though they know full well she’s never been wealthy. Secretly these detractors in the family must be wondering how our aunty has achieved so much with so little.
Recently things have taken a turn for the worse in Aunty’s life. Some of our less savoury family members have gained access to her financial resources and have been siphoning money off, leaving her struggling to stay afloat. Some have even started campaigning to eject Aunty from the family forever.
Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s elder abuse. Unless more of us are willing to stand up to the aunty-haters in the family, she could soon disappear.
(Sian Prior has worked for ‘Aunty’ ABC as a reporter, producer and presenter on radio. This column first appeared in the Sunday Age and the SMH in July 2020)
This year I will be running some Writing as Therapy courses online. Class numbers will be limited to approximately ten participants, but if the course books out I am happy to schedule some more classes.
ABOUT THE COURSE
Writing is a tried and tested method for coping with and understanding personal dilemmas, crises, depression, anxieties, stress and traumatic events. The simple act of putting down words on the page can reflect our attempt to make meaning from the thoughts and feelings and experiences we have. It helps us to gain distance from the things that cause us distress. From keeping a daily diary to penning a poem, all forms of writing can help us to shape narrative from chaos. Therapeutic writing can also help us re-discover our playful selves.
In this four part course on Writing As Therapy, I will lead you through a series of ideas and exercises in therapeutic writing, using a variety of techniques and exploring the methods that might work best for you. Each session will involve a mix of listening, thinking, writing, reading and brainstorming.
No experience is necessary and grammar, spelling and writing ability are irrelevant. All participants need to bring is an urge to understand and express themselves, a computer and/or notepad and pen. Everyone’s writing will be kept as private as participants wish.
1) The Situation and the Story
‘The place to which our writer finally puzzles her way (is): her own mixed feelings. First she sees that she has them. Then she acknowledges them to herself. Then she considers them as a way into the experience: then she realizes they are the experience. She begins to write.’ Vivian Gornick.
The first session involves a gentle introduction to some key concepts in writing as therapy, including; catharsis, self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-transformation. Drawing on the work of Vivian Gornick (author of ‘The Situation and the Story’) we will learn how to distinguish between the ‘situations’ we find ourselves in, and the ‘stories’ we want to tell ourselves about our life. We will employ simple writing techniques to identify the internal conversations we have with ourselves (the dialogical self), and learn how these conversations can help us resolve the challenges we are facing.
2) The Made Up Self
‘Whenever we write in the first person, reflecting on our personal experience, we inevitably create a version of ourselves, crafting a self out of words’. Carl Klaus
Drawing on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman (who developed self-presentation theory), writer Carl Klaus (author of ‘The Made Up Self’) and re-visiting the idea of ‘the dialogical self’, in this session we will look at how we ‘perform’ our lives, how we ‘make ourselves up’ in our writing, and how understanding the different ‘personas’ we perform can help us get distance and perspective on our travails. American writer Ander Monson (in ‘Vanishing Point’) suggests we ask ourselves ‘what’s at stake’ when we’re thinking and writing about our lives. What remains to be resolved? How can writing help us identify and move through the unexpressed choices and conflicts in our lives?
3) The Savage Mind
‘I realise it’s my own consciousness I need to confront. Perhaps by writing about myself I’ll discover my own identity. Regardless, I’ll have to stare at the rough edges of sadness in my life.’ Patricia Foster
Drawing on the work of writer Patricia Foster (author of ‘My Savage Mind’) and Jeanette Winterson (author of ‘Art Objects’) we will look at life writing as a tool for self-understanding and self-soothing. Finding the language of pain – we will examine how employing writing techniques such as point-of-view (eg. first person, second person, third person voice) can help us to find better coping techniques in our lives. Gratitude and hope journals – we’ll discover how to use daily life writing to ‘accentuate the positive’ in our lives.
4) The Honest Self
‘We imagine the past – we don’t remember it.’ John Banville
We are made up of our memories but we also know that our memories can fade, warp and distort, and at times even ‘trick’ us. These distortions and tricks can sometimes cause us distress – and sometimes they can help us. In this session we will look at how to access faded memories and identify their truth content – both factual and emotional – through writing. Memory vs imagination – we examine how to acknowledge and accept the blur between the two, and employ them both in our writing to access the ‘story’ in our ‘situation’. We will practice ‘re-writing’ difficult episodes in our lives with alternative endings.
There are a few options:
Enrol in Part One of the four-part Writing as Therapy course to ‘test the waters’, knowing you then have the option of continuing and completing the four part course. Cost: $100 ($80 conc)
Enrol in the four-part course. Cost: $300 ($250 conc)
Enrol in the final three classes of the four-part course, ONLY IF you have completed part one with me previously. Cost: $250 ($210 conc)
(Concession rates available for students, pensioners and unemployed).
To register your interest, please contact me via the Contact page on this website, specifying which of the three enrolment options (above) you prefer. Deposits will be required to ensure you have a place in the course.
To listen to a recent ABC radio interview I did about writing as therapy click here.
One of the things I miss most about life before You-Know-What is singing with choirs. Monday nights you would normally find me hanging out with a chamber choir. Wednesday nights it was a French choir, and on Sunday nights the neighbours had to put up with my noisy quartet. Tiring days morphed into inspiring nights when I was making music with other tired-then-inspired choristers.
It’s not surprising that so many recent ads and viral videos have featured people singing alone-but-together. Italians crooning from their balconies; nurses performing in hospital wards; TV actors serenading us from multi-screen ABC promos – they’re all responding to the same human need for communal hollering.
Three decades ago, my love of singing led me to start up the Victorian Trade Union Choir. Every Thursday night we gathered in a faded ballroom at Trades Hall and learnt songs about red flags, shearers strikes and workers’ rights. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison and visited Australia for the first time, we serenaded him with the ANC anthem at the Melbourne Town Hall. On the anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor we belted out the theme song of the Timorese independence movement.
We sang at church services to remember workers who’d died on the job. We performed at Hamer Hall on Labour Day and on the back of a truck on May Day. We warbled on a Wodonga picket line at dawn, then warmed our hands over flaming forty-gallon drums with striking meatworkers.
I spent three years conducting the group before handing the job over to others. Those Thursday night gatherings at Trades Hall continued, and this year the Trade Union Choir members were planning to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary. Like most singing groups, though, they’ve had to press pause on live rehearsals. In the early days of You-Know-What, there were some alarming outbreaks – and fatalities – in European and American choirs. Large group gatherings for choristers will be out of bounds for a while yet.
The members of the Trade Union Choir are currently doing Zoom rehearsals on Thursday nights, soloing at home with their mute buttons on. It’s a far cry from the days when they sang their lungs out for sacked maritime workers in the 1998 waterfront dispute.
In case we don’t get a chance to celebrate the big three-oh together – Happy Birthday, comrades. I’m so proud I could burst.
(This column was first published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in May 2020)
(This essay was first published in The Big Issue in April 2020)
It’s summer and I’m at a surf beach on the west coast. I had planned to have a quick swim and then walk the dog, me zipped up in my wetsuit, the two of us hermetically sealed in our solitude. But on the beach a family is sitting at a picnic table; a man, two women and two girls. As I walk past them the girls spring up from the bench seat and lunge towards the dog.
‘Oh oh oh, can we pat her?’ Jazzy is instantly ready for play, leaping around them and barking. ‘Oh, can we play with her?’
Dark eyes, mid-teens, tight blue jeans, but still children when it comes to dogs and the chasing of them. I laugh and laugh at their dancing game, grit kicking up around them, Jazzy swerving so the girls lunge and fall in the soft dry sand.
At the picnic table the two women in headscarves nod and smile at us, as the girls pick themselves up and come towards me.
‘What’s your dog’s name?’ The older one speaks in a rush. ‘We had a dog, he was a Jack Russell cross, we loved him so much, but we couldn’t look after him, mum said, so we gave him away to one of mum’s clients, but we miss him.’ And now they’re off again, chasing Jazzy to the water’s edge and back.
‘Are we holding you up?’ the older girl asks.
‘No, I’m just about to have a swim, you go right ahead.’ I inch my way through the biting waves, glancing back at the dancing trio. Oh, to be able to run like that still, to fall with impunity, to have teenage daughters to run with, fall with, laugh with.
As soon as I come out of the water they’re by my side again, telling me more stories about the Jack Russell, about puppy school, about their aunt who’s come from Turkey to visit them.
‘Where do you live?’ I ask.
‘In Victoria. Oh, you mean what street – no, what suburb?’ They look at each other, shrugging. They don’t know.
I play a guessing game. ‘The west? The east? Did you come over the West Gate Bridge?’ They don’t know where they live. They live at home, with mum and dad. That is enough.
In between quizzing me they speak Turkish to each other and I love how it rushes from their lips, all sibilant like the waves behind them. And then they ask me that question.
‘Do you have children?’
There is a pause – the first pause – in the conversation.
‘No’, I say eventually, but they are waiting for more.
Not here. Not today. Finally, I say, ‘Jazzy is like my child.’
Then on they go, telling me their names are Joozher and Azra, laughing about how, if you put their names together, you’d get something like Jazzy. They talk about the boys who break the rules at their high school, and more about their lost dog, and then somehow it is time for me to go, because I cannot keep them.
I walk slowly up the hill to the borrowed beach house, full of their beauty and openness and unknowingness, and with the fact that they are not mine.
Later in the evening I make myself walk down the hill to the pub, but it is a mistake. It is all and only families, clusters of kids being herded and fed, and nowhere for me to sit. I lean against the balcony railing and sip my wine and fiddle with my phone and watch the children, the easy chatting, the blurred lines between family units, and today it is too hard.
So I take my glass and head back to the beach, where I sit in the sand, gulping the wine and staring at the grey ocean. When the wine is gone I walk home fast, waiting to feel Jazzy’s sandy paws jumping at my knees.
We’re all in an upside down world. Outside life has moved inside. Easy has become hard. But sometimes reversals can be positive. I’ve been writing a list of things that used to be annoying but that are now comforting.
The tradies working two doors down from me, for example. Their blaring radio and incessant hammering used to drive me bananas. I’d slam doors and jam in earplugs, trying to shut out the cacophony. Now I go out into the backyard just to hear them cursing while they work. Something normal is still happening, I tell myself. Someone’s making progress.
Ditto with the garbage trucks Bin morning used to be a trial, woken before dawn by the crashing of bins and roaring of engines. Now I look forward to the garbos’ arrival. The rubbish is still being collected, I reassure myself. We’re not going to be buried alive in our own waste.
And then there’s exercise. I’ve always hated it – a necessary evil in a desk-bound life. I’d procrastinate all day about doing my laps or walking those ten thousand steps. Now I can’t wait to get out of the house and stride along the Merri Creek, marvelling at how birds can still sing in the midst of a pandemic.
My overstuffed shoulder bag is on the list. Years of scrabbling around in the bottom of a bag of detritus to find whatever I’m looking for. The bag is even more stuffed now, but the things in it are comforting – plastic gloves, tissues, a face mask, liquid soap, a water bottle, hand sanitiser, my phone, more plastic gloves. Self-protective items for a scary new world.
My overstuffed bookshelves were another irritant. Novels I read decades ago and haven’t touched since. Memoirs I’ve been planning to read for decades but haven’t opened yet. All of them gathering dust, taking up space, reproaching me. Now at last I know why I’ve hung onto them – for a moment in history just like this. Stories will keep me sane.
The list of unexpected comforts keeps getting longer. Junk mail deliverers. Overly-cheerful radio presenters. Even deadlines, those monkeys on my back, nagging at me to get back to work. This year I have a scary publishing deadline – six months to finish writing a book about the past. Thank goodness. Something to take my mind off the present. What’s on your list?
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2020)
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