In Queensland, rain sneaks up on you quick. They say the kookaburras are a giveaway- they’ll hoot and holler before and after a storm. Others argue that it’s magpies that herald the downpour- but either way, the birds seem just as surprised as everyone else when the sky cracks apart to dump the ocean inland.
On the other hand, days like today tease us with nimbostratus clouds in shades of slate and graphite, wind tearing cold through screen doors. A storm may rage over us at any moment. Or, maybe it will drizzle, perhaps we’ll get hail- chances are just as good that it will blow over and leave us with 90° heat and sun by dinnertime. We can’t plan based on what we expect- because its liable to shift at any moment.
Living in visa-limbo is quite the same. The word “when” is replaced by “if” as we wait to hear back from the tight-lipped bureaucrats that hold our paperwork. On an official level, they (as yet) wage no verdict and no date at which they will release one. Kind-hearted administrative staff offer encouragement: “things are progressing”; “everything looks to be all in order”; and “it shouldn’t be too much longer now before they get back to you.” But these platitudes don’t help us resolve the fact that two very different sets of expectations are waging war on our everyday lives.
We are on Week & of our estimated “4-8 week” timeline. Over this time, wish lists (and their sinister siblings: dreadlists) have built up. We need things, but are worried about amusing more stuff that may prove redundant in the next month. Do we buy the boys shorts? Or wait until we have more information? Summer is practically here… unless we have to return to a place where it’s Winter.
In addition to the material crap that clutters our day-to-day reasoning, we are also tabulating conditions for what we require for our next place, if we can’t have this one that we want so much. We investigate weather, employment, transportation and schools in select cities- building our own acceptability quotient tables of next-stop possibilities. Day by day we add to the lists- wishes on paper, and dreads in our minds- while we wait.
There should be no reason the paperwork won’t go through, but what if someone has a bad day, or decides that all Americans are like *thatelectedofficialoverthere* and pulls the red stamp to prevent our staying. Do we start looking for jobs in the States, or double down on what we’ve got going here? When every day feels like a slow-motion anxiety attack, it becomes difficult to determine what are expectations- and what are fears.
At the same time, there is a freedom in giving oneself over to the not-knowing place. As the lolly-voiced woman that answered my last call said, “not much to do now but wait.” And we’ve finally become too exhausted to keep thrashing around in the uncertainty.
And so, I photograph the sunsets and dig up rotten tree roots in the yard, bottle home-brewed beer and purchase week-sized portions of laundry detergent. We muddle through the days trying not to look too hard at the lists. I want to focus now on the good thing we have here, to not let uncertainty drive these days into melancholy. Instead of entertaining that morbid tendency of mine to mourn the loss of what I still have, I am focusing on keeping a regular routine and planning trips to places we missed- or loved so much we want to return to. Meanwhile, I am keeping an eye out for that determining email but, as much as I am able, keep my phone out of sight. Except for the 200 times a day I scan my Spam folder, just in case it got filtered there.
Magpies are the size of crows, black and white in colour, with razor blade beaks and lit-from-within rusty red-yellow eyes. Generally, they are a stand-offish bird that issue clumsy, slightly-off-tune songs and peck grubs and mites from the yard. They are highly intelligent and, as I found in my research (because I am that nerd) that they are the oldest living ancestor of songbirds as we know them. So there’s a useless tidbit to amaaaaze your friends and family with*.
(* Disclaimer- none of my friends nor family have so far been wowed by that knowledge.)
The reason I have researched magpies rests solely in the fact that I am 100% completely and wholly terrified of them. Not that they are special- I harbour a phobia (healthy?) fear of all birds. All of them. Every single bird that exists in the world.
“Certainly not parrots?”, You ask.
Brightly coloured squawking death machines, say I.
“What about bluebirds? Chickadees? Tufted Titmice?”
Indigo traitors; tiny devils; adorably-named spawns of Hell!, I reply
“Hummingbirds,” You reason? “No one could be afraid of hummingbirds!”
Feathered BEES. And that is that.
But. I have been actively courting the gang of magpies that owns my neighbourhood. They came with the house (we recently moved to a nicer place, by the way, for those of you who didn’t know). I do this by scattering cat food around for them. Again- I read online that they like it. It does feel strange, though, feeding a bird dry pellets of “tuna and rice flavoured meal,” but whatever, I never saw a house cat catch any live fish or harvest rice- so I guess that’s about even.
*Most of these photos taken from the internet, because I am not about to go bird-watching for ya’ll
There are two groups of magpies that take turns pecking through our yard. I categorise them in terms of John Hughes movie tropes (I am, if nothing else, a product of 80’s crap cinema):
One group is named after the Three Stooges- Larry, Moe, and Curly- as they tend to peck at one another, but still hang in a set. These are the popular crowd, the jocks and prom queens and James Spader characters. I can’t actually tell them apart.
The other group consists of the weirdos and misfits: “Half-Beak” who is missing half of her top beak (clever name, I know), “Twitchy” who has feathers that are often stuck out at weird angles and may have a limp, and “Shemp” who is very round and friendly-but-nervous and sometimes hangs out with the first crew.
Then, there is the loner that O named “Midnight,” for his solid-black beak, which none of the others are too fond of. He is gigantic and menacing. His beak is curved down at the end, like he bashed it against someone’s skull too hard and crooked it permanently. He descends on the other groups and scatters them so he can steal their food. I fear him the most, so I feed him the most. I’m pretty sure he’s waiting for me to not show up with the goods, and then he’ll peck my eyes out.
And- to be fair- this very specific fear of eye-pecking is justified. And not in the “I watched Hitchcock as a child” kind of justified- but deep-in-the-truth justified.See: In the Spring, also known as “Swooping Season,” also known as right now, the males become highly protective over their nests and ATTACK HUMANS. They *literally* attack the back of your head repeatedly until you flee (often crying) from their own private war zone.
Unlike some other swooping birds here, they do not engage in mild hair-grazing one-off tags that make you grumble up at them in mild annoyance. Magpies (and Plovers, too) are relentless fiends that come at you again and again, heavy bodies banging at the base of your skull, beaks snapping at your face. They have caused cyclists to lose control and fall out into traffic, pedestrians to suffer skin and eye wounds, a friend of mine cowered in a bush for over an hour as a child while under attack and got a sound whupping from her worried parents for being late from school. She says it was worth the spanking to let the bird wear itself out rather than face its wrath.
Last year, I was still commuting to University several days a week by bike. There was a magpie that had decided that he hated me. I tried not to take it personally at first, but soon came to realise that it was, specifically, me- and that he held the same vindictive rage as a certain ex of mine, who shall remain nameless. In both cases, it was merely the fact that I continued to exist in the world that seemed to enrage them to violence. In both cases, I tried everything I could to appease my assailants. I don’t know which worked out better in the end, but I can say that- after everything- I still have both eyes. Needless to say, this persnickety magpie reversed any progress I had made with my ornithophobia (that means “real scared of birds,” ya’ll). Not that I had made much, really.
There are birds in Australia that gave me hope- the bumbling Lorikeets (or “tree Skittles” as my friend dubbed them that flit around drunk on rotten tree-fruits and chirp like bridesmaids; the Cockatoo that preen and waggle their neon-yellow crests, but also scream like pterodactyls when they flock; the Galah, which are pink and grey and congregate in plumy crowds; Kookaburra are fat and “laugh” like a crowd of drunks when it’s about to rain; and the simpleton Ibis that is basically a goofy chicken with a big, hooked beak that pillage garbage cans like confused pirates.
I like Ibis and Kookaburras, and the rest I have a wary respect for. Except the crows, which are like American crows- except with white irises rimmed in black. WHITE IRISES RIMMED IN BLACK! Imagine 1990’s Marilyn Manson, but actually frightening. But not aggressive. Not like the magpie. Magpies are incredibly intelligent- and can be downright hateful. Real Scary. Not pop-star scary.
So, when we moved into this house, and I realised we had a PARLIAMENT of magpies (look it up- that’s the real term!) about the place, I reckoned I had to take some preventative measures. And so I went online and learned too much about them.
They are HIGHLY intelligent and can not only recognise themselves in mirrors (besides human and magpies, “only four ape species, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants have demonstrated this ability”), but they can also remember HUMAN faces . In the face of certain doom, I made the decision to align myself with the enemy- to endear myself to them- feed them, woo them, hope they like my knock-off Fancy Feast because we can’t afford brand-name. I bought cat food and began to sprinkle it in the yard like a deranged Mary Poppins “tuppence” pigeon-lady.
I took the video below this morning- can you hear the FEAR in my voice?
I started in June, when we moved. It is now September and my small, humble-yet-brave parliament of feathered neighbours has not attacked me. Yet.
The Stooges and the Misfits take shifts, one accepting treats in the morning, the other at night. Half-Beak comes around whenever she wants, and Twitchy does a funny sideways hop all the way up to my feet when I’m outside. I expect that one day she’ll let me pet her. I expect that will happen before I am ready, but if she’s real close, I’ll try it just the same and we’ll probably both freak out and avoid each other for a while…. speaking from past experience, that is. It’s always cool in the end, though. Usually.
Anyway, Spring has sprung and eggs are being laid. Which means that magpie dads (and a few mommas) are starting to get protective and ornery. I am hoping that my strategy of befriending-ahead-of-troublesome-times has taken hold. It’s a skill learned through life, and was “legitimised” by fancy pants fluff-n-stuff professors at university while I trudged through their lectures over the past few years. One that, interestingly, few actually followed themselves- looking at you, MB, you Party City Gandalph-beard having elitist and stealer of credit from grad students writings, you fascist of using the capital T in The University… – if you read it and wonder- it’s YOU (oh, the shade! Somebody stop me. But don’t. But do.) but that’s a tale for another time. Or not, if- according to him- I understand the “potential ramifications on my career/reputation.” Ahem.
Where was I?
I fed them and made efforts to stand out with them while they ate. I suffered through their cocked-head glances, forcing myself not to run- not even from Midnight. I let them steal leftover pupusas off the patio table. They allow me to walk safely from my back door to the laundry line. Twice now, they have approached as I lounged in the yard-hammock reading books.
This one is getting bold- s/he came to steal my pupusas!
I think we have a peace accord. Though, I have to wonder if they have come to see me as a source of food and will become angry if I fail to produce. I wonder, as all good peace peacebuilders should, whether my efforts are creating lasting positive change, or merely acting as an uniformed band-aid treatment that plasters over the harm and allows deeper infection to brew under the surface.
I don’t know.
But if they ever turn against me- I’m making the kids fetch the laundry until December.
Because it’s also HILARIOUS to watch others get swooped.
As an extroverted empath, with a tendency to isolate when stressed, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of poking my head up above the ashes of the burnt hole I left in social media many months ago (what is it now, 9?). Between personal and political upheavals between November of last year and today, I found myself shrinking more and more into the closed space of myself. The online world was (and continues to be) a festering garden of anxiety and social discord.
I watched as people I love “un-friend” or attack one another on Facebook and other platforms because of misunderstandings and disagreements- even when they were essentially on the same page, just using different vernacular. I had to answer to many private messages reading too much into my own posts, which I intentionally kept light and non-personal.
The internet was becoming a weird slam-book that I wanted no part of. **Unlike the imaginary slam-books of my middle school Sweet Valley High imaginings, that I was SO eager to see, but never did. Probably because it’s a shitty idea. To everyone except drama-hungry 12-year-olds. Which I fully was. But am not now… but I digress.**
Last January I announced my hiatus from Facebook. I took the app off my phone, and made a concerted effort to not look in on the traffic through my computer. I did maintain my Instagram page, as it just feels safer somehow- less whinging about politics and more pictures of kittens and such. The lack of commentary was refreshing.
I also collapsed this blog, which has bothered me since. Several times a week I consider what I would share in a post about navigating the strange landscape of immigrant experience in Australia. But, so far, I have kept it to myself- and the occasional napkin or stray piece of paper I find floating about. I needed time to sort myself and figure out how (or if) I wanted to proceed in the digital world.
Over the past few months, though, this self-protection/preservation chrysalis I had formed to keep the online strife at bay had also had repercussions on my real-life interactions with people. I am an incorrigible talker-to-strangers, but realised that I have been engaged less and less with my friends.
Initially, a few folks would notify me if there was a Facebook event I needed to tap into- all of which I, inevitably, missed. Every so often I would peep in and catch a birthday or a memory or a funny post and make a little comment, then scurry back into my hole like a trapdoor spider. What happened was that I forgot about Facebook, and it forgot about me. Which was kind of nice for a bit.
One day I happened to be on and saw that a femme-crush of mine had posted about forming a group to talk about parent co-misery, and I was ALL IN. I followed this page, with parents and carers of young people coming together to laugh, cry, and give advice- because, let’s face it- kids are fully realised human beings and, thus, sometimes total assholes sometimes. We need places to give hugs and applause, be it physical or virtual. And, because of this group, I put the Facebook app back on my phone.
It did not take long for me to start opening it up to “check-in” (read: creep) on what my friends and groups were up to. For some reason, the app thinks I want to see when students from my university put couches up for sale, and that’s annoying, but I largely ignore this… except that burgundy velvet sofa I am still sad got snatched from the curb before I had a chance to respond…
All of this information distracts from the point I am trying to make. Simultaneous with my online retreat was a visceral one, that pulled me in and away from people I could have interacted with in a real context but, for a variety of reasons, avoided. And then I became lonely. But, and I know this is odd to non-extroverts, I began talking to strangers more than ever.
I know Paul, a cashier at the grocery store, who grew up in an Aboriginal community out west and was told that he was light-skinned because his “Momma got the black whipped offa her for hanging out with white-fella.”
I know Siobhan, an elderly woman who walks a small and bitey-sort-of dog around the neighbourhood. She owns the house where they filmed “He Died With A Falafel in His Hand,” in 2001 (great movie, by the way). The back half was cut off during filming, and she never bothered to have it repaired. She’s a hoarder, and the house is packed to inaccessibility- but the garden is lovely, and host to plants and flowers that dance across the senses like Garbo and Astaire in chlorophyll shoes. Siobhan always dressed creatively and pokes though the piles of times left out for collection We often tip each other off to good hauls.
I know Tom and Gemima, who traipse daily through the cement waterways under and beneath parklands to document and preserve graffiti art. If they see that a piece has been covered, they get to work peeling off the new layer of paint. Tom is the talker, Gem the peeler. She is relentless- casting palmfuls of acrylic chips into the woven bag at her hip.
But knowing, and- perhaps- loving these people (and a whole lot more- maybe a post for another time) has not helped to push me out of the blue wasteland of loneliness I have cocooned myself in. We are friendly, but not friends.
Many of my Australian friends have been cast off to other parts of the globe – it’s a hazard of International Studies. Everyone gets jobs in Solomon Islands or South Africa, Geneva, Burundi, New York (ya’ll?!!) and you get left alone waiting for a new crop of people that will eventually leave, or be forced out due the prohibitive immigration system here.
But there are some here still.
And I have my friends back in the US, who are celebrating all manner of personal and social milestones that I need to be back in touch with. New family members- partners, children, animals (I fucking REFUSE to call them “fur babies,” so get used to that)- jobs, houses, cities…
And I recognise that, if I want to be around them, I need to get out of my hole and interact.
Because we live in a world where social media is a necessary tool to grease the social wheels.
And I realise the need to connect with people because my social synapses are starting to prune themselves.
I dreamt of Standing Rock, standing still in a rush of people running as dogs and water cannons unleashed. I woke up to several messages from friends and family, all asking if I was “eating” that day. Eating, in this case, serving as code for “doing Thanksgiving*.”
*Note: I am NOT getting into the sticky wicket of discussing the arguments against, or merits of, celebrating this contested holiday. I just don’t have the energy for it today. Suffice it to say that I see both sides and… just… there is more work to do. In the meantime, I wish everyone would just let people live their lives.
Let me say right up front that I am not a Winter holiday person. After Halloween, I’m ready to pack it in until somebody has a birthday. I really, truly just don’t care about the decorations and feasting and what-not. The getting-together-with-friends-and-family bit sounds nice in a way, but all of the pressure of emulating some gold foil cursive script blazing fireplace postcard holiday tends to get in the way of any real coziness. I would rather just hang out with people because I, you know, want to.
But in times of duress, people to cling to tradition. It serves to anchor selfhood and kinship ties, and is a reminder of how things were- or could be- depending on what lens you look through. And, the US is in crisis right now. So, of course it makes sense that people would want to check in to see how we are managing this uniquely American holiday.
Before I answer that, I want to speak a bit to the discomfort of being an American abroad right now. The immediate response we get whenever our accent is clocked is questions about the election of the creature-who-shan’t-be-mentioned.
Ya’ll. I am so sick of talking about it. How many ways can I come up with to say “yeah- we’re screwed,” or to try and shift the conversation to Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, impacts of Hurricane Matthew, the raging fires in Appalachia, or- shit- I’ll even talk about Kanye’s breakdown just please, PLEASE- I can’t with the platinum coated human port-o-potty anymore.
People are genuinely and legitimately living in fear in the States, and most (certainly not all) people asking me about it are treating it like just another “reality” show the US has churned out for gasp-factor. I am here watching my country freak out from afar and have no idea what to do or even how to start.
With that rattling around in my simple little head, I begin answering the questions of Thanksgiving. I dodged it with various versions of “nah, it’s not really a thing here. Plus, everyone is working and at school… and it’s really just too hot for heavy foods.”
On the day, I scrolled past photos of my friends and family standing for photos, in front of tables covered in food, wearing sweaters and awkward smiles that said “take the pic and let’s friggin’ eat already!”There were the on-the-fence posts by people who recognise the problematic origins of the celebration, but still- SWEET POTATO PIE! I was shown one of my own photos from a few years ago, smiling with a young family member (who could pass for my very own child- and who I may well snatch up when her mom isn’t looking) at one of the amazing gatherings put to gather by my husband’s aunt… and so, fine.
When our American roommates (both former Peace Fellows) mentioned having a collective dinner, I was all-in.
I hijacked the term “Friends-giving” from my friend who hosted a scrumptious meal at her house last year and set to figuring out what we were going to have. There needed to be gluten and dairy-free options for one person, vegetarian stuff for the kids, B wanted a turkey- but settled for a chicken- and I had a deep need for Jezebel sauce (which is just cranberry sauce with horseradish- I know- faaaancy!).
A roommate re-named our holiday “Mates-giving,” as it felt more Aussie, and we had another former Fellow from Finland-by-way-of-US and the boys each had a friend over, one of whose father from Czech Republic (is that still how it’s called?) ended up staying for a bit, too.
And- it was good. We did all the things except fight and watch football- you know: board games, getting in each other’s way in the kitchen, eating and drinking too much, B passed out on the couch, and the kids ate all the desserts immediately upon realising that there were no rules around nutrition on that day. It was… very American.
The next round of holidays- sheesh December, why you gotta come right after November?- we will be in Fiji. We will spend the holidays on a beach somewhere, or maybe join a lovo feast in the community. Best of all- our access to internet will be limited, if at all. So we can, if only for a moment, find reprieve from the onslaught of bad news from home.
There is a saying on campus that goes “If a jacaranda flower falls on you before you’ve studied for finals, you’ll fail.” Or something like that. I wasn’t actually paying attention.
The jacaranda trees began to bloom in late September. By then, I was trudging through the deep over-it-ness of late second semester. This term has been a mixed-bag, and half of my courses were… uninspired. However, I met and made connections with some amazing people in/through our department. This was a season of learning more about myself, my place in this cohort, and where the future might lead.
Jacarandas are not native to Australia. Rather, they were brought here from South America. They thrive in this environment- low chance of frost, plenty of water and sunlight- and signal the end of magpie season (where the wretched birds attack unprovoked) and the rapid change from Winter to Summer. The city has planted them along streets and in parks everywhere.
The blooms are a vibrant violet, starting out as more mauve and moving over the weeks into a richer bluish tone that hums with neon-like energy. The scent is light- an airier cousin to wisteria or honeysuckle- with another, almost vanilla, undertone. As quickly as they open, the flowers fall to the ground and are replaced with many more. By early November, lawns and pathways are carpeted- light bouncing off the purple to seemingly tint the very air.
Herbalists and aromatherapy practitioners claim that jacaranda can act as a divining rod for those who dither, or are prone to changing their paths or their minds. They say it helps hone centeredness, and decisiveness. I don’t know that I believe this, but it certainly is pretty, smells good, and comes at a moment in my time here in Australia where I am starting to consider what might come next.
Despite a brief dance with homesickness (discussed in the upcoming “Halloween Schmalloween” post), I am back to resisting return to the place we came here from. I love my people there, but it is not my place- it never has been. I don’t know that this is my place either, but I don’t need to decide now. I can enjoy the “purple snow” (as O calls it) of the jacaranda trees and pretend that they are helping move me toward something sure.
About once every month or two, my phone notifies me of a call coming in as “Restricted.” Under normal circumstances, I would let it run to voicemail, and then delete before listening- as I already know that I don’t have money to pay off whatever collector is ringing. The circumstances here in Australia, though, are far from “normal,” and I answer this call every time.
The voice on the other end of the line is pure Lake Michigan biscuit-sopped gravy and sweet honey sunshine lilting “Heeey, Leanne” through the line, and before she can say “this is D*,” I’ve cut her off with an excited greeting.
D* was one of the first people we met in Australia, and I have mentioned her in this blog before. But, she warrants more than just a passing glance. Though we’ve only seen each other in person once, our conversations are what she calls “deep and meaningfuls” and have more than once pulled me out of a deep funk.
She came to Australia over twenty years ago, also as a first generation student, also as the first in her family to live abroad. We talk about everything from beloved US foods (Frito-Lay barbecue corn chips for her, collard sandwiches for me) to alienation, family dynamics, and how- even after twenty years- you’ll never fully ‘fit in” to a transplant culture. D* works in transcultural mental health- with immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers- so I listen carefully to her wisdom and try to recall her words when I commit (frequent, embarrassing) faux pas.
But I’m not a charity case for her. It’s an even exchange. She often remarks on how refreshing it is to hear my American candour and openness. Even by US standards, though, I’m a bit much- and that sometimes weirds up otherwise comfortable exchanges. I don’t do small talk well, and tend to bring up topics that some shy away from. I’ve reached a point in my life where I no longer try to cover up my past and just spill truth everywhere. And I’ve found that this makes me a “safe person” to talk to. Strangers and friends tell me about things that no one else knows. D* says she’s attracted to that in me, and has shared the thorns and blooms of her own past. She knows that I get it. Despite our differences in age and race, many of our experiences are similar, and we are very much alike on a personal level.
D* called yesterday while I was entertaining myself by wallowing in boredom, loneliness, and a weird combination of hopeful despair. We talked about that, about both world and personal issues, and we talked about paths- the funny desire lines that get us from place to place without following the clearly laid paths. And I felt a lot better. I even vacuumed the house afterward. And I hate vacuuming.
My phone rarely rings these days- WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook messenger being the way I communicate with most folks now. And no matter what I am doing- be it sitting in class, grocery shopping, or busying myself being miserable- I always answer. The caller ID says “Restricted,” but I know there are no limits to where the calls will take us.
The thick muscle that keeps the thumb from running away from my palm cramped up yesterday, and a hard knot started to reform on the side of my second-finger’s knuckle. These are familiar discomforts. When I was young, there would be days that my right hand simply stopped working altogether out of exhaustion. I don’t know that my children have ever experienced this- despite the fact that O is becoming nearly an avid a writer as myself.
I have been remiss in updating this blog, but not because I haven’t been writing- in fact, I have been writing more even than my usual (which is an amount that borders on pathological)- I’ve just moved back to paper now. This is for a number of reasons, but mostly because my scrubby little notebooks are lighter and more portable than a laptop, and cheaper to replace when if I drop it. Okay, and also- because I don’t feel like such a douchebag cozying up with one in a public place as I do with a computer. There, I said it. I think
I would say something here about authenticity and “connecting with place” or blah blah blah things I keep seeing in articles that come across *ahem* my Facebook feed (irony, no?), but that wouldn’t be accurate.
True, I wouldn’t miss it if I lost it- this woozy glow of the computer screen. A lot of people feel trapped by the tractor-beam of technology, laughing at ourselves as we compulsively check our phones. It has become a necessary part of my daily life- emails, assignments, keeping up with family and friends abroad- I don’t hate it, but do grow weary of it sometimes.
But, I made a promise to myself that I would update this blog regularly (well- I thought it would be weekly but- HA!- nope) and so I will be working to move my pen & ink scribblings to this digital format over the next few days. If you subscribe, you may want to turn notifications off, because I’m about to blow it up.