Purple Snow Trees

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.

20161019_125502

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.

20161019_130316

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.

20161019_130326

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.

20161102_090135

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.

20161102_082634

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.

20161102_090656

The Deep and Meaningfuls

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.

Writing on Paper

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.

Engagement and Escapism

Over the past few weeks, I have been asked if I wanted to ride a camel (YES!), play Pokemón Go (No), drink mead with Vikings (duh, Yes), go to Burning Man (No), and if I’m going to seek refugee status when *not if, when* Trump gets elected (ummm…)

Pretty much every morning I wake up wondering what terrible thing happened in the world while I slept. It’s a crap thought to have- made worse that I usually haven’t even had coffee before it snakes its way into my brain. Unfortunately, because of the field I’m in, and the company I keep, and my eternal attempts to be a ~Good Human~, I am compelled to seek out and am constantly bombarded by the awful. And right now- there is plenty of awful to hear about.
We have the continuing worldwide refugee crisis, a re-emergent war in South Sudan, terrorist attacks across the globe, Brexit, police brutality and violent attacks against police, xenophobia and racism and fear Fear FEAR. Everywhere, everyone is afraid.

And the question I have is one I stole from Eula Biss, an author I deeply admire, and that is: “What will we do with our fear?”

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 6.21.45 pm
Stencil for Eula Biss appearance at Duke University

We scream and cry, or march and protest, gather for planning sessions, we post our opinions online and blast those we don’t agree with and engage in in-fighting with others of the same mindset, point fingers and complain… and eventually it all gets to be too much, This cacophony of outrage and action is altogether too much. We grow weary of real life.
So, we run from it.

We find solace in cute animal gifs, bury our heads in video games, binge on Netflix, hate-read tabloid articles about the love lives and dramas of stars we don’t know or care about. It’s easy. It takes us out of ourselves and this world we live in where the theatre of tragedy is forced on us 24-hours a day.

The time is ripe for Pokemon Go, and Medieval Faires and Live Action Role Playing in the park. It may not be for everyone- some even scoff at these flights of fancy- but it makes complete sense. We may feel powerless against the tide of international conflict, but we can do our damndest to “catch ‘em all.”

20160710_145649.jpg
Knights at the Abbey Medieval Faire

I don’t play Pokemon, and I don’t dress up in a wimple and cotehardie. I don’t *often* watch cat videos, pay attention to who celebrities are “on the outs” with, or watch thinly veiled soap operas (okay.. except those two.. but we’re off-season right now). I read books and write, look at lowbrow/outsider artists on Instagram and listen to comedy podcasts. I also rode a camel. There is value in all of these things. Everyone deserves to check-out sometimes.

20160710_103136.jpg
Me and O… on a camel!!!

I’m getting ready for my second semester in grad school at UQ for Peace & Conflict Studies, which is actually my fifth semester- if you count my credits at UNC-G in the States- and there were years of work and activism before that. Extended time deep in action and intellectualism on the sticky subject of “peace” (whatever THAT means) will have an impact.
Some burn out and quit- go corporate, others dig in harder- really relishing their roles as jaded and bitter foot soldiers “for the cause.” Most are somewhere in the middle- eternally seeking the balance of emotional wellness and dedication to the work. It requires a sense of humour and willingness to do those things that help you check-out when you need it.

Through this journey I have met the most amazing, inspiring, sick & twisted people I know. People who can cite United Nations Security Council resolutions from memory and two seconds later make a most cringe-worthy gallows humour remark; curse like a sailor in the back room before going out to give an inspired speech on the state of gender relations in sub-Saharan Africa; work with young children on social justice and post-conflict resiliency and then go thrifting for additions to their creepy clown collection. Okay, that last one was me, but you get my drift.

The field requires a duality. Humanitarians and peace makers, activists and advocates, social and civil rights warriors are- at the end of the day- human, too. So, if you see us wandering around town catching Pokemon instead of “fighting the good fight” sometimes, know that we need that. If there is a social media blackout, it doesn’t mean that we’re not paying attention, it means that we need to decompress. It’s all too much sometimes.

And, all of us- every single one- needs to look at photos of cute animals sometimes to remind us that there is still good in the world.

IMG_20160704_154147.jpg
Just a wombat, chillin’ in the Winter sun

The Place

One year ago today, I submitted my resignation letter. It was not an easy decision, rather one I lost much sleep and spilt many tears over. I was leaving a place that had become my home, the people inside my family. My children had grown up playing in the halls. We went there when I wasn’t working just to be with our friends. I loved it there.

But I had to leave.

I found the place in 2008, when I applied for a student internship with another organisation housed in the same building. I started as a student, became an intern, and then moved into contract work before securing my dream of official on-the-books full time employment. I was ridiculously happy there, until I wasn’t.

The place trained me in documentary arts, offered me opportunities I never would have otherwise had, and introduced me to many people who have become lifelong friends. My exposure to the various means and methods of true-storytelling is one I am deeply grateful for. The men and women I met, that I cried both happy and sad tears with, admired from afar and then got breathtakingly close with, whose babies I held, and who helped raise my own children, will always be with me. I thought for a long time that I would be there forever. I imagined myself retiring from there some day in the far distant future.

But I quit because I could no longer sit in my car in the mornings, dry heaving and dreading the day- wondering when the relationship with my job had turned toxic.

  • Maybe it was when I found out that I made a dollar less an hour than the guy I had replaced. The guy who was prone to disappearing without notice. The guy who did it so frequently that I was initially called in to contract work because no one ever knew if/when he would show up to work.
  • Maybe it was when I realised that my suggestions for improvement were being ignored, but when things went wrong I was the one left cleaning up the messes.
  • Maybe it was sitting in a meeting, listening to one of the faculty go on and on about doing a documentary project with the Fight for Fifteen group. He was lamenting that some people don’t even make $15 an hour, and actually said “I don’t even know how they live on so little!” The director was looking right at him, with me next to him- nodding in agreement. But she knew full well that I didn’t make that much. So- were they saying they couldn’t imagine how I lived?
  • Maybe it was when my beloved supervisor left and I did both his job and my own for over six months while they searched for a replacement for him. Or maybe it was when I applied for his job, but wan’t qualified for it. Or maybe it was when they hired a replacement for him that I had to train to do the job I wasn’t qualified for. Or maybe it was when she actually said that she didn’t know why my job even existed because she didn’t really need “an assistant.”

Ultimately, it was all of these, plus a million other slights, that lead to me leaving. As much as I adored the place and my coworkers, my job sucked and I wasn’t valued by my supervisors.

It felt like divorce.
No. It felt worse. My divorce was actually a relief.
Leaving that place was cutting myself off from something I still had (and have) a deep-down love for. It still hurts me to think about it, though I know it was for the best.

A week after I turned in my notice, I received a call from one of my former superiors. He said that the director had seen a post I had put on my private Facebook page (she had never accepted my friend request). It was a benign post about leaving the place. In the comments thread, a friend and I bantered about some of the things that once made me cry, but were kind of funny now that I was gone (no room here for the desk-saga now). I did also say the place was “kind of a mess right now.” He said the director was furious with me, then made some veiled threats that essentially amounted to recant or we’ll make life very difficult for you. I was coming back to assist with one of the Summer institutes, and was told that I would make sure everyone knew how happy I had been, and that I had better not say anything crossways. And I did. And it was true, mostly.

I never did delete the post. I stand by what I say- online or off.

One year ago today, I left a place that inspired and tormented me. Brian left his job within the same week. We celebrated and freaked out for a few days before going on to other jobs that we both loved and found rewarding- working with people who genuinely appreciated our efforts, and where the pay was vastly greater.
What I got from the next job was LOVE (and pastries!). I began to rebuild my self-worth and remember that it isn’t okay to cry before, or at, or after, work every. single. day. I met new amazing people and had time to enjoy them. They were happy for, and kind to me. We ate pizza together on my last shift there before coming to Australia. It was the only time I cried over that job- because I had to leave.

We Peace Fellows are often asked what we will do after our tenure here. If most of us were honest, we would just shrug and say “no clue.” But we don’t (usually). I have a stock vague answer I give when asked. We talk about amongst ourselves often.
Recently, another fellow asked if I would ever go back to work at the place. I would like to say “no way!,” but that would be a lie. If they asked me, I would consider it. But I don’t think they would. I gave her a vague non-answer.

One year ago today, I left a job that I loved and hated.
Today I am just about as far away from that place- both physically and emotionally- as I could possibly be.
And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

cds

When Life Gives You Bananas

One Sunday afternoon, a 13kg (that’s 28.6 lbs, ya’ll!) box of bananas landed on my kitchen counter.

B said “I thought you could do something with these.”

IMG_20160619_134154

 

Some context: B is a bicycle mechanic. He is quick to identify and repair problems, and he can be pleasantly chatty with bike-owners, and sometimes just blunt in saying “the best fix is getting a bike that’s not trashed” (which is a lot nicer than the way he actually says it, tbh), but fixing it as best he can if they really want to go with whatever terrible thing is happening with their ride.

I would give an example, but I don’t want to feed you any of my made-up vocabulary for parts and repairs- I’m pretty sure that “frappering the funtzhunny” is not a technical term. B also attended NASCAR Tech, where he got a solid education in MacGyvering rattletraps and getting them back in the race.

**Hang with me here- I’m getting back to the bananas, I promise.**

 

This combination of gifts leads bike shop managers to select B to work at various charity bicycle rides and races because- let’s face it- if you are teetering up in your clickety-clack clip-in shoes to a mechanic at a charity ride either A) Your bike is a piece of crap or B) Something has gone terribly wrong. In either case, you want someone like B there to cobble you a quick-fix and get your spandexed butt back on the road.

At these rides there is, inevitably, a table stocked with big orange coolers of water and/or Gatorade, energy bars, and bananas. Always with the bananas, so many bananas. There is such an embarrassment of leftovers that volunteers shove them off on one another, in a perverse game of potassium-overdose roulette.

 

We lost this round.

 

And so, I got to work making banana-y things. First up, the obvious- peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Which the kids thought was great the first time I packed them in their school lunches, but deferred when I kept offering them for the next week. I get it- I’d be gakked out, too. They don’t hold up well being knocked around in crowded backpacks.

So, I started on the breads: plain banana bread; then upside-down caramel banana bread; pineapple-coconut banana bread; pineapple-coconut-jalepeño banana bread; pineapple-basil banana bread; chocolate chip banana bread… is that all? I can’t remember now. My head is spinning.

I made banana chips, banana guacamole (surprisingly delicious!!), banana bars, banana smoothies, banana muffins, and banana candy.

20160630_120207

 

I couldn’t handle any more. So, I began smashing and slicing and freezing them, but we ran out of room in our tiny freezer, so I slogged on- the banana panic starting to rise.

Then, the bananas started getting suspiciously mottled. My house smells like a Runts candy factory. At this point, I am freaking out…. but, I can’t let them go to waste.

That Southern mama-voice at the back of my head was hollerin’ something about starving children and how I ought to be grateful for the abundance.

 

20160628_143708

 

I pressed on, dropping little chunks into the mouse cage, frustrated that they couldn’t eat any more than they did, despite their tiny tummy distended with the fruit. Why can’t you digest faster, you ungrateful vermin??? I think I saw one of them give me the finger after I offered yet another piece today. They’re over it, too.

 

I was thinking about placing them outside as bait for the possums, so that I could capture one and snuggle it until it scratched me to ribbons trying to escape. The possums here are really cute. But I don’t want them to come eat any more of our floundering attempts at a potted garden- they’ve already done enough damage to our.. whatever that plant was.

 

… and then, today, O came home from a friend’s house with some banana-fritters the grandmother had made. The uncle shrugged an apology, aware that we are “bananaed-out.” No apology needed- THEY WERE FREAKING AMAZING!

So, now I’ve got to get that recipe, because we are almost at the end of this box!

20160628_143640

 

 

Battleship Motherhood – or – How I Lost My Muse

Just over a month ago, I sat down to write a post about Mother’s Day, and my complicated relationship(s) with parenthood as both idea and practice. It focused on a extended metaphor about a battleship we toured at the maritime museum here in Brisbane. I had photos of the kids aboard the  HMAS Diamantina, like the one below, to illustrate the ways in which motherhood is deeper and sturdier than.. blah, blah, blah… you get the picture.

IMG_8766.JPG
X & O bringing their target into focus

 

But instead, just under 200 words in- the muse faded and I was left staring at this stupid keyboard with nothing to say. This happens sometimes, so I let it be.

Then my youngest child, O, went into hospital.

20160524_115917.jpg

 

The opportunity for me to write about, or talk about or, let’s be honest here- even think about- parenthood is a privilege I often take for granted. It wasn’t always so. Before B, before O, it was just me and X, trying to figure out how to get dinner in our bodies every day.

There was little time for writing, though I tried to sneak it in whenever I could. I remember pulling a composition book out of the trash at work one day. Someone had put their name on the front in pink ink- big bubbly letters- and only used maybe a third of the pages for what looked like chemistry notes before pitching it into the garbage.
I covered the front with a magazine clipping and it became one of my treasured objects. But I hardly had time to write in it.
We were too busy moving from place to place, trying to hide from my violent ex-husband.
I did write about that. A love letter to my son that he still hasn’t read.

Scan copy.jpeg
Me & X, 2003

 

And I was reminded of all of this while O and I sat in the hospital. No internet service, no muse, no luxury of having time for myself to consider the circumstances or move the words from interior to exterior- the words were simply gone. It was nothing more than existence.

20160515_182905.jpg
O, clearly thrilled with the situation

 

We were there for ten days. O was tethered to an IV for antibiotics, and quarantined to his room. I was allowed to leave, but couldn’t. When I had to run downstairs for food, I scurried back up as quickly as possible, not wanting him to feel abandoned or to miss the rare visit from the specialists who held to keys to his release. The nights that B took over and sent me home, X slept in my bed and we both kicked ourselves awake from nightmares.
I was so grateful for the friends we had made here who came to visit, bringing games and crafts, or sending little messages between their own stressors of finishing up classes and writing research papers. My cohort took up a collection, which we used to buy some pet mice when we got home. And, though they do make a racket on their running wheel, they’ve become beloved members of the family.

 

And when Father’s Day came last weekend, I sat down to write- certain that the muse would tip-tap across my fingers and spill out all the buried truths I’ve been walling up behind this impression of parenthood (and childhood) I’ve propped here.

I was wrong.

So I’ll leave it at saying very simply that I am so grateful to have access to the hospital for my child, for semi-socialised medicine that allowed him to stay where he needed to be at no cost to us, for family and friends both near and far, for the power to put my words into letters, and the time to put those on paper. I do not take my privileges lightly, though I admit to sometimes minimising them when it is convenient for me.

It crushes me to consider giving up writing- even for a day, a week, a month. But I have.
I had to. My children and my family will always come first. And that’s just the way it is.

And with (or because of) the tumbling pain of acknowledging all that, the muse came tickling back up to me again today. I wrote several pages on a personal project; got started on that last, dastardly little paper I need to turn in for school; and finally got around to updating this blog.

We have a new house rule: No more illnesses or injuries.
That should keep everything on the up-and-up, right?

20160611_152920.jpg
My guys (plus one) playing under the overpass.