life writing

Category: Real Life

Ageing well


Around this time in the afternoon last Saturday, I called my favourite and only living aunt. When she didn’t pick up I called her back a few minutes later and spoke to a nurse who kindly took the phone to where my aunt was sitting in the sun in a corner lounge. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked, excited. When I explained that I was walking our dog on a bush track in Hobart, the excitement left her voice and we went on to familiar topics. My daughter was sailing in a Regatta near Launceston in the rain, my son’s ship was nearing the Shetland Islands; I was completing a manuscript and my husband was working too hard.


‘But’, my aunt said, ‘my second husband will be here any minute to take me home’. ‘Yes of course’, I said, knowing she’d been married only once. ‘Do you need to get ready?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘I’ll just wait here on the beach. He knows where to find me’. Getting wafty was nothing new. My aunt had been getting wafty for a few months now. What however I was never prepared for was her lucidity, which came and went at the same rate as her waftiness. ‘Mind you don’t let that daughter of yours get the better of you’, she’d say. ‘In no time at all she won’t need you’.


Last Saturday my aunt was extra lucid and super wafty. ‘What about those bandages on your legs?’ I asked, bringing her back to earth, knowing from chatting to the nurse that the sores on her legs were infected. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about them’, my aunt said airily, and turned the conversation back to my daughter. At that moment I wanted to call her back, to reach out physically through the phone to stop her slipping away. To keep her feet on the beach, on the reclining chair on the second floor of her nursing home. I knew I was being selfish. I knew perfectly well that if I was 91, sitting aimlessly through the afternoon with my legs bandaged from consecutive falls, nearly blind and unable to work the television in my room, eating food I didn’t like at boarding school hours, I too might feel that it was time to move on.


Every time I’ve ever called my aunt she’s sounded pleased to hear my voice. Thanking me for calling she’ll insist, in the next breath, that she couldn’t possibly be of use to anyone. My response, like a refrain, will be to point out how important she is to me and that she can never be replaced. However recently even hearing this from me isn’t enough to outweigh the soul-sapping losses that have accompanied her ageing.


On Wednesday afternoon, finishing up at my desk, I call my aunt. A man picks up. Confused, I apologise, thinking I’ve called the wrong number. After a couple of seconds I realise that it’s my cousin, my aunt’s only child. He quickly explains that Nina has lost consciousness and that the doctor reckons she hasn’t long to live. As we chat I imagine Nina in the next room – my mother died of pneumonia – and pray silently that her end, much as I can’t bear losing her, won’t be prolonged. Knowing my aunt’s wishes, and the presence of her family doctor next door, reassures me that it won’t be. I end the call, get up from the desk, leave my husband’s office and join the street, which seems a different street to the one I stepped out of a few hours earlier.


Refusing to decorate her room in the nursing home, my aunt always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that it wasn’t worth decorating because she wasn’t there to stay. She was going home. Every time I called she’d mention that she was waiting to be taken home; a taxi or her son might be arriving any time. It was as if in her mind her whole existence had become a clerical error. She had, as we say, lost her dignity. But more fundamentally she had lost her reason to live, taken off her like a visa at border control, leaving all those who her loved her looking on helpless and hoping like hell that such a fate doesn’t await us.


Like King Lear railing in the storm, my aunt refused to accept ageing – reality – as it is. Yet even as she railed, even as she agreed with me that she felt imprisoned on the second floor of her nursing home, she was capable, in her next breath, of radiating an emotional intelligence that I’d be proud to possess.


Thankfully, five hours after I spoke to my cousin on Wednesday afternoon, my aunt died.


There have been a finite number of people in my life who get me in the deep way that Nina did. She was able to see the good in me even when I couldn’t. She recognised when I’d been brave, and worried about my future. She was there for my kids too; her support of and interest in them was boundless. My husband too, though not as boundlessly.


Stuck in the limbo of not knowing what to do with myself in the hour after receiving news of my aunt’s death, I packed my bags and drove across the state to spend the night with my daughter who, in the middle of a long conversation largely unrelated to her great aunt, told me that she’d never been to a wedding.


Two days away from home work for me, even though they change nothing. Travel is perspective and there is much kindness to be found in others – especially when I don’t realise how much I’m in need of it.


Did my aunt, I wonder, as I walk around a neighbouring city, age well? No, not really. Was she good at living? Yes, absolutely, which is surely more important. Is she still with me? Yes and no. Certainly her spirit will live on, inspiring me to find time to draw and play piano and garden, and to embrace the transience of life.


Every writer needs an aunt who puts one of their books on the coffee table before a visit.

Thank you Nina.






‘Stop thinking about it’, says my daughter, on a bush walk before dinner. ‘Just do it or don’t do it.’ ‘She’s right’, I say to myself, choosing not to respond. But then since when did the other person being right help anyone make a big decision?

When Tolstoy was plagued by indecision, about whether or not to marry, he wrote two lists in a notebook, one for marriage and one against it. By the time he’d done each of his lists was about even. Here are my two lists, very nearly equal, one for doing a drawing course, the other for not doing it.


  1. To develop a skill that is native but rusty, and that might push me in a good way.
  2. To have a sabbatical after twenty years of writing part-time and being with family much of the time. To give me a perspective on my life by focusing on something outside myself – drawing in a studio – which would be a break from pushing myself as a writer and being there for my family.
  3. To be released from a particular version of myself, the existential equivalent of travel, without leaving a city I like living in.
  4. To have the instruction of two art teachers who, from first impressions, I like.
  5. To work around others rather than working alone as a writer.
  6. To make the most of my kids leaving home by doing something constructive, that I otherwise may not have done.


  1. Rather than seeing my kid’s absence as a chance to write full-time, I distract myself by doing a half-time course which takes me in another direction.
  2. Not earning money, confirming my financial dependence on others.
  3. Turning a private passion into a kind of work – fifteen hours a week in a studio – puncturing my fantasy of drawing as an escape from daily life, challenging me in new and not always welcome ways.
  4. Being an older student among predominantly younger students.
  5. Making myself busy as a defence against loneliness.
  6. Practical problems. Being locked into a timetable of school terms which conflict with my daughter’s university semesters. Putting our reactive dog in daycare when I’m at school – expense etc. Being at home less to support my hard-working husband. Lots of standing at an easel, which may require more yoga?
  7. A drawing course seems indulgent, increasing my existential angst for the future. Fear of failure.

+     +     +

 Now that I’ve been interviewed for the drawing course – 45 minutes with a lecturer looking at my portfolio and discussing the pros and cons of my suitability for the course – the decision has passed out of my hands. I can accept or not accept a place, but I can’t offer it. Probably should have been less honest.

Fingers crossed!


life drawing death cleaning


Late last Wednesday, when I should have been in bed, I watched a youtube clip for the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and found myself admiring the author’s simple audacity. Intrigued, on Sunday afternoon I dropped into our local bookshop to pick up a copy. It was shortly before closing and one of the booksellers, who happens to be a friend, serves me. ‘Death cleaning’, he repeats after me, a query in his voice. ‘Oh, I know. It’s on our landfill table’. And he escorts me to the front of the shop where a selection of dubious titles are piled high on a folding table. Feeling admonished, I flick through The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning standing up, return it to the table, and wave goodbye to the bookseller.


Even after a quick flick through, I grasp the book’s message. It isn’t morbid, as the title suggests. Nor is it complicated. Margareta Magnusson, an artist who wisely chooses not to reveal her age, is upbeat on the page. The message I glean from her book is straightforward. If I can conquer my resistance to clearing out my study cupboard, I’ll make room for my life to come. By losing some of my past, I’ll clear space for the future. More down to earth, dare I say more European, than Marie Kondo, Magnusson is alive to the meaning of things beyond our death. She isn’t about blitzing mess; her message is more subtle, more unsettling, than that. If you can’t deal with your things while you’re still alive, she writes drily, why should you kids or partner be any better at dealing with them when you’re gone?


Magnusson’s message is confronting, but it isn’t harsh. It speaks to my life in the here and now, rather than any life to come. If I’m to make enough mental space to live fully in the present, in the weeks and months ahead, she’s telling me that I need to give up enough of my past to make my way into it, especially as I age and the past – regrets, anyone? – starts dragging in my wake. To fully inhabit the present, to avoid living in a museum of lost dreams and what ifs, she’s telling me that I have to let go of quite a lot of stuff. Magnussen isn’t anti-sentimental. Stern, perhaps; but she isn’t a Swedish quiet reaper. While she’s all for keeping important objects that tie us into ourselves, she’s scathing when it comes to boxing things up and shutting cupboard doors and hoping for the best.


What I glean from Death Cleaning gives me hope. If I can conquer my dread of my study cupboard, if I can throw the doors wide and chuck out whatever is holding me back, even without my knowing it, the next time I open my study cupboard I won’t have to suppress an inner sigh, a moment of self-disgust, comfortable in the knowledge that my creative future doesn’t depend on twenty years’ worth of notes, admin, notebooks, school reports, and magazine stories stacked up inside. In short I won’t have to avoid my study, for fear of my study cupboard.


The house is quiet and mostly dark. In my study the lights are on. The window is open to encourage a breeze. The dog is asleep in her chair next door. My husband is working late in his wooden temple at the bottom of the garden. Tipping over my fifteen-minute timer, I watch as particles of sand drop through the tiny-waisted funnel. Kneeling on a cushion, I turn away from the timer, face my study cupboard, and start pulling out files.


Fifteen minutes later, tipping over the timer again, I open the broom cupboard next to my file cupboard. Even as I pull the knobs I sense this isn’t death cleaning. Reaching into the broom cupboard I take out two large sketchbooks leaning vertically against the side of the cupboard, next to the vacuum and broom. I sit on a chair and turn the pages, drawn back to the woman I was when I drew on them. Far more powerfully than the reams of handwritten and typed pages, these drawings are more alive to me than the banks of notebooks strewn on the floor by my feet. Bird song across the years, they express a left behind part of myself which, occasionally revisited on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve lost touch with.


Three trips to our rubbish bins and two hours later, I head up to bed. Sitting on the street, awaiting the morning’s collection, both bins are full to the brim with notebooks and typescripts and domestic appliance manuals and utility bills and school textbooks.


The bin truck comes as I lie in bed, sunlight flooding through chinks in the curtains. Hearing the bins lifted and emptied, I feel lighter. Empty too, yet lighter. Tripping downstairs in my pyjamas, to let the dog out and open the blinds, even before scrolling through the morning news on my phone, I enter my study for the sheer pleasure of opening the cupboard doors and not being sucked entropically into twenty years’ worth of notebooks, admin, guilt and notes, stacked up and demanding attention. In the cupboard next door, loyal and patient, sit two dog-eared sketchbooks.




Just a rash, too red for a bruise but nothing to worry about. Preferring not to linger in front of the mirror a month or two went by, the end of our summer, before I studied the rash under my arm. If anything it had grown larger. But it wasn’t itchy, was only a small area, so I let it go.


My daughter called it Gus. ‘It’s a rash, not ringworm’, I replied, not wanting to be made fun of. My GP agreed with my daughter, grabbing his notepad and doing a quick diagram to show the likely progression of my rash, reddening at the rim until fading away with the help of a twice-daily anti-fungal cream.


Annoyed yet relieved to have an answer, I applied the cream morning and night. The spot grew larger. Instead of reddening at the rim and fading into nothing, as the GP assured me, it grew. Nothing so dramatic that I went on-line to confirm my worst hunches. Instead I picked up The Reader’s Digest 1801 Home Remedies and read the chapter on fungal skin conditions, appalled and chastened by the common-sense treatments.


Autumn set in and my need to wear tshirts receded. Concealed by long-sleeve tops, my mind was on more important things – life mainly. 1801 Home Remedies sat on the bookshelf for a last resort that I felt confident I wouldn’t need.


Three months passed before my kindly GP took a skin scraping, still convinced it was ringworm but wanting to cover all bases and to rule out ‘something more exotic’. Not hearing back from the doctor, I assumed exoticism had been discounted and bought a once-daily antifungal cream which I applied twice daily. If anything, the red rim of the rash got larger. When the rash reaches that freckle, I said to myself, staring in the bathroom mirror, I’ll panic. But until then I won’t fuss.


The rash doesn’t reach the freckle under my arm, but still I panic. Wasn’t the yoga teacher staring at the rash under my arm? What if my rash didn’t disappear by summer? What if my daughter was right and it spread to other parts of my body?


My daughter was out sailing and my husband overseas the day I decided to follow the recommendations in The Readers Digest 1801 Home Remedies for fungal skin conditions. Clearly people had been battling fungal skin conditions for centuries before $12.99 tubes of antifungal cream from the chemist had become available. Apple cider vinegar and tea tree oil were, it seemed, the top natural treatments for fungal skin conditions. Snapping the book shut, I set about curing my rash. Twice a day; three times a day; four times a day, out came the cotton swabs, the vinegar and tea tree oil. My daughter complained about the smell in the bathroom. My clothes stank of tea tree. But I didn’t care. All I cared about was getting rid of my ringworm as quickly as possible. Smelling of tea tree seemed a small price to pay.


Gus neither cared nor, for that matter, minded tea tree oil. My daughter was out sailing and my husband about to return from overseas when I resorted to turmeric treatment for my ringworm. The home remedies book admitted this treatment was messy, however Indian people had used it successfully for centuries. Now it was my turn. Mixing the yellow powder with water I painted the rash with paste and waited twenty minutes before washing it off.


Convinced that people had started to notice the rash under my arm but were too polite to say, I started applying the yellow paste three times a day. For years I hadn’t had time to meditate, however for a fortnight I made time to treat my rash which promptly went bright orange and stained every piece of clothing I wore, despite washing the paste off after each application. One night, keen for a miracle, I left it on overnight, permanently staining the bed sheets.


The moment I took off my shirt and raised my arm, the naturopath asked if she could take a photo. Agreeing to follow her recommendations for a month, I said that I’d go back to my GP if there was there no improvement. I stopped the turmeric and tea tree oil and switched to a milder coconut oil based cream with patchouli – that smelled so nice a woman in a clothing store complimented me on my perfume. I took vitamin C, garlic and zinc, and exposed my arm to direct sunlight for 5 minutes every day.


Until another spot appeared under my other arm and hypochondria engulfed me. The next afternoon I visited my GP, who frowned and wrote to a skin specialist. I was given an appointment the same week. The waiting room was sterile, the wait long, and the biopsy mercifully quick. ‘It’s not ringworm’, the specialist said. ‘And you’re lucky it’s not cancer’, she added, waving at the wall chart plotting melanomas on various parts of the human body.


A week later, on holiday interstate, I received a voice message from the skin specialist. As she’d suggested, it wasn’t ringworm. It was the same skin condition that I’d had living in Melbourne ten years ago, when I’d been given a cortisone cream in the middle of a life so busy with primary-school-aged-children that I’d hardly given the rash on my arm a second thought. The specialist asked me to have a blood sugar test for Diabetes, to fill the cortisone cream script she’d put in the post, and to report back to her in a month’s time. If, she added, the cream didn’t help, cortisone injections might be the answer.


Relaying my news to my naturopath, she sent me round the corner to a private pathology lab to have a battery of blood tests. That night, having vowed to the naturopath that I wouldn’t check out my skin condition on-line, I spend a hour reading about Granuloma annulare. Flicking off my computer and heading to bed, I decide not to identify with the Granuloma annulare sufferers on the Internet. Instead I would follow my naturopath’s recommendations until the rash under my arm – already less angry – resolves itself. I lie in the sun between 11am and 3pm. I take garlic, take zinc drops and vitamin C. I don’t feed the neurotic thoughts that made me self-conscious at yoga. I pay daily thanks to my otherwise healthy body as we together head into the new year. And I choose not to return the repeated calls from the receptionist from The Medical Specialist Clinic.



the two wolves


‘There is a battle between two wolves that goes on inside each one of us’, the wise Cherokee Elder tells his grandson. ‘One wolf is anger, desire, pride, jealousy and ego. The other wolf is love, compassion, kindness, goodness and patience’.

Staring at the glowing embers of the campfire, the grandson imagines the two wolves circling each other, wary, vigilant, teeth bare.

‘Which wolf wins?’ the boy asks his grandfather.

The older man doesn’t hesitate. ‘Whichever one you feed’, he says.

taken from David Mitchie, ‘Enlightenment to Go’


going home

IMG_9165 (1)

‘If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult,

it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding

and accepts responsibility for a life lived

in the midst of such paradox.’

Barry Lopez


I’m sitting high up in the hills, under a tree at a wooden table bleached with age, overlooking the city I grew up in, laid out flat before me. It’s hot, as it so often was growing up.


I’ve lived away from this city for more years than the childhood and college years I spent in it. What then is the hold this city has over me? Half of the family I grew up with, who still live here, are blameless. They couldn’t be more pleasant and giving. They may think of me as selfish in one breath and brave the next; yet they make it clear that they love me for being both.


The city I grew up in still makes demands on me, all of them emotional. It makes me ask big questions of myself. Will I – have I – lived up to my promise? Will I – have I – given enough back in return for my good life? The voice in my head, as I drive our yolk-yellow hire car from the airport across the CBD, thinks not. This voice jumps in to tell me that I’ve only ever earned peanuts – a taunt my mother once made without thinking years ago and I’ve never shrugged off. This voice in my head knows everything yet nothing about me; hence, I suppose, its casual cruelty. This time I manage to catch this voice, just as it, dreamlike, speaks. After hesitating for a moment I relay what it has said to my daughter who, through her silence, makes it clear that she is more interested in finding the road to the hills where we are staying, than in my innermost neuroses. It is late and she is tired and hungry.


I have lots of friends who project their innermost feelings on to the place where they grew up; who can’t see it for the place it really is, so busy are they experiencing it through the prism of their emotional past. Does my inner bully’s taunt at the traffic lights mean that, like them, I’ve never truly grown up? Is this why I so easily regress into self-criticism while driving our yolk-yellow hire car through the streets of my childhood?


Most of the people I grew up with still live in Adelaide. I admire them for this, and sometimes wonder what their secret is. Why didn’t they need to leave the city of their childhood in order to become fully themselves? Was it that they had a less complicated Oedipal relationship with their family? Was a spell living interstate or overseas enough to push them into the next stage of life, cleanly delivering them into maturity? And those who did live away for a period, had they always known that one day they’d return home? What about those who stayed, who never left; were they more extroverted, jolly at barbecues come what may, or just less sensitive than me? Or were they simply more financially sensible? Did they have kinder voices in their head to support them in their journey through life? Lastly, and more troublingly, will my now grown-up children feel similarly about the city they grew up in, and so feel an unconscious need to live elsewhere – just as I did?


My eldest sister, who lives interstate, celebrated a big birthday in Adelaide last weekend. For my sister the city she grew up in, and spent some of her twenties in, is still very much home. Though she’s spent more than half her life living interstate, Adelaide is still her home. Why then is it so different for me? Perhaps I am living in a successful state of denial in assuming that the city that I now live in is home. But then perhaps I can afford to feel this way; life has tested me, just as it has my sister, but not nearly as forcefully.


At her birthday lunch my sister made a speech about the importance of family with tears in her eyes, words our parents would have been proud of, and I silently thanked her for it. And yet even as she spoke it I knew that when my next big birthday comes around I won’t be returning to Adelaide to dance the night away with old friends. I will be up a mountain, walking our dog by the sea, or cooking dinner for friends at home. With any luck, all three.

domestic instinct: mine and others


‘A perfectly-kept house is a sign of a misspent life’. As a young woman I never questioned these words by English writer Rose Macauley. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive and unfulfilling tasks that full-time work was designed to release women from; this much I was certain of. Like my friends I assumed that caring about housekeeping was to avoid the real challenges of life. I laughed at the idea that running a home might ever fill me with pride; that I might one day undertake household tasks with a lightness and grace that ennobled my time on this earth. I had no inkling how intimately my happiness might eventually be tied to my relationship to housekeeping.

On leaving home to see the world I felt confident that life lay before me, beyond the front door. My sense of self would be forged through my work and my personal relationships. My self-esteem rested on my ability to meet the demands of other people and the world. Only gradually did my home become, as it had been in childhood, the place that grounds and sustains me, helping me to make sense of my life outside it. It wasn’t the only place where I played out my inner longings, my private dreams, but it was an essential arena for them. Each morning when I went off to study, work or the park, home was where I started from.

This shift in my own life – from distancing myself from all things domestic as a girl, to identifying with it as a young woman – led me to want to improve the image of housekeeping. To change our common perception of domesticity as unworldly, demeaning, even mind-numbingly dull, to making looking after ourselves a quietly powerful act. To make creating order from chaos, moments of beauty from household mess, an intrinsically worthwhile thing to do. To present domesticity as a strength to be admired along with every other strength. Which isn’t to say that everyone should be domestic; clearly housekeeping doesn’t make you into a better, more rounded person. It’s more that those of us who do take pride in domesticity, might celebrate it more.

Whenever I answer the front door wearing an apron, nowadays, the person on the doorstep looks me up and down. A flicker of surprise crosses their face. Whether it’s the postman, the plumber or a friend, there’s the same moment of surprise. What’s normal for me, putting on an apron to mix dough, vacuum the stairs or tip stock into a colander, is less so for others. Wearing an apron to the front door is as mildly provocative as opening it in my dressing gown. At very least, it isn’t what the person on the doorstep expects me to be wearing.

When people ask what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. It’s true, I write every day and sometimes publish things. I feel lucky to have work I love, even if I can’t rely on it for income. However in social situations only rarely will I mention my job. This is because my job feels less acceptable, less noteworthy than my work; even though in some ways it’s harder and more challenging. My job has long hours, unregulated conditions and maddeningly low status. It’s not exactly a calling, though some days it feels like it. Until my kids leave home, my job is to keep things running smoothly without shouting and moaning too much. My job is housekeeping.

Countless people keep their homes running smoothly without shouting and moaning too much. They may not feel called to it nor, as I do, wear an apron to the front door. Nonetheless they spend a similar amount of time shopping and cleaning and cooking and listening and sorting and fixing and laughing – and generally making things happen at home. And then clearing it up afterwards. Like me they don’t consider this their main work; and certainly the world doesn’t. Knowing this isn’t what makes them interesting to others, they rarely bring it up in conversation. Mostly they just get on and do it. Nonetheless measured in hours, devotion, effort and skill it’s a big part of their life.

My aim in this project has been psychological more than practical. It has been to change my feelings towards domestic life such that I experience it positively, rather than busying myself with suppressing my negativity towards it. It has been to experience my home as a place of satisfaction, a door to creativity. Rather than writing off housekeeping against a fantasy of leisure, by reclaiming domestic life as important and meaningful, my aim has been to realise a therapeutic potential within daily reach.

My hope is that more of us will make friends with ourselves at home; so that instead of projecting unrealistic domestic demands on to a demanding, internalised other, we’ll reconcile ourselves to who we are and what we have at home. And that by experiencing home life in this gentler way, we may come to feel less complicated about our domestic instinct – or simply to recognise that we have one.

‘Know me, come to my home’ is an invitation for others to see us in a more rounded way. It conveys the familiarity that we feel on entering someone’s private space. It expresses what we care about beyond our physical presence. This kind of expression matters. Having the courage to fulfil our domestic ambitions, in even the smallest ways, is what gives us confidence to fulfil our worldly ambitions; only once we can live up to our own expectations can we take on those of others. Looking after ourselves at home, in ways that make our spirit sing, makes it more likely that we’ll take ours strengths, our song, elsewhere.



















my inner parents


Let me introduce my inner parents – who since my real parents died I’ve got to know better. My original inner parent, the one who took up residence first and some call conscience, is a bit of a scout master. He likes to be in control, thinks he knows what’s what, and hates it when I dither. He knows me better than anyone, yet not at all. He’s there to say ‘I told you so’ whenever I slip up, and pats me on the back when my work is done and I let go the reins.


My other inner parent, a more recent resident of my unconscious, has Zen-like qualities. She recognises the value of not pushing, appreciates that there are two sides to everything, often more, and promotes exercising control over being in control. She isn’t impressed by my achievements and likes it when I’m able to let life just happen. She never remarks on my failures and stands silently by when I have to make tricky decisions.


I want to be careful here. My Zen inner parent is not better than my scout inner parent. They both have important things to say. Mostly I listen to them both. At other times I’ll shut them out and experience their intermingled voices as stress.


Life, in the scout master’s opinion, is tough. Our time on this earth is finite. Life is not nasty, brutish and short, as Thomas Hobbes described it; but nor is it a bed of roses. Mostly I respect the scout master’s opinion; he helps me to obey rules and pay bills on time. Yet I don’t warm to him as I do to my Zen inner parent. There really is enough time, she soothes, if only my anxious ego can refrain from strangling the present with fears and regrets. Each day, she whispers, is a new mountain to be climbed. Any suffering I feel is self-imposed, she’ll point out gently. It stems from my unwillingness to accept the world and other people as they are, but rather wishing they were otherwise. I listen to her, nod, and continue on not quite as before.


When it comes to my family, my scout master days are over. Knowing what a turn off bossiness is, I don’t tell my kids what to do. I’m always on the look out for a carrot and long ago buried my stick. I listen to them as open-mindedly as I can, a sounding board for a future that will inevitably sideline me.


‘What will you do with your one wild and precious life?’ This question, from poet Mary Oliver, is one that I often ask myself as I look in wonder at my kids. One of them has already cut free, a sailing knife in his pocket; the other dallies with the same freedoms but isn’t quite ready to take them.


Over the last couple of years my job with my kids has changed utterly. It’s now a role, not a job. I would never tell them this; perhaps it’s not something that can be said aloud. My role these days is to help them to get to know their own inner parents; to soften the ire of their scout master, and to encourage in them a gentle attitude life. And then to get off their radar so that their own inner voices can guide them.


Soon enough I’ll get back to my own wild and precious life. Not quite to where I left it off, twenty years ago, but further along the same road. One will door close as another door opens. And when that door opens, I know where I want to be standing – and who I’ll be listening to when it does.




Sooner rather than later my aunt won’t answer her phone when I call. As I stride along bush tracks with our dog, waiting for her to pick up, there will be silence. Though in her heart she’d like to be at home for ever, sitting in her comfy chair overlooking her garden, we both know that she’s beginning to look for the door.


My aunt has a magical ability to make me feel special. Everyone needs someone like this in their life. Someone who can communicate, in the tone of their voice, that they’d be willing to drop everything to be at your side. My aunt is nearly blind and shuffles with a Zimmer frame, which makes the idea of her dropping everything for me high risk. Nonetheless over the years I’ve found it immensely comforting to know that she’s there for me.


I’ve never dropped everything for my aunt, nor would she ask it of me. Our relationship is, especially since my mother died, maternal. It’s nonreciprocal and binding. Which is why I’m struggling to let her go. Selfishly perhaps, I’m afraid of there’ll being no-one there to catch me should I fall.


My aunt laughs about her age, about being past her use-by date. Yet she’s not too old for my love. Whenever I call, at however inconvenient a moment, she has time for me. Not every occasion – she fusses whenever more than one thing is happening – but reliably so.


A week ago I called my aunt and she didn’t pick up. When I alerted her son he got back to me to say that she was in hospital with an irregular heartbeat. On calling her in hospital, a few days later, her voice sounded woolly. Was she being medicated? Had there been something more than a heart murmur? The nurses who picked up her phone couldn’t, for confidentiality reasons, inform me.


Last Friday they moved my aunt to her own room, upstairs from the ward on which she’s struggled to sleep for the noise. The nurses, she tells me, ‘are teaching me how to walk again’, which I couldn’t help but take as code for her desire to escape from her hospital bed and return to her own.


My aunt has entered a liminal space between life and death. Too old to recover fully, yet not actually sick, she is frail and very nearly blind – and was not a little angry when the doctors decided to replace her pacemaker rather than let her leave this earth in her own good time.


On those days that I don’t speak to my aunt I school myself on letting her go. It is, I tell myself, selfish of me to will her to go on living, given that she’s reaching the end of her wick. Her friends have gone and she is the eldest relative at family celebrations. And yet, I return, she has so much to give. Like the tone of her voice which never seems to age.


My aunt knows that she’s the only aunt I have left. She knows that I’ll be exposed to the elements once she passes and I edge my way up the family tree. Like the veins on my hands which stand out as my mother’s once did on her hands, we both accept that this is the way of things.


There are however things that I can do to return her love. I can keep calling her on the phone and make sure that she knows how much her love has meant to me – in particular her unfailingly positive view of me which issues partly from my likeness to her favourite brother, my father. I can get out my drawing things and keep my creativity alive. Just as she once did with her sketch book, which accompanied her everywhere. I can stop my busy life long enough to notice the daphne pushing into flower in our garden, as winter turns and spring waits round the corner. And I can try to love others in the special way that she has loved me, in the hope this may help them as much as her love has helped me.


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I was talking to a friend, my jacket collar turned up against the cold, when my son put his head out of the cabin below. ‘Helen’, he said, (he’s stopped using the ‘M’ word) ‘when you’re at sea you’re at sea. You’re not chatting on land’. I laughed. He was right, damn it. I was prattling on as if we were doing the washing up after dinner. And not as if we were in the middle of the harbour, waiting for the wind to fill the sails.


On a boat Alex knows exactly what to do. When to reef the sails, when to tack, and when to turn the engine on and turn home. With this he assumes a friendly diplomacy with his sister that, too often, escapes him at home. On a boat he’s in control. Not the captain of his ship – there’s no way he can afford the kind of boat he longs for – but very much himself.


If the New York Times Wellness column is to be believed, my son’s prefrontal cortex will not be full developed until his mid-20s. Does this explain how he can head up to the snow line on his mountain bike without a jacket, and in the next breath exhort his sister to wear her fluorescent jacket on her bike to school? Is this why he taunts Emma for not doing what he calls ‘real subjects’ in her final year at school? She, he claims, hasn’t been forced to study history and languages, as his father and I forced him into. She, clearly, is having an altogether easier time of it. I smile softly at Emma as she finishes calculations for a Housing and Design project, one of her so-called easy subjects, before returning to cooking supper.


That night, after Alex has washed up, I suggest a drive. Grabbing the car keys we’re on the road in minutes, Jack Johnson on the stereo, heading for the hills that we spent so much time in when he was learning to drive two years ago. Though he drives more carefully than he did then, he still rides the accelerator as if pushing through the gears of his bike. Relaxing into my role as passenger I find out more in that hour on the road, about where he is, than a whole of week of mealtimes has revealed. Details of the voyage he has just returned from, concerns about his future, the exorbitant cost of things he would like but can’t afford, his school friends’ mixed feelings about university life, more angst about his future.


In theory Alex accepts that he’d be miserable if he were locked into a sensible university course. In theory he doesn’t envy his schoolfriends’ long-term futures. In theory he agrees that he can’t have the kind of freedom he currently enjoys as a deck hand on tall ships, and also have long-term security. However he has just turned 20 and is full of contradictions. He hates cars, preferring to get around on a bike. Yet he loves to take the wheel on country roads as the car turns with him into each bend. And however much he’d like to know what he’ll be doing and earning in three years’ time, we both know that he wants adventure more. Iceland and Canada and the Gulf of Mexico beckon – and already he’s been to more continents than I’ve visited, or am likely to.


As we swing into the car park next to our darkened house we agree that we’ll turn off the Internet in half an hour’s time. However even after I’ve forced myself to pay a few bills and reply to emails his light is still on. ‘Can I turn off the Internet now?’ I call down to him. ‘Can I have ten more minutes?’ ‘Sure’, I say, wanting to sound reasonable while not actually feeling it.


‘What will you do when Emma eventually leaves home?’ Alex asks me the next night, walking the dog before dinner. ‘I know it’s hard for you to imagine’, I say, ‘but I was on my own for a long time before you and Emma came along.’ ‘But you’re so good at looking after people’, he says. ‘What will you do when Paul is off in Europe and you are on your own in the house?’ ‘I don’t really know yet’, I reply, halting. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work. Of course it will be weird. It’s been ages since I’ve really been on my own. Although, even with travel Paul will be at home most of the time.’ A pause. ‘And I do realise’, I add, ‘that Emma must feel free to fly when she’s ready. It’s important that she doesn’t feel that she has to stay at home to hold my hand.’


‘Perhaps you’ll be able to travel too’, he suggests. ‘Oh, I don’t know’, I reply, ‘I’m not planning on going anywhere. I like being at home and anyway travel is expensive. Besides’, I say, starting to sound defensive, ‘I’ve still got the house and garden to look after. And there’s Pippi, of course’.


Pippi the dog pushes up the hill. I follow on behind as Alex strides ahead. We fall into silence as we near the top. That’s when it strikes me. Neither of us knows what the future will bring. Neither of us has a five-year plan. Neither of us knows how our lives will look after one door closes and another opens. But I don’t say any of this out loud, knowing that he’ll tease me if I do.


I break down in a Yoga class, crying in the low light of the final meditation – for me closer to thinking with my eyes shut. The Yoga teacher, a friend, sees my distress and puts pressure on my legs.


I throw myself into helping Alex pack, sewing name tags that I ferret out of the sewing basket on to his wool leggings and tops, and writing his initials on every tag I can find with a permanent marker. He washes his sea boots and leaves them out to dry. He empties whole drawers of clothes on to his bed, and pretends to sort through them. He picks up the bin bag into which I’ve thrown a few stray items, and retrieves worn out socks.


On the weekend he spends a couple of hours chopping wood, before opening the sitting room window wide as, together, we stack it behind the sofa. Most days he stays in his room, reading magazines, chatting with friends on facebook, and generally wasting time on-line. Cross with himself by mid afternoon, he’ll disappear up the mountain on his bike, even without forking out for new brake pads. Or he’ll join friends for a meal, look at other people’s boats on the harbour – or spend the morning doing a refresher course in First Aid.


After dinner one night we flick through old photos on the computer. ‘You know’, he says, ‘on my last voyage I had a lot of time to think’. ‘Oh yeh’, I say. ‘Yes, I had so much time that I started remembering bits of my childhood that I’d forgotten about. All the things that we used to do. I’m really glad that we did those things, they were good times.’ ‘Thank you’, I say, and we continue flicking through the photos, laughing here and there and causing Emma to thump on her bedroom floor to make us quiet.


Last Friday Alex’s fortnight at home was up. On Sunday he left Tasmania for Iceland, flying from one end of the world to the other, to wait for his ship to come in. ‘Climbed a mountain today’, he texted on Monday from the north of Iceland. ‘Glad you are up to climbing’, I texted back. ‘Good luck and’, I added, ‘eat blubber!’