life writing

Category: Society



Drinking tea and writing in a local cafe, the barrista bends across the counter and asks if I’ve tried muttonbird before. ‘No’, I reply, surprised. ‘Would you like to?’ ‘Of course, I’d love to’. Kevin disappears behind a screen with some dark meat in a small plastic bag which I can hear him taking out and putting on a plate for the microwave.

A minute later Kevin reappears with steaming dark meat on a plate. ‘Try some’, he says, and I take a piece with my fingers and put it in my mouth. He disappears, offering the meat around the cafe. I chew the muttonbird meat in my mouth. It tastes of sardines and lamb and game meat all mixed together. It feels stringy yet oily and almost melting. It tastes like nothing I’ve had in my mouth before, a kind of meat-fish.

Kevin returns and I stumble my response. ‘It must be full of good things’, I say. ‘Yeh,’ he says. ‘My Gran, she took a teaspoon of muttonbird oil on a spoon every day of her life and she was never a day ill. Even today’, he says, miming his Gran, ‘she takes a drop and rubs it on her face and another on her hands’. ‘Doesn’t it smell?’ I ask. ‘Nup, not really. But my Mum, when I suggested she get some for her face’, and he laughs, ‘she gave me one’.

I put away my pen with the taste of muttonbird – a protected species on the islands north of Tasmania – in my mouth. ‘Truffles next’, I say to Kevin on my way out. ‘Sure’, he returns. ‘But you’re bringing them’. An hour later the taste of muttonbird – oily, gamey, all wrong yet delicious – is still in my mouth.


abide with me


After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.


The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.


I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.


Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.


These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.


The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.


Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.


‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.


None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.


As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.


The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.


Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.


I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.


If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.





‘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!


spots and stripes

waterworks roof

‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is a story by Ned Sharratt that I used to read to my kids over and over. It’s a story about a couple so incompatible that they end up dividing the sitting room down the middle with a stripe of paint. On one side of the painted line is everything that belongs to Mum, all spotty; on the other side is everything that belongs to Dad, all striped. Mum wears spotty clothes, her earrings are spotty, her car is spotty, and when she cooks eggs they come out spotty. Dad’s clothes are striped, he cuts toast in stripes, and on the weekend he mows the grass in long stripes.

Each time I read this story to my kids we’d laugh at the craziness of this pair; never for a moment thinking that this story might one day apply to our family. Fifteen years on, my kids are forever pressing home that I like spots and their father likes stripes. From their point of view it’s self evident. How else can they explain their two totally different parents?

My husband and I, we pretend we don’t mind. We laugh at our kids’ joke. We don’t argue the point. If anything, we agree with it. But privately I wonder. Would I have ended up liking spots if I hadn’t married a man who likes stripes? Or could it be that this is what marriage does to couples, once kids play a part in the story? Because ‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is told from a little boy’s point of view; a little boy who, in telling it, seeks to understand how two such different people, his parents, could ever have gotten together. Two people who are so different that, in the little boy’s mind, they’ve made a mistake to think they’re a couple, because really they’re opposites.

Perhaps, even without two kids to point out our differences, Paul and I would have grown in different directions anyway. Perhaps the seeds of change were there right from the day we met. Here are some obvious differences which spring to mind. I like green tea and Kombucha, whereas Paul prefers coffee and wine. I have a thing for Scandinavian design whereas Paul hankers for eighteenth-century art and furniture. I crave dark chocolate whereas Paul loves milk chocolate. I like a clean home whereas Paul longs for a beautiful home. I am a homebody whereas Paul loves to travel. Paul doesn’t like it when I wear jeans all the time whereas I don’t like it when he wears a jacket all the time. I learned to drive a car young and taught both our kids to drive; Paul learned to drive late and avoids tight parking spaces. If I’m at home in the day I’ll cook lunch; Paul, who works from home, will grab cheese and biscuits. I take my work seriously but allow family life to take over; Paul is devoted to his work and refuses to let life take over. I like our garden loose and untamed whereas Paul would like it formal and structured, with no weeds between the bricks in the courtyard. The list goes on.

Neither Paul nor I would want to paint a line down the middle of our sitting room, however tempting this sometimes seems. Really we gave up winning each other over to our own way of seeing things long ago. Not for want of trying, but because it ended up reinforcing our differences. It backfired. I ended up liking spots all the more, while Paul clung to his stripes. When, for example, I encouraged Paul to eat more vegetables and drink less coffee, he avoided vegetables and doubled up on coffee. When he objected to my wearing jeans, I wore them every day. And so it went.

These days Paul and I live a private truce, the terms of which we’ve never spelled out yet understand intuitively. Also, now that our kids are technically adults, the pressure from them has lessened and, with it, the tension between Paul and me. Sometimes I’ve caught myself wondering if our kids have spent their teenage years on an undeclared and unwitting mission to drive Paul and me apart, through the force of what they perceive as our irreconcilable differences. As if, in order to break free of Paul and me, to become independent of us, they’ve needed to drive a wedge between us as parents; to paint a line down the middle of their home to separate the spots from the stripes.

Other times I wonder whether what our kids fear most is that the world of their parents, of Paul and me, will fall apart when they’re no longer around to point out our differences. Just as they can’t imagine how Paul and I could ever have lived together for seven years before they came along, they can’t imagine what their parent’s lives will be like when they’re not around to prop us up. Could their inability to imagine Paul and me, without them around to provide emotional glue, reflect their inability to imagine their own future without their parents in the middle of it?


doing publicity


It wasn’t exactly a fib. I just didn’t respond to the sentence in my publicist’s email in which she asked whether I’d done live television before. Given that I’d already decided not to fly interstate for an eight-minute slot on breakfast television, I didn’t see the point of mentioning to her that I had a thing about cameras. Did she really need to know that I hadn’t felt the glare of television lights since I bent down to eat a donut dangling on a string on kids television, aged nine?


Radio I knew I could do. I’d done plenty of that for my last book. Television, I told myself, was just radio plus camera. Except, of course, that it isn’t.


I arrived at the television studio with time to spare. I’d already talked the questions through with the producer, who couldn’t have been nicer, the day before. I wouldn’t be able to go through makeup, he’d explained, since I was doing the segment remotely. However the lighting in the studio was kind, there would be someone in the studio with me, and all I had to do was look straight into the camera and respond to the questions coming through the earpiece.


Ella set me up with an earpiece, a glass of water, and a background shot of the harbour with Mountain Wellington behind. Then she went next door to test the sound levels. The studio was overwhelmingly black, not a little dusty, and for the next ten minutes, apart from news headlines crackling through my earpiece, all of them bad, I had just the round camera lens peering through black padding for company.


The buzzy earpiece didn’t seem to interest the producer in Melbourne, whose voice I didn’t recognise. He explained that the host who’d read my book had been called to the airport to cover a bomb threat on a flight. The new host hadn’t had a chance to see my book and I would be on air after the news bulletin in one minute’s time.


‘You’re definitely better on radio than on TV’, said my agent in a message on my phone that I listened to as I got my dog out of the car, fifteen minutes later. I called my agent back. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I knew I wasn’t doing well when they cut me off after three minutes, and not the eight I’d expected. I could barely hear the questions for the buzzy earpiece, I had no idea who I was talking to, and my tongue felt like sausage in my mouth’.


That evening, when I should have headed up to bed, I watched the television clip which the publisher had posted on social media. ‘But I look like a hostage asking for ransom money!’ I wailed to my daughter who was half way up the stairs. ’Just don’t watch it’, she said sternly, tripping downstairs and clapping the computer shut on my fingers.


The last time I published a book I didn’t do podcasts. This time round I’ve done three and have enjoyed the form. Being invited to talk for an hour from my kitchen, knowing that any coughs and ramblings would be edited out later, felt far freer than being closeted in an airless radio studio with my allotted minutes counting down in digital orange numbers a metre from my face.


Although I had notes in front of me on giving interviews, mostly I would shut my eyes, listening out for what the interviewer was really asking – occasionally shocked by the intimacy of the question – all the while thinking ahead to a place I might take the conversation that might work for everyone who was listening. A bit like in a dance.


The interviews and launch are now behind me. Two moments stand out. One was looking over at the friend who helped launch my book, to see her holding a dog-eared copy, a pink highlighter running through various paragraphs. The other was when two women came up separately after the launch to tell me that they’d read my book in the bath – just as I’d fantasied a reader might.


This morning, after switching off the square red microphone button for the last time, I pulled the earphones off, put my earrings back on, wrapped a scarf round my neck, and headed back to the car where my dog was waiting impatiently for a walk. A voice message from my agent flashed on my phone. ‘You are definitely better on radio than on TV’, she said. ‘Well done.’ Leaving the phone in the car I headed across the park, clearheaded for the first time in a week.




your house wasn’t filthy


Whenever I go on holiday I clean the house before we leave. Although it makes the day before we leave fretful it’s a favour that I’ve learned to do myself to make returning home a pleasure.


The last time I went away with my kids, and left my husband at home to work, when I opened the front door on our return I smelled a smell that turned out to be fortnight-old food scraps in the bin and dirty plates in the dishwasher. This time, knowing my husband would be focused on work while we were away, I decided to arrange for a cleaner to come before our return. I hardly ever give myself presents, but this one I felt I deserved.


‘Brilliant House Cleaning’, with five star reviews, topped my internet search. A bouncy lady answered my call. I explained that I was interested in a one-off clean before returning from holiday. The bouncy lady laughed. ‘I’ve just booked someone to clean my own house!’ she said. ‘I’ve been so busy this month, run off my feet, that I never seem to get round to cleaning my own place’. After another quick laugh we set about arranging a date along with a key to get into our house.


Two weeks later I received a text from my husband. ‘The cleaners are here!’ Two hours after that it was, ‘The cleaners have gone!’ My daughter grabbed the phone off my lap – we’d started the long drive home – and texted her father a reply. ‘Don’t get the house dirty before we get back!’


Three days of driving later we arrived home, tired and hungry. On putting my key in the front door and pushing it open I noticed nothing special – no smell, no mess. The house looked as I had left it. The stairs were a little cleaner and the floors looked mopped, but that was it. The house looked lovely, the garden was blessed with summer rain, I felt happy to be back, and we set about unpacking the too much stuff we’d taken away with us.


The cleaner had left her invoice on the kitchen table. I stared at the amount. It had taken the cleaner and her daughter two and a half hours to clean our house, amounting to a four-hour fee. I struggled to remember the last time I’d spent five hours straight cleaning our house and realised how little cleaning I usually manage to get away with.


A couple of days later I rang Brilliant House Cleaning to thank them for their services. Once more the bouncy lady answered the phone. When I told her how grateful I was to return to a lovely home she chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, your home wasn’t filthy’. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be pleased to hear that on the filthiness scale my house passed muster, or whether I should feel sympathy for the bouncy lady having to clean houses that really were filthy. Just for a moment, before we hung up, I felt as if we came together to acknowledge the effort that goes into keeping a home attractive. I was also struck by how much unacknowledged life this bouncy lady must see as she goes about cleaning other people’s houses.


angel in the house


For two months there has been an angel in my house. Many times I’ve asked her if she might leave, but she simply folds her wings, looks admonishing, and stays.


Eng Lit readers will know that the angel in the house is lifted from an essay by Virginia Woolf, who also entertained regular visitations from a critical yet well-mannered presence who would look over Virginia’s shoulder while she was trying to write, querying and interrupting her flow, forever pointing to the people who might be listening in.


‘I think I hate English even more than Science’, my daughter says to me at breakfast this morning. Is it my imagination, I ask myself, or is Emma glaring at me? Is she making the connection that I think she is making – that I was once an English teacher, and that I regularly write about the kind of ideas that she recoils from discussing in English class?


A couple of nights ago my son sauntered into my study after supper. My first impulse was to put my hands over the pages on my desk. Forcing myself not to move my hands from my lap, and to affect insouciance, Alex started talking about something completely unrelated to his childhood that I’d tried to capture in the pages on my desk. Even while Alex was in the room I heard the angel speak. ‘Why’, she whispered to me and only me, ‘are you writing about your family in such an intimate way?’ And even though my son has given me permission to write about his childhood, I breathed a sigh of relief when he shut my study door behind him.


I used to laugh at my husband, whose angel has a permanent place on his shoulder whenever he is writing. But then my own angel came to visit – and stay – and I have stopped laughing.


My angel arrived two months ago after I mentioned a friend in a blog post. On finding out about it a month later, she, my friend, took great offence. I had broken my friend’s confidence by using our conversation as material in a post, and she made it clear that I was no longer to be trusted. The angel’s verdict was instant. I had written out of egoism, riding slipshod over the feelings of a friend in my rush to express my muddled feelings about my daughter’s coming of age. And yes, there would be a consequence, mild given the hurt I’d caused – which is that for a good long while I would write no more blogs.


Initially I didn’t mind too much. I was too busy correcting a manuscript to write a blog post anyway. But then a couple of ideas that I had for a blog fizzled out. I tried again. Again my idea was a squib. Whether it was that I had nothing worth writing about, or that what I wanted to write about my angel wouldn’t let me to tackle, I wasn’t sure.


Just as when I take out my pencils to draw – I’ll draw a lemon on a plate or a vase of flowers – I’ve always written from life. I don’t write to entertain, to escape – or to hurt a friend’s feelings. Writing isn’t a hobby for me. For fear of sounding grandiose, I can feel the flutter of the angel’s wings even now, I write to understand life.


Clearly I hurt my friend’s feelings. Quite possibly even if she can find it in herself to forgive me she will never trust me again. And I will have to find a way of living with this without feeling permanently inhibited – which will be more complex than simply writing a blog about it.


Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, I went to church by myself. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to church by myself. But it was the first Easter Sunday that I’d gone on my own. I’m not a great believer, but I do believe in life. And somehow Easter isn’t Easter without sitting in a congregation and hearing about the resurrection story. Not so my teenagers, who made it clear that they didn’t want to go. Nor my husband who is currently overseas working. And so I went along, early so as not to take up the morning. A new Bishop gave a thunderous sermon. Sadly there was no choir, which I missed. Even so I got something important from being there. Not absolution. Nor reassurance. But a renewed sense that we are all in this thing called life together.

And even though the angel was still with me, I left the church feeling lighter.



safe as houses

house work 2

My kids, now teenagers, think my husband and I are vain to want to live in a lovely old house. In their minds living in a lovely old house comes second to more important things, like boats and travel and global problems. For them a house is somewhere to sleep at night, to fill up on food and to avoid doing homework. A garden is somewhere to play with the dog and to grow a few vegetables.


When we took on the house we now live in, a big old house in Hobart, my husband and I shared a vision. It spoke to us at a deep level. It answered something in me that I’d never thought life would offer. I knew that my husband, an aesthete and idealist, felt this too. More than this in his mind a house could never be too beautiful – a thing of beauty is a joy forever.


Standing in the driveway seven years ago with the silver-tonged estate agent we both knew what we were taking on. The family who was selling the house had, in our eyes, failed it. Quite apart from basic maintenance they hadn’t loved it for decades. Instead there had been divorce and broken pipes and rising damp. A dentist’s chair had found its way into the basement, along with an elderly golden retriever.


We were game. In many ways we were ready. A project like this made sense of our marriage. It was an adventure. I knew that I was taking on a property more than a house, just as my mother had done when she took over her mother-in-law’s house when I was small. I knew that living in a big house meant that I’d rarely get to sit down. That I’d be living for it as well as in it. And still I said yes.


Over these seven years I have poured huge amounts of energy into the house we now live in – painting walls, scraping floors, making curtains and, more recently, holding it all together. Looking after our lovely house has been the bravest thing I’ve done so far. Not brave in the battle, fire-fighting sense. But brave in the intimate day-to-day sense of caring for something enough to surrender myself to it.


Our house has helped me grow up the way nothing else has. The garden with it’s forest of trees – I wear down a rake each autumn – has taught me the meaning of the seasons. The curved banister has taught me a thing or two about beauty. And the house as a whole with its rambling garden has taught me humility. For I have failed this house. I can never live up to the ideal that my husband and I shared that cold winter day when we stood in the driveway with the deceptively mild-mannered real estate agent and said yes.


And yet I have won too. This house has shown me, kindly enough, that although I’ll never be on top of its running I can still appreciate its beauty. Each night I go to sleep knowing that I’ll never live in a more beautiful house, that I’m already living in my own Howard’s End. This awareness has allowed me to stop running – love aside, there is nothing I want more than it. One day I’ll retire from this big house into a pleasingly small cottage. But it will be with grace and gratitude for having been shown how to love something greater than me.


This house was built by convicts in 1846. In the engineer’s survey report, which we had done before buying, a few problems were unearthed. But they were hidden deep in the report and described in a way that gave us confidence that we had many years, decades perhaps, before they would need attending to. The house had stood the test of time – a phrase bandied about – and there was every reason to think that it would go on doing so.


Each time a new problem came up, we rolled with it. A new roof, gulp, no problem. New electrics, fair enough, what about just having floor lamps? A chipboard floor in the basement – let’s do it. Then, over three or four years, we ran into problems with our neighbours, leading to my being taken to court for illegally removing two chimneys. One tribunal and hefty legal fees later the front chimney was reinstated. The engineer who drew up the plans for it told me cheerfully that though it could barely be seen from the street, the new chimney looked great on Google Earth.


When the stonemason was on the roof, pulling sandstone blocks up on a pulley, he looked over and noticed a bulge in the sitting room window. ‘Sure’, I said when he asked me about it, ‘that’s been there for years’. ‘But,’ the mason said, frowning, ‘it’s a big bulge’.


I agreed that he would treat the damp that seemed to be causing the bulge. But when the bobcat got down to the footings the news got worse. ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news,’ said the stonemason, ‘but the inner and outer walls have parted company by this much’, and he held his thumb and index fingers apart a small distance. ‘The whole basement will need jacking up before the wall can be rebuilt.’ Like being told I had a life-threatening disease it seemed pointless to argue. Instead I looked blankly at his kindly face, thinking in my head of dollar signs rising up inside helium balloons.


It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to what happens – for the first two weeks this thought kept me sane as the front garden I’d planted and worked up was decimated by workmen, all of whom I liked. Then last Friday I was at home cleaning the house late afternoon when the south side of the house moved. There was a flurry of activity outside. Two men had been working under the house when a new crack opened vertically along the ground and first floor windows. The engineer appeared. Calculations were checked. Yet more thick lengths of steel were welded into place. My maturity, I told myself, is being tested.


I don’t love our house any less for it having let us down. Nor, for that matter, for my having let it down. However today I did notice that the phrase ‘safe as houses’ swirled through my mind as I vacuumed the stairs and greeted my daughter as she came home from school on this just another Friday in our lovely old house in Hobart. Touch wood, since this time last week there has been no more movement between the outer and inner walls…





As babies we find out a lot about the world we are born into by deciding what we want to swallow and what we want to spit out – the good from the bad, the delicious from the gross. Before we have words we put the world in our mouth. We love things by chewing on them. Our likes and dislikes, what we want and what we don’t, are sucked on or spurned. Whatever we can grab we mouth. Or we’ll just stare at it, lying on our backs in a nappy.


On growing up we quickly become expert in what we don’t want – our No is nearly always more energetically defended than our Yes. Our whole world, as children, is reassuringly black and white. Either we embrace it or we keep at bay. What is bad is yuk, to be mistrusted and quickly gotten rid of. What we love is hugged close – it’s wonderful, the answer to everything. Growing up involves marrying these impulses within ourselves and recognising that they say as much about us as the world around us – which is probably why growing up takes such a long time.


Establishing intimacy within our family, and then transferring some of this love on to trusted others, is lynchpin to our growing awareness that we exist in our own right. However there is also another a more private process that helps bring about this awareness, and that gets less attention. This is the process by which we seek and find satisfaction in the objects around us – food, toys, textures, plants, and clothes. In our early contact with objects we discover what we love enough to grasp, chew on and gaze at, and what, being of no interest, drops from our awareness.


As time goes by, within a good enough childhood, we discover that getting the things we want is the easy part. It’s the dramatic part, the exciting bit, the chase. This is where much of our energy and many of our fantasies dovetail. A light flashes in our eye, we go after whatever it is and, with any luck, we get it. Finding a home for our new find doesn’t come into it. Deciding whether it will get on with the things we already have is neither here nor there. Sometimes we’ll want something, a toy perhaps, purely on impulse, not caring for it deeply at all. In time however we may come to love it, looking after it and finding a home for it among the rest of our things.


One of the first things we are taught, once we’re old enough to be impressed on, is to look after our belongings. ‘Can you put away your things now?’ our mother asks, sternly or kindly it’s hard to tell. ‘Time to pack up,’ our teacher calls across the classroom, just as our fingers ooze with paint. ‘But where oh where is my bunny?’ we ask ourselves, frantically hunting under the bed and assuming it must be stolen.


Those of us who are lucky enough to be well taken care of as children get many of the things that we want as we grow up. They become ours – belongings which take their place among the rest of our things. Eventually many of these things end up in cupboards, baskets and on shelves. They sit alongside all of the other things that we want enough to keep, but not quite enough to leave out. More acquaintance than best friend, they are deeply familiar, yet not quite part of ourselves.


Months pass, then years. Childhood proper ends. As we make our way in the world, apart from things like clothes, books and kitchenware, we forget much of what we put away in cupboards, drawers, baskets and shelves. A book may sit unread on a top shelf for a long long time – what was once a vital source of meaning turns into mere decoration, a dust gatherer. Through no fault of its own an egg whisk may fall into disfavour at the back of a kitchen drawer. The longer our things spend inside a cupboard or on a shelf the less important they become. We may still want to keep them, yet our link to them fades.


Much of the early part of our life is bound up with wanting something and then going out to get it. Economically speaking this is called progress and is as natural as the air we breathe. Contrast this with sitting quietly in a room, taking out the entire contents of a cupboard and deciding, one by one, which things to put back and which can go forever. For most of us this doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t feel pleasurable. It doesn’t feel mature. It doesn’t even feel like work in the straightforward sense. Although there is now a word, an ugly verb, for it – decluttering.


There are people who live their whole life in the same house, never moving a picture from one room to the next, never renewing their acquaintance with the egg whisk fallen to the back of the kitchen drawer. The same cutlery, serving spoons and sewing kit see them through from maturity unto death. However most of us are not like this. Most of us move home many times and go through multiple sets of cutlery before we are old. As a result most of us end up going through our cupboards and decluttering fairly regularly.


And then there are those, growing in number, who go through their things voluntarily with a view to kick starting a process of renewal from within. Inspired by a modern wave of decluttering these people intuit, if only as a hunch, that the belongings that they store in cupboards, drawers and shelves have the potential to hold them back and make them feel stuck. These people would rather not wait until forced by circumstance to decide what they love enough to keep and what they can as well let go of. They would rather not defer to the future, but to preempt it. I know this because I have a clutter-free sister, though I myself am not.


*     *     *


A couple of years ago my mother went into a nursing home, leaving her belongings for my sisters and me to divide between us. When I went to see her in the nursing home, late afternoon that same day, I found her agitated. ‘Did you get some things that you like?’ Mum asked, staring into my face as she clasped my hot hands to her cool ones. ‘Yes I did’, I assured her, ‘I got lots of lovely things’. As I listed them – her eyes showing surprise when I mentioned the family grandfather clock – her face softened. Her grip loosened and she sank down in her chair. One more load was off her mind, one more transfer of love. She stared out the window towards a tree I knew that her eyesight prevented her from seeing clearly. This, she was telling me without saying, was all that she could give me – a dining table, some paintings, cutlery, photos, vases and a rug.


And yet we both knew that these were big things. She wasn’t interested in their market value, for she had loved them for their beauty. She was grateful to them for helping her through her life. And, now that she was nearing the end, she hoped that they might bring beauty and support to my sisters and me. She took great comfort, in what turned out to be her final months, from knowing that her things had been shared among her family, and that her memory had found a home in bedrooms, sitting rooms and kitchens across Australia.


The next day I went back to Mum’s house, in the process of being sold, to put the things she’d left me into a pile to be transported interstate. However overnight something had happened. Surely there were fewer of them? Was some of their value stripped from them because they were no longer part of Mum’s house? Now they were just things piled up with my name written on white office stickers. The shimmering threads holding them in their rightful place had been cut. ‘What have we done?’ I wondered, feeling confused and tearful.


I wandered into the garden and poked my nose into Mum’s garden shed – typically tidy and spiderweb free. Eventually I recovered enough to think. Mum had left her house in order. Thanks to my younger sister Mum had not left piles of stuff for her family to sift through. She had left only the things that she cared about, plus a few out-of-reach boxes in the top of her wardrobe. She had left her daughters furniture, objects and paintings that she hoped we would take home and love. She couldn’t be around for us for ever. She had lived a good long life. But she could leave us some of her things in the hope that they’d remind us of a life well lived, and to inspire us to do the same.


I was thrilled to receive these things. But I was also appalled. I found the finality of it shattering. Not least now I would have to live up to owning the family dining table. Deeper older feelings came up too. Was this really, I asked tearfully, all that was left of my childhood – side tables and napkin rings and mustard dishes? Was I going to be big enough, brave enough, to give these things a place in my heart and home? Would I be able to prevent them turning into sentimental clutter? Would my own family, who hadn’t been brought up around these things, get them, love them?


Standing in the garden it seemed all wrong that Mum’s things had been plucked from the rooms where they’d been dusted and polished for decades, to be piled up for collection by an interstate courier who immediately demanded that I pay insurance on them. And yet this was exactly what happened.


*     *     *


We may struggle to articulate it, but we know that we have a responsibility to our things that goes beyond the material. We know this because, if only in fantasy, after a certain point our things start to possess us, rather than the other way round. One response to this is minimalism, the impulse to have as few things as possible to catch the eye, and a streamlined, one thing in, one thing out attitude to objects. Only those things that are functional and beautiful, as suggested by William Morris, only those things that spark joy on being held, as suggested by Marie Kondo, are kept. The rest is passed on or given away. Because the rest is excess.


When I was growing up in Adelaide living minimally was for a few bold souls who, my parents assumed, put social appearances before their own comfort. It was for people who liked thick plate glass windows and low slung hard-edged furniture. Equally when I was growing up clutter was hardly mentioned. It certainly didn’t have the moral tinge that it now has. A neighbour’s house might be described as cluttered when books and magazines were left strewn about. A cupboard might be perceived as cluttered if too many coffee mugs were stacked up inside it. But clutter didn’t have the power to point the finger that it currently has. The state in which someone left their belongings when they died had no significance. It said nothing important about them. A person’s belongings were just things, just as their cupboards were just cupboards.


*     *     *


It was well after midnight and my husband and I were lying in bed. I was staring at the ceiling and wishing that I had gotten to bed earlier, rather than falling asleep over a book on a rug downstairs. I knew that my husband couldn’t sleep either because now and then his feet twitched. ‘I read that Marie Kondo book you left on the stairs’, he said, into the darkness. ‘Oh yeah,’ I replied. ‘What did you think?’ ‘I found it quite seductive’, he said. ‘She seems amazingly unburdened by what other people might think of her ideas’. ‘Yes, that’s true’, I said. ‘I think it’s her naivety that I find so refreshing’.


There was a lull, during which I considered the wisdom of ending our conversation there. ‘Except’, he continued, ‘I found reading that book made me quite agitated because I think I share some of her obsessiveness’. ‘Do you mean that you would like our house to be tidier?’ I ventured, wishing we were both sound asleep. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘I know that it annoys you for me to say it, but I really do. There is a section in the book where she talks about other people’s mess. She says that you can only really clear up your own mess – can only organise your own things. After that you have to hope that other members of your family will get the hint and do something about their own mess. Except of course’, he ended punchily, ‘they don’t’.


Lying in the dark I told myself not to react. He rolled his shoulder to face away from me. ‘But what about your clothes cupboard’, I felt like saying to him, fuming, ‘which is always as messy as can be?’ A cool breeze blew through the open window. ‘But’, I said, unable to contain myself, ‘you know that I work my guts out in this house. You know that if I didn’t spend as much time as I do putting things away that it would be much much messier?’ He rolled back to face the ceiling. ‘And’, I said, ‘you know how much it winds me up to hear you say that our house is cluttered, when clearly it isn’t’.


‘Yes’, he said, ‘I’m sorry. But it really does get to me in a way that I don’t think you realise’. ‘And’, I went on as if he hadn’t spoken, ‘I think you also know that I’ll be devastated when our kids aren’t at home to make a mess anymore. And that I’d much rather have them here than have no clutter.’ By this point I was so incensed, and so worried about not sleeping given an early morning start, that I took myself off to our sofa bed next door.


That’s when it came to me, staring at the ceiling. My husband really does experience our house as messy. He really does see clutter where I see family life. He really would like to live minimally with clear surfaces and nothing left on the stairs, preferably along the lines that suit his aesthetic. It wasn’t even personal, it just was the way he experienced it.


Still sleep evaded me. Surely as a couple, I thought, we should be able to move beyond his right about clutter and my being wrong – or my being right about family life and his being wrong? Wasn’t it more that we experienced our home and our life within it differently? Just as he longed for symmetry in our garden, he would like more structure in our home life – for it to have a predictability and order that allowed him to focus on work. He would like his eye to slide over our sitting room without being tripped up by a badly darned rip in a favourite rug. It’s not just that we have different tastes, I thought to myself, lying in the dark. It’s that we approach the things and spaces that make up our home from very different places.


*     *     *


Really what we are talking about, when we experience a space as cluttered, is the impression that objects – that mass of our things and belongings – make in our unconscious. This is where we keep a private record of what matters. This is where we work out the hold that certain objects and spaces have over us. This is where we register what is truly valuable to us. And this is where what might once have been a small trivial thing – a rip in a rug or a grandfather clock – becomes an agitating sleeplessness-making thing.


This explains why being in control of our home surroundings is so important to us. And why one person’s clutter is rarely another’s. This is why when my husband comes into our kitchen at the end of a Sunday afternoon, he sees nothing but a messy kitchen table, I see a productive afternoon spent crafting and cooking.


However naïve Marie Kondo may sound sentence by sentence – in giving her socks feelings and making her belongings animate – she is clearly on to something. She understands that our belongings are an intimate part of us, and that we are in some ways responsible for the role they play in our lives. She knows that no-one but ourselves can deal with our belongings, and that when we fail to deal with them they come to possess us in a way that can lead us to feel stuck. She knows that, within a couple, one person’s belongings are forever at risk of becoming the other person’s clutter. She knows about the disloyalty I feel about our family grandfather clock sitting mute under our stairs, for fear of its echoing tick-tock. She knows that our things can lift us up or pull us down, and that the quality of our relationship to them determines whether we love them, respect them or bag them up for charity. She knows that however much we may put off dealing with our things, telling ourselves it doesn’t matter, that in our heart we know it does.