life writing

Tag: life



On holiday in Adelaide – ironic that I’ve ended up holidaying in my old home town – I went shopping with my daughter in the rain (it never rains in Adelaide, except when we visit). After two hours spent looking in fashion and surfing shops in the city mall, and buying a sweater for my son who wasn’t with us, I asked my daughter for ten minutes in a bookshop.


At the top of the escalator, it was a big bookshop, I headed for the business books, hoping my daughter would saunter off, which she did. I felt queasy, in need of water. Why are big bookshops so often airless? A sensible-looking woman, around my age, offered to help me find what I wanted. I smiled and asked if they had a pet section, which she pointed me to. We are currently on the list for a new puppy and, keen for it to be a happy experience, I thought a good book might give me some pointers.


Next to the pet section were the psychology books. After browsing various titles I picked up the only book by Brene Brown that I hadn’t read, I Thought It Was Just Me. The title was spelled out in big orange and pink capital letters on a dark cover, and though it didn’t have the word shame in the title, the quotes suggested that it was a book about the experience of shame.


How, I wondered, would Brene Brown open a book about a subject that most of us naturally avoid? ‘You can never’, she wrote in the first paragraph, ‘shame anyone into changing their behaviour’. With these nine words the author hooked me. Reading them, standing up in a bookshop, made me realise that I’d spent much of my marriage trying to shame my husband into changing his behaviour. I’d done it unwittingly, unconsciously even. And, as Brene Brown pointed out, it hadn’t worked.


Until I read these words, I wouldn’t have admitted to shaming my husband. Yet seeing this simple idea in print allowed me to accept it. It instantly gave me perspective and, yes, relief. It wasn’t just me. It isn’t just me. Lots of us get caught up shaming each other into changing behaviour.


What have I been unsuccessfully shaming my husband into changing? Working too hard, drinking and smoking. My own family’s medical history is pock-marked with conditions, mainly heart and cancer, that I have done my best in middle age to avoid. My husband’s family history is stronger than mine, which may be why he refuses to share my anxieties about his health. Whereas I apply the precautionary principle in avoiding risk factors, my husband, a philosopher, is more sanguine. He isn’t the only one. When I told my GP about my concerns for my husband’s health, he smiled. ‘Ah’, my GP said, ‘society hasn’t caught up with medical research in these areas, and contradictions abound’.


Last weekend, as I read Brene Brown’s book under the duvet in a freezing converted barn in the Adelaide Hills, I realised that I was guilty of putting my husband on the spot, of driving him into a corner from which he could only pull in his head. Reading this book, high above the plains below, I felt guilty. But I also felt absolved. Because until I read this book I’d unconsciously assumed that it was my job, my responsibility as a wife, to help my husband see the light. Until last weekend I’d felt sure that one day my husband would read an article in The New Scientist, or The Guardian Weekly, on recent medical research into alcohol and smoking and, that very day, would drink less wine and order a vaping kit.


But Brene Brown made it clear that complex human beings are not like that. Complex human beings, and I should know because I am one, need to be stroked not shamed. They need to be stroked and made to feel good about themselves. ‘Being nice’, is the way my husband puts it. Making someone feel bad about their behaviour backfires, Brown explains, because the experience of shame damages their capacity for change.


On returning from holiday I realised how simple my brief with my husband is. It’s to not be critical of him. Every day I wake up and remind myself of this. My job is not to make him see the error of his ways, any more than his job is to point out mine. His health isn’t my responsibility, just as my career isn’t his.


Perhaps this is what holidays are for. All that packing and unpacking, marshaling through airport security, and cliff-top walks, were for the purpose of seeing life from a different point of view. What felt intractable a week ago, my husband’s seeming immaturity and my own excess of it, now feels looser. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back and laugh.






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.

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

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‘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.

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?


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.

dinner for twenty


The last time my husband had a big birthday we had a dinner at a long table on the verandah, with hired glasses and chaos in the kitchen. After the starter a friend came into the kitchen where I was washing leeks under the tap. ‘Haven’t you already washed those?’ she asked in surprise. ‘No’, I laughed. ‘My mother is a caterer’, she said, ‘and whenever she does a dinner she is always super prepared’. ‘Well’, I replied, waving a wet hand at the table of noisy guests through the window, ‘if I’d planned all this ahead of time I’d never have invited this many people’.


The woman at the electrical repair shop – who I’ve now spoken to numerous times about our broken dishwasher – is surprised when anger and tears creep into my voice on the phone. ‘What do you mean the pump for our dishwasher hasn’t arrived?’ I ask without disguising my exasperation. ‘It’s been five weeks and we’ve had three visits from the repair man and it’s still not fixed. I do understand that it can be hard to get parts from the mainland, but couldn’t the pump have been expressed down?’ ‘Well yes’, the woman replies, ‘but express costs $32.50 and no-one ever asks for this service’. ‘But I would have been happy to pay it to have a working dishwasher for a big dinner!’


I stop flicking through The Guardian Weekly sitting on the windowsill. I return to the photo on the cover. Angela Merkel is staring out, two small downward groves either side of her lips to her chin, the future of the EU weighing heavily on her. I feel shown up by my ridiculousness – worrying about a broken dishwasher when far bigger things matter further afield. At that moment my daughter walks into the kitchen, I admit my idiocy, and to cheer me up she shows me some photos on the Internet of Trump without makeup.


*     *     *


Guests stream through the door and my excitement and panic mounts. Standing at the kitchen window I count them in the courtyard below – eighteen, nineteen, that makes it twenty counting myself. There is a knock at the door and I open it too quickly to stop the words falling out of my mouth. ‘And you are twenty-one and twenty-two!’ They laugh and we joke. My daughter takes it in her stride and we shuffle round table settings and find the sewing stool upstairs. There is another knock at the front door – twenty-three! My daughter rolls her eyes at the mother who can’t count how many people she has invited for dinner. This time we resort to placing an unhinged wooden door from the basement on top of two workhorses, covering it with a rug and white tablecloth.


Getting guests into the sitting room, where the table is set, is like herding cats. They’d rather chat in the hall and kitchen. A few explore the garden. They don’t want to be treated like guests at a wedding. ‘But what about the asparagus?’ I ask, pushing through a clutch of people to rescue two large pots on the hob.


Realising we are one chair short, two men decide to take turns at the table, persuading me that they are perfectly happy helping my two teenagers in the kitchen. Together the four of them take over the serving of the meal. ‘Go away!’ they say after the first course goes out. ‘We don’t need you in here. Go away!’


And I do go away. I leave them to it. My otherwise shy daughter, flushed in shorts and tshirt, flies in and out of the sitting room. My son washes up at the sink in the corner of the kitchen as if in the galley of a ship. The two men rally.


Twice more during the evening I go into the kitchen to take over serving. And twice more I’m sent back to the table. I hope it’s because they want me to enjoy myself. But I can also see that the four of them are having a better time in the kitchen because I’m not there.


My husband talks to the people on either side of him as if there is no tomorrow, and declares at the end of the evening it has been his best birthday yet. No singing, no speeches, just a warm acceptance of something – friendship perhaps – that is so present in the room it doesn’t need expression. When I enter the kitchen, after dessert, my son is confident from my laugh that I’ve been drinking. ‘No, just lime juice’, I reply with a quick smile.


*     *     *


At five o’clock, two hours before guests are due to arrive, my daughter asks me a question. ‘Will you be glad when it’s over?’ I stop in my tracks and put down a box of cutlery. ‘Gosh’, I say, ‘what a good question’.


Now that the dinner is over I find I’m not glad. Like my husband I wish it could have gone on longer. That life itself could go on longer. Not least because this was the first dinner in my house that I’ve been able to enjoy as a guest.


This morning, the morning after, I am teased by my kids. ‘How can you have been so totally disorganised?’ they taunt. ‘It was easy’, I reply with a laugh. ‘Don’t you remember what you were like two weeks ago’, I say to my daughter, ‘swotting for exams and leaving it till the last minute? That’s exactly how I felt yesterday, knowing I was about to be hit but unable to do anything about it.’


What they don’t know, what they can’t imagine, was what really happened yesterday morning when my mind was in such a whirl that I snuck out without telling anyone for a walk on a bush track by a nearby reservoir. As I walked, on entering the cover of trees, I started crying. I cried for all the years that had passed with nothing and everything to show for it. I cried for the friends who‘d come from interstate as a surprise for my husband. I cried for my marriage which at times feels out of my hands, yet which cradles in them. I cried for my family life that at times feels so consuming, so rewarding, and so demanding that I can barely hear myself think. I cried for my childhood family who did so much for me yet half of whom are now dead. And I cried for my own children whom I am in the slow process of letting down – though we call it letting go – so that they can make lives of their own. Until, just as my tears started, they stopped. I looked up at the trees, thanked them for their shelter, and no longer felt upset.


After a bush walk with my daughter this evening again I am teased about my disorganisation at my husband’s birthday dinner. Sitting in our parked car in our driveway I listen silently as she lists my oversights. Then I break ranks and tell her about my tears round the reservoir. I don’t tell her to burden her. I tell her so that she can understand something of the complexity of my life. I tell her so that she can glimpse the richness and pain in store for her as she grows up. I tell her so that she may gain a perspective on her own internal goings on, which are so consuming to her yet which are passing. And I tell her so she knows that I too can feel very sad and very happy on the same day.


As I talk she listens quietly in the growing dark. Suddenly our dog barks loudly at a neighbour’s dog. ‘It’s time go in for dinner’, I say, putting up the car windows. And we do.




On feeling disapproved of


We all do it, disapprove of each other that is.


My husband is convinced that I disapprove of him. He is right. I do wish that he wouldn’t sit up late watching The West Wing and emailing his colleague in London. I do wish that he wouldn’t drink wine every night. I do wish that he didn’t take naps during the day. I do wish that he would do more than half the washing up before disappearing from the kitchen. And I do wish that he’d leave his jacket behind when it’s hot.


My near grown up son has reasons of his own to disapprove of me. He wishes that I wasn’t house proud, and that I didn’t mind his leaving two bicycles propped in the hall. He wishes that I didn’t wear my hair quite so short. And he’d really like for me not to talk to just about anyone when I’m out with him.


And my daughter? Up until last Tuesday I’d always wriggled out of camping with her. Until last Tuesday when I changed my mind. Now that she too is growing up – she can do a parallel park – I realised that I may not get many more chances to camp with her. Besides I had no real reason to say no. It was the middle of the school holidays, my husband and son were both away, and the weather was fine.


As soon as I said yes my daughter swung into camping mode. She was up in her room sorting out gear while I was in the kitchen below cutting chunks of cheese and packing muesli. When we arrived at the campsite, almost by the by, Emma offered me her old blue fleece jumper, suggesting with a look that my denim jacket was out of place in a camping ground. Without thinking I turned her down. Patiently, as we were taking the tent bag out of the car, she offered me her old fleece jumper again. This time I took the fleece without a word and swapped it for my jacket. As if by magic Emma relaxed, and the rest of our camping trip went well.


Why do we disapprove of the people we love? Is it because, lacking control over everyone else, we seek to control those we’re closest to? Is it that we need our choices confirmed, our invisible codes of conduct upheld, given that few of us believe in divine judgment in the world hereafter?


This disapproval of each other, especially within a family, is a giveaway. It’s proof that we really do get under each other’s skin. Sadly I know that I’ll never be so mature as to be immune to the slings and arrows of my family, whose unfavourable opinions of me feel as debilitating as their admiration was once uplifting.


*    *     *


Years ago, when I lay on a couch four times a week and referred in passing to Freud’s model of the mind, it became clear to me that the superego had a lot to answer for when it came to making little problems into big ones. The ‘I know better than you’ part of myself caused a lot of trouble in my life, and it took years for me to find ways of getting on with it. Although I never made friends with what I’m calling my superego, by the time I’d done with lying on the couch we were on pretty good terms. And this made all the difference.


The biggest let down of maturity, for me, has been realising that wisdom doesn’t necessarily follow from getting older. Despite my so called higher degree, I don’t feel any more supported by a fount of knowledge that protects me from the buffetings of ordinary life than I did when I was a teenager. However the one thing I do have, and this has increased with age, is a determination to look within and to see what is really there, to work out what I really feel as opposed to what I – and my superego – happen to think.


*     *     *


Since my husband left for overseas, a few weeks ago now, something magical has happened. We have stopped disapproving of each other. Distance has released us from thinking that we know best how each other should conduct ourselves. Instead we send encouraging emails at times of the day when we feel genuinely encouraging, rather than affect-loaded swipes in six-word phrases late at night when all things being equal we should be asleep.


Having this time apart has made it clear that what my husband and I want more than anything from each other, at least as much as love, is approval. We want to know that we are doing an okay job at this funny thing we call life. We want encouragement.


Sadly it seems unlikely that my husband and I will refrain from disapproval once he returns. I’ll still want him to take his jacket off when it’s hot, just as he’ll still want me to cook more generously at supper. Our superegos will always want the last word, the upper hand – will always think they know better. After all – as if I care – they are right!


Instead I have a different thought, a different fantasy. Which is that any couple that has been together for longer than three months deserves enormous sympathy for weathering what we know – from our own experience – is an ongoing internal tussle, projected on to the other, over right and wrong and the Best Way to do things.


Instead of Sorting Things Out, in some Marie Kondo way, my idea is this. It’s that every couple might sit down – in the spirit of an arms embargo – and write down a private list of what drives them barmy in their partner. Before, without peaking at their partner’s list, symbolically burning it. Many relationships would be saved, legal fees would dive, we would all laugh a lot more, putting up with each other might develop into an art form, and some of us might even be the wiser.



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.