It’s still winter in Queensland. Though we’re now back across the Pacific and across the equator, the scene that flashes across my mind is an unremarkable one. I am standing over the laundry sink, the Queensland sun streaming in the window, scrubbing my daughter’s school socks and cursing the fact that she’s once again managed to embed that singularly Aussie red dirt into the fabric.
It was only weeks ago that I was standing there, but it could have been months. It is summer here in Ohio, everything is lush and green and hot and humid, and my sense of place is still suspended. People ask how it is to be back, and my answer is usually a patchy attempt to explain that, while our plane landed weeks ago, I’m still waiting for my feet to hit the ground. We have flipped seasons and calendars (we left mid academic year and are arriving in time to start a new academic year next month). We have moved back into our home only to find that, though it’s unchanged, our habitation of it has. We’ve reconnected with so many family and friends, and it has been overwhelming to hear and see everything that has changed in the past 18 months. And we’ve only just begun to catch up.
Before we’d left, a year–or year and a half–didn’t seem like long. And it’s not, in fact. It flew by. But you know that expression about not stepping in the same river twice? Well, it’s true. I knew things would change while we were gone (including our own views and experiences), even if I didn’t know how. Neither did I know know how the transition back would go.
While in Australia, I had started half a dozen lists in my head of things I didn’t want to forget. They went something like this:
Things I’ll Miss Hearing:
The Aussie accent. Being called “dahl.” Even, dare I say, the screech and song every morning of magpies, cockatiels, lorikeets, rosellas, and cockatoos.
Things I’ll Miss Seeing:
Our friends and neighbours. Gum trees. The ocean. The one-of-a-kind colors of a Queensland sunset sky.
Foods and Drinks I’ll Miss:
Pies. Lemon Lime & Bitters. A really good flat white or mocha being easily available. (I have yet to have a Starbucks coffee since being back, and am in no hurry to reintroduce that brew into my life.) Date scones. The cornucopia of flavour-packed seasonal fruits and veggies, which would require a dedicated blog if I were to name them all.
Our Time in Queensland, Tallied:
Our oldest daughter learned to braid hair. We washed easily over 150 loads of laundry. Our younger daughter saw her first movie in a movie theater. The kids went to their first (and second) circus performance. My husband learned about half a dozen new classes of venomous snake bites to treat. We drove thousands of kilometers…on the left side of the road. I read probably 40 books. Our oldest daughter was introduced to the game of Monopoly. Both older kids fell in love with the game of Trouble. I wrote one book, and a first draft of a second. Our younger daughter’s speech went from the toddler speak that only those closest to her could understand to the very precocious–and intelligible–speech of a preschooler. Our oldest daughter fell in love with soccer. We went, most significantly, from a family of four to a family of five.
That was there. This is here. Here, when I haven’t been trying to return our home to some kind of physical order or to catch up with family and friends, I’ve been swept up in the political discourse currently consuming the societal psyche. It has, in fact, generated a lot of material for a future blog post. But I’m not ready to go there yet. Not until I can more firmly answer the simple question of how I am doing, how we are doing. Not until I can wake up in the morning and plant my feet on the ground with a solid sense of where I am and what I am meant to do that day.
There is a pair of my daughter’s shoes, shed mid-stride, in our entry way. Along the sides and bottom is a coat of that red dirt, picked up on our last trip, in Uluru. I think about wiping the shoes clean, but I am not yet ready to let the red disappear.
It is the first night of the junior school musical at our kids’ school.
While the children prepare with their teachers nearby, parents take the chance to catch up and chat amongst each other. Slowly, we find seats in the covered court that has been transformed into an outdoor theatre of sorts. My neighbour points out the kookaburra singing their song as dusk starts to settle.
I look down at the baby, sleeping beside us. The musical, incidentally, is about the story of Daniel (in the Lion’s Den). I look up and see the nightly path of the flying foxes over the car park beyond the court’s wall. Dusk has deepened.
Our kids parade onto the stage. Along with all the other parents, we snap our photos, beaming.
As the play ends, I am standing several rows back and off to the left rocking the baby, watching the joy on the faces of the kids, parents, and grandparents around us. I am thankful for this perfect evening, when the kids are beaming with pride at their hard work, and we are full of joy. We are all together and healthy, and life is good.
Fast forward to a few days later. It is Orthodox Easter weekend, one of the highlights of our year. This year, we have a newborn who is still nursing and crying often. Getting into the spirit of the services will be hard, a fact we are reconciled to; we know it is just temporary.
We celebrate what parts of the weekend we can with a small and loving congregation in Bundaberg, almost all of us expats, almost all of us far from the family and traditions of home, though those living permanently in Australia are more rooted in a new home and new traditions. A prayer comes to mind from the liturgy: a prayer for the “strangers, travelers, and visitors.” A prayer for us.
My husband and I have a few moments to pray and reflect on the significance of what we are celebrating. That’s something. But it is not the profound experience that comes from the culmination of a whole week of services and reflections. I don’t realize until it doesn’t come that I was still hoping for that penetrating joy.
Absent is the usual gathering of family, and with it, the chatter of my sisters, cousins, and in-laws as we congregate at home after a long Good Friday service. Absent is the pre-dawn awakening on Saturday and the most poignant liturgy of the year. Absent are my mother’s inimitable stuffed grape leaves, and the other delightful dishes that mark this feast. Absent is my father’s invitation to each of us to have a bit of wine with our dinner, telling us a little about the bottle he has selected.
This Easter weekend, our home isn’t pervaded with the smells of roasted, stewed, and breaded meats. I think to try and replicate some of the dishes that might make it feel more like a feast, but I don’t know how to make any but the simplest of them. Besides, even if I did, I lack the energy to prepare such a meal.
We call and FaceTime our family back home, the pace of the weekend out of sync with theirs. We call on Saturday, when they are still celebrating Good Friday. We talk on Monday, when they are still celebrating the feast.
What should have been one of the most joyous points in our year was understated this year, and what might have been a mundane weekday night attending a school event wasn’t. It was perfect.
I am glad I was in the state of mind to see that perfection and to feel such joy. I could easily have been distracted and wishing that Daniel was past this phase, or stressed about how to feed him and keep him quiet while the musical was on. But I wasn’t.
It is perhaps one of my greatest lessons from our time here: allow yourself to experience joy. Be open to it always. Sometimes it will be in the most mundane moments of the day. A pure and joyous smile from one of the kids. An unspoiled landscape. A conversation with my husband over a cup of coffee, perfectly prepared.
Be open to joy, for it won’t always come in the ways you expect.
In my 10th grade English class, there hung a poster that said you could always go to that still place inside yourself. Something like that, anyway; 10th grade was a very long time ago.
One thing I’ve learned since those days is that sometimes it’s harder to find that still place than it is other times. The days when that stillness radiates out into my actions and words, those days when I am assured of who I am and what I am meant to be doing, those are the best days. (Incidentally, they’re also my best writing days.) But there are the other days, the days when my thoughts are so crowded with plans to be made and inquiries to respond to that I forget that there is even a still space to which I can go. Those are also the days, ironically, that I feel my voice go quietest. No, not my physical voice: it’s the voice I think we all hear–or is it just me?–narrating our inner lives.
In any case, I’ve had a lot of these later types of days lately: the chatter in my head about things to do has concealed the fact that the stillness, the purpose I crave have been absent. This might seem strange, given our current life in sunny Queensland, but the truth that’s been dawning on me the past couple of months is that mindset matters. When I can stay focused on what’s most important in life–how I dislike that cliche–and what I most need to prioritize, viola! I’m at peace, and my days are more fruitful. But, let my mind or my hands get distracted, as they too easily do? That inner voice goes silent, and at the end of the day, I feel like a hamster that’s spun a wheel all day but not actually gotten anywhere.
And the thing is, it matters less than I would have guessed what the external circumstances are. There are many things that compete for our attention/effort/time as adults living in 2015. We can be anywhere on the spectrum between juggling multiple responsibilities/roles and living with high stress and a high-speed daily pace, to having the good fortune and time to pursue interests that are not, strictly speaking, necessary. In the past year, I’ve been at multiple points along this spectrum. I feel myself pulled in different directions no matter how “stressed” or “busy” I am or am not. The substance of the distractions may be different, but their effect is the same: loss of focus. Now, whether it’s cosmic forces that conspire to crowd our minds, or whether our tendency to even allow these distracters into our minds is a failing of humankind, I’ll let you decide.
We are now just past the midpoint of our soujourn in Australia. The other day, we were driving past a place in town when Emile and I started reminiscing about something that had happened the first time we were there: it had been in perhaps our first month in Hervey Bay. I think about what has changed since then and can only wonder what this second half of our stay will bring. This is a time of being settled, I’m finding. Our community here no longer treat us like the newcomers to be welcomed with an effortful hospitality, but rather as friends. Likewise, we don’t feel the need to crowd every free moment with tourist-like photo opportunities. Just every other moment.
This midpoint, as all the stages thus far have been, is a priceless stage, filled with its own unique gifts and enlightenment. We can look back at what has happened and changed over the past months, but we don’t yet have to make decisions about what is to come after this time is over. So I can only hope that, while we are here and I can put some dedicated effort into such things, practicing increased focus can be one of them. The idealistic 10th grader in me is counting on it.
Being in an unfamiliar setting has a way of filtering apart the parts of you that are truly you from those parts that you’ve been taught to include in your life. Whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, our views and attitudes, practices and habits–really all the things that make our life ours–are influenced by our surroundings. Yes, we can consciously resist something in our surroundings that we don’t agree with, but there is plenty that we absorb, mostly unknowingly. For most of us, living our day-to-day lives, this influence is not even detectable.
My everyday life has also gone from harried working professional to “just” a mother (“mum”) and aspiring writer, and my wardrobe has reflected this metamorphosis. My complete abandonment of fashion or make-up (not that I was very big on either before) feels like a return to my essential self. If I’m not smelly or sticky, my hair is tolerably untangled, and I’m wearing clothes that are sufficiently unstained and coordinated to appease my OCD, then everyone shush. Anything more is to impress others, and therefore entirely unnecessary so far as I can tell. Actually, now that I think about it, even some of those basics are more for others than for me (I’m not the one who has to look at my clashing outfit, after all), but a gal’s not entirely immune to social norms.
That said, times when we’ve been in a city like Sydney, surrounded by the fashion-forward crowd, I may or may not have found myself casting longing looks at window displays of scarves or boots, both of which I have an irrational fondness for. In those moments, I choose not to question whether such items are, strictly speaking, really necessary.
In this way, moments in the past few months have brought into sharp focus for me just what about me is more, and less, influenced by my surroundings. The first moment actually came to me when I was driving along, listening to an RN broadcast (that’s Radio National for the uninitiated), and recognized how grounded my mind was listening to the news and debates of the day here, and how happy it made my heart–just as NPR does in the States. Listening to MPs in the Australian Parliament refer repeatedly to the “members opposite” as they passionately discuss a bill is unlike anything I’d hear on NPR, but something about it is very familiar just the same. Yes, “public radio nerd” is a badge I wear proudly.
|I would not, however, have objected
if these King Parrots had restrained themselves
from entering my immediate surroundings.
That said, once I see a snake–and I’ve been told my chances of leaving without encountering one are slim–I’ll be a lot less laissez-faire about the whole thing.
|The girls, on the other hand, were quite happy
to have them invade their personal space.
|Fraser Island, partial cover of rain clouds|
|Moments like this are why…going up the cable car at the Taronga Zoo, Sydney.|
My thoughts turned to my dad’s passing, and that horrible, dark day when we were ripped out of our everyday happiness to learn he’d been taken from us. I cannot think about that day without a leaden weight settling on my chest again.
Next month, it’ll have been two years. Nothing is the same as it was then. We try to be happy, we try to carry on. He would have wanted that, yes, of course he would. But every now and again, I find that I dip from the little joys–and trivial worries–that occupy our everyday lives to the sadness beneath. It is always there. It is born of the knowledge that, in this life, we will not know again the wholeness that his presence brought. It is born of the conviction that I want to live a life he would be proud of, even, or especially, since his death. This desire is not born out of a desire to please him–no, that would be futile, and juvenile besides, but because I have realized only lately what he knew all along. This life is about building a spirit that will live on, a spirit that will overcome the things of this world that fade, rust, die.
When we were thinking about coming to Australia, one of the thoughts that kept coming to me was this: “we are travelers on this earth. Whether we are a short drive from loved ones or hemispheres and continents apart, this place is not our home.” What would it teach us, what would we discover, in actually experiencing the life of nomads, of souls in but not of this world? The magnitude of that answer will, I think, take the full length of our time here, and perhaps longer, to make itself known. In the meantime, I am immensely grateful for the time and space to look for answers in big ways and small.
|On the ferry back to Sydney’s city center, Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background.|
|Ariel view of Fraser Island’s eastern coast (75 mile beach)|
It was about 4pm. Too early for dinner, and too late to go out anywhere, when just getting the kids to put their shoes on and climb in the car can take 20 minutes. None of the toys at home were holding the kids’ attention. So I proposed we go down to the beach for a quick walk.
As it always does for the kids, amazingly so, the simple walk turned into an adventure–usually a hunt for unusual shells. That day, it was also a drawing session. The six-year-old would draw her figures, only to watch, half distressed and half amused, as a wave would rush up and wash half of them away. Then she would begin again, unperturbed by concepts such as time or effort wasted.
I watched the two of them, taking pure joy in this simple walk, and feeling that joy myself. In our “regular” lives, an hour like this would have been hard to find. So full did we keep our days, between the necessities of running a household and the multitude of involvements (social, professional, etc.) that I never had time–never made time–for things like an aimless walk at dusk (setting aside, for the moment, that Columbus lacks an ocean shore on which to take said walk).
Lent season is almost over now. Simplicity, everything pared down to its essence, seems to have been the theme, appropriately so for me. Spiritually, it has been a time of reflection and questioning, but mostly of soaking in the care with which God has kept us. Not every day has been easy, being so far from family and loved ones, and navigating new rules, professionally and socially. But we have always felt God’s Hand, protecting when we worried, holding when we needed comfort. It’s a very simple idea, but no less powerful for it.
Materially, it has also been a season of simplicity. Preparing Lent meals (all vegan) is always a challenge for me, I will admit. But when you take away my crutches of international grocery stores, really good restaurants, and a work schedule that before had at least allowed my husband to prepare a good share of dinners, what we were left with this Lent was a whole lot of potatoes (which thankfully, the kids invariably enjoy). Roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes (baked and roasted), more roasted potatoes, even mashed potatoes (but that was one of his creations). My six year old always reminds me when she sees them that my father loved potatoes; perhaps he did precisely because of their comforting simplicity. (Note to Mom: don’t worry, I feed the kids animal protein too.)
And perhaps this theme of simplicity was just a continuation of a theme I had pseudo-consciously began when we first embarked on this Australia adventure. After all, even my choices in what clothes to bring was an exercise in paring down: eight t-shirts, two dressy shirts, three pairs of shorts, four skirts, two dresses, and three pairs of sandals (my “winter” wardrobe is warmer clothes, but just about the same quantities). For some of you readers, this may seem totally reasonable. For others, it will seem shockingly spartan, and I would have agreed with you a few years ago. But I had also begun really reflecting on what we really need versus what we are told we need, and this year away was a good chance to test some of those so-called needs.
Food and clothing are, of course, the universal and every-day examples, but our daily habits are ripe with areas in which we can simplify. The Matrix, it turns out, is a more apt analogy for our lives than we often realize. How we choose to spend our concentration and effort (and consequently time) shapes the lives we end up leading. Speaking for myself, I’ve said “no” too infrequently, accepted society’s “must” rules too willingly, and generally signed up for too much too often. It is only in stepping out of it for a time that I have been able to ask myself what things deserved my effort and attention, and why. I wasn’t doing that nearly enough; there’s a reason we were so busy all the time.
On that dusk walk along the beach, we did happen to find something green glittering under a wave’s foam. When we picked it up, we found it was a piece of what looked like green glass, its edges worn smooth by the sand and other ocean forces. I wondered about its former life, perhaps as a bottle of something. Regardless, now and here, it was a found trinket, beautiful in its simplicity, like this day had been.
Waltzing Matilda (for folk music buffs–and n.b., it’s not what you think it’s about)
We are not in a different country though. Neither are we in the States, and many practices, while they might look similar on the surface to what’s in the States, often have very different underlying values, the subtleties which I am sure will be fodder for future entries. The beauty of this experience is that we have the opportunity to experience day to day living here, but with cultural norms and objects that are new to us.
Last week, we were told to stock our kitchens and check our torches (that’s “flashlights” for you American readers) in case the approaching cyclone, Cyclone Marcia, downed the power and flooded the roads leading here. (Snow storms would have been more familiar.) Unlike other cities north of us, we never did lose power or access to food, but we did lose the beach to the high waters!
The coming months will include, I hope, visits to see the Outback, and the real Snowy Mountains. And the Sydney Opera House. But for the moment, I am content to observe what’s immediately around me, sing, “Waltzing Matilda” on the way to school with the kids, and to take pleasure in the little things that make life here quite different from life in the States. Like the fact that our three year old has, at school, adopted the very Aussie habit of running around barefoot.
And yes, in case you were wondering, our kitchen is regularly stocked with vegemite. And better yet, crumpets and ginger beer.