It had been another late night, and the idea of donning her work uniform and setting off for the hour long drive made her feel defeated before the day had even begun. The monotonous journey on the freeway to the cement plant was often enough to lull her to a much needed sleep. Loud music and the window wound down with the rush of air coming in and the loud whoosh of passing semitrailers and other early morning commuters was an attempt to stay awake.
After the usual milestones had been passed- the three McDonalds; the service station with the luke warm coffee; the hideous public art that had been commissioned by one of the councils, the narrow bridge ahead signaled her journey was almost over. It felt safe to wind up the window and allow her chilly earlobes some reprieve. Time and the line between dream and reality were blurred when she suddenly opened her eyes with the alarm of the road markings making the de-de-de-de-de sound as her tyres rolled over them. She had veered across to the lane on her right, the time taken for a blink of the eye was just enough to allow her to steer left and avoid a b-double heading toward her, vulnerable in the flimsy metal shell of her cheap Korean car. Continue reading →
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…” as the singing trailed off, she blew the candles on the strawberry and cream covered continental cake, wishing for only one thing. She wished that everyday in their home could be like this one. 12 years old. She wasn’t quite a child anymore, but also not wisened to the things she’d overheard older kids talk about, or the things her older half brother got up to, like the time their father discovered a half dozen bottles of beer stashed in his school duffle bag and got one better, replacing the bottles with some broken bricks that weighed about the same. Would I do that when I’m a teenager? She wondered.
They lived at Number 23, on a quiet street, in a quiet suburb, in the inner western part of Sydney. It was a cul-de-sac, one half of a street that was spliced by a main road passing through its two halves. Since they’d moved in, there was a looming threat of the roads authority buying up their house, and demolishing it to widen that busy thoroughfare. By the time she was 12, the house that was closest to the main road, at the curved, dead-end of the cul-de-sac, was already gone. There were just two houses between theirs and the empty lot. They were sitting ducks, house sitting. The roads authority didn’t issue empty threats. So there was that, but a more imminent threat to their home, she realised, was what went on within its walls. Continue reading →
My childhood is marked by a huge figurative line in my memory- before and after, there and here, two countries, with life defining experiences divided between Ethiopia, my country of birth and Sydney, Australia, where I spent most of my childhood. They were two worlds that I could never quite believe truly existed when I was in the “other”. While in Addis Ababa, I knew of that foreign, far away place where my parents lived, and I used to make up a language that I imagined they spoke there, a land so distant that I’d figured would require a pretty long bus trip to get there. It may as well have been the moon.
Once in Australia, aged 6, as my thoughts were quickly filled with the colours, smells and faces of my new home, my old home became fragmented in my memory, as foreign to me as Sydney had once been. The magic of doro wet, my favourite childhood meal was what reconciled my two homes. It was the smell and taste that made my memory whole. The beautifully rich chicken sauce, which is cooked slowly and lovingly, was the highlight of any celebration. Even my now pescatarian self can think back on the flavours and crave the succulent, tender chicken that easily breaks off the bone, to be picked up in a morsel with a small, torn piece of spongy, sour injera, wrapped expertly together with a mopping of sauce and a broken piece of hard boiled egg, eaten with a true appreciation of every single mouthful. Continue reading →
I’ve tried to remain strong, and positive, and mindful, and all those things they say you should do. Who are “they” anyway? What do “they” know about what it feels to be dying? I’d bet they would say “but we are all dying”. I wish I could stop the racing thoughts. I can’t still them. Okay, Robert, take a deep breath and be mindful. Right now, I can feel Elise’s hand in mine. It feels warm and soft. Her slender fingers interlaced with my stumpy, calloused digits. The air feels nice and warm on my face. I can feel it. I am still alive. It is the time of the “golden hour”, making the scene before us in the park grander than at any other time of day- people are moving past in varying states of urgency. You’re doing well Robert- mindful, stay mindful. Elise squeezes my hand. It must be hard for her too. I turn my head to scan her face for what it may reveal. A smile. She smiles at me, but before I can return it, a little red sweater that I see an old lady knitting competes for my attention. I feel like I have been kicked in the stomach, as thoughts of yet another life experience I’ll be denied catches me unaware with its sudden announcement. Elise and I won’t have a child. I feel the whole seven or whatever number of stages of grief in the span of seconds, the length of time it takes for my eyes to flood and spill tears, forcing me to let go of Elise’s hand as I cover my face, in an effort to cool my flushed, hot cheeks.
I feel his tight grip on my fingers. I can’t free my hand discreetly; it would be a very obvious intention to remove mine from his. It will only be a short walk through the park to the car and then I can let go. I don’t love him anymore; I haven’t for a long time and kept putting off the inevitable. Do I have to continue with the charade now? Do I tell him? Is there any point? Should I just stick it out for the month he’s been given? I feel like I am bearing the whole burden of someone else’s final moments. Telling him will mar any happiness he may experience, but by not telling him, won’t I be denying him the benefit of a real, honest view of life before he goes? Feeling guilty, I squeeze his hand and feel his arm brush against mine as he moves close to me and stops, turning a little to look at me. I manage a smile but he returns a pained expression of quivering lips that refuse to reciprocate my offering. He is crying. Has he read my thoughts? Following his gaze, I turn to my left and see that he is looking at an old lady sitting on the park bench, knitting a red pullover.
I love whiling away the hours in this park. Sometimes I’ll sit with a book, and sometimes whatever knitting I have on the go, but always with a cup of hot tea from my thermos, and a spare cup in case a passerby looks like they could do with one. I was just thinking I hadn’t yet seen anyone I’d offer a cuppa to when I saw a tall, slim man and a short, plump woman walking toward the park’s exit, hand in hand. I’m good at reading people and could see that even with the intimacy of the clasped hands, they were far too far apart for real intimacy. There was no conversation, just a silent walk as they both looked ahead. I was intrigued by the sudden change to their pace, with the man slowing to a stop and catching my gaze. I smiled, well used to being caught out in my pastime of people watching, but was caught off guard by his tears as he kept his eyes fixed on me while the woman turned to look where he was looking. Do I offer them a cup? I didn’t know what would be appropriate in this instance, so I reached to rearrange the ball of red wool and continued knitting the little jumper for my grandson.
Prompt from Writing 101, Day 9 Point of View. Today’s Prompt: A man and a woman walk through the park together, holding hands. They pass an old woman sitting on a bench. The old woman is knitting a small, red sweater. The man begins to cry. Write this scene. Today’s twist: write the scene from three different points of view: from the perspective of the man, then the woman, and finally the old woman.
They stand close, swaying in the wind, one with branches that extend out a little more widely than the other. The thinner of the two seems to be heralding autumn a lot earlier than the other, its yellow leaves outnumbering the green. I see these poplar trees everyday, but I don’t always pay attention. When I do, as I am now, I imagine the delicate leaves being just like butterflies, light and aerodynamic, fluttering in an un-choreographed dance. Paying attention also brings back memories of that day, just over a year ago, when Delphin sprinted out the front door, across the verandah and down the terraced garden to the pair of poplars, finding the perfect spot to bask in the sunshine on that warm March afternoon- our first weekend here, a time we had all looked forward to for so long. Curled up in the sunny spot, in the stillness and silence of the country- the kind of silence that is quite loud in fact, when you pay attention, with chirping frogs, leaves rustling, and tall blades of grass swooshing in unison as birdsong carries through the valley. When I pay attention now, to those trees, I see them standing tall, a guard of honour for the resting place of Delphin, who lived till 23 and had a burst of life that March afternoon before saying goodbye.
Prompt from Writing 101, Day 8 Death to Adverbs. Today’s Prompt: Go to a local café, park, or public place and write a piece inspired by something you see. Get detailed: leave no nuance behind. Today’s twist: write an adverb-free post.
I found it while leafing through a magazine that was amongst a pile on the coffee table. It read:
“Dear Donald, Having just learnt my diagnosis, I am writing to let you know how I feel and what I know in this moment. Fuck! Why me? I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to give in to this disease that will eat away at my memories. I don’t want to forget how it felt to fall in love with Sue, or the first time Jake said Da-Da…”
I couldn’t read anymore of it. I stared into my empty teacup, wishing its leaves could conjure up a different story, wishing I could go back to being the other me, the one who’d tried to make time stand still, the one who’d had the foresight to write it all down.
Prompt from Writing 101, Day 5 Be Brief. Today’s Prompt*: You stumble upon a random letter on the path. You read it. It affects you deeply, and you wish it could be returned to the person to which it’s addressed. Write a story about this encounter. Today’s twist: Approach this post in as few words as possible.
*I wrote in response to this prompt some time ago, although I wasn’t enrolled in Writing 101 at the time. That effort is in this post.
Questions of “Favourite X” or “Top Three Y” always stump me. I find myself getting excited when I hear a song I haven’t heard in a long time that I once loved or that brings back memories of another, happy time, but I’m usually hard pressed to name a favourite. I recently heard a blast of 80s pop that gave me incredible joy (Prince’s “Let’s go crazy” and Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” were highlights), but I wouldn’t necessarily list those songs as favourites. Ask me about my “most important” songs, however, and it puts a different spin on the soundtrack in my mind, although I can only think of 2 that are worthy of the category.
First up in my duo of “most important” is “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley. Its importance is simply that it is the first song that I have a clear memory of falling in love with. I would have been about 7 and I didn’t yet have a great command of English, so the lyrics were lost to me, but I loved the song nonetheless.
As much weight as I can place on the musical taste of my 7 year old self (impeccable, I’d say), “Buffalo Soldier” is shadowed in importance by a song that means so much more to me because of the events it accompanied. I first heard Sebastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle” in my beloved early Saturday morning spin class, back in 2010, the perfect sound to let my mind drift, imagining myself coasting on an open road, far removed from the darkened room I shared with 20 or so other people, as sweat trickled into the crevices of my closed eyes. At the time, I didn’t know anything more about the track than the feeling of exhilaration that took hold of me on hearing it. I always looked forward to spin sessions where the instructor played his mix that included that amazing song. About 6 months after the first listen, I met a man via the wonders of online dating. Being a long distance relationship, we spent countless hours criss-crossing the roads between Melbourne and Adelaide. On one of our road trips, that amazing song popped up on his iPod, giving me even more pleasure when I was able to recline, sun warming my skin as I sat in the passenger seat beside the man I was getting to know, and falling in love with. The importance of “La Ritournelle” in our relationship was cemented on yet another road trip- when we stopped to dine at one of the few places open on the high street of the country town we were in. What should be playing when we walked in? you guessed it! There is something so joyous and life affirming in the long instrumental intro and the minimal lyrics that say so little and yet say it all…
“Oh nothing’s gonna change my love for you
I wanna spend my life with you
So we make love on the grass under the moon
No one can tell, damned if I do
Forever journeys on golden avenues
I drift in your eyes since I love you
I got that beat in my veins for only rule
Love is to share, mine is for you”
Fast forward to June 2014 and the man with the music and I were in a birthing suite, playlist prepared for the arrival of our son. I couldn’t bear to listen to any music once contractions kicked in, as any sensory stimuli beyond what I was forced to endure was not welcome in my world at the time. I requested the music be turned off, and music man wisely obliged, though my request to remove the clock and its incessant ticking was ignored by the midwives.
The arrival of our precious baby boy was, and still is, the most significant moment in my life. The love, the tears, the miracle, the wonder, the exhaustion, and did I say love? It all still comes back to me when I hear the very first song that played, once I permitted music in the birthing suite Oh nothin’s gonna change my love for you…Love is to share, mine is for you. My song for the music man and our baby boy.
Prompt from Writing 101, Day 3 Commit to a Writing Practice. Today’s Prompt: Write about the three most important songs in your life — what do they mean to you? Today’s twist: You’ll commit to a writing practice. The frequency and the amount of time you choose to spend today — and moving forward — are up to you, but we recommend a minimum of fifteen uninterrupted minutes per day.
The zig-zagging light flashing in the periphery of my right eye announces the arrival of an atypical migraine. I don’t know what has caused it, but relaxation always seems to help, or at least it cannot hurt, I reason, so I think of a place where my mind can rest at ease. With the power to transport my thoughts from the present unease to a place and time that will bring me stillness, I start to see the approach of Olkhon Island, as the ferry from Irkutsk charters the deep waters of Lake Baikal. It is summer, so the great lake is glimmering emerald and turquoise hues- an iridescent wonder with an abundance of omul teeming beneath its surface. The green pastures jutting out to meet the lake seem to be arms outstretched, embracing all who arrive. What struck me then, and now, as I am returning there, is the sense of vastness on the sparsely populated island. On the bumpy ride in a Soviet-era mini bus from the ferry stop to Nikita’s Homestead, we cut through stretches of empty land, covered in the kind of grass that normally grows on the “other side”. Lazy cows linger, occasionally looking up at the new comers to their island, but not for long before bowing in reverence to their good fortune. Brightly painted houses- pinks, blues, greens are spaced close enough to be a community, but far enough for a sense of solitude and peace I imagine the occupants feel when they retire within their coloured walls. Locals walk without a sense of urgency and share a ready smile. Before checking in at Nikita’s Homestead, I drop my heavy rucksack and take seat at the base of a tree, fashioned from a group of rocks leaning up against its trunk, a frequented vantage point of many a local and a traveller, I figure, from the well-worn path that ends there. The tree’s branches, one wrapped in swatches of shiny coloured cloth, extend beyond the cliff face that is a few metres from my feet. The fabric offerings wave in the wind, carrying the prayers and hopes of countless visitors, perhaps in salute to Shaman Rock, the mystical site rising up from the lake just beyond the cliff face where I sit. I lose track of time but notice the dimming of the bright light in my right eye, it’s zig-zagging oscillating less and less until smoothing to a stop. My vision and sense of peace has been restored, re-calibrated to Olkhon Island time.
Prompt from Writing 101, Day 2 A Room with a View. Today’s Prompt: If you could zoom through space in the speed of light, what place would you go to right now? Today’s Twist: organize your post around the description of a setting.
“I have so much more to say, I hope you will allow me to visit before it is too late.
I was approaching the end of my shift and tidying the desk before the night nurse came in. It was a quiet evening, so I decided to do a little extra and pulled out the in-tray to clean beneath it, when I found the yellowed, dusty letter lying there, hidden from the world and the process that follows insertion in the tray. It was neatly handwritten and addressed to Irma Johnston. Although it wasn’t dated, it struck me that it must have been quite old. Irma, who’d been resident at the hospice, had passed away in autumn last year. I remember the season clearly as she liked to paint watercolours by the window and we still had her final work stuck on the fridge in the staff kitchen, the towering ash tree with its flame hues of reds and oranges.
I read and re-read the letter, my hands shaking uncontrollably and that lump in my throat that was part and parcel of this job going into overdrive. It was too late. Or did Jeremy stop by and leave another letter, another time? It wasn’t clear from what I read who Jeremy was, the letter was brief and didn’t go into much detail, except for the regrets of years of silence that had passed between them. I couldn’t remember ever seeing Irma receiving visitors. I carefully folded it to take home with me. I felt I had inherited a great responsibility, though with no clear course of action.
As I passed the ash tree on the way to my car, its moonlit barren branches coaxed the tears that I had been holding back.
You stumble upon a random letter on the path. You read it. It affects you deeply, and you wish it could be returned to the person to which it’s addressed. Write a story about this encounter. Approach this post in as few words as possible. Prompt from Writing101.