The medium smoke

I am anonymous again. A face in the crowd. It feels strange to be back living in a city. To go to the supermarket and not bump into several people you know. To drop your children off at a childcare centre where you don’t really know the carers, or any of the other kids or their parents. To not know our neighbours or feel part of a community.

It will come. I know it will take time. But right now I’m missing our old home and friends. Still, I know I will go back there, probably many times, in my lifetime. It is part of me now.

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One perfect day

Our last day of living here felt complete. It started with a visit to D, with a carload of things for her and her family; clothes, linen, toys, books and kitchen things. I unloaded it all in her carport, like some kind of free-for-all garage sale. D and her relatives sorted through it, distributing the haul. I was thankful that neither L nor R freaked out as they saw their things unpacked and handed out. At one point, L said, “Look, my Thomas the Tank Engine bowl and cup.” I waited for the meltdown but miraculously it didn’t come. We took photos with our family and D said she’d visit us in Darwin soon – she often goes there for work, so funnily enough we may even end up seeing more of her there than we did when living half an hour down the road.

The next stop was the park in town, for a playdate with a friend and her kids. Then we went home and I ducked up the road for a chat with A, one of the first friends we made here. J took the kids down to the oval to watch the football and I joined them later, lazing in the shade with friends and soaking up the community vibe, something I have missed in recent months. Part of that is due to knowing we’re leaving; my mind started checking out. Part of it was due to the weather; the wet season came late this year, and we’ve had drizzles even into this month. But now the sun is coming out and so are the people. Things are happening. Everyone smiles more.

Finally, we dashed into town for dinner where the miners eat. It’s a place we’ve only discovered in recent months. I can hardly believe we lived here two years without ever coming. It’s cheap and tasty, and kids eat free. We headed home with full bellies, slept soundly and woke early, excited to be off on our holiday to Cairns and the Daintree, before moving to Darwin. A friend arrived to drive us to the airport…only for us to get there and be told our flight was delayed…by seven hours.

So. Seven hours. A whole day.

L wasn’t impressed, of course. He kept asking when we were leaving. I saw signs of Mr Angry surfacing on his face. We tried to break the news gently – we wouldn’t be leaving until the afternoon. But that was okay, because it gave us another whole day in Y. We could have an adventure. It was like a day out of time.

There was no point going back to our now-empty house, so we drove into town for coffee and a takeaway second breakfast. I had been secretly hoping to go back to a beautiful beach called Galuru before we left, but hadn’t had the time. I checked my phone and, miraculously, it was just about to be low-tide, the perfect time to visit; sand bars create safe shallow swimming holes, and you can walk across hard ripples of sand to a small island that is otherwise inaccessible. It is where D and her family lived when I first visited, many years ago, before the council forced them to move to the houses where they currently live. It is, for me, where it all began…and a perfect place for it to end.

The friend who had driven us to the airport came with us. He’s a teacher from New Zealand who has only been in Y for a term, and hasn’t had a car. He’d never been to Galuru, so it was a pleasure to share it with him. We scampered up the huge boulders ringing the island, up to the top, where you can get a clear view down the beach towards town. The day was bright and sunny, with a cool breeze. Perfect. Standing on top of those rocks I was hit by a wave of nostalgia; when I first visited East Arnhem Land I was a young carefree woman with no kids. And now, here I was, standing on a place I explored in those early trips, with my three children and husband, and our friend. So much time has passed. So much has happened.

After a few hours of exploring we retired to our friend’s place. He generously let us rest and made us lunch. We talked about what had brought us to live in an Aboriginal community; living in a community is something I have wanted to do since I was fifteen years old. But talking to him I realized, with sadness, that I haven’t had the experience I was hoping for. I wanted to be immersed, learn the language, go on week-long bush trips, visit homelands, really experience Yolngu culture. I had thought having young kids would help – that it would be a common bond with other women in the community. But instead, if I’m honest, it has served more as a barrier. With young kids, you can’t just take off to far-flung homelands at a moment’s notice. You constantly have to think of safety, food and logistics. In our first six months, I went on outings with our Yolngu family anyway; the kids came along, even if it meant carrying them through the hot bush for hours on end, or distracting them with endless snacks and promises of guku. But as the kids got older their own demands grew louder; they didn’t want to be traipsing through the bush or sitting around fishing, they wanted to be with their friends.

The result is that I don’t feel finished here. The experience doesn’t feel complete. And I’d like to come back one day, perhaps to a more remote homeland. Maybe when the kids are older, in upper primary school, or even when they’re fully grown.

At the same time, I couldn’t have written my book if I hadn’t experienced a feeling of disconnectedness. Before I came here, I never would have guessed that it would be possible to live in an Aboriginal community but have extended periods of time when you feel outside it all. When you wave to passing Yolngu faces but are not really part of it, as you drive from your fenced yard to town and back again. It is not the experience I wanted to have….but it has been a valuable lesson. Of course there were fantastic times too, when we felt a part of something bigger, but these moments were interspersed and not as regular as I might have originally hoped.

Finally, it was late afternoon and we headed back to the airport. We said our goodbyes, and boarded the plane. I watched from my small window, as the cut red earth of the mine blurred into bush…and we flew further and further away…leaving it all behind us…

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On the move

We are moving to Darwin. J will be starting a job with the teachers union which, if I’m honest, has always been where his passions lie; in seeing the bigger picture and trying to make a positive difference.

The move feels both exciting and terrifying. I had wanted to stay here, at least until the end of the year. L is settled in preschool, with a fantastic teacher, and is loving playing soccer in town. R has just started dance lessons and adores her teacher. They are both happy in the community childcare centre, which is more like an extended family than a childcare, with R and L both having real love for the ladies who run it, and great friendships with the small group of kids who attend.

I also wanted to have a book launch – a chance to say a proper thank you to all those who helped and shared their stories along the way. I’m determined to do this, even if it means taking on the significant cost of flying back here for a weekend later in the year.

On the plus side, the Darwin job is a fantastic opportunity for J. And I am looking forward to some things too; being able to take the kids to shows, the museum and the wildlife park: exercise classes and going for walks wherever and whenever I want, even if I’m alone (a no-no in a community): fresh fruit and vegetables and delicious food from the markets: and being able to go to NT Writers’ Centre events and the theatre.

We have three weeks to pack and clean our house and go; the exact amount of time we had when we moved from Sydney to here two years ago. Still, I suppose it isn’t a bad way to do things. Rip the bandaid off quickly.

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The see-saw

I haven’t written for a long time. I know. But I do have three very good excuses. The first is that we’ve been busy getting to know Baby. The second is that we had school holidays – a very full-on, action-and-friend-packed five weeks in Sydney with three kids, no childcare and practically no breaks…phew! Exhausting! The last is that I have been working on finishing the next draft of my novel. I completed it on Friday and sent it off, so all fingers crossed everything proceeds well from here. Will keep you posted!

In any case, we’re back in Arnhem Land for 2014. J’s position was confirmed late last year – eventually – and we were both happy to know we could stay. Yet despite our enthusiasm for returning, the year has gotten off to an exhausting and draining start for J. The recent teacher cutbacks have coincided with a community push to get more kids to school. A team of Yolngu adults now round up kids each morning and get them into the classroom, which is great. The student numbers are at least a third higher than last year, if not double. The problem is that some kids may not have attended school in a long time, and need extra help, and in the meantime there is less staff and less support. Already hard-worked teachers are being asked to do more with less.

Given that J and I seem to be on a constant see-saw of emotions living up north, it therefore comes as no surprise to us that, while he is down, I have swung up. Completing the book feels like a huge achievement. To do this, I spent the start of this year hunting down extra stories and community people to talk to. The process has been both terrifying and exciting, but I feel that this second draft is much stronger than the first.

I am also loving my time with N. She is our last baby, so I’m savoring every moment. It helps, of course, that she is very easy going – a character trait I’m told applies to many third children. I’m also more relaxed than I was with our other kids. L, being the first, was a steep learning curve, then R came just eighteen months after so everything got a bit blurry. But with N I have the benefit of experience along with the space of having the older kids in childcare and preschool. I also think Arnhem Land is more baby-friendly than Sydney. There is no pressure to race around, or meet people at certain times, or make long trips in the car with a screaming baby. I work when she sleeps and fit in with her needs when she’s awake. I am more adaptive, reflexive, responsive and happy. It feels like this is how motherhood should be.

Despite this, us staying up north very much hinges on J enjoying his work, and feeling like he is growing and learning professionally. So here’s hoping that things improves for him and all the other teachers soon…

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If…

That small but insidious word is starting to creep into our daily conversations. If we move back to Sydney. If we are here next year. ‘If’ is doing my head in. Uncertainty about the future isn’t what you need when you’re home with a two week old baby and too much time to think. I still don’t want to leave, but it seems increasingly likely that J won’t have a job here next year. Which makes my mind start skipping ahead…

If we leave, some of the things, both big and small, that I will miss are:

Short drives. L often complains if we have to drive into town, which is a short fifteen minute drive away. I keep telling him that in Sydney we used to drive for over an hour just to visit a friend for the morning, then would drive for an hour home to get home again. I don’t know how he and R will handle this if we move back!

No traffic lights. Related to the short drives is the lack of traffic lights up here. There aren’t any, full stop. They put a temporary one up while they did roadworks a while back and every time we had to stop L would sigh and say “This traffic light is pretty annoying, isn’t it, Mum?”

Constant learning and culture. Living and working side by side with people from another culture means you are constantly learning and/or feeling out of your depth. It is an ongoing challenge, but one that I think helps you grow as a person. It is also a double-edged sword in that I often feel guilty when I don’t make the most of being here. Looking back at our photos yesterday I realized how much more time I spent with Yolngu family last year, and how comparatively little this year. Of course there are factors like me working and being pregnant to consider, but nonetheless I do feel bad about it.

The kids not needing shoes. L and R often don’t wear shoes here. They’re simply not needed. We can go to childcare, the pool, the park, preschool, the oval…basically anywhere in the community or in town…and no-one will even notice if they’re bare footed. It is a small thing, but it is a definite freedom.

Not wearing seat belts every time we get in the car. This sounds terrible, but I often don’t strap the kids in if we’re just driving down to childcare. My excuse? It’s one minute down the road, the community roads are mostly empty, and we drive at about twenty kilometres an hour. If I was in Sydney there’s no way I’d anywhere, no matter how close, without the kids strapped in, but here it is standard procedure amongst locals and definitely makes life easier when you’re only going a short distance.

Big house. Here, we have a three bedroom house with a huge garden. If we go back to Sydney we’ll probably be squeezing into our apartment-sized two bedroom brick cottage on 250m2 of land. The flipside of that is that we’re close to great parks and a bike track and the climate is human-friendly enough to let us use them year-round.

Living close to J’s work. In Sydney, J used to commute for over two hours a day to get to work and back. Here, he walks three minutes up the road. This has a huge impact on our lifestyle and the amount of time he has available to be with the kids.

Kid-friendly venues. There aren’t really any great restaurants here food-wise, but at least all the eating-out venues are kid friendly. They have play equipment, a pool or grass and gardens to run around. Despite the fact that restaurants are much cheaper and better in Sydney I don’t see us doing much eating out, as keeping the kids seated and well-behaved in that kind of setting is pretty much a mission impossible.

Small community. I like seeing familiar faces and it’s nice for the kids to know so many people in the community – wherever we go we are likely to run into a friend or two they can play with.

And of course there are many more things too. Individual people, the fantastic family-feel childcare centre, the lack of financial pressure, the outdoors lifestyle in the dry season, the spectacular landscapes…there are really too many to list!

But I won’t miss:

Power and water cuts. In the past two weeks, while I’ve been home with our newborn Baby, there have been power cuts every day, leaving us stuck in a sweltering house. These were scheduled works, but it is not uncommon for the power or water to just go out unannounced. This would pretty much never happen in Sydney. It has reached the point lately that L arrives home from childcare and asks, “Is the power on at the moment?” Yet despite the inconvenience, I think it’s good for the kids to have the awareness that power and water are limited resources and not a ‘given’. Lots of people in the world live without running water or stable power. We are comparatively very lucky.

Relying on the barge for food. If you go to the supermarket, and the barge isn’t in yet, the shelves will be half bare. There will likely be no meat, wilted fruit and veges, and few dairy products. This would be okay if you knew which days to go to shopping, but the barge is often late making timing unpredictable. On top of this, if you need something particular for a recipe, forget it.

Missing family and friends. Flights out of here are prohibitively expensive, which means we have had to miss many things like weddings, birthdays, funerals and family celebrations. It would be nice to be closer and to be able to see more of our family and friends.

Anyway, it is all one big maybe at the moment. We are trying to stay positive about being here next year, but also putting out feelers for childcare and work in Sydney. If. If. If.

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Upheaval and uncertainty

Big changes here for our once-little-now-big family. Baby Three was born a week ago; R got her much-wished-for little sister. For the sake of this blog we’ll just call her Baby. That’s what she was called for nine months in the womb (because we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl) and L and R haven’t made the transition to using her name yet.

Since Baby’s arrival, L and R suddenly seem huge. They are energetic balls of enthusiasm, bounding around the house creating chaos. The best strategy to deal with this seems to be to laugh at their antics, but it’s not always possible when Baby’s face is being poked for the hundredth time or she’s being buried under a mountain of toys! So far we’ve had the luxury of having L and R in childcare during the week, and Baby is still so sleepy you can often forget she’s dozing in her bassinette. But we know things will get trickier trying to balance three kids with no childcare over the summer holidays in Sydney, and as Baby becomes more active and alert.

A knock-on effect of Baby being born is that I’ve put my novel to one side. Yesterday I cleared my desk shelf, stacking numerous drafts in a pile. I then filled the space they had taken up with newborn nappies. Even though I know I’ll probably start editing the book in a few weeks, it felt symbolic of a shift. And it is a relief, to be honest. Writing a novel is such a drawn-out slog that I actually feel grateful to Baby for taking me outside myself, forcing me to focus on something else. I’m convinced her arrival, one week early, was partly due to my psychological state – I had printed out copies of the first draft to distribute to volunteer readers on Friday, and Baby was born on Sunday. Spending special quiet time with her now feels like a natural pause.

I should mention that having a baby in this community has been amazing. I expected to feel far from friends and family at a time like this. But a friend threw a surprise baby shower for me with the group of ladies from our book club, and J’s fellow teachers and friends in the community have made us two weeks of home-cooked, house-delivered meals. It has been overwhelming and much appreciated. It also makes me wish I never had to cook again!

A less positive recent change has been a growing feeling of uncertainty about J having a job here next year. The NT government is making massive cuts to teaching and support positions across the state. In our region – the Arnhem region – alone there will be more than fifty education jobs lost. J is permanent to the region, but not to his school; the government is currently saying they will prioritise placing ‘displaced’ teachers who were permanent to specific schools but no longer have a job. They haven’t yet made an official statement about what will happen to people in J’s position.

The cuts seem ludicrous. The students here are already struggling; not that NAPLAN is the only marker to look at, but most don’t even rate on that scale. Yes, attendance fluctuates and some days class sizes are small, but it is surely more beneficial to have too many teachers on those days, rather than not enough. Add to that the fact that there is such a high staff turnover in remote schools; they will be displacing dedicated teachers who want to be there, only to need them back in a year or two when it is too late and they have already moved on. That is certainly the case for us. J and I are not ready to leave. But if J loses his job and we return to Sydney for 2014 I’m not sure we would come back. It is a huge interstate move and the logistics of organising childcare and work and housing, and uprooting the kids, isn’t something I want to be doing often.

Unrelated to the cuts, but also unsettling, was the news – just found out yesterday – that J’s principal will be leaving the school. He’s a young guy – J’s age – but has ten years of experience in remote bilingual schools. He’s been fantastic, encouraging staff development and trying to support the community to become more actively involved in setting the direction for the school. Under his lead, J has felt like he’s been part of a positive movement with high aims. Which isn’t to say the next Principal won’t be just as good, but it’s another uncertainty to add to the mix.

Yesterday, our neighbour asked if J had started applying for jobs in Sydney. We hadn’t really thought about doing that until she said it. I had been sticking to the ‘assume it will all work out like it did last year’ line. But now my new-mother’s brain is leaping ahead trying to think up back-up plans and solutions. I’ve already told one childcare centre in Sydney that we don’t need places for 2014, but I’m due to hear from another soon. If we are offered places for L and R, I’ll say yes to keep it as an option. And if a suitable job comes up – ie teaching the right subjects and within half an hour’s drive of our Sydney home – J will probably apply. Which may end up being a massive waste of everyone’s time. Or may mean he has a job, rather than us moving back to the insecurity of casual teaching work.

In the meantime, the only other thing we can do is wait. J will hopefully find out about his job in three weeks, but it may be more. Last year they made us wait for final confirmation until Week Ten, the final week of term. Let’s hope we get a bit more notice than that. I don’t imagine organising an interstate move in a week, with two kids under five and a newborn, would be much fun…

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Novel nerves

Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been trying to finish a first draft of my young adult novel before Baby Three arrives. I’ve been pretty disciplined, actually, writing for at least a few hours each day while the kids are at childcare. And, slowly, it’s coming together.

It makes me incredibly nervous writing a book set up here. Everyone knows everyone, and anything written has the potential to offend or make people feel misrepresented. This is the case with the mining families in town but I’m more worried about the Yolngu people in our community. There is a very fine line between showing reality and enforcing negative perceptions.

I talked through the plot with H, a fantastic female Yolngu teacher here, a year ago. It was one of the first things I did, before I even started writing. She gave it the nod and was quite excited about it. She offered to be my ‘Yolngu mind’. I had hopes of showing her bits and pieces of writing along the way, but quickly realized this was impractical. It would only waste her time: being my first novel a lot of what I wrote ended up in the scrap-pile anyway.

On the Saturday just passed, one year after our initial meeting, I sat on her verandah and we talked again. I repeated the general story of the main Yolngu character, a teenage girl, and was open about my concerns. To my relief H brushed them aside. She simply reiterated that that’s how life is here, and thought it all sounded realistic. She was incredibly open with advice on how things would play out culturally, and also about her own childhood and experiences here. I remember her telling me, a while ago, that she’s thought about writing a book about her own life. I really hope she does. It would be an incredible read.

In an ideal world I would’ve loved to co-write this novel with her. But, as with many of the strong women in this community, she already has many responsibilities and demands placed on her. I knew if I tried to collaborate the book would likely never get written. Still, I feel incredibly lucky to have her as a cultural consultant.

And so here I am, with an almost-finished first draft of a young adult novel and a baby due in two and a half weeks. I’m writing like a maniac trying to at least capture the general content and intentions of the last few chapters, even if the writing isn’t perfect. Once that’s done I want to give it to H and a few other women in the community to read – some are Yolngu, some are Ngapaki who have lived here many years. I’m scared as hell, but I want the book to feel authentic to the people who live here. Wish me luck.

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