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the magnolia manifest

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Every spring soft bursts of magnolia flowers erupt like flower popcorn on the row of trees in our garden, exploding forth in glorious profusion day after day until the branches are completely laden with beauty.

Magnolia Grandiflora. Even the name is beautiful and stately.

There is a term in interior design, “visual reward”, and I always think of it when I walk down the corridor linking my office to our kitchen with my cup of tea, where a magnificent magnolia tree is the visual reward at the end of that well trodden axis. It is most stunning at dusk when the fading light turns the huge blossoms a surreal luminous silvery pink.

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All forms of happiness contain within themselves the seeds of their own decomposition and renewal. Our driveway is now lined with lush, velvety petals each the size of a baby’s hand. They fall in droves now, lying in the snowy drifts, until the Irishman rakes them into the compost pile, where they will rot, break down and be spread on top of the roots of the other living things in our garden.

We will not feel sorry when the magnolias are gone. They never really leave us, but just change manifestation, dissipated into the good earth of our garden and tinting my nighttime dreams the palest pink of springtime hope.

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At World’s End – an adventure to Nihiwatu, Sumba

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We tumbled out of the airplane like a sack full of puppies onto the steaming hot tarmac at Tambolaka Airport in Sumba, accepted the huge drinking coconuts pressed upon us by our smiling driver and set off on our way to Nihiwatu resort, our home for the next 6 days. The road wound past terraced paddy fields, cashew plantations, villages made of clumps of thatched roof huts, craggy mountains and cliffs falling away to reveal crashing surf in the distance. Pressing our noses up against the window, we watched scenes from within a time machine.

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Goats, dogs, chickens and toddlers ambled across the arbitary path with nonchalance. A wedding procession of men in ceremonial ikats led a buffalo towards a sacrifice table, their parang swords swaying from their waists as they strained with the great animal. A bunch of tiny knee-height pranksters jumped out of bushes in front of our car and screamed HELLO and then dashed off giggling. I pointed out to my children the Dr Seuss-like towering kapok trees by the road with their football sized wads of cottony fruit, used to stuff bedding in the tropics. My 7 year old Finn sniggered and said that it should be called the rabbit tree as it looked as if someone had hot glued bunnies to its branches.

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When I’m in Bali, the Indonesian phrase I use the most often is “Berapa harganya?” What’s the price? How much? Which is swiftly followed by “Yang mahal!” Too expensive! While travelling in Sumba, the phrases I use the most are “Awas!” Watch out! or “Hati Hati!” Be careful!. And sometimes at particularly thrilling times these phrases can be combined to form a continuous AWASHATIHATIAWASAWASAWAS!!! Maybe I’m fretting too much. Everyone else is chilled. As the Malays in Singapore say, Jangan Tension! Hang loose!

I watch as a man climbs out of the passenger window of the moving truck in front of us and clambers onto the roof to join the 5 small children already crammed on top of the bouncing vehicle. A minute afterwards, the truck passes under a broken electrical cable dangling overhead, sparking with live menace. Somehow the people on top of the truck survive. At this point, Finn turns around and tells me that he must spend the rest of his life in Sumba.

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Once we’re safe in the luxurious and serene surrounds of Nihiwatu resort, we settle into our villa like feet sinking into warm sand. The shoes are unpacked and never worn. Our gracious, enthusiastic butler Reuben is quickly adopted into the family and becomes Uncle Reuben to the children. Reuben brings the children an endless array of treats, from french fries and swimming floats to a pair of beautifully hand carved miniature replicas of the parang sword he wears at this waist at all times. Finn gets sword fighting lessons and thumps the bougainvillea outside our room half to death while Reuben eggs him on. Reuben later comes back with an ikat cloth which he carefully wraps around Finn’s waist and inserts the wooden scabbard into. Finn doesn’t take it off for the rest of the holiday, sleeping with his sword under the pillow.

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Nothing is off limits here. Finn gets to drive speedboats, ride in the front of a Land Rover, and even gets a diving lesson with a real adult sized air tank, jacket and regulator. My 5 year old girl Dylan signs up for a cookie baking class, has a hair smoothie at the spa, wades around rockpools and makes up cocktail orders. On Day 3, she tells Natalia the Guest Relations Manager that she would like to have a job at Nihiwatu running the Kids Club Programme. Dylan thinks that she can teach children cutlery balancing, flower hair weaving and of course (deep breath) MAKING COOKIES!

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Our teenager Sean is the most sedentary of the bunch, initially circulating on a closed circuit of bed, computer and pool, but Nihiwatu works its spell on him and he ends up busting some cool moves on the dance floor at White Party Night and the next morning, he decides to go for a breakfast hike with his dad across the cliff tops to a secluded beach at Nihi Oka.

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Unlike Bali where everything has is neatly packaged, parcelled out and available for sale, in Sumba there are no compartments, no separation. You are at one with everything and everything is one with you. Food is handed to you in banana leaves and as soon as you pull the toothpick out, rice bursts out over your ungainly tourist hands and you end up licking your palms without a trace of shame. Chickens and pigs live in houses next to grain stores, toddlers and parents. At the market, piles of sweet potatoes, betel nuts and bananas spill over each other on the grass. We walk around barefoot all day whether we’re hiking across the paddy fields or waterfalls (flip flops just get stuck in the mud) or going for lunch at the beachside restaurant, and at the end of the day the soles of our feet are indistinguishable from the land, darkened with mud, grit and sand. This is life without makeup, at its most raw and vital.

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Nihiwatu resort must surely be one of the most beautiful resorts on earth, with its pretty thatched roof villas, panoramic ocean view and hot pink bougainvillea lined rock paths. But more importantly, Nihiwatu is also one of the most responsible. The resort buys coconuts from locals, and instead of throwing away the husks, they feed them and the oil to their biodiesel fuel processor which powers the generators, air conditioners and hotel equipment. Fish is caught by traditional methods by the staff in the morning and turned into free flow plates of sashimi at the bar in the evening. Organic gardens, chickens and compost heaps are a given.

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The Sumba Foundation is the resort’s charity and it has reduced Malaria infection rates by 85% in West Sumba since its inception, supplying more than 16 primary schools with supplies and water. Every time we venture outside the resort on hikes, we see the big yellow water tanks with the red Sumba Foundation tank in the surrounding villages, the foundation having provided more than 240 water stations across the land and healthcare to over 20,000 people. 4f0c0cfa-da2c-45dc-8854-e3e4e3b2db0c.jpg

On Thursday, we are invited to a presentation at sundowners on the Sumba Foundation. Health Program Director Dr Claus Bogh, also a senior adviser and malaria expert for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to the resort guests about two of the latest patients the Sumba Foundation has helped – a pint-sized girl, born blind, who can now see again after her cataract operation, and a 13 year old boy who they are helping get a prosthetic limb to help on his arduous walk to school. My children stuff their faces with hot sea salted popcorn offered to them by Reuben and ask us many questions long after the video ends. Why does that boy have only one leg Mama? Where are the parents of those children? Why does everyone in the family share the same bed in Sumba? Why can’t I walk to school by myself like all of the other children here? Good, big questions for little people.

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As the days go by, Sumba works its magic and the tight knots in my neck, shoulders, and gut loosen. I start to feel languid, going along with the flow. Even though I’m not remotely sporty, I sign up for a long hike to Blue Waterfall, one of the many glorious waterfalls in the area, and the Irishman and I trek for hours through the rainforest, the sweat rivulets down our neck merging into a continuous wash in the heat. Just when my ankles are about to give out, we hear the soft white noise of crashing water in the distance. The canopy of trees thins out and we arrive at a majestic waterfall, spraying explosively from a hole in the cliff side and churning a whirlpool into the surface of a topaz blue lake. 25d93b7c-33a4-41ce-bc44-94d00c078ea2.jpg

I have never been one for swimming in natural waterholes, but I can’t get peel off my sticky shoes and t-shirt fast enough. Plunging into the crystalline pool, the Irishman and I swim out towards the spout and climb onto a boulder just out of its torrential path. Overhead, the cliff face is covered with thick, dripping moss. Little water icicles dangle off the emerald covered rock, eternally forming and reforming, as beautiful as diamond shards on a Christmas tree. The waterfall roars high over our heads and sends iridescent arcs of droplets which drench us from head to toe as we shriek with laughter.

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The next day, I wake up early and clamber onto a fishing boat with the Irishman and Finn and head out to the Fish Aggregating Device seventeen miles offshore, which we have heard so much about from Chris, Nihiwatu’s resident fishing expert. The FAD sounds fancy and we expected something akin to a floating Death Star in the ocean, but it turns out to be a bamboo raft, anchored with oil drums to the seabed with a weight. Algae forms around the FAD and that attracts small fish, which then draw bigger fish. As soon as we put out the lines, an entire shoal of about fifty huge mahi-mahi fish turn up for the bait. A French guest on the boat reels in the first one. The Irishman has a go at the second one, but not without a good eight minutes of wrestling with the fish, a huge female mahi mahi.

I decide to have a go. Chris hands me a rod with something tugging gently at the end. It feels deceptively easy as I start turning the reel, but that’s because the fish is still far away and swimming towards the boat. And then all of a sudden, I feel a giant yank at the end. “What’s that!” I yelp. The supremely capable Chris leaps into action, shouting orders in Bahasa to the boatman to steer towards the fish and simultaneously issuing me a rapid-fire stream of instructions. Hold the rod upwards, stabilise the end against the rail, lean over to let some slack in the line and quickly reel it in on the downward motion of the rod. Don’t stop reeling! When the fish starts another violent bout of struggling, let him have some more line and when he is exhausted, start the process again. Don’t stop reeling! Ok, stop reeling! Put the rod up! Now point the rod down.

This is like ballet, a technical dance with its own peculiar rules and rhythm. I learn to waltz with my fish. Forward I go, spinning like a maniac, backwards I arch, feeling the fish take my weight like a tango partner. My left arm cramps and aches as the fishing rod is on the wrong side for a right-handed person, but the show must go on.

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After what seems like an epic struggle, the fish tires and allows me to gain on it, pulling it closer towards the boat. It makes one final leap in the air, and we all gasp. It is a giant dolphin-like creature, golden with blue spots. Chris bellows more complicated instructions to the boatmen, manouvring the boat into final position, as I bring the fish as close as I can to the side. It thrashes and flashes just under the surface of the water. Chris runs over grabbing a spear and stabs my dance partner in its side and brings it up to the deck and hollers for everyone to stand well back as the giant fish spasms all over the floor. He manages to wrestle it into the ice chest and one of the boat boys quickly slams down the lid and sits on it as the fish thumps angrily inside. Finn watches with fascination, and perhaps a touch of morbidity. c44c2632-9f6a-4eef-af6b-8a93310666fe.jpg

Later on, back at the boathouse, we measure my fish and it is the biggest of the haul, 11 kilos and 1.3 metres, as long as Finn. Its glorious neon yellow colour has faded out of its skin. I feel a shard of sorrow. Over the past few years of living on the farm, I have become intimately acquainted with my food, learning to slaughter our free range chickens, ducks and sheep. So why does taking the life of this fish feel so different? It was a wild, abundantly available fish who had lived a long healthy life, caught in one of the most ethical ways, due to become food for the resort with not a bit of it wasted.

But I was connected from my sternum to this magnificent creature with a taut line vibrating with its energy. It was a worthy opponent. As I remembered the glory of its metallic cobalt and gold skin, I thought about our pet peacock back home and said a prayer for the fish. And for us, that we would not waste the precious, worthy life that we had taken.

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So many more memories. Having a bath with Dylan in a gigantic bronze outdoor tub. Watching a boy not much older than Finn learn how to use a harpoon. Seeing horses and buffaloes bathing in the waves. Watching the ruby red sun sink into sea from the Nihiwatu yacht. Eating the freshest fish on earth with rice and a fiery tomato sambal on the beach.Learning to surf with the Irishman under the watchful guidance of Chad and Kaieve, Nihiwatu’s two bronzed resident surf gurus, in the famous Nihiwatu break, one of the best in the world. The wave is a thing of beauty, a perfect tight roll, running left to right along the reef. When it gets big, it hurls against the boulders, smashing into a fine mist. I swear you can taste the negative ions in the air.

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On our last night, the staff of Nihiwatu arranges for a special surprise dinner for Sean’s 16th birthday. We are led to a special birthday table, ensconced within walls of palm fronds and with a giant bougainvillea rising out of the centre of the tabletop. When we go around the table, taking turns to say what we are grateful for. All of us have our own highlights;- diving, hiking, fishing, cookies, but the children agree that this has been the most amazing holiday they have been on and say that they never want to leave. Sean says that he is most grateful for Reuben, and just then, Natalia, Reuben and the rest of the staff turn up with a birthday cake and sing him happy birthday in English, and then in Bahasa. Sean is presented with a wooden birthday plaque, an ikat sarong, a pair of board shorts and big hugs from everyone.

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Later that night, I look at Finn as he sleeps bare chested, one hand on his wooden Kris, and think who is this Robinson Crusoe child? Will there still be golden monster fish in the ocean for him to dance with when he grows up? Whether it is possible for this Sumba to exist in a rapidly changing world. The night air is velvety and outside a frog starts his baritone chorus, breaking the crisp stillness. The next morning we pack our bags in a surreal stupor, six days went by in a heartbeat. As we walk out of the door, I notice that the kids have erased the sand door mat outside our deck which used to read “Welcome The Leahys” and have written “We LOVE Reuben” in it. Nihiwatu, we will be back. In the meantime, we are happy just to know that you exist.

x,

Crystal

*All photos with the Nihiwatu watermark are copyright of Nihiwatu, all other photos are mine

Best. Day. Ever.

Last week I turned 35. The Irishman organised a wild Spanish themed fiesta (The Fiesta Dos Virgos!) at our house for myself and my fellow Virgo friend Karen. Karen said that she would cook some Pooky for my birthday and I freaked out. It turns out that she meant something porky, and was referring to an original recipe for Berza Chiponera, a bean, pork and chorizo stew given to her in 1992 when she was in Chipiona, Spain. It tasted much much better than it sounded!

Normally when I hold a party I’m running a hundred different programs simultaneously in my mind’s processor. Checking the progress of the various dishes in the kitchen, making sure the candles are lit, the entryway tidied, the powder room in ship shape, playlist weeded of the Irishman’s guilty pleasures and so on, all the time fending off the Leahy children from messing up my work. Someone once said that cleaning a house with kids in it was like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos. That person must have been a Virgo.

So it was a real juicy pleasure to do absolutely nothing before a party for once in my life except to lounge about in my bedroom with an eyeshadow brush and a cup of tea. The irony is that I think everyone almost enjoyed it more that I wasn’t being my usual anal, hovering party mistress self! I had a great time and I think the Irishman can be promoted to co-party organiser from now on, that is if he promises not to wear any more $4 girls outfits ferreted out from the depths of the op shop.

I love that my friends are such amazing cooks. Scallops, prawns poached in oil, stuffed mushrooms, gazpacho, homemade ice-cream, everything was made with such love.
Actually the food could have been takeaway pizza and we would have still had a ball. Our friends are amazing, period.

I’m very blessed to have this crazy Irishman in my life. He has pledged to fill my days with silly ideas, jokes and drama.

Sunday was Father’s Day so it was my turn to stage something festive. We kidnapped or dad-napped Mark and brought him to a secret location. When he uncovered his eyes, we were at the Puffing Billy station in the Dandenongs. The Puffing Billy is an antique steam train established in the early 1900s which ferried passengers from Melbourne to the rural towns in the Dandenong Hills. They had a 3 course Father’s Day lunch special in the first class carriages with lovely old silverware and starchy white tablecloths, which was pretty much the best thing you could say about the lunch other than the old world ambiance. “I’ve always loved boiled dishwashing liquid potatoes and plastic cream sauced fish!” crowed Mark mirthfully as we chugged past the sun-drenched hills and eucalyptus forests.

The kids had “the best day ever” where the highlights were being allowed a soft drink on the train, squashing pennies on the train track (with approval from the train conductor – only in Australia!) and paddle-boating around the lake at the Emerald Lakeside station stop. We actually managed to leave home with zero cash between all of us and while we were waiting in line for the paddle boat ($15 bucks), Sean found a crumpled $5 note in his wallet, I discovered $6.80 in coins at the bottom of my handbag and the Irishman did his part by lamenting loudly about our plight. So loudly and piteously that the bloke in front of us took out his wallet and gave us the remaining $3.20 that we needed and wished us a Happy Father’s Day. Best Day Ever! And Most Shameful Irishman Stunt!

Here is the ecstatic Irishman, full of good tidings to the world and to the charitable bloke in the boat behind him.

And my favourite photo of the day, Dylan and Sean sharing earphones and a sibling moment on the train ride on the way back home.

Happy Fathers Day to all the wonderful, strong, loving, funny dads out there! And thanks to my husband for my birthday party-  growing old isn’t fun sometimes, but somehow you always bring out the funniest, best side of life there is, and for that, you are the Best. Person. Ever.

x,
C

Being human

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Yesterday evening was what Dylan had been looking forward to for weeks –  her school concert, the Penbank pantomime.  She practically shimmered and smoked with excitement the whole day, like a wok full of hot oil.  Last year, we were travelling and we couldn’t attend it, but this year, that injustice would be righted. This year her parents would be there, rapturous and transfixed when it was her turn to glide onstage and shake her bon bon in a feathered toucan outfit, what joy!

Finn was also in the concert, but his attitude was more one of tolerance than enthusiasm. Finn does not like big audiences or dancing.  When I swabbed his face with makeup, he had the same placid gritted teeth expression that our greyhound Coco has when you put her muzzle on. In contrast, Dylan wanted Eye Shadow! Lip Gloss! Cheek Colour! Sparkles! so by the time we finally managed to get out of the door we were horribly late, which resulted in our being squashed at the back of the school gym far away from the stage.

The school gym was packed to the rafters with parents and relatives. The ceiling was festooned with great swathes of parachute material which changed colours in the theatrical gelled lights. A giant backdrop of Melbourne inspired street art made by the students dominated the stage, and pairs of shoes dangled from the rafters in a whimsical installation.

It never fails to astound me, the size and ambition of these Penbank school productions given the scale of the school.  I almost can’t believe that Penbank with its 217 students, is about a twelfth the size of my old primary school, (2700 pupils in two sessions spread across 52 classrooms!). Much of my childhood was spent standing in the hot sun with a thousand other uniformed children, a sea of shiny black ants on a parade ground, either being lectured or hectored. And when I had school concerts, my mum would be lucky if she could glimpse my bobbing head onstage for a second,  especially considering that I was always strategically placed at the back due to my inclination towards general tomfoolery.

Coming back to the Penbank pantomime. I was thrilled to be there. It was really the most charming concert I have ever been to. And, BIG PLUS, there were just handful of song and dance numbers instead of the usual Dead Sea Scroll-length programme I was bracing myself for.

The children had been asked to select electives as part of Arts Week, and the performances were grouped depending on what they had chosen and children from different year levels were interspersed in each performance.

Finn had chosen African drumming so he ended up doing a rhythmic bongo routine with the only teacher on-stage as his dance partner. Yep, that boy is my son. I was always partnered up with a teacher for any high-risk school activity so that if I went off-piste, a swift taser-like correction could be administered before it got out of hand.  To Finn’s credit, he was rather more cooperative than I was, and actually danced or wiggled with a bit of prodding! This is major, for Finn.

And then Dylan the Dancing Toucan made her appearance, resplendent in her tremulous feathered headpiece and fluttery black skirt. She shimmied and smiled so hard our eyes watered and our hearts burst. Afterward she said to me “Mama, I was trying to act cool but I couldn’t stop my face from smiling!” Bless her little face.

My Asian Tiger Mum instincts betrayed me and I zooted up to the front of the aisle as soon as my little ones came on, practically hobbling on hands and knees trying not to block anyone. These school concerts are always a mix of camaraderie (Oh my god, your child was so divine onstage!”) and every man for themselves (Oops, sorREEE!!! I’m just trying to take a photo of my kid!).  Finn was mildly relieved to see me waving manically and Dylan was overjoyed when her wide eyes finally found my face.

After their dance numbers were over, I slunk to the back of the hall and hung out with some parents I knew to watch the rest of the concert.  I could recognise so many of our friends children, and it was  gratifying to see the Prep and Year 1 kids blossom and grow.

My favourite part – the teachers did a dance at the end and Katherine, the concert choreographer declared that they had mucked it up, so the school principal Vivienne made them redo it! I’ve never seen that before! Moral of the story – there’s always a second chance to get it right.

Everyone was so proud and so present.  Sometimes we get so busy that we forget that we are human beings, not human doings. That night, it was all about being. Being there to watch, being there to give, being there to receive. Being part of something full of love and community.

I could just end here. But something else happened that evening. One of my friends was telling me about what a fantastic job that Katherine, the lady who masterminded the whole concert, had done. Then my friend got all choked up and tried to tell me about Katherine’s sister Mandy.  I couldn’t really understand much of it over the noise in the gym hall, apparently Mandy had been very ill and ended up having her arms and legs amputated. The community at Penbank school had raised an incredible amount of money for her, which I had completely missed while we had been away.

This morning, I remembered to look it up on the internet and read about Katherine’s sister, Mandy McCracken, a woman who came down with what she thought was a simple flu bug, but turned out to be invasive Group A Strep which had turned her limbs gangrenous in a matter of days while her husband and children watched, helpless against its toxic spread.

I say “story” not to trivialise or dramatise what happened, but because Mandy and her husband Rod have narrated this sudden twist in their lives in their own voices with such candour and authenticity. In support of Mandy, the wonderful Penbank children made things to sell, donated their earnings and wrote messages of hope.

I know I’m very late to this but if you have a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend you read this Australian article  which is simultaneously disturbing and tranquil, beautiful and gory, prosaic and sublime. And then to say a silent prayer of gratitude for all that we have, to ask that we may heal the past and focus on the present, and our presence. You can also follow Mandy’s progress and get details of how to donate at http://www.facebook.com/InspireMandy

Love & Peace,
Crystal

Picking up the feathers

This week was one full of tears and hard lessons. After many months of searching for female companions for our peacock Pooky, I finally found a guy who had two beautiful white and blue ones for sale and I was so excited that I jumped into the car the next day and set off on a solo adventure to Gippsland to collect the girls. I’m not a very confident driver, especially in unfamiliar territory, so I was really proud of myself for being brave and for the gorgeous pair of peahen girls that Pooky was sure to be thrilled with.

By the time I got back home, the winter light was fading fast. I didn’t want to traumatise the peahens by putting them in the rear coop, amidst all the ducks and chickens in the dark. The girls were already quite weary and nervous from their long car journey, so Mark and I decided to leave them in the enclosed orchard, which has a mesh 2 m high fence all around it and a net that goes over the top. They would be safe there until morning, when we could move them, we thought.

And then the morning came, and I heard Mark yelling from outside that the peahens were gone. He thought that they had flown out through the top of the net where there was a hole.

I had that familiar horrible sinking, churning feeling in my gut and I headed straight for the fence to inspect it. There it was, the remnants of carnage. Three fox tunnels. A bitten hole in the wire mesh of the fence. Feathers everywhere marking the last struggles of the peahens. I found bits of wings, bone fragments under the lemon trees, and still refused to believe. And it wasn’t until I saw the stomach of one of the peahens, a soft glistening beige mess in the grass, and its small pearl of a scarlet heart nestled within, that I screamed. The towering eucalypts around the forest held their twisted arms up to the sky and I sat on the cold wet grass and felt like a very bad, careless mother.

This was our first fox attack in the five years we have been here, we had previously been so vigilant with the barbed wire, automatic fox-lights and greyhound patrols. Everyone in our neighbourhood hates the foxes. Even animal lovers, or I should say, especially animal lovers. Our builder who lives across the road from us, would later tell me that the day before the foxes killed my peahens, they broke into his chicken coop. He woke up in the morning and went out with his cup of coffee to feed the beautiful brown chickens and saw 14 headless chickens in his coop. Necks snapped, bodies left untouched.

Noone knows why they do this, all the wanton bloodletting. If you lost a chicken or two to a fox trying to feed herself and her starving cubs, you can understand that. But what sense do you make of the stories that come out of our neighbours? Foxes that sit patiently watching while a mother gives birth to a baby lamb during the night, labouring tediously to bring a tender bundle of limbs and hot breath into this world, only to have the foxes eat the face off the baby and leave the maimed thing to die a slow agonising death while the mother bleats through the night.

Who knows what their reasons are.

Lilian told me that mother foxes sometimes bring their cubs to chicken coops to teach them how to kill. Like training for terrorists. Perhaps why I find the foxes most unsettling is for their resemblance to humans. Other neighbours tell me that the foxes just sit on their patio, watching the people in the house through their beady eyes, an unnerving sight for mothers with small children.

Pooky roosts in the tall trees in the forest every night, safe from the foxes, (the peacocks are much better at looking after themselves than the peahens, who lie in their nests on the ground) but he must have watched the slaughter and he went missing for days. We searched everywhere and we couldn’t find him. Normally every morning he comes to the patio and sits patiently waiting for his breakfast. And he comes running, head a-bobbing if he hears me playing the piano. It all sounds very romantic, but actually peacocks like loud noises and I’ve also seen him follow the lawnmower about transfixed.

Anyway, I played all morning for days, looking over my left shoulder, hoping to see his inquisitive little head cocked to one side, bobbing about with the music. But nothing, just an empty armchair.

Finally on the third afternoon, I came back home after lunch, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of cobalt iridescence and a little expectant face looking at me through the window next to the piano.

Pooky was home. And we’re doing our best to make it a safe home for him. More to come on that, but I thought you may like a video I made of Pooky’s homecoming. I’m playing one of his favourite songs – Spectrum, by Zedd.

What the camera doesn’t see

You’re in cognac diamonds and a midnight blue silk dress, striding around the vineyard in the howling wind. And then, pretending to prune fuchsias in hot pink silk while the rain drizzles relentlessly. A friend has asked you to appear in a media article and send over some glamorous pictures. The photographs look beautiful but as they are nothing but a fleeting instant in time. A celebration, not a summation, of life as you know it.

If the camera were to pull back and the frame extend to the edges, it would show the tangled mounds of bedclothes, half-filled cups of water and soft toys on the living room floor, for the children have been sleeping next to the fireplace since the boiler gave up the ghost four days ago, precisely on the coldest day of the year. You can see your breath hang in the air and smell the tinge of sour milk from Finn and Dylan’s 4 day-long stomach flu experience.

There is a dead rat decomposing at a leisurely pace in my bathroom wall, and another one, stuck and mummified in my bedroom air conditioner, henceforth christened the Rat-con, waiting for the electrician to get around to him sometime next week, always next week. In the meantime we turn on the rat-con to take the edge off winter’s bite. And then we turn on the air purifier to take the edge off the dead rat smell. And then we go to sleep praying we don’t die from hantavirus in the night.

Under my dress is a blotchy mess of yellow, blue and purple bruises under my arm and ribcage from when I slipped on a huge puddle of dog urine in the living room after the greyhounds decided that it was too cold to relieve themselves on the frosty ground outside. Mark heard a loud crash and came running, startled to see me on my back, the ends of my hair floating in the dog urine, looking up to the ceiling, quite still. Just like a beetle, he said.

And don’t talk about the horror of the mail which has piled up on the dining table, lying in huge wretched snowdrifts, bills, taxes, scams, advertisements, crumpled and smoothed over, sodden, waiting for our attention when we have more strength, good humour, lighter hearts and are able to feel our extremities again.

But this afternoon, I sat in a chair by the window, bathing in the welcome heat of a sudden sunny spell and watched a little thrush hop from branch to branch of a magnolia tree, every hop fluttering the masses of pale pink blossoms, the colour of satin ballerina shoes. I returned to my book but I kept looking up to see it splashing in the birdbath, the little sprays of diamond droplets glinting in the sun. So much depends on a little thrush playing in the sunshine.

And I thought of Mary Karney, the octogenarian pioneer woman who built our mudbrick house by hand more than three decades ago. Mary visited us this week, in our week of epic squalor. I apologised for the lack of central heating and she shot right back at me “Oh that’s perfectly fine. I never had anything other than the wood stove when I lived here anyway.”

Then she told me a story of a little thrush who used to sit on her shoulder when she lived here. “I used to feed it leftover beef mince, it would eat out of my hand while I sat on the porch. They’re carnivores, you know, the thrushes.”

And Mary looked me in the eye and said “Do you like it here?” and I said, I love it.

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p.s. You can read my interview here http://www.gnossem.com/women-we-love/crystal.html

Kakadu Travel Diary Part 2

I’m still in a weird, stream of consciousness mood from the steroids and antibiotics. While trying not to get sucked into the rabbit hole of the internet (too much negativity, click bait, comparing and crazy stuff going on that I can’t do anything about), I decided to finish posting my Kakadu photos.

On our last day in Kakadu, there was a knock on the door of our tent and we were informed that someone had cancelled their fishing trip and we could take the slot if we wanted. Finn was so thrilled because he had been told that the fishing boat was fully booked for the whole week. He changed in two seconds, and ran out of the door with me following behind. Then I heard a big thud – he had tripped off the raised wooden deck outside of our room and was shrieking from the mud below. He wasn’t hurt much, just some scrapes, bruises and tears.

This sounds terrible, but my first instinct was actually to feel irritated at him. It was the third time that day that he had fallen or tripped over something and my eardrums were just about to give out. I just snapped at his wailing face, “Finn, stop it! I have had enough of you being clumsy!”. And then I realised I sounded just like my mum. I remember my mother yelling at me throughout my whole childhood for being uncoordinated, clumsy, awkward as well, and I felt really rotten for something that he hadn’t intended at all. Amazing thing, the conditioning we pass down through the generations if we’re not careful.

I took a deep breath and pulled him into the shower, still wailing away, and washed all the mud off. I heard Mark calling the front desk to cancel the fishing trip, and yelled from the shower to hold on. I asked Finn if he still wanted to go fishing. Finn inhaled sharply, looked at me with his big, brimming eyes and nodded. So I squirted some antiseptic on his cuts and off we went.

It was coming up to sunset and the light reflecting off the water everywhere was enchanting. We were lure fishing so we had to cast and reel in continuously. There’s something to be said for repetitive activities. In this modern world, automation has removed the need for us to actually use our hands to do anything over and over again, with the exception of typing.

I found the repeated casting and winding the reel, feeling the sensuous pull of the line against the heavy water, so meditative and peaceful. Losing yourself and your mind in it. Unwinding the frustration and anger of the day.

We didn’t catch anything. Not a single nibble, although the barramundi were jumping all around us, and there were plenty of crocs eyeing us smarmily from across the river banks. And that was okay. Finn is very zen in his approach to fishing. We’ve been out fishing about 9 times and only caught things a third of the time.

I think it’s really healthy for kids to learn about frustration just being a normal thing, just part and parcel of the fabric of life. It’s good to balance out that instant gratification culture we live in where any game you can think of can be downloaded from the app store in an instant and just about anything procured from a google search.

It was also great for me to have that time to think about my own pent-up anger and how most of it was created by my own expectations of how things ‘should’ be, feeling disconnected when my life doesn’t live up to my standards, instead of accepting it as it really is, scrapes, bumps, insect bites, quarrelling, tears, randomness and other ordinary things. Sometimes things just suck and that’s ok too, even if no one on Facebook is posting about it.

The quiet times in the afternoon were my favourite parts of the trip. Watching Dylan drawing outside the tent at sundown, her little cheeks flushed satin-pink from the day’s activities.

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Watching Finn play football (I refuse to call it “soccer” like the Aussies / Americans) in the fading light with the other kids, weaving around the massive termite mounds which are everywhere in Kakadu. It’s cute and touching, how easily kids form these transient friendships when they’re on holiday.

Full disclosure – the Irishman did arrange for us to go out in Darwin on a proper fishing boat the next week and we ended up catching 9 fish between us – golden snapper, salmon, batfish, flathead, cod… Finn was thrilled.

The best thing about Darwin was the magnificent agate red sunsets and the dinners we had on the deck at Hanuman, a casual Indian / Thai restaurant. Otherwise the town was curiously devoid of charm and people. It reminded me of the heartlands in Singapore, monotonous concrete slab buildings, bland urban sprawl, soulless malls.

As you may have gathered, it wasn’t the best holiday ever – I was too itchy from being bitten by insects and not sleeping well at night in the un-airconditioned tent, and the kids were really scrappy for most of the trip. I ended up yelling and losing my temper a lot more than I’m happy to admit. The Irishman was on business phone calls half the time, stomping about on 3 hour conference calls even when we were in the middle of nowhere, looking most incongruous talking about financing and balance sheets in the middle of the outback while the birds cackled in the background.  As in Dylan’s favourite book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, sometimes it’s just like that. Even in Australia.

So I was so happy to get home to the farmhouse this week. Even though it’s chilly here, my bed has got exquisite, soft linens on it and a heating pad underneath. The fresh brisk eucalyptus air is insect-free and I don’t wake up with kamikaze mosquitoes going ‘WheeeEEE!” in my ear. I’ve got a library of fascinating books to read and cookbooks to work through and an abundance of friends to have tea with. I love my adventures and all, but my favourite place in the world is always the ordinary miracle I call home.