Who knew? An Introspective

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This is Jeremy Giraffe. I painted him after drawing him over and over. I didn’t know I could draw or paint, until this year.

It is interesting the things we convince ourselves of. I did art at leaving level for high school but had to ditch it before my Year 12 exams (that’s another story). I was firmly convinced that I did not have any style or ability.

This year, I began working therapeutically on my ‘ishews’ and started collaging, drawing and painting as part of the process. I am trained as an holistic counsellor, using art and craft as means to process work (I also use stories) so it was a logical follow on for me. I also discovered a Facebook page called 52 Week Illustration Challenge where artists of differing abilities contributed their take on the word of the week. I joined as admirer. When ‘giraffe’ rolled around, I thought to myself, “Self”, I said, “I’d like to draw a giraffe.” So I gave it a go. I looked at lots of images and no, my painting could never be described as photo-realistic but I really like him.

Emboldened I began drawing other animals. I haven’t got much past their necks yet and did you know that ducks can look very sad if you give them a big beak? I like quackers. I like animals. My drawings and paintings are cartoonish and not at all complicated when compared to my zen tangled doodles (that sounds rude, doesn’t it?) but I enjoy the simplicity. I now have ducks, emus, wombats, echidnas and trees. Yes, I really like trees too. None of them are spectacular but all of them have personality and feeling and isn’t that what art is about after all?

Jeremy has a rhyme, so do the others although some are being a little coy about revealing theirs. That is the storyteller in me, can’t be helped. I’ll pop them into a book for my grandson. I’ve already done him one book, something about fart-bubbles, he likes it, and now he’ll have another. What else would I do with them?

I am currently painting and drawing a peacock. His name is Pomjoy Pobcock, who knows why. I’ve learnt about stretching paper when it’s painted so have prepared the background and having perfected how I want the feathers to look am ready to paint and draw. I need more art supplies. More! More! I have a studio. It’s not full yet. I spend hours in there with little to show but smears of paint and a happy disposition. Think that’s all worth it then. Haven’t cleaned the floors for a few days but they’re not going anywhere.

Next year I am taking on the 52 Week Illustration Challenge and seeing what I can do. Might have to paddle fast to keep up, some of the artists are extraordinary and some ordinary. I think I’ll fit right in.

I wonder now about my decision so long ago that I was not an artist. I do not aspire to an exhibition or have any delusions about my abilities but I am having fun and I am able to share a feeling with my work. It has made me wonder about what other things I decided I could not do that might be worth trying again.

In the meantime, enjoy Jeremy, watch out for Pomjoy Pobcock and when next you come looking for me, check my studio first.

Memory Gems – A Musing.

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In stolen moments, all alone or with one dog at my side, I sip my coffee and finally relax and tumble my memory gems through my mind.

Passerbys stop to pat my dog which he welcomes. Me too. It is almost as nice to receive compliments about your pooch as your child. My dogs are floozies willing everyone to stop and pat.

My work day week takes a lot out of me. I think, I ponder, I write, I broker relationships between organisations and people, I collate news and share it, supervise staff and monitor programs, read, write and allow the many conversations and information I have gathered during the week to percolate through my brain, allowing new ideas to bubble to the surface. See? Everything is related to coffee.

I gain my energy from time alone, spent writing, reading, drawing, painting, sculpting, pasting, tearing, creating. I wander about my garden and I ponder and plan, plant and pull. There’s a lot of alliteration in my life. I draw energy from the earth, trees, plants, flowers, animals and the sky. I notice those moments of the sunlight through trees, a cobweb stretched across my path, a moment’s fragrance and much like my dogs, ponder it all later. I think about the trees I noticed driving to work and my dog’s faces as I gave them a last pat (and the random cat that joins the throng) and I savour them.

From childhood I learnt to gather those moments, the little treasure troves of gems, to share when life dulls or becomes overwhelming. Dealing with large groups of people is overwhelming, or groups that oppose one another (or think that they do). Worrying about one’s children and other people’s can be exhausting. Other people’s anxiety grinds against my own and I seek solace in my gems. Those shining moments when the world offered a glimpse of beauty. The more you find, the more you see.

Sometimes there are surprises. One evening this week, after completing an intricate drawing, I went into my bedroom, flipping the light on and stopped still with surprise. On my bed, looking equally surprised, was a beautiful chocolate Burmese. “Hello!” I assumed he came in through my open window and made himself at home. The effort it would have taken to get up to my window, balance and jump down probably required a nap. I walked slowly around the bed and offered my hand for a sniff. I quickly worked out that he preferred a stoke to a neck scratch and we were friends. I got ready for bed, wondering aloud to him who he was and who was missing him. A personable gentleman, he made himself at home and tried to settle on my pillow. I had other ideas and scooped him off. He liked the cuddle so settled down to sleep alongside me for the night. When we put him out in the morning, he was unwilling to leave and seemed disconcerted that he had to go before being offered breakfast.

We have wondered about him since. My bedroom window stays open and I watch for him. Handsome and obviously well cared for, we hope he is safe at home.

Another gem for my treasure trove of memories.

Liking, Loving and Looking After Yourself – A Musing

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The weeks go by and the weeks go by. You know the year is flying by when your youngest says, that went quickly. Nothing makes time seem more fleeting than your youngest child getting older.

We measure our lives by achievements in the physical and only when we have had a physical loss do we become aware of other forms of achievements. I feel one of my greatest achievements has been learning to like, love and look after myself. Not that long ago I asked my son how would he know when he had high self esteem. His answer? Well, I’ll have a car and a bike and a house and a boat… (We live in the bush). I answered that they were things and things can be easily lost. Figuring that ‘self esteem’ may be the wrong question, I asked, how do you love yourself?

This turned into a considerable family discussion. How do you like yourself? How do you love yourself? How do you look after yourself? The general consensus by those under 18 was how much good stuff could you buy. I was momentarily speechless. These were the children who had grown up in my care, the children who had decided with me that family outings were preferable to buying new furniture. I am the mother who forewent all manner of things to take my children on a secret holiday, the topic of many trips down memory lane. I am the mean mother who refused to buy electronic games for a son whose obsession with them caused him to discuss characters as though they were friends. (I was the mother who was horribly confused for quite some time.) I am the mother who still sends her children to play outside. I am the mother who kindly says “only boring people get bored.”

How then did these children of mine learn that liking or loving yourself depended on what you could buy yourself? These are the same children, mind you, who would rather go without than put in extra effort to earn money. (I am also the mother who enjoyed ‘going on strike’ on the odd occasion their laxness got too much.) I asked them how they would buy themselves these things if they didn’t want to work? That appeared to be unanswerable. “We’ll get jobs” from them was met by rapture from me. I am the mother, after all, who has worked most of their lives.

Where did my children pick these ideas up and how come they had more sway than what I taught them? Only now in my 26 year old Daughter am I seeing a foregoing of brands and must-haves for a simpler life. Only now am I seeing a young woman determined to like, love and look after herself. She acknowledges the lessons she learnt from me and is closer to appreciating a simpler life than she has ever been. I hold out hope for the others. I have to say that moving through the stages of parenthood are very challenging.

When they are tiny, you are wonderful and to be obeyed because if Mum’s happy, everyone’s happy. Then they get a little attitude and you have to shift from loved and adored parent to the negotiator. You just get a handle on that and you get the I don’t care, nothing matters. Here you have a choice. You can either be firm and emphatic or gentle and encouraging. I switched between them to keep everyone on their toes. I am, after all, the mother who ran out of shops while my children were engaged, cackling like a chicken, leaving them behind. At least it made them keep an eye on me and caused me much amusement.

I discovered that if I made things work for me, then they had choices within boundaries. My boundaries but then I’m not superwoman. My grandson throws wobblies, banging his little head on the ground. I regard him calmly while people around cast me looks and say “ you can do that or Grandma can carry you or you could walk and we will…” (add in enticement). He will get up and walk with me. Unfortunately teens are heavier.

By the time you are used to being a teen parent, they are out off into the world and don’t need you for awhile (until something goes wrong). That’s all fine. Challenging, heart-rending at times but fine. What I do hope is that I have led by example and they know how to like, love and look after themselves without being self-indulgent and self-obsessed (Youngest Daughter fills my ipad with selfies. I have hundreds of them. Heh heh heh. I find uses.). So, what did I do when I discovered that buying stuff was their answer to liking, loving and looking after themselves?

We kept talking. I kept asking. I knocked all the ‘stuff’ off as things that come and go. Exhibit A, barbie dolls. Youngest Daughter had dozens of the damn creepy things and those ones whose feet came off. Ugh. I’d find bits all over the house with either child or dog or both teeth marks in them. She’d take off their clothes, then their arms, then their legs and then their heads. After all, their feet came off. Then she’d want me to put them back together. Couldn’t do it. Don’t know how they went together in the first place but damned if I could get those creepy things back in shape. The dog loved them. Those dolls are like self esteem, once taken apart, it never fits back together in the same way. You have to start again and build anew.

By the time our discussion had pared all their ideas down to just having yourself and how do you like, love and look after yourself, they really did not seem to know. I asked them if I liked myself and they said yes. I asked them did I love me and they said yes. I asked them did I look after myself and they said yes, albeit a little uncertainly. Then I asked them how was it that I liked, loved and looked after myself? I am a large woman of happy features. I have never been beautiful. Conundrum.

Then I told them the secret. I decided. Then I practiced. I get better at it as time goes by.

That is a much better way to measure my life.
(c) CLHHarper 17/10/2014

Cockatoo Community Food

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Cockatoo is part of the Dandenong Ranges in Melbourne and located in Cardinia Shire. The small towns that are part of the Hills have a tendency to suffer low levels of community infrastructure exacerbated by poor transport and high social isolation. Food insecurity is an issue in these towns with poor opportunity to access resources available to Pakenham and other Shire residents.

Emerald Community House developed a program they call Community Dining. Different to the Community Kitchen model, Community Dining has an universal platform that allows collaboration between businesses, community organisation and local residents. Open to everyone, the program asks that individuals contribute their time, fresh produce or a few dollars as their situation allows.

Statistically, residents in Hills area experience a high degree of disadvantage (social isolation and incidents of family violence, drug or alcohol abuse or mental health concerns). Community-minded residents are concerned to reach out to vulnerable and disadvantaged families who cannot access services in Pakenham, mainly due to finance and transport issues.

The only emergency relief centre, Cardinia Combined Churches Caring(4Cs), in Cardinia Shire is in Pakenham. They are feeding above 900 families in Cardinia Shire a week. There is poor public transport between the Hills and Pakenham. Families are rarely able to access the services available in the larger residential areas of the Shire.

Cockatoo Neighbourhood House is supporting locals through a Community Dining program (inspired by Emerald Community House’s Dig In Cafe) and food co-operative (as a buying group of the South East Food Hub). The Mentoring Activity funded by Communities for Children in Cockatoo already utilises a shared meal with families and mentors as part of the program. The shared meal has helped create a feeling of Community amongst the families. The Community Dining experience has been an absolute delight with opportunity for families new to the area to meet locals and locals to meet locals!

Cockatoo Neighbourhood House is keen to expand Community Dining and include the many musicians and artists in the area. We’ll be singing for our supper. Other groups, such as the Hills’ Community Gardens and the Hills’ Men Shed are hopefully watching the development of the shared meal and food co-op with interest. It would be great to have their involvement.

This level of support and disparate groups willing to collaborate on a project is unprecedented and inspirational. The level of co-operation has inspired 4Cs to consider out posting a food store in the Hills area which will assist vulnerable and disadvantaged families considerably. We need a free permanent space to set up the free food store and volunteers to staff it (4Cs will train the volunteers). Lots more to do.

The possible community development model for Community Food is expandable. There are many potential links and developmental aspects, e.g. seed banks and Guerilla Gardening. I look forward to what might come.

Parenting 401

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My youngest daughter has just turned 13. She came to live with me when she was 31/2. I had been waiting a long time for a little girl. I had two big girls but I could see a little girl with dark hair and eyes. I knew she was coming 6 months before she arrived. I got her room ready and put a love-bug toy in it. Every morning I would open the curtains, give the love-bug a touch and say, She’s coming, as the sunshine streamed in.

She arrived in a landslide of energy. I was 42 and puffing to keep up. Everyday she’d have an activity and then we’d go to the park or the play centre to keep playing as she had so much bounce. The irony is she says how much hard work my grandson is. I laugh.

Fostering children is it’s own particular challenge but for this child I took another giant step and went to permanent care. This is when a child cannot be reunified with their birth parent or any family member and their permanent carer becomes their legal guardian and parent. It took four long hard years of investigation, ruling out kin and just hanging in there before it was granted.

It doesn’t take giving birth to a child to be their parent. We know that. There are so many parents who obviously missed the parenting classes and licence. Oh wait, we don’t have those. There are currently well over 3.000 children in the foster care system in our state alone. That is a lot of traumatised children. Make no mistake, any child who has been removed from their parent is traumatised. No matter how bad it was in their family, it was their family and being removed brings it’s own pain.

So, I had a 31/2 year old, full of energy and grieving and angry and very confused. It took nine months of being her rock before things began to improve. I quickly discovered that time out didn’t work and time in did, which was it’s own challenge. Baths worked. Sand worked. Running worked. We used to have running races in the back yard with the Invisible Nobody. I would call the race and on the odd occasion the Invisible Nobody would win. My little girl would be absolutely furious and enraged and insist that they run again so she could beat them. Very entertaining.

Dealing with birth parents is challenging, dealing with access more so, including said birth parents in family events brings it’s own problems, teaching birth parents how to parent sometimes works but mostly doesn’t. Challenges abound. The impact of all this one one small child is enormous. The impact on a family more so and when you have more than one child whose birth parents need support and you are dealing with their addictions and life dramas too, it is exhausting.

Sometimes this all breaks down and is not repairable. Sometimes extended family of the children becomes everyone’s family. My foster son’s Granddad is my permanent care daughter’s “Granddad” and my birth mother is her Grandma. There is no-one that you can talk with about the intricacies of all of this and yet it is as complicated and no more so than step family arrangements. Juggling adult issues is more exhausting than child ones more often than not.

Now my big little 13 year old has gone out running with her mentor and I have a moment to learn how my new bread maker works. She’ll be back soon and I’ll be running again.

My entourage

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Here I sit to write again and I am surrounded by my entourage. The inevitable Gem is on my right arm and a flotilla of floofy fluffy canines are milling at my feet. (Hmm, flotilla and milling? Oh well.)

When my grandson was crawling he joined my entourage. My entourage is usually made up of three floofy fluffs and Gem. The little fella was staying with Grandma (me! I know, right?) from the age of six weeks. Night after night, he went to sleep in my arms only to protest the laying down in a cold cot. (I tried warming the sheets while he snoozed on me but he was never fooled.) The floofy entourage watched this with decreasing interest as the nights waned.

My poodle, Miss Daisy Mae Starr (and yes, they do all have names like that), was enamoured of him from the get go. Absolutely besotted, she would stand on arms of armchairs to view him in his cot, wagging and talking all the while. He has taken the dogs attention for granted, never giving them more than their due and seemed to assume that he was one of them.

Wherever I go in the house, my entourage follows. It’s as if they are never quite sure what I might do. They follow in case I do something interesting and they don’t want to miss out. To the computer, check. To the kitchen, double check and hopeful wagging! To my room, check. To the laundry, check. To the toilet, check, check, check. I suspect they think that I will disappear when I go into a room where they are not. Fair enough. The toilet is a bit baffling though. I am often heard to call out in sheer exasperation, “Look you guys, I can go to the toilet by myself!”

When my grandson was finally crawling, he joined the entourage. He would faithfully follow the crowd down the hallway to the toilet, bathroom or laundry. If I had to answer the door, five little bodies came with me. Fortunately he’s never taken up barking though he did startle more than one visitor when bending to pat the menagerie, they noticed a baby in the mix. He didn’t seem to mind.

Now that he’s walking, running and exploring, the dogs are less interested. The cats have always been very tolerant of him, seeming to know that there is much he doesn’t understand. While the dogs generally treated him like a wayward puppy, my senior canine, Mr Wallace Gumble, has always kept his distance. The poodle is enamoured all over again as he is now of the correct height to hold his food just so, which Daisy delicately removes from his fingers. Portable snacks! My grandson always looks up at me with such consternation across his face, ever surprised by this turn of events. As I am an excellent Grandma, I laugh.

We went with the little fella and all the family on the local steam train, Puffing Billy, for his third birthday. He was so excited, he shivered and shook. It’s amazing how many people a cheeky, charming three year old can con into letting him clamber over them. Fortunately we only had the one carriage he could take over.

He still follows me much like my youngest did when she was small. It seems they never know what I might do next.

Help Wanted: Cats Only Need Apply

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My cat, Heart’s Gem (aka Gemma or Pudding), likes to keep me company while I type. She likes to keep me very close company and grooms part of me as I work. This creates significant distraction and awkwardness for the placement of my arms as I reach around or under her to the keyboard.

There are any number of objects on my desk that could make a good spot for her. But her favourite position is right next to my laptop, lounging across my arm onto the keys. Either that or sitting behind the screen, pushing it forward, staring at me with purring concentration. While it is lovely to be loved by a cat it can be exhausting for my arm or neck. My arm keeping my hand in place to continue typing while pudding-cat rests heavily upon it, roughly grooming along it. My neck as my screen slowly bends lower as she stretches against it, purring lovingly all the while.

Yes, she is a muse and often amusing. Really, I consider myself lucky that the dogs haven’t got into the act. Although come to think of it they do use the opportunity of me sitting still, from their perspective doing nothing, to demand pats. I wonder how much I would notice their absence if they were out (for a walk, chewing a bone, barking at the dogs down the back)? Gemma though firmly believes in the delicateness of her build and the svelteness of her silhouette. I have not been able to persuade her otherwise.

Twelve years ago my ex-partner took me to the RSPCA to choose a ‘recovery kitty’ after significant abdominal surgery. Straight from hospital. No thought given to how I would walk across the carpark, through the centre or down three flights of stairs. When I was eventually standing in the kitten cage, a flood of kitties streamed across the concrete floor. Here they come, I thought, wonder which one will choose me? The flood moved straight past me to the cat carrier we had brought in and clambered all over it. Harumph! Except one tiny fluff ball, who marched through the river of kitties, climbed up my jeans all the way to my shoulder where she sat, purring and kneading and batting my hair. It took less than a minute to be claimed. It had taken me 20 minutes to walk down there and thirty to walk back.

Heart’s Gem she was named and Gemma she became. Throughout my recovery she stayed with me and sat on my chest whenever I stopped moving. She has had faith in her tininess ever since, sure that a cat sitting on my chest, covering me up to my eyes, is exactly what is needed. Or kneading my cushiony softness with claws like scimitars is enormously appreciated by me. Mind you she is not much different than her fellow housemates.

Recently when renovations caused us to be away for a few nights and finally I was home to stop for awhile, I sat in my arm chair and was smothered in seconds. I called for my daughter to take a photo (see below). I suspect they missed me.

I do think of the animals as companions than pets. I am certainly glad they choose to live with me. As to Gemma’s help with my writing? Well, I have her to thank for this blog.

Perhaps she’s my muse after all.

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Tree-change for the better?

In conversation with a co-worker today we noted that our move to small country towns had netted us some really good friendships. We moved, with our families, to different towns in the same Shire. The towns themselves are very different. Mine is a bush town and hers more a farming community. Both of us have experienced very different levels of inclusion than when we lived in suburbia.

Is this just our experience? Does it say more about us as newcomers? Is it a general experience for people moving into small towns? Has it anything to do with our Shire? I don’t know the answer to these questions but, as always, I am curious.

My town is in the Dandenong Ranges of Melbourne and it really it a bush town. Summer poses its own risks of bush fire but for the most people live here because hearing the birds calling throughout the day and the wildlife that lives around us and the trees that are in every yard, is our choice. In the back corner of my block (and it is the once traditional 1/4 acre) is a group of ten gum trees. I think of it as my mini forest. Now I am well aware that eucalypts go up like candles when fire comes through. Facing facts though, I have no hope of beating back fires so figure I may as well enjoy my trees. My hopeful theory is that fire may leap to the trees and leave my house alone. I said hopeful.

Anyway, we moved here 6 1/2 years ago although it does seem longer. At first because I was working off the mountain, it seemed quite lonely. While my children were at school, I didn’t know any of the parents. We did the usual round of sporting activities and I gradually became a more familiar face. Even with being unfamiliar, people were friendly and would smile and nod hello long before they knew who we were. The mail here is collected from the post office (it is a very small town) which gives everyone a chance to pick up mail and get to visit the shops.

It took awhile for me to get involved in anything here. Mainly because my full time work left me too tired to add in anything else. Last year I changed jobs and came to work in the Shire in which I lived. I now travel 20 minutes through the trees to get to work without any traffic. Bliss. More than that, my new job didn’t ebb my creativity and it began to flow back into my life and demand attention. More than that, my work involves community development and I have been able to focus some of that up here in the hills.

It’s interesting to live in the area in which you work or work in the area in which you live. I love it. It is such a blessing to have an insight into the towns and people for whom you are intending to make a difference and to know some of the people who are leaders in the communities you frequent.

So, is it the towns that are friendlier or is it life arrangements that allow access? My co-worker’s new living situation gave them much more space to run and a happier place to be. Maybe our tree-changes are working because we were ready for it. Maybe small towns have more to offer than a lot of people realise.

One thing is for sure, I am very glad we are here.