Glitter and Guttertrash

Not really resisting the descent into urban gardening madness

Sunday, April 14, 2013


My favourite thing about running (so far) is the security of it. More than comfort food, more than a big night out in a bar with a few friends, I know that running will make me feel better. Every single time. I was furious when I went for my run today, and elated by the end of it, and in between I was alternating grinning and gasping for breath.

At about minute 42 (having shed the fury around minute 15, and warmed with pride at myself by minute 28) I remembered a dream I had last night. I was a teenaged boy, and I'd walked out the front of the house I grew up in as a child, on a gritty back-street in Newtown (back when the grit of Newtown was more dirt and less boutique). Up long strings tied to the front porch from the narrow strip of garden a riot of vegetables was growing, astoundingly fast- I'd stepped out expecting to see seedlings, but there were already heavy green tomatoes and bean pods beginning to lengthen and purple. As I poked through the green forest of vegetables something fell from the sky, and I ran to the footpath to look at it. It was a bird, some sort of bird of prey with a hooked beak and sharp claws and dark, intelligent eyes. I picked it up- it was obviously injured, with blood in the feathers at the back of it's neck. It didn't struggle or attack me, and I knew that meant it was badly hurt. So I began to run to try to find a vet to take it to, running the back streets of Newtown in the body of a teenaged boy with this bird heavy in my arms, the light in it's eyes fading as I went, and the fear that it would die growing in me. Every street was an obstacle course of construction sites and immovable gates. In the moments before I woke up I realised I could see through the split skin and feathers at the back of the bird's head to the viscera of it's spine and nerves, and I knew that I was probably too late, and that it would probably die after all.

I woke up, and the dream slipped away- I don't think I could have recalled what it was about by the time I had my coffee. I went about my day of house-meeting and friend-meeting, until I went for a run and suddenly remembered the dream with startling clarity, in a precise and coherent narrative order. It reminds me of something that happens sometimes in the meditation of a yoga or karate class: extremely vivid, sensorially-detailed recollections of something long forgotten will flood in. The last time I went to a yoga class I spent the five quiet minutes at the end visiting every share-house I've ever lived in: every hallway and plaster-crumbling living room and the smell of every kitchen.

Friday, April 05, 2013

I run

I've been living in the same giant, sprawling ex-squat house project for two years now, in a Berlin neighbourhood that used to be full of these. It feels a little like the giant cousin of that ramshackle, sun-repelling house I once lived in in Newtown- both stand out as icons of a past-and-present occupation, a visual defiance and a marker of the earlier stages of the newly-gentrified neighbourhoods surrounding. Both have names you can drop that will be recognised immediately, in the right communities. This house is much bigger than that one, though. We are 45 in total, 8 in my kitchen. We share a lot, and keep a lot more to ourselves. If the sun ever shines again, we will grow a garden on the roof.

I ride the same sturdy, heavy, purple-and-pink bike I bought when I re-arrived, two years ago. I desperately want to replace it, but lack both the money and the expertise to know what, precisely, would constitute a step up. I don't ride it so often right now anyway- I work from home and travel too much and when I am in town, I rarely leave my neighbourhood.

After nearly two years of reaching a faltering hand after the dream of a martial arts class I could enjoy in this city (stung each time by language, icy attitude or distance from my house), I finally gave in and joined the gym, or, as I somehow know it, my new church. It's a few blocks from my house and I love it with all my heart and soul. I recognise this headlong love, of course. I do fall so deeply, don't I? What a lovely thing it is, to be someone who can pour so much power into my new passions. My life is so much richer for the things I have fallen in love with and become so rapidly absorbed by. I feel incapable of doing something because I ought to, but when I want to do it my capacities are boundless. I am not sure I want to become Good At The Gym in quite the same way I became Good At Gardening and Good At Crochet and Good At Knitting- it is a complicated and suffocating idea, in this society, to be thirty years old and female-interpreted and striving for gym perfection. I consciously hold myself back from spending all night on bodybuilding forums because in this field particularly, I don't want to fully unleash my intellectual hunger for all of the information I can find to fuel my physical passion. I want to develop a practise, part-mental, part-physical, that slips and fits into a gap in my life, and satisfies that gap. I want to spend a little time getting to know the simple new sensations: the feeling of my body in stride, the shivering tiredness of worked muscles, the gentle camaraderie of the other people around. I don't want this experience to be defined by my reaction to and against the cultural conversation about fitness, which is mostly horrible and only occasionally useful. I am interested in gently redirecting the predictable path of my love away from "discover through intensive research everything that has been written on this topic" and towards "discover through self-observation the pattern of breathing at minute 17, at minute 34, at minute 42, and at the moments when you are bored and wish to stop". I run, you see, on a treadmill, and I do weight-things as well, but the joy of growing muscles is already a familiar one, while the joy of meditative running is entirely, ecstatically new.

I run on a treadmill because I joined the gym in icy winter, and I didn't know about running yet. I am surprised and so pleased to discover that I can love it, and now of course (as the days are longer and the snow is retreating to grubby piles) I aspire to outdoors-running, but my shoes are definitely not good enough for that. I bought my cheap gym shoes before I knew anything of this, and treadmill running is gentle enough for my joints to be surviving, but street running would be awful. So, in a few weeks when I have managed to buy a pair of proper running shoes, I will try to take myself outside. I am looking forward to running by the sparkling river, and to noticing the difference in measuring my progress from the blinking lights of the machine (I did an hour yesterday!) to distance covered and landmarks observed.

I can't dismiss how much I love the weight training, of course. Building muscle has always thrilled me to bits, and my arms look so great right now. I am still on the basic machine-based circuit assigned to newbies when they first join the church, but I've switched the program from the girl-normative "low weights, lots of reps" to a more satisfying "higher weights, fewer reps" one, and have distinct aspirations towards free weights. I am going to be pretty excited when that day comes, I bet. I am eyeing off the unassisted pull-up bar. One day.

I write in other places, still, but I've been going back through some of this blog the last few days and the voice suddenly returned to me, this voice, the one I've been writing this blog with on-and-off for nine years. That's interesting, and it's nice to have a moment free to indulge it (as I procrastinate ridiculously from my work and my day).

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Terrifyingly public

I've been writing in places less terrifyingly public than this, because eventually the words have to come out, although they dried up completely for more than a year. That's astonishing, really. I have only ever known who I was because I write. I hadn't even considered that it was possible for me to stop writing- if not here, then somewhere- until it happened. In the less terrifyingly public place I spend a lot of time musing about why that unthinkable silence descended, at all the factors that played their parts in chiselling away my writing voice, but the fact that I am referring to that place as the "less terrifyingly public place" should probably offer plenty of clues.

But for some reason I needed to know the date when something had happened, and I went back through the archives here to find what I needed, and realised how much I miss this continuous voice I've been keeping since I was 21. Even the later, cautious, more circumspect stuff tells me so much more about where I was and how I was than the constant blunted known-audience banality of the social networks I tend to keep to now.

I don't know if I will write here much more, but I feel like I can at least offer updates on the major narrative threads of learning and of motion that I was talking about the most, last I wrote.

In that grand cosmic joke that is life, I quit a life of apathetically failing at a job in Sydney to come be an unemployed drifter in Europe, and wound up (in the course of trying to finance my drift) finding work I liked much more. I am now making a cosy enough living as a freelance web programmer in Berlin and have learned things that set my brain and fingers on fire doing it.

I have enough German now to read the newspaper, watch the news, write emails and eavesdrop on every conversation. It would be enough to get by if I could only make myself speak, but I- can't. I choke, and stop, more fearful of it now than I was a year ago. Anxiety is a fierce and multiheaded beast to fight past when you're acquiring a language.

I've tried to share gardens, to borrow gardens, to visit gardens. In the end it's never enough. I can only decide not to let myself be ruled by the need to garden.

I've spent a lot of time on islands in Sweden gathering food from the forest floor, and that has been more than enough.

I can knit socks, two at a time on a cunning loop of wire, bake a really good bread or pizza dough from scratch, and have taken up elaborate pin-curled hairstyles.

I live in a beautiful place in a beautiful city, and have a wardrobe adequate to the climate and a decent bike and a tax agent and a visa and a professional network and a really good computer. It is such a relief not to be that girl in constant motion anymore. I'm so glad I came here, but I wish it hadn't taken me quite so many goes to stick.

And now, after nearly two years, I'm headed back to Australia, yet again, for a vacation this time. I have a return ticket and a job to come home to. I'm not afraid of getting stuck there, and without that, I am so intrigued by what I will find.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Hello I am ALIVE!

It's been such a long time, but there's no way I could have forgotten. It's all still there, waiting to rush back at me: the filthy-handed battles to get plants in before the light fades, the frantic and expensive trips to the gardening centre, the anxious clucking over seeds a little slow to germinate. And the rich green smell of tomato leaves, the glistening of water drops on neatly staked seedlings, and the ferocious explosion into being of bean plants- rocketing out the soil, cracking it in their haste, still wearing their seed-covers as hats as they bellow "Hello! I'm ALIVE!"- as though the fierceness of life in them could go unnoticed anyhow.

I have purloined some space in a friend's front yard for a hasty little veggie garden, and a gigantic pot in another yard to grow some greens. I've struggled to stay away from the perfection-obsession of my earlier gardens. To settle for the seeds from the store rather than hunting down the best and most special seeds online, to focus on getting a few plants in and growing rather than drawing and re-drawing plans for the maximal use of space, to allow that growing something is good enough.

it's been barely four weeks since my friend told me I could use her yard, and I am giddy with it all (of course) but managing to hold the obsession in check (I hope). The row of beans (Scarlet Runner, Purple King & a backyard heirloom snakebean I begged off a friend's mum) is heading fast for the heavens, the chard and mustard are leafing out in their shadows, the zucchinis are putting on size at their usual alarming rate and opening their first flirty boy-flowers, the tomatoes have set a few little fruits (the random compost tomato has, at least- the store-bought varietals are taking their time), and the sole slug-surviving cucumber is throwing out tendrils in search of fences to climb.

I built the garden on top of work already done. My friends had, a few weeks earlier, pulled all the weeds out of it, laid newspaper, and covered the lot with straw mulch (before running out of ideas about what to do with the yard next, which they happened to mention within my earshot, and OBVIOUSLY that opportunity wasn't going to pass me by). With not much time or budget, I went for a straightforward option of layering a few bags of chicken & cow poo on top of the existing mulch and laying more straw on top of that, then planting seeds & seedlings into pockets of compost opened up in that mix, which roughly equates to a standard lasagne-style raised bed recipe. I've been a little concerned about soil fertility so the plants have been getting at-least-weekly seaweed-based organic fertiliser, but so far nothing like nutrient deficiencies is showing up and everything's looking as happy as one could expect from a hastily-assembled veggie garden in a narrow front yard in Newtown.

My first harvest was a fistful of chard and mustard leaves sliced into a miso soup. They were delicious, of course, but almost beside the point. I am back again in a place where I get breathless with excitement as I report on the progress of bean vines up bamboo stakes and the formation of little flower buds on the stumpy twisting zucchini vines, and that is easily worth everything.

Friday, November 26, 2010

So many things I don't know

There's this girl who runs away a lot.

She's very good at endings, and sort of good at beginnings, and pretty much rubbish at the bits in between.

She's pretty smart (she's always heard) but feels like an idiot, like she doesn't get it, that there is a cosmic It that is beyond her getting, that living is making shit up fast enough to speed along without ever getting It, without ever having read the manual, it's about passing the exam all the time when you never even glanced over the notes.

And life for her is like this thing that happened a lot in highschool, where there were some things that came so easy: standing up in front of a class to present a talk, except she hadn't done the research and had barely glanced at the assignment topic before she walked in to present, but her brain (easily distracted) stores a thousand cross-referenced details easily summoned into something like a compelling argument, with a grin and an emotion and some inspiring peak to end on, and she wouldn't just pass, she'd get A's.

And walking out she'd wonder, did she think less of herself for scamming it like that? Did she think less of all of them, the students and the teachers, for not seeing through her? Or was that just it, was that just success, these things that came easily and meant nothing and said nothing?

And ten years later, is that still success? Rattling and breezing your way through life on the path of least resistance and least effort and constant, surprising success, and the constant, wearing questioning of if it's you or them you judge most harshly for letting you get away with it?

My friend's a florist, I've written about her before. One day recently we were driving in her car and I was basking in the radiance of her success, of where her passion's taken her. I felt the threads of envy in me, envying her passion, envying that she had a thing that could direct her somewhere and give her- gifted, talented girl to whom success in other fields came easily- something a little difficult to do, and strive for, and succeed at. She's been a lot of other things before she became a florist, and we talked about that. We talked about the things that come easy, and the restlessness with them, and I saw that she had stepped beyond those and decided to do something else. I envied her.

I don't mean anything by this, except to take note of this progression. A few years ago I noticed that I was learning how to learn for the first time in my life. That for the first time in my life I was learning that in order to learn, you must first be really bad at something, and that being bad at it is the necessary first stage of actually learning how to do it. I realised that I have rarely learned anything at all, because so many things are so easy for me, and the risks of turning my attention to anything that starts off being hard have seemed so high, that I have been content to succeed at things that aren't success at all- just, a kind of meaningless on-going. The career I have when I'm desperately trying not to have a career, for example. It's one of the gifts the world is willing to grant a person with a vault of educational and circumstantial privilege supporting them, and I haven't earned it, I take it for granted, and I go nowhere with it.

So I learned, in short order, how to ride a bicycle (by first acknowledging that I did not know how to ride a bicycle, and that I would be bad at riding a bicycle as a necessary pre-cursor to being good at riding a bicycle). I learned about vegetable gardening, and karate, and how to swim across an open bay. I learned a little bit of driving cars, a little bit of speaking German, a little bit of organising an autonomous festival. Eventually, I learned a little bit of actually showing up to my jobs, a little bit about caring about my work, a little bit of doing more than taking these free gifts for granted.

And now the vistas ahead hold something like a piece of knowledge: that the things that come easily are not necessarily the things I ought to be doing. That ease is not, perhaps, the best indicator of a thing worth my time and effort.

Because another thing happened this year, which is that a lot of people I know died, and even more people in my not-very-extended community died. It was a rash of deaths, a relentless hammering of names and circumstances and gaps and losses- all different, all unrelated- all shining people I have loved. And I'm not even 30 yet (not even nearly-30) but I have a chronic illness that will almost certainly shorten my life, and a lot of my friends have died this year, and I know something like life is not forever. There isn't endless time. And maybe there's not actually enough time to coast, the way I've been doing for my entire life to date. Maybe coasting, maybe ease, isn't actually the best way to use up this short bank of years I'm granted.

I'm still stewing on these thoughts, still wondering what they mean. Still wondering if this Summer->Summer hemisphere-switching life is like being on hold all the time, and if I really have time for that. And if I don't, what do I have time for? If the things that come easy and effortless aren't the right things to do, then what ARE?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Borrowed love

There aren't many cats in Berlin. It's a dog's city, for sure. You can take your dog everywhere (when I get off the plane I grin at the rows and rows of dogs sitting patiently beside owners inside the airport, waiting for their people to appear).

When I lived in the big hospital squat last year my room was on the same level as an enormous puppy, a great shaggy Swiss Mountain Dog, already a giant at four months old. She was the friendliest dog I'd ever met in Berlin, puppy-eager and sweet, and liked to hurl herself at my feet, legs splayed for a belly-rub. Adored by the household. She could bring a tense house meeting to a warm and fuzzy standstill just by existing. When I visited her in her new apartment this year she had grown massive, but still threw herself into a delighted wiggling mess at my feet, and throughout the summer proved that she remembered me by occasionally dragging her owner towards me across busy marketplaces, footpaths and intersections.

Other dogs: the grey-muzzled Boxer down at the wagenplatz, followed everywhere by the cry: "Zita, NO!" as she aimlessly knocked over shopping carts, beer bottles, and tins of paint in her aimless wanderings. The maudlin Greyhound I often dog-sat, plagued by a deep and depressive malaise at almost all times, until the occasional moments at the park where for 35 seconds he'd remember that he was a puppy once, and erupt into a foot-flapping, tongue-wagging sprint- then stop, a few hundred meters away. Drop his nose to the ground. And return to his sulk.

In the house in Brisbane that fulfils some function of 'home' when I'm there, there was a lovely crested cockatiel, miniature relation of a cockatoo, who bobbed his head and danced as I attempted to teach him how to whistle. I never succeeded at getting him to mimic me, but he certainly would screech would I stopped whistling. And in the two weeks spent teaching him, I became a much better whistler than I've ever been before.

Berlin, again, my last few days there this time around. I was in a tiny, dark warren of an apartment, borrowing a room from a friend. In the hallway, in a cage, lived a guinea pig. He didn't show many signs of wanting to make friends, but whenever he heard the fridge door open in the kitchen up the hall he'd let out the most unearthly, inorganic squeals and beeps, like a UFO landing. This seemed to be a signal that I should feed him slices of cucumber, which he'd tug out of my hands with his teeth and scarper back into his house to eat.

In Sydney I sit in my parents' backyard while their multi-coloured flock of chickens scratch at the grass around my feet (one, the oldest and sweetest, will eat mulberries from my hands). Like glossy-feathered dinosaurs with their proud carriage, tiny eyes and tiny brains, fierce reptilian dignity.

Last weekend I was at a picnic, and a rabbit appeared. A tame, soft, lop-eared rabbit. We couldn't find where she'd come from, and we couldn't find anyone to take her in, and we certainly couldn't leave her in the park to become fox food, so I took her to my friends' house for the night. A week later she's settled in as though she's always belonged there, all soft fur, curious whiskers, lively company. House-rabbit happy, nothing like the bored, vegetative lumps living in tiny cages that I met often as a child. I feel a little bit like her fairy godmother.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fold & Roll

On Tuesday the 14th of October I was sitting on Sonnenallee in Berlin, drinking a comfortingly awful coffee (Berlin coffee is generally awful, unless it's from one of the couple of Australian-run cafes that ex-pats share between them as survival secrets, which often leads to tears and exclamations of joy as someone sips down their first Sydney-quality soy latte in months or years). It was from a Lebanese bakery around the corner from the house I'd been staying at for a few days, in the company of a sweet friend who took me on a rooftop adventure over the apartment buildings a few days before. Then I boarded a plane to London, and rolled myself and my (small) suitcase of worldly possessions along to a pub with a queer night to meet another friend, whose place I stayed at for two nights. Then two days on a plane. Two days in Sydney, crashing with more friends, days spent bleary-eyed and jet-lagged and wondering what the hell I was doing there. Then two days in a car with my parents, driving up the coast. Then a night at my sister's house, in the land of my nieces. A night at my friend's house in Brisbane. Then three nights on the Sunshine Coast, beach-front apartment, salt-water swims, moonrise over the ocean, extended family everywhere, my sister's wedding (I was a bridesmaid). Then Brisbane, for two nights. I leave tonight, back to Sydney for a job interview, and I know where I'll be sleeping tonight, but I have no idea about tomorrow night, or any night after that.

In that great rush and jumble of places and people streaming past me, I am so relieved to have so many places, in so many parts of the world, that fulfil some function of home. The flat in London that I know so well now, having slept on it's living room floor on every journey into and out of Europe. Friend's houses in Newtown in Sydney, and West End in Brisbane. Neighbourhoods that are familiar, places where I know the location and quality of the nearest coffee shop, transport systems I know how to navigate, kitchens that I've cooked in before. It's like packing myself up into my little rolling suitcase and unfolding myself like a page from a pop-up book in each new place, but not unfolding too much- need to keep track of all the parts of me so I can fold up again and roll on. But folding out enough to wash my clothes, take liberties with the tea and coffee, spend a day being not-much-of-a-guest (lurking in a bedroom on the net rather than presenting sunny and interesting to the world). Living in transit. It's not a holiday. It's nothing like one.

Without people willing to share their space with me, who seem to enjoy my flittering periodically through their houses and their lives, there would be nowhere that felt like home, and I love these people for their generosity and for making my life possible. For making it OK when I am a jet-lagged mess of uncertain destination and geographic angst, for picking up our friendship easily from the last time I came through and listening (with interest, even!) to my attempts to pull a coherent narrative out of where I've been and where the hell I might be going.

I cling to the familiar faces (although haircuts and names and pronouns may change) and familiar spaces (although the rooms might have been shifted) to ease the jolt of hemisphere-shifting shock, which wants to drown me in the weirdness of leaving autumn for spring, colder for warmer, a world where I make and sell hats for a living for a world where I am landing interviews for corporate IT jobs that pay amounts of money that make my eyes water. Heavy-laden apple-trees swapped for jasmine blooming. Autumn harvests for fresh spring shoots. Fantasies of baby tomato plants ready to shoot strong and green for the hot, bright heavens.

What I want is still out over the ocean somewhere, not quite caught up with my body yet. I have a plan, formed in Berlin, for a summer of work here and an early spring return to Berlin, but the ability to think of or hold onto plans lingers behind like my body clock when I travel like this, catching up with me maybe a few weeks later. Who I was and what I did in Berlin is behind there too, somewhere, making it hard to say much when people ask me how it was ("Oh, good, I guess. I love that city."). So life is extremely immediate, with a 48 hour bubble of vision of where I will go and I what I will do, and that's good enough for now.