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Susan Johnstone

End of a Long and Particularly Significant Period of Time

07-Jul-13 07:24 Tags: ,,

 vegetable paddock

There have been days where I had wished we didn’t grow veges for a living. I got a bit jaded with the idea of getting out in the rain, picking radishes or lettuce with cold water trickling down my back, dipping my hands in an icy cold bath tub of water to wash the muddy produce and pack for the market. I got a bit weary of weeding the beans, bending over dropping leek seedlings in holes, battling the scratchy leaves of zucchini bushes and carrying bucket loads of fertiliser in the days before we bought a tractor. 

bucket of cucumbersbunches of leekstractor in the rain

But now I no longer have to do any of that, for we will no longer grow vegetables, except in a backyard plot. It’s been a big decision and one that can’t be easily reversed. We cancelled our organic certification and have been dismantling our vege production system - clearing out our packing shed, digging up irrigation, stacking sprinkler pipes, and so on.

It seems a bit of a harsh reaction to a bit of whingeing from me. I mean, my hubby had 100 times more reason to complain than I have, and he certainly did the lion’s share of work in all degrees of weather while I lazed around in virtual comfort waiting for hubby to bring the produce to me for cleaning and packing. 

But no, it was not for my lack of support, but rather a lack of production and consequently, harvest income that led us to this decision. I mean, you can’t get good child labour these days! Our teenage daughter has left home and this reduced input has made a difference this past growing season. The weather of course, has been overly wet for three years in a row and who knows what the next year will bring. And the planets aligned in such a way that it was not looking good for our viability. Better to bite the bullet and put our efforts elsewhere, such as paid work and cattle farming.

girl standing in dirtBut what a change! Gone is the environment where the whole family had a day in the paddock, getting hot and dusty and sharing a cut lunch together under the wattle trees. No longer will I be able to delight at the froglets hiding amongst the plants, watching fairy-wrens dart from bush to bush and dodging the friendly carpet snake who didn’t eat enough mice for our liking. No store-bought zucchini, bean or cauliflower has ever come close in taste, to what we grew ourselves in organic, biologically active soil. 

There have been some interesting highlights, some life lessons for me, such as in Road Trip on A Tractor and the painful self-employment dilemmas described in My Brain is Full. I also recall the incident where hubby came home to report that police helicopters had 'buzzed' him flying quite low to inspect just what sort of green leafy crop was being tended in the secluded bush. We also had the joys of picking on a Sunday when hundreds of trail bike riders zoomed past on the Rivertree Trail Ride. (So much for peace and quiet in the bush.) Add to that the usual delights of getting your boots stuck in the mud while walking down the rows and trying to extricate yourself without fallling face first in the gloop. Then there were the dingos watching us from the wooded section just across the gully, and following the sounds of mysterious birdlife.

little boy sitting on tractorThe vege paddock holds much significance for us as a family, and also marks a stage in our life that enabled us to be self-sustaining in a lot of ways. It was a work environment where you could come to work in your daggiest clothes, yell at the top of your voice (ummm… just for the sake of it, not necessarily at cranky unco-operative kids), munch on tasty snowpeas or cucumbers while walking along the rows, work for yourself and have deep conversations over the bean bucket with your spouse. 

Out of all the possible vocations someone could choose, farming has been a ‘noble profession’ which my hubby could sink his teeth into. It involves honest, hard labour, dedication, perseverance, physical and mental determination while providing an essential service for our society. It is the end of this particular vocation that is particularly sad for us - knowing that even though we’ll still be farming, but with beasts and not produce - the little girl leaning over wheelbarrow with daddydirect connection with our customers is gone. Picking a lettuce and putting it into someone’s hands a day or two later is pretty instant gratification as far as work outcomes go.

So for us, it’s the ‘end of an era’. Although technically, an era is “a long and distinct period of history with an identifying feature” I guess for us it seemed like a loooong time. 10 years is a massive chunk in a child’s life, and that’s almost how long we farmed that patch of ground for. It’s nothing compared to the farming families who have worked the same property for three or more generations. But we are part of the post-modern culture with people who flit from one job to another in a couple of years, who move house every five, and who change phone plans every month. In terms of that mentality, we have out-stayed them all. From the time eldest daughter was in grade 4, through the birth of two more children and in years that followed, this veg patch has been an integral part of our lives. So long, little farm. 

sprinkler pipesdisconnected irrigation pipe in groundempty paddock with open gate

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Not the Girl You Think I Am

11-Jun-13 02:17 Tags: ,,


You're not the girl you think you are. 

...So sang the song by Crowded House. It’s so true, I’m not the girl I think I am sometimes, nor am I the girl that others think I am. 

I have been thinking about how much our bodies change, while inside us we remain locked in a vision of who we were 10 or 20 years ago. I catch a glimpse of myself from the side in the mirror and realise that to the observer, I probably look like a frumpy middle-aged woman. Inside, I still desperately hope that I am an athletic trim-ish person who is doing okay after having a few kids. I don’t imagine that I am model material but I still view myself as the person I was maybe several years ago when my metabolism was still my friend.

I was talking to a lady I’ve known for about 15 years who had high school-aged children when I first met her. Now she gushes about her grandchildren and how much she loves being a nanna. And as I watched her face and the folds and saggy bits around her cheeks and chin, I thought, “Yes, this woman is a nanna. She’s gotten old!” And yet when I first met her I saw her as a mother.

I wonder if people see me after not being in contact for a while, and gasp inwardly, “Oh, how she’s aging. How she’s let herself go!” Maybe. I guess it is a bit confronting to realise that children no longer see us as someone in the generation of their mother, but in the generation of their grandmother. I worked with a girl at school who commented on my new hair colour. I told her that I’d dyed it to cover some grey hairs and she studied my head and agreed that her nanna has grey hair. When I thought about the age of her mother it came as a shock to me to calculate that I would be closer in age to her nanna rather than her mother. And yet I have a three-year-old. But I do have a daughter who’ll be turning 19 this year so technically, I could be a nanna as well. (Please, no!)

One of the reasons that I wear glasses is of vanity. I don’t really need them when I meet with friends or walk down the street. I’m short-sighted so I legally need them for driving and they sure help if I am watching tv or looking for signs in a supermarket. But I wear them almost constantly when out in public, mainly because I have such dark circles under my eyes I am worried that removing the disguise afforded by frames will stop the conversation. Everyone will stare, mesmerised for a minute, and then be so gob-smacked that they won’t be able to continue their train of thought. It’s amazing what I do as a result of how I think others will react.

When my aging mum moved closer to us in the Liston area, I took a photo of her, which I then showed her. I thought it was flattering for someone in her 60s and yet, Mum was horrified. “Oh, I don’t like that! I look like an old woman!” I tactfully said (as tactfully as family members usually talk to each other): “Umm, you are old.” Mum couldn’t reconcile the photo with her inner image of herself.

I guess this blind spot that we have of ourselves - and hopefully of our friends and family as we all age together - allows us to forget about the outer casings of our physical bodies. Like in the movie Shallow Hal we often see the person inside rather than the actual body in front of us.

For a while, I lived with a good friend who is Aboriginal and sometimes I caught myself seeing her hands or feet in a detached manner, and realising that her skin was quite brown. It sort of goes with the territory (and Territory also, since that’s where she was from) but as I interacted with her on a daily basis I didn’t consciously say ‘yep, she’s brown and her hair is black’ each time I talked with her. I observed her smile and her facial expressions that I knew so well. The colour of her skin was so inconsequential that I ceased to notice it. At the same time I knew fully that she was Aboriginal, but that was her being, not simply a visual sign represented in her skin.

Back in another millennium, I also spent a couple of years in daily contact with a group of indigenous students while I studied Aboriginal Welfare. I did this course partly because of my own indigenous heritage, but to anyone looking at me I would have seemed like the odd one out. But hanging around with all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who accepted me into the group, left me feeling that I was ‘one of them’. And sometimes when I went home I was surprised to see my white face looking back at me.

Who was I really? The woman others saw me as, or who I viewed myself in light of the way others treated me? People’s perceptions of me (good or bad) cover me like a heavy coat that needs shedding in order to feel lighter. 

At times when I feel offended or upset by people who try to intimidate me or take advantage of me, I see myself as the10-year-old girl who still wet the bed and sucked her thumb, cringing at conflict and being unable to defend herself. It is a big effort to rise above that self-image and realise that I am a grown woman with much strength to draw upon.

The crux of it all really, is having the insight to see myself as a special human being with a unique place and calling in life. If I walked through each day considering the heights I could reach with a view of my abilities and opportunities, I would be a much nobler and resilient person. What others think of me, or my tattered snapshot memories of a past self shouldn’t hold me back. I’m not the girl you think I am – I am so much more. 

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We Will Remember

27-Apr-13 07:23 Tags: ,,,,

Liston War Memorial with flag


I went to the Liston ANZAC day ceremony on Thursday. It was probably the first ANZAC day event I’d attended since a schoolgirl. I wasn’t sure what to expect; whether it would be a casual gathering or something more elaborate. I found it was a mix of both. The presentation was formal and dignified. The local attendees stood on the small lawn area that fronts the Liston War Memorial. At our back was the Mount Lindesay Highway, close enough that you wouldn’t want to step backwards to get a better photo of the memorial, just in case you got collected by a 4WD coming past.

There was no dress code, people wore anything from jeans and boots to full army regalia. Anyone with a medal of some description wore it proudly on their chest, including a 5-year old with his great-grandfather’s collection. I’d left my Mickey Mouse badge at home. Some kilts were in order, as a bagpiper played during the ceremony. One daring man wore a dress, but it was all white and I think he gets paid to stand around in a frock.

Apart from the few little hiccups that you’d expect from an outdoors event like this, I think it went quite well. We who read the order of service were able to set the precedent for those in which way to face and not look too confused. Fortunately at the time of the Australian Anthem I was relieved to hear only once verse played on the PA system. I know we all would have been guiltily mumbling our way through, if the second verse was played.

On the way home hubby and I were discussing this failing of Aussies to learn the whole anthem. I opened up my student diary* and read the second verse of Advance Australia Fair:           

            Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ll toil with hearts and hands

            To make this Commonwealth of ours renowned of all the lands

            For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share

            With courage let us all combine, to advance Australia fair  

“Hmm,” said Hubby. “Maybe we should all sing the second verse more often.” I agreed.

Back to the ceremony. The most significant part of the morning’s program was the bugler playing the Last Post, followed by a minute’s silence. As the group of old and young, unemployed and financially secure all united in stillness, there was connection. There is something so powerful in ritual - not listening, or tuning out, or watching the birds in the trees (although they were a bit distracting). But pausing in contemplation of why we were at the Memorial in the first place.

I never met my relatives who fought in wars; I have no close bond to that part of Australia’s history. But seeing the dedication of the retired  Lieutenant Colonel who saluted the flag in devotion and the army reservist who took his flag raising duties as seriously as a surgeon would undertake his operation, I was brought to admire this passion that people can dedicate to a cause. The cause of freedom, of democracy and mateship.

We were gathered under a tree whose blazing red leaves waved from outstretched branches; blowing in the wind and fluttering down to rest at our feet. We remembered the fallen. Our voices combined to sing Abide with Me; it was truly a community effort. Afterwards we shared and chatted over scones and Anzac biscuits. In less than 24 hours we would find out that one of our neighbours had lost his battle with cancer, on that same day.leaves on ground

We will remember.

*  Why a student diary? Because I am a student of life. Or perhaps I go to the ‘school of hard-knocks’. And great scholar that I am, now I can’t think of any other relevant corny lines. But really, student diaries are good and cheap.

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The Hairy Gene

24-Mar-13 22:02 Tags: ,,,


canna plantsI was thinking of our patch of canna plants in an area we loosely call a ‘garden’. These cannas have long leaves with spikes of red and orange flowers and look lovely when in flower over summer. But for the rest of the year they get a bit scruffy, with brown leaves crumpling amongst the plants. But they also send up many more canna plants along the rhizome system underground and grow quite densely together. Left unattended, I thought, I could have a whole canna plantation that wouldn’t need mowing or weeding.

A bit like facial hair, really. I have been wondering what on earth God was thinking when He designed women to get facial hair. I understand it’s all about hormones and as we age, we no longer need to look pretty to catch our man and be able to procreate to keep the human race going. So if we start putting on weight, get saggy and wrinkly and develop weird age spots, we somehow tolerate and accept this decline in physical beauty. But facial hair? Come on, that’s just mean.

I read an insightful piece of writing by Kaz Cooke, in her book Get a Grip. The chapter was entitled “Into the Valley of Over Thirty Rode the Hairy Ones”:

On the other side of thirty there is a moustache waiting. And maybe a wee little beard, and possibly other tufty bits of a slightly disconcerting nature. Luckily it is probably hardly noticeable unless you go into one of those public toilets with 356, 000 watt Kleig fluoro lighting that make you look like Godzilla and then incidentally when you go into the cubicle the toilet roll dispenser is completely encased in a metal rectangle and you have to poke up through a little slot with your fingertip and awkwardly twist around the toilet roll until you can grab an end and then you pull it gently, gently, through the slot and after 2 centimetres it breaks: snap!  Why would anyone design a thing like that? Anyway, one of the things that happens over thirty is that your concentration begins to wander. 

When I was about 18, talking to some friends at church (church, mind you, where you’d think people would be at least make an effort to caring and polite) I was interrupted by a guy a couple of years older than me. “Ha, you’d better do something about that moustache of yours, don’t you think?” Ha, ha, yeah… what do you say to a conversation stopper like that? That was over 20 years ago and my moustache hair was just a shadow compared to what it is now. 

What is it about facial hair, that you can’t see it at all when you’re staring in the mirror, tweezers in hand, but once in the car on the way to town, a quick glance in the rear-view mirror shows all sorts of hair? Dark hair, long hair, thick bristly hair… I don’t know what in tarnation this has to do with my face. I empathise with my hubby who has discovered hair growing out of his ears. There’s no real purpose for it, unless the ear hairs act as tiny antennae to facilitate hearing once you get older and can no longer make out the news on tv.

I do blame my mother a tiny bit. She has the hairy gene, and she had no self-consciousness about walking out of the bathroom with depilatory cream slathered under her arms as well as on her upper lip. As time went on, Mum went to the waxing clinic to have her upper lip waxed as she had her legs and eyebrows done. Waxing the upper lip, I’m sure, led to Mum’s mouth being in a permanently pursed position. Ow, ow, ow, ow!

Mum knew the benefits of waxing and told me as I entered high school that I should not shave my legs as that would only make the hairs grow back thicker. If I had to do something with my legs, Mum strongly advised I should get them waxed. What a proposal! Shave, and you get hairier legs…. or wax, and be in pain. I took my usual stance at that age, and did nothing. All through grade 8 and grade 9 I endured my hairy legs as every other girl shaved and wore short uniforms to flaunt their smooth, hair-free legs.

It was only in grade 10 that I was confronted with my hairiness. It was time for school photos and one of my classmates - not one that I was particularly friendly with – said, “Geez, I sure hope you won’t be in the front row again. No-one wants to see your hairy legs.” I was mortified. I thought no-one had noticed. God smiled on me in my humiliation and I was placed in the second row, with my legs mercifully shaded by the girl in photo

Not long after that I confessed to Mum that I would try getting my legs waxed, and she happily made an appointment for me. Getting each hair dragged out by hot wax wasn’t as horrific as I’d imagined. I guess once you get your legs waxed (and other unmentionable areas) you are as prepared for the trials of life as any other person. 

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The Green of Angels

St Patrick stained glass window


Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day and I read a bit about him to my 7-turning-8-year-old daughter. Apparently Patrick was kidnapped by pirates as a teenager from his home in England. He was taken to Ireland where he worked for several years as a slave. He eventually escaped and made his way back to England. There he became a Christian and later a priest. Later he returned to Ireland to take the gospel to the country where he had been enslaved. There’s also a story about Saint Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland but this is apocryphal as there is no fossil evidence of there ever being any snakes in Ireland. But, hey - don't let the facts get in the way of a good story!

But whatever the background, traditionally St Patrick’s Day is a day to dress in green and I love that idea, so the whole family dressed in whatever greenish clothes we could find. Hubby was going to wear his green and black boxer shorts, which he was going to flash at anyone who asked, but fortunately we found some outerwear that would demonstrate his support of St Patrick’s Day, instead of having him undress in public.

It’s funny, out of all the colours you could wear to support a cause (orange for Anti-Bullying Awareness, red for Daniel Morecome support, pink for Breast Cancer Research, or black for a funeral, etc) I really like wearing green. Any other colour and I would feel like a paint swatch from Mitre 10… so contrived. 

Basically, I feel like green is my colour. I say it’s my favourite colour and it has featured strongly in my wardrobe over the years. It’s the colour of my eyes and the colour of my bath (which is actually meant to be white, but that’s another story about my inefficiencies in the cleaning department, which we won’t go into). But I’ve always liked green and I wonder if it has anything to do with my mother. Even my sister’s favourite colour is green! (How greedy – you’d think she could pick a different favourite colour.) But somewhere along the line, the fact that Mum’s favourite colour was green has been absorbed by our sub-conscious.

Green wasn’t just something Mum liked for the sake of it – she said it was the colour of angels. Yes, that’s right – angels. Not leprechauns or ogres, but angels. Now Mum never specified whether she thought that angels were green themselves, or if green was their favourite colour. I never asked Mum if she had ever seen an angel, and if so, whether she had quizzed the angel about colour preferences. Mum often said stuff that never made sense and somehow we just accepted her statement as those sorts of family legends that get passed on through the generations. But to cut a long story short, green holds an almost mystical place in our family. Back to my sister – sometimes she might tell me about a new skirt or a cushion she’s bought and as she describes it, she’ll say, “…and it’s green!” as if she were telling me it was covered in gold-dust from Mars.

So for St Patrick’s Day I wore green, not just for Patrick (that crazy snake-chaser), but for Mum and her communion with angels. 

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