Lockdown learnings…happiness and what really matters

The sun came out this weekend, just in time to remind us of good times ahead for those who’ve done the socially responsible thing and gotten vaxxed. I’m double jabbed and am looking forward to masked picnics in the park with four other people from today.

They don’t even need to be my favourite people. Any people in my local surrounds with a sense of humour, a bottle of champagne and a vaccination certificate will do. Seeing people’s faces, even just the top half I suppose, is good for the soul.

We’re all a bit over it, I think. This extended lockdown has sapped us of our positivity. I find myself more emotional than usual, and as someone whose inner seas aren’t often serenely calm, this makes for interesting times in our house. I’m not alone. My girlfriends are teary and frazzled too. We’re all breathing in and trying to find our centre, practicing mindfulness by looking at the colours in the sky, and eating too much chocolate.

We are desperate for a bit of space. A house that is ready for people to come home to, rather than one that everyone rattles around in all day leaving dirty cups and chip packets on random surfaces.  

And some freedom. Freedom to throw our minds into the future, to look ahead and make some plans. Oh, the places we’ll go when we are able to leave the confines of our 5km radius. Just to the beach to smell the sea breeze and stare over the endless ocean towards far off continents would do me right now.

Still, lockdown has given us the opportunity to learn a few home truths. And some scientific ones too.

Entropy, that law of nature that basically says everything tends towards chaos, is on display in our house. And here you can see, I tell my kids, an example of entropy. Piled-up dishes on school-from-home desks, dust that gathers like furtive shadows in corners the moment you turn the vacuum cleaner off, a dirty laundry pile on the bathroom floor that gets bigger with each passing shower, and duvet covers that get soupy if not routinely changed. Energy in (in the form of a Sunday morning “all hands” house clean) returns things, momentarily, to order. Everyone has a newfound respect for our cleaner, and longs for her return.

Exponential growth is another maths concept kids of today will never forget. An upside of a staggering rise of cases in Sydney. It’s about the only upside, although perhaps it has driven people to the vaccine hubs to play their part and protect themselves and the ones they love little more. A wake-up call that the sanctity of our island home is an illusion, that we were underprepared for the reality of a novel virus breaching the barriers, and a realisation that if we ever want to visit Santorini or have some sort of normality, we’d better get our act together and embrace the fight, armed with the best science has to offer. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Personally, I’ve learned that social media and the news are both rife with “desperate for clicks” negativity that can leach the joy from one’s existence, and that large doses of either are best avoided. That teachers (and cleaners) need a pay rise. And that you can still host a #lockdown party that gets everyone drunk and in (literal and otherwise) good spirits if you try hard enough.

But mostly I’ve learned that the things we think matter most, the things we still have even in lockdown – our careers and our families, is not actually what gives us joy. They’re very important building blocks to who we are and our place in the world, but it is the little things, it turns out, that are the happiness cement that holds it all together – the ability to have coffee with friends, listen to live music, go window shopping or to the movies. And most of all, the opportunity to dream about possibilities.

The stories we tell ourselves… and why they might be making us unhappy

I have a saying which irritates the teens in my life. It goes like this. “That’s an interesting story you are telling yourself.” I use it when they say silly things like “I’m not good at maths” or “My teacher doesn’t like me”. My wise words are frequently met with eye rolls and huffs of derision.

By stories I mean the narrative slant we place on objective facts. The meaning we extract, consciously or subconsciously from our experiences, and then consciously reinforce with our words.

We tell ourselves stories about the world all the time. And mostly, we aren’t even aware of it. Much like breathing, the process is largely automatic and uncontemplated. But the stories we tell ourselves matter because they are the fabric of our minds, and they fuel our beliefs about the world and ourselves within it. As a result, they powerfully influence our perspectives, actions, and our wellbeing.

Even more pernicious, our stories literally blind us to reality itself, and the other possibilities that lie within it. They influence what we take note of, directing our attention in very specific and limited directions. This sits at the heart of confirmation bias.

This is not to say there aren’t objective facts at play. Of course there are. Struggling with maths may well be the reality. But writing off a hard subject like maths as “I’m not good at this” leads to a particular set of behaviours – like giving up. On the other hand, telling yourself a different story, like “Maths is a hard subject, but I can do hard things”, opens up quite different options– like perseverance and tenacity. The facts remain the same. But by changing the story we spin about those facts, by changing the story we tell ourselves, we change both what we do and how we feel about the situation.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine my homespun advice registers with my all-knowing teens. Much like the practice of naming emotions to recognize and deal with them (and thereby grow emotional intelligence), I hope the comments I occasionally drop into conversation will percolate in their developing brains and one-day become a useful tool in their mental armoury.  

However… in a spectacular example of “here, take my advice I’m not using it”, I realised quite recently that I too was being beguiled by stories that do not serve me well.

Stories about age, and what success looks like. Stories about who you are supposed to be, and how life is supposed to play out. As I sat in a cognitive science class full of bright, young things all embarking on their first careers, I was besieged by a sense of gloom. Why was I here?  What was I doing this for?

Here are the stories I was telling myself: “I’m too old to be doing this.” And “a successful life is a successful (well paid) career”.  Those are stories society tells us too, with their love affair for youth and money. So I should be forgiven for absorbing them like a fast-acting sunscreen. But they are not healthy stories. Not for me, and not for anyone really.

There are better stories to tell about being older and trying new things. A story about the value of experience, curiosity, and the acquisition of knowledge. A story about, as Tim Minchin advises so well, foregoing purpose or the accumulation of money in preference for filling your life with meaningful things.

So, I’m trying to tell myself some new stories. Like…

I might not have a sparkling, single-minded career (old story: career means achieving in your chosen field), but I have a host of useful skills and a plethora of knowledge people pay me for, which keeps the wolf from the door and our house in its share of international holidays and nice shoes (new story: I have a career, which works for me). I might not know what I want to do with my new degree (old story: life is about having a career), but that’s okay, because I’m not finished it yet and it’s interesting enough just on its own (new story: life is about being curious, exploring the world and expanding the mind). I might not be a wildly successful author (constant refrain: life is about having a successful career) but I have in fact written two books so far, a host of plays, short stories, poetry and articles, one of which you are now reading (new story: I am a writer).

But, in all honesty, it is not as easy as it sounds because our old stories are encoded into the wiring of our brains. They are stitched into our neural networks. We have flexible brains, brains that change, but we have to create and reinforce new connections for them to become as well established and automated as the old ones.

Nonetheless, it is, I think, a path towards more contentment and greater happiness. Noticing what stories lie behind how you feel in any moment in time means you can change them. You can, with effort, rewrite the stories that drive your emotions and perspectives. It’s powerful and liberating. But it requires noticing them in the first place.

So ask yourself, what story are you telling yourself, and how well does it serve you? And then maybe try out some new ones.


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Living with the “boofheads”.

I live on a street with wide pavements and a leafy demeanour. It’s a good street, if you live in the neighbourhood, for taking in some exercise. Countless people walk their dogs up and down it, and Rocky and I meet several of them on a regular basis. Sometimes his tail wags with glee. Other times he shies away with trepidation. Occasionally, in a fit of uncharacteristic confidence, he leaps forward on his lead with an angry bark of outrage. As owners we might say hello and pass a comment about the weather, or merely share a raised eyebrow and a sardonic smile at the strange behaviour of our beloved pets. There is a sense of warm comradery and connection amongst us dog owners.

Given the number of dogs taking in our street as part of their daily constitutional, you’d expect it to be piled high with dog poo. But on the whole, the owners of the dogs who live nearby are well bred themselves, picking up after their hounds and taking the resulting dangling plastic bags of excrement back home for disposal. It is society in motion. Unrelated people doing the right thing to maintain civilisation and keep things nice for everyone.

Still, not everyone is so community minded. In our midst there are some who have little concern for the rest of us who share the environment. They do not pick up after their dogs, for some reason imagining this is not their responsibility. They are oblivious, either through ignorance or wilful disregard, to the resulting state of affairs left in their wake. The rest of us, with scrunched up noses and sighs of despair, have to navigate around these unclaimed piles of poo which blight our landscape and give our upmarket neighbourhood a tinge of decay.

It drives me nuts.

It is not actually the poo itself that raises my blood pressure. It is what it symbolises. Selfishness. Those freshly abandoned  mini-mountains of brown excrement are a reminder that there are self-centred individuals amongst us who don’t pull their weight. Takers, rather than givers. Freeloaders, as economists might label them. People who get away with being lazy or ignorant or irresponsible because most people do they right thing. Cheats.

On Saturday we saw a spectacular display of this in Sydney. Three and half thousand individualistic, self-absorbed “boofheads” (to quote an official government source) took to the streets to demand an end to lock down. I prefer the term fuckwits.

Freedom they cried, whilst engaging in acts of stupidity that are sure to keep this lock down going longer than necessary. Huddling close together, without masks, they shared their germs and no doubt have taken them home to spread to their communities, with little care for those who might suffer as a result.

I’m as frustrated as anyone else; stuck in my house, in my state, in my country by a virus that has upended all the things we love about human society. But whilst these boofheads, with their limited capacity to think beyond their own selfish desires, parade through the streets of Sydney or visit their extended families or have illegal parties, the rest of us are getting on with it, trusting in the advice of experts and our democratically elected leaders to get the virus under control and get us back to freedom. We are bunkering down and enduring as best we can. We are watching strange Olympic sports on TV and zoom calling our friends and family. Yesterday I planted carrots, for goodness sake!

To have our lives disrupted for longer than necessary by acts of self-indulgent idiocy is deeply discouraging. It is natural, I think, to wish on them some sort of suffering. You can’t help but dream that karma will get these people in all manner of ironic ways. But of course, that’s not how life works.

The sad reality is we have to live with the selfish and the stupid in our midst. The dog owners who leave their dog poo for others to step on, the protesters who throw projectiles at horses and caution to the wind, along with the chance of getting on top of the virus sooner rather than later.

From a mental health perspective, though, it probably pays to focus on the positive rather than negative. It’s not an easy task. Our brains are naturally wired to notice the negative. We have to work harder to see the positive, and we have to work extra hard to notice what is not visible. The countless people who do pick up after their dogs. The thousands and thousands of people in their homes, doing the right thing. I remind myself that Sydney is a city of nearly 5 million people. These protesters represent less than 0.07% of our society. We can’t change the fact that we live amongst fuckwits. But we can change what we dwell on in the land of our minds.

Future-me called… and current-me better make some changes…

Current-me is having a ball. Well, sort of. With Sydney thrust back into lock down, Current-me has thrown all care to the wind. It least as it relates to wine and chocolate every night. Last week we had Gin and Tonics every single day of the week. Scandalous! Future-me is not going to be pleased when all she can fit into are pants with elasticated waists. Current-me blames Past-me, who bought all this junk food into the house in the first place.

I love this way of thinking about myself. It’s helped me to be more mindful about my goals and ambitions, and more specifically about the person I want to be and the life I want to live. If you want to know more about it, I heard it here on this Hidden Brain podcast.

Current-me and future-me are of course the same person. But they have different levels of power to make change. Current-me has all the power. Future-me has all the consequences. The power to change the past, from the perspective of the future, only resides in the present.

I think a lot of the time life lives us. We have plans, we have goals. But mostly we drift along, perhaps expecting we will just wash up on the shores of our dreams. We forget, I think, in the pressure and rush of life, that it doesn’t work that way. Dreams need plans, and plans require actions. And dreams don’t have to be as big as owning a Caribbean island or running for office. They can be as simple as keeping fit and healthy for as long as possible, or having good relationships or a meaningful career. But whatever they are, they require intention and they need action to make them a reality.

Current-me is the only version of me who can take action. Current-me has to step up to the plate (and not the one containing cookies) and start taking responsibility for moving in the direction Future-me will be pleased with.

As such, Current-me has decided to recommit to wine on the weekends only. Of course, weekends start on Thursday in our house, at least this week as it’s my birthday. It is hardly an arduous task to be alcohol free for three to four days, but the very fact that it seems to be significantly difficult to achieve means it has to be done, and with some sense of urgency.

To help in this endeavour, I’m jazzing up mineral water at “wine-time”. And by mineral water I mean environmentally friendly soda-stream water, because future-me would like to live in a world that isn’t drowning in plastic bottles (and Past-me spent the shopping budget on chips and chocolates). Last night it was elderflower and lime, with three ice-blocks. I’ve recruited some friends to the cause, because doing hard things is much easier when you’re part of a team, and when you are having fun. The game was upped when one came served in a jar, with a straw and a strawberry on the side. Tonight, I’m taking out the cocktail umbrellas and mocktailing a daiquiri.

Maybe this is a strategy that can help my kids be more motivated and self-directed. I’m not sure, but I’ve been using the terminology around the house – planting the idea of it with phrases like “what will future-you think/feel/do if you…” [insert relevant slightly parentally alarming behaviour here]. You know like…  spend all your time on your device, don’t eat lunch, don’t brush your teeth, don’t call your grandfather. Future-me plans on being slightly more positive too. Like “Wow, dude, future-you is going to love those study-notes”.

I’m not a child psychologist and they are teenagers, so who knows whether this filters through the underdeveloped decision making neural hardware our poor teens have to navigate life with. But I believe in planting seeds. So away we plant, and perhaps there is fruit. Today I heard one of them use the words “future-me” whilst talking about a project with school friends. As in, “future-me will not be happy if I choose that to be responsible for!”

Current-me did a little dance of joy at the actions of Past-me. And that’s all I really want… a future-me who is thankful for current-me.

Stay safe, live gloriously.
xx Sharlene

My father and I and the things I miss…

Every time around this year I remember my dad. He died 9 years ago. I watched him breathe his last over Skype, which feels ironic in these times. Still, I managed to fly backwards and forwards to London several times through the course of his decline, for which I am ever grateful.

I still miss my father. My mother, all the way in London herself, asked me the other day what I particularly miss about him. There are obvious things I tell her. I miss his gravelly voice. I miss the strength of his hugs. He was built like a bear, as solid as a mountain, at least physically. He could wrap his arm around you and make you feel safe like no other person I know.

I miss playing board games with my father, complete with his own special brand of rules designed to improve the game. Rules we all had to play by and that had to be explained to newcomers, invited as they so often were into our board game playing family gatherings. We still play Trivial Pursuit the Weedman Way. It’s better, I promise you. I suppose in a greater sense, I miss his quirks, at least some of them. It is our idiosyncrasies after all that make us the unique and interesting individuals we are.

My father wasn’t the easiest person to have in your life. He was cracked and scarred by his childhood, weighed down with a sense of inadequacy and a desperate fear of abandonment that I sometimes think I’ve inherited vicariously. It was a battle to find my own voice from within his overshadowing presence. A battle that required withdrawal at times, frustrated resignation at others. A battle that left both of us with sore hearts on occasion.    

In truth it took my dad dying for me have space enough to breathe from beneath the weight of his expectations. It was, in all honesty, only in his absence that I was able to separate myself from his version of me and find my own reflection in the world.

I’ve grown up a lot over the past almost decade. I feel like a different person altogether compared to the one he knew. Someone who is more sure of herself. Less dependent on the opinions of others, especially his. Someone I wish he knew.

More importantly though, in seeking to grow, in deliberately working to deconstruct and examine the stories on which my mind had for so long rested, I have, finally, been able to see just how much my father loved me. Not as an extension of himself, or as condition burdened with the need to continually prove myself (which is what it used to feel like), but loved unconditionally just for being me.    

And that is what I miss most of all, I suppose. To actually hear my dad when he told me he loved me (which he did often). Not the words, but the meaning. To hear the love and pride that was divorced from his own sense of inadequacy. And to be able to say back to him, just once, from a place of knowledge woven into the heart of me, I know you do Dad.

Travelling, Covid style

I’ve got a lot of negative things to say about Facebook, which wraps its algorithms around my brain circuits and gets more of my attention than I’m happy with. Despite knowing that the spotlight it shines on the human capacity for stupidity, cruelty and gut-curdling self-interest leaves me in the shadows of depression, I find it hard to give it up. This is an indication of how very good Facebook is at what it does. Manipulating people, basically.

Nonetheless, one of the benefits of Facebook’s incessant drive to keep me engaged is to remind me of the past. You have memories, it pipes up, with its little dangling alarm bell designed to make me click. And it’s kind of nice to see the past parade across your screen, when really you should be doing something a bit more constructive and slightly more mentally challenging.

So many of my facebook memories from this time of the year involve international travel. No wonder I’m so surprised at how cold Sydney gets in June. I often miss out on the worst of it. Five years ago, we were jetting off to South Africa (and on to London). Six years ago, we were in New York. Ten years ago, we were in Paris. The year after in Fiji. Oh, the places we’ve been.

And oh, the places we wish we could go! Japan is at the top of my list. And two weeks wallowing on the Greek isles not far behind. Southern Spain would be nice for Tapas and history. And Cambodia for temples.

Right now though, international travel is off the cards for us. We’re stuck in Australia, which luckily has a vast array of different experiences to offer. We’ve got mountains with ski runs, islands with tropical breezes, rainforests and deserts and a range of cities each with their own personalities and attractions. Unfortunately, a surge of covid cases in Sydney has pulled even this rug out from under our feet. We are trapped in Metropolitan Sydney and can’t even go to the Blue Mountains, all of 45 minutes drive away. I’m trying to practice c’est la vie. For a person who runs on anxiety and what-if scenario planning, it’s a big ask.

Still, there are other ways to experience different cultures, as we accidentally discovered the other night whilst puzzling over menus presented in Korean, with barely a hint of English. As if we were in Seoul itself, we actually had to ask one of the wait-staff to explain what was what. He did so with an air of patient indulgence. Looking around, we realised we were the only non-Korean people in the place. How exciting, I thought, side-stepping the house speciality (intestines, no thank you) and opting for spicy fried chicken and “pancakes” instead. It’s like we’ve gone on holiday after all… and without needing a plane ticket, passport or quarantine hotel to boot.

So, this is the new world at the moment. The way things are. The need to be flexible in our approach to things, and to find adventure closer to home. There are several suburbs that are enclaves of particular cultures near us. Opportunities to travel, if you will, via cuisine and language, if not by plane. To go to places designed specifically for people of that culture, who barely give a nod toward English tastes or explanations. Afterall, one of the key parts of exotic travel is surely talking to locals, negotiating the menu and hoping for the best? Perhaps we need not only travel in our dreams, at least once the current two week lock-down has passed.

As for Facebook, five years from now what will it tell me? A lot about living through COVID I suppose. Local sunsets and pictures of the dog will feature. But perhaps it will also remind me, if I let it, of that time we went down the road and found ourselves in South Korea.

Growing Up

It’s home time. I’m taking the red eye from Perth to Sydney, which leaves at the rather uncivilised hour of 5 minutes to midnight. I’m rounding off this rather spontaneous trip with a rather spontaneous glass of white. I haven’t done spontaneous for a while. I think I used to be more spontaneous – I remember a random weekday spur of the moment trip to Brighton pre-kids, skipping work the next day to wander around the rides, eat ice-cream and drink champagne. And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t completely out of the norm for me.

I’ve reached a point in my life where so much of who I am and what I do is tied into the lives of other people, it is hard to know where they end and I begin. But where I used to be the centre of things, now I feel peripheral. Sort of surplus to requirements. Mothers with teenagers might recognise this feeling. You wake up one day to find you live in a house full of almost grown-ups, who are busy being independent and secretive, and working out how to navigate their own way in the world without your interference. My husband tells me this means we’ve done a good job. But I feel a bit bewildered. I used to be the most important person in their lives, but they’ve grown up without so much as a backward glance.

I look backwards though and realise I never got a chance to say goodbye to the little people who used to fill my days with their chatter and demands, their singing and their stories, who held my hand and wanted to tell me about their day. Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted by the humans my children are growing into. When they choose to, they are good company. Funny and kind, and full of outrage at injustice and overflowing with ideas on how to make the world a better place.  And I’m proud of them. Fit to bust proud. They bring me joy. But they no longer need me in the same way, and they no longer need the same sort of thing from me. Unconditional love and being available remains of course, but that’s about it. They need space, they need encouragement to spread their wings, they need hugs and advice, but only on request. Perhaps what has changed is that they are calling the shots in our relationship.

I don’t know if people warn you about the sense of grief that comes with this stage of life. About the saying goodbye, and the need to reinvent yourself in your late forties. Perhaps they do, but maybe we are so busy worrying about sleeping patterns and nappies, about what school they should go to and, in our case anyway, asthma and anaphylaxis that we don’t pay attention to the ministering’s of middle aged women with grouchy teens in tow. Regardless, here I find myself, in need of a new version of me, one that is not mother centric.

I peer back into the past to see if I can catch a glimpse of an earlier version of me, but that person was young and full of insecurities. And our dreams no longer match up. I’m wiser now, rounder in both body and spirit, and with mileage in my soul, I see barely a shadow of myself in the younger version of me. Like an oak tree contemplating an acorn I suppose. There is something quite liberating in this activity though. Pleasure floods through me when I realise I am no longer as fragile, no longer as desperate to be liked or no longer as hungry to make my mark on the world. I am, I come to a startling conclusion, content. I mull this concept around in my mind for a while. Contentment. It is so far from what I think I wanted in life, and yet, I like the way it feels. Smooth. Pleasing. Comfortable. I’m shrugging this on, like my new furry coatigan, while I work out what I want to do for this next stage of my life. How I want to spend my time and energy, which is less boundless than it once was. And I come to the conclusion that this stage of life is a gift. An opportunity to think again about where to direct oneself. It comes with the acceptance that there is no destination that does not fly past before you’ve had time to unpack and change the bed linen. Life is flow. Life is motion. Life is what happens between events. Life must be lived in the moment.

So here I find myself, a little, on a spontaneous trip to Perth to see friends and family, on my own. With no one to worry about or look after, I have the time to be self-absorbed and still. To just be. To sit at a bar in an airport and drink a glass of wine at the approach of midnight. I haven’t taken time for myself in nearly a decade, but I think I could get used to getting to know myself again. It’s been a while.

Weekend on Kangaroo Island

On Friday we got on a plane for the first time since the pandemic and made our way to beautiful South Australia for a romantic weekend away. It was our 18th wedding anniversary and part of our success at this thing called marriage is, I think, taking time to hang out and reconnect with each other on a regular basis.

As we traverse through the airport, and sit in our tiny economy Qantas seats (did they get smaller?), everyone happily masked up, I marvel at the adaptability of human beings. I think it’s one of the superpowers of our species, this ability to flexibly adjust to changing circumstances.

It’s a two hour, largely smooth, flight to Adelaide and then an 80 minute drive down the ferry to Kangaroo Island. The landscape we drive through is brown and dry; large, rounded hills that seem covered in a mousy coating of dried grass. But they fall off into a sea of startling turquoise, and between them are lush moments of greenery and endless vineyards too that are still heavy with tinges of burnt umber autumnal leaves.

The ferry ferries (!) our car and several trucks and caravans across an aqua sea towards Australia’s third biggest island, for now merely a brown smudge on the horizon. The boat trip is smooth and the lunch we gulped down during a whistle stop visit to Victor Habour remains safely where it belongs. (Not so on the way home, although being outside to avoid seasick vomiting meant I saw the dolphins).

It is a 45 minute trip and we arrive at Penneshaw with a mechanical pirouette that spins the boat around on a dime to reverse in. The ship sounds like it is gnashing its teeth, but I’m distracted by the transparency of the water. How can it be so clear?

We arrive in the late afternoon, but not too late to make it across to Kangaroo Island Spirits for a flight of gin and a little rest in their fairy light bedecked gin-garden. The gins are lovely, the service brimming with good cheer (everyone seems friendly in South Australia, but that probably says more about NSW). I have a lychee gin and tonic, and determine that it will not be my last. Mike buys two bottles to go with our other 16. We could open a bar.

Because the gin place closes early and dinner is a while away yet, we stop at the brewery. It’s a tin shed, with leather sofas and a roaring fire, and bar seating in front of wide windows that frame a stunning view across the countryside. We plonk ourselves down in front of it, wine and beer in hand, and fall into conversation with neighbouring patrons from Melbourne. We like it so much we come back the next night too.

Our first full day on Kangaroo Island starts early with a park run. I think there are about 26 people in attendance – pretty usual, we’re told, and mostly tourists. We run along the edge of the island, in the company of some sort of brown soaring kite, past gliding swans (who knew they did saltwater?) and ungainly pelicans, and flocks of pied cormorants, gathered together in large messy groups, like skulking judges in their frocks.

We drive down to the other end of the island, to the fire ravished Flinders Chase National Park. I can’t imagine what this placed looked like before last year’s fires ripped through this half of the island, taking 98% of the park with it. But for now, it is lush with low growth – a sea of green and budding life that stretches out until the sea. It is for the rocks we’ve come though.

Admirals Arch is impressive, but it is the seals and sealions that really get our attention. Lollying over rocks they are at first hard to spot. But once we see one, we see that the rocks below seethe with them – different shapes, shades and species. Little ones cavort endlessly, falling into the crashing waves and chasing each other through the sea spray, while fat and tired mamma’s take in the sunshine. It is cold here on this peninsula that stretches into an ocean that bumps up against Antarctica. The wind howls in our ears and tugs at our jackets, and whips our hair into a birds nest of knots.

The Remarkable Rocks are, indeed, remarkable. They stand like a monument to Dali, shaped and smoothed and carved out by nature herself. I’m reminded of the ones we saw crossing from Chile to Bolivia via the Salar de Uyuni. They are sentinels to the passing of time, standing between the ocean and a sandy landscape of blackened trees. It is stark place, but also beautiful. Timeless.

The route home takes us past Vivonne Bay, which is supposed to be renowned for a beautiful beach. The sand is white but it starts to rain when we arrive and the sea is violent and thundery. Instead, we stop at The General Store for lunch (whiting burger on gluten free roll, very yum). I’m glad I made the decision to stay in Kingscote though. Vivonne Bay is beautiful, but it’s remote from shops and restaurants for only a weekend stay.

Finally we wrap up our touristy day with a quick stop to Seal Bay. And this is a highlight on a highlight filled day. Do not skip this! We haven’t booked a tour, but the boardwalk takes us around the breeding grounds where mums and babies lie in paired cocoons. Baby seals are about the cutest things you can ever hope to see in your life. They are playful, curious, social and lost babies cry with a heart rending plea that sets my own mum hormones alight. I’m in awe of people who dedicate their life to conservation work like this.

As we walk to the look out we have an encounter of a less cute kind. A black tiger snake is making its way along the pathway. He (she?) flares his head at us in annoyance and I’m almost paralysed by fear. Not by this one, particularly, although I’m definitely following instructions and slowly stepping away. But rather by the notion that I’ve probably walked past any number of them just out of sight below a bush or beneath a rock today, a momentary breath away from a deadly encounter. To be fair, I’ve lived in Australia for 20 years and it is the first snake in the wild I’ve seen. Nonetheless, we stopped at the brewery for a calming drink on the way home!

We’re pretty tired out from driving the next day, so we stay closer to Kingscote. We visit the Sunday market, about 6 stalls in total and buy a few knick knacks to take home. There are all of 30 people there, but no one seems that fussed. It is hard to conceive living in so small a community. Even a late night trip to Coles has more people where we live.

After that, we go wine tasting. There are five wine makers on the island, I think. We visit the three closest to us and are not disappointed. At The Islander Estate we taste beautiful reds we would never buy ourselves ($150 a bottle is a little steep for my uneducated palate, but I can see the appeal for those with a wine interest), and beautiful reds and whites we would. We have a prosecco that sparkles off my tongue with dancing deliciousness. We order 6 to be delivered – as soon as possible. Sophie gives us an entertaining rundown on both wine and island life, and we go and see her dad’s sheep munching in the vineyards at the next place.

I love this local feel of thing. The lack of pretence and the quiet confidence of something done well for its own sake. For pleasure.

Springs Road Wines is our next stop, but I’ve already been drinking their wines at the local brewery. Still, with limited distribution, we bring some home with us all the same (one breaks in transit, soaking everything in the smell of fermented grapes ;( ) . Finally, we stop at Bay of Shoals. We order a platter of goodies – meats and cheeses and olives and what not, and a bottle of wine and sit on the hill watching the water sparkle in the bay and the kangaroos graze amongst the vines that roll down the hill towards it.

Is two days enough to see Kangaroo island? It depends I suppose on what you want to do. One additional day would have allowed us to visit the other part of the island, the part closest to Penneshaw. American River and False Cape and Dudley Wines. A bit more time and we could have gone Koala seeking, or at least visited the wildlife parks. Still, it was enough to get a taste of it. Enough to feel rested and rejuvenated, and #blessed to live in this fine and bountiful land, with its phenomenal trove of natural treasures.

Onwards to the next adventure

Sharlene – April 2021

14 days in a Camper Van (and it rained a lot!)

Day 1

It always takes longer than you think to gather yourself together, work out just what parts of your house you need to take with you, get it into the van and get underway. I am reminded to set closer locations for the first nights stay.

We finally leave at 2.30 and make the 3.5 hour drive to the Booti Booti National Park, and the seven miles of beach front at the doorstep of the Ruins Campground. Along the way we realize we’ve forgotten important things like a bucket for lugging dirty dishes to campsite washing up facilities and a sharp knife. When we arrive we remember mozzie coils and candles. Oh well.

We motor through torrential rain, but it has stopped when we arrive in time for drinks on the spectacular beach – endless it seems into the mists on the northern end – and wrapped in a wind blown fur coat of silver green. The sky is brooding with rain clouds yet spent but a touch of blue breaks through in time for evening’s orange glow. We drink gin, eat yummy unhealthy snacks and remember how much we enjoy family van life. 

Day 2 

Things are, as always with my family, slow to start, but I take the opportunity for a morning walk in the blustery sea breeze on a beach strewn with blue bottles. I am reminded just how much I love the sea. I feel as wide as the ocean out here, free from daily life.

We meander northwards.

Battling through a mozzie infested rainforest to a tree top look out that takes in the wide sweep of tumultuous ocean, and the endless yellow sands of beaches miles long, we find that some people, young no doubt and still in the grip of passion’s intense embrace, have taken the trouble of inscribing locks and attaching them to the railings of the lookout tower.

One mile beach beckons with crashing waves and cappuccino foam and the excitement on the faces of my children as they swim amidst the push and pull of the waves  is delightful. The feeling in my chest when I look at them having fun is what love feels like.

We travel over rivers swollen and brown with rain to have tea at a lookout where the effect of the runoff is demarcated in the sea. The rain returns as we cross Little Beach and make our way to Taking Point lighthouse near Port Macquarie. As the rain pummels down, we wrap ourselves into our Campervan with wine and spaghetti Bolognese and hope we don’t get bogged in tomorrow.

Day 3 

We start the day at an astonishingly excellent aqua park, seemingly randomly situated in the middle of nowhere – a sort of raw challenge in water which reminds me to work on my pelvic floor and upper body strength.

Our meandering takes us to coffee conversations about careers and futures with our nearly adult children in a cute restaurant in Kempsie, before a walk and sort of swim on yet another endless beach.The sea is brown and bitty, full of the after effects of last month’s floods, but the walk is refreshing and watching the kite surfers mesmerizing.

We amble into Bellingen, lush and green and bursting with fat cows, for dinner with our oldest of Australian friends at a bar buzzing with people having a very good time. Tonight we are free camping. It is hot and, momentarily anyway, not raining. But this town is gorgeous and one I fall in love with immediately. 

Day 4

Today is all about splashing about in the lush green backyard of Bello. We meander into the Promised Land to swim in a creek with water so cold it makes your breath freeze up inside you. It is as clear as air, and the rocks twinkle below, uncomfortable underfoot. But we find a pool big and wide enough for the kids to satisfy their desire for jumping off things.

We push the bus up the mountain into panoramic vistas of fertile greenery, and find ourselves agog with the sheer magnificence of the countryside. It is Waterfall Way we are trundling along and so it is unsurprising to find ourselves in the company of several torrents of water cascading down the steep incline.

Our last stop of the afternoon is the rainforest walk in Dorrigo National Park. It is late-ish when we are arrive, but we are all a bit cantankerous with each other and set off for a 7.5km walk to breath in some space. It’s good for the head and the heart to be surrounded by towering trees and the convoluted, multi textured layers of this rainforest. It is beautiful beyond words, a fantastical landscape that surely must have played inspiration to fantasy writers the world over. It feels like we are lost in the movie Avatar.

We come across two main waterfalls, water thundering in white smoke down the slippery rocks, sending spray into our hair and faces, before hiking back out, up inclines my calves will feel for the rest of the week. Tonight we are sleeping in a Showground. It’s our first. I like it better than free camping on the side of a suburban street. And we are able to make a fire and watch the stars burst out of the twilight, while a cacophony of cicadas play their nightly tunes. This will do. 

Day 5

Is it really only day 5? The day starts in brilliant sunshine. We have slept on top of the world, or so it seems. When I step out of the Campervan after a ridiculously good night’s sleep everything is clean and vivid and fresh.

Our first stop is Dangar Falls – closed to the the uninitiated. But we follow the general throng of people clambering around stay out signs and pick our way down to a fabulous waterhole at the base of a waterfall that cascades off the rocks above and makes its own rain. There is much swimming and laughing amidst the spray coming from the churning water.

We also trek out to Ebor for another waterfall. The languid, barely noticeable Guy Fawkes (why is this patch of brown water named after some British terrorist?) river tumbles with astonishing force over a staggeringly sheer cliff face – not once, but twice – a sort of double layer cake of a waterfall. There is a lot of water on waterfall way, but last year’s fires are in evidence in the closed off lookouts burnt to a crisp and the blackened trees which make their way deep into the valley and up the other side.

We head back down the mountain in torrential rain, wreathed in cloud which limits our visibility to about 10 meters at best. Coming down a sharp and winding incline when you can’t see much is an exercise in anxiety, but Mike is the hero of the hour as far as I am concerned and gets us to Coffs Harbor without many sharp intakes of breath from me.

Rain looks set to dog us for this holiday. After watching ash fall out of the sky last year I am not complaining (much) but it makes for a rather damp affair. We chase the sunshine nonetheless, hoping for bright spots as we continue to head north beneath the glaring signs forbidding us entry into Queensland without a permit. 

Day 6

Wet. Wet wet wet and grey. We go for a walk along the beach and onto the Marina in Coffs Harbour and get caught in a torrential downpour that leaves even our underwear dripping with water. Today we retreat to the Grafton movie cinema and watch Wonder Woman save the world from the chaotic ambition of one man’s narcissism. Prescience much? 

Day 7

Today continues in the same wet and grey vein as yesterday. We drive miles through gusty, blustery rain drenched fields of greenness – sugar cane, fruit trees, fields – before finding some sort of relief within the confines of Lord Byron’s cellar door. A good tour of the ins and outs of rum production and the purchase of several bottles of brew was the highlight of today.

That was until we arrive into the gorgeous beach side town of Kingscliff and set up home about as close to the beach as you can get without being in a boat. The weather remains dismal, and Mike and I get rained on yet again while we wander the high street, but the sound of the waves and the wide expanse of soft sand, the live music floating over the night air and the concrete slab we are parked on (and therefore a glorious lack of mud!) makes me feel very happy indeed! 

Day 8

Beachside life with one of our longest time friends. Swimming, talking, eating, drinking while our teenagers roamed free building an amazing desert island home and playing board games and tackling the crashing waves of the ocean on our doorstep. It ended with ice cream as beach days should. Exceptionally good day. Except for the bit where I got stung by a bee. That was exceptionally not good! 

Day 9

We have reached apogee in our travels and pivot around Fingal Head lighthouse to trace our way back home. The reason for trekking to this particular exposed rocky finger of earth stretching into the sea is to see dolphins and we do – in the distance, a large pod of fun seekers surfing the waves. We are still staring into the misty tumultuous waters when a squall hits us and we are drenched within seconds and having to do battle with a wind that would blow us right off the cliff tops.

Mike and I tour and lunch at Husk Distillery, home to our most favourite of gins – Ink Gin. It’s an upmarket slick affair that looks perfectly crafted by adept marketers but I am pleased to learn it is a family business done good, and although their new stills reach into the skies, each bottle is hand labeled and sealed. Lunch is divine – thick prawns with spicy chorizo for me and ink-gin infused salmon for Mike.

This afternoon we trundle into Byron Bay and, finally, some sunshine. This is a jam packed town and we are squashed into a beach side campsite with a million other campers. We spend the afternoon on the beach though, which is scarred quite badly by the recent floods. Stairways have been washed away, leaving gaping pathways 12 foot above the sand and the beach seems to be held together with sand bags. Ripped up vegetation is apparent everywhere, but the sand is flat and soft and the waves seem to suit the plethora of surfers who keep at it until darkness falls.

We walk into the town for ice cream, paddling ankle deep in the sea both there and back. On the return trip there is a rainbow that stretches from the lighthouse to the ocean and this feels like a fitting end to the day. 

Day 10 

Yamba in the sunshine. We walk up a steep ridge that Matt insists is entirely unnecessary and would be better off blown up, before lurching down the other side to reach a wide stretch of yellow beach and distant waves that crash and tumble with a ferocity that brings sheer joy to our son’s young face. He doesn’t notice but two dolphins cavort in the waves near him as he gets vaguely swept out to sea before battling his way back to a level he can stand on. Be still my racing heart.

We hike up the hill again and meander around to the lighthouse – our children learn the word phallic in this regard – and down again to another beach and alongside the Clarence River estuary. Matt spends the afternoon jumping off a cool jungle boat, and we walk down the breakwater for evening drinks in the setting sun. Dolphins play in the waves and we catch sight of them now and again between the fishing boats heading out of the river and into the roiling sea. The night sky is adorned with stars as we collapse into bed exhausted from yet more walking! This holiday is exhausting us – we may need to return to work for a rest. 

Day 11

What difference a little sunshine makes. We return to Coffs and the scene couldn’t be more different from our previous drenching experience. Matt jumps off the high points along the jetty with the locals, plummeting a long way down from my anxious perspective and we swim through the depths back to the shore together. I spend a lot of time not thinking about what marine life is swimming about below me, and I am glad we visit the dolphin and sea life conservation centre after the fact.

Here we see a slice of sea life from around these parts; snapper the size of small dogs swirl lazily with some sort of horned shark and rays and turtles. There are many turtles rehabilitating here, resting and degassing before being returned to the sea. The show stoppers of course are the dolphins, who put on a vigorous display and grin at the applause that greets their high flying antics. I love dolphins and I am brought to tears watching their playful interactions and thinking about the human parasite that wrecks havoc on the earth.

Later, we trundle down to the remarkably delightful hamlet of Urunga. It’s a different sort of place – set on a tidal lagoon I suppose that rises and falls with the sea. We walk (always walking) down the boardwalk at low tide, taking great delight in the bizarre array of crab life at play amongst the mangroves – strange scuttling spider like crabs with fat blue  backs (soldier crabs apparently), yellow one armed fiddler crabs that look like they’ve emerged from some sort of nuclear experiment, crabs with two red claws. As we walk along the estuary, with the tide returning , we see dolphins! The women next to me says “I’ve been coming here for 25 years and I’ve never seen dolphins come into the harbor”. I feel like a dolphin whisperer this week! 

Day 12

Sometimes you come across a view so spectacular it leaves you short of vocabulary. Such is the panorama from Crescent Head lookout – high above the seaside village and the surfers who appear the size of ants. The deep blue ocean spreads before us from north to south and all the way to the horizon where it meets the sky – today crisp and clear and eternal.

Back at sea level the water is that annoying tea colour from the river which flows across the beach and into the waves taking children and adults alike in blow up floaties with it. We only have time for a quick dip and lunch before we head off for a three hour drive back south, leaving the north coast with all its vivid lushness behind us.

Day 13 

Chill day, beach day – sand and sea and surf. We start early, the pair of us “parentals” with an earlyish walk, coffee overlooking Nelson Bay and a swim in waters of aquamarine. Then it’s down to the beach, while the kids and Mike go out in a tinny to do some fishing and, accidentally, a spot dolphin gawking. Arabella sees them with her sharp eyes.

They are kind enough to fetch me for the dolphins and we manage to find them cavorting across the bay. It is just delightful, a thing of childlike awe, to see these gorgeous animals playing in front of you.

Fish and chips on the sea shore and a spot of snorkeling before evening drinks on the dunes at Anna Bay overlooking an incoming storm. This trip, even restricted as it was to NSW, is a reminder at just how spectacular Australia is. 

Day 14 

This is it. The final day of our rather epic NSW adventure. We’ve had rain and mud and waterfalls, sunshine and sunburn and dolphins. We’ve seen gorgeous rainforests and spectacular beaches, turquoise blue seas and swollen brown rivers and the corrugated slopes of wind blown sand dunes. Today we did relaxation. We swim in the icy rolling waves at (another) One Mile Beach and play a 5 hour complicated board game (that we nearly lost!).

Rounding off the trip with a chill day before back to work next week.

Tonight the Milky Way is visible in the sky and the kookaburras laughed as the day winds up. Life in Australia is a gift. A bountiful land we are grateful to call home and blessed to explore. 

Tell yourself a new story

Tell yourself a new story
One that does not begin with shame
Or the erroneous notion of being born broken
That your very existence is flawed
In need of redemption
Or that life is a rehearsal
In pursuit of eternal reward
A promise of future paradise
Bought with death and destruction
And the oppression of curiosity
 
Tell yourself a new story
Snatched from the tree of knowledge
Dripping with ripening fruit
Rich with possibility
 
A story that revels in the glorious
Imperfections of life’s experimental creations
That hints of the wonder of being alive
Here in this moment
 
Just for a moment
 
Shaped from the very matter of the universe
Filled with curiosity and second chances
And the capacity to contemplate
Art and music and love
And the whims of fate.
 
Tell yourself a story of insignificance
For indeed small you are

A momentary fragment of the universe
A tiny thread of life’s vibrant tapestry  
As inconsequential as a fruit fly
As influential as the wings of a butterfly
 
Particles of the universe
Arranged just so,
Perfectly, uniquely you
Intimately connected to everything
 
Alive
Awake
Aware
Curious
 
With the chance to explore
Discover
Feel the heartbeat of a lover
The cold brisk air on the slopes of a snow-covered mountain
The touch of sun on your upturned face
The touch of kindness
The thrill of desire
The ache of longing  
The warm embrace of love
 
A moment in which
To smile
To hope
To dream
To create
To listen
To learn
To love
To care
 
To spread the wings of your mind
And take flight
In the marvellously magical possibilities
Of conscious life.

Sharlene Zeederberg - July, 2020
Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash