Do we really recover after disaster?

Image depicts an olive green paper leaf with the following handwritten text: After the fires we put out our epicormic growth, captured the light, and grew. Some of us were seeds, blown on those stormforce winds. We grew in new places. Thank you for remembering. Kim
My leaf for the tree of remembrance at the Museums Victoria ‘From the Heart’ exhibition.

recovery (n):

  1. A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
  2. The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

I’ve been pondering recovery, 10 years after the 2009 Victorian Bushfires (often referred to as Black Saturday) razed my home and community, changing my life forever. Contained within that opening statement is the obvious problem with using the term ‘recovery’ to describe the process that occurs following significant trauma. My life has been forever altered.

Recovery supposedly entails regaining possession or control of something lost, but it’s clear that I will never regain possession of Mum’s pearl necklace. My home will never be rebuilt. The car was long ago mined for usable scrap metal. The rhododendrons will never again herald the arrival of spring on the mountain. What little remains of the garden has been under someone else’s stewardship for several years now. Instead, I have a necklace crafted from the nuggets found in the bottom of my charred jewellery box and a blue car to replace the green. My new home, 10km from the CBD, is approaching 100 years old and on some days the garden could feed our suburb. The miraculous rhubarb I transplanted from the mountain is especially tasty.

And our understanding of recovery also implies that we eventually return to a “usual” state of being, a pre-disaster state that was supposedly the pinnacle from which we fell. So, what to make of the fact that my health now is probably a shade better than it was in February 2009? Over the past 10 years there have been times when I was gravely ill and others when I was the fittest I have ever been. When the wind and heat flare I am anxious, unsettled and prone to tears. This is not very different to when I lived on the mountain, only now I fear for the lives of others, rather than my own. I feel safer in the suburbs. I cry more often. We don’t go on holidays in the summer. My children grow into thoughtful, caring souls. I have a broad, rich new community of friends. I make jam for the school fête. My work is fulfilling. I write and perform poetry, a surprise development. There’s a new relationship, more than six years old now, which brings healing and laughter. My life bears little resemblance to what it was on the morning of February 7th 2009. I still prepare for disaster, since disaster seems inevitable, but I’m convinced that I will cope when it comes. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am the product of what is described as post-traumatic growth. Many would say that I have ‘recovered’.

But I don’t think recovery is the correct term. It can create impossible expectations of return to pre-disaster life and implies a tangible endpoint for a process that will be lifelong. Those who experience trauma are indelibly altered by it, for better or for worse, but mostly both. Perhaps a better term would be ‘evolution’. Or perhaps we could think of ourselves in the same way as the landscape, which has undergone ‘regeneration’.

The ‘From the Heart’ exhibition, which commemorates the February 2009 fires is free for those affected by the 2009 fires. The exhibits focus on regeneration and progress since the fires and would be suitable for most children.

https://museumsvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/whats-on/from-the-heart/

My thanks to Dr Alexis Harley for her editorial assistance with this piece of writing.

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A poem for 10 years

“Are you saying the fires were a good thing in your life?”

Yesterday I spoke on Jon Faine’s special broadcast to mark the 10th anniversary of the February 2009 fires. 173 people lost their lives during or immediately after the fires and an equally sad too many thereafter. Thousands of homes, businesses and community facilities were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and farming land were razed. Communities were shaken to their core.

Image contains: burned ruins of a home, some exterior mudbrick walls are still standing, there is twisted metal and a melted bath. Behind the home are many burnt trees in a forest.
What remained of my home, and the forest behind.

What followed was a truly remarkable response from all levels of government, charitable organisations and, most importantly, thousands of ‘ordinary’ people who helped in countless ways: donations of money, provision of shelter to people and animals, goods, labour and services, listening patiently, fostering creativity and advocacy. The relief effort is ongoing.

On the program I discussed the experiences of the displaced, especially those who didn’t return to live in the fire-affected areas. Not everyone rebuilt their homes. I mentioned the difficulties experienced by people like me, which were different from those who remained in place. I was accompanied by Professor Lisa Gibbs, from the University of Melbourne, who has lead an extensive body of research into community, recovery and resilience after bushfire. Details of the Beyond Bushfires team and research can be found here. I stressed that, for me, the experience of the losses from the fires have lead to post-traumatic growth: my life now is richer. I am grateful for the positives the disaster has brought me. Jon Faine suggested that the listeners at home might wonder “are you saying the fires were a good thing in your life?” And I would have to say, yes they were. But they were also awful. They’ve left me with psychological scars and have changed my relationship with the bush forever. If I had my life over, I would not have been on that mountain on the day. If I had my life over, those powerlines would not have sparked that blaze.

Last year, on the 9th anniversary, I wrote this poem.

If only
our subsequent tears
had rained
on those errant
sparks

Image contains: a circular path around a 10m high iron tree with a canopy of hand-forged eucalyptus leaves.
The Blacksmith’s Tree, Strathewen

This year, I was asked to write a poem to contribute to the City of Whittlesea’s ‘Growth’ commemorative event. I grabbed a notebook and headed to my local café, only to discover the notebook I had in my hand was the one that I carried for months after the fires. I mined it for this poem.

10 years since the fires

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

last week I sobbed
forecast 45 degrees
memories hot
raw dread fear

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

café, tofu and soba
old notebook
2009
full of lists

insurance policy numbers
building code advice
real estate agents
grants to apply for

Phoenix Taskforce
documents to find
wound clinic appointments
support group dates

donated goods
people to thank
contacts at Grocon
trauma psychologists

what we need for the baby
relationship counsellors
re-establishing contents
family lawyers

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

walk to the café
scribble down words
boys are at school
barista knows my name

flick pages
catch breath
frown at names
no longer recognised

at home
greying dog
freshly picked plums
ready for the preserver

post photo online
new friends, new fella click ‘love’
profile now declares me
a poet

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

my green notebook
2009
full of lists
a poem

Image contains: view up from underneath Australian tree ferns, with a shaft of sun shining through
Ferns at Tarra Bulga National Park, close to where the Callignee fires swept through in February 2009


Thank you to everyone who has supported any person affected by the 2009 fires. Thank you for remembering. May we all continue to heal.

learning to swim

These past few months I have been attending weekly swimming lessons. It’s an adult class, full of panicked folk eager to combat their fears and teach their bodies skills that most people raised in Australia take for granted. When I started I couldn’t swim a single lap, hated putting my head in the water and would pull up short of the deep end every time I struck out for the far end of the pool.

I’m a determined soul. I pushed past the feelings of imminent drowning and now swim several laps in a row and tread for many minutes at a time. I happily swim along with each of my sons in turn, while the other does his own lesson. I resent it when work or other commitments come between me and my opportunities to get in the pool. The calm meditative nature and attention to breathing is all very soothing really, once you get used to it.

Years ago I was given the label of cyclothymia – cyclical variations in mood, a bit like having bipolar disorder, only milder (and apparently unrelated). I used only to recognise the down swings and be fearful of them. The times when I felt really well and productive went unnoticed – or perhaps were not freely expressed during my previous relationship and periods of very intense work. I was frightened of these moods and what they might mean for my health. I’ve been working at managing them for many years, gaining skills to cope but powerless to alter the biological ebb and flow.

Now that I’ve learned to swim, I can bob on top of the moody ocean, rather than be crushed on the rocks on the foreshore.

learning to swim

in deep water waves reach
incredible height
giant continuous sinusoids
smooth peaks and deep broad troughs
over which a swimmer
might bob oblivious
to the forces shaping
her gently exhilarating ride

as the waves approach the shallows
they grow taller still
towering steep and jagged
the sea bed drags at their base
tops racing away in chaos
their arcs crumble to mayhem
swimmer tossed breathless and gasping
lucky if she arrives battered on the shore

I’ve been learning to swim these ocean moods
finding courage to brave deep water
yet all this time
it was the shallows I should have feared

carbon dioxide

Happy writing doesn’t come naturally to me. I worry about sounding trite or, worse, soppy. These past few months have been the happiest I can remember, so I haven’t much felt like writing.

Last year I wrote my first love poem – for my beloved’s birthday. I was 45. It didn’t completely suck. He has a copy on the wall by his bed, so I guess he must like it, or at the very least like that it was written.

Yesterday I ventured out to a poetry gig. Later, we saw Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ together, in which Paterson the bus driver writes poems deeply entrenched in ordinary wonder. The film is a calm mindful view of what might be considered mundane until transformed by the poetic lens. Unlike the two women seated next to us who talked and looked at their phone screens throughout, we were quite captivated. Hands clasped across the restaurant table we discussed the film and the kangaroo gargoyles on the building opposite. Perhaps it was the film that triggered an especially mindful moment this morning and the subsequent urge to write it.

carbon dioxide

face sleep slack
your lips whistle slightly
with each exhalation
your right cheek
rests on the pillow of my left elbow
our noses close enough
for the hairs you won’t let me pluck
to tickle

my right arm drapes
across the soft pelt of your back
fingers seeking the smooth valley
of your spine
I enjoy the play of texture
squash my breasts against your chest
rest my right knee
on your thigh

though your breaths are quicker
than mine
I synchronise my intake
with each lip whistle
brave those ticklish hairs
breathe in your waste breath
so that I might merge further
with you

in my slack muscle trance
lost in the detail
of the lines round your eyes
each fingertip on my skin
my idling mind wonders
if your excess carbon dioxide
is responsible for the giddiness
of love

(PS My beloved is cool with me sharing.)

Image

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

I said.*

He laughed, kissed his way up my arm and wiped the tears from his eyes. Those eyes, wet with mirth and, I dare say, blessed relief. I had cracked a joke – riffed on his involvement with game shows – when referring to his censoring of responses he felt just added ‘noise’ to the conversation. I smiled. Tentatively.

And in saying that I reflected on another conversation, last night, about the carefully curated selves we tend to present on social media. Whitewashing troubles and the danger inherent in comparing our lives to those portrayed by others. My friends were there because I had spent most of the preceding day sobbing. I couldn’t work, sleep evaded me, had no appetite and could do little more than lie on the bed. They were surprised by the message “I have fallen apart after the women’s weekend”, for the images posted over the weekend were of a radiant, joyous me. And those images were true – I was filled with joy and excitement and some bubbly wine. It had been a wonderful adventure for me. Of course, I had not posted any pictures of me sobbing. Of smudged cheeks, red eyes and knitted brow. I had taken a selfie as I lay in bed. I had thought about posting it to Facebook. Instead I kept my misery more local. I whitewashed my story.

I guess it’s a fine line between a heavily redacted fairytale social image and ‘oversharing’ personal woes. There have been times when sharing my pain online has gained me support I would otherwise not have received. I’ve seen whole communities rally when they fear someone is at risk. There are times when the sharing then becomes another ‘job’ – of replying to messages or fending off those drawn to crises who are sometimes less than helpful.

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

I played dress ups on the weekend. Fueled by excitement, effervescent wine and sparkling women, I tried on an astonishing array of frocks. Nearly all of us did. These are the subject of the Facebook photos: sans bra in a black baby doll frock, hands on hips in a sequined purple strapless number with a Dolly Varden skirt and the wedding dress. In those mock bridal photos I look as radiant and joyous as any bride. The lingering massage oil may have contributed to the glow, but my delight at seeing myself in that frock is what illuminates those pictures.

I had never been to a Women’s Weekend before. There’s no way I would have contemplated such a thing until recently. Even so, the notion of it filled me with anxiety. I knew only one other woman there. I was deliberately pushing myself out of my comfort zone. It was a chance to get away. To relax. Connect. Most of all it provided space to STOP.

I am frenetic. I rarely sit still. I am busy. Some of this is necessary – after all, I am a working sole parent without family close by. Much of the busy-ness is self-imposed: a result of perfectionist drive, of anxiety and of distraction. The venue, at Hepburn Springs, was nestled in close to the bush. It was hot. I panicked when I got there. Almost got back in the car to leave.

But I stayed. In the company of those women I relaxed. I sat. I walked at dawn without headphones, climbed a tower to watch the sunrise. I did yoga for the first (and second) time. I can’t say I completely let go of the busy-ness or of the anxiety, but it was quieted. And I STOPPED.

And here’s the rub…

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

All that busy making means little time for feeling, for deep connection with my psyche. Stopping triggered some sort of release. I first noticed it during the second yoga session when I started crying in the savasana (corpse) pose. After I returned home a wellspring of grief and exhaustion poleaxed me. I could not stop crying. I had no joy. I am usually adept at finding joy in the smallest of things: a leaf curled just so, a ripening quince, soft dog hair. I had no joy. The radiant, joyous mock bride was gone. In her place a husk in a black dress.

Today I am wearing a pretty striped dress in shades of blue, green and pale grey. I have cried a little and grieve some more. I have been to a yoga class at my local gym – I didn’t cry during the savasana but I found it profoundly restful. I did get teary when I spoke to the instructor. My abdominal muscles hurt.

I will survive this crisis. Perhaps it is catharsis. Perhaps cyclical. I am glad I stopped. I will press pause on the perpetual motion machine that is me from time to time. I may cry, but it will be good.

* Actually, to be pedantic, I didn’t manage the whole phrase just ‘Portions of this program blah blah may have been edited…’

Impact scars (for Pluto)

Recently a challenge was issued to poets on Twitter by Erika Nesvold. “Poets! There are no impact scars on Pluto’s heart because it’s continuously healing itself with ice. Please get on this”.

Here’s my response.

 
the first crystal forms
nidus in an infant heart
his worn-eyed mother
passes him to a stranger
leaves him for a thousand lifetimes
by the time she returns from her first haircut in a year
the crystal is lodged next to his aorta
her sunlight embrace
fails to melt it

 
at school, those frozen motes grow
with each
and every, taunt
each icicle barb embedded
in cardiac muscle
several of them coalesce
the moment his father says
boys don’t cry

 
his parents marvel
at his barren eyes
when his dog runs off
as if an orphan rock
at the edge of a solar system
they discern no impact scar
the boy has become adept
at mending his heart with ice

 
when his first girlfriend says
she can no longer tolerate
his lack of emotional availability
likens him to a cold grey stone
he watches, mute
her fire unknown to him
the frost gains momentum
glacially spreads to encase his right atrium

 
by the time he is made redundant
both atria are encased
in salty pack ice
clot incubates
in that cardiac refrigerator

 
after the stroke
he orbits his family
in an ever increasing spiral
would spin off into another galaxy
were he not dependent on his wife
who still flinches
if he tries to raise his hand
her death causes his right ventricle to freeze
swollen ankles the first sign of a failing heart

 
he isn’t well-liked
at the nursing home
mostly silent, he sits in his room
at the end of the corridor
no visitors make that trek
his children revolve around warmer bodies
a vanilla sponge from the kitchen
marks each successive year
until all he can swallow is ice-cream

 
when she comes on for the night shift
his half-moon face is turned to the window
sallow, skin tinged with uraemic frost
his ragged breath punctuates their silence
returned to infancy by dementia creep
both ventricles encased
she crushes his tablets, mixing them with strawberry jam
here, Pluto, this will help you breathe
Noor takes his cool thin hand to her cheek
whispers in his ear
one convulsive throe
melts the ice cage
she closes his eyes
notes they are wet

 
My heart may have been damaged by fire. I won’t heal it with ice.

Yarra Flats Sunday morning (a walked ekphrasis)

I’ve been doing a lot of walking. It’s good for my body and my head. Mostly I shimmy along to tunes delivered directly to my ears courtesy of some splendid headphones. I have a walking playlist on my phone – of tunes for tackling hills, striding purposefully or whimsical rambles. This morning I walked to a different soundtrack.

Mindfulness. It’s a bit of a buzzword. Something of a trend. I am undertaking an introductory course explaining the theory and practice of mindful behaviour. I’ve discovered some interesting aspects of myself, one of which is that I already tend towards the mindful. My walks are often meditative, despite the headphones. I observe the gardens, the birds, animals, plants, the play of light. Sometimes I am literally lead by the nose and follow the scents of jasmine, rose, dianthus, lavender.

Today I decided to walk without headphones. I had chosen a shared footpath along the Yarra. The decision to allow my ears full reign was principally for safety – being mown down by a Lycra-bedecked cyclist not being high among my list of priorities. Not long into the walk, and already feeling attuned to the soundscape and noting the preponderance of human noise, I came across one of the signs for the Heidelberg Artists Trail. Arthur Streeton’s “Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide” had been painted from nearby and the title made me aware of the manifest silence of the river. This continual flow, silent into the future, that seemed to draw the sounds into it, as though creating a hushed void. And so my walk became ekphrastic – a future-bound flow, surrounded by sound.

Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide The sign is weathered and the painting can no longer be seen. You can find it here: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/859/

Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide
The sign is weathered and the painting can no longer be seen. You can find it here: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/859/

Yarra Flats Sunday morning (a walked ekphrasis)

carpark shuffle thunk
joggers chatter huff
undulating traffic rumble hum
woodwind plane moan
cyclists ding doppler whirr
pixelated leaf shushing
bridge thunder chunk
babbling inner monologue
a cappella birds twinkle choir
mountain bikes clumber mumble thanks
my metronome gravel scrunch

the river glides silently by