A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
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.
It is three years today since my life, and those of so many others, changed forever. Anniversaries provide us with an opportunity to reflect. We remember the 173 people who lost their lives. We remember the homes, livelihoods, communities and ecosystems lost or irrevocably changed. We remember our anguish, uncertainty, fear and grief. We remember the love and support of people both local and distant. We remember the heroes both sung and unsung. We acknowledge that there will always be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. We reflect on our lives following the fires. Our journeys, if you will.
Look at the trees. They are recovering but they are not unscathed. The land is healing: at its own pace, in its own time.
Today is a gentle day. It is cool. The sky is overcast. The wind temperate. A good day for growth and healing.
From a distance
we appear unchanged
as the timeless hills
shaped over millennia
impervious to disaster
witness our charred trunks
framing new vistas
we stand testament
we hold our losses close
our stasis perilous (if we stand still…)
without leaves we cannot capture light
With this poem I hope to express one aspect of therapeutic writing – ordering and processing the grief, pain and loss. The action of writing it out creates meaning, allowing a deeper understanding which, for me, brings a sense of calm empowerment. However, one friend’s take on this was that I sounded like a victim – the blanket like Linus’. Quite the opposite of how I feel and what I want to convey. Please let me know what you think.
With this pen I write
words course onto the page
ink the colour of my veins
curlicues, serifs, pen-strokes all
Marks on the page
created by hand
each thought a neurone
extending from cortex though fingers
Ball of string within my chest
its mess binding
heart, lungs and mind
Words set free
dance upon the page
transformed, a salve
comforting blanket of
Today I’m off to another Express Yourself Writing Workshop with Arnold Zable. Five hours of quarantined time to write, talk about writing and to listen to the experiences and writing of others. Best hop in the shower…
The lights came to us on Saturday night. Through misting rain, a procession of children brought luminous joy to a cattle shed in Whittlesea. The lanterns, hand-crafted by children from two primary schools, glowed gently, accompanied by the song of young children. A star-shaped lantern guided the children across the oval to converge at the entrance to the shed, where a beguiling shadow puppet performance unfolded in the rain. My sons’ excited faces were infused with the pride of achievement and a sense of belonging; my vision blurred by a mother’s tears. Awaiting us in the shed was a masterful exhibition – a journey through pain and loss into the light. Works echoing three time periods – before, the moment of change, after – were arranged to allow for viewers to undertake a personal journey through the exhibition. Paths of black wood-chips, white salt and earth brown twisted between the exhibits. Works in fabric, natural materials, pottery and of fire-altered materials demonstrated the depth of talent in the community and the therapeutic nature of the creative process. Symbolism was evident in many of the works, benefiting from repeated viewings. A ceramic made by one of the schoolchildren depicted a blackened tree and the words ‘What happens now?’. Indeed, what does happen now? For many the recovery journey has only just begun – we remain fragile, sensitive to small perturbations. Our resilience is reduced, our defences weakened.
Gathered in the shed were people willing to share – bushfire survivors, supporters both professional and voluntary. The mood was buoyant, festive even, but respectful and considered. I was there to do a job: to read one of my poems to an audience for the first time. I had not rehearsed other than read the poem aloud at the dining room table a couple of times. Was I nervous? A little, but also proudly excited just like my five year old who held my hand and stood with me on the stage. I introduced myself, explaining the amazing writing journey I have taken over these last three months and of the support given to me by the ‘Conversations’ group and the ‘Express Yourself’ workshops. When I said I had written thirty poems in that time excited whoops echoed about the shed (thanks Jesse!). And so I read my poem ‘Home’. Slowly, savouring each word, I spoke it aloud and sent it into the crowd. My first poem – both written and performed – and one that I no longer find has much power over me when I read it on the page. But spoken aloud to an audience with shared experience it seemed to have life, power anew, and I left the stage elated, proud and with a new sense of identity. I have survived. My life has meaning, purpose – a future of new experience beckons. Art and community give us meaning. Through them we heal. My creative journey is just beginning.
My sincere thanks to Meme and Stefanie for including me in the program. And to my support crew – Stacey, Grant, Jesse, Leanne, Sebastian and Jeremy.