It's been two long years now
Since the top of the world came crashing down
And I'm getting it back on the road now
But I'm taking the long way . . .
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
In 2012 I was working at UWA, where I had been teaching for four years. The screensaver on my desktop was a slideshow of me and Larry camping — him painting and me writing. This daily reminder of my alternative life was essential for maintaining sanity. We were saving hard and hoping to find a successor to Sunshine.
Then came the big detour. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I lost my job. My mum died.
For the next two years I was surrounded by so much support, I consider myself the most fortunate of women. The lifts, the meals, the visits, the love. The many cards and gifts of all sorts. Especially the ones with little camper vans — thanks Christos and Michelle. It all helped keep my heart light.
On two indelibly blissful occasions Adventurous Jen (who is also a nurse) smuggled me out through my treatment haze and brought me to the ocean, the river, the bush. She knows her medicine. My starving soul was fed. Just enough to get by.
I bided my time. I dreamed. I read the entire set of Enid Blyton's Adventures of the Famous Five - last year's Christmas gift from my cousin Maureen. Perfect! It was all I could manage to concentrate on - and it was full of camping.
And now Christmas has come around again and Larry and I have given ourselves the longed-for gift . . .
Larry and I have a tradition of singing themed songs (in my case loudly and tunelessly) when we travel. If you're old enough to remember Hair, you can sing along. It's a terribly silly song, but who cares?
Starshine already has a full soundtrack including Don Maclean's Vincent ("Starry, starry night"), Joni Mitchel's Woodstock ("We are stardust, we are golden/we are billion year old carbon/and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden"), the aforementioned Dixie Chick's Long Way Round ("I hit the highway/ in a pink Kombi/ with stars on the ceiling") Mama Cass' Dream a Little Dream of Me ("Stars shinning bright above you"). If you have any suggestions for additions, please feel free to add them in the comments below!
The Freeway Song is one of my very favourite songs by my brother, Erik Christensen ("Cold wheel in the cabin light/head off down the hippie trail/feel naked as a footprint in the early dawn/you drink from the holy well"). If it ever goes up on You Tube (Erik?) I'll link so you can listen.
Heading off down the hippie trail . . .
I remember the exact moment I fell in love. It was many years ago on a road trip with my good friend, Adventurous Jen (that's her to the left, when we were in Amsterdam, but that's another story). Now, I've loved Jenny since she was fifteen - but it wasn't her I fell in love with.
Jenny's chosen chariot was a 1978 Toyota Hiace campervan rejoicing in the name of "Sunshine". One of our many joint adventures was a trip to Tone River. After a couple of hours' driving, Jenny pulled up under a big tree in Balingup, cut the engine, popped the kettle on and made a cup of tea accompanied by shortbread biscuits. I was a goner. I fell deeply in love. This was the life for me.
A couple of years later Jenny went on a solo trip around Australia. Sunshine survived the Nullarbor; she survived going across the top. She was just cresting the Darling Scarp on the last leg of her long run when a vigilant policeman pulled the van over, because her number plates were not reflective.
Never mind that they weren't reflective because the painting of number plates had been outsourced to the prison, and the prisoners had not been supplied with the correct reflective paint. Sigh.
Well, you all know the story. An unhappy yellow sticker was slapped on that vehicle of happiness incarnate.
Jenny arrived at my place, in tears. She was about to head off again — sailing on the Leeuwin? whitewater raft guiding in Alaska? I can't remember the exact adventure that time. As Jenny lives on a budget of cents and luck, she couldn't afford to resuscitate her beloved campervan. But all was not lost.
Sunshine was gifted to me and Larry. We had our own piece of heaven for the price of getting her cleared over the pits. Thus began three or four years of hippie bliss. So many road trips. So many happy memories.
Sunshine was a grand old lady. She remained continent across the continent. But all things must pass. One day on the road back from New Norcia, her engine packed up. No new engine could be sourced. So her body was put out to pasture on a friend's property in Toodyay, where she does double duty as a cubby house and overflow guest accommodation. Still bringing Sunshine into people's lives.
And Adventurous Jen? Well she currently lives with her Honey on a catamaran in Thailand.
"Long-hidden documents prove that the men who ran that mine, one of Australia’s largest public companies, were aware from the start of the terrible dangers of blue asbestos. They did too little, too late, to protect their workers, as did the government which should have been the watchdog. It was a conspiracy of silence."
On this date, twenty years ago, my much loved father, Clement Adam Christensen, died from asbestosis. This hideous slow motion drowning was entirely preventable. My father served his country. His country did not serve him. His suffering and premature death were a direct result of the unspeakable coupling of corporate greed and government indifference. Ben Hills' Blue Murder (Sun Books, 1989) quoted above is a fierce indictment.
My Dad was never in Wittenoom: he was a wharfie in Fremantle, as were two of my uncles. My Uncle Les was also a returned soldier. In the late eighties he was diagnosed with asbestosis. Deeply distressed by this news, I wrote a strange and eerily prophetic story called
"Midnight Shift" about my own father's death. Much more recently I also wrote a prose poem about both men. You can listen to it HERE.
Thirteen years after Dad died, "Midnight Shift" was published in Indigo, 1. My mother assumed it had been written afterwards. She cried and thanked me for telling her story so truly. I read the closing paragraphs at Voicebox, accompanied by my brother, Erik.
"long after people leave, they dance on the tide"
I'm a big fan of Christopher Guest mockumentaries (Spinal Tap, Best in Show etc) and their fabulous ensemble casts. First rate satires one and all. I'm also, but much more guardedly, a fan of the Coen Brothers' oeuvre. Last night these two worlds collided when I watched Inside Llewyn Davis. It was A Mighty Wind done noir, as only the Coen brothers could manage. It has great music, their trademark cinematography, and a much lighter hand on the violence. (I couldn't watch No Country for Old Men.) But if you're looking for a good weekend flick, then Inside Llewyn Davis gets a tick from me. The cat alone gives a command performance. I'd nominate it for an Oscar.
My great grandfather was the captain of a sailing ship. He worked delivering supplies to lighthouses. He had a regular run from the east coast around the bottom of Australia as far as Albany, where he would anchor off-shore. His wife, my great grandma, accompanied him on these journeys and each time she was pregnant he employed a midwife to join them on the ship just in case. That’s how my grandma ended up being born in international waters. As she grew, she took this sea journey with her family many times. Each time her longing grew to set foot on land and see Albany properly. It became her personal Shangri La – a symbol of all that seemed desirable but unattainable. It remained a distant dream.
Although she ended up living in Western Australia she was a grown woman and married and had her own pregnancies to deal with — all eight of them! My dad and my aunts and uncles proved to be — shall we say —distracting. It was not until she was in her seventies that she had the chance, finally, to walk the streets of Albany. It did not disappoint her. It was a long and winding road between her dream and its fulfilment. For women it often is! Tillie Olson wrote a whole book on it called Silences.
Take me, for example. I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old. (That’s me, not long after, praying for further inspiration!) It didn’t help. I also spent decades living with a deferred dream. And I didn’t even have the excuse of needing time out for pregnancy and childrearing. I wasn’t lazy, mind. I worked. I travelled, I cared for family and friends. All good things in themselves. I wrote around the edges of my life, in the left over bits of time. It wasn’t until I witnessed my own mother’s slow slide into dementia that my old dream woke up and howled at me – if not, now – then when? So I resigned my full time position as my 50th birthday present to myself – and leapt into the unknown.
"April is the cruelest month" is T.S. Eliot's famous opening line from The Wasteland. By contrast, October is proving to be the kindest month to me! First of all, I got the good news that I am shortlisted for the Newcastle Prize - Australia's most prestigious award for poetry. I've had acceptances for several poems, including The Spell and Harbour Noir.
And to cap it all off I'm really excited about travelling to Albany where I will be presenting to a fabulous bunch of women on the topic of creativity and leadership. Two great friends are coming with me for a women's road trip. Maybe I'll come home with more poems to write.
I am a writer, speaker and creative mentor.