Stuck.

Los Angeles freeway

LA freeway

So tell me folks, does this picture fascinate you? Make you want to stare at it for hours? No? Me neither. Out of all the pictures I took and the wonderful people I met on my trip to the US this must be one of the LEAST fascinating. It is, however, stuck on my digital photo frame in the kitchen right now, and I’ve been staring at it for the better part of the day, if only because the power switch is hidden behind a rather large and heavy chair, and I’ve been too busy (lazy) to move it.

I thought I might blog about being stuck, about how we end up in these thought pathways that we don’t know how to get off, because our own heads are too big and heavy and we’re too busy (lazy) to move them, but then I realised that…well…I’m really tired. And all of a sudden the picture wasn’t about being stuck any more, but about those very first, very earliest memories of my first ever day in a foreign country.

I couldn’t get over how not-foreign everything looked. The airport was like the ones I’m used to (okay, about a zillion times bigger), and African-American people didn’t look like African-Australian people (now that was an interesting observation. Possibly because the African-Australians in Tasmania are, for the most, very recent migrants or refugees, and are still much more African than they are Australian. This manifests itself in lots of very subtle ways, but it was still noticeable).

There weren’t any other Australians, but it was easy to ignore that at first. You just kind of presume they’re somewhere else, maybe in another room, that where you are just happens to have a really large amount of American visitors. It took me a good few days to get over the amazing “co-incidence” that EVERYBODY I met was American. Wow. Really? You too? The fact that I stayed with Australians (*waves HELLO to Theresa!! I’m imagining you picking the kids from school!!*) helped propagate that myth in my mind. But I digress.

The man who took me to Theresa’s house was Lebanese, and that didn’t help either, because I automatically presumed he was Lebanese-Australian and driving a taxi in Melbourne, not Lebanese-American and driving one in LA. LA looked like Melbourne. I’ve said that before, and I may say it forever. My very first thought of being in a foreign country was how like home it was*. We talked about Lebanon and how he misses his family, and his teenage kids and what they’re doing in school, and his wife who’s a nurse, and he pointed out his house to me, a double-story place with a little balcony overlooking the freeway, all of which he would return to after he dropped me at Theresa’s house, the last run on his graveyard shift. I took photos out the window, just because. This was one of them.

He stopped at the mall and bought me a coffee at Starbucks, which felt equally Melbourne-like, which I commented to him, except for the fact that we don’t have Starbucks any more because they pulled them all out. He told another man, an American man, who laughed a little and said “Australians are smarter than Americans then”. And with that I knew the truth: I hadn’t left Australia at all. The reason I was so groggy was because I’d been drugged and driven around Melbourne for fourteen hours.
Obviously.

Well…not really. After all, I had a stamp in my passport finally. And everybody drove on the wrong side of the road, and there were vegetables on everyone’s front porch. I got it. Eventually.

It’s been good to remember that day, to remember my taxi driver and the man at Starbucks. I don’t feel like the picture is about “stuck” at all any more. It’s about memory.

I’ll fix the photo frame. But I might, just randomly, pause it again in a couple of days, and allow another memory to overtake me. Nothing better, when you’re stuck at home, to be stuck in your mind in a foreign country.

*All that changed the day I landed in the Mid-West. The Mid-West is like being on TV. THAT was when I discovered what culture shock felt like.

Guns and memories

This is from my personal “archives”, so I apologise to those who have read it before. I had another article to write this morning, and I didn’t have time for two. I think it’s appropriate to share here though because it’s the reason I struggle with anxiety over my trip to the US. It’s what I was thinking when I wrote last Wednesday’s blog. 

Tasmania lost its innocence on April 28th 1996.

I don’t think about it much, but I’ve got friends now who weren’t there, and friends who were barely children themselves when it happened, and although it seems like a very long time ago, today the memories seem unusually fresh. Maybe it’s time to remember.

 

   I was in the kitchen over near the fireplace, and Tony and his mate Matt were sitting at the table when he told us. That was the first I knew, and that felt weird because with something that big you’d presume you’d know already, not second or third hand like that. You’d presumed that in a place this small, in a place like Tassie that you’d hear the helicopters, and that would make it feel real. And you’d presume that Matt would have told us as soon as he came in, not half an hour later as if he’d forgotten. Maybe he wasn’t sure of the truth of it either.

   But Matt told us. He said it in that edge-of-your-seat kind of voice; that awed voice of “we see this in movies, but this is our thing, our very own Tassie thing”, even though it was never something to be proud of.

   “You know what? I heard this guy pulled a gun at Port Arthur, and he’s shot about twenty people”.

   We’d presumed the report was an exaggeration. They always are. Twenty people dead is too many, and this is Tassie. Nothing happens in Tassie. Nothing like that.

   But it did. We heard later about how the helicopters kept coming and coming, not enough to get everyone to hospital in time, and people kept dying.

   Twenty became an understatement, not an exaggeration.

   I wasn’t there, of course, at the hospital. I can only imagine the fear and the confusion and the blood and the stench of death and dirt. I can only imagine the fear at the site, and having to pick up the bodies, of waiting for the phone calls from family members who’d been out for the day and not come home. I can only imagine the grief.

   By the time we went down it was some three weeks afterwards, after the memorial services and the news reports had burned the images into our brains; after those poor little children and their Mum had been found and buried along with all the rest of them, people whose names were becoming as familiar to us as our own.

   The drive felt normal, fun. We sat in the back of the car and chatted about the weather and about church and about life and haircuts and bread and things, until there on the road we saw first bunches of flowers and then the police tape over the driveway where the first victims had fallen, and we fell silent together.

   As soon as we entered the Port Arthur historic site we felt the grief. It hung over the place like a cloud, even though the day was barely overcast. I didn’t know before that day that emotions could cling to the sides of a place like mist to the valley. I didn’t know that I’d walk into a place I’d been to numerous times before, and just by being there I’d want to cry.

 

   I felt like an intruder at someone else’s funeral. I didn’t know anybody who had died, although in months to come I’d meet people who’d known them, and I’d meet people who’d been there only the day before, or were meant to be there except for an illness or a broken-down car that maybe saved their lives.

   We all wanted to cry, but if we did we looked away and wiped our eyes so nobody saw us, because it felt wrong to feel a grief that wasn’t ours, and nobody knew how to act.

   There were kids with us too, and their natural curiosity and questions mirrored our own unspoken ones. We followed them to the sea of plastic-wrapped flowers outside the café, and we laid our own tributes as well. The first flowers were decaying now, and went all the way up to the police tape, but the sea of them went for twenty metres or more. There were flowers upon flowers upon flowers, and cards, and teddy bears for the little ones, an outpouring of grief from a community who didn’t know anything else to do, or any other way to feel. People like us, who traveled a hundred kilometers or so because that day we were all part of the same community.

   Maybe we should have allowed ourselves to feel it more than we did, but at the time we didn’t know. Nobody tells you how you’re supposed to feel when 35 people are murdered for no reason in a place you’ve always considered safe. We felt relieved that we were safe, and guilty for crying when we had nothing really to cry about. We were alive, after all, and our families were safe. And we felt guilty for that as well. We wanted to come and feel with people who felt, and mourn with those who mourned, but beyond our pointless presence and our prayers there was nothing we could do.

   Nothing could prepare us.

   We prayed for the families of those who’d been killed, and for the people still in hospital. We prayed for the people who would always have to live with the memories of what they saw that day, and we prayed for those in the hospitals where there weren’t enough beds, and for the people who had to fly those helicopters that carried the survivors home.

   We drove home with thoughts unspoken simply because there were no words for what had happened on that day. A place of so much suffering in history had again become a place of so much suffering. There was only one thing we knew for sure: On the 28th April 1996, God cried.

The Port Arthur massacre was the catalyst for massive gun law reform in Australia. There was an amnesty on all automatic and semi-automatic weapons after this. Handguns are banned, although I’m not sure if it was because of this or not. It’s such a different reaction to the US, where people seem to respond to mass-shootings by arming themselves.

I can’t say whether either country’s response to guns is right or wrong, but I do understand that this is where my fear of guns comes from, and why it’s taken me a while to really believe that I won’t be shot dead at LA airport the minute I get off the plane. Memories – and feelings – are funny things.

So what you think about guns, about unexplained fears that resurface when you thought you were over them, about feelings you’re never quite sure why you have? Talk to me. I’d love to listen.

Misty water-coloured Memories…of

I have a long memory. A REALLY long memory. This is useful for some things, like helping people find their car keys at parties (yes, I can do that. Sorry, I do actually have to see you put them down first…please don’t email me randomly), or understanding why my kids are behaving the way they are (because once upon a time I didn’t like the door left open the wrong way either). I’m just good at remembering heaps of really random stuff, okay?
So…and there is a point here, just bear with me okay…here’s a short quote from chapter 2 of my memoir, Where The Words Are (you can read it over there on the Books tab if you like…hehe…shameless self-promotion, sorry)…

When I was eight this man came to preach at our church, and he waved a little yellow booklet around and he yelled so loud I had to look up from my drawings, which is good, because he said that if you want to get into Heaven you have to read this little yellow book. I didn’t know you had to do anything to get into Heaven. I thought everyone just went there when they died. My Mum got one of the little yellow booklets and now it’s on our bookshelf in the lounge room. I haven’t read it yet though.

Nothing terribly remarkable or quote-worthy in that little section, not really…except for the fact that I had a meeting this morning at my church with the lady who looks after new Christians, and she’s taking me through this bunch of notes so that I can do it too (things like “be nice. Show them where the toilets are”…oh okay, I made that one up), and then she gives me this little bible that they give to new Christians, and a form for them to fill out, and then she gave me…

…yup…

…still haven’t read it…

The Little Yellow Book.

I should read it. I should.

But dash it all, I’d rather keep the mystery and…not.

I’m a rebel like that : )