Taking up Space

Nine years ago when I started my doctoral studies not only was I in a fertile intellectual endeavour undertaking fieldwork, reading theory, stretching my brain and writing, I was also at my peak fertility having babies while I did all the above. I was stretched in more ways than one.   

At that time we lived in a small house, as you do when you first start out and one of the things that I had to make space for was, well me. That was me as a student, me doing my PhD, me needing a computer and a small space to work in. Where could I find that in a house that was basically four rooms, with a partner, a baby and a toddler? We had a study set up, basic, but serviceable. As is the case it was always at the back of the house, near the kitchen and laundry, cold and draughty and not anything like the sort of space you might imagine doing your best work, your thinking and writing in.

I was in this space early in the morning before babies interrupted your thoughts with cries of need for milk, bananas and entertainment for an hour or so in the morning. I was in this space late at night as well, when everyone else had gone to bed after a nice night watching a movie or playing a game or reading a book, and was snug, while I sat in the cold, dark, poorly ventilated space next to the laundry trying to put some semblance of academic thinking against my fieldwork experiences. That I was translating and transcribing and trying to keep up with the bourgeoning literature at the same time as managing leaky breasts and playgroups says something about the spaces in which I travelled at that time.

Well the study space in the end just didn’t do it for me. I dragged the family to IKEA looking for something small in a desk that I could prop up somewhere away from people. I found a desk and a chair and we dragged power boards and strung cords all through the house and then ta dah, I finally had a space up the hallway somewhere near the front door, away from the TV and the kids, where I could work.

At least that was the theory. In practice, there was no door to separate me from the noise, the hubbub, the neediness, the wants, the cuddles, the play, the cleanup so, the baby change table and well, life basically.   

So I had to rethink the desk, chair and computer scenario again.

This time I moved them into my bedroom which was right up the front of the house. At least this way I had a door to close, which meant entry and exit rituals that I could control.

I was sick and tired of the functionality of the IKEA desk and chair and so I persuaded the family (7 minutes to get the kids into the car seats each time we stopped) to take a drive to the part of the city that had ‘interesting’ furniture and I found what in the end turned out to be a hall table with a couple of drawers that suited me just fine. It was narrow enough not to take up too much space (unlike me) and attractive as well as functional. Well, my knees knocked on it a bit when I crossed my legs, but hey I wasn’t complaining.

I set it up in front of the curtains facing the street. It was a busy street too, a secondary road that connected far flung suburbs. And it was a major intersection to boot. And one of the feeder roads to the intersection took the big trucks that transported goods around the country from the inland port just down the road. That meant a few hundred thousand big rigs shining their lights right into my bedroom as they waited to go around that corner. And go around that corner they did every time, usually in about six gear changes. I know, I used to count every single one of them.

These rigs, their lights, their gear changes, their acceleration and their brakes were my companions as I translated, transcribed and created sensible sentences to please my doctoral dissertation readers. I did OK. I passed in the end.

But the space: sitting their looking at the curtains, looking at the lights all those years ago. I thought I’d passed that stage but no. Here I am again. This time I’m facing teenagers and a partner who’s studying too. We live not in the little four room house anymore, but a couple of suburbs away in comparative luxury and splendour. We have a house with more than the minimum number of rooms, it’s open plan and has a purpose built study. What a joke. Did I just write those words: ‘purpose built study’? I should post the photo from the company that sold the build to us. It looks perfect but the photo, like my part of the study is not inhabited by any real people at all.

Here I am nine years later again facing the curtains in the bedroom. Again I’m sitting at a make shift desk, but this time it’s a reused telephone table, and I have a little bit more room for my knees, but not much. Instead of the laptop I’ve gone cordless with the IPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. And it’s carpeted..

When I look out now I don’t have to hide behind muslin curtains to shield myself from anonymous drivers. Now I look out at a panoply of suburbia. There are five houses, these are my neighbours and I get to watch the comings and goings of my street, of my neighbourhood. I see the dads come home with the kids. I see the mums dragging home groceries and pulling them out of the boot. I see the older kids smartly walk home, their school uniforms dishevelled. And the punks with their hotted up cars that they like to double park on the suburban streets, just to show how cool they are and how they can break the rules. That nobody but me and my neighbours sees, doesn’t seem to faze them. We all look to challenge the boundary spaces in life in lots of little ways, and this is their way.

I get to see the unfamiliar too: the surveyor who pulls out his equipment and takes his measures. Who’s moving I wonder? What’s the council up to, I muse? I see the bald man with the walking stick cross the road outside my house, walk along the path on the other side of my low hedge with his walking stick. He avoids my gaze and heads to the path near my house and walks to the park and onwards to somewhere that I don’t see. Perhaps to the park? Perhaps to the suburb next door? Perhaps, like some of my neighbours to the nearby club for a drink with friends for the afternoon? I don’t know.   

And I’m studying again. This time a Masters level course. So much more practical than a PhD. And fun too. I’m loving being engaged with mature students who’ve already overcome the hurdles and challenges of early career negotiations. But I need to find a space to write and that’s what this blog was about: how do you find space for yourself in a busy house, a busy place, a hectic world, a noisy monstrosity of a family that still demands something of you?

Well, you just set yourself up somewhere in a corner, or by a window and preferably, have the capacity to shut the door….

Photo credit: https://www.polesandblinds.com/blog/5-ways-to-create-a-home-office/

PS: This is so not my own window, desk, chair and curtains…. 

Imploding Families

Arriving at work today I was met by my coworker who wanted to talk. We’ve worked together for about three years and I see her when she comes in once weekly for a project that we work on together. Aside from the project sometimes we need to be present for each other as fellow sufferers as the circumstances of misfortune and illness that accompany our everyday lives make themselves felt.   

As I entered the office and before I’d even put down my bags I could see that she was already at work going through her emails but she looked up expectantly when she saw me.

After very brief “Hi, how are you’s” I asked the queston, “How’s it all going with your father?” 

Her elderly father who lives in another city, in another state recently suffered from an acute illness that led to heart failure, and he was hospitalised and treated for over three weeks before being sent home. My coworker had been up to visit and stay, to oversee his treatment, to meet with family, to cook, to clean and run around, to plan, to discuss, to pray, to jolly along, to look at scenarios, to argue, to investigate, to look at residences and to confront and manage the familial interactions that accompany a parents sudden illness.  But living a distance away means ones  authority is weakened as you strive to assert your knowledge of the medical system in an unfamiliar setting and this was true for her.

There’s not much laughing at these familial get-togethers though, and at the end of the day families forced together to deal with sudden illness or trauma often implode as differences and problems tolerated throughout life, and as adults fortunately from a distance, suddenly come to a head and force family members into positions that are often polarised, full of pain, are heated and have long term consequences. 

I still recall standing outside a nurses station in a private hospital holding the ear piece of the nurses telephone about thirty centimetres from my ear as a relative hurled abuse, horrible abuse down the receiver at me. The nurses were non plussed and I bemusedly thought to myself that they were probably accustomed to this appalling scene.  This behaviour too was the results of parental illness, surgery, ongoing care needs and everything had come to the boil and the anger spilled out, it just spat out of everyone as decisions were made.

My family relationships fell apart too, but that is a story for later.

My coworker is a health professional.  But as a daughter, with an ill parent she – and they – revert as many of us do to the primal relationships that characterised our early lives. She and her siblings are like satellites around their father, living one to twelve hours drive from him. In early retirement as mums and dads sell up the family home and move to the coast to live the kind of life they’ve always dreamed about, this situation seems perfect. It gives parents a bit of space from their grown up children and at the same time offers family an opportunity to have a destination as they clamber in a tightly packed vehicles with scooters, sleeping bags and DVDs on board as they head north to see their parents and grandparents.

While it sounds grand, it may not always be so, but these are the good days. Remember this.

But, like their stellar counterparts, satellites can collide causing the destruction and demise of worlds, in this case our familial worlds of sociality, support and meaning.

As parents’ health deteriorates, as with my coworker’s family, one parent becomes ill and dies.  Her mother died a year ago; it was the one year anniversary yesterday. He and she had planned a cruise around Australia, but in the end it was my coworker who took the cruise with her father. But the dream was still sound and the family recovered and readjusted to the new reality as they now dealt with one parent in retirement. 

Now, as dad is ill, the adult children are all fighting. There are some who aren’t talking to each other, planning on how to avoid seeing each other, warning of the approach of each other and rummaging through each other’s and their fathers things when the opportunity arises, seeking knowledge to gain some advantage.

One wonders about the parental bank account, another about the option of an enduring power of attorney and suddenly guardianship becomes a meaningful term. There are allegations of parental abuse, of favouritism, of money going astray and the resurgence of past, unresolved hurts, of longtime simmering wounds.

There are medical conversations that have to be had, conversations that only some family will understand.  Suddenly everyone’s trying to become conversant with the technical aspects of medical specialties that take years to master. We all want to be knowing and knowledgeable about drugs, body systems, body physiology and the effects and interactions of complex chemicals, both natural and artificial. We live in an age of access to and understanding information outside of our own realms, but this is normal. 

Suddenly one sibling is putting in plans to council for an extension on their house to accomodate their aged and now dependent parent, something the other siblings strongly disagree with. There are disagreements and fights about where dad will go after hospital. As he can barely breathe and stand at the same time, it does seem as though he’ll need some support services after he leaves hospital but one sibling has refused, wanting to do all this himself with his wife, an unlikely and improbable situation according to my coworker. 

While the actors in all these dramas are different the circumstances, pressures and outcomes are not dissimilar to other families. Flying allegations, differences of opinion, threats to the way things have been, fear of the unknown and the ultimate unknowable all point to the fear that we all hold about death, and the demise of a parent moves us all a bit closer to the edge of the perch, and with the generation before us no longer taking up space on the perch, is it any wonder that families come to loggerheads at times of intense fear, change and stress?

The telling of my coworkers tale of woe takes some time and strongly resonates  with others’ familial tales as people drift in and bear witness to the new, current, updated version of familial illness, suffering and power struggles but we all stay to hear, to share, to offer sympathy and advice wondering at the back of our minds how we too will fare when we face this crossroad, and what form our own stories will take.

Photo credit: http://www.max-logic.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/fight.jpg

Yearning for and a sense of community

We all need a group of people to belong to, a group with which we share common understandings, common experiences hopefully even a shared history. Once upon a time these groups were clear cut, we belonged to families, extended families, and communities whether geographically bound, or virtual due to our common links. But try as I might, I never feel that I really belong anywhere, and I suspect that I’m not so alone in my plight.

While my work offers me a sense of professional identity, do I want to hang out with work mates after hours? Not usually. I did the other night though because someone was getting married and we all participated in a hen’s night. That’s for another post. And while we have a body of knowledge and practices that bind us, challenge us, inspire us, give us cause to write, speak, teach and help, not everyone’s necessarily on the same page at work and disciplinary differences often rear their heads preventing companionship outside of work obligations.

My family of origin? I have no sense of connection with them anymore, indeed while I often wonder how they’re all doing and am happy to vicariously participate in their lives through what they choose to publicly share on Facebook, I have no desire to socialise with them at all. In fact, I actively seek to avoid them because of a history that I don’t wish to detail here. So my natal family may offer a sense of connectedness through blood, and name and kinship but community? No one was around when I had my children, and if there is a time in your life when you desperately need a community of support, this is that time. And they lived across the city and aside from coming around to see me once or twice, they left me to my own devices.

Except for my sister. As an adult I have found a sense of continuity through my relationship with my sister and her family. There is always someone. And she is this someone who provides my connection with my natal family. She’s good for news, good for gossip and makes good family.

I’ve mentioned children, so how about mother’s group? These women, younger and older were my lifeblood for the first five years of my first child’s life. They offered companionship, a weekly destination and a sense of belonging to a shared cause, that of brand new parenthood. We all stumbled as we learned and loved our weekly get-together as our babies played and we grew into parenthood accompanied by never-ending play dates, coffee and the occasional w(h)ine. But as with all groups, there is a period of coming together before differences force people apart, and now three out of ten of us meet up once every six months or so as our children approach their 15th birthdays.

My neighbourhood? Neighbourhood are funny places. You spend countless hours checking out properties, but not nearly as much time checking out your neighbourhood. We have a great neighbourhood, but neighbourhoods too are built on commonalities, and most of the people on the street either have grown up children who’ve moved out and married, or have toddlers of the opposite sex to my children. We move in parallel universes as the rhythms of life propel us in particular directions, in different time planes.

The school? Schoolyards are funny places too. I desperately wanted to meet parents when my eldest child started school. I was breaking my neck to chat, organise get-togethers, have coffee and meet up with people. I really tried to put on my best face. But some bonds are stronger than others and there was another mother’s group who had bonded strongly and their kids were just starting school… I eventually tired of being looked over, looked past and not included in activities. Or perhaps they just didn’t like me. But now that the children have finished primary school I hear that this mother’s group are still going away with all the family groups that belong to their group. That’s wonderful. That’s the sort of sense of community that I yearn for too, one that stretches across time through all the changes and challenges that living brings. I used to leave the school fighting back tears in the afternoons sometimes. People don’t intend to exclude you, but that’s just how it happens sometimes.

I did meet people from that school, and have made an effort to be close to the parents of my kids’ friends, especially where a connection is created. The unhappy part of this is now witnessing some of these families falling apart as partners grow, change and seek to move away from their partners and children as they recreate themselves anew, or seek to live in and acknowledge the truth of themselves, something that they were unable to do within the confines of marriage. This turbulence makes these friendships turbulent. I’m there for them but they seek me out less and less as they don’t want to intrude.

I joined a community health group recently. I feel like we’re all on the same page, even though there are differences based on age. I share a common bond with this group and we don’t have to gild the lily when we speak. I get that sense of openness that you sometimes experience when you’re on a bus talking to a stranger. You’re not judged, you’re not criticised and you feel accepted. For the part of my life that relates to our health concerns, this group of people are wonderful. Yet even they are a little reticent and I suspect that this comes about because of cultural factors that relate to saving face within their broader community.

High school friends? The maintenance of friendships is a difficult task. This is especially true across time, and while one of my closest school friends and I found each other about ten years ago and realised that we’d both had similarities in how we’d spent our time and that we only lived about ten blocks from each other, we had changed because of the passage of time. We were no longer as close, even though we had spent time growing into ourselves in each other’s company over those fervent years through all our schooling and a little beyond. Joe Cocker helped too.  We both married late and had children about the same age who now attended the same school. Now we move into new paths of shared history making as we move into middle age together.

But everything looks different from the other side. I imagine that everyone else’s life is full, fuller than my own. I imagine you you’re all connected to work, families, mother’s groups, neighbourhoods, schools and groups that hold special interest for you. I’m forever standing in the backyard looking over the fence and imagining that your lives are better, more fun, more active, more social, full of less angst, happier, more fulfilling, more meaningful, full of trips away and fabulous get-together’s and greater opportunities than mine. I’m sure that you all drink less, exercise more, have less fat and sugar in your diet, eat 40gms of fibre daily and don’t need to take Vitamin D supplements. I bet your calendars are full and that weeknight dinners with friends are a common thing and that you have fabulous Christmas’s and holiday abroad annually.

I have to work hard at being sociable these days, even though by nature I’m absolutely not anti-social. I love to talk, and to listen. I love a shared history. I love to grizzle too, and complain and not take any good fortune for granted either. But it’s hard to find a sense of community, a sense of belonging. I think that my inner grumpy self has taken hold and puts people off. I’m going to have my own TV show: grumpy old women – the early years.

But perhaps it’s more to do with my own psychology, my own personal limitations and my own inability to respond, to participate and to give of myself that prevents my full membership in any of the groups I yearn to belong to. Because in truth, in order to be part of something bigger than yourself, you have to be, well, bigger than yourself. Like everything in life, there is reciprocity involved here, both the giving and the getting.

In anthropology we talk a lot about communities. Groups and groupings are the mainstay of our work. We have theories that allow us to conceptualise, discuss, deconstruct and construct the social and cultural factors that allow us to create, sustain and live within communities. We look too at the destruction of communities and theorise about this, along with the factors that lead to successful reconstructions following crises. The way people come together and form, and re-form groups is endlessly fascinating and ever changing. It’s important because after all, groups and groupings constitute our very basis of identity and belonging. As part of this, anthropologists examine all the beliefs and rituals that accompany and dictate life in various communities. In this way we can see how our very identities are tied up with these same communities to which we belong or seek to connect with.

So, after having described some of the worlds in which I circulate, why do I feel so disengaged? Are the reasons social? Or are they personal? Are there structural barriers to my participation and belonging? Or is it merely my sense, my perception? Is Facebook and the creation of its virtual, eternal present community of ‘Friends’ in part to blame? Is it the fact that ‘likes’ are only momentary and not deep enough to be long lasting? Or is it an issue that pertains more to my perception of myself as having less in common with those around me and focusing too much on the differences between us and not the similarities? I imagine that family, church and village used to take care of a good deal of one’s identity in the past, but these structures have changed and we are sometimes left wondering about the replacements, and the void.

Did everyone get an invite to the party except me?  If you want to go to parties then you have to throw them too.

“What advice would you give your younger self?”

Recently here in Sydney there’s been a competition on public radio that was very popular. Listeners were asked to phone in and respond to the question, “What advice would you give your 16 year-old self?” The theme of talking to your younger self has been popular recently, with media, competitions, social media and even interest from the arts.

At a modern art exhibition that I attended a few years ago, kids were given pencils and activity cards to complete as they went around and participated/created/viewed the exhibits on show. This was partly to engage and partly to amuse them as the exhibits were aimed at differential levels of engagement from gallery visitors. Some of the exhibits and installations had post-apocalyptic themes which I found very disturbing as an adult. But at this point of the exhibition on the activity cards my kids were asked a similar question: Imagine your future self. What advice would you give your younger self? Having just viewed the exhibit my kids were being asked to reflect on their own lives, on what really mattered as the exercise was aimed at getting to a truth, a reality about what was important in life and this truth needed to be conveyed from a future post-apocalyptic place to a current, younger self. My little one responded with, “I would tell myself to have more sleepovers”. The older one said, “I would say, don’t worry so much”.

Some of the responses to the radio competition have been predictably amusing, “Buy stocks in Apple”, or “Buy Sydney real-estate”, while other responses, indeed the winning response, was more thought provoking as the answer included thoughts on body shape, sexuality, tolerance, acceptance and relationships. What’s going on with these kinds of activities? On the one hand we’re giving sagely advice to our younger selves often about the very things that have bothered us extensively throughout our lives. This is the insight that we’ve developed through maturity. On the other hand, we’re seeking to recreate, or rescript our lives with our new knowledge of these essential truths, “If only I’d known that..”

One woman said to her younger self something along the lines of, “If you think you’re fat now, well let me tell you that you’re not!” But the experience for this woman, and many like her would have been that she’d lived her life imagining herself as fat. In comparison as an older woman looking back, she could now see that objectively, she wasn’t fat as a teenager. But her lived experience as a young woman was that of someone who was fat.

Medical anthropologists talk about the shaping of illness and this includes our perceptions and lived experience of our bodily states. In constructing ourselves as fat, (or skinny, or moody…) we construct our lives accordingly. We view our lives through our prism, through our identity of ‘fat’ and include or exclude ourselves from a variety of activities, pursuits, relationships or situations because of this.

Should we be sharing essential truths based on our own experiences of life with young people now? Would they listen? Would they be insightful into the conditions, dilemmas, lies and unrealities of their own lives?

I always get a sense that there is a feeling of wistfulness attached to competitions like the one on the radio. There is an aspect of truth-telling that we all adore, as with the jester in the medieval court who was the only person who could speak the truth to the Court. We love listening to people list the truths that we all wish we’d known when we were younger. It’s a bit like reality TV only across time spans and generations, “wake up younger me and look at what’s really going on”. There is that ‘aha’ experience from the development of insight and wisdom about the human condition attached to our very personal and individual experiences of growing up. Our youthful naivety is crushed by the release of the contents of our mature time-capsules which seek to convey more real truths than the ones we actually experienced.

However, while the radio competition was fun and insight provoking, I find the art gallery experience with my children more disturbing. At what age can children conceptualise a future self who has feelings, intentions and regrets? Can these really be passed back through a game of imaginative construction, or reconstruction? What are we to do with the knowledge that children gain through this technique? By this I mean that we could ask children directly what they would like to change about their lives right now and they may not be able to answer because they don’t want to admit to the truth of their experience or simply cannot articulate this directly. But through this imaginative form of play and participation in art they are asked to do this.

A similar projective technique is used in Gestalt therapy where subjects are asked to pick up an object from around the house, bring it in and talk about themselves as if they were that object within the Gestalt group session . When you’re one step removed from talking about yourself, it’s much easier to talk about intention, desire, wishes, wants, needs, fears and hopes than it is to do so directly. This is a type of projective identification that we undertake in order to identify a truth about ourselves that we would not ordinarily be able to see, or admit to. I participated in this activity. What did I pick? Why a light globe of course.

As a light bulb, I have a bright future, but may suddenly become dim and die suddenly. I have the ability to light the way for others but rely on a constant and very powerful other worldly source of energy for which I need a constant supply in order to fulfil my role. When I’m on, people may take me for granted, often not noticing my presence until they no longer have a need for me. I’m constructed of a material that makes me extremely fragile, and before I’m put into use I exist in a safe box, the same sort of box that I’ll probably be put into when my light goes out. Inside, I have delicate structures that form my core and allow me to perform my illuminating function.  I’m very useful when I’m switched on, allowing ongoing activity well into the night. Without me, it would be difficult for a lot of things to happen and I literally light up people’s lives. Unfortunately my life is black and white as I only have two states: on and off. However, as a light globe I realise that I’m part of a continuum, that I’m not so unique and that were I to go out, there would be many more who could replace me.

So what advice would I give my younger self?  I’d probably say, “… count yourself in”

The Placenta Burial

What do you do with a baby’s placenta? When I had my first child I needed an emergency caesarean. I had a blood infection and sepsis. The caesarean was preceded by an oxytocin drip. Then, as my temperature soared the Plan B spinal block was abandoned as a bad idea and I was fully anaesthetised and sent to theatre for an emergency caesarean. The first I saw of my baby was a photo. I still have that photo: she looks like a little alien. But I love and adore that photo. I don’t care how she got here, just that she got here.

Back to the placenta. Even though the birth was accompanied by extraordinary circumstances I still asked if I could take home my baby’s (my?) placenta. I live in a part of the city where this was becoming a more regular request at our local hospital as more women were feeling empowered and taking charge, seeking more input into all aspects of the birth process including taking home their baby’s placenta.

On the radio I’d heard broadcasts about placentas and what people did with them. I’d heard that by eating them you might reduce your chance of developing post natal depression, that you’d replace any missing nutrients that pregnancy had leached from your body, that you could stir fry your placenta with vegetables and serve it with rice, or simply slice off a little bit of the frozen lump and cook it and eat it like liver, Rosemary’s Baby style. Overall the impression that I got was that by keeping and eating it you’d be doing yourself some good. I’m still not convinced about all that I heard but it was interesting that the topic was on the agenda and being discussed publicly. We all want to find better ways of getting in touch with our bodies, our body’s needs and this was certainly part of that discourse, if an unusual part.

The other issue was the symbolism attached to the placenta. It was known in some places as the ‘other mother’ as all nutrition and waste were mediated by, were indeed delivered via the placenta. And it too has its own stage of birth as no birth is complete without full delivery of the placenta or the afterbirth. But the symbolic value of the placenta goes beyond its functionality.

People around the world ascribe various cultural meanings to the placenta, where it is spiritually revered.  Not meaning to oversimplify cultural beliefs, we understand that the Hmong call the placenta a jacket. Following birth, the placenta gets ritually buried in the home, in a central location known to all. The placenta is needed when a person dies as their spirit must locate the jacket and put it on for the journey into the spirit world in order to be reunited with spirit ancestors. This meaning clearly ascribes a sense of completeness to the afterbirth, with an added meaning attached to not only the journey into life, but the afterlife as well.

So, to the slightly bemused looks on the maternity ward’s staff on my request they dutifully packed my placenta in a bag and put it in the freezer ready for me to take home when I eventually left the hospital. My gorgeous little premmie baby and I had to stay in hospital to recover from the sepsis, she a bit longer than I as she had to learn to take my milk. It wasn’t fun to get discharged home without her, but the relief I felt when I went in to feed her six times a day offset all of that.

I had to fill in an official Department of Health form of course to take the placenta home. The form included instructions on disposal of human tissue, the legal requirements and local council regulations around this. Seems like 3 metres or so from a common boundary line were the key determining features of the document. It was scary contemplating burial of human remains, but that essentially was what might happen if it wasn’t all sautéed and stir fried.

In the trendy part of the city where I live, placenta burials were becoming popular. I went to one at a friend’s house, someone from my Mother’s Group. Not only was it a placenta burial, it was the baby’s Welcoming Ceremony. Partners and other children were there too. My kids donned their party dresses, grabbed the well-wrapped IKEA toy snake that we’d purchased as a gift for the baby and raced for the chips, fairy bread, popper drinks and home-made sausage rolls. As it was a placenta burial there were a lot of bad jokes about what was in the sausage rolls, but the best bit was our heavily pregnant friend’s speech about kids. “Children are arrows fired into the future”. There was a lump in my throat when I heard that. That was followed by watching a lump of stuff in a plastic supermarket bag being taken from the freezer and dutifully buried beneath a tree. Then we had more drinks followed by coffee and cake.

Back home at my place I lived with the placenta in the freezer for quite a while. Like nearly five years. My baby was practically starting school and my husband was nagging me about the placenta in the freezer. What was I going to do with it? “Don’t forget that you’ve got your placenta in the freezer” “What are you going to do with it?” “Maybe we could … You’re not going to, you’re not going to eat it?” He was a bit aghast about that. Even after I explained about the hormones and the nutritional balancing and all that. I think I would have made a better case if I’d had a couple of scientific papers to back me up but in my new mum state, up-to-date references weren’t really my thing at that moment. So it sat there, taking up space next to my frozen peas, frozen kid-friendly choc chip muffins and the ice cream from the local ice cream factory, a daily reminder that as an anthropologist interested in ritual I came up particularly short when it came to creating, enacting and participating in my own.

In the end, my little family had our own private ceremony. At that time we lived in a very small house that was very run down on a very busy road in a part of town that wasn’t so fashionable. I don’t think that our neighbours would really have understood or approved of what we were about to do. We buried the placenta in the back garden and said a few words thanking Mother Nature for her help in bringing the children into the world and then buried it and planted some sweet basil on top. I had been upset earlier at the thought of doing this, thinking that this burial somehow signified that a babyhood had really passed, but of course it had: my baby was due to start school in a few months.

So because of the placenta burial I’m now attached to that piece of land at that house in a way that I’m not attached to anywhere else in the world. This is an example of how I’ve formed part of the geographic turn so evident in the social and historical sciences as I imbue this place, this special place as part of my own and my daughter’s psyche. My baby who was now four stood looking at us while I spoke and she asked, “What’s that? What are you doing? What are you putting in there?” I managed to tell her a little something without telling her everything. I felt inadequately prepared for this moment and unusually short of words. Then she ran off to play with her older sister. My husband covered the earth with the soil he’d taken out and then topped it up with potting mix. He brought me the hose and I watered it well and then planted the basil. The little punnet was chock-a-block full of seedlings, and I didn’t have much space so I planted them out in two’s and threes for the little plants to keep each other company. On reflection it was like I was somehow trying to offset the solitary state that death represents. I watered them again and as I stood there, thought about the circle of life with the girls’ voices ringing in my ears as they ran around and played …

Families

Multifaceted, multiple forms of, idealised, theorised about, sustained, rejected, government supported, imposed upon, threatened, painfully recalled, unknown, fragmented, rejoiced in, pretend, genetic, abandoned, migrated, ruined or cherished. You can be a family of one or have a family tree so large and convoluted that it threatens to form a small village and in some countries, often does.

Families – their relationships, organisation, patterns, links of obligation, meanings, structures and activities form the basis of the study of kinship in anthropology, but the fleshed out, lived experience of family life is so much more than anything a genogram can suggest. How do you really represent a relationship between a child and their aunties and uncles in Australian Indigenous communities, a link that may not be close blood, but is based on longstanding tradition and complex webs of understanding and reciprocity? How do the links of families withstand the pressures of enforced migration? And when you visit a cemetery to leave flowers and shed tears for deceased love ones, the office staff will tell you quite plainly that families only come to pay respects for a maximum of three generations, so what does this tell us about families?

Your perspective on families changes as you grow. As a baby, you’re totally dependent, as a child you see other families and wonder, and as you get older you realise that families can be totally individual in their makeup, responses and experiences. Families are the EPITOME OF CHANGE. They change as we change, and as we age our role and place marker in our own families changes too. In middle age, I’m now an orphan, but still remain the daughter of my now recently deceased mother and long dead (and long gone) father.

Do you love your family? All of them? Or hate them? Or hate some of them? We can truly only personally love and hate those we know and this points to the heightened tensions associated with intense personal relationships, their formation, existence and endings. Life is a journey and those related by blood, or spiritual kin or friends who form the nexus of your family life, these people are the ones who accompany us, sometimes only for a time, through our life. It’s often this reality that eludes us, that puzzles us as we often seek permanence, seek concreteness in our existence when none really exists. The bonds of blood (or the spirit if you’re a church goer) often constitute the closest that we really experience of that which is permanent in life. Nothing is permanent though, because even family come and go.

It is with this knowledge that I sometimes look at the faces of my children and yearn to forget that truth of life: that life is temporary, that even while our bonds are strong, resolute, unbreakable, based on the act, spirit and corporeal reality of love, that even these bonds are not strong enough to maintain an unending life. ‘This too shall pass’ I told my daughter today as she worried about going away with the school, worried about going to sleep at night away from her bed, her home, her pet, her routines and her people. ‘This too shall pass’ reminds us of the transience of life, and of the necessity for us to grab it now and live it, whatever that reality is, knowing that its shimmer of impermanence will fade too, and that much like old photos age we too shall fade…

Families can have divergent meanings for us, a truth we recognise as we move through the roles ascribed to us from when we joined them. Individual members may provide the source of much angst at various times, however, we all have a commonality that we share in our families of origin, whether they’re known or not. What is your story? What is your family? How do you epitomise your journey through life with these people? Would you even like them if they weren’t related to you? And what do you make of traditions, of family traditions? Are they part of your life? Do you continue these or remake them afresh? What are your thoughts about continuity and change? What are the values that your family and you uphold, maintain or even reject?
And what about my family? Well, I make it up as I go along – partnering, parenting, being a ‘role model’ and all that, mostly because I didn’t have any of the normal ones when I grew up. My role as a mother and wife I can create, I can carve out that story, inscribe my kind of experiences on that. But my family of origin? That’s a mixed bag; that story is coloured with migration, madness, separation, divorce, extended family life, highly problematic relations and trauma. Hence the blog.

This blog entry has come about partly in response to the lovely Blacklight Candelabra’s https://blacklightcandelabra.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/divergent-meanings/ ongoing and very entertaining attempts at roping people in to write about themes (a much admired effort I have to say), and partly because I received a message on my phone today that said: “Family Picnic in one month’s time at a park near the city. BYO everything. We’ll have a BBQ, see you then”. My heart sank as I began to envisage excuses to not go. We may go, but why bother? I feel that by attending I’m only really there to provide completeness to my extended family’s version of that which constitutes ‘our family’. If I’m not there, and my husband and children aren’t there, there’ll be a gap. OK, only a gap of four, but a gap nevertheless that, like all family stories if not inscribed by truth will have to made up, imagined, alluded to, supposed about and decided on in my absence because it will have to be filled one way or another. This is because of the nature of families: families are fulsome things and cannot tolerate a void.

Families also don’t get mobile technology: the message came through from someone who had clearly forgotten that all the text messages that I’d received from her over the past few years were still on my phone (and probably a trail of these not-so-cute messages in clouds existed on her phone too). All it takes is a little scroll to remember the recent past, remember the last time we’d had contact and all that was said, or written. Oh, families can make your blood boil.

But that’s only when you look backwards. It’s true that it can also happen when you look forwards, but when you look to your own partner, your own children and your life in your own family, in your own (or at least the bank’s) home, you get to have a lot more say about what happens, where you go, who you see, what you do, and what happens to your own body. You can invent, create and carve out your own future in a way that the nearly dead, asphyxiating, hardened, gossiping, entrenched attitudes that came into existence and killed off your opportunities in life before you even entered the room can never do. Families can be a source of love, but they can also be a million other things that affect who you are and how you live right into the future. However one thing remains the same, the word remains loaded and while common meanings may attach themselves t the word, our experiences of families depends on our place in the queue, our perspective and our experences.