Poem – The Last Swim

Over and over I see it
Her last swim
Her tentative step on the sand
Small aqua booties
Small feet
Hair, soft as a baby’s
Short tufts, blond and white
Stolen by chemo
Her inner-city-trendy cut we call it
My sister and I
One on each arm
As she enters the water
Step by slow tentative step
It’s been a while, she says
And then, the water waist high
She no longer fears the small, incoming waves
She lets go of our arms
And she swims…

At first she lies back in the water
Letting its watery fingers caress her body, her head
She floats and gazes at the sky
Lovely, so lovely, she says

Lovely, so lovely, it is
Her beaming face, her eyes half-closed
In those blue-green waters
That perfect cerulean sky…

And then she turns over
Treading water, arms making small arcs
We watch her
And remember countless summers
When she watched us from the shore…
But now
As the evening sun mottles gold foil on her skin
She turns away from us, lifting her arms
In a strong freestyle stroke
And swims
Away from us
Stronger than us now
Alone, not looking back -
Away from the shore…

Can life partners really work together without killing one another?

I wanted to call this article ‘The day my husband sacked me (was the best day of my life)’. But it wouldn’t be true, as there were no dismissal letters and I am still working in partnership with him. Albeit in quite a different way than I was a year ago.

Earlier this year some storm clouds gathered on the marital horizon. Tensions ran high for a while between us and arguments were had. Looking back, it’s fair to say that we learned a few lessons along the way. Some people might wonder, ‘well what on earth did we expect?’

So why work with your nearest and dearest?

I can’t tell you the number of people that ask me that. They often manage to slip the word ‘crazy’ into the sentence, as in, ‘are you crazy?’

A freelance hustle might be one reason, where you share complementary skills. A start-up is another, when the budget is too lean to pay market rates for the people you need.

That’s how it worked out for my husband and I. In our early years of raising kids, work was patchy. We had two babies in close succession and that meant it was not realistic for me to work outside the home. Child-care would have cost more than any money I could make.

So I got some gigs as a freelance translator. I translate from French to English, as English is my first language. This is important, though many people assume it is not.

Translators produce written work. Interpreters speak. If you value good writing, you need a translator who is translating into their own language. Many people assume that translators can work both ways, and they can to a degree.

But as my client list grew, I received more requests for translation into French. Now, I can do this, but it is best to have a native speaking editor on hand to review the final draft, to check flow and nuance.

Enter my dear husband, an accredited translator in the reverse direction to me.

For many years we were able to work in partnership on various translation projects. The downside was many late nights. It’s hard to edit translations for a deadline when you’ve been working all day.

But in many ways we reaped the benefits of the ‘glory days’ for accredited translators. Before the internet allowed any Tom, Dick or Harry to call themselves a translator. Before the days of job offers at two cents a word. Or requests to edit pages of garbled machine translated content.

Then my husband had a breakthrough idea for a start-up. He quit his corporate job and launched a small business, specialising in sleep health.

For several years he worked crazy hours, while I did the lion’s share of child-rearing. But the little business took off. Our kids were in primary school, and I continued working in the translation business. I took a role with a global translation company, and moved into project and account management.

But there came a time where my skills were going to be more useful to the family start-up than a big company. I disliked the globalisation of the translation business. While the internet created convenience, it also drove translators’ rates down. So I joined the family business, officially.

Job descriptions don’t really exist for start-ups. For the fledging company to fly, everyone needs to roll up their sleeves. So I was payroll, HR, marketing department, manager, front-desk, and trainer all in one. And some days, general dogsbody to the other CEO, namely my husband.

Now this is where things became unstuck.

Gender dynamics being what they are, it wasn’t long before I found myself in the position of being told what to do. By none other that said husband.

Some years ago, my husband and I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. Turns out that both of us are off the scale as the ‘Dominant Director’ type. You could translate that as ‘bossy’, if you like. It’s a pity we didn’t think about that before I decided to work on front desk, when one of our team went off to have a baby.

Although a lot of people don’t recognise it, the front desk is a very important role in a company. The person on the front desk must handle a lot of admin, and ever-changing technology. They are the face of a company, and they must have a handle on their emotions. In the health sector, they often have to play counsellor to tired or unwell patients. The scope of the job can be huge. A little like motherhood, come to think of it. And because it is a job often filled by women, people often don’t give front desk people the respect they deserve.

Unfortunately someone still had to do the other jobs, and I did my best to combine it all. But I got burnt out. The mental load of family life and work life got too much. And my husband got frustrated because I wasn’t doing things when he wanted, and exactly how he wanted. He was working hard, sure, but he couldn’t see everything I was doing too. And the dominant director side of me instinctively rebelled when my husband tried to tell me what to do.

Cue storm clouds. And slammed doors, arguments, tantrums and more. Not our finest moments!

I’m pretty sure my husband used the words ‘you’re fired!’ at one point. It’s probable that I replied with ‘fine, I’m leaving!’ before slamming the door on my way out.

But you know, it was, in many ways, a very good day. Not the best day in my life, but a good one still.

It wasn’t long before the ideal person to replace me on front desk came along. My husband had to adapt his expectations of how much one person could do in a day. I returned to business development activities, which fits my skill set better. As an added bonus, we have a lovely new team member.

It’s great to work with family. I admire the way so many migrants do it, when they arrive in a new country. Starting small businesses, or buying real estate. It’s smart to pool resources, and to keep your people close to you. Loyalty to the team is near certain, if you do it right.

Family businesses also make a lot of sense when the corporate world becomes less certain. Few people have jobs for life, so family start-ups can make a lot of sense. If you’re going to work hard anyway, why not do it for yourself and the people you love?

But for most working mothers, the mental load is a real thing. I’m not denying that men work hard, and that stress and burn-out affects them too. But the mental lists of work and family life combined are long. Add the running of a business to that, and it can be exhausting.

So I’m glad my husband ‘fired’ me. I know now that when my husband and I work together, we are a great team. After all, working for the same goal is ideal for any partnership. But boundaries and space are very good things. And working in each other’s pockets can make anyone very strange bedfellows.

First published on Medium on April 29, 2019


It’s never too late to go to art class…

A few years ago now, I was chatting with my mother over a cup of tea. She was hesitating about signing up for her community college art class. She loved going to this class, and had been going for many years. She always sang the praises of her teacher, and her fellow students had become her friends. I expected that she would enrol once more. But she said:

“I don’t think I can go to class anymore. The chemo is wearing me out; I can’t carry my art bag up the stairs. Not now I need my walking stick as well.”

Surprised, and saddened, I said the first thing that came to mind:

“Well, I’ll come with you. I’ll carry your bag. I’ll sign up so we can both go together.”

And so I did. My mother was happy that I’d finally managed to ‘find the time’ to come along; she’d been recommending it to me for years. And it meant that my mother was able to continue on with her art class for several more years after that. We even signed up for more classes together; first drawing, then life drawing as well as painting.

My mother hardly ever missed a class. She relished learning about painting, and all manner of new art-making techniques. She was a keen organiser of a class exhibition held in a community gallery. She entered many pieces in the annual college show, over the years.

She always enjoyed the socialising, and the easy banter of her fellow painters. She even enjoyed it when different people aired their political views in class. She was a bit of a stirrer; she had no hesitation in voicing her own views, mainly for the reaction. She would bring cake for everyone on the last day of term, or bags of lemons from her garden to share.

She loved the inspiration of learning about new artists from our teacher. If our teacher suggested an exhibition to visit, she would go. Even though unwell, she took every opportunity to visit exhibitions across the city. She continued going right up until two weeks before she passed away. We trailed her all around the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the S H Ervin Gallery on that last day out in the city. Two galleries in one day is enough to wear anyone out, let alone a cancer patient. But my mother had found her passion for art and she lived it right until the end.

It’s true that my mother came to her art later in life. She began with a class in folk art with some girlfriends, painting on household items, like trays or blanket boxes. Painted teddy bears on gifts for her grandchildren. Then when that class folded, she found another one, and moved onto painting canvases.

My mother’s story is not uncommon.  I’m sure there are many people who finally take up an interest, once they are free of kids and work obligations.

This story could be entirely about my mother, come to think of it.

But it’s not. It’s actually about me.

Unlike my mother, I studied art right through high school. I learnt a bit about printmaking, black and white photography, painting and ceramics. I thought my drawing was ok. I knew a thing or two about art history; I could recognise and talk about all the greats. I thought I’d be just fine in a class full of senior citizens.

But when I arrived in this art class, I got a shock. It was not what I expected at all. I was the little fish, and the art class was a much bigger pond than I’d imagined.

The majority of the class would have been over 65. Some were new to art. Others had developed an art practice for most of their lives, and were even commissioned to do work for people. Some were in the local art society, and were very proud of the fact, indeed.

Others had wanted to do art all their life, and it was only now that they were free to do so. There were many talented painters, each with their own unique style. Everyone was making art. Everyone was different and totally unique. Best of all, everyone was passionate about their art.

So here are some reasons why I think going to art class, at any age, is a great idea.

Art class shakes you right out of your comfort zone

If your art class doesn’t take you out of your comfort zone, it’s likely you haven’t found the right one.

Sometimes it’s good to be the little fish. In art class, awe and admiration of other people’s work is useful. You don’t want to be the best in the room. You want to look at other people’s work, and feel a little jealous. Then you look a little closer and take something away which you can use to make your own work even better.

Of course a good art class needs a great teacher.

A great teacher supports you when you’re doing something well, but doesn’t let you rest on your laurels.

A good teacher turns your painting upside-down — metaphorically and literally — and makes you look at it in a new way.

And even if you don’t always get what they mean when they talk about tone and composition, slowly, in spite of yourself, you do. And slowly it begins to come through in your work.

Art makes you a nicer person

Art class is a cool place to hang out with people. Often there’s some music playing. When it’s a workshop situation it means that you can talk whenever you want. The dress-code is pretty relaxed, so no stress worrying about what to wear.

People who do art — especially those who were denied an opportunity to do it until later in life are generally nice. Maybe it’s because they appreciate the gift of being able to finally make art? Maybe they realise that there’s no point in getting competitive or antsy with your fellow artists when it will just mess up your mojo.

Art should make you a nicer person. Why? Because it slows you down. It teaches you patience. It is a sensuous, tactile experience, where to grow you must always be open to learning. 

Art class makes you see

Many writers have used a visual art practice to inform their writing. Flannery O’Connor, Victor Hugo, the Brontes and William Blake are a few well-known examples. When you draw or paint something, you can’t just look at it in passing. You need to really look at it.

In painting, you need to consider line, colour, energy. For example, say I want to paint a gum tree. How do I do that? I could start with the form. I don’t want to paint in every leaf, so I could look at the light, and the shadow. And then the interplay between them.

Will I attempt to capture the exact colour of the tree? Or will I look for the textures of the bark and the foliage? Will I try for a realistic image? Or will I break away completely and use different colours and shapes?

There are so many approaches to how I could paint my gumtree. But what is significant to me? What will I try to convey?

Mixing colours on a palette forces you to see how colours can sing and create mood. Choosing certain tones to work in will create and convey certain emotions. Knowing which details to highlight and which to exclude are a choice. We can all use this way of seeing, writers or not.

Everyone has a story

An art class is a village of sorts. In our class, there was Agnes, whose thing was scenes from Provence. She’d go outside for cigarettes, in between brushstrokes. Was she channelling some younger version of herself, smoking Gauloises in Paris?

Joan, who painted beautiful watercolour landscapes of the ocean, lived her life around her little dog. She told us she had a daughter who was studying art at college. But she never seemed to have anything nice to say about this daughter and was dismissive of her attempts to do art. Not surprisingly, the daughter rarely visited her, and Joan just couldn’t quite understand why.

Mary, an oil painter, was in the early stages of dementia. She told us her father had forbidden her to study art when she was a girl. So, in class, she worked like a tornado, making up for all that lost time. She would throw paint across the canvas, completing a huge new landscape every week. Her devoted husband would collect her each week and carry each new work home for her. He laughed that their garage was full to the brim of Mary’s paintings, and soon they’d have to find a bigger house. But Mary wouldn’t stop her painting for anything.

Art heals

The making of art can take you to places you never imagined you might go. Sometimes — often — this can be therapeutic.

I remember one time our teacher gave us a project based on childhood memories. The idea was to gather objects from our childhood and use these as inspiration for our work. She encouraged us to bring in old photos, any toys we remembered, places we loved and more.

One lady with Alzheimers, whose daughter was also an artist, painted the most beautiful watercolours of children on a beach. Her daughter said she hadn’t been that engaged in art for quite some time. Not since her husband, a professional painter, had passed away.

Another lovely man in his seventies painted a scene that reminded him of time spent with his father. When he was explaining his work to our teacher one day, he began to cry. He was shocked, I think. Big boys don’t cry, and all that. But it felt like one of those breakthrough moments when long buried emotions finally come to light and are released. After a lifetime of restraining his emotions he was able to heal a part of himself through his art.

You can leave something for those who follow on behind

You don’t have to be a professional artist. You don’t have to sell your work, or even exhibit it. It might even be better if you don’t, because then you don’t have to worry about finding someone to like your work when all you want to do is paint.

But what better gift to leave someone you love than your own artwork?

It’s been two and a half years since my mum passed away. I’m lucky that I got to have that time in art class with her. I keep going, even now, because I love that class, our teacher and my fellow students.

Mostly I keep going in memory of Mum.

Mum’s paintings cover the wall of my parent’s house. They are beautiful to us. I know they are a comfort to my dad. I find something new in them every time I see them.

They tell us a story of the last years of our mother’s life. Landscapes she visited and loved, scenes of nature, still-lives. Abstract experiments, gorgeous colours, lots of flowers. Her very last paintings are single flowers, roses, camellias. To me, they are mandalas. I wonder if Mum saw them that way too, as she painted them, in those last few weeks of her life on earth.

I think my siblings, my father, our families and I will always be grateful that she left us her paintings. Something personal and beautiful that we all treasure, especially now she’s left us. They resonate something of her spirit, something no words can express.

So it’s never too late to find your passion. Whether it’s golf or genealogy or dancing or something else, there’s always time, even if you’re a beginner. It doesn’t matter how good you are, it just matters that you love what you do. Like my mother, I got into art quite late. I doubt I’ll ever hang my work in a gallery, but it’s not about that. The joy is in the act of making art, and a great art class gives you the time out and the space to do just that. Try it, if you don’t believe me.

As for me, I’m lucky. Not only did my mother leave a house full of beautiful images but she, clever mamma that she was, gifted me her art class too…

First published on Medium on April 9, 2019


Transmuse – my first blog title


1.a prefix occurring in loanwords from Latin ( transcend; transfix);on this model, used with the meanings “across,” “beyond,” “through,” “changing thoroughly,” “transverse,”  in combination with elements of any origin: transisthmian; trans-Siberian;transempirical; transvalue.

Origin:  < Latin,  combining form of trāns  (adv. and preposition) across, beyond, through

(Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013.)

Why “transmuse”? Well, I am someone who has in recent years made her living as a translator. We translators spend our days crossing between languages, transcribing our version of a text into the different dimensions of our mother tongue. It’s a deft process, time-consuming, misunderstood and a little bit niche. We’re the hidden scribes of the modern world, sending out millions of words through the web-o-sphere, bringing cultures and people a little bit closer together, every day.

But while I have spent many long hours in front of my screen, engaged in the art of translation, the ‘trans’ part applies to other parts of my life also. Like everyone, I have many roles and interests. I cross from one role to another, mother, teacher, wife. daughter, sister, friend. If to translate means to travel across culture, language, boundaries and whatever else divides us from one another, maybe transmuse might means to muse about, beyond and through all those things.  If musing usually means meditating to oneself, transmuse means to send those musings out and beyond… which is the aim of this little blog.