The hardest decision of our lives

It will change everything. I don’t know how it got to this. But now we are at a point where we have to make what feels like an impossible choice. It feels so hard because it will change the course of our lives entirely. It’s terrifying. 

A week ago our Canadian visas were approved. Our flights are booked for a month from now. One month to move our entire lives to Canada. We don’t have the money this time. There’s no going back. But if we can’t find decent income, a house, an au pair, all the stuff that goes along with settling, we fail. Who knows where we’ll end up. The kids get dragged around the world. It’s not good, not what we’d hoped for. Even if we do find enough income, we won’t save money. Which means we can’t buy a house. Which means continued instability. And even if we did eventually save the down payment, we’re getting to that age where a 25 year mortgage really isn’t viable. We’d be working far beyond normal retirement age. We’ve left everything so late. 

I actually have regrets. I really can’t believe I do but it’s true. It’s so counterproductive to have regrets too. I need a fresh start, drop all that past and just begin afresh now. 

So then we stay. We build up more savings until we have a decent ten percent deposit in 12 months. We find a place in Melbourne. We buy it. We move. We settle. We make it our own, as close to anything we could get in Canada. We stay forever and have a happy, comfortable life, casting aside our discomfort at hot summers and mediocre seasonal traditions because we’re comfortable. We don’t have to worry much about money. We cruise along and forget all about how much better it might have been as Canadians. 

Is this it? If we stay will we never achieve anything else? A Melbourne future used to be my dream for many years. And then I lost it, for the sake of a new and illogical yet idealistic dream. Can we return to the happiness we felt at the prospect of moving to Melbourne five years ago? We need to decide now, tomorrow is the final deadline. I have no answers and neither does Mr Chewbacca. This is so very hard. 

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Breathing in the scent of my childhood

After a few confusing and slightly hectic weeks in my first full-time job in three years, I have a moment to take a lunchtime walk. It’s spring here in Canberra and for the first time in about 20 years the weather is spot on. Instead of blazing heat as soon as winter is done, the season is easing in ever so gently. The sun is warm, the wind is cool and it’s about 17 degrees. Magpies are out in full force, squawking urgently about perceived threats to their nests and bees swarm around blossoms. That spring smell that carries with it the allergies that affect so many is thick and heady for a moment before the cool wind dilutes it. Old Man’s Beard floats through the air, collecting like snow at the base of trees and if you’re unlucky enough, it goes up your nose.

Ahead of me, I see a building in which I began my tertiary education nearly 20 years ago now. 

It’s nothing remarkable. Inside it there are beautiful works of art and young and emerging artists finding their place in the world.

I walked here 20 years ago. My best friend Grug [not her real name] and I had nothing to do one weekend and we noticed the uni was having its open day. I knew my marks wouldn’t be good enough and my friend wasn’t planning on going to uni but we went along anyway. We picked up goody bags and wandered about the campus then went to check out the school of music. As we walked out of Llewellyn Hall, we noticed this white building, the Canberra School of Art, was also having an open day. It was part of the uni apparently. Somehow we made our way through the gallery towards the back and ended up in the Textiles area. I immediately felt like I’d come home and suddenly realised that this might be where I need to be. I talked to them about applying and felt encouraged, despite not having studied art in my final two years of high school.

So I created a portfolio. I’d been sewing for about six years at that point, and I’d done really well in textiles in year 11 and 12. It was something I found easy and fun and interesting and I wouldn’t need high marks in maths or science to have a chance at a place at art school.

“You know this isn’t fashion design,” they said to me when I went for the interview and presented a portfolio dominated by pattern drafting and fabric design. I was clear that I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in fashion, although frankly I’d have said that about anything at that stage, I had no idea what I wanted.

At the end of 1996, after having submitted my application and been interviewed with my portfolio, my dad took me on my first overseas trip to the UK. That’s another story, but while I was there my mum called to say that I’d received a letter to say I was being considered for a place but that I was on a waiting list for any places that became available due to people dropping out. I didn’t really think anything of it, and I know my dad wasn’t impressed that I wouldn’t be going straight to uni, so that was that, I put it out of my mind. When I got home in January 1997 there was a letter to say I had been accepted. I’m hazy now on the numbers but from what I recall I got one of 27 places in a pool of 300 odd applicants. Not too bad. I still didn’t think it was that big a deal until years later I was chatting to a local artist who was stunned to discover I’d been accepted there, saying it was one of the most highly regarded art schools in the country. Hmm. I have no idea if that’s true!

Anyway, this white building, this is where I started. I didn’t become an artist, obviously, but I did that first year of my BA (Visual) and realised it wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I just transferred into a regular BA and that was that, thus began my academic career. It’s bizarre to think I’ve come from that to a PhD in Italian in Canada 20 years later. I recently stumbled upon a social media post I made ten years ago when visiting Rome. I went to the Trevi Fountain and when I looked for a coin to throw in the only one I had was a Canadian ten cent piece. Imagine that! I’d never been to Canada, but for some reason I had that coin in that moment and I threw it in the Trevi. In Italy. And now here I am, in Canada, studying Italian. I have no idea how or why this happened but it’s quite an odd coincidence that I find hard to label as arbitrary.

A reminder that things sometimes do work out as they should

I just have to document what’s happened over the past 48 hours because I feel like if I don’t I will forget and start to think maybe it never really happened this way. 

It’s Friday night now. On Monday, we were pretty down in the dumps. We haven’t been back in Canberra too long, and at that stage it was about a week and a half. But already we’d run into what we thought were barriers stopping us getting work here and building some savings back up. Going to Canada was expensive and coming home too soon made it even more costly. I do believe the decision to come back after a year was not the right one. But all that aside, that’s what we did and we chose to come back to Canberra and not Melbourne because it might afford us more opportunity to work and build back up to being able to afford to buy a house. But those opportunities for stable, well-paid government jobs were proving elusive and we were both wondering if we’d made yet another mistake on a spur of the moment decision. We had managed to rent this kind of nice place, we were gathering furniture and bits and pieces but no one was earning any money and it was all getting just a bit scary. 

At that point I realised I needed to ramp up applying for jobs through recuitment agencies so I sat up late a few nights and fired off half a dozen applications. Mr C had registered with many but my way of registering was not to call them directly. Instead, I’d just apply for the jobs they had advertised and let them come to me. No follow-up call, not even a cover letter. Just an emailed CV. That’s the way I’ve always done it. It may seem a pretty arrogant and even foolish way of doing things as we were getting pretty desperate but that’s what I did anyway. 

I’d set up a meeting last week with an agent and it didn’t sound particularly promising. She was on leave for a few days, not super keen to put me forward for anything, but it was the only lead I had. The same agency was representing Mr C for two jobs, one of which he hoped he’d get but hadn’t even heard about an interview. It was a long weekend but we had no idea Monday was a public holiday until we went to Vinnies and discovered it was closed. I crept out of the car and shamefully rifled through some of the piles of donated goods blocking the closed door and we got some new bowls and casserole dishes. It felt like a low point. 

So yesterday rocked round and I met with the agent at 9am. I felt frumpy and less than confident but it was a pleasant chat and although I thought she was genuinely nice, I didn’t expect her to find me any suitable roles. My CV, for one, is full of holes, short term contracts mixed with some freelance work and study here and there, big gaps where I was in baby land, just not as impressive as it once was. I realised just how much technology has advanced since I last worked full time in the digital sphere and I felt a little unsure when I left the meeting. But little did I know, the Universe had earmarked this day as “massive crazy change” day. 

I took out my phone to text Mr C to say I was on my way back home but he’d already texted me. He had an interview at 11:30! Better get home! He doesn’t know the city or where to park yet so we drove him. As we dropped him off, I got a call. The agent had two jobs she wanted to put me forward for. Of course I agreed to both, and she told me she may be in touch about one short term contract later in the day as they needed someone to start Tuesday (as Monday is another public holiday). I drove the kids to the shopping centre and we hung out in Big W toy department while we waited for Mr C. I felt like the worst parent on the planet as I was on my phone virtually the whole time. The onslaught had begun! I checked my email for an update on the potential job interviews to find a message from another agent wanting to represent me for a role paying another half as much again as the base hourly rate I’d hoped for. I played it cool and agreed to let him put me forward even though the job was asking for technical knowledge that I don’t quite have. 

Mr C appeared and immediately told me they’d virtually offered him the job on the spot! We got home and as Mr C chatted to his agent about how his interview went, I got a call from mine. She told me she’d sent my CV across to the short term role and they thought I was great and wanted to interview me that afternoon as the job would be starting Tuesday! Oh, and with a handover on the Friday. I agreed shakily to a 4:30pm interview. 

All went well. I turned up on time to a lovely building tucked away in a quiet corner of the university campus surrounded by bush land and views of lake and mountains. There, I met the guy I’d be filling in for and working with when he returned. It was to be a six week job and yes, handover tomorrow. I had to tell him I didn’t know how I’d arrange daycare at such short notice and he told me they had been unable to find anyone suitable and that I, as their last resort, was perfect for the job. I had to accept. 

Mr C was just as stunned as I was when I told him, especially when I found out the pay was a bit more than expected. He was simultaneously stressing out as he’d heard nothing to confirm he had his job despite the verbal offer at interview. We drank wine that night anyway. I just knew it’d be fine. 

And it was. About 16 hours after my recruitment agent confirmed written approval for me to commence, the same happened for Mr C. And that was it. 24 hours prior we’d been shitting ourselves at the prospect of destitution and now we were employed. Surely a miracle, definitely a relief. We ate fish and chips from our local takeaway shop (absolutely awesome and not expensive), and we felt normal again. What a crazy time! Organising daycare at short notice was hard but I did it. We met with the lady and the kids start on Wednesday, when Mr C starts his job. I can’t believe it. This Canberra thing might just be the right decision after all!

Yet another challenge

I’m beginning to think that life is just a series of ridiculous challenges. Trying to do something but in order to do it you first need to do something else. This means you have to do a bunch of other things too, things you never though you’d do. I never thought I’d put my kids in care. No matter the cost, I’d manage to keep my kids with me until they started school. I didn’t do too badly in that the Dude was never in care. Thumper got her first year with me.

Coming to Canberra, we knew we could earn solid pay. We didn’t think much about the cost of daycare. But we should have. Getting our jobs was one thing, and happened so fast, as I wrote about before, so we needed fast daycare as well. We were fortunate enough to find someone who could do the week for both kids in family daycare. It wasn’t the perfect situation, but it may just work and at least it was there. So we signed up and agreed to start them on Wed. Little did we think that the cost would be far beyond what we could possibly afford.

To top it off, neither of the kids wanted to go. The daycare lady had a rather old, dark, cold house and lots of outdated toys. She didn’t speak great English which was a challenge but not the end of the world. I think the kids just didn’t gel with her. The Dude has been getting progressively more and more bored since finishing school over three months ago and although initially excited about going to daycare, he was disappointed after the first day. He was asked to lie down and have quiet time while the little ones napped which he didn’t like, that was his main gripe. Thumper, who never used to want to leave daycare in Canada, suddenly developed separation anxiety and screamed from the moment she realised I was leaving her. Overall, it was a bit of a disaster.

Once we realised the exorbitant costs, we immediately pulled the kids out. It was a tough call because the lady had been so accommodating at the last minute. I felt sick at the prospect of having to tell her. I desperately posted on a local Facebook page and among the replies asking confused and repetitive questions about why we don’t get rebates for daycare (we definitely don’t), I had a few people telling me to message them about solutions. One of them, a young mum, turned out to be a real godsend. She agreed to look after the kids three days a week at our place for a reduced rate and another lady is going to look after them the other two at hers, subject to meeting her this weekend. It began to seem like it might just work.

But today when we got home after the first full day leaving them with this lovely mum, we began to doubt that it was going to work. The kids were a nightmare. They didn’t listen, they had meltdown after meltdown, they were rude, disrespectful, aggressive. Thumper refused to nap. Dude refused to turn off the tv. Another disaster ensued. The mum was, frankly, a saint. She pulled out every trick in the book but ultimately the kids were just behaving terribly. She has bravely agreed to continue, but to be honest I can’t see it lasting, unless something changes significantly.

For my part, none of this feels right. I want to be back in Canada and I know we need money to do that, but being with my children feels more important somehow. Gosh it’s hard. I don’t know how we’ve ended up in this situation but I’m going to do everything within my power to fix it.

A yearning

After all that worrying and wondering and desperation, looking forward to being home and making a life, I don’t want to be here. I want to be in Canada. I really do. Some bit of me wonders if I’ll ever be satisfied with where I am, but most of me thinks I am finally going to be where I can settle. I know for Mr Chewbacca it’s the latter, and he’s very hard to please and very impulsive. But, like me, he doesn’t want to settle for second best. So we want back in.

Looking back through photos of our lives in Canada, I realise it suited me a lot more being there. Of course there are things about Australia that I prefer and I’m glad to have those things back but I still don’t feel like this is home. Even though technically I’m as “at home” as I could ever be, being in Canberra, my home town. It’s good to be back but I’m reminded all the time why I left.

The feeling of wanting to be back in Canada is, on the surface, a nice one, exciting. But delve a little deeper and it becomes complex and misleading. Do I really want to be there or am I overly romanticising it? Did I really enjoy being there? It starts to become nonsensical if you think about it too much, like repeating a common word in your head until it sounds completely foreign. It’s as though having too many options isn’t such a good thing.

One thing’s for sure, though: we should have given it another year, there’s no doubt about that. I wish there was some way of getting back to that time when I couldn’t handle the thought of dealing with yet more visa applications. In hindsight I really don’t think anyone could have done anything, I’d decided we were going and that was it. Silly really.

But what’s done is done. So now what? Do we definitely want to go back? How can we pull it off?

One of those catch-up posts

I am kind of obsessive about record-keeping, but in a quite eccentric way. I like to write dates on everything. Even little post-it notes I write with story ideas, I’ll put a date on there. I’ve always done it. The problem is that I don’t always keep up with my documenting everything, so while I keep records, I don’t always get to complete them. And that’s what’s happened with this blog recently.

The last time I posted was in April and now it’s September. I have at least half a dozen part-complete posts sitting in my drafts. And although the things I was documenting in those have passed, I absolutely must finish and publish them. So I’m going to do what I did when we first went to Canada. I’m going to publish them in order, dating them when they occurred, and try and catch up to now.

One of the reasons I’ve been hesitant in posting stuff, aside from having no time or reliable internet connection, is that the stuff that’s happened since deciding to come back to Australia has been a bit hush-hush. Not to say it’s a secret as such, more just that we’ve been a bit wild and crazy with our decision-making and we didn’t really want to broadcast stuff to the world. It’s just what we do.

So, stay tuned, if you like, for updates since that time we saw the Mennonites playing volleyball somewhere outside of St Josephs, Ontario, and we’ll go from there. The updates will contain many child-related anecdotes, stories about rush decisions (what’s new?!), and document the pain of adjustment as a result of yet another move when, in actual fact, I’d decided I was completely over moving and wanted a house like six years ago. Funny how some decisions impact immediately on your life and others just seem to fall by the wayside.

A bed

In the UK, or at least in my experience sharing flats in London, as a tenant you don’t usually need to have your own furniture. Many places come furnished, even with beds. I remember when I moved into Castle Aspenlea at the beginning of my crazy London years, Blacksnake mentioned he’d considered swapping the beds over between what would be my room and his because his had a dip in the middle. I got the comfy bed in that house. Similarly, the bed in the flat where Mr Chewbacca and I first lived together was part of the package.

A crappy shot of a profound exhibition in the National Museum of Australia about home and belonging. Very apt.
In Australia it’s different. You’d rarely get a furnished place. It’s great to have your own things when you first move out of home, but beds are expensive so futons are big amongst the young flatties. I had one I bought for $100 and used for years, it was great, and my mum still has it, some 15 years later. I bought it because I got my first serious boyfriend and I only had a king single at home. Funny, seems childish to think of that now!

When we moved to Sydney we ended up with a furnished place. The landlady, who lived above us in the mansion, was Chinese and apparently they are very big on hard beds. Ours was hard as a rock, and squeaky. But we liked not having to buy one and luckily we enjoy a firm sleeping surface. It was in this bed that I went into labour with my son. And that was when I started to think about the significance of a bed. We spend more time there consistently than anywhere else, a third of our lives prostrate on this surface perfected according to designs developed and redeveloped over hundreds of years. Yet we don’t think much about who’s been there before and why. Because that’s kind of gross to think about I guess!

We bought a fantastic bed when we moved from that first Sydney place, the best mattress in the world, it would seem. We loved our bed. It was an incredibly painful process to go through to sell it, realising with horror that the new owners were only willing to spend a quarter of what we’d paid, an eighth even, because it was used. By two people. For three years. Yet, inexplicably, somehow those same people would pay double that to stay one night in a hotel, sleeping in a bed they’d never seen, in which a plethora of strangers had done who knows what for years, a bed whose sheets may or may not have been cleaned to the standard required… The lack of logic is unbearable! But such is the way of things.

When we got to Canada, we bought another lovely mattress, brand new. I think we did it mainly because we thought there was a good chance we’d stay. And because we were sick of lying on some ancient, stained single mattress and there weren’t second-hand options around. We didn’t spend quite as much, about half what we’d spent on our Aussie bed, but it was still a great mattress. There’s nothing more comforting than a nice, comfy bed.

And of course, when we left Canada, yet again we had to sell our lovely bed. I couldn’t believe it when people began enquiring and were just interested in the frame, or didn’t particularly care what kind of mattress it came with. We eventually sold it to a Brazilian couple who’d just moved to Toronto for about a third of what we’d paid less than a year before. Yet again it struck me how extraordinary it is, the way we think about and treat our sleeping surface. Particularly because that point marked the beginning of a long period of sleeping on uncomfortable surfaces. Hotel beds, which are usually great, then the plane, horribly uncomfortable but temporary, the beds at my mum’s which involved a choice between an ancient, soft mattress that gave Mr Chewbacca a back ache or a fold out couch with a chunky futon whose contents constantly redistributed themselves so you could feel the wooden frame beneath. That had been my couch when I lived alone, years before. We were grateful though, to have somewhere, and to attempt to readjust to Aussie life, transitioning gently in this place that most consider paradise in Australia, the Byron Shire.

The sleeping arrangements became yet more complex when we eventually hired a campervan and embarked on our journey down the east coast of Australia from Brisbane, stopping along the way at caravan parks and with friends. We invited ourselves to sleep in the spare room at some good friends’ house on the NSW central coast and in Canberra my dad put us up in a nice serviced apartment but other than that we slept in the campervan. It was actually really comfortable sleeping up the top above the driver’s seat but it sucked getting up and down to deal with Thumper who of course never sleeps through the night. The kids shared the other double bed at the back of the camper which would also have been okay if it weren’t for the night wakings. While it was really fun driving and staying in campsites along the way, we were clearly all pretty over not having any fixed abode. We stayed with some other good friends when we got to Melbourne and were so grateful to have an ensuite room all to ourselves with little beds either side of ours for the kids.

Once we’d decided to go back to Canberra to live, we knew that beds were the beginning of piecing our lives back together. Staying with my dad was really difficult in a one bedroom place which isn’t really set up for us. The day after we arrived we had an amazing stroke of luck whereby we went to look at a place we didn’t think we would get because we had no income, yet because the landlord was desperate for tenants and the agent could see we were genuine, we found ourselves signing a lease that afternoon! So suddenly we had a house, after two months of being without. We bought some airbeds (which, incidentally, are freezing cold to sleep on if the air surrounding is in the slightest bit cold!) and once again realised just how important beds are.

Reading a bedtime story on the makeshift floor bed, towels on top in case of accidents
This time we didn’t buy new. We didn’t have the money. We cut it so fine actually, down to our last few dollars before receiving a first pay packet and suddenly everything was okay again. So we got a couple of second hand mattresses for the kids – one was free, I think, brought by an incredibly kind and generous mum of a good friend. Our mattress we bought for $30 off a lady selling her house to move in with her ageing father. She told me she paid $2,000 originally and I’d believe her, it’s super comfy. She also sold us a Dyson for cheap (although it turned out to be clogged up with urine-infested cat hair and gunk). We’ve not bought a bed frame, and frankly, that feels like an extravagance and somewhat unnecessary. We’ll see how we feel come winter.

Anyway once we had beds, then we could finally relax. A couch, tv, kitchen table, other bits and pieces, all great, but the beds, those are the fundamental building blocks of a home. Without beds, you have nowhere to rest. The bed is home.