Starting Over Down Under

in which we migrate to Australia

Starting over

News! After six years at home with the babies and twelve years of moving from place to place in the wake of Ace’s career, I am going back to school. In February, I will begin a PhD program at the University of New South Wales, studying migration memoir and life stories of returned immigrants.

Ace and I are both excited for the change. I’ll spend a fair bit of time on the train to and from Sydney (reading! uninterrupted!), and Ace will spend more time on the domestic front. I’m making big calendars and stockpiling school lunch food in the freezer and catching up on things like new glasses and seeing the dentist. Suddenly, two weeks from now, there is a deadline; consequently, my kitchen has never been in better shape.

On a closely related note, for Christmas, I gave Ace a copy of Marie Kondo’s Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. He was thrilled. Truly. It might be one of my best gifts yet. He frequently rearranges the furniture and chats wistfully about minimalism. The Life Changing Magic is a Japanese bestseller, and living as we do in a two-bedroom apartment, we could use some Japanese-proportioned organisation. We’ve both read it now, and have spent a fair chunk of the past month sorting everything we own by category (clothes, books, papers, miscellany) to eliminate the excess.

The Magic sorting mechanism, as you handle each item you own, is to ask if the item gives you joy. If it doesn’t, out it goes. I’m about three-quarters through, and have found some things I love and am happy to hold again, plenty of things I don’t want any more, and also at least a half-dozen boxes from times we cleared the table to have dinner guests the past three years and shoved the box of whatevers in the garage–little time capsules preserving the creative shambles of life with small children and my inability to stay on top of the overflow. Once the objects of joy are the only things left, it should be simple to find a place for everything.

I’ve been thinking about this essential life work of letting things go, and avoiding it for a while. An element of this has been my lack of emotional fortitude for parting (with people/places/things), after so many moves. Another part of my resistance to minimalism is that one of my tasks is writing memoir, and the spark of memory that comes from holding and revisiting objects from my past is essential to that task. I don’t want a present entirely sanitised of my past. One of the bulwarks of my identity and the pleasures of my days is living with objects from other installations. But there needs to be room, in every sense, to move forward, and now that I have a job/project (they are paying me to write!), it is time.

I want to understand the scope and structure of what we are doing with our lives as immigrants, and the sense and meaning that other migrants have made of their moves in their stories. Half of my work will be academic research, and half will be creative practice. I’ll tell you a bit more as things develop.

Moving from Montana to Hungary when I was 14, the first leaving, remains a starting point for me. My parents had been talking about the possibility for a few months prior to the decision, and when the project started to go forward, they sent me a postcard at camp to let me know they were “99% sure” we were going. I remembered the shock of this fact, how I carried the post card around with me for months in grief and anticipation, but not its exact contents.

While sorting through my papers in the garage last week, I found it and read it, transported back to the summer of 1995. To who I was back then, to what my parents were like. Before.

Awestruck, I called Ace over to see it. “The postcard that began it all!” I told him.


As I handed it to him to read, I glanced at the front of the card and choked over what I had forgotten.

The art.



The image, of a painting by Djambu Barra Barra, includes two long-necked turtles in greens and oranges. (Apologies for the night photo. The colours are softer in daylight.)

It was meaningless to me when I first received it. But now.

I’ll leave you with the title:

“Old Man–Young Man–Very Big Story.”




A family holiday photo from my dad, in Kabul.

Look! We shared a glowing moment of grace with my parents in a week where we are all scattered between too many places and stretched by work and illness and worry.

I’m also thrilled to have a Hanukkah post up at Good Letters:


It’s American Thanksgiving eve. As I write this your pies are probably cooling, your turkey is brining, and you’re about to wake up and prepare to feast with your friends and relations on the fruits of your harvests. Happy Thanksgiving!

In Australia it’s already Thursday night. The high today was near 106 F, and I was utterly unprepared for a feast. No guests. No groceries. We are a few days shy of summer and the glut of other out-of-season holidays: Hanukkah, Christmas, my used-to-be-snowy birthday, New Year’s Eve. Tonight when Ace came home from work, we reheated leftover turkey meatballs and made a small bowl of sauce from frozen cranberries.

We managed Canadian Thanksgiving in a similar fashion: eating pre-sliced deli turkey and fistfuls of dried cranberries on the train to Sydney for a day trip with my parents when they visited in October. THAT was a Thanksgiving. We walked the Botanical Gardens and art galleries and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in probably 20 years.

Our first Thanksgiving here, I hadn’t yet found Bibina and its freezer-portal to the cranberry bogs of North America, so I made up this, in case you still need a side for dinner:

Cranberry Salad

Combine in a pleasing proportion: grated carrot, diced apples, finely chopped kale, dried cranberries, minced candied ginger, orange or lemon zest or minced preserved lemon. Dress with: lemon juice, orange juice, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, and seeds as desired.

After dinner the wind changed direction and cooled. It may even rain on what’s left of the garden. We’re on version 6.2 by now, I reckon. [=Ozism for “I think”]

The garden has become like something out of the book of Joel. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten. Except in this case, it’s been successive visits from the property management’s lawn contractor and a vat of herbicide. Also snails, birds and cats. Also scorching hot western winds. There’s something here to repent of, apparently, but it’s beyond me to figure out what it might be.


Volunteer sunflower.


Rocket blossoms. Aren’t they beautiful?


My co-gardener a few weeks back when things were still green, and her bounty of third generation lettuce. 

Lest you worry about the children’s exposure to pesticides and my mental health, I’m giving the plot a rest to let the poison dissipate, and we have planted yet again in pots near the house. Since we’ve started gardening on the patio, we’ve made a new friend. I haven’t gotten a photo yet, but an Eastern Blue Tongue Lizard the size of my arm comes out to sun sometimes right where I let my toddler play with the hose.

Happy Feast, America! Tomorrow I anticipate a newsfeed full of pumpkin pies and Brussels sprouts and a glimpse of your gratitude and family shenanigans.

“more than nostalgia…less than exile”

There is a line about a long-ago home community in an essay on migration and loss by journalist Gary Younge that has lingered in my mind since I first read it months ago:

“… they not only knew my mother but they knew me when I had a mother.”

Younge laments the loss of history, of personal context, that comes with even voluntary migration and articulates some of the grief that comes to each immigrant life.

“Migration involves loss,” he writes. “Even when you’re privileged, as I am, and move of your own free will, as I did, you feel it. Migrants, almost by definition, move with the future in mind. But their journeys inevitably involve excising part of their past. It’s not workers who emigrate but people. And whenever they move they leave part of themselves behind. Efforts to reclaim that which has been lost result in something more than nostalgia but, if you’re lucky, less than exile.”

So much of Younge’s essay rings true for me; it will become a part of my perpetual reading list. In that liminal space between nostalgia and exile, I’ve had a beautiful visit from my old friend Emily. She came to see our corner of Australia and help me with the kids for a few weeks while Ace went on the road for work conferences in the Northern Hemisphere, and it was almost like going home.

Emily is a living fossil from my childhood–she still has the same philosophical streak, the same obsession with finding the perfect rock or taking the perfect photo; she still has the same braids. We grew up a few blocks away from each other on the East side of Kalispell and for a while lived across the hall from each other in a dorm at UM. Her house, the one O and I stayed in before we moved to Australia, shares a raspberry-, lilac-, and hollyhock- laced alley with the houses where we lived as children. She is one of a handful of friends who knew me when I lived with my parents and siblings, before we moved abroad and scattered. She has visited me in Hungary, Macedonia, Canada and now Australia, linking these places to my past in Montana, and keeping her in my present. To a degree beyond anyone else I know, Emily has chosen loyalty to family and place. Lucky for me, I count as some kind of cousin.

A few mementos of our visit:

The first day Emily was here, we took our first walk down the beach and her perpetual delight with the water, the shells, the foam, the birds, the stones, began. Showing her around made everything new again, in the best possible way.


Family portrait

Family portrait. We don’t get many of these.

Thanks to Emily, we now have a current stock of photos of us, and photos of me, since I am usually the one holding the camera. We printed photos for the first time since moving here and hung some around the house so S will get to know what she looks like. Up until now, she has assumed (correctly) that the girl in our few photos is who she calls “NiNi!”.

Our big chance for a nice family portrait happened to be on one of the stormiest days of the winter.

Our main chance for a nice family photo happened to be on one of the stormiest days of the winter. Windspeed, 48 knots. 88.9 km/hr.

Emily made many new friends while she was here, particularly among the small people and the wildlife. Probably the best thing about her coming was having her listen to my kids and play with them without bearing any of the pressure of Ace’s off-to-work urgency or my sharing-sleep-with-a-teething-baby fatigue. She made time and space for creativity and elaborate projects.

Emily with her new friends.

Emily and her fan club.

We even staged Vivid Newcastle, our own miniature version of the massive art/light show that takes over Sydney this time of year. When our attempt to attend was foiled by disrupted train service, O had the brilliant idea of just having our own. After about eight seconds of consideration, we decided it would yield at least as much pleasure as the real thing and spent an entire day transforming the living room into an interactive glowing wonderland.

Harbour Bridge

Harbour Bridge for Vivid Newcastle in Lego and glow sticks. This is probably the best thing I’ve made all year. It spanned the bathtub. This exercise also gave me a new appreciation for the actual Harbour Bridge–a small [plastic] kinship with the people who built it.

Me and my new favourite bridge.

Me and my new favourite bridge.


Ginko leaves

Ginko leaves at the Botanical Gardens

We went to several places I haven’t visited since we first moved here because they reminded me of the rawness of arrival, when everything was exhaustingly new and overstimulating. Now they are just places I’ve visited with my old friend Emily.

So thanks for turning up in Oz, Em. Thank you for loving my kids. Thank you for the gift of a month-long conversation about where we have been and where we are going. You remembered things about me that I had lost track of. You reminded me of who we were at 14, 17, 20, 28. We are still the daughters of our mothers, from that town.

Together again

Together again.

A handful of water

Last year I grew a baby and wrote one essay, a piece of memoir that brings together my past and my present and the heart of this blog. A handful of water is up now at The Other Journal. Many thanks to my mother for coming to take care of us and making the space for me to write this.

Here’s a taste:

The geographic center of my earliest memories lies in the hot spring–fed streams of the Yellowstone Caldera. I learned to float there, my water wings on, looking up at unpolluted starlight and into the level distance at herds of bison, dusted white by drifting snow. They came to the springs to graze on the winter grasses sustained by the heat of the pools. I watched them through mineral-scented steam—bobbing silently in the circle of my father’s arms—until the animals, with their wet black eyes, turned their heads and walked on. When the rustle and clump of rumination was no longer audible, I lay back in the water, submerged my ears, and listened to the crinkly champagne-bubble sound of rocks, clicking gently downstream on the floor of the river. This is the zero-mile marker from which all of my other experiences can be measured. Holding me lightly on the surface, my father showed me the inevitability of the movement of water, and if we played it right, the joy of our moving with it.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Language update

O has been in preschool for seven weeks now–just twice a week, a bridging experience before we try out big school next year. Almost immediately, we heard her accent start to slip. I’ve known this was coming for a while, but it doesn’t get any easier. She loves school–the play kitchen, the painting, the small friends and teachers who will warp her speech into something native sounding.

Any given day, she’s at 1/3 still sounding like me, 1/3 the cheery British woman telling stories with actions on the internet [Cosmic Kids] and 1/3 local.

Last week she was recovering from a cold and sounded like someone else entirely, someone significantly older, with a smoker’s rasp, asking for scotch and a rubber.

[tape and eraser]

This week anything with an o sound is getting an extra r.

Tonight at dinner she had snar peas.

Snar peas.

Up the coast

In January we had a wonderful visit from Cousin Dave. The last time he came to Australia, it was with his parents on Great Uncle Herb’s 92nd birthday. Then and now, having family come share this place with us opens it up.

With Dave we drove along the coast, rapidly breaching my Northern-most-point-visited (with the exception of a day in a conference hotel in Brisbane) in Australia. Once we passed Newcastle airport, it was a new country, a lot like this country, but more and more beautiful as we approached the tropics. We were on the road for a week, stopping every few hours to visit another beach. When we reached Noosa, north of Brisbane, we turned around drove inland, taking the Mount Lindesay Highway and Thunderbolt’s Way (a one lane view of the inland mountains, named for a famous bandit) back to our little corner of Oz.

A smattering of what we saw:

Where we saw a fisherman pull a shark onto the beach.

Seal Rocks, where we saw a fisherman pull a Wobbegong shark onto the beach.


Girl with blue jelly. North Haven.





Coff’s Harbour


Emerald Beach




Dolphin spotting at Byron Head Lighthouse.

Dolphin spotting at Byron Head Lighthouse.

The Big Prawn at Ballina. Also viewed on this trip: The Big Banana, The Big Sheep.

The Big Prawn at Ballina. Also viewed on this trip: The Big Banana, The Big Sheep.


So much warm shallow water. King’s Beach, Caloundra.


Sunset at King's Beach, Caloundra.

Sunset at King’s Beach, Caloundra.


Mount Lindesay, on a very scenic drive from Queensland back into New South Wales.

Mount Lindesay, on a very scenic drive from Queensland back into New South Wales.







One of the features of life with Ace is the occasional opportunity to base a vacation (for me) around his work travel. In other Decembers, math conferences have taken us to Windsor/Detroit and Toronto. We just returned from Melbourne, where the girls and I explored many lovely playgrounds, parks and museums while Ace did something about math.

This was my first trip somewhere other than the grocery store in nearly a year, and Melbourne did not disappoint.





I love to take in a place at walking speed, and a friend loaned us the perfect double stroller for our quest.

Baby S has been outside as long as she was in, and is starting to really feel like one of the crew. Her best moments included testing the many swings of the playgrounds we found along the way.

O and I took turns choosing and re choosing our journey each day–through the centre, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Abbotsford, and over the Yarra to the Botanical Gardens. This yielded two trips to the zoo (family membership is much more affordable than at Taronga in Sydney, and now we have reciprocal visiting privileges), two visits to Collingwood Children’s Farm (O thinks holding a guinea pig is the best thing to ever happen–please nobody tell her they aren’t just farm animals), two visits to the Melbourne Museum, and one great day where we visited Art Play and the Children’s Garden at the Botanical Gardens. On my birthday Ace joined us for a visit to My favourite place from our first trip to Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria-International.

None of my Australia baggage applies to Melbourne. So many stunning gardens. So much beautiful food. So many great places to go and be. So many moments of delight in motion with my girls.

Did you ever see that animated mouse immigration movie, was it An American Tail? There is a rousing song the little mice sing about there being no cats in America. It doesn’t hold true in the end, but I remain similarly convinced that there are no roaches in Melbourne.

What a great city!









Catch and release

I have turned over a new leaf.

Last week I trapped a spider in the kitchen and saved it to be released outside. I am moving beyond indiscriminate squishing to selective death dealing, and that feels like some kind of progress.

Someday I will tell you about the cycle of loathing and adrenaline and futility and shoe-smacking prowess of my two-year night-time Eco battle with the roaches. After poison-free sticky traps, and the organic spaghetti sauce jar trick I picked up at play group, and attempts at leaving the kitchen dry and garbage free at night that were foiled by a household terror of going outside to the bins after dark, I admit defeat.

The day I saved the spider, I bought my first pack of poison bait traps and placed them strategically throughout the kitchen and bathroom. Now the roaches we see are moving slowly and are dying in satisfyingly high numbers, albeit in conspicuously gross daytime locations.

Please let this end before the baby finds one.

I miss the winter. The cleansing power of a good frost.


Beautiful days in the neighbourhood

We have imported an old friend! One if Ace’s Vancouver-era fellow students has come to work here for a while and joined the family for several weeks while transitioning in to life in Newcastle. It is great to have him around (the corner!) and we have had some lovely days introducing him to our places here.

Bar Beach and around: