Starting over

by Alissa

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.”