For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather; 
To cheer one on the tedious way, 
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down, 
To strengthen whilst one stands

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems

The orgy moan
The orgy moan

I’ve never been much of a joiner. My current lifestyle – which includes paid-up membership of a book club, a writers’ club and a photography club – would seem to contradict that fact, but historically it’s been true.

For that reason, I find the idea of sororities something of a nightmare. To be honest I don’t know that much about college sororities other than what I’ve seen on American TV – thankfully no such system exists in Australia (at least to my knowledge)  – but the thought of initiation, membership and exclusivity makes me feel at best claustrophobic and at worst a little nauseous.

This is partly because of the separation between men and women that fraternities and sororities imply and reinforce. I’m generally uncomfortable in big groups anyway, but when I see big crowds of just men or just women out together, it always strikes me as a little odd.

But when the idea of sorority is pared back to its Latin origins I feel altogether different. The Latin stem of sorority is soror, which simply means sister. And sisters are something that I simply cannot imagine my life without.

It’s a terrifying 22 years since I last lived in the same country as my four sisters (and, of course, my beautiful big brother). But still many of my happiest memories revolve around them. Often it’s the small things that make me laugh when I’m talking with them, but those small things make me laugh until the tears stream down my cheeks, in a way that I don’t laugh with any other person on the planet.

I never know where or when I’m going to see my sisters next but I am never in any doubt that when I do see them it will be spectacular. We’ve grown up together and are growing older together, in spite of the distance between us. It’s my sisters that I’m planning to wear purple hats with when I’m old, as we laugh through the lines on our familiar old faces and wipe away the tears of mirth as we look back on the hilarious magnificence of life.

As well as the honour of having four sisters by birth, I also have the joy of honorary sisters – women who have been in my life for shorter or longer periods, who’ve become embedded in my heart and my brain and who are inextricably linked with who I am. You know who you are and you know I adore you, and I thank you for giving me so many amazing times and magnificent memories.

There are also the women with whom I share extraordinary and unexpected experiences, all of whom contribute to the wonder and humour and vitality of life. They are all part of the wider sorority and I’m privileged to know them.

Among those women are the cast of The Vagina Monologues, Geneva.

Girls, you are gorgeous.


Pâques (and pictures)

There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its colors and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.

John Steinbeck


Easter breakfast
Easter breakfast

My mum was good at Easter. I remember it as being almost as exciting as Christmas. Mum always got up before the rest of us and we’d wake to the smell of tea and hot cross buns. My little sister and I – we shared a room – would sneak into the dining room to see the table magically laid out with tea cups and side plates and coloured eggs galore. We’d have chocolate for breakfast, altogether as a family of eight. It was the most exciting thing ever. After breakfast we’d go outside to search for the Easter eggs Mum had hidden in the garden. The six of us would compete to find them, the older ones surreptitiously helping the younger ones, then we’d pile all the eggs up together, count them and divide them equally between us. I thought I’d carry these traditions on with my own children.

But last Easter M and I were in the south of France mourning the end of an adventure that never began. We spent four days staring out to sea and contemplating both the future that wasn’t to be and the one that was within our power to create. Like much of life, it was hard but it was beautiful. We cried but we got closer.

This Easter we’re in Interlaken making the most of the life that seems set to be ours. We won’t have any little people with us tomorrow morning getting excited about Interlaken’s Easter egg hunt, but we will have each other. And we’ll have beautiful countryside to explore and gorgeous Swiss chocolate to eat and lakes to look over and mountains to climb.

The first Easter that M and had together we spent diving in Dahab. The next year we had Easter in Egypt. Then last year there was sadness in the south of France.

This year we have satisfaction in Switzerland. Life could be a whole lot worse.

Joyeuses Pâques, everybody.

Happy Easter.

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Seeing the world for Wilhelmina

We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.

Anton Chekhov


So the 17th of January has come around again. It’s the day when I think the most about my beautiful mother and her short but fruitful life. It’s the day when she was born and the day when 21 years later she was married. It’s the day when I wish more than ever that I could talk to her, even if just for a couple of hours.

I never know how this day is going to take me. Sometimes I feel like celebrating Mum’s life rather than mourning her death. When I spoke to my sister Pinky on this day last year she said that she had a strong image in her mind of Mum sitting on a swing, smiling, with a glass of champagne in her hand. It’s a good image and I’m trying to focus on it today. But I have to admit that I’m struggling a little.

When I was younger my main emotion about Mum’s death was self-pity. Why did I have to lose one of the few people I truly needed? Then as I got older my sympathy started to shift. It was my mother I felt sorry for. She was so young! She had so much left to do and see. I can hardly bear to think about her suffering and her sorrow.

And today, a day when the Tupperware skies aren’t helping to lift my dark mood, my sympathies extend to a whole lot of other people too. My Dad… God, how does a man in his early forties say goodbye to the love of his life, knowing that he then has to raise their six kids without her? Mum’s siblings… I really can’t bear to think about how it must have been for them. Mum’s friends… What a terrible shock it must have been to lose the friendship of someone they loved so much.

I guess it was the sorrow rather than the celebration that I was feeling when I wrote this poem in 1993, ten years after Mum’s death on the same day that the Ash Wednesday fires devastated much of Victoria and South Australia.

Ash Wednesday

Ashes to foreheads, dust thrown on coffins,
You watched through the novelty of your death, Mama,
As fires raged in the east
And in the west six children screamed for your return.

Beyond suffering, finally distant from compassion,
You calmly observed the smearing of ashes
Upon the unseeing eyes of your children,
Watching with your unworldly vision
As their sight was irremediably distorted.

The ashes of palms or of people,
An inconsequential difference to you,
Your suggestion of Lent’s sacrifice persuasive.
But past beliefs were belied –
Not every Easter brings resurrection.

She’s happy now, away from her suffering.
You nodded your approval of Dad’s tearful wise words.
Immaterial, you were everywhere,
A part of you in everything, every thought,
Forever a reminder that you’d never return.

Three days later, liberated from life,
You saw us dressed in Sunday’s finest,
Pushing tears out through Valium,
Singing joyous hymns you’d requested,
As the town turned out to spectate.

We told ourselves ten years would pass,
Though none of us believed it,
While you, in your distant place beyond time,
Never doubted for a second.

And still you sit and watch,
and smile as we remember.

I’d intended to write a lot today. I wanted to write all about how great and funny my Mum was. How my sister Lientje and I recently went to see the place in the Netherlands where she grew up. How sorry I am that the adult sadness and madness and bereavement that followed my Mum’s death meant that we lost not just Mum but also those who were closest to her. I wanted to say that I feel the need to experience as much of the world as I possibly can, seeing it not just for myself but also through the eyes of my mother, who didn’t live for long enough to see even a tenth of what she’d have liked to. I wanted to reassure my friends who have lost their mothers in the intervening 31 years that although the pain of that loss never goes away, you do get more used to living with it; I’m afraid, however, that today is proof for me that the pain is still sometimes pretty acute.

So I’m going to write about her again on another day, on a day when I can do justice to her beauty and grace and positivity. But for the moment I’m going to leave the proof of that in her own hands by sharing a letter that she wrote to my eldest sister in 1981. Mum had been sick for some years by the time she wrote this and she would die two years later. But if anyone can see any proof of sorrow or self-pity in this then they must be better at reading between the lines than I am.

I could learn something from the light, self-deprecating humour and endless positivity shown here by my mother when she was 39 years old. And tomorrow I will.

But for now all I can say is, “I miss you, Mum. Over to you.”

Letter dated 13 April 1981