The best laid plans

Sometimes, it’s harder to keep a promise than you’d planned. Last night, when I went to upload my second promised June post, my internet connection went down. But it seemed appropriate that when I had written about the illusory nature of time, that my plans of controlling my time should be defeated, yet again. It was too late to resolve my technical problem and so I went to bed to dream of burning buildings and harps.

So here’s yesterday’s post, a day late:

Six weeks ago, the Australian poet Peter Porter died in London. He was 81 years old. He had led a rich and full life though he suffered his share of tragedies while producing a huge body of published work. When I read his obituary in The Age newspaper I felt stricken. I’d never written to thank him for some advice he once gave me. It was only when I saw he had passed away that I realised how valuable his words had been to me and recalled the afternoon we had spent together.

I can’t say I knew Peter Porter, though I admired his poetry. My uncle, the painter Arthur Boyd, had illustrated some of his books and I knew of his work from when I was quite young, though I didn’t meet him until I was an adult. Once, on a cold winter afternoon, we went for a long walk together.

The photo on the left is of me when I was twenty-six years old. That’s my daughter, Ruby, on the left, cheeky as ever even at age four. Billy was not quite two, a blur of movement on the right, and newborn Elwyn was protesting loudly at being bathed. Even as a tiny baby, he had a big personality.

Several months after this photo was taken, in April 1988, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. I was grief stricken. A few weeks after the funeral, I packed a bag and with my three tiny children in tow, I climbed onto a train to Moss Vale to visit my cousin. It took over ten hours and then more than an hour by car to reach the house on the Shoalhaven River but I figured it was easier to make the trip with only two toddlers and a baby. Once Elwyn started moving, I feared I might never be able to travel anywhere. Time seemed to be disappearing, my life was racing away from me. I dreamt of writing but could barely find time to brush my hair. My days were consumed with the demands of three tiny children and the weight of grief.

My cousin, Lucy, also had two small children. She was staying on a property near Nowra that belonged to her father, my uncle. One afternoon we took our five tiny children on a picnic on the banks of the Shoalhaven river. Lucy made tea in a billy-can on the campfire and stirred it with a twig from a gum tree so the brew tasted of the bush. The children played in the sand and we skimmed stones on the river. Late in the afternoon, Lucy’s parents came down to the river with some friends, a little concerned that we had been away from the main house so long. Lucy and I had walked through endless paddocks with our tribe and the children were too tired to walk back so they clambered into the car. But that meant there weren’t enough seats for everyone who’d come down to the river.

As there was no baby seat for Elwyn, I decided to walk back carrying him in a sling. Peter Porter, who was staying with my uncle, volunteered to give up his seat and accompany me. I’ve never forgotten that walk. As the shadows grew longer, we talked about books and poetry, writing and children. His daughters were close to my age and he talked about how much he was looking forward to grandchildren. When my pace slowed because I was tired from carrying Elwyn, he took him from me. In the absence of my father, it was lovely to know there were other grandfatherly figures in the world.

When a car was sent to collect us we decided to keep walking. Peter was happy to carry the baby and we were both enjoying the conversation. I told him how one day, I hoped to write something other than a shopping list. He told me to be patient and that time spent with small children was too precious to wish away, that children were a wonderful expression of creativity. He said that in the course of an ordinary life there was time for many words, poems and stories but that everything happens in its own time. And he was right.

Peter Porter went back to England and I returned to Melbourne and we never met again. He published many more poems and became a grandfather. Eventually I began to write and have my work published too. I wish I’d sent him a card to tell him that I’d taken his words to heart, though perhaps I have repaid his kindness by trying to encourage other young writers, as he once encouraged me.

Today I spent much of the afternoon playing with our two-year-old grandson, Louis, and tried not to fret about the unanswered emails and paperwork littering my office. When we walked up the street we had to stop and admire a circle of mushrooms. At home, we re-read a Dr Seuss book five times and drew pictures of ducks and bears. It was time well spent. Everything has its season.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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