Atti

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Atticus told me to write a story about something beautiful. But what is beautiful? A bouquet of flowers, a symmetrically-featured face, a snow-capped mountain, a satellite view of the earth orbitting the sun?

He clicked his pen as he thought of his own ‘beautiful’ story.

‘Can you stop?’ I said. ‘It’s distracting.’

‘Sorry.’

He stuck the end of his pen in his mouth and cracked his teeth against its edges.

I gathered my notebook and went outside to sit on the deck.

There was nothing but fence and straw-coloured hills and sky. The cows and sheep must have been over the hills, grazing in the shade or drinking from the water hole. The gum trees rustled in the breeze, and goosebumps appeared on my arms. I stretched my legs into the sun, but kept the rest of me in shade so I could see my pages.

You know what’s beautiful, I wrote. The lines in the wood on the deck right here. You can follow them with your fingertips and go on journeys to everywhere. And you have to wonder what came before – what kind of tree was this wood made of, and which year of its life did this line signify? What happened that year – or the years and years before – to make the grain swirl in this way? Who sat under this tree, who climbed it, who lived in it, who scratched their initials into the bark? 

What’s beautiful is even thinking about these things. How does the sun feel if you’re a tree? Can you feel yourself growing?

Does your stump still exist out there somewhere, left to grow tall again while you are here, a plank of wood for me to sit on, stretching my legs out in the sun and writing about something beautiful?

Bare footsteps padded towards me, thumping and peeling away from the inside floorboards. The door opened then slid shut again to keep out the flies.

‘Time’s up,’ Atti said.

‘You didn’t say there was a time limit.’

‘Sometimes you can’t know these things.’

‘But-‘

He snatched my notebook and held it high, ignoring my protests and jumping in pointless attempts to get it back. Giving up, I sat on the pile of firewood, crossed my arms, and waited.

‘Not bad,’ he said at last. ‘I’m impressed, little sis.’

‘You have to show me yours now.’

‘Didn’t write anything,’ he shrugged.

I got up and ran inside, but all his stuff was cleared from the table. My blood boiled like only he could make it.

‘I hate you!’ I called.

‘You don’t,’ he laughed.

‘I do! Why’d you make me write that stupid thing anyway? It’s not even a story.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Don’t you get it?’

Just then, mum and dad pulled back into the driveway. Dad got out of the car and opened the gate, and mum drove the car in, crunching gravel all the way. Atti left to help them bring the shopping in, and I cleared some space on the bench.

I gave one-word answers and nodded as they rattled on about the things they saw on the drive, the locals they spoke to, the daylight robbery prices of things at the shops.

And I forgot to say to Atti, No, I don’t get it. Why did you make me write about something beautiful? What did you write? I know you wrote something. I know it.

Now that he’s gone, I wish I’d remembered.

[a 20-minute story inspired by the following random words: beautiful, earth, orbitting, slow, Atticus, drinking, red, tree, running]

The Myth of Growing Up

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I used to think that ‘grown up’ was a place you arrived at when you reached a certain age and began a certain job. When you started buying dinner for your parents, shopping for groceries, and checking bank statements. I guess I just assumed I’d wake up one day and know I was grown up. That I had to act responsibly now and not walk on the walls next to footpaths anymore.

I knew the day was coming, as I neared the end of high school, and then graduation from my arts degree. When I found myself applying for ‘real jobs’ at publishing houses, universities, and even law firms. My boyfriend (now husband) baulked at the idea of marriage talk in our early twenties, but all my friends were asking, ‘Haven’t you talked about that yet?’ and so I felt like we should.

My heart used to sink at the idea of growing up. Like time was running out to decide how I was going to spend the rest of my life.

Somehow I got into my head that you ‘grew up’ and that was it – your path was chosen, decided, set in stone. Perhaps it was the talk our teachers gave us at the end of Year 10: “Choose your VCE subjects wisely, they will determine the rest of your life…” (or something to that effect). Perhaps it was simply the phrase so often said to children: “When you grow up…”. Or the way we were asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as if you have to choose one thing and be that forever.

No one told me I had to have a full-time office job, and be married with a house and kids by the time I was twenty-five. No one said I had to choose one career and stick with it until I retired. But from what I could see, this is how life played out for every adult that I knew. And while the only relative who ever said the words, “Why don’t you become a real professional, like a lawyer?” was a grand-uncle-in-law (is that even a thing?), I always felt, as the only one in the family who seemed to have been born without a maths compartment in their brain, that I had more to prove.

I was lucky enough to have this wonderful lady as a creative writing tutor in my first year at Melbourne University. She had long, auburn hair and wore loose clothing and no make-up, and her pale blue eyes were lively, as if in a permanent state of wonder. She spoke softly and wrote ‘beautiful’ in her comments at the end of my assignments. I wrote in my journal that there was something childlike in her genuine interest in our ideas, and the ways we conveyed them in the pages of our notebooks. She was a kind of grown-up I’d never encountered before: a grown up who openly did not have all the answers. A teacher who found our ideas just as valid as her own.

Since then, I’ve met a number of other grown-ups who have maintained, through the wisdom of life’s lessons, a constant curiosity about the world and the people in it. They are excited by the nature of small things, and their ears are always open to new stories. They love exploring physical landscapes, the literary possibilities they can imagine, and the ideas they can talk about with anyone who is willing to think with them and talk back. I never noticed the ‘childlike’ characteristics my parents never lost – how could I have missed them before? The way dad can laugh at a lame fart joke till he cries. He didn’t care that he was the only one in our family who lined up for the Mad Mouse roller coaster at Luna Park; he screamed his heart out. And mum. My sweet, quiet, unexpected one-liner deliverer mum, has always found time to disappear into the pages of novels, no matter how many ‘more important’ things in life there are to do.

In my short working life, I’ve been (deep breath): an ice-cream scooper, a noodle server, a jewellery maker, a luggage sales assistant, a lingerie sales assistant, a bookseller, a waitress, a slush-pile reader, a proofreader, an editor, a copywriter, a ghostwriter, a performance writer, a marketing officer, an English tutor, a circus trainer, a parkour instructor, an author, a creative writing teacher, and a small business owner.

All have been with the one goal in mind – to make the writing I love possible – but still. If you had told me at 16 that I could pursue so many professions, often more than one at a time, and lead a life that ‘makes sense’, and still call myself a ‘grown up’ (whatever that means), I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t even have understood why you’d want to be so many things.

The truth is, ‘grown up’ is not a destination, a stage of life you arrive at once you don’t have ‘teen’ at the end of your age anymore, or even a ‘2’ at the beginning of it. The word itself is misleading, because growing up is a never-ending process.

I climbed a tree for the first time when I was twenty-five. It taught me that if that makes you happy, as long as you are able, you will never grow too old for that kind of thing. You don’t stop wanting to walk on walls next to the footpath; you don’t stop wanting to play, and you don’t need an actual small child with you as an excuse to watch the latest Ice Age at the cinema. We’ve been taught that certain activities are for kids, but they’re really not. If you want to climb a tree, you should. And you shouldn’t feel like you need to explain yourself (unless that tree is on private property and that property isn’t yours!).

So next time you’re feeling weighed down by the responsibilities and pressures of being ‘grown up’, I hope you remember to give yourself a bit of playtime. Do whatever it is you would do if those pressures and responsibilities weren’t there. Make time for it – it’s important. And remember that this isn’t it; that it’s ok not to know everything now (or ever) and it’s ok to change your mind. You’re going to keep on growing, for as long as you live, no matter what life throws at you. I think that’s the most exciting thing of all.

Keep growing. Keep learning. Keep your ears open to new stories.

Hope to see you walking on a wall next to a footpath sometime soon.