Truck Driver

Two days ago, I walked around the corner from my studio to go to Foodworks. I saw the truck parked outside, and I saw the fat, middle-aged man sitting alone in it with the window down. Instinctively, I kept my eyes forward and hoped not to hear anything.

“Hey!” I heard him shout. My eyes flickered just enough to know he was talking to me. “Hey, honey! How are you? I’d like to take you home and – ”

I kept walking. It was a sunny mid-afternoon, but there was no one else around to see me duck into Foodworks as planned. On my way out, I chose the opposite entrance.

Yesterday, I was at the studio again. I didn’t realise I was playing the scenario again in my head until it was already happening. In the replay, I turned back around. My head stopped thinking and my legs carried me straight towards the truck driver, his expression already altered to one of surprise.

“Do you have a mother?” The words shot out of my mouth like bullets.

“Of course I f-ing have a mother,” he scoffed.

“How would you feel if you knew men were speaking to her that way?”

To this, he put his hands up. “Hey, I have a wife and daughter, ok? I was only messing around.”

“That’s even worse,” I added. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I turned back around and continued on my way. Later, I thought, I’d write a blog post about this. I’d share it on Facebook and Twitter, show how I had been one of those girls who didn’t take this sh*t.

If anyone asked how I got the courage, I’d say I was thinking about the little girls I teach who would one day grow up to be spoken to like they don’t deserve to be respected as a whole, emotion-fueled human being. I was thinking about the boys I teach who may or may not one day grow up to be one of those men doing the disrespectful speaking.

I’d say I remember being beeped and whistled at, and called out to from the open windows of passing cars while I walked my dog when I was fifteen. I’ve been slapped on the arse by cyclists who sped away faster than I could turn around and open my mouth, even if I had had that instinctive reaction. I know how common it is and that much worse happens than what has happened to me, but what hurts is feeling uncomfortable walking back to my car alone at night. What hurts is not wanting to train parkour alone because apparently just being female and walking normally draws too much attention. What hurts is seeing a truck driver with his window down and before he says anything, I’m already bracing myself and putting the invisible blinkers on.

Then the replay fizzled out, and there was nothing to be proud of. The truth is, I wasn’t ‘courageous’ because I’d rather feign ignorance than risk further – worse – harassment.

I hate feeling like I need to walk with blinkers on, and play deaf while a stranger thinks it’s ok to speak to me like I’m a walking image.

I hate that it makes me want to fold into a shell like a hermit crab, only to emerge when it’s ‘safe’.

I hate how much this can effect me, when I know so many kind, loving, respectful guys.

I hate hating so much.

Most of all, I hate being put in a position – because I’ve heard enough stories to know worst-case scenarios can and do happen, all the time – where I feel helpless.

Two months ago, I wrote a fictional piece about a woman who loves to run alone at night. I wrote it on a night I wished I could (there is no such night, it seems).

Here it is.

***

She runs at night. When her husband and children are sleeping and the off-lead dogs are in their kennels, and ribbons of clouds streak the navy blue sky; when the moon is a pale, dusty coin, she changes in the dark and tip-toes to the front door. Slips permanently-tied shoes on. There is the softest click of the door; a slight tinkering of metal as she pushes the house key off the ring and into the zip pocket of her running top. As the door clicks shut behind her, she holds her breath, listening for the pat-pat-pat of small, bare feet on tiles (“Mummy!”) – but there is nothing. She breathes out. Turns towards the end of the driveway, the street, the main road she must cross to get to the track.

It’s so quiet she can’t resist the smile that curls up the edges of her lips. The open space, the shiver of night air, the taste of all you need to do now is run.

Quietly. One foot after the other, focussing on her forefoot strike, breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. It feels good to move with no one watching; no girls in short-shorts and fluoro crop tops zipping past; no men pretending not to notice the way her breasts bounce; no truck drivers beeping their horns (“Hey, baby!”); no children on tricycles with long handles for their parents to hold, something in the grown-ups’ eyes saying, Shouldn’t you be somewhere else?

She runs at night, when possums scamper across power lines and disappear into the trees. When foxes dart across the track so quickly she questions whether she really saw one at all. On the other side of fences, she looks out for the yellow glow behind windows, the late-night flicker-flash of TV screens – signs of people still awake. Because you never know. Because just in case. Because you shouldn’t be out here, running alone at night. What were you thinking?

She runs faster.

Stars

By Michael J. Bennett (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A friend once told me that when they were a kid, they would camp out on their grandparents’ farm and sleep under the stars.

‘You’ve never seen so many stars,’ they said. ‘It was like sleeping under a dark sheet with a million pinpricks in it, letting the light in.’

I still love the way they described that sky, and I can still imagine the kid-version of them lying in a tent with their siblings, talking and laughing with the door unzipped so they could see out. My friend described so perfectly a sky I haven’t seen nearly enough in my life, growing up so close to a big city, in a suburb mapped with streetlights.

There were school camps out in the bush, cooking marshmallows on the fire while one of the teachers strummed a guitar and tried to get us all to sing along. There was one camp at Mt Buller, where one night I walked around with another friend after lights-out, treading carefully through the icy sludge that was trying to pass as snow that year. We turned a corner behind a cabin and stopped because the whole world in front of us became that pinprick-sheet of stars.

There was a family trip when my brother and I were kids – I can’t remember when or where it was – but we took a night tour into some caves to see the glow worms, and when we emerged, that same sky enveloped us like a majestic dome.

I’m sure there have been more occasions when I’ve seen it … or perhaps not.

I haven’t seen that friend who used to camp out on their grandparents’ farm for years. But I can still hear them talking about the stars.

That’s all I wanted to write, really: a note to myself, and perhaps to you, as another year draws us swiftly, head-first, into another:

See more stars.

The Myth of Growing Up

Parkdale2012

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.