Role reversal?

Recently my husband and I switched roles. He’s a stay at home dad. I’m a working mum. We are a modern family.

I was very excited to go back to work. I’m finally putting my PhD to good use doing research I really care about. I have two part time contracts. The first is with JCU running my own investigation into internet connectivity on remote cattle properties in Far North Queensland. The second is working at QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre on various projects more broadly related to digital inclusion. I’m in my element.

When Frankie was just four months old I took my first work trip to Far North Queensland. I left my baby girl at home with her dad and grandparents. We planned hard for this trip. Frankie was still on the boob for all her meals, so Brett practised feeding her with a bottle. In the weeks leading to my departure I expressed milk each night, often in the wee hours of the morning. Significant logistical planning also went into how the baby would be transported from Brisbane to Gold Coast mid-week while Brett was working full time.

During my five-day absence everything went to plan. Frankie the Football was passed around all week, taking it in her stride. Being away was made that much easier by the steady stream of messages and photos I received with proof that Frankie was doing just fine. The biggest headache of the trip (or boob ache as it were) was my swelling, oversized breasts. I tried so very hard to express and relieve myself as often as possible, but they bulged faster than I could keep up. Any breastfeeding mum will tell it is very uncomfortable, even painful for some.

On my return to Brisbane I beamed with pride that my little trouper hadn’t missed a beat. I was also pretty pleased with myself for getting back to work after a long hiatus. I felt (and continue to feel) that making these choices sets a good example for Frankie.

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Baby’s first beer at Bottom Pub, Chillagoe

Relief that we had pulled it off quickly turned sour, as I was in agony with a misdiagnosed tooth issue. I took a conservative approach and decided not to breastfeed at all while trialling different pain killers. This lasted a good couple of weeks during which time Frankie was on formula, as we’d run out of breast milk. This was an awful time, which was compounded by a reduction in my milk supply that we ended up treating pharmaceutically. The baby was, of course, fine. But the mummy in me felt I had somehow squandered Frankie’s milk by continuing to put my own needs ahead of hers.

Eventually I got my tooth sorted. By this time Frankie was used to being fed a combination of boob and bottle, which we continued into my return to work period. This made the ball juggling possible in the couple of months that followed when I was working four days a week (from home and the office) as well as looking after the baby, the house and three dogs. Not wanting to put my supply in jeopardy again, Frankie accompanied me on my second data collection trip up North. Again she thrived – through her first flight, long hours in the car on country roads, her first day of child care (in Mareeba!), and being passed around to new people. It was one big week!

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Pitt stop at Mount Garnet

I was so very relieved when Brett finally finished up work at the end of August (somewhere in there we also drove to Sydney for my sister’s wedding!). The transition has, however, been tougher than I expected. You see, I quite liked being the mater. Despite my exhausting and unsustainable existence, I was proud to be the wonder women who did everything (not withstanding Brett’s epic daily commute and fantastic support I received from him in the early mornings, evenings and weekends).

Now my husband, such a competent parent in his own right, is Frankie’s primary carer. We now joke that I must now be the “secondary care”. What a flaccid title that is! Other slightly more acceptable titles include “working mum” or “bread-winner”, but these don’t suit me either. They do not capture the mental and emotional place I currently find myself in.

Being the working-from-home mummy (who spends a couple of days per week in the office) is a kind of purgatory. When I’m working, I’m missing my baby. When I’m at home doing mummy and wife things, I could be working. As well, Brett (to his credit) has taken on the role of chief decision-maker with the day-to-day management of baby (feeding, changing, napping, etc), leaving me feeling rather superfluous in a domain that I used to command. There is also tension around the broader domestic affairs (cleaning, dog walking, plant watering, etc) which I am yet to fully let go of and Brett is yet to take full responsibility for (save for the cooking, which has always been his forte).

It’s not really a role reversal so much as a role redefinition. I don’t do all that Brett used to do (working and commuting five days per week). And he doesn’t do all that I used to do (the juggling act). We’re trying to find our new groove in which all three of us (six if you count the dogs) get what we need.  I’m sorry to say that most days, quite inevitably, someone misses out. Whether it’s Frankie not getting the story I try to read her, or Dallas not getting the walk she needs to curb her destructive tendencies, or Brett not getting the man time he needs to stay sane.

I’m yet to work out what I need on a daily basis in this new arrangement. Daily play time with Frankie is a must, along with getting back to running a few times per week. And the odd date night with my husband, which we’ve managed a few times since bub was born.

I don’t really know how our roles will evolve, particularly when Brett goes back to work. We’ll keep living our unconventional life for a while longer. I don’t know any other couple with a baby daughter with no fixed abode. I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of or not (I would dearly love to have a place of our own). But it does speak to our flexibility as a family unit.

Above all, I’m proud of the resilient little human we are raising, who rolls with the punches and smiles at every single solitary person she meets. Frankie, you are the light of my life and inspiration to try and be the best person and role model I can be.

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On the road to Sydney

 

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Dear pre-mum Amber,

My sister recently gifted me a book ‘The Motherhood’ – a collection of short letters written by prominent Australian women to their pre-motherhood selves. They each share the raw reality of their first six weeks of motherhood. It compelled me to write to my pre-mum self. I’ve decided to blend this letter with a few thoughts about ‘time’ that have been swirling around my head lately. Here it is…

Dear pre-mum Amber,

What on earth did you do with your time before motherhood? Apart from the naps I know you are partial to, what else? You seem to have squandered your pre-baby months and years with procrastination. That’s a bit harsh, I know. It’s hard to stay motivated in isolation. And you’ve grappled with that and (mostly) made peace with it already. But man, to think what you could have gotten done with all those baby-less hours? Never mind. You weren’t to know.

Amber dear, babies bend time. They can make hours and days evaporate or, on the other hand, drag on for eons. Your understanding of, and relationship with, time will never be the same. Time is a social construct, a myth. The idea that time plods along at an even pace is rubbish. Your baby will teach you there is no such thing as the past, or the future – only the here and now. You will forget this, as we all do, but she will keep bringing you back (more on this later).

Your labour will make time stand still. The pain will be so intense you cannot comprehend anything but the moment you are in. It will take all of your might to get through each moment. It will hurt like nothing has ever hurt before (even more than the cramps from that parasite infection in Peru – pfft!). But you’ll get through it, with your husband looking into your eyes willing you not to push until the right time.

After the birth you’ll be torn, bruised and sore – but on a hormone high! You’ll enter into a time warp. The 80 hours you spend in hospital as a new family will be among the happiest of your life. Days and nights will blend into each other. You’ll be up all night with Frankie while Brett gets some rest so he can relieve you in the morning. It won’t bother you that you don’t leave the 11th floor of the hospital for three days. You’ll completely forget the outside world, content to spend every second tending to your little one’s needs.

When you get home to your one-room flat (the ‘nest’) your family of five (including the two dogs) will try to settle into a routine that totally and utterly revolves around the baby – eat, sleep, pee (or poo), repeat. Luckily, little Frankie loves sleeping as much as you do, and you get by with only one or two feeds during the night. It will become normal to be up at abnormal hours – feeding, expressing, sterilising and snacking (breastfeeding makes you famished) from about 1am to 3am each night.

During the day, time will just disappear. Vanish. If you manage to shower, that’s a bonus. But while time flies, everything will take so long to do! It’s because you’ll be quite immobile and your body will be mending – completing simple actions such as sitting down, standing up, lying on the bed and going to the toilet will be painstakingly awkward. And even though you’ll be exhausted from caring for your baby around the clock, at the end of the day you won’t feel like you have spent any time with your little one. You’ll feel like you don’t see her – you just run around in the circles, imitating Daisy the Cow most of the time.

At this point, Frankie will feel like a stranger that’s always been around. I know that’s hard to understand. What I mean is she’ll be an adorable blob that doesn’t do much yet, but you will not be able imagine life without her (what a cliché!). You will be so proud of everything she had done, is doing and will do!

After a whole month with Brett at home, Dad will have to go back to work. You’ll feel that you’re losing a member of the tight-knit team, the well-oiled machine that works together to keep baby alive and well. You’ll worry you can’t settle Frankie (Brett is the master at this), and lament that he’ll miss you and Frankie and you’ll both miss him. But you will get the hang of solo parenting during the week until you get Dad home on the weekends.

You’ll start venturing out of the house more and more but you’ll be on baby time. In the beginning, there’ll be no way of getting out before 12. You may aim to leave the house at 10 only to find yourself and the baby still in PJs at 12. Then you’ll get smart and start giving people time frames later in the day (e.g. between 1 and 2 o’clock) instead of making a specific appointments (e.g. 1.30pm). Amber, hear this. You cannot rush a baby. This is a fact. It will take as long as it takes. Babies teach you to stop. Frankie will make you stop and pay her attention.

When you move out of the nest into a house-sitting arrangement, your life will become an endless list of to-dos. Managing two dogs, house, garden and a baby at home – and another dog (poor Spook!) to visit and walk at your parents’ place – you’ll be on the move all day, every day. (This is when you’ll really start to wonder what you filled your days with previously.) From dawn to dusk you’ll be thinking about all the things that need doing and planning the best order to do them in – walk the dog, put on a load of laundry, water the garden, book the vaccinations, cook a meal, etc., etc. Of course, you’ll be constantly interrupted by feeding, changing and settling. It will be frustrating but try to remember the golden rule – you can’t rush a baby!

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Finally, you’ll be a great mum and make sure all Frankie’s needs are met. But please remember to take time to play with your baby too! She’ll bring you back to the present moment which, after all, is all there is. She’ll smile at you. Time will stand still. Your heart will sing. And all will be right with the world in that moment and forever.

Love,

Mummy Amber

 

 

 

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Do you actually work?

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On the deck at Littleton

Preamble – I wrote this post back in August 2017 but didn’t published it. I was pregnant at the time and living at Littleton National Park (7 hours west of Cairns) where Brett had the opportunity to act as Ranger in Charge. I didn’t publish it because I thought it sounded a bit bitter. In retrospect, I was bitter. With a baby on the way I felt like my life goals would again take a back seat to other priorities. I’ll write about that later but for now I think this (somewhat amended) post should get an airing, if not for anyone else, for me.

So, do I actually work? It’s a question that’s popped up occasionally over the last few years, usually in response to a Facebook post in which I am evidently not working. Instead, I’m doing things like camping, drinking coffee or playing with the dogs. I am as guilty as the next person of only posting the best bits of my life on social media. Who wants to see pictures of me in my dressing gown and ugg boots trying to pluck up the motivation to do another draft of my paper?

Let me put this plainly – I want to work. I am a driven, intelligent woman with much to offer. I am also the wife of a husband who pursued his dream of becoming a Park Ranger. He has achieved that, and I have supported him to do so. In giving this support, it has been my choice to follow him to remote places where opportunities for my own career are next to nil.

Having said that, I have taken on some weird and wonderful jobs along the way. They include tour guiding at Kings Canyon, driving a bush ambulance, weather reporting for BOM, and administering a gold mine. Now I do my own communications consulting and have picked up some researching assisting work too. I also volunteer my time and skills to projects I think are worthwhile. It’s quite exhausting. I drive hours and hours to meetings and events in Cairns and all over the Gulf Savannah offering my services and getting exposure, hoping that more doors might open for me.

My good friend and colleague Dr Janice Terrill researches remote careers and lives. She conducted her PhD on women in the mining industry. In particular, she writes about ‘trailing spouses’ – women (and men) in mining who follow their partners to remote places in order to advance their partner’s career. More often than not, the man’s career is prioritised because of their higher earning potential and that the women has the children. Janice’s research found that, the more times a women physically relocates for her husband’s career, the less likely it is that she will achieve or get back to her desired job and salary.

My husband and I are in totally different industries, but the trailing spouse phenomenon is apparent in our lives. Brett is not the child-bearer or the one with greater earning potential. However, we have chosen to pursue work that is intrinsically fulfilling over other priorities such as higher pay and stability. He needs a few years to establish himself, then it will be my turn. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to stay in the game from afar.

I am reminded of a campaign that was run in my high school to encourage girls to expect the same things from life as boys do – jobs they want at equal pay and in any industry they choose. Purple stickers with ‘Girls can do anything!’ were plastered around classrooms and on the back of student diaries. It’s a good message and it’s true, and I like to think I’ve been a girl who has demonstrated she can do most things.

What I didn’t realise until recently is that girls (and boys) can’t do anything and have everything at the same time. Lives are not led independently; our career and life goals are necessarily intertwined with other people. If you want to share your life with someone else, you might choose (for a time) locations, homes and jobs that do not serve your own goals, but those of your loved one(s). In my experience, the consequences of these choices is exacerbated in remote conditions.

So, it’s back to working from the wilderness for me. No commute, no boss, no hint of a regular 9 to 5 job. Just me and Brett (and the dogs). Our partnership has been strained in recent years by competing individual agendas that take us in opposite geographic directions. But I may not have completed a PhD without Brett’s support, and he may not be a Park Ranger were that support not reciprocated. Living in partnership is a choice that requires compromise and a commitment to ensuring that, in the long run, we both get enough of what we want.

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A few simple disciplines

“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.”
Jim Rohn

A couple of weeks ago I turned 35 years old. I’ve made some resolutions for the next five years, which I feel will be a defining chapter in my life. One of my goals is to become financially stable in my own right doing what I want and what I’m good at to have impact. There are 4 parts to this.

  1. Financially stable in my own right means earning a living indicative of to my level of education.
  2. What I want to do means doing things that are worthy of my time and align with my values.
  3. What I’m good at means putting my skills, knowledge and passions to work towards meaningful outcomes.
  4. Having impact means becoming a confident leader in my field and seeing tangible improvements in my community.

There are many ways to skin a cat. I could find a fulfilling job, press on my with own business, hold out for a research grant, or a combination of these things.

When I think about what my life will look like when I’m 40, I see myself working from my own studio with a view of a mountain on a few lush acres, hosting research retreats and consulting all over regional, rural and remote (RRR) Australia. That is what I want.

So, the question becomes – how do I get there? What is the vision that will guide me in the right direction? By what guideposts should I make my decisions to pursue some opportunities and let others pass me by? How do I know what I should spend my time doing?

At the moment, I have many irons in the fire. I have built up a great, relevant network and am involved in several projects and organisations, some of which are high profile and very exciting. The problem is, I’m mostly volunteering while waiting for one of these connections to convert into paid work.

Writing this blog post, my instinct is to go for the big ticket item – which for me right now would be a post-doctoral fellowship investigating connectivity and digital innovation in RRR Australia. I have already been unsuccessful with one application and another opportunity could be months or years away. But I do get the feeling that if I just keep going the planets will eventually align.

So, if the post-doc is the goal, what should I do in the mean time? Surely, I should spend my time putting myself in the most competitive position possible. This means writing, writing and more writing; publishing journal articles, producing industry-oriented pieces, and participating in online conversations in my area of expertise.

Talking to people and making connections comes naturally to me and I thoroughly enjoy the face-to-face social interaction. I find it much more difficult to motivate myself to sit on my own in my office and type on my laptop. However, this is the only way I can participate in intellectual discussion with my peers. I have to put my words where my mouth is.

At the same time, I need to earn some $$$. A part time job might be alright, but then I would forego flexibility to be able to attend conferences and events, which give me exposure and opportunities in business and research. I think the best way to go is to employ myself part time. That means spending 50% of my time working in my business (doing paid work) or on my business (drumming up paid work).

I must also account for the extra time and expense it takes to do work and research from Chillagoe. I often travel 3 hours to Cairns for meetings. I’ll be self-funding several inter-state trips this year to speak at conferences, and our limited and unreliable internet connectivity makes working online a chore. What Chillagoe DOES give me, however, is credibility. I know what it’s like to live and work in RRR Australia, and its the people and organisations in these areas whom I want to reach out to in research, business and life.

So, in this context, what “few simple disciplines, practiced every day” will lead me to success?

  1. Work a regular 8 hour day. I will get up at 7, walk the dog, have breakfast and be at my desk by 8.30 or 9. I will stop for lunch, knock off at 5, go for a run and sit down for dinner with my husband. I will have routine.
  2. Write for 2-3 hours each day. I will write for a first couple of hours each day. I will treat writing as my way of “talking” to my peers. I will prioritise writing over everything else.
  3. Limit busy work. I will only write/respond to emails twice per day (just before lunch and just before knock off time). I will use my morning and afternoon time blocks do actual work. I will value my time and spend it on worthwhile tasks instead of doing “busy work”.

These disciplines seem so elementary it’s almost embarrassing to publish them here. But I think carrying out such disciplines in phsycial and social isolation presents unique challenges. I hope to be able to apply these quite universal principles in a nuanced way to model a type of resilience that “works” in Outback in the digital age. After all, the reason I choose to lead this life is that I want to be part of a modern Outback that is progressive and connected to the rest of the country and the world.

On that note, my vision for my business – Resilient Communications – is for “regional, rural and remote Australia to be fully and seamlessly integrated into the digital economy”. It pretty much sums up why I do what I do – and why, despite the ups and downs, I’m still here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Trifecta.

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Out the back of the mine after the wet. 

It’s autumn in Chillagoe. We had our first crisp morning for the year yesterday, Sunday, after a long, hot wet season. I went for a run then had a coffee under the trees outside the new coffee shop across the road. It was nice, talking with friends and watching people come and go from town. I’ve had few peaceful moments like this in Chillagoe; it’s been a tough year. There was no disaster, nothing went really pear-shaped, I just didn’t slip into life in Chillagoe the way I did at Watarrka.

Lot’s has happened, and nothing has happened. I’ve had a short, 8-month career indual mining as a Site Administrator. Apart from it opening my eyes to a whole other world, I made friends, earned some money, and learned a thing or two about life and work. I learned that the only person who is going to act in your own best interests is you. So I did just that. I resigned. I had a supportive boss and respectful colleagues in a male-dominated work place. However, the long hours were too much for me, and I felt like I was running a million miles an hour in the wrong direction. So much of my time and energy was being sucked up by tasks that were unrelated to my goals and values.

So, now I’m back to the drawing board. PhD in hand, I am now Dr Amber Marshall. Graduating with 5 of my study buddies from the UQ Business School in December was the highlight of the last 12 months. My crazy, blended family also came together to celebrate my graduation in conjunction with early Christmas in Brisbane. Below is the family photo from our Christmas Day – we were all smiling for the camera and one of the kids started crying uncontrollably. So we all cried for the photo instead. Love it!

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Today I’m at home with my dogs and laptop. In this regard, little has changed since Watarrka days, except we have a new edition – Dallas.  We went to the pub for a drink one night and came home with a 5 week old puppy. Only in Chillagoe! She’s a delightful little ratbag. Spook has turned into a patient old soul in the company of his annoying little sister – she licks his ears out and bites his ankles all day and all night.

Now I have time and space to think and breathe again, I have turned my attention to what I want to do – promoting connectivity in regional, rural and remote (RRR) Australia. In particular, I’m all about helping people use telecommunications and internet services to growth business in the Outback. To this end, I’ve hatched a post-doc project to under take research in Far North Queenland’s agricultural communities. Though I have managed to build a strong network of local, state and national organisations to support me, funding alludes me for the present time.

But all is not lost! Rather than sit around and wait for someone to throw a bucket of money at me, I’ve decided to diversify. I will soon launch my own communications consulting business (from home) specialising in digital comms for RRR organisations. I even have my first client! I also finally have the stomach to face my thesis again to publish papers from it, which is necessary in order to be/stay competitive in the academic game.

Overall, my (and Brett’s) goals in life have not changed, though I lost sight of them for a while there. We still want that hobby goat farm we dreamed of when we both worked city jobs. In a round about way, we’ve been edging closer to that dream. We like North Queensland and the Atherton Tablelands would be an idealic and affordable place to buy/build when we can. And although I followed Brett into the abyss for his work, our careers are (quite ironically) converging in that we both seek to make a difference in the bush.

Just this week, I think I’ve made my peace with Chillagoe. We have friends, an adequate shouse to live in, and a life in North Queensland to build. I have somewhere to be, something to do, and something to look forward to. The Trifecta.

More to come. I’m Back. xx

 

It’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to!

 

DSC_0427.JPGThe night we arrived in Chillagoe it was rodeo weekend. You wouldn’t have known it. The whole place was dark and quiet (aside from a couple of drunks on the road) and the pub was closing at 8pm. We were directed to the rodeo grounds as “that’s the only place you’ll get something to eat at this time of night”. We walked four blocks to the edge of town, and sure enough the rodeo was bursting with life. But we were too exhausted to join in, having driven for four days towing our trailer at 80km/hr. We got our pizza and went home.

That night – wandering around in the dark in a place we didn’t know, and that didn’t know us – I had my first “what the fuck am I doing here?” moment.

spook2I didn’t plan on being miserable on my 34th birthday. I had an argument with Brett before he left for work and then struggled to pick myself up from there. I dragged myself to one of the ranger-guided limestone cave tours. And Brett took me to a delicious local waterhole. Spook loved it, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt, and still feel, quite weighed down by the prospect of having to start all over again, again.

In truth, we have been warmly welcomed by the locals. We have two lovely old neighbours who look out for us and our naughty dog who is quite overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the “big smoke”. We have been cordially included in the weekly pub games “Mug of the Week” and “Toss the Boss” (if you really want to know what they are, message me). We also hosted a well-attended housewarming BBQ on Saturday night – we even received a few gifts including plants, local coffee and a spice rack!

In the warm glow of a splendid last few weeks in the NT, I had forgotten what isolation and uselessness feels like, and how much self-determination it took to survive and ultimately thrive in the desert. In my last blog post I wrote that I “belonged” in Kings Canyon – I had a job, friends and direction. Now I must work hard to re-establish a sense of my own identity and figure out how I fit into this new community.

chillagoe allianceTo that end, I’ve been getting involved any way I can. I helped the Chillagoe Alliance serve chicken burgers to the finishers of the Great Wheelbarrow Race. I’ve joined boot camp on Mondays and Thursdays, which has been a real lifesaver. Tomorrow I will attend a meeting to help establish a Chillagoe Chamber of Commerce, an initiative put forward by our local nurse. His vision is to promote tourism in Chillagoe to help get the locals into jobs and improve mental health.

Now this is a cause I can get behind! I’m living it right now – I have a history of depression and know that I am susceptible to downers when I feel I lack purpose. I can only imagine how insurmountable that mountain must feel to life-long residents who have been through several cycles of boom and bust, in mining and farming in particular. And there must be thousands of rural communities just like this one across Australia.

On Sunday I am going away for three weeks to attend a couple of conferences on the topic of regional, rural and remote economic/social development. I plan to speak about the role of communications technologies in building identity, relevance and resilience in remote areas. My recent move has reminded of the stark realities of achieving these things. And while I’ve been pretty down in the dumps over last couple of weeks, I must instead harness these feelings to inform a more authentic account of my experiences and strategies for overcoming both physical and digital isolation.

Only when I am focused, happy in myself, and connected to friends/colleagues near and far can I be of any service to my community – locally and globally.

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The next adventure

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The time has come. We’re leaving the desert. Brett has accepted a Ranger position in Far North Queensland. We leave Watarrka in the first week of May.

Recently I watched the movie ‘Tracks’ with a sense of familiarity and thankfulness for our time in the Red Centre. Two years is a speck in time in the 300 million year history of the place. Yet it has been so very significant to the lives of me and my husband. The desert has been both kind and cruel to us. It has seen us through some of our most elating and difficult times as a couple. Living remotely seems to heighten the highs and lower the lows. Your feelings and thoughts can be as extreme as the weather and conditions.

In truth, circumstance rather than an express wolfpackdesire to leave has seen us make the decision to move on. I feel like we’re not 100% finished with the Territory, or perhaps it is the Territory that is not finished with us!

We have met people, been places and seen things we never dreamed of. We have made life-long friends with people from all of Australia. Most significantly for me, I have new insight into the ‘other’ Australia, the one I had seen in movies and commercials, but seldom with my own eyes or heart. Now I am even more acutely aware of how much more there is to see and experience. And so our next adventure begins.

Chillagoe (a town of 200 people about 3 hours west of Cairns) will be a step back towards civilisation for us. I find this both exciting and regrettable. The exciting parts are obvious – mobile phone reception, a grocery store, fresh produce and closer proximity to a major airport. The disappointments relate to our (my) sense of identity. We are desert dwellers. I take pride in telling people where we live, and I get a kick out of people’s reactions to our lifestyle choices. I don’t want either of those things to change, and I guess they needn’t as long as we keep seeking out the adventure in life no matter where we are or what we are doing.

We have actually achieved everything we set out to do living remotely. Brett established himself as a Park Ranger and I finished my PhD. Now we are both qualified and ready to move on to the next challenge! Indeed, my time in the Outback has shaped my future ambitions. I have no desire to move back to the city. Instead, I’d like to use my time, energy and skills to contribute to the development of regional, rural and remote Australia. To this end, I’m seeking out opportunities in regional universities and putting my hand up for related conferences, projects and roles.

On that note, I have been accepted as a speaker at the Broadband for the Bush Forum in June. The theme is “Digital Journeys” and I intend to talk about my experience completing my PhD on virtual communication from a remote, largely disconnected location. Preparing this seminar has been a cathartic exercise of quantifying what I have learned over the last two years. I intend to talk about three topics: resilience, identity and relevance.

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Resilience: This is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. To me, in this context, it means having an (emotional) leg to stand on. When problems arise at work or elsewhere, one needs to feel safe and content at home. This is all the more true in remote areas.

Identity: For a fair portion of my life at Watarrka, I was “Brett’s wife”. Despite taking on a few minor roles, like weather observations, my justification for being here was Brett’s job and the house that came with it. Over recent times I’ve had time to more significantly contribute to the community by working at the health clinic, leading guided walks, assisting with desert waterhole research and volunteering at the community school. Even though Brett is in South Africa for 6 weeks at the moment, I belong.

Relevance: This is about being relevant to both my local context and the world from which I come. Connectivity, however limited,  has been absolutely essential for me to progress my study and work while living in the proverbial middle of nowhere. My advice for others contemplating something similar: share your ‘other life’ with the locals, and to share your local life with the people you’ve left behind (thus this blog).

When I think about what I’ll miss most about the Red Centre, I think it will be the ubiquitous red sand, the spectacular desert sunsets and the absolute peace and quiet.

I leave you with the modified lyrics to John Denver’s ‘Take me home, country roads’. Brett and I sing these words whenever we’re nearing Watarrka after a long drive from Alice Springs or Uluru. We always do it where Luritja Road (pronounced Loo-rich-a) aligns with the George Gill Range, about 40kms from Kings Canyon (about where the below photo was taken). I know we are dags, but that’s the way we roll!

“Luritja Road, take me home
to the place, I belong.
Kings Canyon, at Watarrka
Take me home, Luritja Road.”

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It’s done.

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I have said throughout my PhD that “A good thesis is a done thesis”. Well then, I must have a good thesis. It’s done. Submitted.

About a year ago when I thought it would never end, I stumbled upon the above quote and stuck it on my office wall. Thankfully, Mr Mandela was right.

The feeling now is quite anti-climactic, but peaceful. The real moment of achievement, relief and celebration for me was completing my Final Thesis Review in October. I got some excellent feedback and encouragement from my readers, and I was able to let my hair down with my fellow study buddies, family and friends – THAT was the best bit! The rest has largely been going through the motions.

Now, I wait. One of my examiners cannot look at my thesis until April. There is absolutely nothing more I can do. All going well, I’ll still be able to graduate in July. In the meantime, I’m getting on with my life!

With 2015 and the PhD all but behind me, I’m contemplating what I’m going to do next. Truth is, I’ve never known what I wanted to do. I only know that I want to live to my potential. There has never been a grand plan or ultimate goal – I’ve just taken up opportunities as they have presented themselves. Indeed, I never intended to do a PhD – I just kind of fell into it.

So, what’s next? My supervisor and I discussed furthering my research by way of writing a couple of journal articles (and hopefully getting them published) and applying for an ARC grant (within which we would write in a post-doc for me). I’m going to go for it and see how it pans out.

Meanwhile, our life in the desert has settled down. The changing of the guard at the ranger station is almost complete. We have some lovely new neighbours, including new friends for Spook. However, after almost two years at Watarrka, we feel this year we may move on to new adventures. We don’t know where, we don’t know when – but something will change soon.

In the meantime, we plan to make the most of our time in beautiful the red centre – go to all those waterholes and ranges we haven’t got around to yet. Next month we hope to see Lake Eyre with water in it. I plan to walk the Larapinta Trail with a fellow PhD candidate. And I want to do more camping! Just head out for overnighters in our own (rather enormous) backyard.

My husband is going back to his homeland, South Africa, for 6 weeks in March/April. This is my chance to fly solo for a while! I’m hoping my sisters will join me for some desert dwelling in April. I’m not sure what else I’ll do – but I have a yearning for adventure – to do something physical, tangible, with my whole body! I have been living in my head for 5 years – it’s time to break free!

Below are my Acknowledgements from the thesis. My friends and family are not mentioned by name, but you know who you are. It takes a village to birth a thesis. Thanks for being my village.

I am tremendously grateful and proud to be the first in my family to pursue a doctorate degree. I owe this privilege to family, friends and colleagues – past and present, near and far – whom I wish to acknowledge here. Much love and appreciation to my immediate and extended family for believing in me my whole life. Deepest gratitude to my husband, whom I married mid-way through my PhD, for his unwavering emotional and financial support. Sincere thanks to my study buddies, physical and virtual, for celebrating the highs and riding out the lows with me, and to the many other friends who cheered me on from the sidelines. I am thankful for the financial support I received through the Australia Postgraduate Award Scholarship, and for the research funding, education and support I received from the UQ Business School, in particular from the RHD support staff. Many thanks to Associate Professor Ulrike Schultze and the Cox School of Business – the three months spent in Dallas (Texas, USA) were instrumental to my development as a researcher. To my secondary supervisor Doctor Sean Rintel (UQ School of Journalism and Communication/ Microsoft Research Cambridge) – your forward-thinking enthusiasm was greatly appreciated. Finally, to my principal supervisor and mentor for over six years Professor Jorgen Sandberg – thank you for expecting more of me than I thought I was capable of.

 

 

The colour of silence

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Red as serrated mountains…

There is change in the air at Watarrka. People are moving on, new people are coming, and there is uncertainty about the future.

Over the last couple of months I have been buried in my thesis. A couple of weeks ago I submitted a full draft to the internal reading committee. Having finally come up for air, I’m a bit confronted by the impending changing of the guard. We are losing four dear friends out of a total ten residents on the park. They are moving, as people do, to new life adventures. That’s the thing about these remote places, the turn-over is quite high. Just as you get to know and love people, they vanish (or you do).

In searching for an apt send off for our friends, I happened upon the book ‘Outback Reflections’ in my shelf, which was awarded to me to 1994 upon graduation from primary school. At the time it seemed a strange gift from a school on the coast, but it has certainly taken on new significance some 20 years later. From it, I chose (a slightly modified version of) Bruce Prewer’s poem ‘The colour of silence’ to read at the farewell party.

It is said that silence is golden,
but around hereDSCN2172
it is red.

Red as serrated mountains
like Dreamtime dinosaurs
slumbering in the sun.

Red as the warm sand
among emu bushes
and between one’s toes.

Red as a desert sunrise
kissing the ghost gums
and transfusing the sky.

Red as the blood of friends
who come with us
to the end of the world.

There are other changes in store too. I have resigned my job as a tour guide and will soon take up a casual position as an administrator at the local health clinic. The rim walks have been wonderful for breaking up the weeks of study. They got me out of the house, exposed me to the gorgeous environment (see header picture above), forced me to exercise, and got me talking to living beings other than my dog! However, I was beginning to tire of having the same conversations with tourists over and over again.

I’m also taking on some data collection work for research on local water holes through the University of Canberra. It will involve trekking into the water holes in the range where the cameras and data loggers have been set up and replacing SD cards and batteries. Coming from a social science background, this really isn’t the kind of research assistant work I envisaged doing. But I’ll take it! I get to retrieve photos of all the dingoes, wallabies, and euro that are mostly too shy to be seen around the park generally.

I’m looking forward to going back to Brisbane next week for my final thesis milestone. When I return to the desert it will be over 40 degrees every day; a good time knuckle down and submit the thesis. Who knows what I’m going to do when I finally finish! It’s ironic that I’ll be the only ‘doctor’ working at the health clinic – just me and two (very experienced and qualified) remote nurses! I find the prospect of graduating both exciting and terrifying; it means I actually have DO something, put my years and years of education work, to prove myself.

In truth, we’ve had a rough time of late for various reasons. The silver lining is that we have come to realise the close bonds we have formed with people around here and to appreciate the support we continue to receive from home. So, whatever the future holds I know that our friends, near and far, will come with us to the end of the world.

 

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Nan’s Legacy

OliveMy Nan, Olive Cole, passed away on Tuesday the 4th of August 2015, just shy of her 92nd birthday. She had not been well for a couple of years and she took a turn last weekend. Her heart was failing; she had had enough. She died peacefully in her sleep having been surrounded by family the whole day.

I have been reflecting on the impact Nan has had on my life and the legacy she leaves behind.

Nan and Grandad immigrated to Australia from England in 1958, a trip that took three months by boat. Living in the low class area of Essex (London) they made the decision to give themselves and their three children (including my mum who was just a toddler) better opportunities in life. Nan left behind 13 siblings (another was already in Australia) and an 82 year old father whom she knew she would not see again.

This is a sacrifice I struggle to comprehend but for which I am eternally grateful. Because of Nan, I have the life I choose rather than the one I was born into. Nan left school at 13 to help her ill mother in the home and my Grandad was a garbage truck driver. Just two generations later, I have the privilege of undertaking the highest possible level of education – a PhD. I had not truly considered how remarkable this state of affairs is until this week.

Just as importantly, if not more so, my Nan has left a legacy within our family that will be felt for generations to come. This is reflected in the passage below that my sister delivered at the funeral on behalf of both of us.

Our Nan was a second Mum to us. She loved all of her kids, grandkids, and great grandkids equally. It didn’t matter how many more children were born, or how many people married into the family – her heart grew larger and larger to fit everybody in.

Nan had endless love to give. She said “I love you with all of my heart” at any available chance to do so. There was (and is) absolutely no doubt of how much she cared for and loved us – she would say “I love youse all” often while raising a glass of chardonnay.

Nan was fiercely protective of her family. She might have only been five foot tall, but she was fearsome. She would shake her fist with the knuckle of her middle finger sticking out for extra effect.

Nan was the matriarch of our family. She instilled in all of us the values we will continue to live out. She was kind, loyal, and family came above everything else.

Nan also showed us how to have a good time, and live in the moment. She was the life of the party. Even when she could no longer walk without her walking frame, she could dance!

Nan had a profound impact on all of us. Her spirit will live on through us, and through future generations to come. Nan, we love you with all of our hearts.

My Nan survived her husband, my Grandad, by 27 years. She now rests in peace with him in the Tewantin Cemetery where we buried him in 1988 when I was in Year 1. I will forever remember both my grandparents with warmness and gratitude. In their memory, I will endeavour stay true to myself and respectful of where I came from in everything I do.

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