And how I’m interested in meeting people of all kinds so I can interview them for my articles? Well, this weekend I met an incredible couple who have such an amazing story to tell that I think I could write it six – eight different ways and sell it to that many magazines too (at least).
These are the ‘Salt of the Earth’ people that I’m talking about. People that have battled so much adversity in their lives that you wonder how they are still even standing upright. But they don’t talk about that much. No, at their home you are made to feel part of the family (it makes my place seem quiet) and there is so much warmth and laughter ringing out that you never want to leave.
Margaret wrapped me into her warm embrace the moment I stepped out of my car. What a relief; this is the first time I have ever ventured away from home on my own (my children are all still in shock) for a whole weekend and, even though it is only an hour from home, all kinds of fears were creeping in. What if they are axe murderers or they try to drug me or worse still, they just don’t like me (it does happen from time to time :)) and then I’m left with crippling anxiety in my room on my own for a whole 30 hours. What if, what if, what if… damn the what ifs, it’s time for change !
In a previous life Margaret was a school principal and Tom was in construction and building surveying. They bought this land here in Alexandra, Victoria, Australia back in ’98 with the intention of building a B ‘n B but, well, one thing led to another and here they are all of these years later with a country haven called Fawcett Farmstay which does a massive turnover of guests who get to stay in one of the three charming cottages they have built (or in the main house like me).
Margaret and Tom were married in 1966 (do the math, it’s a long time) and have endured intolerable obstacles that make your toes curl – you come away wondering how two people can be so giving, sharing, positive and humorous after what they have been through. Chief among the difficulties is Tom’s health; he has been told to say goodbye to his family and enjoy his last days more than once by the medical profession and so, as you can imagine, they have both learnt to grab each and every moment of their lives and live it to the fullest without reservation. Tom jokes that the first time he was told of his impending death the first cottage was delivered to the new land in Alexandra and he decided that he just didn’t have time to die! The next time he was told to say goodbye his first grandchild was born and he promised the tiny newborn (photos to follow) that he would be sticking around for a while yet and be the best grandfather yet.
Margaret had to learn to embrace her almost-widowhood as well and built up a big network. She has friends she has met in Alex that visit virtually every day to check in on her. She calls them her ‘Guardian Angels’ as they often help her to get the cottages ready for new guests. But the truth is that Fawcett Farmstay is actually a veritable Half-Way House. It has an ‘open door’ philosophy and there is a constant coming and going of people from all over the world. Some come to help and some come to be helped.
Margaret and Tom have fostered children for 16 years (sigh, I know, they really are that incredible) and I had the privilege of meeting their foster son who they have parented full time for the entire 16 years – as well as their own two boys. You see, Tom comes from a family of 22 siblings. Yes, you read that right! When asked if they were Irish catholic he jokingly replies, “no, just sloppy Protestants.” And Margaret comes from a family of six kids, two of which were adopted, so it seemed only natural that they would want to increase their family size. She also talks of being a ‘problem solver,’ and there may also be, mixed in there somewhere, a philosophy of wanting to pay-it-forward.
Over the 16 years that they have been on this land they have hosted over 600 backpackers. I met two of them when I was there who are working toward getting their second year visas. They are French and unfortunately the language barrier meant that I couldn’t glean as much information from them as I would have liked but still, it was lovely to listen to their beautiful accents, even if understanding what was being said was sketchy. Margaret and Tom have so many stories to tell about the backpackers that they have hosted that it took up virtually the whole evening I was there, while dining on roast pork in front of the roaring coonara (fireplace). They search for helpers via Workaway and HelpX which are two websites that can take you all over the world and indeed Workaway is how I came to find about this Farmstay.
There are many articles I would like to write about this couple and their experiences and I have a feeling I may be going back there very soon. I asked them if I could come back seasonally as well to re-photograph the changing landscape and of course the response was a resounding yes.
Margaret emailed me last night to ask if I got home ok. That’s why I call people like this ‘Salt of the Earth’ people; they are decent, country people who care about other people and just keep on smiling no matter what life throws at them. True role models for all of us.
Foster son Dylan (top left) and first grandson and parents.
When the women gather in the kitchen all kinds of secrets are told some of which I was privy too: forbidden babies raised as parents own children or adopted, nursing training and shananigans that took place decades ago between women that have been friends since kindergarten.
I went to a poetry reading today at Strathvea Guest House here in the Yarra Valley. I knew the poems were to be read by John Wood (an award winning actor here in Australia) but I had no idea they were going to be backed up by the breathtaking, whimsical and sometimes haunting music of Hadyn, Bach and Mozart played by the Australian Haydn Quartet.
I attended the wedding of someone who was married here at Strathvea back in 1996. When asked about the experience she commented that it was “one of those strange, summer days where the sky was overcast and it was quite cold. But, as soon as we all came together under the massive oak in the gardens the sun started to shine and it didn’t stop until vowells and rings were exchanged.” It was a wonderful day and the couple enjoyed a two night’s stay in the accommodation which gave them plenty of time to relax and enjoy the sumptious food and magnificently maintained gardens.
Fast forward 18 years to another day, but this one with a complete set of strangers The present owners of the Guesthouse, Dianne and Toby Eccles, are into the third year of their Music and Poetry Festival that they hold every winter. Beautiful memories flashed through my mind as I wound my way up the dirt road to the Guesthouse which, in a stroke of either good luck or genius has remained almost completely unchanged. I made myself comfortable in the Library of the Guesthouse in front of a roaring fire while my eyes hungrily drank in every single title on every single shelf (there were a lot of books). And then I found the children’s collection and my heart sang. Every magnificently illustrated fairytale book that a children’s author could ever hope to find in one place. Oh joy! I resisted the urge to jot down titles and authors or take photos of covers for later reference. No, my shelves at home are already overflowing…
You can imagine my surprise and delight when we were called into the dining/ ballroom with the words, “they’re ready for you now” and then upon entering found a lovely looking quartet setting up. Most of the poems were centuries old (I’ll be placing my favourites here on my blog as the next days unfold) and I hadn’t heard of them before but, backed up by the music – which was perfectly matched – the words were brought to life in a way that’s difficult to describe. I was completely transported to another place and time.
I had that sinking feeling when it all came to an end after two hours. I wanted more. It was then that one of the violinists stood up and asked for the members of the audience to ‘like’ their Facebook page as they were still unable to afford a Publicist. I saw my chance. I put my Freelancer hat on (for the first official time) and, in spite of nerves that were making my knees shake (I’m usually an in-the-background type of person), I came right out and asked if I could photograph all of them and write an article for my blog. I think they were quite pleased actually and, even with enormous fame and talent under their belts, were more than happy to oblige.
This was one of those afternoons that is life changing and will never be forgotten. If you ever have a chance to see John Wood act (he’s currently working on a play) or the Australian Haydn Quartet play, you will not be disappointed. It was truly inspiring and I came away with itchy palms that just wanted to pick up a pen and write poetry until the cows come home 🙂
It’s true, this really happened a couple of weeks ago but I probably should start at the beginning. I had been seated next to a pleasant looking older woman who I didn’t know. She struck up a conversation with me and I could tell by the way that she spoke that she was a bit of a rough diamond: you know what I mean, she seemed kind hearted and funny enough but I had this vivid picture of her in my mind of someone who would go to footy games, swill beer, shout obscenities at the ref/umpire, eat meat pies with sauce straight from the brown, paper bag (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not who I am).
That kind of thing doesn’t bother me because I’m nothing if not tolerant and I was not there to make judgements and come off as conceited: meeting new people is always fun and variety is the spice of life and all experiences help me in my work as a writer and poet. I live in a small country town and there are a lot of ‘country people’ who drive four wheel drives which are vehicles used to go out on the rough terrain and hunt etc. A lot of these vehicles have bumper stickers that say things like “No racism, no action,” which I find very baffling.
But back to the lunch guest: little alarm bells started to go off when she was obnoxious to the waiter – I felt sorry for him because he was just trying to do his job the best he could – and she kept aggressively trying to engage me in conversation when I was conversing with others; apparently she was being ignored.
It was in between the main meal and the dessert that the racist conversations started. Everyone had had a few drinks (I’ d had a few sips of champagne only to fit in but I don’t really like alchohol) by then and people started to relax. I have to remind myself at times like this that everyone’s entitled to their opinions and that of course they don’t know how passionately I feel about racism and so I just let it wash over me like water off a duck’s back and remain silent. But then this guest next to me made a very derogatory remark about a whole race of people: I won’t re-tell the entire conversation because I don’t want to offend anyone but suffice it to say that she used the word “ragtop.” I turned to my husband and told him it was time to leave.
I’ve learnt this in the Italian community: the ambience at mealtimes is to be preserved at all costs and being such a loving, peaceful people if someone steps out of the boundaries of politeness and civility the host or the offended party will announce that they are “going outside to get some air,” or, if they are offended in any severe way they will make an excuse to leave. Italians don’t go for the jugular (not in my experience anyway): they don’t use their words to offend or retaliate but they do use their actions to make a point – drive their message home.
I don’t know if she, the racist guest, took my hint and I’ll probably never see her again (one hopes) but these days I’m all about trying to build awareness for my social causes one of which is racism which is why I touch on this subject in my second children’s book The Blue Seal Of Trinity Cove. You’ll never find me out picketing in the street or entering into heated debates on the subject: I prefer to leave just a little, subtle clue in the mind’s of others that might have them later on thinking to themselves, “gosh, that Linda seemed so nice and kind and funny and yet when I started making racist jokes she just clammed up and then left – maybe I should keep my mouth shut a bit more in the future.” And you never know, maybe some of the bigots that have been taught to hate since birth will actually rethink their entire belief system on the subject, that’s what I pray for anyway.
As you know I went back to work last week and while I was staring out of the tearoom window from the shop it occurred to me that we have this lovely view that we just take for granted – it’s a wild and tangled mess, a footprint of Mother Nature, and all of the little purple wildflowers were sitting up and smiling at me. Then on the weekend I took myself off for a long walk at Badger Weir: the creek was flowing so fast and full that it had broken the banks in places and – drumroll please – I was lucky enough to hear the beautiful repertoire of a lyrebird (they have many bird calls stolen from other bird types) and caught a glimpse of it before it scurried away into the forest (no photo, sorry).