Put on Your brave

Put on Your Brave:  Part One

You can do it”, “Put your brave on Mummy,” Just think you can”, Olivia and Mia coaxed me gently.  I was frozen with fear.  Stopped in my tracks, knees wobbling and unable to take another step.

For as long as I could remember I had been petrified of heights. As a child, this fear had caused embarrassment. As an eleven-year-old, I froze in front of all of my peers half way up an 8ft rock abseiling at school camp. However, as an adult my fear of heights had become easily managed through avoidance.  This approach had served me well until today when Olivia and Mia dragged me from the pool chair begging me to join in their fun on the waterslides at the caravan park.

It had been almost a year to the day that we had left for Western Australia. We found ourselves in Yeppoon, along the Capricorn Coast of Queensland for a quick mid-year school holiday adventure.  Dave and I had recently reflected on what a significant milestone the 12-month mark had been since we decided to travel as a family and the ways we had grown as individuals and as a family.  The biggest growth in the family was by far baby Alice who was now 15 months old toddling around the caravan park like a boss, causing smiles and mischief wherever she went.

Navigating her toddling on the boat in 2metre swells may have been a different story for us on this holiday if our little mariner wasn’t so instantly lured to sleep by the gentle rocking of the sea.

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For the rest of the family, while the day to day had largely returned to the normal chaos, we had all made changes that reflected our hearts desire for the freedom that we had experienced defying traditional notions of ‘normal’.

Six months ago, I had decided not to return from maternity leave to the job I knew and loved but rather start my own law firm practicing in an area I believed deeply in.  To begin with, the flexibility of working for myself meant surfing with Dave in my lunch hour and being able to pick the girls up from school every day.  However, those close to me knew that lately, I had been working around the clock, struggling with the juggling of the demands of work and trying to be a near enough satisfactory mother, wife and friend.  While overall, we had adjusted relatively well, as we approached the end of term it become clear that we were all desperate to reconnect as a family and enjoy each other beyond day to day logistics.

So, here we were on our first day of holidays at a cross road. Would I show my two oldest daughters’ vulnerability and courage or was I just too scared? I backed down the stairs twice returning to my pool chair before I found my brave. Finally, with Mia in front of me and Olivia behind me I slowly crawled to the top of the waterslide stairs screaming at the top of my lungs all the way down. The girls too were screaming too with delight as my biggest cheer squad…our next adventure had just begun.

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Part 2: The Capricorn Coast

Stand up paddle boarding, snorkelling, caving, biking, fossicking for thundereggs had filled nearly every moment of our last five days. With an amusing but failed attempt to make it across to Great Kepple Island on our second day of the holiday (20 knot winds and large swells), we decided to make the most of ‘waiting the weather’. We were not disappointed.  While we had initially chosen the Capricorn Coast in Central Queensland as our holiday destination for the white sandy beaches and warm crystal- clear waters, when the weather turned, we were pleasantly surprised by the natural inland beauty.

We started our wet weather adventure at the Capricorn Caves, where we explored 390 million year old limestone caves. Every little palaeontologist dream was fulfilled as the caves provided a real fossil tour where the girls got to sift through sand and dirt to find real bones of marsupials who had inhibited the marvellous caves hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Our family’s love of playing in dirt and mud was brought to the next level on our second wet weather day when we fossicked for thunder eggs at Mr Hay.  While I have never really been a rock person, I admit that repeatedly sledging a metal pick at hard stone was quite cathartic and became the perfect opportunity to vent those minor school holiday frustrations associated with five people being living inside an 18ft tin can in the pouring rain.  We all found our fortunes in the mud and the excitement on the girls faces as the lovely volunteers cut open our thunder eggs with circular saws revealing the inner beauty of the agate, jasper and quartz that had been formed beautiful patters and colours was very special.

Finally, after the skies cleared, the winds dropped we decided it was time to explore the islands.  While figuring out how to get both a caravan and boat back to Sydney with one vehicle and child wrangling three kids between the two of us on a former commercial fishing boat in the open ocean has caused some logistical hurdles the absolute beauty of the Kepple Islands overwhelmed us.  Within a stone’s throw we had our choice of any number of deserted islands in the Great Barrier Reef National Park.  Surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of the Southernmost part of the Great Barrier Reef, the girls explored back in their happy place of nature. This transported us all to a state of joy from simple pleasure.  The days on the water filled all of our contentment cups. Dave finally got his peace and quiet and a moment of pride on one of the rides back home with four out of four of his girls fast asleep on the boat.

I truly hope that none of us ever get too busy to stop together enjoying the precious and restorative moments of simply being.

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Home Sweet Van

“In order to write about life first you must live it.” Ernst Hemmingway

The words jumped out at me as I turned the first page of my new book.  Perhaps the timing was serendipitous given it was the first day back in the van at the beginning of our summer adventure. It had taken us next to no time to switch off and the change in our vibe was palpable.

“Do you think it is just the fresh air?” Dave asked as he described the feeling of a rapid wind down.  We both knew that it was more than that.  We had arrived in our happy place (embarrassed to admit it…the caravan) after three months of transition back into our old life.  Despite our best efforts, we had not transitioned well.  On the surface, things appeared relatively normal with our weeks filled with kid’s activities, work and the start of the silly season.  The truth was that both of us had been somewhat disappointed by our inability to transplant our joyful transformation of our Western Australia trip into Sydney life.

 

We had used the excuse of sleep deprivation, busyness, and bouts of ill health as means of dulling our deeper discontent.  It had become clear over the last few months that we no longer desired the fast-paced Sydney lifestyle that we had returned to. We had, at least, admitted in vulnerable moments that the past weeks had been merely going through the motions.

How is it possible, that we work so much better together in such a confined space?”I asked Dave earlier in the day after contemplating how settled we all were.  Almost immediately, feelings of being frazzled and overwhelmed as an inadequate wife and mother dissipated into feelings of joy and contentment into being ourselves with each other for the coming summer weeks.

The girls immediately found their feet back in the caravan. Their pride was palpable as they befriended first-time campers like they were old hands showing them the ropes as they burned around on their bikes.  We were curious to see if Alice’s newly found mobility would make caravan travel a potential disaster. Fortunately, she developed a quick sense of familiarity, bordering perhaps on instinct given the proportion of her life to date that she has spent in a van. Besides a few technical adjustments to convert her old bassinet space into a playpen (or perhaps more accurately, mini-prison cell) she was as good as gold. She has also continued to earn her reputation as “the Chiller”, and is winning the hearts of all those around her.

After a full night of blissful sleep (another first in months), we began to unplan our days, making the most of opportunities as they arose, and intentionally being present enjoying the abundance of time as opposed to the abundance of stuff we didn’t really need. The girls and I found an incredible strawberry farm near Port Macquarie laughing out loud as we filled our buckets with hand picked strawberries soon to be drowned in home made chocolate sauce and devoured for the rest of the day.

I had spent so much time contemplating whether those deep feelings of contentment that I had felt while travelling this year would return or whether I had arrived at accepting the reality that the holiday was over.  On day six of our summer adventure I realised something… contentment is not a feeling but rather a choice.  As we basked in the afternoon sun on the boat on Wallis Lake, a pod of five gorgeous dolphins surrounded us.  Inspired by the chance to adventure again, I jumped on my stand up paddle board reminded by the breaching marine mammals that sometimes the best way of displaying your life was jumping from beneath the surface to take a breath.

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Dear Alice

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Dave:

Dear Alice Grace,

My darling daughter, as this special trip has drawn to an end, here are some thoughts to share with you about this incredible experience that you have been on with us as a baby.

You will, it seems, grow up in strange times. Proof of that might be that a letter from a father to his infant daughter is posted online for others to read. Then again, maybe this is just another, era-appropriate, form of an incredibly proud and besotted father gloating about his children. If so, I guess it is not so strange after all.

One of the things that sticks with me the most is your awaking from every single nap, however long or short (and there were plenty of short ones), with the most heart-melting smile for whomever had the privilege of being the first to catch your sparkling eyes. These sleeps have been in all manner of places – in boats (big and small), that dastardly car seat, the pram, the Baby Bjorn, the fold-up cot inside the van, and once or twice ensconced in the plush bedding of the swish Mantarays Resort in Exmouth.  

Whilst you will likely not have the slightest memory of this incredible family trip, it is important to your mum and me that, in the fullness of time, you come to know how wonderfully you have enriched it. Your presence has taught your bigger sisters invaluable lessons, including about caring for others. One example is when Olivia, sitting next to you in the car on a long day’s drive when you were particularly unsettled, persisted in figuring out how to turn your wailing into the most delightful giggles, by composing a little ditty that would become our unofficial family anthem for the trip. As we would all come to sing countless times like some kind of crazy family musical troupe: “We do the Gah Gah Yo Yo. We do the Gah Gah Yo Yo. We do the Gah Gah Gah Gah Gah Yo Yo Yo Yo Yoooooo…” Mimi, similarly, when it was her turn to be your neighbour in the backseat, declared to your mum and me that the real secret to getting you to sleep was to strictly follow these steps, in order. (1) Sing one song (2) Rub your tummy and (3) Sing two songs.  

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Bedtime story time
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Cable Beach sunset

I also want you to know that throughout the past three months your mama, as always, has been so incredibly brave and committed to your wellbeing, even in a setting that was initially far outside of her comfort zone.  You have also improved Daddy’s ability to actually perform risk assessment, and to not be quite as a cavalier in crazy outdoor activities than he might otherwise have jumped into without really thinking.

Now, back to those day sleeps. I am heartened by the fact that the longest and most peaceful ones occurred when you were in your capsule or pram in a boat out on the deep blue sea.  I hope this points to an early affinity with all things aquatic that will continue to grow stronger as you get bigger. Your older sisters may tell you that this may be thrust upon you – from tying saltwater flies using all sorts of crazy materials supposed to be used for kids craft, to being plonked on the front of a stand up paddle board or kayak clad in a bright PFD, to any number of other marine-related activities that we will no doubt be involving you in as soon as humanly possible.    

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Trying to crawl

Most of all, there is no doubt that you, ‘Big Al’ (sorry – that’s one of those dad things that might stick), have drawn your family so much closer together. First and foremost, through our shared love and adoration for you, which has become particularly strong through our being together all day, every day, for three months. But I think you have also helped us to feel a stronger sense of common responsibility as a family. Such as the need for total cooperation during bath time, in a collapsible laundry tub, outside the caravan and on a folding table. Then there was your commencement on solids, halfway through the trip, and your almost immediate discovery of a wonderful new form of creative expression that we will dub – ‘Outback Food Body Art’. As for your preferred medium, it seems that you have resolved that a combination of mashed avocado and banana is without peer, both for ease of application and its striking colour palette.

There have also been so many times on this trip when your mum and I have been gobsmacked by your innate sense of the sisterhood bond. Sometimes it has just been an adoring stare directed straight at Bubba or Mimi for a precious, silent moment. At the other times, this bond has been so strong that the only attention and affection you have desired was that of your older siblings.

Your personality has emerged so beautifully on this trip.  Whilst there is no doubt that you have been blessed with the gift of being chilled out, the odds-on favourite for describing your unique persona in a few words has now evolved into something more along the lines of, ‘carefree but streaked with defiance’.

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Ali with her new friends
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River patterns and freshwater croc

We are already completely committed to doing another major family trip in our caravan when you are a bit bigger. Then you will have some special memories of your own that will hopefully last long into adulthood. Maybe that is just an excuse – but I’m sticking with it. My deep love for travelling the wilder parts of this country has grown ever deeper from experiencing it as part of a family. If, God-willing, we are given the opportunity to embark on similar adventures with our family when you are older, I’m already wondering what it is that will take your breath away. What is it that will most capture your imagination? Will you be like Olivia – entranced by wildlife and trying new things (epitomised in her incredible whale shark swim)? Or, will you be more like Mimi – always looking for a chance, on dad’s lap, to drive the car (especially on bumpy 4WD tracks) and the boat, along with making new friends that were really ‘hers’ and not just tagging on with her big sister? Or, will you be like both of your sisters and take such delight in simply having the time and space to be outside and create your own innocent world of games and exploration? Time will tell. For now, your mum and I just want to thank you once more for being such a good sport. We love you more than words. You truly are our joyful little wanderer.

Your Daddy

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Mudflat patterns near Wyndham