I like my lawn neat.
I like to do the edges and I don’t mind doing the verge. In the country everyone mows their own verge because the Council will never do it. In the city no one does their verge, because if they did the Council would never do it.
My father likes his grass tidy, as do my brothers. Hours are spent in our yards. We try to resist the urge to cut the lawn short. Too short and it gets burned, bald and brown. This urge has to be balanced with the displeasure of cutting the grass and not having it look mown. We can’t give our lawns a trim, we have to cut.
I learned how to clean a spark plug from my brother. I learned how to clean out the fuel pipe from another brother. I learned from my father how to angle a whipper snipper just right to get the edges. When I bought my own house my grass just had to be cut, no matter the heat. Lawn-mowing sweat is like no other. You become covered in dust and grass that sticks to you tight, it gets in everywhere. I used to like to walk inside and see my face filthy in the mirror. I had done a good job. If I was looking like this the lawn would be looking smart.
Our family drive to keep our lawns short is tempered by our difficult relationship with the tools. Mowers never start. Whipper snippers are no better. I’ve worn blisters on my hands wrenching starter cords over and over. It’s as if there is something in our chemistry that snuffs out spark plugs. We swap and change our mowers, passing around the ones that work, cursing the ones that won’t. We walk them through the streets of our small town like prams. My father holds the record: he walked two mowers from my house to his with a whipper snipper balanced across both.
When I had to leave my little house with the big lawn and move back to the city I was imprisoned in a house with no yard. A small courtyard was all I had, two metres by three metres and covered in stones. I was hemmed in.
I went into denial. I didn’t miss losing my weekends to a recalcitrant mower and a haughty whipper snipper. Not at all. I almost forgot about them. Yards and lawns and gardens didn’t exist anymore, not in my world.
Until we moved house. A big three bedroom Federation with a front and back yard. Grass. Long and looking for attention. We were here two weeks and I went and bought myself a mower. I dug out my boots and my yard hat and put on some old shorts. The mower started first go. I had to resist flicking the blades down to the lowest level. After all this time I knew I had to take it easy, not rush in. The lawn was long, it wouldn’t take to being shorn low. I had to be patient.
I did the back, I did the front. I stopped the mower and stood there with my hands on my hips. The verge was looking untidy. Surely just this once won’t hurt. The Council won’t notice.
I knew I was taking a chance when I moved out of the city. I have been and no doubt will continue to be, in love with the city. The idea of the city offers me infinite potential. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere and not be aware of humans and their detrius. Not even in places like the Harbour in Sydney and its beaches. When I lived in Coogee I used to float in the water and look back at the buildings. The juxtaposition seemed to give me hours of endless wonder. I was outside looking in, if only for a moment.
But like a lot of things in life, there comes a time when you have to move on, for the sake of your own sanity. When I think of the city now I think of suffocation. I think of dirt. I think of stress, nerves and worry. I think of cramped spaces and people bumping up against each other while pretending the other doesn’t exist.
Walking home after dropping my son at the school bus stop this morning I looked up at the sky and listened to the quiet and realised I have made one of the best decisions in my life. I haven’t given in, I haven’t wimped out, I haven’t run away. I am starting to believe what others have told me, I have made a brave decision that, for once in my life, has paid off.
On Friday I walked out of the gates of Sydney Uni for the first time in ten years and knew I wasn’t due back next week. Yes, I’m in my early 30s (ahem), and I have worked at the same place for ten years. Not in the same job mind you, but definitely in the same place. And I don’t regret so much as a minute of it.
Sydney Uni is a funny place. When people first arrive they always remark how it’s a world unto itself, how once you step through the gates you are in a city. Its roads confound all who have been there less than several years. They wind and turn and are marked by buildings as wonderful as Physics and Anderson Stuart and as god-forsaken as Carslaw and the Transitory Building (which has been there at least since my parents were at uni). Once you’ve been there a while you appreciate the roads, Carslaw and the student-free times. You appreciate the fact that the Carillonist plays Waltzing Matilda and that some things that take one week in the real world take six months at Sydney.
Sydney is grandiose, it’s arrogant, it’s self-assured and absolutely self-obsessed but at the same time, strangely generous and quietly incompetent. It sometimes can’t see when it’s wrong. It doesn’t always believe you when you know you are right but is almost forgiving when you’re wrong. It’s full of unreconstructed old blokes and headstrong women but also has room for people who wouldn’t get a job in the real world due to their obsession with trains, their inability to socialise or their refusal to wear makeup.
Someone once offered me a job at a bank that would have no doubt got me a lot more money and catapulted me along the ‘career’ path at a good clip but she also acknowledged that to work at such a place would go against my “ideological beliefs” and she was dead right. Even though Sydney has more money than smaller universities could ever dream of and they promote themselves with the same keenness of commercial enterprises while pretending that resting on their laurels will be enough, if you work there you can always tell yourself you’re doing something for ‘the greater good’. There is a general sense that the Uni is part of something larger than ourselves, that even if we’re not actually saving lives with brain surgery, someone in the Uni is learning to do just that. As far-fetched and ridiculous as that sounds, this thought helps people stay there for years, to justify what they are doing. It makes them feel good.
Sydney has this ability to suck you in, to make you feel almost in love. For a core of people at the University, their devotion is undying even if full of loathing at times. They seem like a family, thrown together by something beyond their control but unable to rid themselves of the burden of the greater whole. They all have their own motivations and they’re not always clear or for the greater good. You can tell the ones who have been around for a while, they bitch and moan but would never dream of leaving, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. Is such an attachment healthy? Quite possibly not. At least they’re not emotionally invested in a bank.
So I walked out and thought it would be fairly momentous but in the end I was just glad to get home and get on with things. It hasn’t really sunk in. I have a lot of people there about whom I feel strongly, one way or the other. I have seen my life changed dramatically by the Uni, from my son to partners, to my dog. I am pretty sure that to become too maudlin over it would be reason enough to have left. It’s a place of work. Such feelings are just not healthy. Surely.
When I first came to Sydney I was shocked by the amount of graffiti in public spaces. In fact, I felt a sense of unease whenever I went into an area heavily graffitied, it seemed to indicate that there was some kind of underworld and I it found vaguely threatening.
Now I sit in the back yard and listen to the shake knock shake knock of a spray can and the pfft of paint heading for our back wall. It still gives me a little frisson of excitement knowing there is some stranger out there painting our fence, but now I don’t feel threatened. I go out the next day and photograph it. I then put it on Flickr, submit it to groups and share it with others.