Maggie MacKellar has been to hell and back in the last few years. The loss of a husband, while pregnant, then the death of a mother, would be enough to send most of us to the wall. Not Maggie. In fact she is not only my Guest author today, she’s also my Guest for the Rainbows: Inspirational Women part of my blog
This is her story:
Maggie: Fleur and I first met through the distance shrinking capacity of Twitter – she’s in Western Australia and I’m 4 hrs off the coast of Eastern Australia in the Central West of NSW. We share the juggle of writing, kids & farm life, a love of books and delicious tasting home killed lamb chops and we even share a sheep breed as I also live on a White Suffolk Stud. So when Fleur asked me to write a post about my life for her great blog I said accepted with pleasure.
But where to start?
When I was 6 months pregnant with our second child my husband died after an acute battle with mental illness. Then 18 months later (just as I was getting back on my feet) my mother was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and lived for another 11 weeks. After she died I found myself juggling a busy career as a lecturer in Australian history at Sydney University and single motherhood in a kind of mad existence where my kids careened from childcare to planned activity with little time to just be kids. After six months of madness I decided I had to get off the treadmill.
So, we moved ‘home’ to the farm where my grandparents had come in the 1930s as a young married couple and where my mother grew up and where I spent much of my childhood. I realise how privileged I am to be able to raise my kids in this beautiful place. Their childhood is now full of dogs and ponies, motorbikes and poddy lambs and calves rather than the whirl of full time care and the constraints of suburbia. At the time it felt like the riskiest decision I’d ever made, riskier than getting married, riskier than having babies. I had the voices of my esteemed colleagues ringing in my ears who said I was throwing my career away. I had my own voice telling me the best thing I could do for my kids was to earn a decent salary, that I’d worked so hard to get to where I was on the University conveyor belt, that no matter how short my break was I’d never regain my position…yadayadayada. But against all this I had an overwhelming gut instinct to take my wounded self and my precious babies to a place where the days were marked by the movement of the sun, by the settling of the frost in the late hours of the night. I wanted to fall asleep to the sound of sheep walking past my bedroom window and the muted lowing of a frustrated bull echoing across the flat. I wanted to hear a Willy Wagtail call his challenges to the moonlit night and I wanted to fall into bed exhausted from a day’s activity in the sheep yards rather than the mental exhaustion of peak hour traffic and writing lectures.
My last book When it Rains tells the story of my journey.
I was lucky. I could write out here while my heart healed and my children grew strong. I wrote another history book on the settlers of the Western District of Victoria and in my spare time I scribbled in my journal the raw, unmediated notes, which would become the manuscript for When it Rains. I hadn’t intended to write a memoir, but the two deaths of my mother and my husband were so entangled in my head, I found the only way to tease out any sense of time, meaning and my own emotion was to write. Eventually I showed what I had written to a wonderful friend and mentor Drusilla Modjeska and she told me it was good but it had to go in a drawer for a year – a dark and secret place – where I wouldn’t look at it or think about it and when I came back to it I would see what I had to do. So that’s what I did, put it in a drawer and got on with life on the farm.
And as readers of Fleur’s blog will already know – life on the farm is all consuming!
After the publication of When it Rains I agreed to do an episode on Australian Story, (which for any overseas readers is a wonderful documentary program on our national broadcaster the ABC). The program reached a lot of people, and has encouraged me to continue to believe that by speaking out about grief and mental illness I can make a difference in people’s lives.
All of this has changed the shape of my days and yet it also hasn’t. This last weekend I spent two days at the Mudgee Readers Festival. It was a wonderful weekend, but in typical ways it was booked marked by my life out here. I left in the rain and returned to find the canola crops had grown about 20 cm in two days. If I wound down my window while I was driving along then I would have heard them growing. The blossom is out. The sounds and smells of spring are everywhere. We have ewes lambing in the paddocks next door to my cottage. My daughter’s milking cow has calved and then wonderously adopted my small son’s poddy calf he was raising on powered milk. The chooks and ducks are laying and all around me the world is coming to life after a long and hard winter.
Moving out to this wonderful farm has given my children and I a second chance at life. Every morning I wake up and even if I have to drag myself into a cold and frosty predawn get up I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky as I watch the sun rise over the hill and melt the frost that coats the ram flats because my morning commute is a 20km round trip to meet the high school bus and it takes 10 mins instead of a 10km trip into the city which takes 40mins.
The risk was worth taking.
Maggie, thank you for sharing with us. If you would like to read more about When It Rains, head here or watch the Australian Story piece here. Maggie is also on Twitter updating us on her writing, farming and family life @magsmackellar