Hello again. No news on the memoir – I’m still waiting for Judith, my Australian Society of Authors mentor, to get back to me with her final report, but that should be coming through soon. In the meantime, life has felt like one long application form – for jobs or for funding grants – and I’m either doing that or sending off submissions to journals or competitions, or trying to get my head around the huge and sometimes insurmountable task of writing my PhD exegesis. But it’s a lovely feeling indeed when all the long hours spent hanging over a computer answering application questions and working out a budget are rewarded with a successful result. A few days ago, I heard my funding application for the Country Arts Support Program (CASP) – organised through Regional Arts NSW – has been approved, and in early 2013, I will do a stint as writer-in-residence at BackTrack Youth Works in Armidale. What a wonderful Christmas present!

With the ‘Stories from the Shed and On the Road’ project, I’ll deliver a series of writing workshops to young people involved in a range of activities at the ‘Shed’. Participants will create prose or poetry which will be published on the organisation’s website, and I’ll also creatively document some of BackTrack’s rural and shed-based activities. The funding news gave my recently-flagging spirits a huge boost, although when I read the media release about the project, and when the ‘idea’ suddenly became a ‘reality’, I began to feel somewhat daunted by what lay ahead. How the heck am I going to do this? I thought to myself. Did I really say that I’d go on the road with a truck full of boys and dogs, and sleep in a swag at truck stops on the way to rural shows?

Did I mention that I’m scared of dogs?

While I was in this state, though, I remembered a Woody Allen line from Manhattan that I saw in the paper a few weeks ago – ‘talent is luck; the most important thing is courage’ – and I reminded myself that I’ve been in this place before, and that writers need a certain amount of courage when starting out on a new project and following an idea through. Five years ago, I came up with an idea to write a story about a youth worker and a group of boys in a welding shed. Finding the strength to begin that project was an enormous undertaking, and I had much the same sort of fears when I put on my King Gees and boots for the first time – me in a welding shed? With a group of wild boys who didn’t fit into mainstream anything? I knew nothing about welding or power tools, or even youth work for that matter … but I gathered up my courage and walked into that shed and set to work. I might have been shaking in my boots, but I forced myself to have faith in the process, and that initial idea has led to so many positive opportunities down the track – including this latest round of CASP funding.

Another funding application I put in to further develop the same ‘Stories from the Shed’ project was the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship. Hazel Rowley, who died in 2011, was an Australian biographer. From reading some of her articles, essays and books, I learnt a lot about the sort of person she was, and I remain full of admiration for the way she lived her life. Hazel Rowley wrote about people who were courageous, who were ‘outsiders’ in society, and each time she embarked on a new book, it invariably involved an act of courage for her, too. The literary fellowship was formed to commemorate Hazel Rowley’s ideas and interests, and the selection committee mentioned they were particularly interested in projects that were about ‘risk-taking and expanding horizons’. My 2013 writer-in-residence project certainly fits that description, and whatever happens, and however I work it out, ‘Stories from the Shed and On the Road’ is going to be a grand adventure, and I just need to take a deep breath and enjoy the ride. Until next time … courage to all writers!

Hello again. I’ve been thinking about how much of a writer’s life is spent waiting – waiting to hear about journal submissions, funding grants, applications for writing retreats or waiting to get a book accepted for publication – and, at times, all this waiting makes it hard to ‘keep the faith’. Over the past few years, I’ve seen everyone in my online writing group get published, which is wonderfully exciting, but sometimes I wonder how much longer I will need to wait – and yes, I’m aware the tone of this post is very different to my manic rant from last month. Writers must seem a little erratic to other people – one minute we’re up, the next we’re down, and our circumstances can change so quickly. Earlier this week, my dear friend Edwina Shaw heard that her book Thrill Seekers has been shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, which is part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. This is a dream come true for Edwina, and a prestigious validation of her many years of hard work on the manuscript. One of Edwina’s oft-repeated sayings is: ‘Successful writers are the ones who don’t give up,’ and making it onto the shortlist has proven Edwina’s words to be true. Go Edwina! I’ve also just seen the fabulous cover of Ghost Wife – a memoir written by another friend, Michelle Dicinoski, which Black Inc. is publishing in February next year, and I have to admit I’m envious.

The other day I emailed Anne Reilly, the HarperCollins editor I first met at Varuna in April 2011, and asked her if I should be concerned about how long it has taken me to prepare my manuscript for submission to HarperCollins and whether I should try and hasten the rest of the process. As always, Anne’s reply was prompt and reassuring. She wrote: ‘It has necessarily taken a while; writing is like that. Don’t be worried. Some people whiz through quickly; they are exceptions.’ And so I will wait a little while longer. My time will come, and although I haven’t yet published a book, my writing has attracted some wonderful opportunities and I am very fortunate. The latest news is that I’ve been awarded another residency at Bundanon next year – where I will stay in the Writer’s Cottage and work on my next project, ‘The Bakery Stories’, while the cows and kangaroos wander past the window. What a blessing, and a welcome reminder to ‘keep the faith’. Until next time…

Hello again. It’s spring in Armidale, and I’ve just returned from a fabulous annual writing retreat at the coast with my dear friend, Edwina Shaw. We both brought full manuscripts to be edited and checked over, and although Edwina and I spent many hours sitting on the veranda of our cabin reading and making corrections on each other’s work, we still managed to walk along the beach and swim in the surf and eat delicious food and drink beer and laugh long into the night and sing ‘Speed Bonnie Boat’ and light a candle for Helen Greaney, a beautiful 93-year-old woman who died last week (and we even had time to debate Hemingway’s use of ‘and’ in lengthy sentences). And the best thing is that when Edwina finished reading the completed draft of my memoir – yes, you read that right: the completed draft – she thought the new narrative structure worked really well. Hooray! Edwina thinks I still need to do a little cutting and ‘rejigging’, but the final HarperCollins-submission-ready-draft is rapidly approaching.

A huge motivation to finish the memoir came my way in early September, when I heard that Heather Taylor Johnson – one of the other Varuna HarperCollins Award winners – had her manuscript accepted by HarperCollins. It took ten months for the team to reach a decision, but it was well worth the wait because Heather’s book is going to be published in Australia and probably in America as well. Heather is so happy. She’d just gotten off the phone with her editor when she sent the news through, and after I forwarded my congratulations, I thought to myself: ‘I want that feeling, too, but it’s never going to happen if I don’t finish this draft.’ So I did it. I worked like a madwoman to get it done before the 20th September (the final deadline I set for myself), and posted the manuscript to my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, with a great sigh of relief. Judith has two other manuscripts to edit before she can look at mine, so it may be a while before I receive her feedback, but she was so pleased that I’d finished and said: ‘You can be thrilled, Helena, to have brought yourself out the other end of this draft.’

I am thrilled.

Life has responded accordingly. Since I sent the manuscript to Judith (and escaped from the confines of my writing area), the world has opened up before me. First of all, a washing machine unexpectedly arrived into my life, just as my old Simpson spun its last load. Then, last week, I heard I won a Varuna Fellowship for my next project – ‘The Bakery Stories’ – a novella which explores the story of the Dutch Jews during World War II. I’ve been working on ‘The Bakery Stories’ on and off for about five years now (as a way to build up a publication record) and it’s such an affirmative ‘Yes!’ to be awarded the fellowship to further develop this project.

Fired up by these positive signs, and strangely energised after finishing the memoir, I developed an idea for a future writer-in-residence position with a local youth organisation. The possibilities of this project are so exciting they just about keep me awake at night, but because I need funding, I had to quickly pull together a Country Arts Support Program (CASP) Application. I sent it away just in time to meet the submission deadline, and will hear whether my application was successful in November.

Also, while still intoxicated by the potential of this writer-in-residence idea (and flying high about the Varuna win), I ran into a friend – another PhD student – on the path outside Dixson library at UNE. I’d seen this same friend in the lingerie shop in town the week before, when I was buying a new bra to celebrate finishing the draft, but it wasn’t really the place to have an in-depth discussion about our studies. This time I had a pile of books under my arm – like a proper post-graduate student – so we stopped to chat. I excitedly told my friend about finishing the memoir and about my writer-in-residence idea, and then I showed her the books I’d just borrowed – titles by Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson – and we talked about the legacy of the New Journalists, and it was all so exciting I could barely contain myself, even though I was aware of raving and perhaps coming across as just a little manic. But my friend was beaming with excitement, too. ‘It’s all so perfect!’ she enthused at one point. She also suggested that my idea could be incorporated into my exegesis, which caused me to remember that I have to write my exegesis very quickly if I am to make 2012 my ‘Year of Completion’ – but even finishing my PhD felt like a cinch that day.

As we said our farewells, I remembered my Varuna news and told my friend about the fellowship. ‘Oh Helena!’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘You’re a writer … a real writer!’ And I looked at her and thought, ‘Yes, I am!’ After nearly nine years, I am finally ready to admit to myself – and to the world – that I am a writer!

And the possibilities of life suddenly seem endless.

Hello again. Just a quick post to say I’m still here. Feel like a deadline-fraud, but I’m doing my best and will begin work on the conclusion tomorrow – yes, really! It’s head out of the sand time, as a friend told me rather firmly the other day. More news in a week (when I expect to finish!). Until then … Ms Emu.

Hello again. Yep, still here. Didn’t make the 31st May deadline or the 14th June deadline, and probably won’t make the Winter Solstice deadline either – but I’m getting close! And missing my deadline(s) is not through lack of trying, believe me; I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life. I cancelled my social life, cancelled my haircut, cancelled the carpet cleaner and even cancelled a complimentary facial because I didn’t want any distractions. I’m like a woman approaching birth. The reward (the baby / the book) will come later. I’m super-tired but also super-happy because I’m finally overcoming the challenges of this memoir. The manuscript is currently 86,000 words, and I’m just doing a final read-through / cut / edit before I send it to my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen. After her feedback, I’ll polish the memoir one last time before sending it to my editor at HarperCollins, Anne Reilly. But really, folks, miracles have been happening behind the closed door of my bedroom, absolute miracles. The creative process is magic, no doubt about that, and it’s just as Judith once said to me: The Book Knows. Everything is falling into place and all is well. I just needed to trust in the process. So, until next time … keep the faith!

Hello again. Well, I’ve had to set myself a new deadline for finishing the memoir. I normally love working to a deadline – and it’s rare that I’m unable to meet one – but I just can’t get there. Not this time. It’s been four weeks since I returned from Bundanon, and adjusting back to the demands of the real world has been rather challenging (to say the least). I’ve been negotiating a property settlement and preparing for a divorce. More excuses! I hear you say, but the stress of going through that process completely overwhelmed me. In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert mentions a friend who likens the experience of divorce to ‘having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years.’ It hasn’t been that bad for me, mostly, but over the last month it felt like I had several minor car accidents each week – accidents which left me full of anxiety, breathless, unable to sleep. Needless to say, that state wasn’t ideal for writing, but I’m moving through it now, dodging oncoming vehicles and heading out onto the home stretch. Vroom!

As I mentioned in my last post, I did heaps of work at Bundanon, so maybe these last four weeks have been a necessary hiatus, a time to catch my breath before the big push to reach the end. I’m very close. I know it. I’ve just got to get back in the ‘zone’, as Judith Lukin-Amundsen (my ASA mentor) calls the stage needed to complete the final manuscript. Part of the problem is that I lost my writing space when I re-organised the house a couple of months ago. I tried to create a new space in my office at university, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m like a restless caged animal whenever I’m there. So, last week, I made a new writing space in my bedroom – a safe, private, quiet space – and this is where I’m going to finish the book. In On Writing, Stephen King says a writing space only needs one thing: ‘a door which you are willing to shut … and the closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.’ Okay, that’s me, here now, with the door shut, and I mean business. My new deadline is the 31st May, the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, and I’m going to meet it. Head on.

Other news? Madeleine Cruise, the talented young artist I met at Bundanon, recently sent me a photo of a painting she’d completed during her residency. It’s a fabulous portrait (can you have a portrait of an animal?) of Elroy, one of the Spanish-looking bulls that lazed about in the paddock near her studio. I’ve made it the background image on my computer to remind me of the fun times we had at Bundanon. Madeleine’s work will be featured at Cafe Guilia in Chippendale during July, and, along with the lovely Karen Therese, we’re planning on meeting up again, wearing our ‘Wombat Safari’ T-shirts. I miss the girls.

Free-writing in my journal has really helped over the past weeks. Whenever I start a new journal, I always make a collage for the front cover – a free-association kind of thing, created from pictures and words that leap out at me from the weekend papers. On the cover of this month’s journal are the words: Simply write. Yep. That’s all I have to do. Simply write. And shut the door. And meet the girls in Chippendale when it’s all finished. Too easy. Until next time…

Wombat tours! Stampeding cows! Kangaroos! Kookaburras! Giant Bogong moths! Disco dancing! Fabulous al fresco dinner parties! Candle-lit violin concertos on the veranda of the writers’ cottage! Where else but Bundanon? The last two weeks have been life-changing, in so many different ways. It rained for nearly two weeks, the Shoalhaven River flooded, the road out of here was under water, and I should have packed a pair of gumboots. I’m leaving early tomorrow morning, and I’ve just said goodbye to my fellow residents – Madeleine Cruise and Karen Therese. I’m feeling a little sad, but I’ll be laughing all the way home to Armidale, thinking about the adventures we had – especially when we had to leap over a gate (twice!) to escape the supposed bull (but really a red-eyed demon cow) which was running towards us while we were out wombat spotting the other night. It’s surprising just how many things can look like a wombat out here – but a stampeding cow isn’t one of them. The Sydney folk who arrived tonight didn’t quite appreciate the wealth of fun you can have whilst wombat spotting at Bundanon, but as Karen just said to me, ‘We made our own little world here,’ and that world was very special. I’m going to miss it.

And did I do much work on the memoir? You bet I did. I’d planned on leaving Bundanon with a complete draft of the reworked manuscript, but it wasn’t possible for me to reach that goal. However, I did write good drafts of ACT 1 and ACT II, and I dealt with the ‘Varuna blah’ and took from it what I needed for ACT V. Phew! Dealing with the blah was full on … but I relentlessly worked my way through it. I’m weary now, in need of a rest. Earlier, my companions and I were chatting about different artist-in-residence opportunities, and those amongst us who’d been overseas spoke of how Australian artists are often recognised as the ones who work, work, work … usually to fulfil the expectations of funding grants and so on. But, in many places, artist-in-residence programs are less focussed on producing than they are about being in the environment, and experiencing what is on offer – people, surroundings, workshops, food – and allowing yourself time to be influenced by what is happening around you. I like that idea. Because I have a family and work / study commitments, any time to devote entirely to my writing is precious, so whenever I’ve been on a residency I’ve always worked super-hard. But I reckon I could learn to ‘chill’ a bit more in places like this – to spend time on the veranda looking at the view, to converse with other artists, to reflect, to walk in the bush and to enjoy the beauty and inspirational qualities of a place like Bundanon.

Bundanon is the perfect haven for artists of any discipline, a remote bush paradise, and I want to go wombat spotting here again. Being here, and meeting artists like Madeleine and Karen, has opened my mind to exciting new ideas for future projects. Thank you fellow residents – (humans, animals and birds), thank you Regina for welcoming me so warmly, thank you Gary for the sexy legs, thank you Onni for the beautiful smile, and thank you Arthur and Yvonne Boyd for your generous gift. Until next time…

 

Hello again. Oh, what a crazy hectic time! I’m off to Bundanon in less than a week, and because of its remote location (nearest shop thirty minutes away and no live-in cook like at Varuna), I have a huge checklist of things to do / find / pack before the weekend. I’m really looking forward to having time to get back to the memoir – I’ve hardly looked at it in recent weeks. I managed to read the Varuna blah, and what an experience that was! I was exclaiming as I read through it, and my life made much more sense to me afterwards. The best thing is that it contains heaps of good material to merge in with the current draft. Emotional truths. Which is just what the memoir needed – so thanks to my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, for that suggestion. Writing from the heart is something I’ll be doing first, not last, when I start on my next project.

I’ve been unsettled since I went to the Gold Coast a fortnight ago to help while my mother was in hospital for her knee operation. I was pretty nervous about the operation – actually, anything to do with hospitals makes me nervous – but, apart from a few worrying days, all is well. My mother is now recovering in a flash rehab centre, and I can breathe again. While I was at the Gold Coast, my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, came down from Brisbane to offer her support – we stayed in my mother’s resort-style unit at Broadbeach, and jokingly called it our ‘Hospital Retreat’. Each year, Edwina and I organise one or two writing retreats at Evans Head; we spend our time lying around reading, editing, writing, talking, resting, swimming in the sea and staying away of household chores. Our ‘hospital retreat’ was nothing like that… every day we were busy driving, visiting, shopping, cooking and cleaning. By the end of the week we’d filled my mother’s freezer with meals (which will make her life a lot easier when she comes home from rehab) and left the unit sparkling clean and ready for her return. Edwina and I couldn’t stop singing Amy Winehouse’s Rehab (what a sad short life she had), imagining all the oldies from the hospital pushing their walkers to and fro in time with the music – No! No! No! I tell you, hospitals do strange things to my head …

In the communal bookshelf at the unit complex we spotted Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, and in its place we left a copy of Edwina’s recently published book ‘Thrill Seekers’. Yes! One of us finally has a real book at long last! Unfortunately I’ll be at Bundanon when ‘Thrill Seekers’ is launched at Avid Reader bookshop in West End on the 9th March, and I’ll also miss my choir’s annual retreat at the coast. Bum! But I need to retreat. Desperately. Retreats are like rehab for writers … and just as rehab isn’t about lying around and doing nothing, retreats and residencies aren’t ‘holidays’ as some people like to think, but restorative sessions where writers have time to get themselves and their projects into shape. I want to leave Bundanon with a new-look manuscript – and that’s going to require time, effort and dedication. I’ll try and write a post while I’m there, and tell you how it’s going. Until then …

PS. My contribution to the Varuna Writer-a-Day “app” was recorded last week. Here’s the link:

http://varunathewritershouse.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/writer-a-day-helena-pastor-reading-from-iron-men-alchemy-at-work/

Hello again. This post is about distractions, which can be dangerous for writers, and which have recently engulfed me in a big way – even though I’d resolved to be more focussed and dedicated; prepared to spend long hours working alone in my room while declining the more immediate gratifications that life threw my way. Some distractions, of course, are valid – my mother is due to go into hospital to have a knee operation soon, and I’m pretty distracted by that because three and a half years ago my father went into hospital to have a knee operation and never came out again. I’m also feeling crap after a too-short haircut, and have had some busy times over the school holidays with kids and birthdays and so on. Maybe there was something in the stars last week because I heard several people say they reached record lows, but that’s the way it is sometimes – you need the lows before you reach the highs.

So last Monday night, feeling sad and sorry for myself (and super-ugly because of my haircut), I moped around the house, trying to work out why I was so miserable. I’d organised a catch-up session with my neighbour and fellow writer, Jim Vicars, but felt too fragile for visitors, so I texted Jim not to come. But he rang and insisted on coming anyway, so I had a bath and laid out a fresh tablecloth and lit candles and found the last of a bottle of whisky in the cupboard and put two delicate gold-rimmed glasses on the table … and by then I was starting to feel a little better. It was Chinese New Year and that was something worth celebrating.

Jim brought me some freshly-baked Anzac biscuits which was a lovely treat, and I poured the whisky and we toasted the Year of the Dragon and chatted about our PhD writing projects and other matters. Over the second glass of whisky, I told Jim about an arty home-decorating idea I’d had, and he got very excited and suggested it could be the basis for my next creative nonfiction project – “It’s got legs!” – and we had a fabulous brain-storming session. By the time Jim went home I was feeling born-again, full of joy to be a writer, and the possibilities for the future suddenly seemed endless because yes, this new idea does have legs and it could be a whole new direction in life and oh, the things I could do … But the next day, when I was telling my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, about my wonderful new idea, she very wisely said, ‘Watch out for distractions, Helena.’

She is so right.

My idea is good, I can feel it in my bones, but The Year of the Dragon is my year of completion – I want to have the memoir ready for HarperCollins by April, and the PhD finished by August, and that won’t happen while I’m dreaming about a new project. So I’ve shoved it on the backburner – where it can simmer away for the next eight months while I focus on what is most important right now. With that in mind, I’ve just printed out the Varuna blah. As you know, I’m a little wary about reading it again – 66,000 words written straight from the heart over six days at Varuna last April and not looked at since. It’s scary to think about what I’m going to find in there … and yes, writing this blog post is a distraction, and then I have to make a cake for a party tonight, but I’ll definitely start reading it tomorrow. I promise! Until next time …

Hello again. Happy New Year! I’ve just come to the end of the first of my three one-week blocks of time, and what a remarkable week it has been. Full of brights and darks, which is often the way when you have time alone, but so productive. I’ve whittled away 26,000 words (another 10-15,000 still need to go), have drawn rough maps and narrative arcs for the new structure, and have a clear path to follow in the months ahead. It’s not so hard. Not really. I just needed to face it. I spent many hours walking, and some fabulous thoughts and ideas came to me on those walks. I even found myself going ‘Wow!’ on several occasions. It’s all coming together. Just as my ASA mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen says: “The book knows.”

For the Summer Solstice, I met with some friends for an evening of pagan festivities. Using four separate packs of tarot cards, we each drew cards for the six months leading up to the Winter Solstice. My cards foretold of a fresh start, creative success, love, family happiness and the creation of a safe haven. What more could I ask for? As a result, I’m feeling very positive about 2012. It’s going to be my year of completion; my year of finishing the memoir and the PhD. Yes!

 Not much more to report – life’s pretty quiet when you spend a week hanging out at home in a room all by yourself. One thing I do want to mention, though, is some of the other people on my ‘support team’. I’ve told you about my dear friend Edwina Shaw, my neighbour James Vicars, my mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, and my HarperCollins editor Anne Reilly … but there are others who, although no longer here in the physical sense, are still very much around. One is my father, Antonius Franciscus Pastor – former Olympic boxer, baker, tennis player, Bridge champion, classical guitarist, harmonica player, yodeller, card sharp, Scrabble fiend, and Jack Palance look-alike. He died three and a half years ago. The other is my friend, Sabine Altmann, who died in a car accident on the 31st October, 2011. Giving the eulogy at Sabine’s funeral was a great honour, and because she lived such an inspirational life – and had bucket-loads of talent, strength and drive – I’m going to share it with you today. Until next time …

*

Sabine Altmann was a woman of strength, passion, creativity and courage. A courageous campaigner for social justice, Sabine confronted the wrongs of the world like a Germanic Warrior Woman. She believed in a future without violence, a future where children were safe. Sometimes, when challenged on her strong sense of justice, or her beliefs, she would say: “That’s not ridiculous! You’re ridiculous!” or, “Nothing is impossible,” and then get on with the job of making things right. Her influence was huge, even on community programs she wasn’t directly involved with. As one of her colleagues puts it: “There are women and children who sleep safely in their beds at night, men who have fought the dark sides of themselves and won, who laugh and love and now live their own good lives, as a direct result of Sabine Altmann.”

Like an intricate work of mosaic, Sabine’s life was made up of lots of little pieces that came together to make something very special. Along with her passion for social justice, she was a homeopathic healer, with a special connection to PNG which began after she walked the Kokoda trail. Known for her incredible energy, Sabine was also a prolific print-maker, renovator, gourmet cook and an outspoken member of numerous committees and groups.

During the last twelve months, which she referred to as the worst year of her life, Sabine still lived hard and fast. While working full-time as a regional Domestic Violence Officer for the NSW Police Force, travelling over much of north-west New South Wales, Sabine renovated two bathrooms in her house, made several trips to PNG, travelled through India, created and exhibited her artworks, spoke at conferences and brought meetings into line in her characteristic way: “We talked about all this last meeting. What are you people doing?”. All this while she suffered suspected tuberculosis, anaemia and underwent major surgery. Yet she continued to bowl through people’s front doors, with her signature greeting: “Hello darling! It’s alright – I’m here now”, and had the rare ability of making everyone in her life feel special.

Sabine was born in 1964 in Griesbach in Bavaria, and grew up with her mother, Ilse Bleek, in Hamburg. Later in life, Sabine came to know her father, Friederich-Wilhelm Kaiser, and his new family, which included her siblings – Jessica, Matthias, and Alexander. When Sabine was four years old, her mother married Werner Altmann in Bucholz, and later, Ilse and Werner had a son, Andre. Because they lived in a little town outside Hamburg, each day Sabine and her mother would catch the train into the city so that Sabine could attend kindergarten. One day, a dark-skinned man sat opposite them, and Sabine looked at him and said, “What beautiful black eyes and hair you have.” The man smiled warmly at her, kindling Sabine’s life-long fascination for other cultures.

Her interest in social justice began early too. In Hamburg during the 1980s, while Sabine was studying natural medicine, she was an active member of the peace group and the women’s movement, and also worked in a youth centre. There she met Stephan Heidenreich who would become her partner. In 1995, Sabine and Stephan spent nine months in Australia and fell in love with Gunnedah. They returned to Germany for a year, where their son Niclas was born, and then immigrated to Australia in 1997 to settle in Gunnedah. Their second son, Philippe, was born in 2002. Shortly after, Sabine and Stephan separated, but they remained good friends and supportive partners in parenting. In 2006, Sabine became an adopted-mother to Sebastian Murray-Wessberg and Atlanta Wessberg, after their own mother died of breast cancer.

Although Sabine was frustrated when she first started managing non-government organisations in Gunnedah, and commented that Australia was twenty years behind Germany in its social policies, it wasn’t long others began to support her forward-thinking ideas. In those early Gunnedah years, Sabine also developed an interest in print-making, and created her artwork in the same frenetic way she did everything else. In workshops, while others would manage perhaps two prints a day, Sabine would do at least ten. Valued by many in the Arts Community, Sabine was a founding member of The Frida Group, which helped women increase their well-being through art.

In Gunnedah, Sabine also became Queen of Garage Sales – collecting cots, doors, windows, dresses, children’s clothing and wine glasses. Her aesthetic sense was finely-tuned, and she would go to any lengths to fulfil her desires. For example, when she bought her house in Armidale, she knew those old glass doors from Gunnedah High, that were now part of her ex-neighbour’s chicken coop, would be perfect, so she went and got them, even though her neighbour had sold the house and moved on. Sabine’s creativity was also expressed through her love of cooking, entertaining and catering. For many Europeans, hospitality is important – the German word for this is gastfreundschaft – and Sabine had it in bucket-loads. It was also the serving size she usually operated with. Famous for her mousse au chocolat, coq au vin and other dishes, she always made catering-sized quantities, no matter how large the crowd.

In 2006, Sabine moved to Armidale because she wanted her children to attend the local Steiner school. After travelling to PNG and Borneo in the last five years, mainly to walk the Kokoda, Black Cat and Death March Trails, Sabine started to work closely with PNG communities on community development, particularly health, education and gender violence. Using her knowledge as a social worker and homeopath, she engaged with women, elders and clan leaders to address social issues in the remote villages of the Huon Gulf district and the Morobe Province.

On one of her Kokoda walks, Sabine met community leader, Matthew Bumai, and after she returned to Australia, they worked together on community development. On her next visit to PNG they became lovers, which meant a lot of travelling, usually with one of the children. Matthew died suddenly in December 2010, and Sabine grieved his loss deeply. However, she was committed to maintaining her links with PNG, and had already bought tickets to return in December and have a house built.

Sabine’s commanding physical presence is no longer here, but she’s going to be stronger and even more powerful in her death. Just as the Australian soldiers had the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels to help them on the Kokoda Trail during World War II, we all now have a big blonde angel to help us when we falter on the path, especially her children – Niclas, Philippe, Atlanta and Sebastian – who she believed in and loved so much. And Stephan and his wife, Jo, who have been so strong and brave over the last week. Sabine is now someone we can call upon when we need to be tough, when we need to be strong, when we need to stand up and say: ‘Enough of this fucking bullshit!”, and when we need to remember: “Nothing is impossible.”

But, oh Sabine … we are going to miss you.