HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

talking too much

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I’d often found myself sitting back and thinking that my husband was talking too much, after a glass of wine, when we had friends for dinner. Until last night when we had neighbours round while Paul was taking a course of antibiotics and he abstained from wine at dinner. Not drinking wine had nil effect on Paul’s capacity to command the conversation. The near neighbours, who joined us for dinner, have lived all over the world, in various scientific defence posts. This became an invitation for Paul to display his fluent knowledge of world history; among other things, the fate of Gibraltar and Ireland in the Brexit process, about which I know little, was a recurring theme. Like a conductor before an invisible orchestra, barely pausing, again and again Paul drew the conversation back to himself in the most natural way.

 

The day before our neighbours came for dinner I cooked a meat sauce, a Ragu, to have with pasta, thickened with a jar of canellini beans I plucked from the freezer to stretch the dish. Shortly before our guests arrived I plopped the annoyingly still frozen beans into the Ragu; assuming that, on lifting the lid from the oven, forty minutes later, the beans would have melded nicely into the sauce. At seven thirty, on the dot, our neighbours arrived with a box of dark Lindt chocolates and a bottle of wine. Paul joined us in the kitchen to exchange pleasantries, and our puppy snapped at our visitors as they leaned into his playpen where he was dozing, to pat him hello. Easing the pot from the oven I lifted the lid of the casserole to see a determinedly frozen clump of canellini beans bobbing in the middle of the sauce. With a slotted spoon I lifted the clump of beans from the pot and transferred it to the sink, hoping that our guests, who were chatting to me near the hob, would think it a crust of Parmesan.

 

Our semi-retired neighbours talked glowingly of walking the Camino Way, and of walking the French equivalent the following year: of staying in monasteries and eating at long tables and heading off at dawn for six hours’ walking for a six week stretch; something it struck me I couldn’t contemplate doing with Paul, who plays tennis daily but doesn’t relish long walks. The conversation barreled on, like an express train missing all the small stations. I wandered through the carriages, trying to getting my own word in – a common occurrence that I normally put down to being the only one round the table past nine o’clock not drinking alcohol. There in the main carriage was Paul, who I watched mostly in profile, in full conversational flight. Instead of making my usual silent complaint that he was talking too much, I decided just to watch him talk. Released from reacting to him, and from the need to get my oar in, to make my presence felt, I started to notice a similar dynamic between our neighbours. The husband was talking markedly more than his restrained pleasant wife. He wasn’t actively dominating. He seemed genuinely happy to be talking freely, excited even, telling us about drinking morning tea in Meissen china tea cups, the pride of an East German general, and, in the next breath, of sailing with his family from India to Tasmania, as a six-year-old boy, following India’s Independence.

 

That’s when it struck me, sitting back and letting the conversation swirl around me as I sat hardly speaking, staunchly remaining sitting until Paul cleared the table and brought out cheese, at which point I hopped down from my stool and put on the kettle for tea. I looked over again, just to make sure. Yes, our male neighbour really did bear a likeness to my father. It was partly his looks, only a little older than my father had been when he died; but it was also his manner. With this I stopped feeling disgruntled, my usual reaction to feeling left out of the conversation, and let the dinner run its course.

 

My husband really does talk a lot. He really doesn’t wait for a pause after someone else finishes what they have to say before leaping in with his next point, hands waving as if drawing willing listeners to his side. But talking too much, I tell myself, doesn’t make him a bad person. Akin to his appetite for food, for which he is often ravenous by dinner time, his desire for company after a day of writing has always been strong. Besides, as Paul is keen to point out if I ever bring the matter up, who is to say that he talks too much if I am the only one doing the measuring? Perhaps, he’ll say, what it really means is that I don’t talk enough. For him it’s a mystery that I might struggle to compete with him when it comes to sharing ourselves with friends round the table. Why should it be his fault that his rapid-fire conversation has the unwitting effect of dampening the uptake of mine?

 

So why exactly don’t I talk more over dinner? Why don’t I find it easier to insert myself into the tumble of conversation round the table when friends come round to eat with us? Am I shy? Tired? Polite? Sobre? Preoccupied by cooking and the dynamics of the dinner as a whole?

 

Our neighbours are sure to have noticed that Paul talked way more than I did over dinner last night. Perhaps they put it down to my being quiet; although this is doubtful because, a fortnight ago, when I spent time at their house without Paul, I had plenty to say for myself. Perhaps they’re sufficiently knowing to see a similar dynamic in their own marriage, smiling wryly to themselves. Perhaps they’re old enough to know that the dynamics within a couple, over a long relationship, obey its own laws, following its own script, and are to some extent out of the control of each partner. Perhaps, before friends come for dinner next time, I should practice my lines, just as I prepare food and warm plates in the oven.

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tough love

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Given that Labradors are a large breed, I asked the breeder for a small girl puppy from her latest litter. However this was never going to be an exercise in getting what I wanted, especially as I left it up to the breeder to decide which puppy from a litter of six would be ours. Over and above any other consideration was a desire, indistinguishable from fear, not to repeat our last experience of getting a kelpie-collie from the pound who, five years later, would be put down by our vet after she became aggressive. Over and above size of dog, was getting the right temperament of dog.

 

The vet gave us a list of two breeds she advised us to choose from, once we felt ready for a new dog: King Charles Cavalier Spaniel or Labrador. My daughter sniffed at the idea of a floppy-eared Spaniel, which meant the only real choice was which colour of Lab; a choice which narrowed once we realised how few breeders were due to have a litter in our island state over the coming months.

 

During our first visit to the breeder, a day’s drive north, I had the distinct feeling that my daughter and I were being vetted as prospective owners, not the other way round. Though Lab puppies at four weeks look much the same, I took to the runt of the litter for his size and the that fact he was the breeder’s husband’s favourite (the two girl pups were already spoken for). Really the only decision, after this visit, was whether to go with a boy Lab from this breeder, or wait a few months for a black Lab with a breeder closer to home. We decided not to wait.

 

Scarred by losing our previous dog, I knew my daughter wasn’t confident about taking on a new puppy. However I also knew she would be a natural once the right puppy was in her arms. She wanted an intelligent dog, a quick dog, a dog that could do agility classes. What if we got a Lab who, in her words, ‘sat round like a fat blob all day’? I wanted a dog we could train, who was flexible with people, who my husband who is nervous around dogs would like, and who would be open to family coming and going.

 

Last Sunday, our pick-up day, came round quickly. Digger, the puppy chosen for us but named by us, jumped around under my daughter’s legs on the drive home, climbing up her jeans to bite her chin before writhing into the footwell and snoring himself to sleep. In the kitchen at home he tumbled about with no sense of where he began and ended. Standing behind an open door he froze, with no understanding of why he was stuck behind it.

 

Over the past few weeks my daughter and I read ‘The Happy Puppy Handbook’ cover to cover, and agreed to follow it as a guide. However the first night, when Digger whimpered in his crate, my daughter changed her tune. I was Bad Cop, Mrs Tough Love; the selfish one who put her needs before that of the new puppy. The breeder had mentioned that she’d purposely bred her puppies to wait until 8am to be fed, and I took her at her word. ‘Yes!’ I thought to myself. ‘I can take Digger out for a wee at 7am and then have an hour to do yoga and dress and have a quick walk, all before feeding him at 8am’. My daughter disagreed. What if I damaged Digger by letting him whimper in his playpen in the kitchen, between taking him out for a wee and feeding him? What if frustration made Digger as reactive as our previous dog had been?

 

When we saw the vet on Tuesday, for a social visit, Digger went to sleep on her examining table. The vet made it clear that until Digger’s second vaccinations, in another month, we were to carry him around for fear of his contracting a deadly canine virus. That night, at puppy school, the trainer gave us a printed list of what Digger should encounter before he reached 16 weeks, his most impressionable and undefended developmental period: skate boards, thunder, crowds, Asian people, vacuum cleaners, toddlers and babies, bin trucks, crutches, chain saws, beards, overpasses, etc. How, I wondered, was Digger, all 9 kilos of him, to encounter the human zoo and natural world without walking on his own four legs for another month? But I chose not to fuss. Contradictions like these, from the vet and the dog trainer, are, I decided, part of life; my very good life.

 

Having taken the week off work to settle our new puppy, I decide to take the dog trainer at his word. Next day, while my daughter works out at the gym, I sit outside the sports centre and invite any interested passers-by to pat Digger. People in wheelchairs, people with mental health issues, and school children stop by, patting the soft fur of Digger who sits patiently while he is fussed over. The world, I want Digger to know, is a friendly place full of all kinds of people going about their lives. Between the attentions of passers-by, I sit and wait, just like Digger; no phone, no book, no friend. Just my new puppy and whoever happens to drop by to say hi to him. It’s a long time since I sat idle for any period, and I find it reassuring and confronting.

 

I chose to get a Lab, in the end, because I knew that within a few years he would be mainly my dog. I knew that I would be left with him for company when my daughter was off adventuring and my husband spent time overseas (my son is already away). This awareness is the background to my decision to let Digger whimper in the kitchen in the early morning, while I do yoga in the bathroom above. Because as hard as it is for him to get his pudgy head around, he is not the centre of my universe, any more than I am the centre of my daughter’s universe, or my husband’s. Yes, I am selfish. I want a dog to complement my life, not to be my life; and this is the tough love Digger is now learning as he chews the bars of his wooden playpen in the kitchen.

 

Knowing that Digger and I will be together for years to come is what makes it so poignant to have him jumping up at right angles as he zooms round the kitchen after a squeaky toy and, seconds later, eats my shoelaces. Does he wonder, as I do, how he could have been mewing with his litter last weekend and chasing a goat’s horn across a wooden floor just a few days later?

 

This morning Digger saw the sea for the first time. As I sat with my bum getting wet on the sand he played around me, taking it all in – making it all worth it. The biting, the small-hour wees, the manic energy, the sudden sleeps; all of these were transcended, for me, by the sight of a tubby puppy taking in the beauty of the beach after rain.

 

My daughter puts pencil ticks in the boxes of the dog trainer’s sheet of experiences which Digger is to be exposed to before he leaves puppyhood. I have a different kind of sheet which I keep in my head. Every day – it’s day seven now – I take Digger somewhere that I like visiting; a place where he can meet people in an outdoor setting, a place where, even for ten minutes, I might lose myself in a book as he sits under the table, exhausted by too many pats. Yesterday it was the mountain, today it was the beach, tomorrow it is the farmer’s market; all of them transformed by Digger being with me.

 

 

urgent vs important

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The distinction seems so clear on paper. Urgent things are things that have to be done no matter what: bills paid, broken glass swept up, emails returned, meals to cook, wet washing to hang out. Things which, were we to avoid them for too long, would topple our life from within. Important things are more personal and so valuable than urgent ones: a splintered relationship in need of repair, a baby project that needs cultivating, a adventure that demands planning.

Now that I’m between writing projects – between signing off on one and beginning another – I feel the pull between the urgent and the important more strongly than ever. Each morning, unless I’m careful, I do the bidding of the urgent. I take the vacuum cleaner to be serviced, even though a yellow warning light has flashed on and off for months. I return library books on time, something I normally dispense with. I plan meals a week ahead and chat to the butcher. I invite friends round for dinner and think about Christmas to come – all things which completing a manuscript had protected me from. I read ‘The Happy Puppy Handbook’ from cover to cover at the kitchen table, in readiness for our puppy who is growing by the day with a local breeder. I look at Counselling Courses on-line and seriously consider a normal job.

I first read Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness in 2008, when I was living in Melbourne with my family and contemplating a move to Tasmania. I liked it so much that I fantasised meeting Czikszentmihalyi over coffee, imagining what I might ask him; while accepting that it was probably better, for my own take on his ideas, that we never met. Engrossed in reading, I put pencil lines down the side of paragraphs I wanted to come back to and, when this wasn’t enough, took long-hand notes. Reading Flow helped me to think about what was important, and made the otherwise urgent things in my life less compelling.

Czikszentmihalyi became famous for one big idea: flow, a state of optimum engagement in an activity so absorbing that self-consciousness falls away, only returning after you’ve reached your goal and got feedback for it. It’s what my daughter feels on her surfboard as she paddles hard for a wave. It’s what I feel as I serve up dinner for friends. It’s what the guy who mows our lawn feels when he prunes our lemon trees. It’s what nearly everyone who writes a blog feels when they press the blue ‘publish’ button.

Reading Flow, for the fourth time, has helped me understand the struggle that I feel when I finish a big piece of work. It explains my desire to escape to the normal – by applying for a Counselling course – rather than staying with the discomfort of beginning a new writing project from scratch. Applying for a vocational counselling course speaks to my desire to serve others; to be legitimated and paid by them. It means joining a world of appointments and offices, where the guidelines and outcomes are fairly clear. All of which seems more appealing than starting a new project and continuing my job of looking after a big old house and getting on with my family.

One of the most illuminating findings, in Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow, is that most people experience more flow at work than at home, even though most people would rather spend more time at home than at work. They get more buzz from their work, than from time spent at home; they feel optimally engaged working towards a goal, when their skills are stretched and they’re credited for their efforts.

And yet I know I’m not the only one who gets a special kind of satisfaction from answering a call from within – from stretching myself creatively for no other reason than realising that what feels personally important is more lastingly valuable than whatever seems pressing and urgent.

shame

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On holiday in Adelaide – ironic that I’ve ended up holidaying in my old home town – I went shopping with my daughter in the rain (it never rains in Adelaide, except when we visit). After two hours spent looking in fashion and surfing shops in the city mall, and buying a sweater for my son who wasn’t with us, I asked my daughter for ten minutes in a bookshop.

 

At the top of the escalator, it was a big bookshop, I headed for the business books, hoping my daughter would saunter off, which she did. I felt queasy, in need of water. Why are big bookshops so often airless? A sensible-looking woman, around my age, offered to help me find what I wanted. I smiled and asked if they had a pet section, which she pointed me to. We are currently on the list for a new puppy and, keen for it to be a happy experience, I thought a good book might give me some pointers.

 

Next to the pet section were the psychology books. After browsing various titles I picked up the only book by Brene Brown that I hadn’t read, I Thought It Was Just Me. The title was spelled out in big orange and pink capital letters on a dark cover, and though it didn’t have the word shame in the title, the quotes suggested that it was a book about the experience of shame.

 

How, I wondered, would Brene Brown open a book about a subject that most of us naturally avoid? ‘You can never’, she wrote in the first paragraph, ‘shame anyone into changing their behaviour’. With these nine words the author hooked me. Reading them, standing up in a bookshop, made me realise that I’d spent much of my marriage trying to shame my husband into changing his behaviour. I’d done it unwittingly, unconsciously even. And, as Brene Brown pointed out, it hadn’t worked.

 

Until I read these words, I wouldn’t have admitted to shaming my husband. Yet seeing this simple idea in print allowed me to accept it. It instantly gave me perspective and, yes, relief. It wasn’t just me. It isn’t just me. Lots of us get caught up shaming each other into changing behaviour.

 

What have I been unsuccessfully shaming my husband into changing? Working too hard, drinking and smoking. My own family’s medical history is pock-marked with conditions, mainly heart and cancer, that I have done my best in middle age to avoid. My husband’s family history is stronger than mine, which may be why he refuses to share my anxieties about his health. Whereas I apply the precautionary principle in avoiding risk factors, my husband, a philosopher, is more sanguine. He isn’t the only one. When I told my GP about my concerns for my husband’s health, he smiled. ‘Ah’, my GP said, ‘society hasn’t caught up with medical research in these areas, and contradictions abound’.

 

Last weekend, as I read Brene Brown’s book under the duvet in a freezing converted barn in the Adelaide Hills, I realised that I was guilty of putting my husband on the spot, of driving him into a corner from which he could only pull in his head. Reading this book, high above the plains below, I felt guilty. But I also felt absolved. Because until I read this book I’d unconsciously assumed that it was my job, my responsibility as a wife, to help my husband see the light. Until last weekend I’d felt sure that one day my husband would read an article in The New Scientist, or The Guardian Weekly, on recent medical research into alcohol and smoking and, that very day, would drink less wine and order a vaping kit.

 

But Brene Brown made it clear that complex human beings are not like that. Complex human beings, and I should know because I am one, need to be stroked not shamed. They need to be stroked and made to feel good about themselves. ‘Being nice’, is the way my husband puts it. Making someone feel bad about their behaviour backfires, Brown explains, because the experience of shame damages their capacity for change.

 

On returning from holiday I realised how simple my brief with my husband is. It’s to not be critical of him. Every day I wake up and remind myself of this. My job is not to make him see the error of his ways, any more than his job is to point out mine. His health isn’t my responsibility, just as my career isn’t his.

 

Perhaps this is what holidays are for. All that packing and unpacking, marshaling through airport security, and cliff-top walks, were for the purpose of seeing life from a different point of view. What felt intractable a week ago, my husband’s seeming immaturity and my own excess of it, now feels looser. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back and laugh.

 

 

muttonbird

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Drinking tea and writing in a local cafe, the barrista bends across the counter and asks if I’ve tried muttonbird before. ‘No’, I reply, surprised. ‘Would you like to?’ ‘Of course, I’d love to’. Kevin disappears behind a screen with some dark meat in a small plastic bag which I can hear him taking out and putting on a plate for the microwave.

A minute later Kevin reappears with steaming dark meat on a plate. ‘Try some’, he says, and I take a piece with my fingers and put it in my mouth. He disappears, offering the meat around the cafe. I chew the muttonbird meat in my mouth. It tastes of sardines and lamb and game meat all mixed together. It feels stringy yet oily and almost melting. It tastes like nothing I’ve had in my mouth before, a kind of meat-fish.

Kevin returns and I stumble my response. ‘It must be full of good things’, I say. ‘Yeh,’ he says. ‘My Gran, she took a teaspoon of muttonbird oil on a spoon every day of her life and she was never a day ill. Even today’, he says, miming his Gran, ‘she takes a drop and rubs it on her face and another on her hands’. ‘Doesn’t it smell?’ I ask. ‘Nup, not really. But my Mum, when I suggested she get some for her face’, and he laughs, ‘she gave me one’.

I put away my pen with the taste of muttonbird – a protected species on the islands north of Tasmania – in my mouth. ‘Truffles next’, I say to Kevin on my way out. ‘Sure’, he returns. ‘But you’re bringing them’. An hour later the taste of muttonbird – oily, gamey, all wrong yet delicious – is still in my mouth.

running errands

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When I’m working to a deadline at home there’s a moment, today it was just after breakfast, when everything else seems more important than my own work. The jobs I happily put off when I’m working in town start pressuring me to do their bidding each time I walk by. The school blazer that has hung in the broom cupboard for four months rebukes me as I open the door for the dustpan and broom. The iron which burst its fuse when I failed to fill it with water looks at me wanly, next to a pile of unironed clothes. Reminders for overdue books from the library blink at me when I check email. A bag of plastic and another of glass bottles, ready to take to the health food store for recycling, bulges. An empty jar of suncream needs replacing. Two of my jackets need to visit my favourite seamstress at the dry cleaner. The worms need a new blanket now the nights are getting colder. The back lawn, made scraggy by soccer games with our dog, could do with fertilising before this weeks’ forecast rain. A cardboard box of stuff in the basement is ready for the charity shop. A stack of magazines by the front door is waiting for a lift to the local doctor’s waiting rooms. A plane ticket for my son needs to be paid for at the local flight centre.

 

With my computer open I jot down a list of errands in my notebook, to stop them creeping into my mind like uninvited guests. For a while this keeps them at bay. However once the number of errands reaches ten I flip my computer shut, clip the leash to the dog, fetch the school blazer, jackets, library books, magazines, plastics and bottles, and jump in the car, thinking that I’ll make it a game to get my errands done in as short a time as possible.

 

The uniform shop is closed but the woman at the school’s reception kindly accepts the blazer, my last link with school life. The appliance repair man frowns at my Phillips iron which he says hasn’t been manufactured to be repaired, and agrees to text me later that day. The library is full of further temptations that I mostly withstand. The health-food shop has already accepted a large bin bag of scrunchable plastics that morning. The skin clinic is out of my suncream but agrees to call me once it arrives. The doctor’s receptionist is pleased to receive a stack of New Scientist magazines. The seamstress at the dry cleaner takes my jackets with a smile. The travel agent at the flight centre books a flexible flight for my son. And the dog is pleased when I’m done and can take her for a walk on a local track.

 

I could have gone on overfilling the charity box in the basement and ignoring the school blazer in the broom cupboard. I could have tossed the plastics and bottles and New Scientist magazines in the rubbish and recycling bin, as until this year I did. If I were properly single-minded in achieving my work deadline of early June I would not have allowed myself a two-hour distraction on a Thursday morning. I would be the kind of person who integrated their errands into their already streamlined day.

 

For hundreds of years the world ‘priority’ was used in the singular. Only in the last twenty years has its meaning included the plural. These days we’re able to have more than one priority, we have priorities. We’re so advanced that we’re able to care about more than one thing at once. We’re able to consign whatever isn’t a priority to the waiting room in our heads in order to concentrate on what really matters. Except for laggards like me who, unable to compartmentalise, feel a weight lift from my shoulders once my errands are run and I can sit at my desk with the focus that comes from being free from distraction.

Ageing well

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Around this time in the afternoon last Saturday, I called my favourite and only living aunt. When she didn’t pick up I called her back a few minutes later and spoke to a nurse who kindly took the phone to where my aunt was sitting in the sun in a corner lounge. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked, excited. When I explained that I was walking our dog on a bush track in Hobart, the excitement left her voice and we went on to familiar topics. My daughter was sailing in a Regatta near Launceston in the rain, my son’s ship was nearing the Shetland Islands; I was completing a manuscript and my husband was working too hard.

 

‘But’, my aunt said, ‘my second husband will be here any minute to take me home’. ‘Yes of course’, I said, knowing she’d been married only once. ‘Do you need to get ready?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘I’ll just wait here on the beach. He knows where to find me’. Getting wafty was nothing new. My aunt had been getting wafty for a few months now. What however I was never prepared for was her lucidity, which came and went at the same rate as her waftiness. ‘Mind you don’t let that daughter of yours get the better of you’, she’d say. ‘In no time at all she won’t need you’.

 

Last Saturday my aunt was extra lucid and super wafty. ‘What about those bandages on your legs?’ I asked, bringing her back to earth, knowing from chatting to the nurse that the sores on her legs were infected. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about them’, my aunt said airily, and turned the conversation back to my daughter. At that moment I wanted to call her back, to reach out physically through the phone to stop her slipping away. To keep her feet on the beach, on the reclining chair on the second floor of her nursing home. I knew I was being selfish. I knew perfectly well that if I was 91, sitting aimlessly through the afternoon with my legs bandaged from consecutive falls, nearly blind and unable to work the television in my room, eating food I didn’t like at boarding school hours, I too might feel that it was time to move on.

 

Every time I’ve ever called my aunt she’s sounded pleased to hear my voice. Thanking me for calling she’ll insist, in the next breath, that she couldn’t possibly be of use to anyone. My response, like a refrain, will be to point out how important she is to me and that she can never be replaced. However recently even hearing this from me isn’t enough to outweigh the soul-sapping losses that have accompanied her ageing.

 

On Wednesday afternoon, finishing up at my desk, I call my aunt. A man picks up. Confused, I apologise, thinking I’ve called the wrong number. After a couple of seconds I realise that it’s my cousin, my aunt’s only child. He quickly explains that Nina has lost consciousness and that the doctor reckons she hasn’t long to live. As we chat I imagine Nina in the next room – my mother died of pneumonia – and pray silently that her end, much as I can’t bear losing her, won’t be prolonged. Knowing my aunt’s wishes, and the presence of her family doctor next door, reassures me that it won’t be. I end the call, get up from the desk, leave my husband’s office and join the street, which seems a different street to the one I stepped out of a few hours earlier.

 

Refusing to decorate her room in the nursing home, my aunt always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that it wasn’t worth decorating because she wasn’t there to stay. She was going home. Every time I called she’d mention that she was waiting to be taken home; a taxi or her son might be arriving any time. It was as if in her mind her whole existence had become a clerical error. She had, as we say, lost her dignity. But more fundamentally she had lost her reason to live, taken off her like a visa at border control, leaving all those who her loved her looking on helpless and hoping like hell that such a fate doesn’t await us.

 

Like King Lear railing in the storm, my aunt refused to accept ageing – reality – as it is. Yet even as she railed, even as she agreed with me that she felt imprisoned on the second floor of her nursing home, she was capable, in her next breath, of radiating an emotional intelligence that I’d be proud to possess.

 

Thankfully, five hours after I spoke to my cousin on Wednesday afternoon, my aunt died.

 

There have been a finite number of people in my life who get me in the deep way that Nina did. She was able to see the good in me even when I couldn’t. She recognised when I’d been brave, and worried about my future. She was there for my kids too; her support of and interest in them was boundless. My husband too, though not as boundlessly.

 

Stuck in the limbo of not knowing what to do with myself in the hour after receiving news of my aunt’s death, I packed my bags and drove across the state to spend the night with my daughter who, in the middle of a long conversation largely unrelated to her great aunt, told me that she’d never been to a wedding.

 

Two days away from home work for me, even though they change nothing. Travel is perspective and there is much kindness to be found in others – especially when I don’t realise how much I’m in need of it.

 

Did my aunt, I wonder, as I walk around a neighbouring city, age well? No, not really. Was she good at living? Yes, absolutely, which is surely more important. Is she still with me? Yes and no. Certainly her spirit will live on, inspiring me to find time to draw and play piano and garden, and to embrace the transience of life.

 

Every writer needs an aunt who puts one of their books on the coffee table before a visit.

Thank you Nina.

 

 

interview

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‘Stop thinking about it’, says my daughter, on a bush walk before dinner. ‘Just do it or don’t do it.’ ‘She’s right’, I say to myself, choosing not to respond. But then since when did the other person being right help anyone make a big decision?

When Tolstoy was plagued by indecision, about whether or not to marry, he wrote two lists in a notebook, one for marriage and one against it. By the time he’d done each of his lists was about even. Here are my two lists, very nearly equal, one for doing a drawing course, the other for not doing it.

For:

  1. To develop a skill that is native but rusty, and that might push me in a good way.
  2. To have a sabbatical after twenty years of writing part-time and being with family much of the time. To give me a perspective on my life by focusing on something outside myself – drawing in a studio – which would be a break from pushing myself as a writer and being there for my family.
  3. To be released from a particular version of myself, the existential equivalent of travel, without leaving a city I like living in.
  4. To have the instruction of two art teachers who, from first impressions, I like.
  5. To work around others rather than working alone as a writer.
  6. To make the most of my kids leaving home by doing something constructive, that I otherwise may not have done.

Against:

  1. Rather than seeing my kid’s absence as a chance to write full-time, I distract myself by doing a half-time course which takes me in another direction.
  2. Not earning money, confirming my financial dependence on others.
  3. Turning a private passion into a kind of work – fifteen hours a week in a studio – puncturing my fantasy of drawing as an escape from daily life, challenging me in new and not always welcome ways.
  4. Being an older student among predominantly younger students.
  5. Making myself busy as a defence against loneliness.
  6. Practical problems. Being locked into a timetable of school terms which conflict with my daughter’s university semesters. Putting our reactive dog in daycare when I’m at school – expense etc. Being at home less to support my hard-working husband. Lots of standing at an easel, which may require more yoga?
  7. A drawing course seems indulgent, increasing my existential angst for the future. Fear of failure.

+     +     +

 Now that I’ve been interviewed for the drawing course – 45 minutes with a lecturer looking at my portfolio and discussing the pros and cons of my suitability for the course – the decision has passed out of my hands. I can accept or not accept a place, but I can’t offer it. Probably should have been less honest.

Fingers crossed!

 

life drawing death cleaning

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Late last Wednesday, when I should have been in bed, I watched a youtube clip for the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and found myself admiring the author’s simple audacity. Intrigued, on Sunday afternoon I dropped into our local bookshop to pick up a copy. It was shortly before closing and one of the booksellers, who happens to be a friend, serves me. ‘Death cleaning’, he repeats after me, a query in his voice. ‘Oh, I know. It’s on our landfill table’. And he escorts me to the front of the shop where a selection of dubious titles are piled high on a folding table. Feeling admonished, I flick through The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning standing up, return it to the table, and wave goodbye to the bookseller.

 

Even after a quick flick through, I grasp the book’s message. It isn’t morbid, as the title suggests. Nor is it complicated. Margareta Magnusson, an artist who wisely chooses not to reveal her age, is upbeat on the page. The message I glean from her book is straightforward. If I can conquer my resistance to clearing out my study cupboard, I’ll make room for my life to come. By losing some of my past, I’ll clear space for the future. More down to earth, dare I say more European, than Marie Kondo, Magnusson is alive to the meaning of things beyond our death. She isn’t about blitzing mess; her message is more subtle, more unsettling, than that. If you can’t deal with your things while you’re still alive, she writes drily, why should you kids or partner be any better at dealing with them when you’re gone?

 

Magnusson’s message is confronting, but it isn’t harsh. It speaks to my life in the here and now, rather than any life to come. If I’m to make enough mental space to live fully in the present, in the weeks and months ahead, she’s telling me that I need to give up enough of my past to make my way into it, especially as I age and the past – regrets, anyone? – starts dragging in my wake. To fully inhabit the present, to avoid living in a museum of lost dreams and what ifs, she’s telling me that I have to let go of quite a lot of stuff. Magnussen isn’t anti-sentimental. Stern, perhaps; but she isn’t a Swedish quiet reaper. While she’s all for keeping important objects that tie us into ourselves, she’s scathing when it comes to boxing things up and shutting cupboard doors and hoping for the best.

 

What I glean from Death Cleaning gives me hope. If I can conquer my dread of my study cupboard, if I can throw the doors wide and chuck out whatever is holding me back, even without my knowing it, the next time I open my study cupboard I won’t have to suppress an inner sigh, a moment of self-disgust, comfortable in the knowledge that my creative future doesn’t depend on twenty years’ worth of notes, admin, notebooks, school reports, and magazine stories stacked up inside. In short I won’t have to avoid my study, for fear of my study cupboard.

 

The house is quiet and mostly dark. In my study the lights are on. The window is open to encourage a breeze. The dog is asleep in her chair next door. My husband is working late in his wooden temple at the bottom of the garden. Tipping over my fifteen-minute timer, I watch as particles of sand drop through the tiny-waisted funnel. Kneeling on a cushion, I turn away from the timer, face my study cupboard, and start pulling out files.

 

Fifteen minutes later, tipping over the timer again, I open the broom cupboard next to my file cupboard. Even as I pull the knobs I sense this isn’t death cleaning. Reaching into the broom cupboard I take out two large sketchbooks leaning vertically against the side of the cupboard, next to the vacuum and broom. I sit on a chair and turn the pages, drawn back to the woman I was when I drew on them. Far more powerfully than the reams of handwritten and typed pages, these drawings are more alive to me than the banks of notebooks strewn on the floor by my feet. Bird song across the years, they express a left behind part of myself which, occasionally revisited on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve lost touch with.

 

Three trips to our rubbish bins and two hours later, I head up to bed. Sitting on the street, awaiting the morning’s collection, both bins are full to the brim with notebooks and typescripts and domestic appliance manuals and utility bills and school textbooks.

 

The bin truck comes as I lie in bed, sunlight flooding through chinks in the curtains. Hearing the bins lifted and emptied, I feel lighter. Empty too, yet lighter. Tripping downstairs in my pyjamas, to let the dog out and open the blinds, even before scrolling through the morning news on my phone, I enter my study for the sheer pleasure of opening the cupboard doors and not being sucked entropically into twenty years’ worth of notebooks, admin, guilt and notes, stacked up and demanding attention. In the cupboard next door, loyal and patient, sit two dog-eared sketchbooks.

 

gus

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Just a rash, too red for a bruise but nothing to worry about. Preferring not to linger in front of the mirror a month or two went by, the end of our summer, before I studied the rash under my arm. If anything it had grown larger. But it wasn’t itchy, was only a small area, so I let it go.

 

My daughter called it Gus. ‘It’s a rash, not ringworm’, I replied, not wanting to be made fun of. My GP agreed with my daughter, grabbing his notepad and doing a quick diagram to show the likely progression of my rash, reddening at the rim until fading away with the help of a twice-daily anti-fungal cream.

 

Annoyed yet relieved to have an answer, I applied the cream morning and night. The spot grew larger. Instead of reddening at the rim and fading into nothing, as the GP assured me, it grew. Nothing so dramatic that I went on-line to confirm my worst hunches. Instead I picked up The Reader’s Digest 1801 Home Remedies and read the chapter on fungal skin conditions, appalled and chastened by the common-sense treatments.

 

Autumn set in and my need to wear tshirts receded. Concealed by long-sleeve tops, my mind was on more important things – life mainly. 1801 Home Remedies sat on the bookshelf for a last resort that I felt confident I wouldn’t need.

 

Three months passed before my kindly GP took a skin scraping, still convinced it was ringworm but wanting to cover all bases and to rule out ‘something more exotic’. Not hearing back from the doctor, I assumed exoticism had been discounted and bought a once-daily antifungal cream which I applied twice daily. If anything, the red rim of the rash got larger. When the rash reaches that freckle, I said to myself, staring in the bathroom mirror, I’ll panic. But until then I won’t fuss.

 

The rash doesn’t reach the freckle under my arm, but still I panic. Wasn’t the yoga teacher staring at the rash under my arm? What if my rash didn’t disappear by summer? What if my daughter was right and it spread to other parts of my body?

 

My daughter was out sailing and my husband overseas the day I decided to follow the recommendations in The Readers Digest 1801 Home Remedies for fungal skin conditions. Clearly people had been battling fungal skin conditions for centuries before $12.99 tubes of antifungal cream from the chemist had become available. Apple cider vinegar and tea tree oil were, it seemed, the top natural treatments for fungal skin conditions. Snapping the book shut, I set about curing my rash. Twice a day; three times a day; four times a day, out came the cotton swabs, the vinegar and tea tree oil. My daughter complained about the smell in the bathroom. My clothes stank of tea tree. But I didn’t care. All I cared about was getting rid of my ringworm as quickly as possible. Smelling of tea tree seemed a small price to pay.

 

Gus neither cared nor, for that matter, minded tea tree oil. My daughter was out sailing and my husband about to return from overseas when I resorted to turmeric treatment for my ringworm. The home remedies book admitted this treatment was messy, however Indian people had used it successfully for centuries. Now it was my turn. Mixing the yellow powder with water I painted the rash with paste and waited twenty minutes before washing it off.

 

Convinced that people had started to notice the rash under my arm but were too polite to say, I started applying the yellow paste three times a day. For years I hadn’t had time to meditate, however for a fortnight I made time to treat my rash which promptly went bright orange and stained every piece of clothing I wore, despite washing the paste off after each application. One night, keen for a miracle, I left it on overnight, permanently staining the bed sheets.

 

The moment I took off my shirt and raised my arm, the naturopath asked if she could take a photo. Agreeing to follow her recommendations for a month, I said that I’d go back to my GP if there was there no improvement. I stopped the turmeric and tea tree oil and switched to a milder coconut oil based cream with patchouli – that smelled so nice a woman in a clothing store complimented me on my perfume. I took vitamin C, garlic and zinc, and exposed my arm to direct sunlight for 5 minutes every day.

 

Until another spot appeared under my other arm and hypochondria engulfed me. The next afternoon I visited my GP, who frowned and wrote to a skin specialist. I was given an appointment the same week. The waiting room was sterile, the wait long, and the biopsy mercifully quick. ‘It’s not ringworm’, the specialist said. ‘And you’re lucky it’s not cancer’, she added, waving at the wall chart plotting melanomas on various parts of the human body.

 

A week later, on holiday interstate, I received a voice message from the skin specialist. As she’d suggested, it wasn’t ringworm. It was the same skin condition that I’d had living in Melbourne ten years ago, when I’d been given a cortisone cream in the middle of a life so busy with primary-school-aged-children that I’d hardly given the rash on my arm a second thought. The specialist asked me to have a blood sugar test for Diabetes, to fill the cortisone cream script she’d put in the post, and to report back to her in a month’s time. If, she added, the cream didn’t help, cortisone injections might be the answer.

 

Relaying my news to my naturopath, she sent me round the corner to a private pathology lab to have a battery of blood tests. That night, having vowed to the naturopath that I wouldn’t check out my skin condition on-line, I spend a hour reading about Granuloma annulare. Flicking off my computer and heading to bed, I decide not to identify with the Granuloma annulare sufferers on the Internet. Instead I would follow my naturopath’s recommendations until the rash under my arm – already less angry – resolves itself. I lie in the sun between 11am and 3pm. I take garlic, take zinc drops and vitamin C. I don’t feed the neurotic thoughts that made me self-conscious at yoga. I pay daily thanks to my otherwise healthy body as we together head into the new year. And I choose not to return the repeated calls from the receptionist from The Medical Specialist Clinic.