HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

where there’s smoke

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Last week my daughter, worried about bushfires, downloaded the local fire department app on to her phone. Yesterday at breakfast, before we’d finished eating, the colour of the small diamond shapes across the map of our state had changed from white to yellow, and a few to red, reflecting the danger level of the bushfires currently burning.

 

Six months ago, waiting for the kettle to boil to fill my hot water bottle late at night, I read about the fires raging across the state of California. The journalist was such a good writer that I could almost smell smoke. Yet it was sympathy not empathy I felt for Californians faced with days on end of being unable to open their windows, there being no fresh air to let in, only ash and smog.

 

When we lived in Melbourne, nearly ten years ago, bad fires and relentless summer heat were part of what led us to move south. One memorable morning I woke to a red sky. By afternoon the temperature outside was so hot that when I went out to drape a sheet over the stakes supporting our tomato plants, I heard a thud and turned to see that a possum had fallen out of a tree behind me.

 

This morning I woke around dawn to the smell of smoke. Opening the bathroom window, which overlooks Mount Wellington, I saw a sleepy suburb, street lights still on, blanketed in smoke. Forcing myself not to look at my bedside clock, I shut the windows and went back to bed with a heavy heart.

 

At 6am, when my alarm went off for early yoga, I was staring at the ceiling. The second half of yoga class was given over to partner work, which I did with a young woman who, when I enquired whether she was worried about the fires, looked puzzled. ‘I don’t really know about them’, she said. ‘I don’t read the news and I meditate a lot. I only know there are fires because a friend, who lives near one of them, is worried about her animals’. ‘Really?’ I said, impressed by her quiet self-possession, clear blue eyes, and willingness not to know about fires with a combined front of 720 km.

 

Last night, on one of the only local bush tracks not closed to the public, I admitted to my daughter that I would be glad when the next day, today, was over. And, though I’m not religious, I said a little prayer in my head.

 

*     *     *

 

Now that day is over. Though the fires were bad, are still bad, they were not as bad as they could have been. Thankfully it is possible to go outside again, though only for short bursts. The windows of our house remain closed.

 

Perhaps, like the young woman in my yoga class, it would be better to meditate than to ruminate. But it strikes me that I come from a generation which isn’t doing a very good job of looking after this planet. Our capacity for denying our collective responsibility seems limitless. I don’t like to think about how much wildlife must have fallen from trees in the path of recent wildfires, still burning across this state.

 

 

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blue light

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Late at night, when I should be tucked up in bed, I’d read stories on-line about the potential for harm to the retina from the blue light thrown by computer screens – particularly the way it suppresses melatonin and makes it harder to sleep. Snapping my computer shut and going guiltily to bed, I’d forget all about the blue light thrown by screens the next day. Until, two months ago, I read a fellow blogger’s post about her improved eyesight – she’s a journalist – after installing a blue-light cancelling filter on her laptop.

 

Around the age I am now my father asked me to read to him the daily share index from the newspaper, as I sat by his hospital bed after a cataract operation – months later repeated on his other eye. Cocooned by youth, never for a moment did I link my father’s eye problems with my own future eyesight. Till one day, earlier this year, I sat with my chin on a plastic shelf, looking into a new diagnostic retina camera, during a routine eye check-up, and heard an opthamology student mumble something about early signs of glaucoma to the assistant by his side. After a worried return visit, a more senior optician, who I usually see, set my mind at rest about early signs of cataracts or, worse, glaucoma – which my mother and aunt both suffered. The early signs of eye disease, picked up by the opthamology student, were shared by most people over a certain age; and, he reassured, weren’t a predictor of disease.

 

Nevertheless it was these memories that drew me to the journalist’s post about the benefits of blue-light cancelling software, and that led me to respond to the blogger’s urging to download free software. Looking at my laptop screen, after first installing this software – though I should admit that I asked my daughter to download it – made me feel as if I was wearing sunglasses inside the house. The screen had a yellowy hue. However I instantly forgave it because having it installed on my computer (and phone) lifted from my mind a weight I hadn’t known I’d been carrying. Installing blue-light cancelling software – which I adjusted to come on whenever my computer and phone is on, rather than as the sun goes down – had the immediate effect of stopping me worrying about eye disease in old age. I’m not so dim as to think a screen filter will shield me from eye problems, but I did feel that installing it was a form of insurance for my eye health into the future.

 

Three days later something unexpected, a bonus, happened. My eyes, which often felt irritated after working long hours on the screen, stopped feeling red and irritated, even after hours on the screen. Next I started leaving my glasses at home when I went out and worked on my computer. Having worn glasses on and off for years, I never imagined that I might come to need them less. Of course this software isn’t miraculous. I still read small print better with my glasses on. But I don’t need glasses the way I used to; mostly I can take them or leave them.

 

This leads me to wonder why opticians, and the media, aren’t more open about the potential benefits of blue-light cancelling software. Do we really want to raise a generation of squinty-eyed kids in need of eye surgery? Are we waiting for twenty-year controlled experiments to confirm word-of-mouth findings?

 

So here is my Christmas wish to you, dear reader. Install some free blue-light cancelling software, wait a few weeks, and see the difference!

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.

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.

 

 

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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!