Precious time

 

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What’s the value of a day? Every day that we go to work, we’re paid whatever our employer thinks our time is worth. If you’re self-employed perhaps you can name your price, within reason. But what is a day really worth to you? If you could have more money or more time, which would you choose? I guess the answer to that depends on the stage of life that you’re at. I choose time. Oh boy, do I choose time.

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Recently I bumped into a former colleague I’d worked with years ago. He looked fit and relaxed and happy. He’s retired now, so I asked him how he spends his time. He said he does volunteer work, spends time with friends, goes to lectures run by the University of the Third Age and is learning the harmonica. (The cat, he said, leaves the room when he plays.) I once discussed with a psychologist what the important ingredients are for a good life and we came up with three: connection, purpose/meaning and discovery. My former colleague, I would say, has hit the jackpot. And he’s got time.

When my former colleague asked me what I’d been doing, I gave him a potted history of my working life since he last saw me. “And what do you do to relax?” he asked. I was stumped. I’d had a super-busy month and my head was a whirlpool. For the longest moment I just couldn’t remember.

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That conversation has stayed with me because it so clearly showed how we can let our downtime be filled with work-like behaviour. We can find ourselves being efficient/effective/productive (insert any other workplace buzzwords here) when we’re not being paid, when we’re not even at work. It showed me that I’d forgotten to switch off. Even when I’d been doing relaxing things like yoga and gardening and sewing I’d been doing them in a hurry, as if they had a deadline. I’d been doing them as if they were work projects, as if my fun, relaxing activities, done in my own time, were going to be judged.

Obviously, that has to change. Today was my first non-work day in my new incarnation as a part-time worker, and oh.my.goodness it was the best, shiniest, most delicious, beautiful day I’ve had for a long time. It was a much-anticipated day. It shone in the distance like a sparkling jewel. I was talking about it with a friend a couple of weeks ago and he said, “Don’t squander it!” I thought a lot about what squandering it might look like. To some people, a free day means filling every moment, being busy, using up every drop of time. To me it means the absolute opposite. The best days, I think, are the slow ones, the days where you have things you’d like to do but it really doesn’t matter if you do something else instead.

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So what did I do on this jewel of a day? I had tea and toast in bed. Luxury! I pruned some branches from the silver birches while listening to crimson rosellas ting like bells in the gum tree next door. I pulled up weeds while eastern rosellas made their soapy, squeaky sounds in the birches above me. I noticed an unknown triffid about to flower in the front garden and I said hello to a neighbour.

I went to a friend’s house for a cuppa and a good chat and made a huge fuss of her lovely dog. I listened to a podcast about a guy and his brother preparing to drive from London to Ulaanbataar in a Nissan Micra. That’s a story I’m going to enjoy following! I took yet more photos of the bunch of poppies I’ve been obsessed by this week. I found an important piece of paper that I lost a few weeks ago. And I made a huge bucket of tea and sat in the back garden watching the late afternoon light dancing on the spring leaves. If someone had paid me a million dollars, it still wouldn’t have matched the value of this day. I wish you days like this.

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Moderately wild

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“Let’s hike the Pacific Crest Trail,” said my friend S, standing on the doorstep in a big floppy black hat and carrying a small bottle of water. “Hmm,” I said, “The Pacific Crest is hard. Let’s start with the Appalachian. More people do that and it’s supposed to be easier.” Like I knew what I was talking about. I’ve just read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, so that makes me an armchair expert on extreme hiking. I didn’t read it when it first came out because I hate hype. But this book is hype-worthy. The writing is beautiful. I could not put it down, and now that I’ve finished it I’m going right back to the beginning to read it all over again. S hasn’t read it yet. She can’t borrow mine (see re-reading) so she’s ordered it at the library. But she knows all about it from the Gilmore Girls, so she’s an expert too.

We weren’t kitted out for an extreme hike, but we did go on an expedition to look for the Murrumbidgee River, which has turned out to be an obsession of mine since I moved into this house. We could have driven to the Murrumbidgee. There’s a beautiful swimming spot 10 minutes away by car. But someone told me that I could walk to the river from my house, so I’m determined to do that. The first time I tried it, I couldn’t even find my way out of the golf course. The second time I tried it, the temperature was minus 4 and there was thick fog ahead, so I gave up. Finally, this was the day. There was a hot wind blowing. It was the first warm day we’ve had since May, and we couldn’t quite believe that it would stay warm, so we headed off with an extra layer wrapped around our waists just in case.

We tried to cut corners before we even started. Rather than walk 200m to the left, we considered rolling under the fence to get on to the track. Then, when we got on to the track we remembered that we hate hills. I was soon out of breath, which was annoying because I’ve been walking for charity for the past three weeks and doing 10,000 steps a day. But on this day I just had no oomph. It was all gone. But we kept going.

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We strolled along, watched by surprised kangaroos who were smart enough to rest in the shade until the day cooled down a bit. The track wound through a wide, hot valley. “If we were in a cowboy move,” said S pointing to her black hat and then my white hat, “I’d be the bad guy and you’d be the good guy.” And suddenly it felt as if we really were in a cowboy movie, except we’d forgotten our horses and we were doing exactly what all sheriffs and do-gooder cowboys know you should never do: we were walking right out in the open, in the middle of the valley, instead of up on the ridge or in the tree line, where we could see the baddies but they couldn’t see us.

I spent a lot of my childhood watching cowboy films. There was often a cowboy film on telly on Saturday afternoons and I don’t remember the names of half of them, but I did love Rio Bravo, and especially this song, which was playing in my head for most of the walk after that:

 

We wouldn’t have been surprised at all if John Wayne and Dean Martin had shown up.

We came to a fork in the road and one track was clearly more well worn, so I said, “Let’s take the path most travelled.” Ten minutes later, we came to a dead end and had to turn back and take the road less travelled, which is a lesson in life I’ve been taught before but pretty much always have to relearn. Soon afterwards we saw a little sign and realised that we were on an actual recognised trail, the Centenary Trail, which made us feel even more Wild-like.

Up ahead, a stand of trees appeared. “That’s it!” I said, “That must be where the Murrumbidgee is.” We picked up the pace, looking forward to cooling our toes in the waters of the mighty river. Instead, we found this:

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Which led to this, which was cool and green and lovely but SO not the Murrumbidgee:

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It was at this point that I thought, “I really should have looked at a map.” I remembered the man who’d told me I could walk to the river. We’d met on the track and said good morning. He’d waved his arm behind him in a vague gesture and said, “If you walk that way you can get to the Murrumbidgee.” I guess my interpretation of “that way” was a little off. Also, you really shouldn’t believe everything that everyone tells you.

When we came out of the oasis a weird thing happened. Up on the hill a man and woman in identical shirts were watching us through binoculars. “We’re being watched,” I hissed to S out of the corner of my mouth. “Why are they wearing matching shirts?!” she said, at which point they swung their binoculars into the sky and pretended to be birdwatching, then they turned around without a wave and walked off. “Do you think they went to the same outdoor clothing shop, he went to the men’s section and she went to the women’s section and then they met in the middle ten minutes later with matching shirts?” I asked. “It’s kind of cute.” S disagreed. “No,” she said disapprovingly. “She bought them matching shirts on purpose.”

As it turned out, the matching spies did us a favour, as we had no idea which way to go at that point and they appeared to be standing on a track that we hadn’t known existed. We sat down for a rest, to let them get ahead of us, then wished we hadn’t because we soon became lost again. The sun began to slide down the sky and the wind cooled considerably. Clouds began to build. I was glad I’d brought extra clothing. We’d finished our water, though, and our legs were aching. “I don’t want to walk up that hill,” said S, and neither did I. “If we can’t find a path around the hill,” I said, “we’ll go down there, under that fence and across country until we get back to the track we came in on.” As soon as we’d made plan B, a clearer path appeared ahead, albeit with some disturbingly large marsupials on it.

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On and on we walked, along a flattish, green section on the side of the hill. We knew we were heading in a homeward direction but we didn’t know how far it was. We’d passed a small dam and were discussing how to light a fire without matches and how to boil water without anything to boil it in. “We can use one of my Birkenstocks,” said S, which just goes to show that necessity really is the mother of invention. I think the Birkenstock company could really take that idea and run with it: the shoe that doubles as a billycan.

Then the cavalry came over the hill. Or, rather, a young couple walking a pair of schnauzers, which meant that we were almost back in civilisation. “It’s just over that hill,” they said. And it was. Over the hill we went, and suddenly we were back in suburbia, with houses and gardens and the road home. “We made it!” I said. “We kept going!” said S. We were elated and exhausted and so damn pleased with ourselves. But we’re still searching for the Murrumbidgee.

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Road trip, part 2

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A hint of gentrification had crept in since my last visit to Bermagui. An artisanal bakery had appeared. At the wharf I found a shop selling trousers that cost nearly $300. Two blocks back from the harbour an old country cottage had been knocked down and replaced by an architectural box, beautiful and shiny but out of place. For now, anyway. “You’re way ahead of the game, mate,” I thought as I looked at that house, “but you’re right: change is coming.” I hope they keep some of the old Bermie charm when that change comes.

I quite enjoy motel kitsch: chipped laminate furniture, a nylon pastel bedspread and bath towels fanned like serviettes in a Thai restaurant. The motel I stayed in was a cut above the rest, though, because they’d bothered to cover up the breeze block walls and paint the room. Bare breeze block depresses the hell out of me, so I was glad. I hunkered down for the night, drank multiple cups of tea and wrote a lot of things down. When life throws a wobbly, I find writing things down immensely soothing. It helps to get things out of your head. Work Stress and Anxiety tried to push their way in, but I beat them back with pen and paper.

When I woke up the next morning Bermie was blue and shining all over again. I had no idea what the time was: my phone was dead, there was no clock in the room and the info ribbon on every TV channel said it was 4.56. Clearly that was wrong, because the sun was up and people were out walking dogs and saying hello to each other. The dogs were barking at pelicans in the harbour, who took no notice and hung around patiently in case anyone was having fish for brekky. Little Black Car and I headed off to Cobargo.

Cobargo’s been my escape fantasy destination for a while. Do you have those? When life gets too busy I start planning an alternative one in Cobargo. Most recently I’ve been saying I’ll buy a block of land, build a straw bale house, keep goats and get a Labrador. This is pure fantasy on so many levels. For a start, I have no building skills. And my sister tells me that male goats smell awful because they wee on their own beards. (True goat fact. Got to admire the level of skill involved in that.)

The houses in Cobargo and nearby Quaama are so quaint. I almost bought one a couple of years ago. It was old and characterful. The kitchen benchtop was made of a huge slab of polished tree trunk, so tactile that you just had to run your hand over it. The back garden sloped down to a duck pond. “How will I ever keep the Labrador out of the duckpond?” I thought. (I didn’t have a Labrador; I was just playing out the fantasy in my head.) The house was cheap and I wanted it, but I knew in my heart that it was too far from the points of my compass—Canberra, Sydney and the Illawarra/Shoalhaven. I knew I couldn’t really live there. I’d miss my people too much.

On this sunny Saturday in September, though, I indulged in the fantasy again, just for a while. Outside the bookshop in Cobargo the owner was drinking tea in the sun and greeted me with a cheery hello. I had a good breakfast in the Chalk and Cheese, where everyone knew everyone else and I overheard someone excitedly talking about a white whale that had been spotted off the coast. As I walked around to the School of the Arts for the woodblock printing workshop I heard an “ooof, ooof” sound and found an old man doing press-ups against his front gate. “Ooh, you caught me out,” he said, laughing. “I’m just building up my strength for the walk up the hill.”

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This is probably the most famous Japanese woodblock print: The Great Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai. Now that I know how it’s done, I’m even more in awe of it. He didn’t actually do the carving or printing himself, I learned at the workshop. He had minions to trace the design, carve the wood, prepare the paper, mix the pigment, position each block precisely and make multiple copies. It probably took them years of training to do that. An apprentice probably had to shuffle on their knees to the doorstep of the master every day for eight years before he let them prepare a piece of paper. We had two days to do all of it. Dreamin’.

In the old wooden hall with a minty green ceiling, we learned to lower our expectations. I was originally planning to draw this:

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The teacher looked aghast. So I simplified it to a child-like drawing of three flowers and a stick. Another student drew a beautiful, intricate wren. Someone else drew a waratah. We oohed and aahed over their work then watched them gnash their teeth as they tried to carve the detail in wood.

Wood carving tools are not my friends. If you are left-handed, it helps to use left-handed tools. Tip number one. When the teacher tells you to create a gently sloping valley, do not gouge out the Grand Canyon. Tip number two. If you are trying to print a small dot, it helps not to accidentally cut that bit out of the design entirely. Let’s just say we’re lucky I left my phone charger in the washing basket because there’s no photographic evidence of what I created. At the end of the day I had a butchered piece of linden wood in front of me, I was covered in wood shavings and my left index finger was completely numb. I said a cheery goodbye to my fellow artistes and drove off knowing that I wouldn’t be going back for day two. Life is too short.

That night I stayed here: Moonrise on the River. On the way there, driving on a dirt road through a forest at dusk, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. But when I arrived I found a place that was welcoming and peaceful and downright beautiful. I said hello to the owner and her dog, Topsy, then walked around the property and down to the river. I spent the evening alternating between snorting with laughter at parts of this book, Everywhere I Look (Helen Garner=genius), and just staring out of the window at the moon and the trees and the silver river. All of the week’s tension and worry dropped away and a wave of complete relaxation washed in.

In the morning Little Black Car and I went home, back through the wide, sunlit valley, past the Bega cheese cows, up the honey-smelling escarpment, past the concrete elephant, back across the treeless plain to join the line of traffic creeping home to Canberra from the ski fields. I thought about what I’d learned from the weekend. Some people shouldn’t use woodworking tools and I am one of them. It’s nice to escape to the country but it’s good to come home again too. Some things in life, like concrete elephants, just can’t be explained. And a road trip is balm for the soul.

Road trip

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When the wheels fell off at work and I had no idea what would happen next, Little Black Car and I went on a road trip. Ages ago I signed up for a Japanese woodblock printing course in Cobargo, in the beautiful Bega valley, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A long drive and a two-day workshop making art seemed like the perfect antidote to the week.

As I shoved a few things in an overnight bag I thought, “Mustn’t forget phone charger.” Then I remembered all the work trips I’d been on with federal and state politicians where at least one pollie always forgot their phone charger. I laughed, “Doofuses!” then somehow between the kitchen and the front door managed to leave my phone charger in the washing basket and drive off without it.

Little Black Car and I headed out to the Monaro Highway. We had three extra passengers who showed up uninvited. In the back seat were Anxiety and Work Stress, while General Worry About Everything rode up in front with me. “Don’t stop in Cooma for a coffee,” said General Worry. “You haven’t got time and you’ll never find a park.” What?! On a Friday morning in a country town?! Of course there was time and of course there was parking, but at that stage I was still listening to General Worry so I bypassed the town and headed out on to the Monaro plains, coffee-less and in a not very good mental state.

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Out on the Monaro there’s a whole lot of…nothing. “Good place to bury a body,” I thought. Then, when a huge ute roared up behind me from nowhere: “Uh-oh! Serial killer alert!” It’s an easy place to freak yourself out. After 30 kilometres of it I was starting to wonder if I’d ever see a living thing again. I’ve never been so relieved to see a flock of sheep in my life.

Then an oasis appeared, a huddle of cute wooden houses and springtime trees out there on the plain.

There were two pubs, one with a huge bottle sticking out of the side of it. There was a shop selling biker gear and a shop selling fruitcake. This, my friends, was Nimmitabel, population not very many at all. I got out of the car and walked around and that’s when I found this:

IMG_3359Yes, indeedy, it’s an elephant—a large, concrete, highly embellished, wrinkly kneed elephant. There’s no plaque near it. There’s no sign saying, “This elephant is here because.” It’s just there. So if you’re a biker who needs a new pair of leathers and you fancy a beer and some fruitcake and a look at an inexplicable elephant in a little hamlet right out in the middle of nowhere, Nimmitabel is the place for you. I loved it.

After Nimmitabel the trees came back and suddenly they were everywhere. The road wound down Brown Mountain, through incredibly tall eucalypts and tree ferns and wattle bursting with golden powder puffs. I stopped at Somebody’s Lookout for a pee and found that someone had thoughtfully put a window next to the loo so that you could enjoy the view through the trees and down the mountain.

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At this point General Worry was telling me to get back in the car and keep going, but I ignored her and wandered off down the path to the lookout. I bumped into an older couple who were obviously intoxicated too by the sudden appearance of trees and the smell of honey and the fact that it was several degrees warmer here than up on the windy old plains. “Walk to the end of the path!” said the woman, her eyes shining. “You can see the sea!” And that’s when I knew that, like me, they were from Canberra and had had enough of inland winter.

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After I’d walked to the end of the path, where you could indeed see the sea, far off and blue like the hills, I realised my three uninvited car companions had become silent. I drove on down the mountain without hearing a peep from any of them. Even General Worry was quiet. At the bottom of Brown Mountain the land opened out into a wide valley. The last time I came this way the grass was as green as Ireland. This time it was brown. The local radio station was dishing out advice to farmers on whether to plant sorghum in dry conditions. It was the only station I could get reception for, so now I’m an expert on sorghum. Ask me anything. Also, I can give you a round-up of cattle prices at the Bega saleyards if you’re interested.

Bemboka, population more than Nimmitabel but still not very many, sits in that wide valley. It’s a beautiful, beautiful spot. On the right-hand side as I drove into the village was a little white church made of royal icing, shining in the sun. The whiteness against the blue sky was gasp worthy. It reminded me of being in Florence and wandering around dark, narrow streets, past austere Renaissance buildings, and suddenly coming out into the square and seeing the Duomo, that wedding cake of a building, for the first time. So pretty.

After that it was serious Bega cheese country. Cows everywhere. Cows, cows and more cows. I love cows. The road from Cobargo to Bermagui even had a spot where the cows crossed the road to be milked every day. A trail of mud and hoof prints spilled from the paddock, across the bitumen, to the dairy. I’ll be thinking of those cows next time I make a cheese sandwich.

Finally, I reached my destination. In just over three hours I had crossed the plains and avoided being murdered by a serial killer. I’d seen a pub with a bottle coming out of the side of it and a concrete elephant nearby. I’d driven past some of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen and across a dry but still beautiful valley full of happy cows. At the end of all that was Bermagui and the sparkly-arkly sea. And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, with the sun on our faces and the smell of salty air in our nostrils. To be continued…

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Signs of life

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You wouldn’t know it from the freezing rain and brief snow flurry we’re having today in Canberra, but spring she is a-coming. While we scurry about, rugged up and gritting our teeth in wind that blows straight off the ski fields, the first flowers and blossoms of the season are up and out, a welcome reminder that soon we will be warm again! So here are a few pictures to brighten your week.

A cascade of golden wattle:

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More wattle, this time a delicate creamy froth:

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A bright cyclamen surprise in an unloved part of the garden:

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A tree-load of blossom:

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A some jonquils to scent the room as you warm your toes by the fire:

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Hang in there!

No

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I said no this week. A big no. A serious, this-can’t-go-on no. I was terrified of saying it. I still don’t know what the outcome will be in the long term. In the short term I know it’s made people angry. In the medium term I expect I’ll be treated with kid gloves because, by my saying no to one thing, people will expect me to say no to other things. They won’t get it. They’ll think I’m being precious. It’ll take them a while to realise that I’m saying no to only one thing. But I mean it.

I was taught to say yes. I was brought up to always be helpful, to always do the right thing.  I’ve learned in middle age that you have to be careful about always being helpful because you can end up burned out. I’ve beaten myself up for not always being helpful when I should have been, but sometimes it would have been to my detriment and hindsight showed that I did the right thing by not helping.

I was taught not to make a fuss. I was taught to respect and slightly fear authority. In my working life this has meant that I’ve always been seen as reliable and hardworking, someone who will keep going and do whatever is asked of them even when it’s too much. I spent the past two years doing that and it really was too much. It almost broke me. So when I started a new job I was ecstatic because I was looking forward to leading a more normal life. Silly me.

My new job turned out to be two jobs in one, working for two different bosses in two different buildings, doing two different things. Still I was optimistic. “They’ll have a plan,” I thought. “They wouldn’t have created the job if it wasn’t going to work.” Then I realised that not only was it two different jobs in two different buildings but they both had to happen at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but I usually credit people with having a certain amount of awareness, of being able to see a situation for what it is. In this case I was being too generous because the lack of awareness that each party had about the requirements of the other was stunning. People were concerned only about their own patch. Bugger everybody else. Plus, I discovered I’d walked into a minefield of office politics.

I pointed to the elephant in the room, but everyone pretended it wasn’t there. “Give it some time,” they said. “It’s early days.” So I buzzed like a blue-arsed fly between jobs, lying awake at night wondering how I could get everything done, and because I was doing that people thought it was working okay. A few months on, I went to one of my bosses to talk about it. She could see how run ragged I was, so we came up with a plan and we took it to the other boss.

He said no. He had the authority to do that. It was partly to do with office politics. He wanted a quiet life. My mental health was expendable. So we modified the plan and I limped on until 2.30 am last Friday when I knew I couldn’t go to work that day. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Monday morning found me dressed for work, standing in my kitchen with my lunchtime sandwich in my hand, weeping. Again I’d been awake since the small hours, trying to figure out what to do.

So I said no. I wrote a calm, clear and reasonable email to my workplace. I offered a solution, but I was firm in saying no to any version of the current situation. Then I took the week off. It cost me a lot emotionally to do that. Perhaps it cost me a lot professionally too. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that, even if you’ve been brought up to be helpful, reliable and nice to others, it should never be at the cost of your own mental health. Although it might make you feel sick to do it, and although it might change everything, sometimes you just have to stand your ground and say one small word. No.

 

Creative inspiration

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I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past two weekends in the country, both of which involved good conversation, goofy dogs, lots of space, and many small, quiet pretty things to look at. Last weekend there was a bonus wombat, fat and blinking as I turned on the outside light one night. And on both weekends an excellent book came my way that inspired much creative thinking.

She Sheds was this weekend’s book. Oooh, I’d love a shed, somewhere to spread out all my creative projects and leave them spread out—no tidying up because you need to use the dining room table or because someone’s coming over and you don’t want them to see your work in progress. This book has sheds galore: potting shed, art studio, writer’s retreat, summer house. It has modern, old, up-cycled, reclaimed, frilly and plain sheds. You name it, they’re in there. There are vignettes on each shed’s owner. It’s lovely to see how people’s personalities have influenced their shed design and decor. There are even tips on how to build your own, including lessons learned from other people’s uh-oh moments.

I’ve been coveting other people’s sheds for a while. My parents have a patched-up old one with leadlight windows and corrugated iron walls that’s full of gardening equipment and spiders. I saw a beautiful one in a magazine, made of recycled timber, with one enormous wall of old windows. It was gasp worthy. There’s something similar in She Sheds. Kate and family at Foxs Lane recently built a greenhouse/shed that looks good enough to live in. And Swedish designer Gudrun Sjoden has a perfect little summer house full of colours and textures. What about you? Do you have a shed or a studio where you create, make or grow things? Do you wish you had one?

Here’s the second book that fell into my lap:

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I was given it by a friend who understands my frustration with the way the 9-5ish life of full-time work gets in the way of innovation and creative thinking. It’s SO inspiring to read the words of women of all ages and creative talents. I love the pictures in this book but I love the words even more. Here are some quotes from some of these fabulous women:

“Know fear, and honour it. When you feel fear, that’s when you are growing.” (Dominique Browning, author and activist.)

“I think the world needs more people with hobbies … the effects of incorporating activities and experiences in our lives that bring us joy can be incredibly beneficial to our sense of pride and happiness.” (Jasika Nicol, actor and maker.)

“Nobody knows better what you’re capable of than you. Trust yourself. Trust your ideas.” (Tina Roth Eisenberg, graphic designer and entrepreneur.)

The women in this book talk about what they’re most proud of, what inspires them, what lessons they’ve learned, what they do when they’re in a rut. There are a few themes that seem to come up again and again throughout the book:

  • Go with your gut. Trust your instinct.
  • Connect with other creative people. Put yourself out there. Share your work.
  • If you’re stuck, go outside. Go for a walk. Walk aimlessly. Look around.
  • Be willing to be bad at something and keep going with it.

My favourite quote of all comes from Debbie Millman, writer, artist, educator and radio host. When asked what success means to her, she said this:

“I think success is a practice, sort of like love or happiness.”

I love that one because it sums up a basic human failing: we keep forgetting that we have to put in the effort. We have to work at being happy, creative, loving, successful. I find that really inspiring. I hope you do too.

 

 

 

Migraine

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There’s been a bit of a blogging hiatus here at small, quiet, pretty because: migraine. It’s a strange and fascinating phenomenon, the migraine, in all its many forms. My grandma had the vomity type. My mum has the type that makes you take a tablet every day of your life. I have the type with an aura, visual disturbances, and it happens so infrequently that it catches me unaware and I wonder what’s happening.

I was staring at a page on my computer screen at work and suddenly I realised that some words were missing, particularly in the middle of my vision. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’ve got macular degeneration despite a lifetime of eating masses of vegetables and not smoking and going to bed early like a good girl.” I looked away from the screen, out of the window, and all seemed as it should be except for some wobbly bits. Then I looked over at my co-workers and they had only half a face. Then I knew what was happening: “Aha! Migraine!” (When I told my boss that half her face was missing she said it was probably an improvement!)

Oliver Sacks wrote a brilliant book on migraine. It’s a long time since I read it, and I must read it again. One thing I really liked was that it had drawings of the visual disturbances and hallucinations that migraine aura sufferers experience, and one of them was spot on for me. I see a line of dancing prisms with rainbows glinting in them. They move around my eyes and disturb my vision because, while I can see all the colours of the rainbow shining through them, I can’t see anything else in that spot. It’s hard to put into words how weird and beautiful that is at the same time.

The first time I had a migraine aura, when I was at university, I was walking across a park in Sydney and suddenly the grass was made of winking, sparkling jewels and I felt that I’d seen eternity. I didn’t know what I was experiencing then because it wasn’t followed by a headache. I just thought I’d had some sort of hallucination but it was so gorgeous that it didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I got a headache straight after the aura and realised that I was now officially a migraineur.

The aura tells you it’s time to take action before the headache kicks in because, boy, when that headache comes, it’s all over. I took some headache tablets and drank some coffee and went to lie in the sick bay at work with a blanket over my head. It kind of worked. I’ve had a minor headache ever since but it’s one I can live with. While I was lying with a blanket over my head, I thought about how much of life is screen based. My whole job is screen based. I communicate with people via a smartphone. I watch TV, not a lot, but little and often. The light from screens is so intense when you’re migrainey and light sensitive. It’s like looking into the sun all the time.

Over the following week, I worked on through the headache. I did neck exercises and gentle yoga and didn’t watch TV. And I thought about creating a different kind of life: moving somewhere where I didn’t have a mortgage and didn’t have to work in a screen-based job. I thought about a life of making things and growing things. I thought about trading in my smartphone for an old style phone without a glowing screen. I’m going to keep thinking about that life. It really does call to me.

I’ll sign off now. That’s enough screen time. Oh, and by the way, the photo is from the Design Museum in Denmark. If anyone knows how to make light beautiful, it’s the Danes.

 

 

Patience, focus, repetition

 

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“Get up off the mat,” the saying goes. “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” goes the song. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice: get up when you’re ready, get up when it suits you, and get up slowly. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, particularly in relation to yoga but also in relation to life in general, and it seems to me that there are three significant elements to getting up off the mat or achieving anything worthwhile: patience, focus and repetition. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you can probably get along fine for quite a while without the focus part, because patience and repetition by themselves can work wonders.

Almost two years ago I started studying yoga. My stress levels were so high that I was worried about becoming a heart attack/stroke candidate and I realised SOMETHING had to be done, fast. It turns out I was wrong about the fast bit. I signed up for a yoga teacher training course thinking I could knock it over in a couple of months. I conveniently forgot that I hadn’t done yoga seriously for ages and that I’d spent way too many years sitting down in front of a computer. I very soon found out that I’d lost a fair bit of flexibility and, more to the point, a huge amount of confidence.

I fell over in standing poses. My body hurt everywhere. I cried whenever I did any kind of open-hearted pose. My back was so sore that I had to hold on to a chair to get down to the floor and then I wondered if I’d be able to get up again. I got really frustrated and angry with myself. I compared myself to other people and despaired of ever being good enough or any good at all. Eventually I had to make a choice: quit or surrender and accept that I could only do certain things. I chose to be patient.

A friend bought me a book called Serenity Yin Yoga, by Magdalena Mecweld. The book itself is a thing of beauty but the type of yoga in it—yin yoga—changed everything. Magdalena describes yin yoga as “unbearably nice or nicely unbearable” and she’s spot on. You do all the poses on the floor, you hold them for three to five minutes and you don’t have to get up off the mat.  At first, in some poses, you think you’ll never be able to make it to one minute, let alone three or five, but you can and you do. It involves cushions and bolsters and just learning to relax.

I bought the app. That might seem like no big deal to you, but until then I wasn’t an app person and this app made me see the point of apps! It was the best 10 bucks I ever spent. When I was working away from home, sleeping in the office and in hotels, I always took the time to do some yin yoga, with Magdalena’s lilting Swedish voice laughingly reminding me: “You’re going to be in this position for just a few minutes, not your whole life,” and “Is there any tension left? Can you let go of it?”

I did mainly yin yoga for a year and a half. It was pretty much all I could do. I just couldn’t get up off the mat. I repeated the poses over and over. I gave up any idea of teaching traditional yoga but I learned what yoga really was: a discipline with so many more benefits than I could ever have imagined. It’s not about being super-flexible and wearing lycra and wowing people with your backbends. It’s not about other people at all. It’s about you, about observing yourself, about getting to know your mind and your body and accepting them, whatever state they’re in.

The patience and repetition paid off. Just recently I started doing yoga standing up and found I had muscle strength and flexibility and confidence. I tried advanced arm balances and almost achieved some of them. I laughed when I fell over. I seek out open-hearted poses now because I love them. I’ve always hated salute to the sodding sun but now I do it regularly and have a grudging respect for it. I’ll probably never look graceful doing it, but I admit that it’s a complete exercise for all parts of the body and I’m willing to keep doing it just to see what happens.

And here’s where the focus part comes in. It seems to me that, if you’re patient and keep practising over and over and over again, eventually your focus turns to what you’re doing and you let go of all the other distractions. You give it your full attention. You become fascinated by the possibilities. You enjoy what used to be a chore. You delight in small things and see them for the huge achievements that they really are.

I’ve been talking about yoga here, but obviously this applies to anything, to everything. Practise a little patience. Follow it up with truckloads of repetition and smile to yourself when focus turns up. Because that’s when things get really interesting.

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Frost and sunshine

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Outside my window was a morning so beautiful I had no choice but to go out in it. Thick frost on the ground, a pale blue sky above. Great swathes of fog below the Bullen Range, making the hills to the north appear as islands in swirling water. My feet crunched along the frozen track through two fields of adorably chunky, woolly-coated cows. Some of them followed my progress with their liquid, long-lashed eyes. Some of them just kept eating, blowing out steamy breath on the frozen grass. Miss Number 6 (so her ear tag told me) was especially interested and posed for several photos before going back to her breakfast.

No 6

I took the track I didn’t know, behind the hills. I was heading for the Murrumbidgee River, way off in the distance—who knows how far—hidden by a bank of thick fog.

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The temperature was still some way below zero, but as I walked through the valley the sun began to appear over the crest of the ridge, making the frosted trees sparkle. The world around me was cold and crunchy and glittering. Young roos with tiny joeys in their pouches hopped away, while the older males stared me down.

There was not a person in sight. I had space to think, and I thought about how a rip tide swept my life out to sea a few years ago and how it took so long to swim back in. This week, finally, I felt like I was back on dry land, with the wonderful news that someone dear to me is in the clear. For once, that bastard cancer didn’t win. Stable employment, a home, health: these are precious things we think of as our right, yet they can all disappear in an instant. I know I’ll never take them for granted again.

The fog from the river began to roll towards me, so I turned for home and started to run along the valley track. The air was so cold, the breath sharp in my lungs, but it was exhilarating and magical at the same time. On the way back I saw a man with two border collies walking high up on the hill, where there was no path but where the sun was shining, and I smiled to myself because I’d been following the path down in the valley when I could have taken the less travelled route and walked in sunshine the whole time.

the road home