Gone fishin’

Lord love us.

Rick and I are off on an adventure celebrating our anniversary, and it’s just sunk into my head that this is our 35th. Yes, indeed, I did say 35th. How does it happen that you wake up one morning and there you are next to someone you’ve been with for 35 years? Get real— that’s roughly 12,784 mornings. Another way of looking at it: it’s over half my lifetime.

While I try to recover from the shock of counting all those mornings, Great Barrier Reeflet me tell you what I hope to be doing when you receive this email:

My intention is to be lying face down in the water a few metres off the shores of Lady Elliot Island, Rick close at hand. We’re both adorned with our snorkels and prescription goggles, dazzling our retinas with bright orange clown fish and vivid corals.

In other words, we’re gone fishin’ and that’s it for this week’s post.

Gone fishin'

 

My brain gets a workout

The creative brainEvery week I do a report for my FLAFF (Footloose and Fancy Free) friends. As I’ve described in a previous post, the report is based on Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish, where he explores what it takes to thrive in life.

There’s a story Seligman tells. He had identified a four-pronged approach to flourishing: (1) having positive emotions, (2) engaging deeply in activities, (3) experiencing a meaningful life and (4) having strong and affirming relationships. Then a colleague said, “There’s something seriously missing here.” She described how she personally thrives on having a sense of accomplishment. Eureka, said Seligman, and from there the fifth prong was included. A formula for living a full life was in place.

I’ve been doing this report for over two years now and over time have become highly attuned to the nuances of the five ingredients. Like Seligman’s offsider, I find accomplishment is a key driver for me. My brain needs it in order to flourish.

Perhaps that’s why I approached retirement, over six years ago, with a certain hesitation. Back in those days, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to reflect on accomplishment. I was too busy running a business, listening intently to clients, designing unusual training programs, and training staff. My brain didn’t get a moment of down-time. Accomplishment was the air I breathed.

And then I parachuted into the green pastures of retirement. My brain was dead-set grateful—on its knees with the pleasure of taking long breaths, riding waves, standing in the garden with a hose. Happy day! I soon stopped worrying about the old cliché of retiring and finding yourself dead six months later. I stopped worrying about anything, really. I could do well without the overdose of accomplishment I’d been used to.

At work on the brainBut perhaps some balance was required. Around this time I read an article called The Secrets to Longevity. “Learn something new,” the author said. “Take up ballroom dancing, chess, a language or photography.” She went on to quote the director of the Center on Aging at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Any time you have to work at something new you’re doing good things for your brain. People who learn new skills or information build new brain cells and make connections between existing neurons.”

I recognised that if my brain and I were going to continue to support one another, I needed to keep it stimulated. So I joined a writers’ group and for two years wrote a short story every week. That experience gave me the confidence to write and publish Shedders. I joined a community choir and found my lobes and cortexes tested in ways I’d never dreamed of.

My brain expressed great interest in these things; although it had enjoyed its sleepy-time, it perked up with the new challenges.

Years later, I am still cajoling my brain into regular exercise. 2014 has been particularly effective and I’d like to share with you three of the startling things I’ve taken on.

The best one began with an invitation from housemate Michael to work with him while he trialed a new coaching approach—all I needed was a project. I tried to invent something mighty or healthy or contribution-oriented, but then my gaze wandered to the Yamaha keyboard I’d purchased a few years ago in response to some call of the wild. It dawned on me that I’d bought it because I wanted to play it.

I’d had lessons and enjoyed practicing piano as a child and a young adult, then went off to a piano-free dorm at Uni and never really went back. The idea of relearning piano suddenly enraptured me and I knew I had my project. It’s magic. My keyboard is touch-sensitive and on the setting Grand Piano 01, it sounds better than any other piano I can every remember playing. I love my time on the piano stool. I thump my way up and down scales, and can feel my fingers strengthening and learning the width of the keys and the length of an octave. I tackle complex pieces I may never master, but they train me in correct fingering. I practice sight-reading from a big book of simple arrangements of popular old songs. Sometimes while dinner is being prepared at our home you might think you were in a piano bar. You would likely assess the music as minimalist and somewhat discordant, but conclude that the pianist is having a wonderful time.

As you can see, I could wax on for much longer but the point is this:I’ve discovered something that makes my brain sit up and take notice. I can practically hear the synapses clicking and snapping while new neuronal pathways slide into existence.

The neuroplastic brain

My neuroplastic brain

The second challenge I’ve given my brain is Lumosity. I’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of it because I’m always encountering it advertised on the ‘Net. A trusted friend had purchased the program and spoke highly of it, so I thought, well, it can’t do me any harm and might be fun.

Thus you’ll find me at my computer for a few minutes each day feeding fish, playing pinball, spotting birds, performing maths calculation and directing trains to tLumosity gameshe correct station. I couldn’t swear to you that my increasing skill at the games translates into improved skills in real life, but, you know, again I can feel that ruckus going on just above the base of my skull where the cerebellum lives.

The third challenge I’ve taken on gives me surprises from another quarter. A few months ago I began aquarobics classes at the Taree pool, which you’d think would be purely physical. But instead I find myself doing complex routines—forward, TUCK, back, TUCK, left, TUCK, right, TUCK —and my brain, which had been hoping to snooze while the body did the work, is very busy indeed. Even now, it’s trying to make sense of a routine we encountered in the pool yesterday. I’m hoping it will be sorted before next Tuesday when I hit the water again.

From these challenges, I notice quite a number of things. One is that I’m enjoying this year. These new learning projects agree with me. And if I scratch under the surface of that enjoyment, I find accomplishment.

So when I do my Flourish reports, under the heading of Accomplishment I cite things like, “I put 3 wheelbarrows of clippings through the mulcher”. But I also say: “Played piano and did Lumosity every day,” and they’re the ones that really resonate, that make me feel like I’m accomplishing. It’s good to be learning.

So I ask: What secret desires call to you? What have you been putting off learning for fear it will take over your life? What would make you feel gloriously accomplished, even from your first tentative try? Your brain won’t much care what you choose; it just likes creating new neural pathways.

What will you start today?

Yak, yak, yakety YAK

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about conversation. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how woeful we are at it, and how perhaps the best thing I could do in service to the world would be to open my mouth one last time in order to swear an oath of silence.

Poster: You talk too much!My epiphany was triggered by a friend who sometimes drives me crazy with conversational surplus. It’s as if conversation is territory and (s)he’s determined to take over the world. Then I find myself getting into the battle, thinking that I have a right to some of this territory too, and first thing, there we are in World War II but with steely smiles and glasses of wine rather than guns and helmets. Each of us is determined to stake a claim on this bit of conversation and will fight to the death for it. On a global scale, it’s the Putin approach (though I admit I have a very superficial understanding of this current “crisis”, so it might not stand up as a metaphor).

One thing about being prohibited from entering a conversation is that you have a lot of time to pass judgement and to plan revenge. You also have a lot of time to observe the strategies that are being used to dominate the conversation. In my case, I discovered to my horror that I have a decent command of these techniques as well.

Let me pass on to you some of my observations, which might be useful to you in your own quest for domination:

Army tankThe tank approach. Tanks pretty much go where they want and trample anything in their way. Roll! Lumber! Swivel! Knock that house down! A loud voice and sheer determination will stamp out other would-be conversational participants. When someone else makes a foray into the conversation, they don’t stand a chance under the treads.

Take no pauses. Here’s where you can use your knowledge of conjunctions to excellent effect. If you string all your ideas together with “and” or “but” or “uh” or “you know”, other people have a lot more trouble getting in. They’re used to entering a conversation on full stops or exclamation marks, and are generally too polite to blatantly interrupt.

Stay focused on YOU. People give polite little coughs, lean forward and wiggle their fingers to signal that they’d like to say something. Don’t let these hints distract you.

Ask only rhetorical questions. If you ask real ones, you’re going to have to stop while someone answers. Otherwise your dominator’s game becomes too obvious and a UN force will be called in.

Yakety juvenile magpiesImitate the juvenile magpie. The mature magpie (the Australia version, at least) has one of the most melodic warbles on the face of the earth. But the young ones?—you’d never believe they’d have a hope of turning out. “Screek, screek, screek, screek…” –non-stop, ad infinitum, monotonic. You’d think the parents would gently put them to permanent sleep. Not my favourite aspect of country living, tolerated only because experience says that in two or three months they’ll be tAustralian magpierilling Beethoven like their parents do.

I digress, but you might take my point. Keep to a relentless monotone and you’ll wear them all down in short order.

Drown ’em in detail. “I looked it up online and it was $42.99 at Bunnings but only $38.75 at Masters, but I decided to get it at Bunnings anyway because it’s 4.3 kilometres closer…and…uh… with the price we’re paying for petrol, my last fill up was…” Experts at this approach never ask if the topic is of interest. They’re good at ignoring body language, knowing that it’s dangerous to check for glazed eyes or that special tense-jaw look which could signal stifling a yawn.

…And these strategies only skim the surface, I’m afraid.

So for a few days this week I thought my choice was to head into seclusion or to master domination myself. I raised the issue with Rick, and, man-style, he immediately invented a fix. “There should be an app,” he said gleefully. “You set it on the table and it measures the duration of every voice it hears. After an hour it rings a bell and tells you the result: ‘Sam, 58 minutes. Silence, 30 seconds. Everyone else, 1 minute 30 seconds.’”

That depressed me because (a) we don’t have this app, and (b) I could picture the social chaos that would result if we used it.

It was in this space of resignation that I went yesterday as a guest to our Shedders guys’ Men’s Group meeting. And here a miracle occurred.

The men, and their guests, sat around for three hours together. Everyone spoke from their hearts about what was important in their lives; everyone listened closely, not once interrupting, asking questions if the speaker invited feedback.

As I listened, I thought, this is real conversation. This is why we’re on the face of the earth and why we seek relationships.

At the end of the evening, I felt deeply connected to the other people in the room and more ready to dive back into my day-to-day life. And it all happened through peaceful conversation! No warfare, no strategies, no domination—just people wanting to contribute and be in relationship.

So I won’t be heading into verbal seclusion. There’s still too much work to be done.

 * * *

Shhhhhhhh!P.S. I’m reminded of a post Eve wrote on her blog, many months ago. Check it out here.

Manning Valley on my mind

I have a friend who makes a very good living as a travel writer, and I’m about to check if I have potential myself. I justify this digression under the category of “retirement” in my blog’s scope, although truthfully it’s just me getting sentimental about this hitherto understated part of the world I live in. I have a cousin who is still resisting the idea of retirement, and I have a notion that this is the post that will tip him over into passionately embracing it, not to mention bring him down to Australia for a visit.

Rick and I’ve just spent a week showing off our countryside to longtime friends from Canada. Boyd and Denise are seasoned and adventurous travellers, but as they were at the end of a month-long excursion through Queensland and northern NSW, they were ready to bunker down in our guest shed and settle for day trips.

Fortunately, we have plenty of those in stock in the Manning Valley, as I’m about to demonstrate.

We took Boyd and Denise out on The Boat one fine day, so let’s start with the river system that gives the Manning Valley its name. A couple years ago, a group of us were sitting around one evening exploring the idea of buying a boat together. I had in mind a 6 foot tinny with a putt-putt motor, but someone pointed out that there’s 150 kilometres of river to explore. Imagine that. And it’s true—when we take out The Boat (we settled on a 16 foot demon with a 140 hp motor) we have to speed along with our hair straight back for a half hour before we get to out-of-the-way places we haven’t sThe Other Side Cafe & Galleryeen before. This trip we whistled up to the Coopernook Pub to pick up friends, then together dawdled down Ghinni Ghinni Creek, a quiet tributary with trees clinging to the water and fish leaping about in surprise. Near the mouth of the creek, we moored at The Other Side Café and Gallery and had brunch at a shady table by the water, but that’s another story. The point is, the Manning Valley has a long and elegant river system.

We’ll move on to Taree, the town at the hub of the valley. Taree is located about 16 kilometres from the coast; like many coastal towns, it was built more or less at the sweetwater line, where the tides stop. Its population is around 20,000, about half that of the whole Manning Valley. You’ll never find a guide book that calls it a charming country town, but I swear it’s getting less rough-and-ready every year. With our friends, we relaxed at a riverside café that makes coffee you couldn’t beat in Italy. We strolled along a series of just-completed redbrick riverside paths and sat for a moment in a well-maintained memorial park. I reckon a sense of pride is swelling as the locals catch on that our town can be not only practical but attractive. It doesn’t have massive developments with luxury housing. There aren’t a lot of multi-millionaires here: mostly just farmers, retirees and hard-working townspeople. You’d have to call it a cash-poor area (think of what it costs to maintain all the assorted bridges over 150k of waterways). The good news about that is reasonable house prices. The bad news is perpetual pot-holes.

I should also mention that Taree has a large and well-equipped hospital, as I came to experience in person after spending most of Sunday night there while Rick sorted out a round of nasty stomach  cramps. Shops? Well, you won’t find a Sass and Bide anywhere, but there Jacarandas near Tareeare two hardware megastores. Oh, and don’t let me forget the jacarandas. For the entire month of November, as you drive toward the bridge into Taree, you could be forgiven for mistaking this town for one of the seven wonders of the world.

On the subject of towns, I have to tell you about historic Wingham as well, which IS a postcard perfect town, and has a number of worthy features other than Wingsong, our beloved community choir. And then there’s Old Bar, about 10 minutes from home and a hidden gem. It has a spectacular beach (where you might actually see eight or ten people in the water). And five cafés, yes, FIVE, each and every one of sophisticated Sydney standard. I can only assume that the local surfing conditions attract quality chefs.

I also must give a nod to the Manning Valley climate. Our Canadian friends got to see it at its autumn best. Rick had a running joke that every time he looked at the car’s thermometer, the temperature was 27 degrees. You can’t improve on that. Technically a “humid subtropical climate”, the Manning Valley is most often verdant and green. Winter temperatures average around 18 degrees. I might mention that our guests got to experience the most ferocious gale I can remember ever encountering, the kind that blows all the shoes into the house when you open the door, and then won’t let you shut the door afterward.

And then there’s the Great Dividing Range (formed when Australia collided with South America quite some time ago), that runs pretty much all the way down Australia’s eastern coast and has the distinction of being the world’s third-longest mountain range. It’s not especially “great” and it doesn’t divide much, but there’s no doubt it’s beautiful, particularly here in the Manning Valley. I like getting onto the unsealed roads up in the local hills (Rick’s not so wild about it, as he pictures the car’s screws all jostling loose). A favourite spot is Ellenborough Falls, reputed to be the “thBig Fella gum treee longest single drop waterfall in the southern hemisphere”. Don’t hold me to that, but it is a wonderful sight. We didn’t really get into the Range with our guests, but satisfied ourselves visiting one of our favourite coastal families: the North, Middle and South Brothers. We craned our necks viewing the Big Fella gum tree, in his own way a serious competitor of the California redwoods or the BC Douglas fir.

And of course we took Boyd and Denise to beaches. You can’t escape them. There are Manning Valley 945 kilometres of them, as a matter of fact, and at any given time there might be you and a lone fisherman on the beach. Every Australian beach I’ve ever been to is more beautiful than Malibu—and nearly dead empty. So much beach and so few people to enjoy it.

Closer to home, we have our territory: Mitchells Island. You cross a couple of bridges to get here and you’d never really realise you were on an island if you didn’t study a map. Technically I suppose we’re a delta, with beef and dairy farms and market gardens. But there are also hills and valleys that give the island no end of character.

Home sweet homeLastly we have the Shedders home itself. When I walk around our home and gardens, all I see are the things that need to be done. But every now and then, like when friends arrive from faraway and are gob-smacked by the unusual plants, the colour and the fierce growth, I take a moment to feel quite satisfied. Four and a half years ago this was a construction site trammelled by bobcats, cement trucks and steel-toed Blundstones—and now it’s a well-nurtured little piece of paradise.

I can understand why our friends had long faces as they left. The Manning Valley had got under their skin as well.

Come visit—or even buy. You can afford it and you’ll never look back.

We live in a bubble

Here’s something I notice about retirees, both present and near-future ones: we have lots of conversations about making a difference in the world. I see a number of reasons for that. I would assert that (don’t ask me for evidence), being a little older, one tends to have a broader view of the world. Another is that one has a greater abundance of disposable time, and, sometimes, income. There is also the fact that one can hear the loud ticking of clock and is aware that the end of days approacheth. Mostly the world has been good to us and so we think, and talk, about sharing the good fortune.

For example, let me tell you about a recent conversation with Robert, a good friend whom I have known over many years. He is in outplacement, which means he trains, coaches and advises people who have lost their jobs. I have to tell you, Robert is brilliant at this. He makes a huge difference to people, not only in helping them find new work but in rediscovering their self-esteem and desire to engage in the world. He deflects suicide; he restores vision. Over the years, hundreds, probably thousands, of people have been deeply touched by his wise and empathetic presence—and have gone on to live productive lives.

So, over breakfast on the deck the other day, in the middle of a conversation about the struggles of many of the African countries, I was aghast to hear him sigh deeply and say he often feels he should be doing something meaningful with his life. Dear God, if Robert isn’t doing meaningful work, there’s no hope for the rest of us. But his picture, like that of many of us, is of working in Africa or Afghanistan right at the wellspring of human misery.

And speaking of Afghanistan: while in Canada recently, I had coffee with good friends who can always be counted on for a lively discussion. The conversation dipped into Teacher in Afghanistancontribution and volunteering at one point, and I learned from them about a favourite charity, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the CW4WAfghan website says, “The real enemy in Afghanistan is illiteracy” (and this from someone who is the Deputy Commander of Canadian and NATO Forces). At any rate, we talked about literacy, about volunteering, about the third world.

“We live in a bubble,” my friend said emphatically. As the conversation rushed on from there, I didn’t get to ask her exactly what she meant. So I’m left to speculate.

Maybe she meant: Here in the west, we live an isolated existence that we think is safe and perpetual. It’s not. We are seriously outnumbered by the residents of a hungry, angry world out there that wants what we have and is quite capable of reaching across mountains and oceans to pierce our bubble. Or maybe she meant: we just don’t get it. We really don’t know, or even care, what the Afghani women are up against, or the Syrians, or the Ukrainians, or the North Koreans. We live in our colourful, rounded, soft, springy world, blissfully buoyed by benign currents. Either way: our bubble means trouble.

Also in this vein, there was a visit with my American cousin, who recently visited his son who works with the Peace Corps in Togo. My cousin loved the experience, but was daunted by the gap between his worldview and that of so many Togans who live in colourless surroundings, with garbage piled high in the streets and a few-cents-a-day existence.  He is proud of his son for the two years he’s put in there, but hopes he will come back soon.

Closer to home, a small voice asks: What about me? What am I doing for the world? Well!—I believe in the power of ideas and communication for transforming life, so I write this blog. I believe in what a well-targeted dollar can do, so we support a little guy who lives in an orphanage in a far-away land. I believe in the almost-unbearable beauty of gardens, so I do a bit of weeding and planting for friends.

Littlies learning to read

Mitchells Island kindergarteners learn to read

And then there’s the tiny public school near where we live on Mitchells Island. Like the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, I believe in literacy, so I’ve just begun listening to the littlies reading. It’s a compelling bit of volunteer work. The first kindergartener rushed out to where I sit and shouted out each of the flashcard words in triumph. Last out was a little guy with a shy smile, long curls and eyes the size of watermelons that will probably serve him in good stead for much of his life. But in the realm of reading, he hadn’t a clue. The month and a half he’s spent in kindy hasn’t yet given him the complicated concepts of words and letters and sounds and meaning. I’ve been puzzling ever since about what the entry point into that gorgeous head might be that will enable him to grasp the idea of reading and give him access to the world of words as quickly as possible.

In summary, the issue of contribution is complex. A quote I’ve loved ever since it first showed up on Rick’s desktop a few years ago is by Howard Thurman, an African American author, philosopher, educator and civil rights leader who deeply influenced Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Says Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Surely that applies to everyone from wide-eyed kindergarteners to contemplative retirees; from Peace Corps volunteers to gardeners. It’s never too late to look for what will make us come alive, and share that with the world.

* * *

Postscript: This week I learned a new word: crowdsourcing. Apparently thousands of people signed up early on when Flight MH370 went missing, volunteering to sit at their computers and scan satellite photos of vast expanses of empty ocean in the hope of finding something that will indicate the plane’s location. Truly, people get up to remarkable stuff.

Having it all

It's a full and busy lifeScene 1. I’m seated at the front of the room, looking over the group in front of me. We’re in the middle of what we call an Information Evening, part of a recruitment process I invented for hiring trainers for our business. There are 60 or 70 applicants in the room who have responded to ads we placed. There are also 12 or 15 of our own staff, who are sitting around, clipboards in hand, observing candidates, making snap decisions and writing down things like, “Virginia—red hair, witty”. Followed by: “Yes!!!” or “Well…maybe” or “Not in this lifetime”.

In this part of the recruitment process we invite ALL the applicants in to hear about our business and to let them get a look at our team. We’re all on our best behaviour, looking sharp, professional, happy and cutting edge. The applicants will briefly introduce themselves and we’ll make snap decisions about whether to interview them further or not. After all, in the training business, first impressions count for more than usual.

I’m proud of our team. I’m thinking that I am surrounded by people I like working with, and that out of this process, we’ll find two or three more people who’ll fit that profile.

I enjoy my work, partly because designing training is so stimulating, but mostly because there are so many passionate, entertaining, clever people around. Being in the company of interesting people is a key part of my life.

Frozen creek in winterCUT TO…

Scene 2. I am skating on a frozen creek bed. The ice is covered with a half centimetre of fresh snow that mutes the snick of my skate blades. I am fourteen, using this time alone in the early dusk to dissociate from a busy day at school.

I love the quiet, the solitude, the beauty, the romance of it all. I resolve that I will NEVER live in the city and I will ALWAYS be faithful to the country life.

CUT TO..

Scene 3. I am leaning against the doorframe, standing silently in the doorway of Rick’s office in our home in the city, coffee in hand. I’m watching Rick do some surfing on his computer.

Rick and I’ve lived in large cities for all our life together—Vancouver for four or five years, and the rest of the time in Sydney with its 4½ million bustling people. But we’ve been thinking we’d like to move to the country when we retire. I crave the quiet and the beauty of the countryside, and it seems Rick does as well.

But there’s the matter of keeping myself entertained. I’m used to a bustling office full of lively people, friends to go for lunch with, strange people to watch on the train, queues at the movies, girlfriends to call in for coffee on a moment’s notice.

And on the other hand there’s Rick. He is a wonderful man and means the world to me, but, if we were to move to the country, could he (and I) fill the space of my days with what I’m used to? What pressure could that put on us?

CUT TO…

baby grand pianoScene 4. I am having lunch with new neighbours. Rick and I’ve just moved to a townhouse near North Sydney, and we’ve been invited for lunch by retirees, a few years older than ourselves. They live happily here, in their renovated apartment with a baby grand piano, elegant furnishings and all the mod-cons. They talk about the concert they went to last night and are looking forward to boating with their son on the harbour sometime during the week. They are committed to the energy, variety and abundance of city life. They plan to stay right here as long as they’re able.

It sounds pretty good. Maybe a little expensive, but theirs is a full, rich life.

CUT TO…

Scene 5. It’s a Saturday mid-afternoon and I’m fidgeting in my chair while participating in an enthusiastic seminar which extols the theme of “having it all”—the point being that you can have anything you want in your life. This notion is patently untrue, as I know from many years of real life. Sometimes you can have a good piece of what you want but “having it all” is an innate contradiction. Every choice involves leaving something else desirable behind.

But perhaps the real point of the course is that you can have a great deal more than you reckon you can have, if you think it through, design it well and really go for it.

I think: my challenge is that I want to live in the country AND I want lots of people and variety around me. I want peace AND I want commotion.

Pipedream or possibility?

CUT TO…

Scene 6. I am standing with Rick, Judy, Eve, and Daniel, my toes digging into a piece of property we’ve just decided we sfield of cattlehould buy. It’s a half hour from Taree, which in turn is four hours from Sydney. There are cattle, massive beasts with unsettling stares, on the neighbouring property just across the fence. What are city dwellers like us doing even thinking about such a place?

Well, the views are wonderful, and birdsong and fervent insects make the only noise we can hear. I can envision a nice house and exotic garden. Yes, it’s hopelessly rural and I notice a smile on my face.

With six of us contributing to the vitality of life, maybe the isolation won’t matter.

CUT TO…

Scene 7. It’s earlier this week, and I’m sitting at dinnertime with my Shedder housemates. We’ve just had a delicious Thai beef salad served up by Rick. Just before that I was in Eve’s yoga class, which might relate to my feeling particularly mellow. We’ve had a film crew around for a good part of the day, filming our Shedders’ life, and the conversation is lively as we review the day’s antics. We make plans for tomorrow.

It’s hard to see how life could get any richer.

CUT TO…

Scene 8. It’s the following day and I’m in the car on my way to Taree where I frequently go for an aquarobics class. Gosh, I think, I love these classes but I do spend a fair bit of time—and petrol—traveling. This is our lot, living in the country. And when we’re older and less keen (and able) to drive, keeping ourselves fit and entertained could become a problem.

You can never have it all, I sigh to myself.

But, damn, you can come close.

THE END?

What a swell party this is

While I was overseas, I had occasion to drop down into the U.S. and attend a party of a lifetime. My aunt Shirley turned 90 this week, and the remarkable celebration of that event happened last Saturday.

Swell party 1The party was themed Roaring Twenties. Although Aunt Shirley’s personal memories of the 20’s would have been thin on the ground (she was born in 1924), the choice was perfect. It reminded us all of the era when Shirley was born and gave us a sense of the great length of her life, and of the enormity of what has happened in the world over this time. It seems like a thousand years ago that our universe experienced flappers, gangsters, prohibitionists and molls, and yet here they were at the party—and all within Shirley’s lifetime.

Swell party 2

Aunt Shirley in the photo-booth

There were slouch-brim hats and long strings of pearls available at the door for those who hadn’t done a lot of costume preparation but wanted to get into the spirit of things. The tables were decorated 20’s style, and scattered with print-outs of advertising, house sales and Model T’s Fords. There was a well-appointed photo-booth, and all the food (right down to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) was styled from the era.

Remember the lyrics from High Society?

What friends, what broads, what frocks
What furs, what rocks
They’re beautiful
I’ve never seen such gaiety

Could you pick a livelier era to have as the period theme for your party?

Swell party 4So—Aunt Shirley arrived at the “courthouse” at 2:00 in the afternoon, hustled in by a couple of youthful Keystone Cops, to answer to a number of charges relating to being an excessively good mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, aunt, friend, etc. It was clear from the start that the prosecution had a cut-and-dried case, and as numerous people spoke, the evidence mounted up strongly.

Although the affair was swamped with relatives, and underlined the importance of family to this tribe, many of Shirley’s friends were there—lifelong friends, people from her retirement village, and mates from her charity activities. Clearly, everyone was keen to convey to Shirley the message that she means a great deal to them and to the world.

As Shirley addressed the group at the party’s end, nearly speechless with the acknowledgement and generosity, she said, “My cup runneth over.”

The thing is: everyone’s cup ranneth over. We were all touched and inspired by the love that was flooding the room.

Thinking back, there are a few things about Aunt Shirley’s party that stand out in my mind.

First of all, rarely have I attended such a creative and well-planned event. For months now, a sizeable team of offspring, grandchildren and in-laws have been designing and preparing for theSwell party 6 party. There was a clear objective: demonstrating their love and having the matriarch get how appreciated she is. I can imagine their first meeting: “Let’s have this be fun,” they all said. “And let’s have it be really creative. Let’s have it bring out the best in us and the best in everyone who comes in contact with it!”

Swell party 7I don’t know if “the devil is in the detail” (where did that expression come from, anyway?) but it’s obvious that CARING is in the details. There were water bottles labelled with Shirley’s own nutritional information, branded and bejewelled take-away bags, sweets from the era, party bags for the kids, crusts trimmed off white bread sandwiches, jazz, and Prohibition-style punch spiked with champagne. This was a team that that had unearthed every photo that had ever been taken of Shirley, researched every friend and scoured the clan for stories. They had googled the era thoroughly, and had no doubt watched The Great Gatsby any number of times, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for an experience that had you say, over and over, “Ohhhhhhh! That’s so perfect!”

The message is clear: if you’re going to successfully acknowledge someone, plan it well, do it right and have fun in the process.

Swell party 8

3 sisters: Claire (85), Shirley (90), my mum Joyce (92)

Another thing that stands out for me is how astonishingly well and happy it is possible to be at age 90. Aunt Shirley and her two surviving sisters (note the five carefree young women in the photo behind them, taken some 75 years ago) were the life of the party and lasted out the day with unflagging energy, attention and goodwill. They are all three a tribute to what living well can do. They survived the Great Depression, raising children, major moves, the death of beloved spouses and offspring with their spirits and their sense of humour intact. All of us there were moved by the example they set for vibrant old age.

Something else I learned: how wise it is to acknowledge the people you love while they’re alive to appreciate it. I’m always aware at memorial services that the person who would most appreciate these things is not available to absorb them. Acknowledge NOW. Give thanks now. Speak warmly now. Surely in this lies a life without regret.

And here is yet another thing that stood out for me: the miracle that a hundred people who are prepared to submerge themselves in generosity can create. Ours is not a storybook hummingbirds-and-rainbows family; there are plenty of skeletons dangling in the closets. But for a few hours we all gave up the mistakes we’ve made and the offenses we’ve committed against family–and just loved up a woman who has been precious to all of us. A hundred people with an absolute resolve to have someone get that she is admired, respected and deeply loved can create a phenomenon of good will.

Well, as you might predict, Aunt Shirley survived the trial. She was found guilty of all charges but released on her own recognisance as long as she continues to demonstrate good behaviour. Having known her to do nothing else in all of my lifetime, I’m quite confident that she’ll stay within the terms of her release.

For me, I’m happy to be part of a world that has such parties in it. Any event with love, generosity and fun as core imperatives will take us closer to a life well-lived. And even if, as the old High Society song says, “It’s in the stars that next year we collide with Mars,” meantime I suggest we live it up as we did last Saturday afternoon.

The Charleston, anyone?