More than just a pretty fish

You’re lucky I don’t yet own an underwater camera. Otherwise, this post would be a well-intentioned swarm of amateur photos of tropical fish, taken more in the spirit of enthusiasm than expertise.

That’s because we’re recently back from a holiday in the Cook Islands, and I’m still having after-flashes of all the fishy friends I met underwater there.

We did many fine things during our week’s vacation, but I must admit, snorkelling is always at the top of my activities list at a tropical destination. It generally takes me 10 seconds to regain confidence that I can breathe while underwater, 15 seconds to acclimatise to the water’s temperature, and 30 seconds to reassure myself there are no

Island paradise, taken from our balcony

Taken from our balcony

currents that will wash me off to the shores of Chile. After that, snorkelling takes me into sheer heaven. There I am, floating face down in warm waters—staring into a panoply of magnificent marine life. It’s the most incredible unveiling. Who would ever guess, as you sit looking over a blue lagoon with your morning coffee, that all this was happening underneath?

Snorkelling is physically a wonderful thing, the closest I get to meditation—slow breaths rasping through my snorkel tube, my body floating in complete surrender, blissful comfort, the feeling of being absolutely present. But the visual feast!—that’s the magic of it. And Rarotonga in the Cook Islands put on the best display I’ve yet experienced.

There were dainty angel fish the size of dinner plates, their wispy strands floating behind them. Gentlemen fish all black and white with red cummerbunds. Masses of silver needle-nosed fish. Lorikeet-style fish, turquoise with startling swaths of yellow, green, red and oraSwimming in a school of butterfly fishnge. Swarms of butterfly fish, looking exactly as this Pinterest photo captures them. As I drifted over various rocky reefs, I counted more than three dozen varieties, each more colourful than the last. Eventually I lost confidence in the maths and surrendered to appreciation rather than precision.

Our resort host told me about one fellow who, every few months, comes to stay for a week, and spends 10 hours a day in the water with his snorkel and camera. Odds are some of the photos I’m looking at on Pinterest right now were taken by him. I’d love to have met him and heard some of his stories. A fellow-snorkel-traveller is easy to spot. One day I watched a young English tourist who was practically unable to get out of the water. She would stagger out wrinkled and shivering, lie on her towel in the sun for a few minutes, and then head back, ecstasy in her eyes. England will never look the same to her.

Somehow, the biggest sensation is the gift of being welcome to participate freely in an alien world. What a privilege.

Admittedly, the Cook Islands have much more on offer than just a world-class snorkel, and I’d be remiss not to bring that to your attention. Here’s a bit of travelogue:

Rick and I flew out to Rarotonga in the company of four other friends. We flew direct The earth is all water!from Sydney on a six hour flight. If you have a globe, swing it round until you see all of the Pacific Ocean—and the Pacific Ocean is just about all that you see. How uninhabited this area is of anything but water! You fly hours and hours over nothing but ocean, until suddenly a small volcanic island emerges. Jagged peaks and rolling hills are surrounded by an almost unbroken reef, with waves smashing against it from the outside and a placid blue-green lagoon within. You’re looking at Rarotonga, the largest of the fifteen Cook Islands.

We rented a van and drove around the island (about a 45 minute circumference) until we could check into our wonderful little resort, the Aro’a Beachside Inn. Over the course of the week, we went to the markets, lunched and dined every day at fine cafes and restaurants, and drank local beer at our resort’s Shipwreck Hut beach bar. We sang along with Jake, a musician who welcomes every plane at the airport with Island songs—and has done so for 35 years (some 20 flights a week now). We toured the backroads, saw the local market gardens and bounced on steep roads up into the hills in an old open Land Rover Defender. We got to know a bit about the Pacific Islanders who own all the land on the Islands, about their history and their current practices. They seem a happy, peaceable people, comfortable in their skins with not a thing to prove to anyone. We took in an excellent live show, beautifully choreographed and danced, accompanied by the kind of superb drumming you might expect in a Pacific Island paradise.

The Aitutaki atoll

On one magical day we flew out to the northernmost of the Cook Islands, called Aitutaki (nominated “the world’s most beautiful island” by Lonely Planet). We spent the day visiting its heartbreakingly beautiful minor islands, all part of its atoll. One of the especially-idyllic islands hosted several episodes of both Survivor and Shipwrecked.

The Cook Islands lived up to every expectation I could have had.

Today I’m sitting here on a chilly Mitchells Island morning, with a threat of rain and the skies dark as dusk. It’s enough to set me thinking again of turquoise lagoons, orange sunsets, piña coladas and fat sandwiches of freshly caught mahi-mahi.

That’s the thing about travelling. It can leave you with the experience of being a well-tolerated guest—with my good travelling friends, with our Pacific Islander hosts, and with the technicolour denizens who briefly shared their underwater world with me.

Snorkelling in Rarotonga

Add a few wrinkles and that could be me

Flaffing around

Eight years ago Rick and I retired, moving to Mitchells Island to create our shared dream home in our dream location – confident we had enough savings to last us as long as the fates might allow us breathing time.

Five years before that, I was gnawing my nails about whether we’d ever be able to retire.

That was when we first met with the FLAFFs. At that point, for the six of us, acquaintances who embarked on a retirement and research planning mission, being FootLoose And Fancy Free was an intention. But after five years of said research and planning (sprinkled with generous amounts of food, wine and travel as we became good friends) there we were: footloose and fancy free in actual fact.

If you haven’t read the whole story of this magical transformation from burden to freedom, I refer you to previous posts in this blog, The Seven Secrets of the FLAFFs (Part I, Part II, Part III).

Raratonga in the Cook Islands


At any rate, the FLAFFs are off again, this time to the Cook Islands and New Zealand. I will post an update, with photos, when we’re safely home again.

* Definition of flaffing: to engage in unproductive activity. I can’t think that applies to us, as we explore this new part of the world – but I will let you know.


See you in a few weeks.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

Li'l ThumperI am not the complaining sort. “If you cannot be positive, then at least be quiet,” is a rule I’ve tried to abide to. At the age of five, I was much-influenced by Thumper (Bambi’s best friend) who said so solemnly, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” I take a dim view of nattering on about problems and concerns. Ever since I was five, it has seemed in bad taste.

However, I’ve had an insight which I hope is life-changing.

Last Sunday Rick and I stepped into our suite for a three-day stay at Port Stephen’s fabulous resort, The Anchorage, for which we’d expended a good chunk of our offspring’s inheritance. My first thought (after an approving glance at the gleaming bathroom and king-size bed with its fine white linen) was that the room seemed a bit dark. And smallish, compared to my expectations. I went to the French doors and stepped out onto the patio. It was tiny, with someone sitting nearby on her (considerably larger) patio, talking enthusiastically on her mobile phone. And the “garden view” I’d been promised on the website was a few unmown dandelions on a small patch of stony pasture. Our room appeared to be wedged into a dark corner from which two wings of the resort swept out. Clearly we’d gotten the last room in the hotel.

Rick, meantime, had whipped his clothes into the closet, tossed his pocket paraphernalia onto the TV shelf, plugged in his iPad and bounced enthusiastically on the bed a few times. “Look, you can just see the harbour if you stick your head ’round the corner of the patio,” he exclaimed, as he joined me outside. “Isn’t this great?!”

One easy-to-please Rick plus one uncomplaining Heather meant that Room 107 at The Anchorage kept us on as its inhabitants.

Sometime later we joined good friends at their suite in the resort. Upon observing its generous glass doors and windows overlooking the colourful marina and manicured gardens, I became even more strongly aware we’d made a mistake in bouncing on the bed before insisting on changing rooms, especially when we’d noticed the half-empty parking lot and any number of unoccupied suites.

At the desk, three days later, I handed the receptionist my feedback form. The first question said, “How likely are you to recommend the Anchorage to others?”, for which I’d ticked 1 out of a possible 10. I explained that I was annoyed we’d been placed in a small room with dodgy gardens, that the renovations going on in the new wing had made life difficult, and that no one at the hotel had addressed any of these problems.

“Oh, goodness,” she said. “You should have said something earlier. We’d have happily found you another room.”

There you have it.

I’d ended up complaining – just three days too late for it to do any good.

I’m pretty sure this attitude is not at all what Thumper had in mind. I’ve just googled “complaining”, knowing that someone else will have captured its true meaning more eloquently than I (or Thumper) could. And sure enough, I found the perfect expression of the Heather approach to complaining: “Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity, and consume your own smoke with an extra draft of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaints.”  ~William Osler. (You might guess that William Osler was a Canadian.)

By the way, I also stumbled across the Rick approach: “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.”  (You might guess that this is a German proverb.)

Rick and I discussed the squeaky wheel principal a few days ago. I pointed out that the squeaky wheel has a rather bad reputation. The inference is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and, although it’s not nice or fair, the people who squeak are the ones who get themselves looked after. They’re grabbing limited resources from the community pool.

Rick thought for a moment, then made the observation that for centuries anyone with heavy loads has been deeply indebted to squeaky wheels. If a wheel didn’t squeak, you’d never know the ball bearing was going, and you wouldn’t know to apply the grease, and the wheel would break down just when you most needed it.

That is, I think, a much more practical – and accurate – way to look at the whole issue of complaining.

The squeaky wheel gets the wormSo there is a learning in this for those of us who tend toward niceness (spiced up with a dash – the merest soupçon* – of timidity). My new rule is this: from here on, whenever I walk into a hotel room, or to a restaurant table that I’ve been led to, before Rick can bounce on the bed, or shake out his napkin and drink the water, I’m going to check things out quickly and carefully. I will immediately make a complaint if I’m not entirely happy. I will even make a complaint after he’s bounced on the bed, if that’s what it takes.

I am aware there are many of you who are yawning and saying, good grief, what ELSE would you do? – Well, I envy your directness. Keep setting a good example for those of us who sadly and at great personal cost misinterpreted the Thumper Principle.

* Soupçon: A very small amount; a hint; a trace. E.g.:
Add a soupçon of red pepper. Coffee with a soupçon of cognac.
No one is so depraved that a soupçon of goodness cannot be found in him.

So many books, so little time

So many booksOne morning several years ago, new to this area and missing the camaraderie of my Sydney book club, I wandered into the Waterbird Café to ask its all-knowing proprietor if he’d heard of any local book clubs. “Funny you should ask,” he said. “A woman was in the other day asking the exact same thing.”

“Next time you see her, give her my number,” I said.

A few days later Desley and I met. We sussed each other out, and finally said, why not start something ourselves? We invited our husbands and began looking for others who might be interested in talking about books.

Thus a new book club was born.

We called ourselves So Many Books, So Little Time. Membership shifted a little over the first years, but eventually resolved into a group of eight: there was Rick and myself, housemates Eve and Daniel, co-founder Desley and her husband, and two of their good friends. For several years we met every four to six weeks. Our protocol was to take turns, an orderly one-at-a-time, presenting our thoughts about a book we had selected to read (you might imagine how hard it is to sit still while someone else expresses their provocative views). Then we’d dissolve into free-form discussion. Rarely did we all agree on anything. My club mates sometimes had excessively strange opinions. But I always gained a much deeper understanding of the book as everyone expressed their views and insights. I loved these discussions, even when I had to shout to be heard or sit on my hands to keep quiet.

We always concluded by selecting the next book, and over time we got good at selecting just the right one. The club was a raging success.


I finished my book and now I don't know what to do with myselfThere’s something about a book. And there’s something about people who enjoy reading books. Our Shedders community itself was born in part out of a love of reading. On our annual holidays together, some 15 years ago, we were not so much the types to kick a football around in the garden or drink ourselves noisy by the light of a campfire. More likely you’d find us sitting companionably reading, sometimes using a finger to mark our place while we shared an insight. We’d swap novels and give each other books for Christmas. (Not wishing you to think we were too cerebral, I should mention that we also went swimming, took beach walks, hiked, did yoga, and cooked meals.) (And then we’d get back to our books.)


But I digress. Back to the So Many Books club. A year or so ago it nearly came unstuck. Two of the group moved south a couple hours from here. Shortly after that, Desley and her husband decided to move to Bowral, some six hours away. We all met at their house as they were packing up, to have a last meeting and a sorrowful boozy lunch.

However, over the discussion of our final book (Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh), something unexpected transpired. Our enjoyment of the meeting made it inconceivable that we could abandon such a good thing. So we made the challenging decision to meet at each other’s widespread homes. We’d go to Bowral, stay at Desley’s, have a book club meeting, and spend two or three nights. Imagine sharing a house and three days with six people whom you know mostly through their opinions on books. Outrageous. But we were up to it.

Tulip festival in BowralSo it happens that we’re just back from a weekend in the Southern Highlands. We took in the tulip festival, and I have to say, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the weeping cherry blossoms, thick and luscious, lining the streets of Bowral. We toured the countryside, taking in the hills and vistas. We bought croissants at the best bakery I’ve come across this side of France. The Southern HighlandsOver a couple bottles of wine, we took turns trying to remember what we used to do on weekends when we were twelve years old—and gained a real insight into each other’s childhoods in the process. We also sat around fiddling on our various devices. There was a time when all eight of us were quietly assembled in the lounge room, keeping warm by the gas fire, intent on our own contraptions – tapping away as we caught up on emails, researched, played games, read books. A bystander might shake their heads about such a gathering, but there in the moment we were just friends who had talked a lot and now were sitting in companionable silence.

And of course, we had a meeting and discussed a book.

That was, as always, the best part.


Which reminds me, I also wanted to tell you about the book in question: Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer. Treat yourself to this excellent New York Times review.

I loved the book. Mawer has climbed into the mind and heart of a brilliant geneticist, who is a dwarf. Written from the perspective of this character, Benedict Lambert, you see clearly how the world views those who stray from the norm. Imagine every eye in the room turning to look when you walk in, and then carefully shifting its gaze away again. Repeat this experience everywhere you go, every time you go out, over and over. How would this shape you? And what if as a geneticist (and a dwarf) you came to confront the exact spot on the exact chromosome that can mutate and cause you to be the way you are? Imagine standing at a microscope and having to choose the embryo which is safe from dwarfism – thus keeping the future safe from beings like you.

The novel dips into eugenics, and has you contemplate a world without serious physical defects. No achondroplastic dwarfism (and no Benedict Lambert). No ALS (and no Stephen Hawking). For me the book came to be about the painful beauty of diversity, and about the impossible choices we will increasingly have to make as genetic engineering becomes the air we breathe. Shall I scan my genes for any lurking danger? Do I want a boy or a girl? Blond? Dimpled? How tall?

A good book can stay with you for a long time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

[Author’s note: Groucho obviously didn’t know about
my new Kindle paperwhite, which would allow me to read even inside a dog.]

Duets in paint and print

This blog is about human beings interacting (for better or for worse) in a quest for intimacy and integrity in our relationships.

Duets in Paint & PrintI got a new angle on that vocation over the last half year. It began when our writers’ group, the Taree Scribblers, teamed up with Taree Artists Inc and created a remarkable project. This is how it worked:

At our March meeting, the fifteen or so writers in Scribblers each brought along a piece of written work. The fifteen or so artists in the artists’ group came as well, and each brought a painting. We put all our names into a hat and swapped the writings and paintings around. Each artist ended up taking home a piece of written work on which they would base a new painting, and each of the writers took one of the paintings to inspire a new story or poem. Over the next month or two, the paintbrushes and keyboards came out as we all got to work.

Duets on displayIf you do the maths, you can see that we ended up with about 60 pieces, or 30 pairs. We called the project Duets in Paint and Print. As you might imagine, it all took a great deal of coordination, but eventually each pair became part of a Duets exhibition. Half the works are currently on display at The Bean Bar (a popular Taree café), and the other half at the Harrington Library. There are plans afoot to include all the works in a book.

—Those are the basic facts. But the experience of it is something else again. The artwork is worthy, as are the pieces of writing, but the overall result is much more than the sum of those parts. People who’ve been to the exhibition say they found it moving to stand in front of two people’s works, sitting there side by side, linked in this unusual way.

Bower bird To illustrate, I received a call a few days ago from someone who identified herself as Lynn. With suppressed excitement, she told me she was the artist who had done a painting based on a story that I’d written about a bower bird. She had just sold the painting, and wanted to share that the purchaser had told her she loved the painting and the story, and the way they danced together.

The works do indeed feel to me like they’re in a dance – the colourful paintings matched with the austere black and white of the stories and poems, both media trying to bring a common theme to life. There is an atmosphere of fragile partnerships, each tentatively reaching out to and contributing to the other.


The painting that I drew in the lottery was a mass of colour. I assume you’d call it abstract.

Duets 1The prospect of writing from it was daunting. One of my fellow Scribblers took home a painting with three horses, and someone else one with a vase of roses. You could write a story about those things! But the elusive piece I ended up with—I liked its colours and that was about all I could say with certainty.

I understand writing. I know what I like and what I don’t; I feel strongly what’s honest and what’s contrived. But art?! I’m right out of my comfort zone. And now I was to write a piece inspired by a living, breathing human being who would no doubt read my story, who would take my response personally. I wanted to do well by that artist.

So I hung the painting on the wall just over my monitor, and pleaded with it to talk to me. For several days we just co-existed. I let it get used to me while I waited for it to start communicating.

Eventually it did. The mass of colour became a landscape, a deeply forested spot, the kind of place you might have a tryst. I became enamoured of the contrasts, sun and shadow. There was a glowing red spot that clearly had a big story to tell.

The partnership was taking form.


Here is the story I told about the painting.

There is this place I go to.

It’s not so easy to get there any more. I no longer pack along a picnic lunch or take a rug to sit on. It’s all I can manage to go through the gate, trundle up the slope and stand a few moments in the little glen.

Today I pause for breath where the hill rises gently before me. Behind the trees I can glimpse the spot where Lisbeth’s fierce spirit lies, and where Frank’s heart beats most strongly.

In the glade, just out of my sight, is the overgrown cross where we buried Lisbeth all those years ago. She was just three months old; she laughed and played and sang, and one morning did not wake up. Say what you will about a mother’s love—I always thought it was harder on Frank than on me. He never failed to blow his nose quietly into his handkerchief when we sat there.

There were a couple of times we thought we might sell up and move to town, especially in the last few years when his strength was fading. But we were too used to the familiar radiance and shadows of our homestead, and Lisbeth’s grave as much as anything held us here.

Light and shadow; sun and shade. The contrasts push at me, teasing my eye and my memory.

—Sunlight catching the gold of the maidenhair tree; deep shade under the willow where Scout, our old collie, would wait for us.

—Frank’s big wrinkled hands; Lisbeth’s tiny smooth face.

—His long, purposeful life; her little ephemeral one.

—Joy; sorrow.

This place reminds me that you cannot have love without loss, or loss without there having been love.

Today I’ll visit it again, perhaps for the last time.


Rick, who you’ll have pegged by now as a hopeless romantic, stood in front of the painting that inspired my second story, with tears in his eyes. Then he bought the painting. Or more accurately, he bought the duet.

They will hang together in the Shedders’ gallery.

Ah, hindsight…

Last Wednesday I dropped in to see my orthotist, a guy named Doug Long who most days works out of his home in coastal Laurieton. I asked him to make me another shoe insole. “Sure,” he said, “and look at you walking!” I mentioned that it was exactly one year ago today that I’d had my ankle surgery. With that comment, we gave each

Surgery is unpleasant

Surgery is unpleasant

other a startled look; after all, it was in the waiting room at the hospital that we had first met – exactly one year ago today. Doug had been sitting there dreading his imminent gall bladder operation, and I was dreading my imminent ankle fusion. When he discovered I was having the fusion, and I discovered he was the orthotist (the guy who makes special shoes, insoles and orthotics) that my surgeon had recommended, we cheered each other up by talking deals and making plans for the future. We both survived our surgeries and have been business mates ever since.

The incident brought to mind, as if it were yesterday, the very sober person who had been waiting at the hospital that day.

I’d long been advised that an ankle fusion might be the next step for a left foot that had been damaged when I had polio several centuries ago. The prognosis wasn’t straightforward or overwhelmingly exciting. The surgery was likely to reduce the pain I was experiencing when I walked; I might not have to wear an AFO (ankle-foot orthotic, or brace) any longer; it should give me extra years of walking. But no guarantees. I have a half dozen close friends who have had hip replacements – a major and bloodthirsty surgery that takes one off the street for many weeks but at least has a predictably excellent outcome. Not so this one.

So up until the moment that the anaesthetic started flowing into my veins, I was still busily pondering whether I should go ahead with the surgery or not. Even AFTER the surgery, I busily pondered whether I should have done it or not. Such is the human mind – or mine, at least. I even wrote a post trying to make light of the mental torture of it all.

At any rate, it’s now a full year later and the preliminary results are in. So for the benefit of that fretful individual sitting in the waiting room – and any of you who’ve been Report cardwondering how it’s all going – here’s what the teachers wrote on my one-year report card:

Good work getting the surgery done! You took the advice of two excellent surgeons and no end of enthusiastic friends and just bit the bullet. That’s a pretty effective life practice.

And good job with the team you assembled. You surrounded yourself with no end of positive supportive people. You had housemates who picked up the slack – making meals, doing the dishes, cleaning the floors. They served metaphorical chicken soup, climbed into bed to chat, lugged around the knee scooter, helped with the steps down to the TV room. You had friends who came long distances to visit and help, and others happy to listen and talk. And let’s give a particular mention to that husband of yours, who brought coffee every morning and who spun gold out of every potential negative. (For example, when you encountered that painful new enemy, plantar fasciitis, which stopped you in your tracks for an extra two or three months, it was Rick who kept saying, “This is great; it means those tissues are waking up after a long sleep.”)

Good work on the fitness program. You’ve worked hard with yoga, leg and core strengthening, swimming, and time on the bike – all paying off.

On the suggested-improvements side, you really should consider easing up on the fretfulness. We know you like to think of yourself as a practical, realistic person, but one can’t say that the time you spent looking at the half empty glass added anything to your recovery or your experience of life. Give up the woe-is-me-ing.

Well, I can now walk a kilometre, without a brace; I can stroll along the ocean and as soon as the water’s warm, I’ll be in for some body surfing. I’m experiencing less pain all the time. Every month is better than the last. I had a surgeon who did a clean job and can be forgiven for saying, over and over, “It will be a year until you really experience the benefits.” Now he says it’ll be another year before the ink is dry, and that’s okay too.

In hindsight, one year on, I’m glad I did it.


Speaking of hindsight, don’t you wonder what’s going through Tony Abbot’s mind these days? He seems to be holed up after his ignominious “spill” this week, not saying much at all after having faxed in his prime ministerial resignation. (Faxed? Faxed? Who faxes anything, never mind a very public resignation?) (It might relate to having to live off his pension now, a paltry $300,000+ per year, which I suppose would have you avoid lashing out on a courier.)

A walk on the beachI like to imagine what Tony’s thinking, as he walks along the beach, hands clasped behind his back:

If only I hadn’t been so belligerent and bombastic. If I could do it again, I would speak politely to people who challenged me, and I would listen very closely to good advice. I would dish out compliments at every opportunity.

If only I hadn’t been so fear-mongering. What happened in my childhood that has me so frightened of boat people, terrorists, economic peril and anything else that moves? I’m going to put myself in therapy.

If only I hadn’t been so combative and isolationist when clearly working collaboratively is what produces results.

I’m ready to transform! (He punches the air with his fist.)

**Pop.** (Bubble bursts.)

It makes you wonder: do we actually learn anything from hindsight?

If I had a chance to do my year again, would I worry less and refuse to indulge in negative self-talk? Would I do anything differently?

Would Tony?


Little feet

Here today…

Flying highAs I write this the little screen in front of me tells me that I am 33,472 feet above sea level. Courtesy of Air Canada, I am enroute from a three month summer on Vancouver Island, headed toward home and spring in Mitchells Island, Australia. I have left behind my son, my mother, my daughter and her partner, several good friends, and dozens of relatives and in-laws who are dear to me.

It’s hard to imagine at this point, but I know from experience that within a few days these people will become part of happy memories. How can I prevent these wonderful experiences from dissipating into a misty past? My heart and mind will soon be full of my Australian housemates, our Mitchells Island gardens, the choir I sing in, Saturday morning breakfasts on the Manning River and the myriad other things that make up my Australian life.


That was a couple of days ago. As I write this I am in the throes of jetlag, with that strange sense of displacement that I’ve described in a previous blog. Some of the brain circuitry just wants to dwell in yesterday-life, and some is champing at the bit to design tomorrow-life. Sometimes tomorrow and yesterday stumble together in great confusion. Just being present is not yet a possibility.

The whole sensation brings to mind a feeling I was swamped with after an extraordinary event I attended a few weeks ago. Let me tell you about it.

Sand Sculpting CompetitionEach summer the coastal Vancouver Island town of Parksville hosts an international exhibition and competition called The Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition and Exhibition. Some thirty sculptors from around the world are accepted to contribute; their expenses are paid and they are eligible for prizes up to $5,000. They have a total of 30 hours over a three-day period in which to create a sculpture. (All sorts of disasters apparently happen during creation, as heads fall off and pillars collapse.) The sand is clean and refined, and the works are sprayed with a special glue that helps keep the elements at bay.

This year’s theme was Heroes and Villains.

Rick and I drove to Parksville one day and wandered into the exhibition, having heard that it was “fantastic”. When you travel among enthusiastic people, many things are described as “fantastic”, so one takes the fervour with a grain of salt.

However, it soon transpired that this exhibition was by any definition fantastic. (See Webster. Fantastic: “imaginative or fanciful; extraordinarily good or attractive”.) We were spellbound by the imagination, the talent, the execution – and by the deep Batman and Jokersensitivity of many of the pieces. For example, there was a massive sculpture of halves of Batman and Joker, locked in enmity and mutual torment – showing how you can’t have good without evil, that they are each half of the whole of human experience.

OgreAnother moving sculpture was titled “Every villain thinks of himself as a hero”. One side of the sculpture displayed a rather grim and ugly ogre, Heroa chained storybook villain. But when you walked round to the back, you saw his view of himself: radiant, clear-sighted, a quiet force of nature. A hero. How often have we all felt the same way? One moment I am a hero in my own mind, though perhaps the villain in others’. And who knows how the villains in my life regard themselves?

EinsteinBut one sculpture in particular stopped me in my tracks. I was first captured by an enormous and perfect bust of Einstein. I stepped in close to study the miraculous eyes, and to my amazement discovered a tear streaming from a corner of each of those all-seeing eyes. Puzzled, I began to look more closely at the whole display. Sure enough, there behind Einstein was the devastated city of Hiroshima, with the Enola Gay dropping its payload in one Hiroshimavignette and a saddened Buddha in another.

Here I was, walking with a hundred other tourists through this cheerful sun-kissed place, and out of the blue was cast into one of the darkest moments in our history. I was flooded with imagery from a film I had just seen, Mr Holmes, set shortly after WWII, where the protagonist is touring what a year or two earlier had been a magnificent park in Nagasaki. The subtle tear streaming down Einstein’s face captured his painful knowledge of his culpability amidst his good intentions. Hero and villain all at once.

How many times have I tried to do the right thing and instead incurred damage I don’t even care to think about?

At any rate, perhaps the most poignant part of the whole display was knowing that in two weeks bulldozers and trucks would move in, and all these magnificent works of art would be gone. It was unbearable to think about. I have a friend who has created beautiful pieces of art and left them in the forest to be consumed by the natural order of things. I’m familiar with the Ephemeral Art movement. But these glorious pieces that had moved me so deeply with their richness…how could the world let them just disappear? How could they have been created in SAND, I ask you? Clearly, someone needed to throw a coat of bronze over them, and preserve them for a hundred lifetimes.

Well, here’s how life is: some things don’t get bronzed. Sand castles, for example.

And memories, for another.

I’ll hang onto my Canadian summer in the way that humans have forever tried to, and then ultimately—let it go.

Time for a cuppa with housemate Eve.