We were clustered in a large lounge room which was slightly shabby in the way of holiday houses, with faux-walnut furniture, well-trammelled carpets and a sealed up fireplace painted beige to match the walls.
I was sitting quietly on the floor on one side of the room, leaning against the wall and contemplating the litter of paper, coloured pens, glitter, magazines, crepe paper, glue stick, seashells and leaves scattered on the floor in front of me. I glanced at the others, sprawled about the room as I was, and surrounded by similar materials. It was New Year’s Day and we were using these tools to help us design the year and the decade ahead – our version of New Year’s resolutions.
My husband Rick and I and two other couples were celebrating Christmas break together, sharing a holiday rental house in the coastal town of Manyana, several hours south of Sydney. For three years now we had shared this vacation spot at Christmas, and early on had discovered that the six of us, friends for many years, provided good company for one another.
On this warm summer’s afternoon, we were about to invent our future, as the cliché goes. Creating goals and designing the year ahead had become a bit of a tradition, introduced a few years ago by Michael, one of the group. The colourful equipment in front of us today was a new twist, intended to help put us into a creative frame of mind. Eve, another of our group, had been out collecting and buying resources over the last few days. It was her idea to stimulate our creative juices with this paraphernalia, and she had pushed us past our initial reluctance to take what felt like a kindergarten approach.
In the midst of all the colour and creativity, I felt the odd man out. I was feeling distant, nervous, sad and not the least bit imaginative. The prospect of designing the coming year was forcing me to confront how challenging my last year had been. My younger brother had died of a heart attack earlier in the year, followed a few months later by my father after a long battle with Parkinson’s. A couple of months after that a cousin and an uncle also died of illnesses. These things all took a toll on me, but perhaps the biggest ache at the moment was the concern I had for my mother – who had lost her son, her husband and her closest brother. She was in Canada on the other side of the world. Though we talked every day using instant messaging on the computer, I couldn’t begin to know how to console her. I was starting to understand the literal quality of having a heavy heart. It seemed as if I’d been lugging around this leaden instrument in my chest for a long while now.
The friends around me had been invaluable in supporting me through this. I watched them, engrossed as they were in their creative work.
My eyes rested on Rick. He looked uncomfortable but that was probably because he didn’t much like sitting on the floor. We were in our twenty-fourth year of marriage, the longest in the room. Rick was a partner in every sense of the word. He was a warm and generous father to our children, and a business partner in the corporate training company I manage. And he was my mate, my good friend, my lover, the person whose sense of humour delighted me, who did the shopping, maintained the car and paid the bills. I had been the one to push to us into buying our house in Forestville in Sydney’s suburbs a dozen years ago, and Rick was the one pushing to sell it now that it had trebled in value. He would have described himself as a philosopher, passionate about the world of ideas. He had been a key driver in our move to Australia from western Canada in the early eighties, concerned about the cold war and wanting to build a safe life in a temperate climate for our little family.
Rick was a foodie, that mysterious kind of person who could be planning the next meal while still stuffed from the current one. He was someone who loved his routines – it was a bit of a miracle to get him here the first time three years ago, as he’d never been partial to holidays away from his familiar habits and habitats. In his career he was an ace computer programmer, ex-IBM, who appreciated a logical world, but he was caught up in this free-wheeling exercise like everybody else. I could see a picture of a globe pasted on his construction – which I could understand, based on his connection to our friends and family back in Canada. He had a number of high school, uni and old work mates in Canada who somehow seemed closer than the relationships he’d built up in all these years in Australia. I could also glimpse a photo of Cindy Crawford – which I couldn’t so readily understand and made me wonder exactly what he had in mind for his coming year.
Not far from Rick sat Eve, poised cross-legged near the window where she could catch a bit of breeze, her knee lightly resting against that of her husband Daniel. Eve and Daniel were also ex-pats, having come from America in the seventies, each with different partners. They had met here in Australia about ten years ago, when they did a course together that involved discarding both their gear and their relationship resistance, and had promptly fallen in love. Daniel had a son from his previous marriage, and Eve a son from hers. Like Rick and me, they were dual citizens of Australia and their native country.
Eve owned a yoga studio in Sydney, wrote for yoga magazines and led yoga retreats. She was petite, lithe, blond, funny – one of the few people I knew who could engage in conversation and even roar laughing while in headstand. She had been leading us in afternoon yoga sessions when we came off the beach all salty and sun-burned. I’d started doing yoga with her on the previous summer holiday, and as I got to know both her and the mat more intimately, I discovered there was something about this discipline that was beginning to captivate me. I had the thought I might become a yogi myself, and Eve was a fine role model.
Her husband Daniel sat with his legs spread wide with his materials in front of him. Like Rick, Daniel was a programmer. I knew him to be highly regarded in that career, which intrigued me because there was something distinctly alternative about him. He was wearing a bright floral shirt and his hair was cut close to his scalp. He was a member of the Sceptics Society, as I had learned after encountering a Sceptics magazine with his name on it on the coffee table. I enjoyed the relentless logic of his arguments – you couldn’t get away with anything around him – but also the way he could surprise me with his creativity. He sang in a choir, played guitar and had been a professional puppeteer in a previous lifetime. He and Eve had such an overtly loving relationship that we called them the honeymooners, although they’d been married for eight years. They owned a flat in the inner suburbs, and, like us, were considering selling while the market was high. He was chuckling as he leaned over the sketch book in which he was working, and would no doubt come up with something quirky for us to look at when show-and-tell time arrived.
I glanced across the room at Michael and Judy, the other couple in the room. Judy lay stretched out on her stomach a few feet to Eve’s right. She was working quietly, except for the occasional cluck of disapproval. With her tongue sticking out at the corner of her mouth as she pressed pen fiercely to paper, her intensity was palpable. At 53 she was the youngest of us but in some ways the mother hen. She did the worrying. She looked after our holiday rental and had already organised the bookings for the next year. I regarded myself as both a worrier and an organiser but Judy could leave me for dead on both counts. She was a good girlfriend to share life’s tribulations with.
Judy had been born in India into an Anglo-Indian family that came to Australia when she was six months old. She and Michael were married some eighteen years ago, and lived in a house in the inner suburbs with their son Jess. She worked in finance. She’d been talking with me lately about taking her career to a new level so I had a feeling she was going to put a big stake in the ground in this visioning exercise.
Michael, her husband, was seated behind Judy about as far as he could get from the rest of us. Michael participated in this group as enthusiastically as anyone, but he did things his own way. He called himself a loner, but I noticed he liked to surround himself with people. He and I shared a passion for education and organisational development; he was a trainer and workplace coach. Michael had begun his career as a journalist and was a word-smith. I had always thought of him as a Renaissance man, as he was interested in and articulate about almost everything. He had been sceptical about Eve’s scissors and paste approach to our visioning exercise, but he was right into it at the moment – cutting photos out of magazines, using big textas and slashing script to write what appeared to be his own verse to accompany the pictures.
Eve and Judy had known each other the longest, since the seventies, and over time we had all connected like magnets through courses we did together, through friends-of-friends, through work projects. Our friendships supported us. We could eat and drink and laugh together, but also inspire one another, discover new possibilities, clarify issues. We shared a passion for reading, writing, communication, learning, good food, games, crossword puzzles, the arts, the sciences, ideas and of course peace on earth.
Watching them, a flicker of determination went through me. I’d been sad long enough and wanted nothing more than to get back into the world and start laughing again. I looked with trepidation at the materials in front of me, feeling as if I’d mess up the coming year if I got this exercise wrong. I kept picking up objects and setting them back down again. I finally asked myself: what is something that lights me up? – and immediately thought of the body surfing I’d been doing the last few days. After I’d caught a wave just right, skimming into the shore on it, I felt an unbelievable exhilaration while my skin danced with the sizzle of salt, cool water and sun. Even exhausted, I would turn around and head straight back into the surf for another wave. At the thought, I grabbed a texta, opened a page of my drawing book and drew a stick figure that could conceivably have been somebody body-surfing a wave into shore. I put a couple of cartoon-style speed lines behind the stick-girl and found myself, like the stick-girl, grinning ear to ear.
Before long, I became swept up in the vision process and my creativity flared like natural gas. I thought about the year ahead, and the years looming beyond that. I was 56 years old. I got great pleasure from my work and was convinced I’d stay in business forever – but then again…what if I didn’t? What else might I be doing in ten years? I could be in the country, close to nature as we were here at the ocean…I could go on daily beach walks and body surf all spring, summer and autumn long…I might be playing with grandchildren…I could garden or sing or write or do those things I was always thinking I’d do if I just had time. I could have surprises and do new things every day. Chewing on my pen, I began to imagine myself living that life.
I thought, okay, I’d love to live in the country, near the beach as we are here in Manyana. I’d love to have a big comfortable home with restful views. I sketched a rambling house in my drawing book and placed a blossoming tree in front of it. A stick-Heather posed with a hoe in hand. A stick-Rick leaned against the house holding a beer can.
A concern intruded: what community could I have? If I left the city, would I feel isolated? The stick-Rick and stick-Heather looked a bit lonely with only their house and tree. Could I have the joy of this Manyana experience without friends like these around me?
I looked around the room and thought, wouldn’t it be great to be with these friends in that country life? They’d keep me on my toes, they’d keep me straight, they’d keep me laughing. So in the space I’d set up for recording my goals, I wrote down, “In 5 years I’m retired and living in a yurt village with Rick and Michael and Judy and Eve and Daniel.” For some time I’d been attracted to the simplicity and affordability of the yurt, and I pictured a cluster of small round buildings as the nerve centre of a wealth of activity and comfortable camaraderie.
A feeling of well-being settled over me.
We’d given ourselves an hour and a half. After our time was up and our objets d’art were in their various stages of completion, we tidied up a bit, then got ready to share what we’d done. One by one, we showed each other our creations, talking through our vision for the coming years. We shared our hopes for our quality of life, our children, our businesses and careers, our hobbies and past-times. There was a will in the room to do well, be satisfied, be all we could be. Everyone’s desires, dreams and intentions were on display; everyone’s work touched me. I felt uplifted, encouraged, empowered, and could see it on the others’ faces as well.
There was a theme in each presentation about how fulfilling it was to share deeply with one another as we had been doing, to support and be supported – our time together was leaving its mark on all of us. We all individually speculated about how we might continue that into the future.
Eve’s camera snicked as she took a few photos to record the moment, while Daniel rubbed his hands together and said, “How about a cocktail before dinner?”
No doubt: I loved them.
* * *
That evening, preparing dinner, Michael and Judy got into a bit of a melée, digging into each other in that scratchy and hurtful way that only people who love each other intensely seem to fall prey to. Their comments to each other were like fingernails scraping their way down my blackboard. I suggested to Eve that we go for a walk, but she declined saying she wanted to do some yoga – leaving my feelings hurt. Rick and Daniel, who were scanning the newspaper, got into a discussion about politics, both wanting to be heard, neither wanting to listen, their volume escalating while their communication deteriorated.
I went for a walk myself.
I loved them not.
* * *
(Chapter 1 continues next post)