Crossing the Great Divide

I crossed the Great Divide between middle age and elderly this weekend. There is suddenly a barely-fathomable “7” at the front of my age-digits.

I decided several months ago that I might as well use this coming upheaval as a cause for celebration—after all, as they say, getting old is better than the alternative. So I thought through the things I love to do. Not big parties, particularly. Not ocean cruises. Definitely not climbing a mountain.

Suze Pratten

Suze Pratten

But SINGING! – now there’s something. And friends. What if I could find a weekend of joyous singing, and share it with people I love?

The perfect opportunity availed itself: “Singing at the Monastery”. The location was clearly going to be beautiful. The directors I knew well. Three full days of singing with them – could there be a more fitting opportunity to herald in a new decade?

So I put the word out to a number of close friends, most of whom were able to chisel a hole in busy lives and set aside four days for celebration. We rented a large and luxurious Airbnb not far from the Monastery, and packed up enough wine and bright clothing to get us through the weekend.

I then proceeded to surrender to the choice, and in the end slid over the Great Divide with joy and panache.

Monastery 5The Stroud Monastery turned out to be an enchanting environment. The hall in which we sang (Gunyah Chiara) had perfect acoustics. The chapel, where we sang one evening, carried echoes of thousands of years of music and ritual. There was a sing-along at the campfire, complete with candle-lit pathways, the glowing white trunks of gum trees, a full moon in the sky, and someone toasting the only perfect marshmallows I’ve seen south of the equator.

Our contingent from Wingsong

Our contingent from Wingsong

And most all there was singing! There were 67 of us (10 from our own Wingsong Choir) and we sang almost non-stop for a full three days. We learned seven songs, each more beautiful than the last. We danced, we held concerts, we juiced ourselves up with those happy hormones that come with choral singing. On The Day itself, I was fêted with a raucous cha-cha-cha rendering of Happy Birthday.

Birthday groovin'For all of that time, I dwelt completely in the present, at the same time building up enough memories to last the rest of a lifetime.

Now, several mornings later, I still have the sumptuous chords that 67 voices can make filtering through my brain. I open my mouth to talk, and a riff falls out. I sing in the shower, and can hear faintly the other 66 voices behind me. The event is a miracle that keeps on giving.

But in spite of all this, I confess to feeling a bit forlorn.

People neglect to tell you the downside of a choral weekend. You might guess that leaving behind excellent new friends is a negative, and that’s bad enough. But the true loss comes from having to leave the songs behind, along with the 67 voices and the wonderful directors who arranged them and led us so passionately. That can’t be replicated. The new friends I can find again if I want to, but it feels like the songs are gone forever.

It’s left me somewhat bereft.

Maybe it’s just that loss becomes more poignant when you reach 70. Unmistakably, it’s all finite. When a friend or partner dies, they’re gone. When a song is left behind, it’s gone.

But didn’t you love them while you had them! – And that’s the joy that lurks behind all loss.

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.