Calmful living

Calmful livingI was recently approached by Anna from an American website called Calmful Living, which focuses on “calm mind, calm body, calm living”. Anna had read about us, and felt that our lifestyle might be tranquility-inducing as people approach retirement. Following is a copy of her interview questions, and my response.

As you can see, life continues to go well for the Shedders.

When you first began contemplating retirement, what were your concerns?

My husband Rick and I had a nest-egg sufficient to support a careful retirement, but not a generous one. We knew we couldn’t afford to retire in Sydney, an expensive city – although that didn’t matter because we were keen to leave the Big Smoke anyway. A few acres in the country, not far from good services, appealed. But that raised questions of having to start all over again building community, of solitary hours after a lifetime with busy social lives – of loneliness. What about when you lose some of your health? What about when you lose a partner?

These were the issues that concerned us: enough money and a solid community.

How did the idea of co-housing with other seniors come about?

 We had friends, two other couples, that we often spent holiday time with. In our fifties, as retirement appeared on the horizon, we began discussing these issues with them. We really enjoyed – and profited from – our holiday time together and wondered about sharing our retirement. Was it conceivable that we could stretch our retirement dollars farther in a shared living situation? Could we avoid aloneness? Could we provide support for each other?

We voted “yes”. Over the next several years, we resolved the key issues, including a big one: where to live. We bought four acres in the country, four hours from Sydney, not far from the ocean, and near a medium-sized town with good facilities. Before moving onto it, we tested our resilience by finding a big house in the city and renting together for two years. That worked fine, so we set up a good exit agreement and went ahead with building on our land.

Our homeWe’ve ended up in what looks like a large modern home. It has three suites where each couple has a good-sized bedroom, sitting room/office, on-suite and deck. We share the kitchen, living room(s) and entertainment areas. We’re seven full years into the arrangement now.

How has this lifestyle reduced stress and improved quality of life for all of you? Feel free to give any examples of when living communally helped a tough situation resolve more easily. 

A few weeks ago, on December 31, the six of us sat down together in our lovely living room to review our year. We took turns talking through the highlights, low points and learnings of the year. As I listened to people speaking, I was overwhelmed with a sense of just how much our lifestyle has contributed to each of us. Someone said, “I feel that this year I’ve become who I always wanted to be, and that’s a result of this way of living.” Every single one of us expressed contentment about living in our cooperative household. It was an strong tribute to this unusual thing we’ve done.

As you can well imagine, we don’t live stress-free. There are differences of opinion to be worked through, minor grievances, differing priorities. We’ve had to learn to be good at communication and at give and take. But on the big things, the benefits really shine through. We’ve had injuries and surgeries, small and large (e.g. four hip replacements, one ankle fusion, one knee reconstruction). It’s been great to share the road to recovery with five other people rather than one overworked and frustrated partner.

SheddersI’d say our mental health has benefited as well. There is always someone to talk things through, to pull you out of a funk, to provide a different perspective. There are demands on our flexibility that might be challenging short-term, but long-term are making stronger, more resilient people of us.

We enjoy a lovely home and gardens, with six of us sharing the work. Rick and I go to Canada, where we were both born, every summer – and the house is cared for in our absence.

Best of all, we have a large and vibrant community around us. We profit from each other’s networks. We’ve all gained friends from my housemate’s yoga classes, our community choir, the book club, the garden club, the men’s group, the palliative care community. I’ve never had a richer circle of friends.

I couldn’t leave this question without mentioning how good it is to routinely share our evening meals together. Of course there’s always lively conversation, but best of all is someone else doing the cooking two-thirds of the time. A tiny sense of competitiveness means our meals are excellent and varied. As with most things, it wouldn’t be the same with just Rick and me.

How do you handle the obstacles that arise?

We have monthly meetings that are intended to anticipate issues coming up – expenditures, repairs, activities, guests. Every issue is a potential obstacle, but we find that by staying committed to talking things through, we avert most crises. It’s not always easy. We have to be willing to both say and hear uncomfortable things, and to deal objectively with differing opinions. It can be messy in the middle, but with careful communication, so far we’re come through every time with relationships even stronger.

Do you think we will begin to see more of this type of retirement? 

Indeed I do.

The way we live together in the western world has shifted dramatically over the last couple of centuries. We’ve changed from village living to extended family living to independent living. The opportunities and constraints of modern lifestyles are leading us in new directions.

Architects are taking an interest; many councils and local governments are making it easier for people to create communal neighborhoods. There are intentional communities, cooperative houses, communes and ecovillages, all with the purpose of bringing people together in a synergistic fashion. Each has its own advantages.

Perhaps our own situation, where we have six people co-habiting the same dwelling and closely sharing many areas of the house, is unusual. It wasn’t easy to make happen, but so far the evidence is that we’re getting the results we wanted.

The wisdom of Wingsong

Singing togetherMy intention is not to make you jealous, but beware, it could happen—I’m about to describe our community choir.

I joined this choir some six or seven years ago. We meet weekly in a country town about a half hour’s drive from here. The town is Wingham and the choir is called Wingsong. You wouldn’t want to expect too much from a choir located in such a setting, but in this case you’d have underestimated the situation. Our choir is a winner, a fully satisfying experience.

Let me fill you in.

First, about a community choir: you don’t audition, you don’t have to have experience or be “a good singer”, you don’t commit to anything. There may or may not be concerts and gigs. You go just because you like to sing and you thrive on getting involved in the harmonies. As with most such choirs, we show up once a week, pay a small fee to cover the costs of the hall and photocopying of the music, and then sing for an hour and a half.

So what’s special about Wingsong? For one thing, we’ve become a good-sized choir. Last week there were over 45 people attending. You can get a truly full-bodied sound with 45 voices, in an almost equal distribution of basses, tenors, altos and sopranos. But to really understand Wingsong’s success, you start by looking at the top. Wingsong is blessed with not one but three choir directors, all highly experienced. One is a natural singer/musician and has led this choir for some 20 years. One, with a significant knowledge of voice, was a director of a Sweet Adeline’s choir for several years. One has an MA in music, near perfect pitch, and can arrange beautifully for four parts. They’re teachers and natural leaders, with a big-hearted commitment. They’ve all ended up in the Manning Valley (as you would, but that’s another story) and they co-lead this choir out of the sheer joy of the music and the contribution.

Another secret of success: Wingsong chooses thoroughly good songs, across a variety of genres. Last week we worked on two or three pulsing African numbers, a rocking gospel tune, a couple of pieces of Australiana that are heart-breakingly beautiful (including one that ought to be the Australian national anthem), and a complex, haunting song written and brilliantly arranged by a well-known NSW musician. There’s something for everyone—well, really, there’s everything for everyone.

One more thing that Wingsong does well is manage the dilemma of social versus musical priorities, which all choirs must face. You tend to relish many of the people you sing with, and the resulting conversational need has to be balanced with everyone’s desire to sing and learn songs in a disciplined fashion. We don’t have a lot of rules, but nonetheless, the work gets done without friction.

We help to resolve this dilemma with another ritual: going out for dinner at the pub afterward.

***

In writing this post, I wanted to build a case for choirs, so I googled “health benefits of choral singing”. Accustomed though I am to marveling at what’s out there in the known universe, I was nonetheless stunned at the amount and depth of research that has been done about singing in a choir. I could have read all week and never got this post written.

One of my favourite posts was an article in Time magazine, called Singing Changes Your Brain: Here’s how the article opens:

When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.

Hundreds of studies show provable benefits of choral singing physically. Oxygen in the bloodstream is increased, and exercise is provided for the heart and lungs. The accompanying movement of the body provides light exercise. Singing turns out to be a good upper body workout.

Choir 2A study reported by The Telegraph (UK) speaks about the benefits of working in a “cohesive social group”. Remarkably, people’s heartbeats become synchonised during choral singing. I’m not sure how that translates to a health benefit, but it points to the social aspects, also claimed to be important.

I encountered much research focusing on neural activity: what the brain is doing while you are singing. For example, for those of you interested in arcuate fasciculus, modularity and use-dependent neuroplasticity (!), here’s just the article for you.  It’s exhaustive, and you may find it a touch exhausting.

The psychological benefits are strongly documented. Choir singing is known to stimulate two of the “happy hormones”, oxytocin and endorphins, which results in a lowering of stress levels and blood pressure. Also from the Time article:

As the popularity of group singing grows, science has been hard at work trying to explain why it has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.

One researcher spoke about choral singing being “an outlet for the emotions people are carrying”. Other studies claim that singing lessens feelings of depression. And there’s no need to be a good singer, according to the studies. Just show up and let the music wash you clean. For several years now Rick and I have made our annual trek home from Canada the day after Labor Day. We fly for innumerable hours, navigate airports, get in a car, drive several more hours to get to Mitchells Island, unpack—and head off for choir. Jet-lagged, severely over-tired and displaced, this is how we find our way home.

I particularly relish this quote, which takes us straight to the tangled roots of our existence:

A very recent study even attempts to make the case that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself. (Enthusiastic emphasis is mine.)

As I stand in choir, surrounded by the harmonies and the intense focus of everyone there, I can believe this is an evolutionary reward. It’s one of the finest things I experience about being human.

***

I made a passing remark earlier about a song we sing which “should be our national anthem”. It’s a song about Australia—and a song about singing.

Choir 3I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you up, my land
I will walk across this island,
I will sing you, I will sing to you

 

You are old and you are drying
Murray River down and dying
I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you, I will sing to you
Of a love that pulses in me
Of a love you can take with you
I will sing you up my country
I will sing you up, I’ll sing you up, I’ll sing you up
I’ll sing.

Rachel Hore, choir leader/songwriter/singer

….Well, all right, maybe not quite national anthem material—but an anthem to the healing and joy-making powers of singing.

Community: anytime, anywhere

Eve and I were approached this week by Focus, a local community magazine, to be interviewed for an article on the Shedders. We do get a fair bit of publicity, and each time, I am reminded about what a smart (not to mention interesting) phenomenon we have created here in Shedders-land. Day to day, we just go about the business of living and getting along, so every now and then it’s good to stop and reflect on how we arrived here and just what it is we’ve got.

At any rate, the experience of writing a response to the editor’s questions had me extra sensitive to the power of relationship—exactly at a time when I came across an article about an interesting development in Bologna, Italy. Here an urban neighbourhood has come to life as a big-hearted community. I found myself captivated by a familiar old theme.

Via Fondazza

Via Fondazza, Bologna, Italy

What happened was this: a pair of lonely newcomers to the area put out the word that they’d be interested in creating a closed Facebook group for neighbours along their street. People responded quickly and positively, and the result is a thousand people who now feel like they live in a small town. They now know each other, exchange greetings on the street, socialise, have adventures and help out.

Here’s a sample story from the article:

A few months back, Caterina Salvadori, a screenwriter and filmmaker who moved to Via Fondazza last March, posted on Facebook that her sink was clogged. Within five minutes, she said, she had three different messages.

One neighbor offered a plunger, then another a more efficient plunger, and a third offered to unblock the sink himself. The last bidder won.

“Can you imagine, in a big city?” she said, still in disbelief at the generosity. “It’s not about the sink, it’s the feeling of protection and support that is so hard to find in cities nowadays.”

And another:

This year, a young woman expressed a concern for her safety and proposed a neighborhood watch.

Another resident, Luigi Nardacchione, responded that she should just call him if she was on her way home late at night, and he would come and meet her.

“I am retired, I have time, why shouldn’t I help?” said Mr. Nardacchione, 64, a former manager of a pharmaceutical company.

According to one resident:

“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy. You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”

I like that last comment: you do open up your life when you let people in. Fear climbs into the back seat, displaced by trust and goodwill. We all know that sometimes trust will be abused, but how preferable it is to have our heads populated by positive expectations rather than wariness and isolation.Random acts of neighboring

If you’d like to read the entire article – which I’d recommend, especially if you’re an urban dweller – click here. Beware. Drop off a few flyers and you could find yourself in the middle of a social avalanche.

***

On an identical theme, yesterday I received an email from a dear friend who lives here on Mitchells Island. He and his wife have purchased 40 acres, and moved up from Sydney about a year and a half ago. They’re renovating their house and have built up a nice little farm with a bit of livestock. They’re slowly creating a new home for themselves, very different from the one they had in Sydney.

Here’s what my friend said in his email:

On this Sunday afternoon our neighbours (two farms up) held a luncheon at their jetty.  This was a splendid occasion on a beautiful sunny afternoon with one of their own pigs on a spit, cooked to perfection with fantastic crackling.  It was a party for the neighbours and we got to know everyone on our road. Gradually, we are really becoming part of our very local community.  

The significance of a community in a rural area really becomes clear after such a lunch.  All the people involved become important in one way of another in just being there and you know that you can call on them.…Out of this we might have access to a ram for our ewes, and we may provide the services of our bull to our neighbour’s cows…I know such a network will become more and more important for us in the future.

So, in much the same way that the Via Fondazzians built their community, my friend is part of building one among his neighbours. He’s enjoying the camaraderie (as well as the pork crackling), and he’s setting life up so it can be easier, more economical and fuller.

***

Bear with me for one more quote. I’ll give the last word on building community to housemate Eve, from her contribution to the Focus article:

In balance, I can say that our arrangement is the best outcome I could have possibly imagined for my retirement and ageing. We Shedders spark off each other and support our divergent interests. In some areas, we collaborate—that is, in our communities, in teaching, in networking. We support each other in staying healthy, encouraging physical activity and good diets. We have learned so much from each other, not always easily or gracefully. But most rough edges have been smoothed out over the years, and as a result there’s gratitude and love.

Welcome to the neighborhood

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?

Hmmmm.

Little feet

Don’t wanna

Rick and I had been planning a little project for some time: laying a small patio in front of each of two new sliding doors at the guest bedrooms. The project, which involves arranging a few dozen pavers on top of a shallow bed of gravel and sand, would not tax a handyman for a moment. Now, Rick and I have our skills, but laying out a simple patio was not among them.

As we were sipping our coffee one morning, contemplating the project, Rick made the following observation: “I notice I’m feeling dread at the prospect of what we’re about to take on. Although we’ve worked it all out and have clear and simple instructions, I keep having this feeling of: ‘Uh-oh—too big for me.’

“As a matter of fact,” he went on, “it’s the same feeling I get about loading the kayak. I’ve done it dozens of times, we’ve got the tools and the leverage down perfect, it’s NOTHING for me to get the kayak up on the roof of the car – and yet every time I contemplate it, it feels like a big deal.”

Eventually Rick got to his point: “There’s a four-year-old in there calling the emotional shots. That little guy wasn’t capable of levering a 40 kilo kayak on to the top of the car, and he’s certainly not up to figuring out how to build a patio. He’s just a Little Guy.

“But what’s he doing HERE?! Here I am, a fully grown man who’s carting around the spiritual residue of a four year old. Go figure.”

At that, he grimaced and said, “Well, let’s get stuck into it.”

Little guy 1There was no sign of the Little Guy a few hours later, when Rick was measuring out dimensions, doing complicated calculations, and shovelling wheelbarrows of gravel and sand, all the while humming happily. The patios gradually emerged, punctuated with a number of learning experiences, and now there are a couple of nice platforms where you can sit on your deck chair and have a cup of

Tree dahlia

Tree dahlia

coffee, while the tree dahlias wave above you and the pheasant coucals cavort in the trees below.

The whole episode led me to speculate about my own Little Guy. There is a feeling I notice on occasion, which I might meticulously define as Don’t wanna. I haven’t distinguished out the voice, and I mistake it for my own, or perhaps for the voice of the universe. It’s just how it is. But in reality, I can see it’s my four-year-old talking. Don’t wanna, she’s saying. And if I scratch under the surface I can see a Little Guy who’s having an adverse reaction – about things that might be logical in a four-year-old but not so much in a strong, mature, independent adult. “This is too big for me,” the voice is trying to say. Or “I could get hurt,” or, “This is scary.”

The Little Guy wasn’t smart or articulate enough to define her terms, only to notice the raw emotion she was abuzz with. The 40 kilo kayak was clearly too heavy to handle, the wave was too big to safely walk into, the German Shepard was a terrifying size – and it all rolled into Don’t wanna. It’s a mantra our Little Guys learned well. Very well. Who’d have guessed it was becoming a lifelong partner, in for the long haul?

My own Little Guy doesn’t get triggered by construction projects. My four-year-old was trained by my father, a farmer, that there’s no challenge that a few tools and bit of thinking can’t solve—and you can have some fun in the process. My own Little Guy looks at construction projects like building a patio as, “Yahoo! I’ll help!” (She hasn’t noticed the irony of exploiting Rick when the project is my own idea.)

But my Little Guy learned other Don’t wannas. I have a spontaneous reaction any time Rick suggests a drive. I promptly think, Don’t wanna, with a whiney-voiced addendum: It’s too faaaaar. It doesn’t take much to spot that the voice is actually that of a Little Guy who spent 45 minutes on the school bus every morning and every afternoon, punctuated on occasion with two-hour drives to our nearest town. Eventually a more adult voice kicks in, commenting on the cappuccino coming up, the crossword puzzle we’ll be working on, the shopping we’ll be doing—and it’s only a 20-minute drive, for pete’s sake.

But the Little Guy always takes its cut, dampening my experience with her Don’t wanna.

Emotion is a powerful thing, sometimes learned early and rarely reliable as an indicator in the present.

Little guy 2At any rate, it’s fun to have the patios. But I suspect the greatest contribution the project will make is in the insight it has provided. For Rick, he’s discovered that rather than resisting the ungrounded dread, or trying to talk himself into a more sensible approach, he can simply get a kick out of seeing his little alter-ego having its four-year-old reactions. He can give the Little Guy a hug and set him on the fence to watch as Big Guy throws together a patio or two, or effortlessly hoists the kayak up onto its lift bar. Everyone’s in his rightful place.

You need a passport for a trip to oncology

Sometimes it can take a lot to get to where you can trust The System. Take it from friend Linda, who says she’s had to get a passport in order to take her to her destination in the remote country of Trust.

Chemo moonshineI spent most of the day yesterday in the oncology unit with Linda again, as she underwent her second chemo treatment, the first being three weeks ago. Both times we sat there glancing apprehensively at one another as one bag after another of ferocious toxins was fed into a little vein in her wrist. Especially unnerving is the fact that the staff are masked and gloved as they hook things up and handle the bags (“It’s just that we have to deal with this stuff all day, every day…”). Hmmm.

Linda knows about the contents of all those little bags. She’s studied them, can pronounce every exotic syllable, and knows every effect and possible side effect. She knows which ones attack her hair, her fingernails, her white blood cells, her serotonin. And given just how nasty something has to be to actually kill off a cancer cell, how can you trust that it’s not going to do you in as well?

So how do you get to where you can trust the complex medical science behind it all? And if you make it that far, how about trusting the Taree Base Hospital? And what about all the way down to Jenny in the oncology department? Most of all, how do you trust your own particular body to override all the fine print and allow you to survive this non-particular onslaught?

Clearly, you need a passport to travel all that way.

As an occupational therapist, Linda works inside the medical profession, and yet that somehow doesn’t qualify her for absolute trust of The System. [Why is there no irony font when you need one?] She’s seen the mistakes and the mis-matches, and she knows there’s no guarantee of a smooth ride.

Astonishing science

But I have to tell you, it’s amazing to observe the whole process. For one thing, the staff are SO careful. Every dose is set up by someone and checked by someone else. Linda’s treatment was held up for an hour or two while we waited for a report to come back from the pharmacy about a smear of oiliness spotted in one of the brews. It turned out normal, but no one was about to take that outcome for granted.

And then there’s the complexity of the interactions among the various medications. Chemo bagsWe’ve all seen the movies where the chemo patient is hanging over the toilet, suffering from the dreadful nausea that the drugs cause. But that result is no longer an absolute, nor are the other side effects. Linda spends an hour or so of her treatment (the first two or three bags) taking on board chemicals that combat consequences like nausea and gloominess. She takes chemicals that accelerate the repair of her white blood count after each treatment, in order to spend as short a time as possible without the ability to resist even the simplest infection.

One of the nurses told us she hadn’t worked on this ward for several months, and in that time so many of the medications and procedures had changed that she barely recognised the place. It takes your breath away to imagine all the research going on all over the world, all the assiduous compiling of data, all the effort to keep little Taree’s hospital at the leading edge of what’s available. I have to say: I felt awe.

Fifteen years ago I had a friend about my age who had breast cancer and couldn’t trust the system. All the homeopathic medicine and spiritual practice in the world couldn’t battle the progress of the disease, and a year later she was not alive to review her decision.

There’s a person inside there too

The System also turns out to be much more than just an intricate cocktail of chemicals being carefully poured into one’s system. Somebody understands that the human brain works in mysterious ways, as well as the body. Taree’s oncology department is a spacious, comfortable room with floor-to-ceiling windows that let the light pour in. There’s a little courtyard just outside the glass door where you can watch palm fronds and contemplate a perfect little bonsai tree. The staff are funny, self-expressive and entertaining. They encourage a dash of repartee among the patients and their offsiders. These professionals understand the main game, but they’re determined to bring some lightness along with it. They know there’s a lot more to battling a cancer cell than lambasting it with toxins. They know exactly what Linda’s going through, inside and out, and they bring a matter-of-factness that most of us could afford to emulate.

Other people in The System understand the complexities too. A volunteer by the name of Cynthia Crocheted beanieknits and crochets hats—warm beanies, cool ones, fluffy ones, sleek ones. She does hats in all colours of the rainbow, ones with little brims and ones that wrap and twist in fetching ways. Cynthia must know about the shock of contemplating one’s completely bald head in the mirror, and about being ready for that event; she’s wise about the role head-covering plays in keeping us warm, not to mention looking “normal”. (Factoid: one’s hair begins to fall out 15 days after the first treatment, and is gone, gone, gone by day 17.)

Linda thanked me for spending the day with her. Well, I can tell you, it was no sacrifice. For one thing, it never goes astray to spend time with Linda, who is wise and fun and an excellent role model for many things (singing, gardening and mastering trust spring to mind). But there is also magic in the oncology department—being in the presence of science at its leading edge, of a profound commitment to health and well-being, of goodwill, respect and empathy.

How can spending a day immersed in the evidence of humankind at its best be anything but time well spent?

Hoping for a scot-free future

Friend Linda is still on my mind (see last week’s blog), so permit me a Chapter 2 in her story.

After publishing the post, I wrote Linda about it, saying I hoped I hadn’t negligently understated the situation she’s facing. Here’s the email she sent in reply:

Understated?—possibly. Maybe like me, your mind is running overtime to truly comprehend my reality, let alone really internalise this reframing business.

Maybe there is just too much going on, too many layers, too many unknowns floating out there waiting to land, regardless of our unbridled optimism for a scott-free future.

Maybe being “understated” is how we can move forward, putting one foot in front of the other, and hold our course, fears and all.

We can wax lyrical when the other side is safely trod.

I love that. All of it.

I try to put myself in Linda’s place. Have a think about what she’s dealing with:

First, there’s the surgery. Removing a breast is no small thing, especially when your breast is no small thing. When you hug me, you get enthusiasm but also some solid contact with ribcage and shoulder blade. When you hug Linda, as I did after the party on Saturday night, I could have hugged her cushiony self forever. Now, that’s a hug.

So what would it be like to remove an ample bosom that has played a major role, for better or for worse, in one’s life? They’re relatively impractical attachments but we have a lot of history with them. If you didn’t read Kate Llewellyn’s poem when I linked it to my post last week, read it now. Or just enjoy these excerpts:

As I lean over to write
one breast warm as a breast from the sun
hangs over as if to read what I’m writing
these breasts always want to know everything
sometimes exploring the inside curve of my Fly with meelbow
sometimes measuring a man’s hand

And:

these are my body’s curious fruit
wanting to know everything
always getting there first
strange as white beetroot
exotic as unicorns
useless as an out of order dishwasher

Granted that Kate is unapologetically personifying a piece of flesh that clings to the front of some of us—but her words capture the spirit of something about the way we women regard our breasts.

My own B-cup bosom rarely peaks into my armpit or gets hooked on the top rail of the fence, as Kate’s does, but I would still miss it if it were to be removed. Linda, like Kate, has lived with an assertive set of companions since she was a teenager. Imagine getting your head around losing them.

And that’s only one side of the scot-free equation for Linda. The other looming issue is what that lump inside has been doing, and what impact it might have on her coming months and years. There’s no point even going there until next Friday when the pathology results come in—but try not going there! Our heads don’t work that way.

This business that Linda describes as “our unbridled enthusiasm for a scot-free future”—what a species we are. You gotta love us human beings. We ache for that scot-free future, and then we try to ignore that ache, and that causes us more ache. Etc. Scot-free is not in the cards.

Nobody ever described our predicament more poignantly than Leunig, who always knows exactly what to say:

Leunig manages lifeache

***

We saw Linda this afternoon, the day after her surgery. I had texted her first, wondering if it was too soon to drop in for “a five-minute visit”. She replied: come soon and be prepared to stay for a lot longer than five minutes.

Linda looked terrific. Perhaps it was the civility of modern-day anaesthetics, or more likely her own indomitable life-force, but she was in great shape (though admittedly a somewhat concave one). She talked about the surgery, pain (none), the hospital food (great), the prognosis (no point speculating til Friday), and her gardens (loving the rain)—and had a go at Tony Abbott, which is when I knew for sure she was doing all right.

Will Linda get away scot-free? Will any of us? Perhaps all we can do is face our issues as straight and courageously as Linda has done, and maybe “manage the symptoms” of the Leunig-style lifeache. Linda, please remind us one more time:

“…Maybe being understated is how we can move forward, putting one foot in front of the other, and hold our course, fears and all.”

***

If you’re something of an etymologist, don’t miss this description of the origin of the phrase “scot-free” (especially if you’re wondering whether it’s “scot” or “scott”, as I was).