The power of ritual

Last Saturday we had breakfast at a little café in the nearby town of Taree. This is noteworthy, because it was a break in a well-established pattern. Those of you who know us well will be saying, “What?! What happened to breakfast at the Waterbird?”

The Waterbird at Manning Point…Because Saturdays we have breakfast at the nearby Waterbird Restaurant, with several good friends. The previous Saturday we did that, and next Saturday the group will likely repeat the practice. The Waterbird has been in existence for seven years or so, and since it opened, we have shown up there almost every Saturday morning. Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes a dozen or more. There’s no decision to be made about it: if people aren’t away somewhere, they show up for Saturday breakfast.

I believe this getting together could be called a ritual.

Always some local entertainmentThe Waterbird is a modest restaurant right over the river at Manning Point (careful not to drop your keys). It used to be a bait and tackle shop, until Jim the Proprietor decided it was an even better location for a restaurant. So he renovated and expanded the little shop, donned an apron, tied back his long hair, hired a waitress and bought a coffee machine. The food is more than adequate and the ambiance is stunning. Dolphins, pelicans and cormorants abound. It’s quite a place.

There’s another layer to the ritual. Dozens of years ago back in The Big Smoke, after Eve’s early morning Saturday yoga class, everyone would go out for breakfast and do the quiz from the Good Weekend magazine. This practice transported itself to Mitchells Island, and now you’ll find the lot of us deeply engaged in the quiz while we wait for breakfast to arrive. There we are – a raucous group trying to sort out things like which two countries start with the letter Z, or who has the most ever Olympic medals, or who invented the lightning rod. We have a scorekeeper and an ethics judge; there is much head scratching and wrangling. I’m sure it’s health-promoting on many levels.

But like many rituals, breakfast and the quiz at the Waterbird took a little getting into. Before something becomes a ritual, you have to try it on, and things don’t fit perfectly at first. The jokes aren’t always funny, the food is not to everyone’s taste, sometimes it’s too sunny or too cold out there on the deck – but on balance it’s pretty good. So you do it again, and then again, and by the third or fourth time you’re hooked. This is the birth of a ritual.

When I look closely, my life is punctuated by many rituals. Rick and I have a coffee and work on a New York Times crossword most days. We celebrate a birthday with a movie and dinner out. We call our kids every Monday. A beer on the deck marks a satisfying conclusion to a few hours in the gardens or behind the lawnmower.

The Shedders also have their rituals. For example, we get together most evenings for a shared meal; that’s just how it works here. On a Friday morning more often than not we’re all engaged in housecleaning. Every year on 31 December we sit down together and review our year-just-gone, sharing the highs and lows and learnings; a day or two later we assemble again and share our dreams and aspirations for the coming year. Every January we pack up our cars and travel up to Camp Creative for a week of community, learning and creation. And if someone’s been away for a while, there’s automatically a cup of tea and some sharing in the lounge room. These are the rituals that lubricate our Shedders lives.

What IS it about rituals? As I sit here on a Saturday afternoon, after perhaps the 200th time laughing with good friends and doing the quiz, I find myself trying to tease out the nature of ritual, and its purpose.

Transitions

When the Shedders first moved to Mitchells Island, we left behind dozens of under-acknowledged rituals. They needed replacing. We softened the transition to this whole new life by the creation of such rituals as breakfast-and-the-quiz. The transition from living as an independent family unit to sharing a cooperative household was aided by rituals like shared evening meals and loud music while housecleaning. Change is good; perhaps we all have a deep need for it – and rituals give us stability in the face of these fresh starts.

Our personal stories

Rituals also allow us to tell a story that helps explain who we are – for others and for ourselves. Knowing I always enjoy doing the Saturday quiz with a group of friends tells you some key things about me – that I relish being with my friends, that I am stimulated by the challenge of the quiz and the interactions we have while we do it, that I cherish the beauty and serenity of the Waterbird’s location. When I tell you that I love attending our Wingsong community choir (not to mention going out for dinner at the pub afterward), it also tells you any number of things about me. That I get together with old school friends every year when I am back in Canada, that I never miss a Medd Family Annual Picnic – these rituals remind me how much I enjoy the power of family, friends, music in my life.

Signposts

I can see another important quality of rituals. When I look back at the peaks and valleys of my life, I often think of the old rituals that marked its passage. My farmer-father making fudge in the kitchen on a rainy day. Camping at Christmas time with 3 or 4 other families when our children were young. Taking the kids out for Friday dinner at Manly Wharf when the business had met its targets. These events have meaning for even decades after their expiry.

As rituals connect us to ourselves, they also connect us to each other. The simplest way for my communities to prosper is to create rituals where we can put our opportunities to get together on auto-pilot. We don’t have to think, plan, phone around, negotiate. We just show up at the Waterbird, we go to choir and the pub, we pack up our suitcases for Camp Creative. In this way our communities thrive.

It’s a grand design.

Disclaimer. Whoops! My spell checker just alerted me to a typo – there is no such word as “rutual”. But wait, perhaps a rutual is a legitimate word that means a ritual needs to be abandoned or freshened up. Very few things last forever.

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.

Longing to belong

Belonging 2This week housemates Eve and Daniel were visited for three days by good friends of theirs, and as is usually the case the guests wove their way in and out of our lives throughout their time here. Afterward, Eve said, “Thank you for including our friends and making them feel so welcome.” The comment, about something that I would take for granted, had me stop for a moment as I was struck by how important feeling included is—to Eve, and to all of us.

Eve is a master at inclusivity. She often invites the rest of us when she and her guests are going out to dinner. She carefully informs us when she knows a tradesman is coming, or when some event is happening that might interest us. There’s no doubt that Eve’s sense of inclusion, of drawing people together and making them feel a part of things, was a big factor in the setting up of our Shedders household.

Team Australia

Would that the broader world had a glimmer of her wisdom! My mind can’t help leaping immediately to the refugees in detention camps who don’t belong anywhere, to the homeless, to the disenfranchised. It makes me think of a time a few months ago when Rick and I were overseas enjoying the Canadian summer. One morning, in bed with my tablet, I encountered a series of articles about a new concept in anti-terrorism: join Team Australia. Then-Prime-Minister Tony Abbott had discovered that a good many people who come to Australia from war-torn countries harbour terrorist notions, and that “everyone has got to be on Team Australia and…you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team.” This table-thumping induced in me a strong and unpleasant emotion, which I can only describe as feeling excluded. After all, like these other non-team players, I was born far away, have an accent, host some cultural oddities, and express dissident opinions from time to time. I had the sullen thought—well, if that’s Team Australia, I don’t want to be on it. It was enough to have me toss my tablet onto the bedside table and pull the covers back over my head.

Border Force

That May-to-September period in Australia was rich in intolerance. As Rick and I were leaving Australia, in late May, Parliament was busily passing a new bill called the Australian Border Force Act, formed with the intention of militarising the functions of customs and immigration. Negative media focused on a few key aspects about how the Act was designed: to make a more threatening presence as one attempts to enter Australia, to make it easy to withdraw citizenship from undesirable folk, and to muzzle dissent about what happens in refugee detention centres.

Belonging 3By the time we returned to Australia in early September, the stamp of Border Force was imposingly in evidence. New and impressive insignia decorated the uniforms of security people. Guns rode on hips. Large BORDER FORCE signs reminded us in two simple words of strong boundaries and the fierceness with which those boundaries would be maintained. I sensed echoes of the same paranoia that abounded when we flew via the United States at a time when Homeland Security was first making its intimidating presence felt with fingerprinting, interrogation and big announcement screens.

Belonging 4You might remember the incident in Melbourne in September, where the city was to be flooded with Border Force officers performing random checks in public areas for people’s visas. Public outcry stopped that operation as the general population Belonging 5woke up to what it feels like to be threatened off Team Australia. That side of the Border Force legislation seems to be hiding its tail between its legs (where the tail will hopefully atrophy—or may only be biding its time for another big wag).

Zero tolerance

There’s a concept that I think is at the heart of much of this exclusionary behavior. It’s become fashionable to have zero tolerance for bad things. We regularly hear about someone having zero tolerance for illegal boat arrivals, for the abuse of women, for sexual interference with children, for the abuse of animals, for terrorism. Our schools have zero tolerance for bullying, I read just this morning.

In this way, we display our moral rectitude. I’m sure I’ve used the slogan myself on occasion, as there’s a certain swashbuckling quality to this pounding of righteous fists upon the table.

But in the end, zero tolerance is just sloganism, and a slogan doesn’t require us to bring thoughtfulness to an issue. Please rest assured that I am not in favour of bullying or abuse—but I do recognise that every case of wrongdoing has to be looked at on its own merits. We can’t afford to execute (and what is zero tolerance but a form of execution?) without deeply understanding the greater context.

Such concepts as zero tolerance, Border Force and Team Australia allow us to speak in empty concepts. We can identify and judge quickly. If it’s not white, it’s black—whereas in truth, every issue is its own shade of grey.

Our former Prime Minister had zero tolerance for a lot of things. We seem to have been at war with everyone, which is what happens when you have zero tolerance running amok. It’s quieter in the Australian world at the moment. Our new PM seems less inclined to strident opinions and catchphrases, and I find that most restful. It’s something to emulate.

 

Here’s a thought: maybe we should put Eve in charge of things for a while. She understands our deep human need to belong, and what happens when that need is denied.

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

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 lovely 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

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.

So 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.]