Today is the last day of Miss Malaprop’s school holidays, and as the hours have ticked by I have found myself thinking about that old song by The Doors:
Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down
They're going to destroy
Our casual joys
We shall go on playing or find a new town...
It’s been an unusual holiday, to say the least, and many of our activities were circumscribed by the date on which Miss Malaprop herself could receive her first Pfizer shot. Our casual joys have been destroyed by this pandemic — or, more accurately, by the choices I have made to keep my children as safe as I can, the best way I know how. After all, keeping them safe is my main job.
We’re doing our best to go on playing, because there’s absolutely no point in finding a new town when we are completely in love with where we live. We are incredibly lucky to live a short walk from the beach, and heading down there whenever the mood strikes us has kept an element of spontaneity in our otherwise contained lives.
The ocean is where I feel most at peace at the moment.
In a world that seems to be almost permanently tainted by anxiety, the sea is where I am free.
Floating in saltwater is one of the most calming and beautiful experiences I know of: my muscles relax more deeply and my mind quiets more quickly than when I am anywhere else.
And even though this has been a strange summer, I suspect some of my memories of being in the water in the past few weeks with my girls will endure.
I’m writing this not so long after summarising my December Delights, the posting of which was delayed by the desolation I felt when the beautiful place in which I live went back into lockdown. As time has passed I am learning, yet again, to sit tight without a fight, and to remind myself – as some insightful wag commented – that people from the Northern Beaches have been practicing their whole livesnot to leave the Northern Beaches. I am prompted, yet again, to recall how boundlessly fortunate we are to live here: residents of vibrant yet peaceful neighbourhoods, surrounded by abundant natural beauty, and bordered by the mighty Pacific Ocean in all its majesty.
And as I’ve willed myself to turn my attention to delight, I’ve found – as I have consistently observed throughout this yearlong process of observing the delightful – that actively choosing to look for things which inspire wonder and bring me joy, however fleeting, brings me greater contentment and inner peace.
It’s not an unexpected discovery.
But it’s still an insight I will carry with me into the new year, along with a (sometimes ironic) appreciation that even before I had any inkling how 2020 would unfold, I chose to follow and notice delight in all its forms during this year, the most unusual in which I’ve ever had the privilege to live.
I’m also not surprised to see that the majority of the delights I have selected as my Top Five for the year relate back to my First Principles, which I articulated many years ago now in a post I called The Wellspring: words, music and food. To these, I would now add the recognition of delight, in all its forms.
And so, without further ado, here are my most precious delights of 2020…
Looking back over my year of delights, I notice that there are not many things that have made my list…unless of course they are foodstuffs, such as Chocolate Croissants and Oysters (and yes, those capitals are entirely necessary). But I have to admit there is one thing, one object of considerable bulk and immense importance, that has made its way into my life this year and which did, upon arrival, and has in all the intervening time since, brought me enormous joy and satisfaction.
It’s my new refrigerator.
His name is Fillipé, and he is our brand new sleek stainless steel fridge. I had been wanting him for a very long time, and now that he is here I love everything about him: that the fridge compartment is on top and the freezer drawers are at the bottom, that on the inside he is well lit and glass shelved and spacious, that he is oh so quiet…the list goes on. Opening Fillipé’s door is always a pleasure…it’s like opening a chocolate box, except my fridge is usually full of fruit and vegetables, and glass bottles standing in gleaming rows, and – well, it’s easy to wax lyrical over something so ordinary when you have a friend like Fillipé Fridge, the most delightful appliance I have ever owned.
Being Alcohol Free
At the time of writing this post, I will have gone without alcohol for almost an entire year. I kicked off 2020 with a desire to do things differently, and one of the items highest on my list was to reset my relationship with alcohol. You see, I’m a finisher: if a wine bottle is open, I’m highly likely to see it as my civic duty to ensure it’s finished by the end of the evening. This was true even if I was at home alone, enjoying a quiet glass of vino by myself once the kids had gone to bed. Or even before they’d gone to bed. And so, on 1 January 2020, I resolved not to touch a drop of the demon drink and to see how long I lasted.
Well folks, I’ve lasted far, far longer than I thought I would – ALL YEAR! And along the way I discovered, much more swiftly than I ever thought possible, that I really didn’t need alcohol in my life at all. I’m perfectly happy without it, and feel very comfortable with my decision to eliminate it from my life in 2020. I am also learning to accept other people’s reactions when I say I’d prefer not to have a drink – many and varied as these have been.
I’ve stuck to my decision, feel ever so much better for it (mentally and physically), and that in itself has been a true delight.
Receiving a Negative COVID Test Result
Speaking of being free of things, I would have to say that in 2020 one of the greatest delights you can ever receive is the SMS alerting you to the fact that your most recent COVID test is negative. Given that I am writing this post during a lockdown and waited four hours the other day to get tested (along with eleventy-million other people on the Northern Beaches), I can tell you that receiving the negative result which allows you to venture back out of doors – the wonder, the delight! – is a truly magical thing. You could probably have seen my frenzied fist pump from space.
I should also add that I am also beyond grateful to live in a part of the world where we have excellent access to free of charge testing (Sydneysiders have done over 300,000 tests in the past week – go us!), and that New South Wales also has amazing health workers and contact tracers who go above and beyond to stop the spread of the insidious virus that has turned the world upside down this year.
Cillian Murphy’s Limited Edition
It’s no secret that I am a Cillian Murphy fan – the man is pure class. But in this instance it’s not his brilliant acting that has brought me delight, or his many and varied reading recommendations, but his love of music. Every so often, BBC Radio 6 asks Cillian to guest DJ – whether it’s filling in for Guy Garvey when Elbow goes on tour or, more recently, when they’ve asked him do a Midnight-2am shift that he prerecords from his basement in Dublin and shares with the rest of the world — and when he does, the results are impressive.
The music Murphy includes in his playlists is a truly eclectic mix, but that suits me down to the ground. In addition to bringing spoken word pieces and music new and old to my ears, I’ve been surprised to hear him throw in bits and pieces I listen to often and had (possibly mistakenly?!) thought were obscure – from Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space to instrumental tracks like Sophie Hutchings’ Tail Lights and so very many more. Murphy’s musical knowledge is encyclopaedic and I’m always utterly delighted when his playlists pop up on the airwaves.
Sunshine Over Sea
I love living close to the ocean. We are saltwater people around here, folks who revel in the many splendours of the sea. Some of us need to immerse ourselves in it, others are content to sit and look at it, but many of us need to at least catch a glimpse of it as we go about our daily whirl.
One of the delights I have savoured most this year has been driving around a particular bend near where I live, following the road as it curves upward until – at the crest of the hill, not less – the ocean appears and stretches before me in all its glory, all the way to the horizon. Often, at the time of day when I make this journey, the road I’m travelling appears to merge with a vibrant path of sunshine lighting up the surface of the sea. Would that I could keep driving onto that golden road instead of sticking to the tarmac beneath my wheels!
On one particularly memorable drive during this unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons) year, I happened to be listening to Gang of Youths’ song The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows as I made my morning drive. The music begins quietly enough, but it built to a crescendo just as I drove that curving road and crested the hill, exploding into its chorus as the sunlit ocean overwhelmed my view:
‘Cause not everything means something, honey So say the unsayable Say the most human of things And if everything is temporary I will bear the unbearable Terrible triteness of being…
It’s a memory I will cherish, and one that reminds me – almost every time I turn up that hill – that if everything is temporary (and I genuinely suspect it is), then welcoming and noticing delights may well be our best way of anchoring ourselves in the present, of bearing the unbearable, of making sense of this strange thing we call life.
We all have different ways of making sense of our place and time on this planet, and I thought it fitting to end this post by including a photo capturing the same view I just described that was taken by a friend of mine, whose photography has also brought me delight this year. I asked to share this particular picture because it depicts the glimmering beginnings of the road the sun paints across the sea each day, the one I would love to keep driving onto…but if you check out his Instagram page @frank_see_fotos you can lose yourself in a wealth of images, each one more beautiful than the last. I can’t think of a lovelier way to spend Boxing Day.
Nothing makes me happier than hearing my children say these words — particularly when we’ve just spent the school holidays, in their entirety, at home.
I mean, we have left the house every now and then, because good old Sydneytown has turned on a run of truly spectacular winter days. It’s wonderfully warm in the sun, and even though it’s been windy the skies have been mostly clear of clouds. Staring skyward has been like looking up at a shimmering swathe of pale blue silk, stretching high into the heavens.
But the best bit has been the freedom.
For me, there is nothing more liberating than turning off all the alarms on my phone, knowing that we are — blissfully — not bound by routine for two whole weeks.
Being winter, we have slept in, relishing being able to get up with the sun at seven rather than scurrying out of bed in the dark. Even better, there have been days when we have stayed snug beneath our bedcovers, reading books or revelling in the very real pleasure of not having to be anywhere at a specific time.
We have enjoyed other simple things, too. We have walked in the winter sun, sometimes with a destination in mind and other times just because we can. We have watched Captain Marvel and endless episodes of The Adventures of Merlin, reminding ourselves that magic should be part of everyday life. We have planted flowers to brighten the back yard. We have played board games and card games while sipping hot chocolate and even hotter coffee. We have baked more muffins than it’s sensible for humans to consume.
From time to time I have marvelled at my children’s creativity, partciularly when they took it upon themselves to transform a large cardboard box into a Viking longboat in the back yard. I have smiled to myself in wry amusement when they protested having to scrub paint out of their pants when their artistic endeavours haven’t gone entirely to plan. I have admired their generosity when they have gone through old books and clothes and toys and worked out what they wanted to pass on to other kids.
And in the evenings, when the winter darkness falls so fast, we have heated our home by making stews and coming up with new spice blends to season homemade chicken nuggets, all while listening to Miles Davis and other jazz greats, or The Bad Plus working their own kind of wonder with instrumental versions of long-beloved songs like No Woman, No Cry. I’ve probably drunk more wine than I meant to, stirring pots on the stovetop and peeling sweet potatoes and parsnips to bake, not because the kids are driving me crazy, but because I am relaxed and happy — and because these are my holidays, too.
We’ve had the best time.
And I have, too.
…and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Time flies, as any wag will tell you, when you’re having fun.
But here in Sydney, as our glorious summer holidays are drawing all too swiftly to a close, my mind has turned to Virgil’s original words, written in his Georgics centuries ago.
Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.
Fast flies meanwhile the irreparable hour, as point to point our charmed round we trace.
VIRGIL trans. Rhoades
We have had a fortunate summer, sun-filled and surf-drenched, with barefoot days and balmy nights.
And while the clocks sometimes seemed to slow during the past six weeks, time — inescapable, irretrievable time — has slipped steadily, stealthily by.
I mean it’s there, if I look for it. I know I could find snippets of it between the pages of the dozen novels I’ve read since Christmas, or catch a glimpse or two between beach towels flapping in the breeze on the washing line. There’s probably a drop or two left in a wineglass on a windowsill somewhere, and a few morsels thrown in with the leftover salads in the fridge. I will no doubt discover a few more bits in with the various brightly coloured cards and plastic pieces of board games we’ve played during the heat of the day, or find some slipped into the pocket of one of my kids’ shorts with a couple of movie ticket stubs.
But now, at the end of my favourite month of the year, there is only a day or two left before school resumes for my girls — a new start for one, a familar return for the other — and I will admit feeling slightly nostalgic and a little bereft. The irreparable hour has well and truly flown, and I am reminded of my favourite childhood picture book, Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, about another summer, spent by another family comprising, as ours does, of a mother, father and two sisters, far away in Maine.
I know this feeling is universal and, ironically, timeless: Virgil wrote about it in the first century and McCloskey was still picking up the theme in the twentieth.
But I also know that there will be a certain heaviness in my heart and a lag in my step when we wend our way from point to point on our own charmed round this evening…down to the beach for one last swim as a family, and back home again for a BBQ and a quiet glass of wine.
That charmed round isn’t going anywhere — and I am well aware we are beyond lucky to live where we do — but it’s never quite the same once school has started again, and the long summer days have lost their laziness, and a perhaps a little of their loveliness.
Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder — for wondering, for instance, where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?
Have you ever reached a point in your life when you knew that something had to change? When you know that what you’re doing is not quite working, but you’re not entirely sure how to make the necessary alterations to your life or adjustments to your headspace to bring about the transformation you desire?
Oh dear, I hear you cry…this is not an auspicious beginning…please tell me Blue Jai hasn’t completely lost the plot and started writing a self-help tome…
Relax, people — I’m not having some kind of breakdown. I’m not about to begin documenting a life-changing journey of self-discovery, and I’m not selling anything, either.
All the same, I’m betting you know the feeling I’m talking about: the one where you feel either slightly squirmy in your stomach because you know something’s off somewhere and you need to get it out of your life? Or when someone asks you a seemingly innocuous question and you find yourself unexpectedly bursting into floods of tears in response? Or when you’re just monumentally frustrated?
Well, I think I had all three of those reactions this week.
And it was all to do with…drum roll for mother-of-all first world problems, please…my gym membership.
I know, I know — really, I do.
I know that really, technically, this doesn’t even begin to count as a problem at all.
Except that it does…
What I have been struggling with is that even though there are parts of going to the gym that I truly love (particularly my weekly yoga class, the brilliance of which I’ve written about before), I was faced this week with the realisation that there are other aspects of going to the gym that are driving me absolutely nuts — and, if I’m perfectly honest, they have been sending me round the twist for quite some time.
When I was working out, for example, I felt like I was trapped on a treadmill (which was, quite literally, going nowhere) in front of screen upon screen of soul-destroying daytime television. And when I was planning to do a class, it seemed that (more often than not) I was staring blankly at the weekly timetable trying to figure out when I could actually fit myself into one of those tiny little time-constrained boxes.
Where, exactly, is the soul in all of this, people?
Since when did we have to spend our days fitting ourselves into tiny boxes?
And so, this week, I snapped. (And cried…and lay awake until the small hours of the morning…and various other things…)
I knew something needed to change.
So, on Tuesday afternoon, I came home from work and got a big piece of paper and wrote out a Tabata Challenge for the kids and I to do in the back yard. They were slightly bemused at first, watching me doing sets of burpees and triceps dips and woodchoppers and all manner of other things, but then they started joining in, too. We called it “Tabata di Casa”, and we laughed a lot, and they learned a lot, and it was fun.
An actual, real, soul-filled photo from my walk. Breathe in…breathe out…ahhhhhhh….
Then, on Thursday morning, I decided to take a walk — outdoors, in the glorious sunshine, no less — from my house down to the beach. Now, I’m beyond blessed to live where I do, but it felt like an absolute revelation to bung my runners on and my earphones in, and to take off towards the beautiful blue of the ocean and walk beside it, hearing the sound of the surf, feeling the sun shining on my face and the wind blowing through my hair. And, underneath it all, I could also feel my heart swelling and hear my soul singing.
They’re such simple pleasures, aren’t they? But they are precious, too.
So, from now on, I’m not going to force myself into tiny boxes any more. I’m not going to do things that don’t nourish my spirit or feed my soul. And, bizarrely enough, I’m not going to give up my gym membership either — because there are certain things I can’t control, and I know that I want to have the option of exercising whenever I want — even if it’s raining or blowing a gale.
This afternoon I took a lazy drive with my girls, wending our way up the Northern Beaches, heading beyond the Bends.
The sun is finally shining in Sydneytown after a week of relentless rain, and the temperature is on the rise too. Today we had no plans — just a vague idea about hopping in the car and driving north. And with The Bloke back at work and several more weeks of glorious summer ahead of us, that’s just what we did.
We cruised up the road, reveling in the beauty of the blue of the skies and the sea, taking it easy. One of the best things about summer holidays is not having to rush…
We stopped for lunch — burgers, because another great thing about the long summer break is getting to eat your main meal in the middle of the day if you feel like it — and then poked our heads into various shops before getting back into the car.
This time we headed briefly west, making the short trip across the peninsula from the beaches to Pittwater. For me, it’s like taking a trip down Memory Lane…particularly when we drove past the holiday house that had once belonged to family friends when I was growing up. I found myself telling the kids that the first place I ever saw a koala in the wild was in their front yard, and then lost myself in a reverie of recollections as the road meandered down towards Clareville.
The water was welcoming when we arrived, and the shade beneath the huge eucalpyts at the sand’s edge was deep. We sat for a while, listening to the lapping water, watching the clustering cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon, searching for giant seed pods beneath the ancient trees. Time slows down during those moments…those lazy summer afternoons that new memories are made of…
Miss Malaprop fell asleep as we made our steady southbound journey home, while Marvel Girl stared dreamily out the window. And even now, as the first raindrops of that summer storm begin to fall, I still have a smile on my face.
The Surfers’ Code: I Will Never Turn My Back on the Ocean.
One of my life’s greatest joys is living close to the ocean. Smelling the briny air each morning, feeling the salt on my skin after a swim, hearing the waves crashing onto the shore while I’m drifting off to sleep at night — these are all things that I love. Things I would have trouble giving up, or even trading for something else.
I don’t need to be in the sea, I just need to be near it. To see it, at the very least, every day. I love being able to bear witness to the ocean’s varying colours and moods, and I find security in the knowledge that the stormy grey chaos I see one day could very well be sun-tipped sapphire saltwater the next. Like life itself, the ocean is ever-changing.
When I see the ocean, I see power. I see a potent, expansive presence. We may speak of the good green earth on which we live, but it is no accident that anyone who has seen our world from space refers to it as the Blue Planet: more than seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by sea.
The ocean is a force to be reckoned with. It is teeming with life, but is just as capable of taking life away. It gives and it takes, it ebbs and it flows. The ocean has hidden depths, far beyond our reach. There are mysteries beneath the waves that we may never see. The ocean, with all its power and its wonder, has my utmost respect.
The Bloke’s rule of thumb…it’s a good one, and he’s sticking to it.
The Bloke has a different relationship with the sea to me: he needs to immerse himself in it. He rejoices in it, revels in it. My husband is happiest when he is swimming, surfing, snorkeling, or Scuba diving. Being in the water is his downtime, his exercise, his release — even his hangover cure. Given half the chance, I suspect he would live underwater if he could. Yet while we may connect to the sea in different ways, we both have a love of the ocean that is as strong as it is lifelong. And when we’re no longer here to see and ride the waves, our Wills specify exactly which part of the sea our ashes should be scattered over, so the ocean can claim us one last time.
Jacques Yves Cousteau once said that “the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”. Our children have already been well and truly captured by the ocean, though perhaps, with the parents they have, they didn’t have much choice but to become saltwater people too. And while they may not yet know exactly what they need from the sea — to be in it, to be near it, to see it, or something else entirely — we are all loving the experience of allowing them to explore the ocean, inside and out. I don’t just mean they are learning to swim in the sea or in an oceanside rockpool, different as those experiences are from swimming in a backyard pool, they are also learning to negotiate waves, to understand tides, to recognise rips, to go with the flow.
And as they learn more about the ocean, our kids are also beginning to appreciate the Surfers’ Code — or my preferred version of it, which was set down by Shaun Tomson, the former world champion surfer who was an integral part of the Free Ride Generation, and a person I greatly admire. The tenets of the Surfers’ Code are as much lessons for life as they are for living with the sea, and the first of them is as simple as it is powerful: I will never turn my back on the ocean.
It was gratifying to hear one of the kids call, “Never turn your back on the ocean!” to her sister the other day, just in time to stop her getting wiped out by a wave. It might have only been shorebreak, but knowing that the principle had been absorbed brought a smile to my face. One day, hopefully, they will take this and the other precepts set down by Tomson and apply them to their lives as much as they do to being in the surf: I will take the drop with commitment…I will watch out for other surfers…I will paddle back out…There will always be another wave…
After all, as Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote,”The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea”.
Then again, for some of us, the sea itself is a gift.