2020 in Music: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Most years I am pretty clear about which songs constitute my Top 5 for the year – this is, after all, the only list I produce with any regularity in which the proviso is that any song included on my list has to have been released in the current year.

My problem with my Top 5 for 2020 is that when the world turned upside down (and particularly when it then turned in on itself during the first lockdown), what I listened to ended up being firmly and unashamedly rooted in nostalgia. In the face of such enormous unknowns, I sought refuge in the songs from my teenage years and before. I found myself listening to plenty of songs with fuzzy guitar riffs like Ratcat’s “That Ain’t Bad”, cruisy tunes like The Badloves’ “Green Limousine”, heading back to the inimitable groove of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” or going back even further in time to songs like Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”.

It wasn’t accidental, and my trips down memory lane definitely helped me navigate this most troublesome of years.

But there came a point when I had to venture back onto the airwaves and Spotify Playlists I know and love, to connect with the myriad of new releases that artists, also in lockdown, have created in 2020. And from those rich pickings, I present Blue Jai’s Top 5 Songs for 2020.

“Low” by Chet Faker

Just because I feel low, right now

It doesn’t mean all that I’ve got has run out…

I suspect from the moment I heard the opening lines of this song for the first time I knew it would be my favourite of the year. Chet Faker (also known as Nick Murphy) is back, and this song could not have come at a better time. The production on this track is sublime and the lyrics somehow sum up everything about 2020 – I love everything about “Low”. More please, Chet Faker.

“Je disparais dans tes bras” by Christine and the Queens

The entire La Vita Nuova EP from Christine and the Queens is brilliant, right from the plaintive opening song “People I’ve been Sad”, as is the accompanying short film (which I’ve included above, since looking at individual songs on their own doesn’t make as much sense as seeing the entire artistic vision). I probably could have picked any of the songs from this latest offering from multi-lingual Héloïse Letissier and her crew, but I ended up picking “Je disparais dans tes bras” over the title track, “La Vita Nuova” (featuring Caroline Polachek) upon discovering it was one of the songs I listened to most on Spotify this year. If you’ve got a spare fifteen minutes – no, scratch that – find yourself fifteen minutes to watch this film, shot in the beautiful Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, and immerse yourself in epic choreography and wonderful music.

“Dribble” by SYCCO

SYCCO (which is, of course, pronounced “Psycho”, a moniker apparently inspired by all things psychedelic rather than psychotic) is a Brisbane teenager who, judging from this release, is one to watch. “Dribble” came about when SYCCO was trying to make sense of someone sleep talking, attempting to derive meaning from words that were probably entirely random. The end result is great: catchy melody, driving beat, great song. This one got plenty of airplay at our house and in the car.

“Gold Dust Woman” by Julia Holter

OK, OK…so Julia Holter actually recorded this in 2012, but she released it in 2020, so I’m going to count it in this year’s Top 5. Besides, it’s such a great cover of Fleetwood Mac’s original song that I can’t not let this one through (you can thank me later — the link will take you to audio, not video, but it’s totally worth it). Holter takes Stevie Nicks’ lyrics to an otherworldly place and I honestly couldn’t love this more. Fingers and toes crossed we get from some new music from Julia Holter in the near future; she’s a class act.

“Are You Even Real?” by James Blake

There’s a lot to like about this track from James Blake, who I think is one of the most interesting recording artists on the planet right now. At its core “Are You Even Real?” is a love song, but as with many of Blake’s songs it’s not always easy to tell upon first listen exactly what headspace he’s in: the music and lyrics don’t always line up precisely with the feel of the song. Blake’s “Don’t Miss It” (from 2019) is another great example of this – Cillian Murphy described the lyrics to that song as being “either profoundly sad or profoundly hopeful – perhaps both at the same time”, and that sums up the way I feel about much of James Blake’s music. Ultimately, however, for me one line in “Are You Even Real?” stands out, and is incredibly beautiful:

She runs her hands through my imagination…

I suspect that’s exactly what all great artists do to us when they sing and play, don’t they? And that’s as real as it gets.

So that’s my Top 5 for the year…but here’s some of the best of my nostalgic listening from years gone by to keep your toes tapping and your mood upbeat as we navigate the 2020 Season Finale.

Top 5 Throwbacks for 2020

  • “Red Dress” by the Sugababes (2005)
  • “Dancing Barefoot” by Patti Smith (1979)
  • “She Has to Be Loved” by Jenny Morris (1989)
  • “Peace Frog” by The Doors (1970)
  • “Close But Not Quite” by Everything is Recorded, featuring Sampha

(That last track is brilliant by the way…interweaving Sampha’s ethereal voice with the Curtis Mayfield sample takes it to another level).

So there we have it folks! Blue Jai’s Top 5 in Music for 2020.

Stay tuned for my Top 5 in Books and on Screen, coming soon…

2020: Wrapping Up a Year of Delight?!

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 lives not 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…

Fillipé Fridge

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.

Thank you to @frank_see_fotos for use of this beautiful image.

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.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

December Delights

I hardly expected to be writing this from yet another lockdown…yet here we are, stuck at home during the week before Christmas, wanting to be with our loved ones and hoping we might be able to leave our places of residence before December 25th rolls around.

Silver linings feel like they are hard to come by these days, especially on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. And yet, even though the current public health order means I now won’t be able to be with my mother on her 70th birthday next week, I am grateful we are not in Fiji as we had planned to be – especially with Cyclone Yasa leaving a trail of destruction through the islands where we and so many other Australians love to spend holidays.

It has taken me two days to work through feelings that have run the full gamut from genuine dread to garden variety anxiety, and now I am finally ready to turn my thoughts towards the things that have delighted me during December – well, at least prior to 5:00pm on 19 December 2020. I share them in the hope they bring you something resembling joy, and that might you discover delight in the small details that are so often overlooked.

So here, in no particular order, are my December delights:

Dustyesky

I plonked myself down on the lounge in front of the TV the other night, a list of things to do before the school year ended scrolling endlessly through my head, and found myself watching a short piece on Australian Story entitled “To Russia, With Love”.  It featured the MC and choirmaster of Dustyesky, Australia’s premiere genuine fake Russian choir.  Based in the Northern NSW town of Mullumbimby (known to choir members as Mullumgrad), the men of Dustyesky sing in Russian – which they neither speak nor understand – and have made quite the splash around the world, and more specifically across Russia itself. If you fancy fifteen minutes of fun and feeling good, settle in and watch the boys tell their story in a combination of impeccable fake Russian and broad Australian accents here:

Pants with Pockets

I don’t know a single dress-wearing person who, when complimented on their attire, fails to announce “It’s got pockets!” if indeed, their garment does possess such magical accoutrements. Pockets! Who knew they would make anyone feel so good…

Well, as it turns out, savvy active wear producers knew and, after several years of envying strangers in the street with mobile phones casually tucked into their exercise tights, I have finally joined their number. Hoorah! I am now the proud owner of a pair of black tights with not one, but two exterior pockets, as well as pair of super comfortable shorts which feature pockets of the more regular variety. I can now participate in a bunch of summer activities far more stylishly than I’ve managed to before…just as soon as they let me out of the house…

Having a Facial

About a week before the school year ended my skin was feeling patchy (well, let’s be honest…I was feeling a bit patchy, if the truth be told, and I wasn’t in the mood to talk about it). What I needed, I told myself, was a facial – but I didn’t want it to be with anyone I knew.  Any kind of talking while a treatment was in progress was not going to cut it for me at this late stage of the year and so, on a whim, I booked myself in for a Signature Facial at a salon I very rarely frequent.

It was perfect. The beautician, to her credit, asked me a few basic questions and then allowed me to luxuriate for an hour, pampering me in complete silence. I felt more deeply relaxed afterwards than I normally would after sleeping for ten hours. And my skin? Much, much better…thanks for asking…

Grid Lines on Giftwrap

OK, OK…this is a delight for all those who get a genuine kick out of wrapping Christmas presents. I will say, unashamedly and unabashedly, that I love wrapping gifts: I love the feel of the paper creasing beneath my fingers, the whizzing sound the scissors make as they make the curling ribbon do its thing, and – ultimately – the look of a beautifully, attentively wrapped present.

So, with these salient facts at the forefront of your mind, imagine my delight (complete, utter, undying) when I discovered that the wrapping paper I had purchased for Christmas this year had grid lines on the reverse side of the paper. Be still, my beating heart! Now, I’m a pretty dab hand at cutting a straight line, but GRID LINES! Wonder of wonders…whoever came up with that idea should be given a medal at the very least. An Oscar for Best Performance.  Possibly even a Nobel Prize. I can’t love this idea enough.

The Christmas Tree

I’ve written before about our tradition of creating a new colour scheme for Christmas each year, and it will now go down in family folklore that the Year We Were in Lockdown the tree was decorated in white, gold and hot pink. The smell of pine needles has permeated the house, and we have carried the decorative theme through from the hall table to the piano top and on to the tree itself.  The Angel Shazza has taken up residency at the top, presiding over what may yet been the most subdued Christmas we have ever had, but still reminding us that even in the darkest hour there is hope.

So there you have it, friends: five December Delights for this most unusual of years.

I would love to hear yours, if you have them…feel free to share them in the comments, or to pass this on to someone who needs it.

Wishing you all a very safe, happy and healthy Christmas,

BJx

Return of the Thrifty Fictionista

Folks, it’s been a veritable age since the Thrifty Fictionista had the urge to raise her head from whatever book she has currently fallen into and poke her nose into cyberspace.  Not surprisingly, it has taken a truly momentous event to encourage her return, and that fabled occurrence happened to be the delivery of a huge box of books (twenty, to be exact) for a truly bargain price (precisely $100, including shipping).

A treasure trove of volumes! Heaven in a box!

As an aside, and before I go any further, please allow me categorically state that this post is in no way sponsored by the suppliers of said heaven-filled box, but it must also be stated that the unfathomable joy of having that many books delivered for such a bargain price has stayed with the Thrifty Fictionista for several months now (given she received it in September).

Every time I want something to read, my now burgeoning bookshelves have something for every occasion. The box included a beautiful hardcover cookbook, a couple of political biographies, an actress’ memoirs, a book on girls and the outdoors (immediately nabbed by Marvel Girl and never seen since), a gorgeous volume of short stories with an invitingly textured dust jacket, several volumes of historical non-fiction, and even a couple of books about women in business.

In all honesty, there were only a couple of books in the box that failed to interest me, but at the ridiculously low price point I was not worried by that at all. I was able to review the contents prior to ordering, and my bargain-loving nature has been well satisfied by the vast majority of the contents. I am set for a summer of reading all sorts of things I would not normally have picked up under ordinary circumstances (which may or may not entail wandering with a slightly glazed expression around bookshops while mentally calculating my current level of credit card debt).

And now, on this Black Friday (which Australian retailers appear to have embraced with perplexing alacrity, despite the notable absence of pilgrims in the First Fleet and – more troublingly – of any concept of collaborating with this country’s original inhabitants that would warrant us celebrating Thanksgiving), the same book seller from which I procured my magical carton is offering not twenty, but FORTY books for $100.

Be still, my beating heart!

Or, perhaps more accurately: gird yourself, my slightly melted-around-the-edges-from-overuse credit card...

Oh yes, folks.  The Thrify Ficitionista has definitely returned…will she be able to resist?

The Delights of Spring

SPRING! The word itself is a delight, and I happen to think Southern Hemisphere Spring is particularly magical.

I haven’t written about my quest for the delightful since midwinter, and have been more preoccupied by the progress of the pandemic and by The Professor’s dementia that I would like to be, so the delights of spring have been a welcome and much needed distraction.

Springtime, here in old Sydneytown, begins at the same time as the final school term of the year and the onset of Eastern Daylight Saving Time. While seasonally spring may be about new beginnings, for Sydneysiders it signals the beginning of the year’s denouement, when we start enjoying warmer weather and longer, increasingly golden evenings.

The end of the year is in sight, and I suspect many of us are keen to see the back of 2020. What a year! Though, on reflection, I could never in my wildest imaginings have known what a strange and eventful year this would be to take note of the delightful I encounter in the everyday — if I only look for it and recognise it for what it is.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the things I have found most delightful this Spring:

Spring Flowers and Fresh Herbs

For Christmas some years ago, The Bloke and the kids decided to present me with a raised garden bed. After it was assembled in the back yard, the following month they arranged a delivery for my birthday: several cubic metres of top quality soil. Not the sort of thing you can easily gift wrap, but greatly appreciated and loved ever since…until this year.

This year I had such great intentions, during lockdown in particular, of getting outside and fixing up the yard. My raised garden bed was looking decidedly bedraggled, particularly since a bunch of baby tomatoes (and other less desirable plant species) had decided to self-seed and subsequently launched a bid for world domination.

Humble new beginnings…it looks much better now…

Finally, a few weeks ago, I found a moment to show those baby tomatoes and assorted weeds who was boss. I removed the netting that had been possum-proofing the garden bed since forever, and I ripped everything out.

YASSSSS!

What a breathtakingly cathartic experience — and one I can highly recommend as a delight! But was what was even more delightful was replanting the raised bed with loads of spring flowers and verdant herbs, and watching each plant blossom and grow. I have relished being able to use herbs straight from the back yard when I cook, and have enjoyed the surprise of seeing colours emerge and change as different flowers bloom.

My Octopus Teacher

I think just about everyone I know who has seen this film has raved about it, but for me the true delight came in watching it with my children. The cinematography — particularly the underwater sequences — is utterly breathtaking, and they were both captivated.

Witnessing the bond between man and octopus was astonishing, especially since (as coastal dwellers) we’ve had to drum it into our kids never to touch any octopus they find in case it’s of the blue-ringed variety. The beautiful but highly poisonous Hapalochlaena is a regular visitor to tidal rockpools near our house, and a single blue-ringed octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 people in minutes, so seeing a human interacting with an octopus in such a carefree manner was quite extraordinary — even if it did come with a deadly serious and timely “don’t try this near home” reminder for the kids.

What I found most delightful about the movie was that it immersed me in a world completely different from the one I inhabit, offering me a window into what it’s like to live below, rather than above, the ocean surface. Clearly Craig Foster has some crazy free diving skills — but it’s his talent with an underwater camera that filled me with wonder and awe.

Free Books

Now this is a delight I would welcome at ANY time, but was one I was extra grateful to receive just before the school holidays. A while back I received an email from a large book retailer, offering me advance copies of a couple of new books. I clicked on the link, not thinking I’d end up with anything in return, and was utterly amazed when a package turned up on my doorstep a couple of weeks later with proof copies of two novels for me to read. Needless to say I’ve already devoured them both, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more of those email gems hitting my inbox!

The Light

There is something about the quality of the light at this time of year that makes my soul sing. I think I summed it up best when I wrote this post five years ago…though reading all my references to Jazz Festivals and NRL Grand Finals makes me realise just how precious delights are in these crazy times.

So that’s it for now folks — just a few of the gems I’ve noticed as Sydneytown greets the Spring. I’d love to hear what is delightful in your part of the world at this time of year…

À bientôt, BJx

Meet Me in the Middle of the Air

Early this morning I went for a walk down to the beach. The sun had just risen, but the air was still cool and the sky overcast. It was quiet, save for the distinctive calls of whip birds hiding in trees on the path by the lagoon and the hiss of the not yet visible surf.

Then, rumbling out of the clouds, came a huge passenger plane. It loomed above me, a rare sight in these even rarer times, and I was suddenly overcome with emotion.

For born and bred Sydneysider, there is no experience quite like flying into this city, especially if you have been away from it for a long period of time. I’ve waxed lyrical about my hometown before, but this morning, seeing that plane full of people returning home in the midst of these troubled times brought me undone.

If you’re flying into Sydney from afar (and let’s face it, the vast majority of places are far away from the Great Southern Land), you’ve probably been strapped into a seat for the better part of fourteen hours or more. But chances are, given the way this beautiful blue planet turns, you’ll be arriving here as a new day dawns.

For me, the sense of anticipation that builds as the sky lightens and the coastline appears is incomparable. As each familiar beach and headland becomes clearer I feel a genuine buzz of excitement, regardless of where I am returning from.

From the air, Sydney Harbour opens its arms before you, stretching its fingers far inland, into every nook and cranny of foreshore crammed with houses and flats and parks and trees. In the midst of it all, the Harbour Bridge arches gracefully over the vast expanse of blue, connecting the City to the North Shore.

This is land of the Eora people, and has been for more than fifty thousand years: I reside on Cammeraygal Country. This place has connected the people who live there to it for centuries.

This is home.

So when I saw that plane this morning, I thought of the thousands of Australians who are still trapped overseas, waiting for flights. I thought of those patiently waiting out their days of quarantine, who are “home” but not quite. I felt proud of my home town for receiving more returning travellers than all the other states in this country combined.

And I remembered the safe passage request that can be found on every Australian’s passport, words from which I have always derived great comfort:

The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia,
being the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen
Elizabeth the Second, requests all those whom it may concern
to allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely
without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every
assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.

Every assistance and protection: these words fills my heart.

I wish I could provide more asssistance and protection for my friends in Melbourne who are enduring one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, with week upon week of curfews and restrictions.

I wish I could offer more comfort and certainty to my friends who have family overseas, who don’t know when they will next see, let alone hug, their loved ones or be permitted to travel to their homelands.

I wish I could make plans — proper plans — with friends who used to call Sydney home, to turn crazy ideas for reunions on tropical islands into realities, to meet the children who have been born since a pandemic rewrote just about every itinerary in existence.

Wishes may be merely words, and words are wind, as they say.

But we will get through this.

We will overcome, and be so much stronger for surviving.

And when it’s over, I’ll meet you in the middle of the air.

Terra Incognita

map 2It’s been a while since I’ve written about my travels with The Professor — or found the time to write here at all, for that matter. Despite my best intentions, I managed to overcommit myself during the first few weeks of the current school term, which put paid to any attempt to unravel the many complexities of the universe in this, my little patch of cyberspace.

Coronavirus and all its attendant concerns and controversies have made this mad world an even more perplexing place to navigate lately, and they have also served to highlight even more vividly the difficulties our family is facing as dementia slowly and inexorably claims my father’s brain.

Last week we received confirmation the resort we had planned to holiday at with our extended family over Christmas this year will be closed until April 2021. That tropical island getaway had been shining like a beacon of hope at the end of this crazy year, but now that the Trans-Tasman travel bubble has failed to materialise and the thought of any trips further afield has faded away, we are being forced to confront two realisations: one, that our Fijian vacation will, at the very least, have to be postponed; two, that the longer the borders take to reopen, the less likely it will be that the Professor will be in a suitably fit mental state to make the trip.

It still feels like a sucker punch.

So do the times when Dad gets stuck in a loop, and tells the same story over and again, despite every failed effort to deflect or distract or redirect him onto a new neural track.

Or when he has what we call “Alice Days”, and is alone, and sometimes flailing, in his own Wonderland, unable to recall how to answer the phone or what was said only minutes before.

I am grateful that he still delights in words — and wordplay, when he is able to — even if he does recite the same poem or witty ditty he learned as a schoolboy eleventy million times in the course of a single afternoon. I am pleased he still finds pleasure in reading books, despite borrowing the same volumes from the local library time and again because he doesn’t recall enjoying them only the week before.

Sometimes I grow weary of the slow grieving process that inevitably accompanies the Professor’s decline, of watching the ever-closing window and never knowing how much time or lucidity is left before it shuts.

map 3I am utterly humbled by my mother, and am in absolute awe of her patience, compassion and devotion to the previously active and highly cerebral man who once anchored our lives, who now feels like he is floating above us, tethered only by interwoven strings of love and tenacity.

I try, as my mother always does, to meet the Professor where he is.

I hang on to the good days, when the repetitions are rarities, or when he’s not wandering through a mire of memories of times long before my birth.

I find it’s easiest for me to hold his hand on the Alice days, hoping he finds the same comfort in the familiarity of that simple touch as I do.

And most of all, I hope — fervently — that he is not undone by disorientation and distress as dementia erases the lines from the maps he has always known, forcing him into Terra Incognita as the charts fade, into the unknown.

map 4

 

 

Midwinter Delights

Weatherwise, it’s a miserable day here in Sydneytown. Southerly squalls started gusting before dawn, and when the rain hasn’t been slamming us sideways, the sun has straggled out to show ragged strips of grey cloud racing their way north.

After hearing the mere mention of the words “East Coast Low”, I am glad that I officially proclaimed today “Trackie Dack Tuesday” — we have dressed accordingly and hunkered down indoors for the day, listening to Sigur Rós, playing Scrabble, baking cookies and cutting out sewing patterns. We are all a little sad plans for netball training this evening have been ditched, but at least the cancellation means we don’t have to change out of our aforementioned (super daggy) attire. Besides, being at home for the day has given me the opportunity to reflect on what has been happening lately and pinpoint the moments of delight that have captured me since winter began.

Without further ado, here are four highlights from our winter (such as it usually is) so far:

Apricity

winter 1Ahh…what a wonderful word: precise, perfect, and something I cherish. Apricity means “the warmth of the sun in winter”, and I am particularly fond of seeking it out — especially on days when the blue sky stretches high but the temperature drops deceptively low. Recently I have been struck by my appreciation of apricity when chatting with my elderly neighbour over the back fence, shooting goals with my family down at the local neball courts, and curling up with a good book on the lounge beside my beloved cat. Apricity is a true winter delight (and one most felines can point you in the direction of, if you care to follow their lead…which in my view constitutes another reason to join the Cat Race). Besides, in winter a decent dose of Vitamin D is good for you.

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird

winter 2The good book I was curled up in the sun with? Well, when I wasn’t on a fiction bender reading all eight of Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass books (because it’s school holidays and who actually needs an excuse to escape into a book anyway), I was completely and utterly caught up in Julia Baird’s latest offering.  It’s full title is Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and the things that sustain you when the world goes dark, and it is absolutely worth getting your hands on a copy — not just because the cover is truly a thing of beauty. While I was reading it, this book made me think deeply about Baird’s many and varied insights, and after finishing it several weeks ago I am still pondering her observations, recalling certain turns of phrase, and picking up the book to delve into certain sections again.

Winter 3Chocolate Croissants

Is there anything more satisfying than biting into a freshly made chocolate croissant? Particularly when in it is a perfect ensemble of crisp, flaky, buttery pastry and decadently high quality dark chocolate? Do I even need to begin justifying including this as a delight? I think not…and I am abundantly grateful to have a magical patisserie not far from home where these masterpieces are made every single day. Nom.

Hamilton

What a wonderful coincidence, that Disney Plus released the film version of Hamilton the very same evening the NSW winter school holidays began! For me, the fact that this already marvellous confluence of events also happened to line up with Marvel Girl receiving news that she had been accepted into the high school she was aiming for made it all the more magical. Marvel Girl and I are big Hamilton fans and even bigger devotees of the insanely talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, so settling in to watch this massively ambitious piece of musical theatre was an absolute, unmitigated delight. We relished and rejoiced in every rhyme, and since then even Miss Malaprop has been known to sing out a line or two…especially if it allows her render a completely lifelike Jonathan Groff impression to send a fully armed battalion to remind [us] of [her] love!

There’s no better way to end this post than that.

winter 5

 

 

Creating the Cat Race

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Tauriel, being the light at the end of the self-isolation tunnel…

I have been doing a lot of pondering since I wrote my last post, when I railed against returning to the rat race in the post-iso world. My words seemed to gain traction with many people who read the piece, though the most frequently asked question I received in response to my musings was quite simply: How?

How, exactly, do we do things differently now that we are experiencing life, rebooted? How do we put into context and practice what we have learned during this, the craziest of years in living memory? How do we stop ourselves from falling back into old patterns and habits when we know there are alternative ways to do so many things?

Well, one of the more outlandish suggestions I received in response to my rejection of the rat race was that we create the cat race instead — and this, folks, is something I believe I could get behind.

As an aside, I have often said if it turns out reincarnation is actually a thing, I could do a lot worse than returning to this world as a cat. More specifically, if human options were definitely off the table for me, I’m pretty sure I’d be OK with reincarnating as a domestic cat in a comfortably appointed and well-managed home.

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Living with Tauriel has reminded me of the many things I have learned from cats.

In all seriousness, however, there is a surprising amount we can learn from cats and apply to our daily lives.

For starters, cats never over-commit: they exercise occasionally, eat moderately, eschew unnecessary interaction, and resolutely stick to their own schedules. Cats say precisely what they mean to only when they need to, are masters of saying “No” without uttering a single syllable, and fastidiously ignore anything that fails to capture their interest. Even so, cats consistently present well, most probably because they — very wisely — prioritise sleep and self care, and they appreciate the comforts of home. Finally, cats whole-heartedly embrace spontaneous pleasures, even if these involve pursuits humans deem spurious or frivolous, such as speed-scampering up and down hallways at peculiar hours.

I ask you: what’s not to like about the cat race so far?

Quite simply, it’s not so different from what I am attempting to do in my life now self-isolation is over.

I am committing to being less committed. I’m working out what is important to me and my family and making room for those, and only those, things. I’m shopping only once a week, which means I’m planning more and buying less. I’m making more conscious decisions about the projects I take on, and better predicting how these will impact my week and my interactions with my family.

I am sticking to my schedule. Even though I am committed to doing less, I am scheduling more. We all knew there were 24 hours in a day before self-isolation, but I now have a better appreciation of time and how I spend it. By sticking to a routine I can accomplish what I need to and still make time for things that make my soul sing, and for much needed restorative sleep.

I am appreciating home. Yes, we all saw a lot of the same four walls during self-isolation. But I’m far more appreciative now that I have four walls around me (even if I’m also far more aware how much they need re-painting), and a roof over my head to keep the winter weather out. By extension, I’m also making sure that I am supporting businesses close to my home, such as my local beautician, bakery and bookstore.

I am embracing spontaneous outbursts of fun. It’s easier than you think to say no to things, but sometimes — particularly when you’re overcommitted — it’s harder to say yes. I have discovered that when I combine the three things I’ve mentioned above, I have far more space in my life, my head and my heart to say yes to unexpected delights. During the past week, for example, I went on a long walk with my elder daughter and in two hours learned more about how she was feeling and what she’d been doing than I had in the two months. I played a game of Scrabble with my Dad, The Professor, which — given he has dementia — is something I will cherish as I don’t know how long his ability to play will last. I bought a bunch of flowers chosen by my younger daughter and they are still brightening our kitchen today. And most days, I sat and relished the luxury of a large cup of hot coffee.

These, my friends, are the cornerstones of what I am calling the Cat Race, and anyone — I mean anyone, is welcome to join in.

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Tauriel suggests spontaneous delights can also be encountered in a bookcase (which may or may not include enticingly tasselled mala beads, as well as books).

 

 

 

Return to the Rat Race?

clock carsRestrictions on movement have slowly begun to lift here in old Sydneytown, but as they do I am being forced to confront the reality that there are parts of self-isolating that have suited me ever so well.

My role in the house as Chief Whip Cracker and Keeper of Clocks has, mercifully, been largely relinquished since mid-March, and I cannot say I am sorry. The relentless hurry and scurry from the office to this school and onto that lesson and back to the other training session ceased, literally overnight, and my strung out self heaved a massive sigh of relief.

I freely and willingly admit there have been times in the past weeks when my attempts to simultaneously supervise home schooling while producing meaningful, accurate work have collided in spectacularly disastrous fashion. At times this has necessitated me apologising to my children, and more profusely to our neighbours (occasionally with the addition of home-baked chocolate banana muffin peace offerings), and on those days I would have given anything —  anything — for a return to our regular routine.

But, even though increased work commitments have resulted in me having far less time to myself lately (and precious little solitude), not having to be anywhere at a particular time has enabled me to eke out the occasional moment of quiet stillness. Not wanting my children to be permanently attached to screens has resulted in us playing games of Scrabble, of me teaching them how to make pumpkin soup and chicken pie, and of all of us rediscovering our love of cycling.

None of us has done anything noteworthy or brilliant during this time — we won’t be receiving any awards for breathtaking new novels written during lockdown, or prizes for sensational artworks or astonishing craft projects. We only managed to complete one jigsaw puzzle before it felt like all the tiny pieces were threatening to take over the house. To be honest, we’ve barely managed to keep the house clean and tidy, and my work things have been extracted from and returned to two increasingly battered carboard boxes at the end of the hallway every day for the past however many weeks.

clocks 1And even though we’ve not always managed to harmoniously coexist, we have slowly got better at being with each other all the time, especially when we’ve taken a moment to sit down and speak honestly and openly about how seriously crap this situation has been and still is and how miserable we’re feeling about it.

As life slowly returns to something resembling “normal”, however, I am finding myself increasingly unwilling to pick up the accoutrements of Chief Whip Cracker. I have never been comfortable as a Keeper of Clocks, nor with the mental load associated with having everyone in the right place at the right time with the right equipment , and I am strenuously resisting resuming that role.

Being at home with my family, though challenging, has made me think seriously about how I want to spend my time.

I don’t want to jump straight back onto the helter-skelter hither-thither treadmill.

I don’t want to be the one constantly keeping track of everyone’s time.

I don’t want to rejoin the relentless rat race.

I do know that I have to, somehow…the problem is, I don’t yet know what I am going to do differently in the future, or what the the new “normal” will look like for us or whether it will work in the long run.

I do hope it feels different, though.

Tunnel

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