At the beginning of each year I attempt to find a word or theme to guide me through the twelve months ahead. It makes sense to me to do this, not only because here in the Southern Hemisphere the school year mirrors the calendar year, but also because my birthday falls in January. I find it useful to embrace an overarching concept that often ends up informing what I do, what I read, what I think, and even the way I approach my life.
Last year, I took delight as my guiding principle after dipping into Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. Prior to that I (perhaps less successfully) delved into the lives of diverse people — Marcus Aurelius, Virginia Woolf, Keith Richards — to see how their perspectives might inform my own. Another year I chose a different Word of the Month to engage with.
In 2021, I’m taking myself going down a slightly different path again — one decidedly unfamiliar to me, raised as I was in a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic home by parents who remain steadfast in their faith and who chose to send me to Catholic schools throughout my primary and secondary education. This year, inspired by reading Jay Shetty’s book Think Like a Monk, I’ve chosen to explore the Divine Qualities outlined in Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad Gita.
There are 26 Divine Qualities listed in the Gita, so I am hoping to tackle one every couple of weeks. Quite obviously, I haven’t been raised Hindu and have little experience with the Vedic tradition other than what I’ve learned from various teachers when attending yoga classes from time to time, which means I am engaging with each quality as outsider. From the oustet I think it is important to state that I do not intend to bring a religious slant to any of my posts and I mean absolutely no disrespect to believers in this or in any religion: I am simply using the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point and exploring how these, as I understand them, apply to my own life.
The first Divine Quality mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita is FEARLESSNESS.
What a way to kick things off, huh?!
You may, given the current state of the wider world, now have an inkling of understanding as to why I was intrigued by the Divine Qualities: given that much of 2020 involved a global pandemic, trade wars, continuing environmental crises and particular politicians peddling lies and failing to protect their own people, there were many things about last year that made me FEARFUL. I often wondered, in 2020, whether my family would stay physically safe in the face of an invisible disease and mentally strong when confronted with multiple lockdowns, whether my husband’s business and those of his clients would survive the associated economic upheaval, and whether the world was actually going to hell in a handbasket.
Fearlessness? I’ve never lived through a year more prone to making people fearful, or for provoking (at best) garden variety anxiety on a daily, if not hourly, basis!
I have to admit the word shocked me when I first read it, right at the top of the list of Divine Qualities. It felt like such a foreign concept in these strange and unusual times.
And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to embrace fearlessness.
Many of us spend far too much time worrying about — or even fearing — things beyond our control. What if we stopped fearing what other people might think of us, or whether we’re good enough, or if the timing is right? What if we started to trust ourselves and our abilities more, to do what is right and responsible, to make our best effort every time with the knowledge and resources we have?
For me, staring fearlessness in the face meant asking myself:
What if I actually finish my novel?
What if I allow myself time to exercise every day?
What if I publish more on this blog, even if it exposes me to potential ridicule?
What if I say no to stuff that no longer serves me?
What if I say yes to trying new things?
And I’ve decided, on balance, that all of those things are worth doing.
That it’s worth letting go of fear and trusting the universe (or God, or whatever you believe in) has my back.
That it’s important to have faith that the vast majority of people on this planet are doing their best and are kind and decent human beings.
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.
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:
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,
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.
Restrictions 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.
And 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.
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