Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The things we do for love

My grandfather was a renowned obstetrician, loved and adored by his wife and two daughters. He outlived my grandmother by 3 years and sold our farm when she died. In his time he never had to use a washing machine, go to the supermarket, cook, wash-up, change the sheets, or clean a bathroom. He did know how to poach an egg. After my grandmother’s death my mum and aunt cared for him. Each week night mum and I drove the 30 minutes to his flat, prepared his dinner and kept him company. Mum was working and I must have been at university. You knew grandpa was home from the blare of the television as you climbed the stairs to his front door. He had a hearing aid, but he didn’t think to use it watching telly. It was understood that he would never go into a nursing home.

Salt’s 98-year-old grandmother, Mabel, lives with Salt’s mother. Mabel also has a hearing aid and a walking frame with wheels, which Squid likes to use. She remembers names, what activities you had planned, knows the political landscape and displays deep empathy for her loved ones. She watches all sport, her cricket knowledge rivalled only by Wisden and Jim Maxwell.

Last week my car broke down and Squid and I needed to stay with Salt’s mum. In the morning Squid and I ate our breakfast together on the floor in the kitchen. Salt’s mum waited to hear the television in Mabel’s room which indicated that a cup of tea would be welcome. Salt’s mum boiled the kettle, brewed the Tetley tea, added one tablet of sugarine and a dash of Farmer’s Best and at the side of the white cup and saucer she placed a teaspoon and a Nice biscuit. I watched Salt’s mum take it to Mabel’s room and felt a heaviness weigh down on my lower throat and chest. This routine, exactly how Mabel likes it, happens every morning. Salt’s mum showers and then prepares Mabel’s breakfast, exactly how she likes it.
No-one else can offer this tenderness and the endless unrecognised acts of caring that ensure that Mabel is happy, dignified and safe. These relationships can be fraught. The dedication of caring for elderly parents demands a selflessness and consistency that is similar to that of caring for a small child. There is no escape just a desire to escape. You can love them deeply and at times not like them, and the context requires patience and deep breathing as well as remembrance. I loved my grandfather very much but I felt I needed to be with my mum to help hold her up while she held him up and did everything exactly how he liked it. It can be done because there will be an ending, and because there is an ending we offer the tenderness of a cup of tea in the morning with a Nice biscuit on the side.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Chaos and Christianity

In one of Salt’s previous lives he was a youth worker at a church. Salt wasn’t raised in the church he turned to it at a time when the ground was quietly falling beneath his feet. He studied theology and with his enquiring, analytical mind he sought to explore the gaps explained with answers of faith and asked questions in those places that are deliberately and blindingly set aside. The bravery of Salt was to acknowledge his internal discomfort, to make that discomfort public and admit to an informed faithlessness. As his honesty reverberated through his church, some of his friends were unable to support him. Some, of course, were able to stay with him and we count many ministers and Christians as our dear friends.

As kids my brothers and I went to church on Christmas mornings. The minister who took the service lived on the farm next to ours. I always tried very hard to listen to the sermon, but I never lasted more than a few sentences. I was usually preoccupied with watching the people around me who I hadn’t seen for a year, and because the minister was our neighbour I figured we were all a bit closer to God than everyone else. One afternoon the minister appeared in his running gear at the farm’s front door – short shorts, sleeveless top, cap on. My grandmother didn’t recognise him, and notoriously said, “Oh, of course minister, I didn’t recognise you without your clothes on.” She was mortified.

On the drives home from Sydney following by brother’s death I’d have mock conversations in my head with a couple of Salt’s Christian friends. I feared they might try to explain my brother’s death in a godly way – it was God’s will – there is a higher plan. I have numerous angry one liners prepared for that pitiful reasoning. I’ve never had to use them. In marriage, birth and death we were prayed for, and I’ve read sentences in cards that I’ve cherished and felt nourished by. I don’t mind being prayed for if it helps to make sense of the chaos and eases the dissonance.

Finding Salt was like finding a rare gem. I wanted to throw my arms in the air with celebratory yells and halleluiahs, like a man who has struck gold, or witnessed a miracle. Salt’s rarity lies in his du-occupancy of holding values and goodness akin to those praised by the church without the dogma. We didn’t go to church on Christmas morning last year, but we did go to Christmas carols. Squid was meant to be sleeping, but her smiles and eyes lit up at the sight of the candles and the sound of the voices. I believe in chaos and I sometimes pretend that I also believe in magic.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Thanks be to contradictions

It appears my much longed for Spring and subsequent Summer is stunted. Its relief has been but mild, and I’m afraid that February will pass us by and Autumn shall return too soon.

Whilst I’m not of religious persuasion I’m reminded of a prayer, by Leunig, which gives thanks for tomatoes. With the rain has come an abundance of produce and our humble Apollos have thrived, so let us give thanks for the contradictions of seasons and the space that the garden provides for proper deep breathing and hands in the earth.

‘It is time to plant tomatoes. Dear God, we praise this
fruit and give thanks for its life and evolution. We
salute the tomato: cheery, fragrant morsel, beloved
provider, survivor and thriver and giver of life. Giving
and giving and giving. Plump with summer’s joy.
The scent of its stem is summer’s joy, is promise and
rapture. Its branches breathe perfume of promise
and rapture. Giving and giving and giving.
            Dear God, give strength to the wings and knees
of pollinating bees, give protection from hailstorms,
gales and frosts, give warm days and quenching
rains. Refresh and adorn our gardens and our tables.
Refresh us with tomatoes.
            Rejoice and rejoice! Celebrate the scarlet soul of
winter sauces. Behold the delicious flavour! Behold
the oiled vermilion moons that ride and dive in olive-
bobbing seas of vinegared lettuce. Let us rejoice!
Let this rejoicing be our thanks for tomatoes.’

Monday, 31 October 2011

Swallowing Tears

I can pinpoint almost to the day when I started to fall behind. I was still close enough to keep up, but the deep paring of this year dragged me, and time, back further still. There are changes afoot and the ground is preparing again to fracture my time and disturb my balance.

At the time of our great southern investment there was little I could hold onto that remained my constant. My parents, my family were the touch stone, reliably present, and knowing enough to stay with me whatever I did and whatever choices I made. They provided an anchor, a central strength. My friends shifted their orbit around me as the changes in my life impacted on them, and Salt was this new creature who promised dreams I’d never thought to imagine.

I can see a time ahead when this new life, this present, and this future will have normalised and I’ll have caught up. In the interim I wonder if immobilisation can aid the lag. Maybe if I sat still long enough, stillness would give breath to the space. Staying in the present I can do, believing the present is something else.

I’ve listened to those who’ve lost who search for meaning, who want to make something of it, to do more, to action the loss. I’ve wanted to do so much less. To ground down, to curl in, to protect, to loosen the jaw, and be still, so very still.

For October we remembered.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

What's in a name

Yesterday afternoon a new acquaintance, Johnno, kept calling me Rach. ‘Good question Rach ...’ ‘well, Rach, it’s funny you say that ...’ A few references passed before I realised he was referring to me. By then it was too late, so I didn’t correct him. I liked being Rach. She’s more relaxed than I am, her hair’s a bit longer, and she favours navy blue. Rach is less complex, knows the community better, and rarely wears make-up. She likes to read although her political interest wanes faster than mine. I think she was going to be a better friend to Johnno than what I would've been.

While I was away from the table putting Squid in her bed Salt began to tell a few stories, ‘Katie and I went to Tasmania last year ....’ ‘Yes Katie enjoyed it immensely.’ When I returned, without a skip, I was Katie again. Rach wasn’t around long enough for me to miss her, but I think Johnno does.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Taking Turns

Last weekend I jumped on our mower for the first time since before I was pregnant with Squid. On previous mows I’d give an envious nod and wave to our man neighbour flying by on his double paced, flash Gordon mower. The envy was such that Salt invested in a new mower. The old one made Salt swear like a sailor. It stopped without notice and got bogged mid-mow. The swearing made my eyes water and the cows blush. The new mower has a wider cut and goes like the clappers.

As kids my brothers and I were allowed to mow around the farm house. The farm itself was on five hundred acres, but the house was on about three. We had to take turns on the route marked out by my grandfather. My eldest brother did a circuit, held the gear down while my middle brother jumped on, released the gear and off he’d go. It involved steep inclines and in some places we had to navigate grandma’s trees. I misjudged once, which is to say that I drove straight into the water gauge. On occasion my brothers wouldn’t stop and they’d career off on another great loop. I’d protest, but it fell on deaf ears and roars of fading laughter. As I got older I didn’t stop visiting the farm and there were times when I got to mow the whole property. What a gift. Whether with my brothers, or on my own, on the mower I’d sing, reflect, admire the scenery, inhale deeply, and provide my grandmother with space from her ever present shadow.

Salt’s new mower is yellow. It has a driving wheel and an accelerator. It took me little time to return the property to lawn, but it doesn’t have the same feel, it was simply too fast. The old mower might’ve given up the ghost every now and then, but its gentle, familiar pace and beer holder created space for quieter singing and time to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems and ponder the abstract.

With Spring the grass has awakened, and the opportunities for mowing have grown. Next time I’ll lay off the accelerator and slow the lawn down, and then remember to buy Salt a water gauge. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

That's a funny thing

Salt is a synesthete. Each letter, number, and day of the week he associates with a colour. The colour variations are limited, but they are always the same.

1 is white
2 is red
3 is yellow
4 is blue
5 is a mustardy yellow
6 is pinky red
7 is green
8 is a dark, strong red
9 is also yellow
10 is black, as is zero.

For teens, the second number dominates, for example, 19 is yellow. For all subsequent numbers the first number’s colour dominates.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are all different shades of yellow;
Wednesday is a red, orange;
Thursday is grey;
Friday is black; and
Saturday is a reddy, pink.

Some characters of the alphabet interchange between black and white depending on the context, the others are permanently their colour.

His form of synesthesia means he has no emotive connection to the colours, and he describes it as an internal connection, rather than an external one. He can see that the text is black and white, but says that the colours ‘exist in the ether. I can see a black 2 on a page, but I know that the real character of 2 is to be red.’ He has no explanation for the associations, and says that it hasn’t particularly helped him in life. The colour sequencing can help with spelling although it’s not reliable for double letters in a word, for example, meerkat. Too much yellow.

Oliver Sacks talks about synesthesia in MusicophiliaTales of Music and the Brain. Sacks says that synesthesia occurs in about 1 in 2000, probably more although most people don’t see it as a “condition.” Each synesthete has their own colour correspondence, and it can also involve any of the senses, so that a colour can have a smell or every musical interval its own taste. Many musicians have synesthesia and associate colour to sound. Salt is a jazz musician, and after relentless questioning, he assures me that he doesn’t colour associate to sound, but he does to the notes. He has met only one other synesthete and their colours were all together different, “it made no sense, to think that the colours would be different, it was like the world was upside down – what? No! 2 is RED!”

I remember Salt first telling me about his synesthesia. It was followed by a bombardment of questions. Every now and then I think of a new question, like, what if you see an actual red 2, does it make it invisible? One of Salt’s many virtues is patience. “Nothing happens when I see a character in the colour I imagine it in, that would be normal, what is more strange is if I see a character in a different colour ... and they are all 'wrong' then it seems a little strange. Not overpoweringly so. I mean, I still function pretty normally, ask my wife if you don't believe me...”

He functions normally, well, normally enough for me.