Friday, 21 December 2012

So, this is Christmas

Christmas hasn’t been the same since my mum, Anna, died ten years ago. After all this time I'm still uncertain what to do. Every year I wonder if I should stick with the old family traditions but without her they are less robust and over time have faded away. All I have carried from one Christmas to another was grief. 

The season had lost the infectious energy Anna brought to it. For her, the lead up to Christmas involved much kitchen activity. She busied herself making home-made pasta for the big day, baking fruit pies and home-made cassata ice cream. She filled the pantry with biscuits and cakes to share. She prepared food hampers for charity, starting well months beforehand, buying a little something to put aside every week. She participated in Samaritan’s Purse shoe-box program, and filled shoe-boxes full of small gifts for children in overseas aid programs. She thought about what gifts to give members of her family and friends, and lovingly wrapped each one. Always a superb cook, Anna excelled herself at Christmas, producing a feast, refusing to let anyone do anything to help. Finally, she would sit down with the family around her, the happiness on her face obvious. Now the empty chair at the table magnifies my loss. 

Countless people make this same journey without a loved one through the festive season each year and it never becomes less painful. There is no road map to follow, no rest stops to relieve the pain, no directions as to the best way through. Grief has its own crooked path and travels it at its own pace. Last Christmas for the first time I broke the cycle. Instead of a home-based celebration, we had a picnic near the Yarra River. It felt relaxed and dissipated the pressure to maintain what we’d always done in the past. Through that choice, I reclaimed our celebrations, perhaps establishing a new tradition.

This year an aunt is traveling from Italy to celebrate with us. It’s been over fifty years since Dad shared a Christmas table with his youngest sibling. She was five years old and he twenty-four.  If Mum were here, she’d cook and fuss and make everything welcoming. Although I can’t cook and fuss like she did, I can make things welcoming and emulate that aspect of her approach to the celebrations. So this is our new Christmas; at the heart of it, still at the heart of it a shared feast even if it's on a picnic rug. It feels right. 

I'm sure Anna would approve.  

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The path to friendship

 As I wrote Christmas cards, I mulled over on the nature of friendship. The cards are reserved mainly for those I think about often but don't get a chance to see regularly. I suppose too that the Christmas period, which brings the year to a close, is another measure of the time I've had with the friends in my life. And that’s always worth pondering.

I read somewhere that most people are lucky if they have a couple of true long-term friends; friends who want the best for you, who aren’t judgmental and who pull you into line when you’re screwing up. Using that gauge, I consider myself lucky because I have an abundance of those types of friends in my life. There’s Raffaele—he was four and I was six when we met and remained neighbours for two decades. In the 51 years since our first meeting we have had at least weekly contact. My friend Jo and I met at the age of 12. We still catch up for coffee each week and meet at other times depending on what life is dishing out. There is a cluster of friends that extends back 20 years or so. Of course there are more recently made friends, many of whom I already know will become part of that long-term category.

What has kept our friendships strong for so long? For me it’s this: I’m drawn to those I admire and respect for the way they treat others and how their espoused values are congruent with their actions. They live authentically. These friends are staunch and reliable; they extend themselves when it’s not always comfortable to do so. Doesn’t matter how busy they are they find space for our relationship. They invest in honesty and they are genuinely interested in my life and that of others around them. They are devoid of competitive natures within our friendship. They are fiercely loyal and supportive. They celebrate my victories and commiserate my losses. They pull me up when I'm being a jerk. They’re a reality check in my life. I hope they see the same qualities in me.

I'm grateful that my parents modeled friendship for me. They demonstrated that these special relationships are made up of shared experience; thought and deed, good times and tough. Recently, my father gave the eulogy at the funeral of his friend of 75 years. It was a friendship made up of reciprocal weekly visits, social get-togethers, regular phone calls and always practical help. Shared time is all these situations built a rich history. Dad delivered the eulogy without a single written prompt. I was astounded at his eloquence in the circumstances then it struck me that despite his distress, the ease of his speech came from knowing his friend so well.

It’s said that people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I've had lots of seasonal friends—born of study and work situations. Some of these relationships have taken root and become a sturdy part of my life, others have blow away with the changing winds of circumstance and time. I don’t lament them; every relationship has taught me something. Then when social media gave us a new version of ‘friendship’, I wondered what it would mean for my son’s generation. Would he experience friendship the way I feel I've been lucky enough to do? I needn’t have worried. While he’s part of the social media savvy cohort with lots of Facebook friends and a Twitter profile, he made an astute observation, ‘Mum, one click doesn’t make a friendship. You have to sit with your friend and look them in the eye, that’s where the relationship develops.’

He’s living by that too. At the ripe old age of 28 he already has a mate of 23 years standing and they spend a lot of time together. He recognises that friendships need an investment of time and emotion. He’s taken to heart the lesson passed down from his grandparents, living out Ralph Waldo Emerson words, ‘Go often the house of your friend, for weeds choke the unused path.’

I'm glad in this frenetic world we have lots of ways of high-tech ways of staying in touch with one another, I'm a fan of these new media. But I still love the beautiful maintenance work of friendship: the effort you expend to make someone else’s day, tweaking your schedule to find the time to just ‘be’ in each other’s company, and yes, even that daunting stack of Christmas cards you have to write.

Friday, 7 December 2012

What’s the story behind that?

Each day I try to take a walk, not a long one – maybe half an hour on a good day. I don't jog (the cardiologist told me it’s bad plan). ‘Everything you need you can get from walking,’ he said. He was right and not just from the health perspective. No one needs me to bleat on about the health benefits, they’re a given. The bonuses I get from walking are ideas that it generates. As I walk, I collect them like I'm on a massive treasure hunt. I often go out with a head full of trouble and return home with a head full of story.

I'm not sure of the science behind it but there is something about the rhythm of my stride and the fact that I am not distracted by all the ‘to do’ things that are in my face when I'm at home: the washing, general chores, stack of bills to be considered, needs of others – in another words a procrastination list that stops me from writing. Of course these things need to be taken care of at some point but not to the detriment of the thing that is most nourishing to me.  

In ‘The Artist’s Way’, Julia Cameron suggests regular walking as part of artistic practice. I have found this to be true. When I get out into my walking world, I can let the must/should/ought thoughts rattling around in my head evaporate for the duration. I'm free to concentrate on what I see and hear. I can look at gardens and house designs and the strange objects that people place on their window sills for the world to see. Things like this make me ask, ‘What’s the story behind that?’ The possible answers are like seeds planted in my head, waiting for the trigger to germinate. They are my resources and my tools.

An added bonus I get from daily walks is the fun of people-watching; definitely a writer’s resource. My observation is that early morning walkers are greeters and late-in-the-day walkers are not; possibly they are grumpier and walking off a bad day. I say ‘Hi’ to everyone regardless of whether they return the greeting or not. I note how they interact with me, others and with their environment. It gives me ideas about character. Here’s an example: The other day, I passed a very trendy two-year-old out with his mum. Mum had made sure he had the fashion spot on and his hair gelled into the latest style. He was still being a kid, having a great time squatting to examine something on the path – an ant or piece of rubbish. Like me he was being inspired. As I passed, his mum decided it was time to move on. ‘Come on Arthur, let’s go!’ Arthur? On that, the kid and I exchanged looks. 

I'm sure his said, ‘What’s the story behind that?’ 

Definitely fodder for a head full of story.