A record and a rose

A man sat at the table next to me in the cafe and told the waiter he was expecting someone to join him. I was reading, so all I saw of him was his right dress shoe and pant leg, and, from the corner of my eye, his upright and watchful posture. A vague waft of his cologne. An imagined crisp white shirt.

I don’t know how long he sat there, watching, anticipating. 

Eventually, he ordered himself a coffee and a sandwich.

‘My friend isn’t coming anymore,’ he told the waiter. 

When the coffee and the sandwich came, he ate and drank slowly. His posture remained upright. As soon as he’d finished, he paid and left.

‘He had a present,’ the waiter told me. ‘A record and a rose.’

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Conversations with children

IMG_0444.JPG“Did you name it?” he asks me.

We’re taking about the snowman I made the day before when it snowed down in the ski village where I’m staying, and the front yard of the lodge was covered in a cold, fluffy, magical white blanket. 

“You know, I didn’t think of that,” I say. “I should have named it.”

“You’ll have to next time you make one,” he says, and I’m pleased that he has assumed I will make another at some point. “And did yours have a nose?”

“It did,” I say. “I made it out of a stone. But I didn’t give him eyes or a mouth because I couldn’t find enough stones.”

“Next time you should poke a hole for the eyes and draw a mouth on with your finger. And use a carrot for the nose. What about arms?”

“Yes, I used two small sticks,” I say.

IMG_0446.JPGHe is about five. I have just met him because he’s doing a group skiing lesson on the slope I’m also skiing, and the instructors send some of the kids up with other adults on the chair lift. This little boy happened to come into the line next to me. He has on a giant helmet, and the chin strap is between his lips and his nose, rather than under his chin. He’s playing with it with his lips and little mittened hands as we talk. He’s swinging his legs and tiny skis as we roll along, many metres above the slope.

“Did you give him gloves?” 

“No, I didn’t think of that. Next time I’ll have to.”

“Yes, in case it gets cold,” he says, and grins at me. 

“And maybe a scarf and hat,” I say. He smiles.

IMG_0447.JPGI’ve spent a lot of time having conversations with children this week. Answering the questions they seem to have about everything; talking about the important things in their lives, like puppies and finding animals in the snow and playing tricks on ski instructors and whether or not they like their teacher and what the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is about. They’ve asked me a little about mine—about whether I live with my parents, have a dog, am allowed to drink beer. These conversations have been quiet and patient and curious. Full of questions. From both parties. And each time it’s struck me how wonderful it is to be this open to another person without trying to prove anything about yourself or an issue you have an opinion about; curious about them and their experience of life, willing to share something of yourself with them, even if just for a few minutes. 

IMG_0445.JPGWe reach the top of the chairlift and ski off, him to the left to join his group, me to the right to join my family. 

“Bye!” he yells out to me, waving. 

“Have fun,” I yell, and wave back. 

“Thank you.”

And he is gone, disappearing into his group lesson, a sea of little skis and big helmets.

Adventure

Looking back over the last few posts here, I’ve realised that I seem to spend an awful lot of time writing here about not doing things. Or at least about needing to do nothing because I manage to keep myself busy and occasionally need a rest. But I rarely write about the things that I actually am doing.

So I thought today I would write about something that I’ve actually done. Today I went adventuring with a friend — a kind of research project for both of us. We caught the bus from Newtown to Coogee with no real plans, except to look around and maybe find somewhere we could eat pancakes. We wandered along the beach, in the rain, and took pictures of sand, boats, trees. We found a cafe in which to eat pancakes (yum!), and we wandered around a local green grocer without shopping baskets, trying to resist the temptation to buy any food. We walked up hills into the residential streets, gazing at all the interesting houses and interesting gardens.

We talked a lot, and I got damp toes. And we took pictures. Here are some of mine.

Sodden feet

Last night I ventured out just as it started to pour with rain. I quite like rain. And I’m rarely without an umbrella.

My umbrellas are always bright and cheerful. I’ve had yellow, green, blue. My current umbrella is pink with polka dots. This choice of gaudy umbrellas is completely deliberate.

There’s a picture of me as a small child standing at the bottom of the front steps of our house in Goulburn, peering out from under an umbrella. The expression on my face is one of happy fascination.

On a good day, that’s still how I feel about rain. Choosing a brightly coloured umbrella is my way of reminding myself that it’s possible to forget about the inconvenience of rain, to forget to worry about whether I’m getting wet. It reminds me that I’ve inherited my Dad’s fascination with weather, and brings out that part of me that wants to jump in the puddles rather than carefully step around them.

Because let’s face it: I’m probably going to end up with sodden feet anyway.

Thinking about the toes of my boots, which are still damp from last night’s rain adventure (no puddle-jumping, but I did give up on trying to avoid the puddles), I remembered that I once posted a little piece here about rain and umbrellas and ruined shoes.

‘Nevermind,’ she said quietly to herself as her suede shoes were rapidly ruined by the rain. At least they had character now.

She stood under her broken umbrella on the unfamiliar street corner and marvelled at the genius of the contraption she held above her head.

Somehow the rain never made her sad anymore. It reminded her of a place she missed dearly but was also glad to be away from. It reminded her of him, of that street, of that house and of the wet-cold winters. And it always brought a smile to her face, even if her shoes had become its victim.

Finding this piece immediately reminded me of all the other times I’ve been stuck in the rain — sometimes with an umbrella, sometimes without — and how each of those moments still sits in my mind, linked in no other way except by the phenomenon of water falling from the sky. It also reminded me of just how many pairs of shoes I’ve lost, standing out in the rain, and how it’s not that ruination that I remember first, but the freedom that comes from realising each time that I can’t do anything about it.

Stalking… I mean, observing

The other week at uni, instead of a tutorial, we were asked to make our way to one of a list of places in the city and make some observations. With the brief ‘cities at night’, we were to produce two 150 word pieces — the first a description of the place, the second a description of a person within that place.

I chose the supermarket at Broadway. I chose it because I’m writing about supermarkets for one of my feature articles, and because I really dislike the place. Actually, most supermarkets make me vaguely anxious. And that fascinates me. What is it about them that makes me anxious?

My written pieces for this exercise don’t really attempt to address this question, but I thought I’d share them here.

    The place is full of people, but not their voices. A hum fills the space – the cooling system for the fruit and vegetable section. Beep, beep, beep; items scanned and placed in bags. “Next waiting, please.”

    On the whole, it is a place devoid of smell. Only the bread and meat sections have a scent: both vaguely sugary.

    There are few Supermarket Rushers at this hour. People move in a dream-like state, eyes sliding over the shelves, occasionally stopping to peer more closely. To speak to someone is to wake them.

    Away from the hum of the fruit and vegetable section, people’s footsteps can be heard on the bright white hospital floors. The high heels and heavy business shoes have gone for the day, left are those who have had time to slip their feet into something more comfortable. White light — a Hollywood yellow in the cosmetics section — shines down from above. This place seems both small and enormous; with no windows there are no landmarks for perspective.

    ~

    Phone between her shoulder and ear, basket dangling from her arm, she puts two heads of broccoli into her basket. Her grey sneakers take a few steps away. She is not speaking English on the phone, but her sigh is clear; she returns to remove one head of broccoli from her basket.

    The white phone now hangs in her hand. She has moved to cosmetics. Her eyes amble over the face creams on display, looking without really looking.

    In her basket she has a box of oats, a carton of soy milk and the green vegetable. She seems unsure what to add next, moving briefly back towards the vegetable section before drifting in the opposite direction towards the frozen foods. For several minutes she stands in front of the garbage bags, squinting at the many choices. She decides on purple bags a shade or two darker than her shorts.

    She scuffs towards the self-checkout. Basket down now, she gazes at the screen a moment before moving to scan her first item. She has not brought her own bags.

It was an interesting exercise. I ran into someone I knew at one point, and had to pretend I was doing some last minute shopping — even though I was at the opposite end of the supermarket to the milk and cheese, which is what I said I was there to get. And I discovered that stalking is really quite difficult.

But the exercise was fun. I had trouble keeping to the word limit because I had many, many notes. Being asked to observe something almost always has me listening harder than I normally do, and I had lines and lines about the sound of the supermarket.

As much as I dislike these places, supermarkets are fascinating. People behave strangely in them. This observation exercise was as much an exercise in trying to find the kind of compassion for other people I ranted about in my last post. People are rude and vague, tired and careless. Maybe they dislike the place as much as I do.

In last week’s class we got back an edited version of our pieces and discussed the exercise. There were some fairly heated discussions about some of my classmates’ observations of other people. I won’t discuss those here just yet (they relate, again, to my last post and I want to give them a little more time when and if I do write about them).

When I got mine back it was covered in notes, questions, underlines and crossings out. I love the way something looks when it’s been edited. I’m not really sure why.

(Excuse the terrible photography.)

Manly Wharf

As I sat in Hugo’s, having a beer with my parents, these kids jumped off the wharf, swam to shore and came back to jump off again and again. Their jumping was accompanied by lots of shrieking and laughing. The weather in Sydney has been so fickle of late, and that afternoon, with a cold beer in hand, looking at these kids getting in and out of the water, it really felt like summer. What a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Looking at this picture again, I was reminded of some others I’d taken while I was waiting for someone at St Kilda beach on my last visit to Melbourne. There’s just something about a large body of water that’s so awe-inspiring.

It seems appropriate, in a post about water, to mention the disasterous flooding that many communities in Queensland are experiencing right now. I’m sure it doesn’t seem like summer to them. There are lots of different avenues for putting a donation towards rescue, sheltering those who’ve evacuated, and rebuilding when the water subsides. But this is a good place to start.

Walking it out

Yesterday I had one of those frustrating days. I woke up tired, with a furrowed brow, and I don’t think either affliction left me all day. My housemate turned the hot water on (twice) just as I put my face under the shower, then he beat me to the washing machine. Neither of these things would normally bother me, but he obviously sensed my irrational annoyance because apologised to me and I found myself feeling irritated that I’d been such a cranky pants*. Then I walked all the way to the train station and realised I’d forgotten my wallet as I went to pay for my train ticket. I had to walk all the way home and then back again, only just making the next train, and only just making it to the class I was teaching at midday.

And it went on like this all day. Practicing yoga myself at home frustrated me because my body was tired and reluctant to hold itself in a headstand or twist too deeply. A cup of tea and a cupcake melted the frustration just a little but not enough that I could concentrate on doing anything useful.

Finally at about 5pm, after a full day of wearing my cranky pants, I decided to go for a walk. Walking to the park I was aware of how heavy my legs felt, annoyed that I still wasn’t better after last week’s sickness. But already the walking-for-the-sake-of-walking was eating away at my irritability. My tired legs managed to carry me past the play equipment and cafe at Sydney Park, and up the hill to my favourite spot. (From the top of this hill you can look one way and see planes flying over the airport, and the other to see the cityscape of Sydney. I’ve spent many hours sitting here by myself, writing or mulling over things. And also some time being photographed doing yoga — this photo is an outtake from that shoot. You can see the tiny white speck of a plane just to the left of my head.)

Off came the shoes. I moved off the path and continued my walk in the grass. Within about three steps my frustration was all but gone.

I often do this barefoot walking in the park. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realise this was what I needed yesterday. Ambling along on the grass has helped me work out countless life/boy/money/writing problems.

I wandered along until I reached a part of the hill that had a view of the man-made lake and I plonked myself down. I sat there and thought about all the things that were frustrating me and was finally able to use that irritable energy to achieve something.

For me, frustration is usually the precursor to a period of action — something that pulls me out of whatever situation is frustrating me in the first place. Of course, I’m only just working this out now — and I’m not always quick on the uptake. Sometimes I have to collapse into a sobbing mess or go flying over the handle bars of my bike before I realise that I need to stop and take a look at the irritability rather than just trying to bury it.

I don’t know what it is about walking that manages to let me both acknowledge the frustration and work through it. And the barefoot thing makes the walking even more powerful. For a while there I was getting an hour’s walk in twice a week, because I was teaching in Marrickville and it took half an hour to wander there and back. I rode my bike each way for a while (until I took a spill), but I realised that I preferred the walk. The walk gave me time to think. And after a while I seemed to save up my most convoluted problems for those walks.

Now that I don’t teach in M’ville anymore, I think I need to make sure I’m still getting my thinking walks. Regularly. Yes, for my mental health, but also for my work. As I wandered yesterday I thought about things in my personal life that are frustrating me, but I also thought through a number of professional issues and some writing problems.

I’ve heard of companies who have their meetings walking around a park. I think they’re onto something.

* Luckily, my housemate is due to go off to Byron for a few days today and so was in a “nothing’s botherin’ me” mood yesterday. I’m not always a grumpy housemate. Promise.