WEEKEND

Your letter arrived as I was starting work on a record review. It nudged me out of the slightly prosaic place commercial writing seems to have carved out. That sounds negative; maybe it is. After seven years of blogging and two of paid music writing there’s a rhythm, a beat I can call up fairly easily. But there is less ‘me’ in the writing. Eventually we run low on stories, I guess.

But then, unexpectedly, tales reappear (re-mixed and re-issued) and we are gently shaken, perhaps stirred. Quoting back words I’d written years ago in response to your own writing, via the connecting tissue of a sharp-eared listener certainly took me by surprise. Not your generosity and appreciation—those attributes permeate your blogging; indeed, are its heart—rather, reading what I’d written. The urge to create in response was strong and I started writing a notional piece for Lonely Keyboards. Some day we must discuss the exhibitionism of blogging, or perhaps creativity in general, but for now, here is what was written around 10:30pm that night…

We watched War of the Worlds, eating pizza out of the box. Friday evening down time. Greasy fingers and grubby Tom Cruise carrying his daughter around. Shared a bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc (the parents) and leaned into the edge blurring gift of poison. Somehow the end of the world seems less diverting these days. Ms Connection retired soon after the boy, both tired. Tiring times. Scary times, which we ignore by reciting statistics that do not comfort. Noting places worse off than here; higher figures, more deaths. Tom was taking his daughter to Boston, mostly on foot. I thought about my blog friend in the city people say is a little like my own and wondered if I would ever travel again, after all this hiding from an alien virus. Shook myself. There’s a music piece to write for the paying gig, an album I know so well I could write without listening. If the tinnitus continues to worsen, that might be the end point; a bottom-feeding Beethoven. Mood can take a nosedive, unexpectedly. This afternoon I was excited to be making a Click and Collect pickup from a multi-story carpark. Only novel thing this week. The band I’m writing about started in New Zealand, arty and eccentric, and broke through (to commercial success) with easier, catchier songs on their 1980 album. Be simple, be accepted. Wine’s finished. If I have a liqueur it will full-stop the writing, or at least semi-colon it. Tom’s daughter screamed an awful lot. Mrs Fanning, could you ask your daughter to scream please? Wonderful, she has the part. An incoming email distracts. An acknowledgement and expression of gratitude from the Boston fellow-writer I’d been thinking about earlier. Giving back something I wrote six years ago. Do I recognise that person, six years younger and at least six aches fewer? More arty and more articulate? Reflections on the glass being three-quarters empty are a speciality of the house. Yet this is a thing of beauty, appreciation circulating the globe. This is connection, between people shackled yet perhaps not. These are ripples, that spread and touch and seed new life. This is thank you to a deaf universe.

That should be the end, but it isn’t. I’m pasting the words into WordPress and bustling to take a photo of the pizza box because that is all I can think of for the feature image, when the sound of moaning distracts. It’s coming from our bedroom. Ms Connection is the source and she is not good. It’s a carbon copy of an attack that happened earlier this year while we were in the rental and it scared the bejeezus out of me. What to do? We agree to call an ambulance. Two young masked paramedics attend; calm, competent and firm in their recommendation to take a ride to ER. I rush around collecting a few things and bundle her into the van. Hands against the glass I mouth, message me. The paramedic nods; the patient is too distracted to notice.

Waiting up until she is cleared, I settle in to watch a rubbish movie I’ve recorded onto the hard drive. Another DC bullshit superhero story and a part of me is yelling ‘garbage!’ at the screen, but silently so as not to disturb the boy. He got up after the ambulance left, reassured by my calming report but unsettled by the sound of a parent in distress. He goes back to bed, I return to the film. It fills a couple of hours until I can go collect her at 2:30 am.

Saturday was a recovery day, except that I’d booked to collect some plants for the rear decking. We need a screen, more for the neighbours than us, so a shrubbery is called for. Driving out of the contactless carpark, some kids in a nearby vehicle laugh and point. I have a small forest in the car. I grin and wave through the fronds. That afternoon the hard drive with twenty years of family photos dies. The boy’s entire digital life from bump to 180cm, sitting in an inert metal box. Until I can get out and about, there’s no way of knowing whether that pictorial record lives.

He mooches along in lockdown, the boy. Ticking off school work with mature efficiency and a minimum of fuss. He’s amazing, really, though he doesn’t like to hear how much I admire him. Fifteen is an awkward age. But I want to do something with him and wander into his room. The door is open; reading on your bed is a teenage universal, I think. Browse the games on his shelf. Gloom. That sounds eerily appropriate for the world at present. Have we played this? Nup. And he’s had it a year and a half. This afternoon, I say decisively. Yep, he agrees. You read the instructions, and explain it to me. OK.

The game involves each player having a family grouping of odd and macabre characters. The goal is to reduce their self-esteem until they die, with the winner being the one with the lowest self worth. You gain points by having a picnic and lose them when bears attack you. I’m up for this. We’re ready to play, later than expected but keen. Except the atmosphere in the house has changed. Ms Connection’s mother, slowly descending towards the big sleep, has died on the other side of the world. It wasn’t unexpected, but it is a sea change. Something seismic shifts when the second parent dies. The boy and I hover, unable to help but ready and willing to hug. Play the game, she says. We play as she watches from behind the breakfast bar, making dinner. Gloom. The irony is laid on with a shovel. It’s surreal, and we laugh, shaking our heads at each other.

I propose the Simon Pegg film Paul for evening entertainment. It goes down well.

After the others go to bed I want to write, but I’m tired and a little dazed. I remember a poster I saw in a shop back in the mid-seventies.

I try to take one day at a time

But sometimes several days attack me at once

Brushing teeth, I look at the face in the mirror. So conscious of ageing, diminishing; the undertow of depression tugs strongly sometimes. I shake my head at the bald bloke with toothpaste dribbling down his chin. There is this family trio in a warm house; there are friends across town who will be there after lockdown; people to connect with around the world whether you see them or not; a child who replenishes wonder every day. And of course, wine and music.

Looking up through the frosted glass the moon is three-quarter full.

 

ALL THINGS MUST PASS

I’m sitting on the verandah railing of a rambling wooden guest house in hilly Warburton. Rich smells from the surrounding bush push against a pervading odour of serene decay. Once a retreat for Melbourne’s genteel, now ghosts whisper along the wooden balconies and sigh like puffs of dust when morose teenagers throw themselves onto faded sofas.

One of those teenagers is me. Despite the chill in the air, I prefer the verandah to the communal lounge. The dim light and musty carpets of the interior depress me but more importantly, I stand a greater chance of glimpsing Kirsten by lurking on this semi-sheltered thoroughfare. Not that I’ll speak to her if she wanders past. For starters, she’ll be with one or more girls and thus surrounded by an impenetrable field of femaleness that my wistful glances simply fade from like breath on glass.

It is day three of this Year 10 German camp. The time has passed slowly, and quickly. Soon we’ll be packing and taking a bus back to school. And I haven’t managed a single interaction with Kirsten in either Deutsch or English. No wonder I’m morose. No wonder I’m sitting, shivering just a little in the damp Winter air, hoping for one more chance to not talk to a girl who probably hasn’t even noticed my intense, meaningful glances. 

I did try. Yesterday morning I ordered Speck und Spiegelei in a voice loud enough to carry to her end of the table. There was a titter, but I don’t know who. This morning, in an act of heart-tingling bravery, I approach her group and looking more-or-less straight at her, or at least her toast, I said Kafee? with an upward inflection that surely demonstrated my passion. Surely.

Back against the solid verandah upright, one leg is crooked nonchalantly on the ledge while the other dangles over the garden, I’m gazing poetically into the middle distance and wondering how long I can stay in this position. Sounds of my room-mate packing are a reminder of time passing, of opportunities fading. He smuggled in a small transistor and has turned it up a bit louder this morning, reasoning that he can scarcely be sent home early at this stage of proceedings. I reach down into the garden and pluck a daisy. The radio starts playing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, the strummed guitar and plaintive melody fills me with something, but I don’t know what. I really want to see you, really want to be with you. Frowning, I pluck a petal. It takes so long, my Lord. Another petal flutters onto the weathered boards. She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not. Yeah, yeah, yeah. A tiny snowstorm of teardrop shaped petals. Kirsten appears at the end of the verandah, walks the uneven boards to her door, three before mine. She fumbles with the handle, but doesn’t look up. 

Really want to see you, really want to see you.

IMG_7023

The music theme of this post continues at Vinyl Connection

HAT

My father’s hat had a plastic bag over it.

He was from the era when men wore fedoras. This one was olive green with a darker ribbon where brim meets dome. Is there a name for that junction? There should be. The place where the veranda joins the roof. The top part warms, protects, hugs the skull. Lots of headwear does that; it’s the brim that makes it a fedora. Shade for the face, shadow for your expression, an edge to tug briefly in greeting, accompanied by a slight nod (but no smile).

A dark green felt hat, a going-to-work hat. With a plastic bag covering the crown to protect it from dirt, drizzle, passing bird droppings. A raincoat for his hat.

As the plastic aged it became discoloured, tinted like nicotine-stained fingers, matching his right hand. The plastic became creased, less flexible. More set in its accustomed pattern, less able to change or move. 

After he died I removed the dead plastic skin. It disintegrated into flakes of dirty snow. The felt was revealed, untouched by three decades (one of wear, two of wardrobe hibernation). The colour was deep, vivid. At the crown, the creases were neat, well-formed. I pictured his face; sagging skin and the asymmetrical gouges of time. A younger face had worn this hat, maybe the age I was now.

I put it on. It bent my ears like a puppy and I felt myself shrinking like Alice nibbling the mushroom. Just a child wearing his Father’s clothes. A slight shudder as I removed it and put it on the mantle, facing outwards, brim curving over the edge. But it had too much presence and kept drawing my eyes back from the endless jumble of clearing and discarding. Too much of my Father’s silent judgement. 

I put it into one of the garbage bags filled with charity shop clothes and then took it out. Shoved in like that it would get crushed. So when the bag was full and tied, it was placed on top like a fallen monarch’s crown, the olive almost matching the green plastic sack. Unfamiliar without it’s plastic protection yet brimful of memories. Off to be bought for a couple of dollars and a new career adorning another head. But this time exposed to the elements, living a less protected life.

green hat

Feature image: Detail from John Brack’s “Collins St, 5 p.m.” [National Gallery of Victoria] See the painting here

CHANGE

It was nerve-wracking, going it alone.

After twenty-odd years working in university counselling services, leaving the education sector felt huge. A glance at the personal timeline would reveal almost the entire length connected with education in some form or another. Kindergarten through school, several stints at uni, first Student Services jobs, Counselling, lecturing… Who was I if I wasn’t attached to an institution of learning?

It was time to find out, though I didn’t exactly go cold turkey.

Resigning from the University Counselling Service was a much-needed wrench—it was several years since I’d been happy there as micromanagement undermined the excellent work we used to do with, like, the actual students. But I kept the teaching gig at another uni for several more years until the absence of any sense of appreciation or satisfaction ground a resignation out of me.

And that was the point at which I realised I was now, despite the pretensions inherent in my professional title, a small business. A very small business.

So I sent out letters of introduction to a score of doctors in the vicinity of my modest consulting room and waited for the referrals to flow.

Which they did not.

In fact the only General Practitioner who invited me to visit was so odd I concluded she invited me in just to talk to another living soul. After a slightly bizarre conversation, during which she continuously fingered a medallion at her throat and made eye contact precisely zero times, I muttered an excuse about an imminent appointment and beat a clammy retreat. Walking back to the office, I wondered what sort of referral would come from such a practitioner. None did, so I needn’t have worried.

Someone said having a website was important, so I knocked up a basic one using the application that came with my computer. Bought a domain name and waited for clients to ring the number. A couple did, but not many. Was my home-made website just too basic? To impersonal?

A second version followed, where I made myself a little more visible. After all, as a humanistic therapist, it seemed reasonable to offer something with a touch of personality. I even knocked up a list of presenting issues I thought might help overcome the natural reticence about seeking help that we all have. It was an A—Z of issues. Should that be issues with a capital Ish? Don’t know, I rather loathe the word. But I do know that starting with topics I was personally familiar with got me three quarters of the way through the alphabet.

When it was done I was satisfied enough. A few inquirers mentioned it when they rang and I’ve since seen remarkably similar lists on the (much flashier) websites of other psychotherapists, so perhaps it tapped into something, even though what I was really saying was, “We can talk about anything that’s troubling you.”

Anxiety
Behaviour change, including substance issues and gambling
Communication and relationships; Connection; Creativity
Depression
Effecting Change in your life
Family of origin; Feelings
Grief and loss; death and bereavement
Health: chronic health problems; Ageing
Intimacy, Closeness
Jealousy and trust
Knowing yourself better
Life changes, transitions, crises
Mood swings; lowered mood
Not knowing, confusion, lostness
On-going personal development
Perfectionism; Procrastination; Parenting
Questions of meaning (and loss of meaning)
Relationships; Relaxation
Stress; Sexuality
Transitions and ageing; Trauma and recovery
University: adjustment and success; Study and Motivation
Values and priorities; life choices
Work-Life balance; stress
XYZ. . . anything else that feels important!

The practice did build to a satisfactory size, mainly due to former clients seeking me out and a handful of doctors who seemed to like the way I worked (or were convinced by their patients it was worthwhile). I’ve never updated the website, and it shows. That’s fine, I’m not seeking clients. But if I did review the content, I reckon I could reduce it by about 90% and the ‘issues’ list to only one letter.

Based on almost thirty years of practice, this is what it boils down to.

What do people want?

To feel happier; to be deeply heard.

What do you do?

Try to be with the person opposite me as fully and authentically as I can.

Connection and happiness. Is there anything else?