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Today is the first day of July, the midway point of the year. Actually, tomorrow is the pivotal calendar day of the year, day number 183. I wonder which day of my life was the pivotal day, the one marking the midpoint between the cradle and the grave, or the forceps and the stone as Joni so eloquently described it? It’s possible that day has yet to arrive, although more likely it passed long ago. It’s one of those quirky little things that another may one day be able to determine but I myself will never know. Such is life.
There’s something magical about sinking into bed at the end of a long, hard day. The body surrenders, the mind lets go and for a few brief hours all the worries and concerns of the day are allowed to melt away. When I was much younger I used to have difficulty falling asleep, concerned that I might be missing out on something or preoccupied with worries about the coming day. I rarely have such difficulty these days. It’s as though my body knows that once the head hits the pillow, that’s it: whatsoever troubles the mind can wait until morning.
Every so often I get this niggling sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere. I look around me and I wonder is this the life I’d planned? Is this where I’m meant to be? I suppose it’s a function of getting older that, with less time ahead than behind us, questions inevitably arise concerning choices we’ve made and where they’ve taken us. Sometimes I feel I’m covering up for something; papering over the cracks and imperfections of my life to try and hide the fact that deep down inside of me is a deep well of dissatisfaction and regret.
I was trying to finish the report ready to print out for everyone to read and have input into when I felt the room begin to spin. My head had been aching for a couple of hours. I was juggling half a dozen urgent priorities while racing against the clock. So much to do in so little time! So many conversations with so many people Ė doctors, educational psychologists, therapists, attendance advisory personnel, parents, special needs personnel and teachers, not to mention the kids themselves. One day a fortnight simply isnít time enough to it justice! Momentarily, I spun right out.
Iím feeling incredibly tired of late. I seem to be spending every waking moment preoccupied with some urgent or pressing matter. Iím beginning to feel overwhelmed. Itíll pass, no doubt. Itís just that a lot of things have converged. What I need is a good, long sleep. Iíll be glad when Helen and Scott get here and thatís all sorted. Iíve been so focused on ensuring their stay is as easy and trouble free as possible. Iíve done as much as I can now, except book their ticket to the island. I really want them to have the best time.
Itís been a long but fruitful day. I met Helen and Scott at the airport and saw them safely to their hotel. Helen was tired and in pain by the time we arrived but after a sleep, a shower and some food felt and looked a lot better. Scott and I chatted the afternoon away. I think we were both pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed each otherís company. This evening we took them for a stroll through Convent Garden and across Waterloo Bridge to see the Thames, the statues of Antony Gormley bearing silent witness to our stroll.
It was 30 years ago today. I was in my first year of teaching practice at Mansfield Park Primary School in South Australia. Liz, the zany art teacher I was assigned to was excited about it being the 7/7/77. She was having a Sevens party that night. I didnít attend but I remember thinking was a cool idea it was and being seduced by the significance of the date. That was 30 years ago. Today, another generation is being wooed by the magic if Seven. Itís funny how we invest meaning in patterns and numbers. Theyíre just numbers, after all.
Iíve slept more this weekend than I have since I can remember when. I feel wrung out; exhausted. Iím not exactly sure why. Iíve been pretty damned busy, I know that much. I guess I hadnít fully appreciated just how much Iíd overrun my energy reserves. Sitting here gazing out of the window, a glass of wine and some gentle piano music to match my mood, I wish simply to slip away somewhere quiet, still and peaceful, without having to worry about work, or house hunting, or troubled children, or global warming, or parked cars exploding in busy London streets.
What if life is little more than restless energy playing itself out? I remember how Mum once described the lighting of a match as being the cosmic equivalent of a trillion billion solar systems and galaxies coming into being and then burning themselves out. I was a teenager at the time but the analogy has remained with me. If life, the universe and everything can be so vast and so infinitesimally small at the same time then how much smaller and seemingly insignificant are we as individual selves? And if everything was to burn itself out, what would be left?
I remember as a very small child, no more than four or five years old, struggling with the concept of nothingness. I would lie in bed at night and go through the process of eliminating everything in my mind Ė the earth, the sun, the universe, the galaxy Ė everything. It amazes me now to think I could grapple with such concepts at such an early age but the memory is an accurate one. I would reach a point of panic beyond which I could go no further. My mind would snap back, recoiling in horror at the concept of absolute and total nothingness.
I tend to view myself as an optimist. Generally speaking I lean more towards the glass being half full than half empty. That said, I have to confess that the older I get the harder it is to do. Not that Iím prepared to throw in the towel and become a grumpy old man just yet. The day I do will be the day I sell out on life and thatís just not in my nature. Itís just that, looking out on the current state of the world, there sometimes doesnít seem to be a whole lot to cheer about.
If I stand to be corrected further down the track then all well and good, but I canít help feeling that, to date, this has been a bit of a dud year. Which isnít to say that itís been a bad year or that nothing worthwhile has happened or been achieved. Itís just that Iíve not really done much with it. As always I started out in January with the best of intentions. This was going to be the year of reading more, seeing more and doing more. But in truth things seem to have stalled somewhere along the way . . .
Itís complicated. He was my godfather, one of my favourite grownups and one of my parentsí best friends. I was in love with his wife until she died when I was four years old. I was inconsolable. Some time later he married my sister and became my brother-in-law. I then became uncle to his three sons, one of whom went on to be the keyboard player in the worldís most celebrated cover band. Last Saturday my sister emailed me to let me know he had passed away. I hadnít seen him for over thirty years. And now I never will.
You've had the best time. Why am I not surprised? You said you felt like you were at home for the first time in your life. ďWhy did we ever leave?Ē you asked. Iíve asked myself the same question, many times. I guess they thought things would be better over there. Or maybe they were just looking for a new start. I can relate to that. The important thing is that youíve been back and experienced some of what I experience whenever I go back there. Itís a special place, a home away from home. Itís where we came from.
Itís been threatening to rain all day and now finally here it is, a torrential downpour falling from the sky, pounding the dirty streets and sending people scattering for cover. Outside the kitchen window the terrace becomes a pond and everywhere the sound of water echoes; in the swish of car tyres on the wet road, in the gurgling of the drainpipes, in the pitter patter of raindrops on leaves and the drip, drip, drip of water onto a long forgotten plate left outside the bathroom window. Grey clouds rumble, lightening flashes overhead and everything seems to sigh with relief.
In a little over a week I can put work behind me for a while. The annual trip back home provides a much needed circuit breaker to all of the demands of my job. Itís one of the reasons I teach. Itís always been in my nature to seek time out from whatever commitments I may have in life, not in an attempt to avoid them or avoid being responsible, but rather to recharge my batteries so that I can continue to do what I do well; to sit for a while and watch the world go by without me.
It was a simple meal Ė bagels with cheese and thin sliced salmon, a little potato salad and coleslaw washed down with a bottle of champagne. We indulged ourselves with a little Sade and Van Morrison while enjoying the unexpected few hours that your return from France had afforded us. Being together is so easy; so uncomplicated. It wasnít always so. Our shared journey has not always been a smooth one. But the years have brought perspective, depth and appreciation. In an increasingly worrying world itís good to know thereís still a safe harbour where we can seek refuge, called Us.
It takes time to prepare such meetings. Thereís the relevant professionals to invite, schedules to work around, letters to send, phone calls to make, preliminary reading to be done, feedback to be collected, reports to prepare, notices to be posted and rooms to be booked and prepared. Finally the day arrives, as do the various professionals, but from the parents themselves, not a worked, or at best a lame excuse for a last minute cancellation. Donít they care about their kids? Donít they want the best for them? Why such a lack of commitment? Why so little care and concern?
Funny how little we can know about the people with whom we work. Funnier still how a few drinks at the end of a busy term can lower the barriers, loosen the tongue and reveal things we might never have otherwise suspected. You reveal so little about yourself at work. I would never have imagined the burden you carry around with you on a daily basis. Nor had I appreciated how much depth and insight you bring to what you do. Perhaps I should be more observant. Did I underestimate you, or was it your decision to reveal so little?
Waiting in the lobby of the Covent Garden Travelodge after a demanding week at work, it occurs to me that very soon now itís all going to stop. The time for letting go is almost here. All I want to do right now is get on that plane and surrender to a full day and night of having to concern myself with nothing more than deciding what in-flight movie to watch and whether or not to snooze now or later. My brain is full. I canít be bothered taking anything else in. Itís time to switch off and tune out.
What if? What if Iíd spent more time painting? What if I had so completely immersed myself in the process that it had become an overriding, all embracing enterprise around which everything else in my life revolved? Or what if Iíd stuck at the piano? Or writing? Somewhere along the way, teaching took the ascendancy. Certainly, itís something I do well; itís something that has to a greater or lesser degree had an impact on many other people. And I enjoy it! But at the end of the day thereís really very little thatís tangible to show for my efforts.
Itís weird, almost as though thereís an alternative me watching impatiently from the sidelines. I get glimpses of what might have been possible; of opportunities that have slipped by virtually unnoticed and time that has passed, never to be recalled. Then thereís the illusion of permanence. I had a sudden tightening of the chest this morning. It didnít last long, just long enough to be mildly disconcerting. And it occurred to me then that it can just like that. One minute youíre in the bathroom brushing your teeth and picking at spots; the next minute, without any warning, youíre gone.
The rain continues to fall. Youíd never guess it was the height of summer. All over the country entire communities have been deluged as never before. Many are without power or fresh drinking water. Here in London, the view outside the window is calm and poetic. Raindrops cling to the window panes while grey clouds soften and diffuse the summer evening light. The wistful atmosphere belies the drama unfolding for hundreds of thousand to the east and north. In some places the waters have yet to peak. I wonder what weíll do when one day the waters no longer recede.
After it was over I came home and slept. I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes and didn’t stir until Teddy arrived home some three hours later. Undoubtedly the Southern Comfort had a part to play but more that that, for the first time in a long while I was able to simply let go, and it felt good. I’d managed to walk away this afternoon feeling upbeat and positive about the past year. Not only that but for the first time in a long while I’ve had some insight into where I want to take things next.
It was a significant act, one that I decided to follow through on while sitting on the upper deck of the number 24 bus this afternoon. For the first time the will was there. I savoured the thought for a while before actually going ahead with it and when I did I was a little surprised at how easy it was to do. No drama, no feeling of regret, nothing; just so many ones and zeros realigning themselves into something different; into nothing. All that wasted investment of time now unaccounted for and gone forever. Finally, the deed is done.
You climb aboard a plane to travel half way around the world and time becomes strangely suspended. With nothing to do except watch movies, play in-house games and snooze (I gave up trying to read on long haul flights years ago), the only way to mark the passage of time is via the in-flight information screen and meal times. Today I find myself seated between two others next to the exit door. Usually I prefer an aisle seat but at least here I have room to stand up and stretch my legs, while below me the world slips quietly by.
They meet me at the airport. We smile, embrace and load my bags into the car. Animated conversation during the drive home. Unexpectedly, Teddy calls on Toanís mobile phone. Surprise. Delight! I ask how he is. He says not good. I ask whatís wrong. Barely audibly he whispers, ďRikiís dead.Ē
Shock. Disbelief. I repeat his words. The car falls silent. Heís only just found out. They were in France. Theyíd gone boating. He slipped and fell into the river. He couldnít swim. He went under. It took three days to find his body. I can barely believe it.
Iím in shock. The more I try to grapple with it the more it begins to sink in. Riki, our first real friend in London, is dead. Our lives would be very different now if we hadnít met him. He and I were the same age. So many people depended upon him. He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. Much as itís good to be here in Melbourne and to see everyone, his death has overshadowed everything. Itís so utterly senseless, arbitrary, tragic and awful. I know few people who so actively and unselfishly embraced life.
Poor, poor Riki.
Youíre in a bad way. Last night we laughed until we cried but today your tears are of a different nature. I understand. I am no stranger to such debilitating pain and fear of abandonment. We are of a similar ilk. Itís why we connect so effortlessly and so well. You dread that you might never find the mettle or strength to move beyond or rise above it; that it will for evermore hang over you like a sentence. My belief and faith in you is unwavering and steadfast.
I assure you; you are made of tougher stuff than that.
If there is anything to be learnt from Riki’s tragic passing it’s that life is short, friendship precious and love the only thing that makes any real sense. I’m not referring to romantic love specifically, although that obviously has its place. Rather, the love that values people upwards; the love that builds bridges; the love that promotes respect and mutual regard; the love that brings insight and healing; the love that calms, heals and empowers; the love that brings laughter and light into the world. These are the things that matter. The rest is simply so much diversion and distraction.
And so, another month passes. So does another year, for that matter. I turned 48 today. Seeing that number in print, I can’t help but muse over how unimaginable reaching such an age once seemed to me. It would have seemed so old. These days, well, it all just numbers really. For Riki, the journey never got beyond the number 48. For me, I’d like to think it marked a halfway point. Time will tell. In the meantime, I’m feeling a little more upbeat; a little less subdued. If life is a gift then let’s choose to live it well.
The Tip Jar