Back to Bach! A second wind.

August, 2018

I have rarely felt delight in life quite like this, unless it was marrying my Favourite Wife, or the arrival of a child. To have farewelled a dear friend, bound for a distant land, and then to find them again, unexpectedly, and to walk arm in arm once more: this is a pure and bright joy. I feel like a ringing bell, chiming gratitude to all creation. (I am waxing appallingly lyrical – I know it – but read on, and I don’t think you will blame me).

On the table in front of me several pieces of music are spread out, some I’ve just played through in anticipation of an eisteddfod competition coming up. These little black dots, lines, wiggles and squiggles, this universal language little changed over centuries, has suddenly come alive to me again, almost two years after I believed I had put it aside for good. As I wrote in Loosing What you Love early last year, it was a painful trial to reach the end of my life as a very amateur woodwind player; but now I have the unparalleled exhilaration of a second chance.  A month ago I rejoined my former recorder consort, The Treblemakers, and I can once again practice for an hour at a stretch, sometimes more, all because of one little tablet. Just one.  A tiny white pill.

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Midwinter ice!

I am writing at the small table we live around in The Karenvan, our idyl, our holiday home fourteen minutes from our own front door. It’s midwinter, the solstice just days ago, and mornings are white with frost. We came here for an afternoon last week and stayed till 10pm, just to see if our little old caravan, with its slightly newer annex, was liveable in the hibernal dark. With two heaters on high, it can be done!

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The idyllic Karenvan – a summer photo, admittedly.

We have come back again for a few nights, and today we had two of our grandchildren with us, and two of our delightful daughters.  We played tennis this afternoon; although truth be told it was all play and no tennis. “Hit and Giggle” my mother would have called it. But with this new lease on life, a second wind, I rolled around the court with no need of the habitual breathing machine for a good couple of hours. I can now sit with friends or family for an hour or two at a time, sometimes even more, without the NIV apparatus (Non-Invasive Ventilation is the clinically alarming term the respiratory physician uses) that has become de rigueur. I feel better than I have in several years.

Oddly enough this astonishing, almost unbelievable transformation began with an idea of my own. For a long time I’ve taken a particular drug which years ago made a marked improvement to my speaking voice. But it’s a strong medicine; and has the odd effect of making it very hard at times to wake up. Because of this I decided to reduce the dose, with Dr’s oversight, and stop taking the drug.  But when I did my eyesight deteriorated so nauseatingly that I actually threw up. Twice.  It was appalling, but gave me an obvious idea: would increasing the dose improve my vision? So, I proposed this to the GP, and began an incremental increase.  Sure enough my vision soon became significantly better. But I found it disconcertingly weird that a tablet could improve eyesight, so I asked the GP if it made any sense.  The drug acts on nerves, I learned, causing muscles to relax, thus taking longer to fatigue.  How simple is that?

And this gave me another idea. On the next six-weekly visit, I asked if there were other muscle relaxing drugs that we could experiment with. The Dr. was a little cautious, I must say, but I persisted with my proposal and left the surgery with a script.  That was a Friday afternoon, and on Saturday I took the first tablet. It made no difference at all, but the GP had said that it would take a few days. Sunday, nothing. Monday ….. maybe.  Tuesday, I feel rather good.  Wednesday: astonishing.

From early this year my breathing had noticeably worsened.  I became unable to lie down in bed for more than about 5 hours. At the beginning and end of the day small tasks were taking a toll, and I was spending more and more time sitting still to get my breath back.  This symptomatic decline had begun to cast an unwelcome shadow over life, I have to say. I had discussed it with respiratory physician who said that there were palliative medicines that could be used, but I would do better to postpone their use as long as I could. She explained that the word ‘palliative’ only means ‘to alleviate’, but it’s still not a word one wants to hear. But all of that is gone. Gone!

Much of the challenge still remains.  I can’t see so well, and the wheels on my chair are as necessary as ever they were. To date there is nothing new known about my condition, but out of the blue a treatment has been discovered.  I know nothing about the future, how long this treatment will prove effective, what the prognosis was or is: nothing. But my days, which were happily full and satisfying, are abounding with new life and hope. 

fullsizeoutput_86bThe timeless dots on the pages in front of me are begging to be played: they are notated joy, the promise of music, of community, of life.  Also on my table is a beautiful plum wood renaissance instrument which I have just purchased from an oboist in Sweden as I had given my precious recorders away to younger players.  It beckons, and I have to turn back to the dots!

 

Rejoice! 

____________________________________________

Do write, I’d love to hear from you.

Giving the Train a Fighting Chance

Sunday July 1st.

2.15 on a Friday afternoon, and I have boarded the town bus, heading for the station to meet the 3.11 train.  My Favourite Wife and I are spending a weekend in Melbourne; for her it’s mainly Auslan training, for me it’s mainly JS Bach concerts.  Teen Girl is in respite care, which is as painful for us as it is for her, but she always has a good time once she gets there.  This is our first trip together in quite a while; soon we will meet on the station platform, and we will be on our way!
The train leaves at 3.11pm … … precisely … … and waits for no man … … keep that in mind … … 

2.16 pm       The bus goes around a corner, and instantly I’m facing a different part of the bus. This is not as it should be, and I quickly conclude that one wheelchair wheel has not locked properly. On inspection, one brake lever on Bugger (I’m feeling like reviving the old name) seems to push down far too easily. Now, why would that be?  It takes me a moment, as this has never happened before. It’s a flat tyre, the second flat tyre this week. The first flat tyre I’ve ever had on a wheelchair – ever – occurred two days ago, on Wednesday, when I had pneumatic tyres fitted to Bugger.  The mechanic pushed the finished chair out from his workshop, and as I was fitting everything back onto the chair he said, 

“Hang on, somethings not right here” 

and before our eyes one tyre began looking less and less interested in work. 

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Bugger!

This was not a promising start really, as I had been debating the pros and cons of changing to pump-up, pneumatic tyres for several months.  For 8 years I have run solid tyres on my chairs to avoid the possibility of a flat, but I’ve noticed that serious wheelchair people run pneumatic tyres; so with much consideration, and apprehension, I am giving it a go. It takes the mechanic a further two hours to make several attempts to repair the tube, and finally, in defeat, nick one from another wheelchair on the floor.  But back to the present…….

2.28       It has begun to rain, but there is a bus shelter at my stop, and once off the bus I immediately unpack a good deal of my gear to find the toolkit, buried deeply under the seat, and begin to change the tube. Just yesterday I had visited the bike shop and stocked up on tyre levers, a spare tube, puncture repair patches and little pressurised cylinders that take the place of a bulky hand pump for filling tyres. I’ve not changed a bicycle tyre this since I was a kid, but it feels familiar and I am pleasantly surprised how quickly the job is done. A moment to pat my own back and I’m packed and ready to go, if a little wet around the edges.

2.39       Too quick by half, it would seem. I have another flat. I assume I’ve pinched the tube when I was getting the tyre back on. One option is to repair one of the the two punctured tubes, using the rain to locate the hole.  This is a dumb idea: using the rain, as if!  Therefore the only option is to make a dash through the rain to the bike shop, which is so very fortunately located between the bus stop and the train station about a kilometre away. Some more quick unpacking to get the rain cape, as the rain is getting steadily heavier. 

2.41       I’m soaked, despite my usually reliable cape. This rain is now pelting down. Travelling with one flat tyre is not the easiest thing; neither is steering a wheelchair in the rain with treacherously slippery push rims and leather gloves.

2.45       It is now hailing. Heavily. But the hailstones are mercifully small, and do no harm.

2.49       Absurdly, the sun comes out with startling speed, and my first thought is that now nobody will believe me about the hail. 

2.52       I’m in the bike shop!  As a considerable puddle of water emanates from my chair and discarded rain cape I try to sound mater of fact and ask if someone could possibly fix a tyre. I don’t want to beg, but I do mention that the train leaves at 3.11.  This is the very same bike shop I was in yesterday, and the fellow who sold me yesterday’s supplies is amused.  I’m also amused, which worries me because I have noticed that I do tend to find potential disasters energising, and often quite funny.  This is a point at which my Favourite Wife and I differ, considerably. She will have played safe, and been on the platform for quarter of an hour at least, whereas I like to give the train a fighting chance.  

2.56       Two cycle aficionados (aficionadi?)  are debating which of two tube sizes would be more suitable, as my 25” wheelchair rims do not have a corresponding bicycle wheel size.  I knew this already, but I’m not an aficionado. They settle on the one I had, as it happens, asked for. 

2.58       There is a problem. My wheel doesn’t have the tape that usually sits over the ends of the spokes and protects the tube. (I’d actually wondered about this way back at the bus stop, so perhaps I am an aficionado in the making?).  Would Sir like tape with his order?  Well, yes, but the train does leave at 3.11!

3.01       I’ve gone to the front of the rather large shop, paid them for their trouble, and for two more tubes and more little gas cylinders, just in case, but there’s no sign of a wheel yet…  

3.07       I am at the train station, on the platform! 

Honestly, what was all the fuss about?
But where is Favourite Wife?  I’m ringing her phone.
There are several messages from her that I have failed to notice – and do you blame me?
Why won’t she answer?!
But at the very edge of my awareness I hear a little voice. Where is it coming from?  Is it behind me? Is it saying “Maynard, Maynard, Maynard”?
Yes, it is!  This is my 3 year old grandson with his Mum,
and his Grandmama,
and here we go!

Rejoice!

 

Post Script:  Next month I have a far richer, far better, almost miraculous tale to tell …. but not just yet.  I need to be sure. 

Post – Post Script: Two weeks, and my flat tyre count is now four.  Will I persevere?

 

My Ugliest Invention

June 2018

The little SmartDrive motor on the back of my smartdrivewheelchair is superbly good; it is reliable and more powerful than seems possible, but up our hill it will not go. The gradient from the bus stop back to our home in Paradise is a little too steep and a little too long. So this is my solution:  a motorised box full of bricks.

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There is no photogenic good side, this machine is ugly from every perspective.

Ugly, but valuable, which is a lesson in itself. It has no name, it’s just “the thing that pulls the wheelchair up from the bus stop”.  It is a power wheelchair, radically alteredA seat belt connects me to it; and the joy-stick, freed from the restraint of a wheelchair armrest, reaches all the way back to a tray on my lap.  Steering is accomplished not by the joystick as much as by foot pressure on the rear wheels of the ugly thing.

And right now it is very busy indeed.  Teen Girl finishes school this year, and she and I are out on the busses several afternoons each week preparing for the big changes that she will face when adult life kicks in.  My hope is that she will become competent enough to travel by bus on her own by the end of this year, and independent enough to lead a busy and varied life in the year to come. As you may know, Teen Girl has down syndrome, which makes bus travel both a challenge and a delight in some rather unique ways. 

The delight is in the people we meet.  Nothing pleases her more than an opportunity to introduce herself to someone new, and busses are full of people.  One of the bus drivers made the valuable suggestion that she could sit in the front seat where she can talk to the drivers and get to know them. The first time I suggested this she plonked herself right behind the driver, staring at the black glass wall behind his seat.  Needless to say, this didn’t really work.  But when we got it right and sat across the aisle on the next bus she didn’t need any more prompting: there is little in life she likes as much as a good chat, especially with a captive audience.  Richard, like a number of our local drivers, has a warm heart and is always on the look out for people that need a little extra help.  It amazes me that sometimes when I get to a bus stop the driver will be waiting for me at the door with the ramp already out. This happens because the drivers talk to each other on their radio, and they keep track of particular travellers who are out and about, myself included. I have been talking with several of them for some weeks about our plan to see Cassie travelling on her own, and their support is wholehearted.

The challenges are both obvious and hidden. Timetables are always going to be obscure to her I think; but by sheer repetition, week in – week out, we are beginning to get a sense of when the bus leaves. Packing one’s earphones, iPod, drink bottle and purse away before the bus actually stops to let one off is a novel idea; one which is not supported strongly as yet.  One curious challenge has caught me by surprise: when to press the bell to get off.  Teen Girl tends to leave it much too late, until 15 tonnes of bus is barely meters from the stop. This can make a driver swear, no matter how benevolent they were feeling up to that abrupt point.  Or she goes far too early, one or two stops early!  Weeks into our project, including collaboration with willing school teachers on yet more busses, and a sense of spatial awareness is still elusive.  

This is an exciting time, I am thrilled by the possibilities.  My volunteer position at our local Library led to a work experience opportunity being organised for our daughter. Thanks to the wonderful NDIS, a worker was engaged to assist, and for one hour every Friday Teen Girl can be found doing a number of tasks in the Library which, frankly, astound me. I would not have believed she would be capable of shelving books in alphabetical order, but she can; and the staff tell me she is remarkably quick on the uptake of new jobs they give her. Our ‘shifts’ overlap by ten minutes, which is rather nice as she seeks me out for a very warm hello and goodbye. More importantly for her though is another visitor towards the end of her shift: a Companion Dog who comes into the Library for a weekly activity called, “Pat and Chat”. So this lovely, wooly Collie is on hand as a huge reward for a job well done at the end of her hour.  If there is one thing in the world Teen Girl loves more than meeting people, it is meeting dogs.    

So at the end of this rambling yarn I realise it has had little to do with my Ugliest Invention after all, and much to do everyday life in our family. I was going to boast about how I completed the whole ugly contraption, from concept to complete project, in an hour and a half (true), and go into detail about just how the wooden box full of bricks produces necessary traction on the tyres and the technical problem that prevents steering with the joystick (boring). But instead I talked about our cherished, delightful child and the life we share with her, and the amazing way her world and mine, each with its unique challenges, are such a good fit. I have lots of time free to spend with her, and because I no longer drive I know the buses of our town inside out (and I have the ((ugly)) mechanical means of getting up the hill again when we are done!). The way things work out in life is sometimes so beautiful, so intricately dove-tailed, and so abundant, that the phrase “things work out” is just lame! Surely there is a plan and a purpose in all of life.

 

Rejoice!

 

Love to know what you think…

Standing Up for the Sitting Down

May, 2018

A large portion of all conversations that I overhear whilst on a bus concern the apparently limitless ways my fellow passengers are let down, betrayed, cheated, insulted, abused, reviled, vilified and unbelievably wronged! I sometimes wonder just how it’s possible that a single person could attract quite so much hostility and plain bad luck, but evidently it can be achieved.  For myself, I find the world a largely pleasant place, and I have to think hard to recall an instance when someone has been rude to me in public.  But, it can happen.

This is a letter I wrote a while back to a medical practice:

Dear etc etc,

I visited the practice yesterday for the appointment recorded on the card I have attached to this letter: 1pm on the 12th (etc).

Unfortunately the receptionist could not find an appointment on your system.  I did not have the card with me, as I had transferred it to my diary, but I was able to check my diary at the counter, and I knew with virtual certainty that I was there at the right time.

The appointment had been booked a week earlier, on Monday 5th. I had read some paperwork for the procedure at the counter, and the receptionist had made the appointment and then written it onto the attached card.

My reason for writing is not about the apparent loss of an appointment on your system, but the way in which it was handled. At no point did the receptionist I met yesterday offer anything like an apology for the error, the inconvenience, for the portion of my day that had been wasted, or for the fact that another appointment had to be made.  It was a brief conversation, and at one point the receptionist repeated what had already been conveyed quite clearly, and which I had just as clearly understood, saying, “What I am trying to explain to you is that there is no appointment on our system”, as if the issue were not one of software or human error, but somehow lay in my failure to comprehend the problem. 

I use a wheelchair, and just occasionally I feel the need to ‘go in to bat’ for other wheelchair users. I understand the point I want to make here is difficult to defend with evidence, however please bear with me. I spent my adult life up until a few years ago as a normal, ambulant person with a career and so on, and I feel sure that if I had been standing in a shirt and tie at the counter yesterday, rather than using a wheelchair, the conversation would have taken a different course. Impossible to prove, I admit, and I appreciate you may not agree with my comments, but I would ask you to please give them consideration. 

Becoming less-abled has been a revelation to me, and I see the world from a new vantage point. I have observed both myself and other similarly challenged folk treated in the most curious ways. For example, it is absolutely true that a person will sometimes raise their voice considerably (and even lean in to make extra, extra eye contact!) for people in chairs; I have experienced this curious phenomenon many times, very occasionally even with a health care professional. I sometimes sense a probably unconscious assumption that a disabled person is disabled in a global sense, including mobility, hearing, intelligence, independence and who knows what else. I feel I understand this mechanism to some degree, but I believe it is helpful if it can be carefully considered, particularly by healthcare providers.

Thank you for reading my letter, I wish to add that I am very pleased to be a client of your practice.

Yours faithfully, etc etc.

 
fullsizeoutput_845To their great credit,fullsizeoutput_844 the practice took my letter seriously and conveyed in a well written reply the steps they were taking to address my concerns. But I can’t help thinking of the many people who do not have the ability, or perhaps the courage, to put pen to paper and assert their right to courtesy. Though I feel the bus-cohort may be ever so slightly exaggerating their complaints, with their endless affront, and their studied victimhood, and their appalling entitlement; I do think there are people who routinely get short shrift, who endure mild and even malevolent disapproval in their ordinary encounters with the public. Most of these will be people who do not fit. They will be disabled or disfigured, perhaps with a wheelchair, but just as likely an indigenous person or a refugee. It might be young person who doesn’t uphold ‘normal’ standards of presentation.  An old person unable to deal with new fangled speed and complexity. It will be someone who falls short in the power dynamic of everyday interaction, the language of dominion.

This is common cruelty, and we should champion each other when we meet it.  

So next time you see someone on wheels overlooked in a queue for service – exactly why this happens is still a mystery to me – stand up for them!

Rejoice!

 

Do write!

Imperfection

April 2018. (This is a long one, 1243 words! But as a monthly essay perhaps that’s permissible?)

“What do you mean ‘accessible’? All rooms are accessible, aren’t they?” 

I was booking a hotel room recently, and this is, verbatim, what the man on the phone said when I asked for an accessible room. Taken aback, I stammered a reply. Though I don’t recall what I said, I do remember exactly how I felt: I felt cowed, timid, afraid, foolish and apologetic. Why on earth?  He was self-evidently the goose, not me!

The answer lies, I think, in an “acclimatisation to imperfection” that I am negotiating this year. Not that I was ever perfect – my Favourite Wife will vouch for that – but compared to former levels of competence, I’m fast transforming into a nincompoop. I’m so accustomed to making really dumb mistakes that I assumed I was the fool, as usual, not the ignorant hotel clerk unfamiliar with Accessibility.

My incompetency list:

I run my wheelchair into doorjambs. This was once the rarest occurrence, virtually unknown, but with prism lenses my depth perception seems to be all over the place.  As do the doorjambs.

I run my wheelchair into just about anything.  See above.  Except pedestrians – there I have an unblemished record, thankfully.

If it’s liquid, I will spill it. Tea, sauce, paint, milk, ink. I’d like to blame the glasses again, but I fear it’s just escalating clumsiness.

I can’t remember the next one.

Forgetfulness! That’s it.  You know that thing where you go to another room to get something, and can’t remember why you’re there? I can’t remember which room I was going to, or the one I left. I seriously think this is a breathing issue, which sounds like a lame excuse, but I’ve noticed that as soon as breathing is challenged, all mental resources are subverted to solving the air crisis. I’ll soon have to start listing my lists, that’s how many bits of paper I’m carting around.

Stamina.  For a long time I have had help at home every second day – which I’m not sure that I’ve admitted in these pages before. Well, as of March the workers come every day, and for twice as long. Simple things that I have had sole charge of for years while Favourite Wife is at work, things like washing up, hanging out the clothes, folding the washing … they thoroughly beat me.

Bus bungles. With multifocals relegated to the past by worsening vision, I now have one pair of glasses for following the bus route on my phone, and another pair for looking out the window to see where we actually are, and sometimes a magnifying glass to boot. More than one bus trip has been botched by pressing the bell at the wrong time, having then to call out apologetically to the driver to keep going. On one trip I pressed it wrongly twice!  And this in a significantly public arena.

But.
But, but, BUT!

Do not think for one moment that I am complaining or dissatisfied. Not for a second: this year, my 56th, is without skerrick of a doubt the best year I’ve lived. Not long ago our family of 17 traveled the high seas together, and a week before we set sail we purchased The Karenvan, which has given our family the richest summer in years. Life is extraordinarily good, and yet there is more to say.

“One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down.  Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” 

This resonating quote comes from Richard Rohr, in “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life”. In this thoughtful book Rohr contrasts our early life spent seeking and establishing security in all facets: physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and so on; with the tender, relaxed confidence that may be found in the second half of life. But the path to that wondrous state lies in loss more often than gain, and who likes to loose? As Rohr says again,

“We do not want to embark on a further journey if it feels like going down, especially after we have put so much sound and fury into going up.”

In the pages of Rejoice! I have run into a dilemma. Some of my readers, particularly friends from school, family and others of a non-religious persuasion comment that I should lay off the spiritual chit chat.  “Shut up”, put more plainly.  But many readers come from the years we have spent in church life; and for them it’s “more, more!” I can’t stand ‘Bible Bashing’ and find the notion of converting someone to my faith problematic.  But to avoid mention of my spiritual life is simply duplicitous. So, heathen, you have been warned!  Read further at your peril.

The joys of my 56th year are not simply material, not just a matter of travel and peaceful days at the lake. I dare to say that in our home and our broader family you would find many of the serious challenges that ordinary folk face. Our budget is tight and my health precarious; our minds often preoccupied with the cares all parents know well. But I enjoy a degree of contentment so expansive that I find it hard to explain. Like Eric Olthwaite’s mother’s Black Putting which was so black “that even the white bits are black”, the world often seems to me so good that even the bad bits are good.

How can this equation be balanced, where the experience of less feels like so much more? I have no glib answer, but can relate an experience.  We pray in our home; Favourite Wife and I begin most days by lifting up the needs of our household, our family and others we know. I pray too in the ‘secret place’ of solitude, and recently an odd thing happened: my prayer became mostly silent. This was not sudden, it’s evolved over some years.  Gradually I found myself less and less sure how to pray in any specific circumstance.  How do I know what is actually best?  Life teaches you that the thing you long for can turn out to be hollow, and the thing you fear brings more life than seems possible. Who am I to tell God what he ought to do? – which I have certainly spent a fair amount of time doing in the past. Added to that, I became absorbed in two aspects of the Divine which seem overlooked.  Firstly God’s invisibility: it’s patently obvious, and yet scarcely acknowledged. Secondly God’s silence. This is more difficult to concede, and I suspect we suppress the truth. In one sense the voice of God is abundant: copious beauty engulfs the observant, and I have said at times that a person only needs to be still to discover the voice of God. But in another sense God seems utterly removed; silent, absent, and unconcerned with the trivial matters of human urbanity. I don’t think this statement is true, but it seems true.

This is where this essay ends, and where it also becomes a little mystifying. My silent prayer in the presence of God’s silence is the avenue of such grace that I find myself joy-filled in the midst of life’s trials; and abundantly content with things I do not understand.

Rejoice!

 

As you know, I’d love to share your experience…

 

Dearest Library

March, 2018

Dearest Library,

You hold my earliest memories. White rooms with grand high ceilings and so many tall windows, the sunlight so clear that it was obviously meant for reading. And the hush, overseen by librarians who all looked like my great-aunt, a hush so carefully policed because the books needed to be heard. The children’s books were upstairs, up an outside staircase in the days when there were such things. A grand white building in a wide park of grass and Moreton Bay figs. I still go past you now and then, but you are a Library no more.

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“Boronia”, once home of Mosman Library, in an old photograph found online. The outside steps (long since removed) are visible to the right of the unknown walking-workman.  Oddly, I can still feel in my arm how high that banister was to my infant self.

And you were in another building too; a stern, concrete monolith to which we took our high school homework … and our smokes (they, not I!). Smoking in a library, it’s inconceivable, it’s barbaric! … but there were ashtrays.

And you were on campus, an architectural wonder amidst New England stone. Your tomes were mostly beyond me, and I was mostly terrified.

And you saw my children come and go, half a dozen. You nurtured them and showed them a world beyond my reach. What a treat it always was, to take them through your door.

And now my grandchildren visit you too, and their world is bigger yet. Their parents take great joy in you, dear friend. They know you are a sacred space where a certain hush still rests on people, even busy ones. A place where truth and wonder hold their own in a world we grownups know to be less pure.

And I love you too, with older eyes but no less awe. And it brings me great delight to add my own small part to all you do.

Thank you,
Dearest Library.

______________________________________________________________________________________

 

I submitted this to “Love Letter to your Library” on Saint Valentines Day, 14 February 2018, which was celebrated locally as “Love Your Library Day”.  

A highlight of every week is the time I spend as a volunteer in our Library, my task being to prepare new acquisitions for cataloguing. It’s an interesting little job; and I do love being a small part of a talented team working in a very busy public space. There is a ‘bitter pill’ though: somewhat ironically the books themselves are beyond my reach, I can’t read them any more. It’s so tempting to dip into the books on display, and the books that come across “my” desk, but I can’t read much more than a paragraph before poor vision insists I close the cover.  Now and then I find one available as a audio-book, but most remain locked away. The books I do enjoy when they come to be processed are toddler’s Board Books: the very best writers and illustrators manage to capture amazing worlds of thought in so few words.

To contribute, even modestly, is such fulfilling delight. The Librarians always thank me for coming in to help; but I wish they knew that it’s really the other way round.

 

Rejoice!

 

Do throw me a line or two……

Harbourside Dreaming

February, 2018

Twice, as the Manly Ferry approached North Head, the Captain’s voice came through the loud speakers warning of a heavy swell and high winds, urging passengers to be seated and find something to hold onto, and requesting passengers on outside decks to come inside.

Twice!

Obviously it was time to leave my spot inside the ferry, and go out!

South_Steyne_Sydney_Harbour

The grand South Steyne, in her day.

The swell was huge indeed, 6 metres by one report, and winds were peaking at 45km/h on the harbour. The boiling dive and roll of the ferry took me back to my childhood when our father would take us on the Manly Ferry if the seas were high, just for the thrill. The South Steyne was our favourite; the grandest of the old ferries, slightly larger than Cook’s Endeavour, and the largest steam ferry in the world. Today I never visit Sydney without a ferry ride, even if it’s just under the Bridge. Ferries, like trains, are marvellously accessible. The deck hands always want to help me up the gang-plank, but my fabulous chair eats it up and I delight in calling out, “I’ll be right!”

We grew up on the harbour’s edge with the Sydney Foreshores National Park (bigger, I’ve heard, than the world famous Yellowstone National Park) as our back yard. Our street was composed almost entirely of boys, and we could leave home in the morning, disappear into the bush and emerge only on mother’s three blasts of a referee’s whistle that sounded tea time. We knew many tracks that looped and laced one sheltered bay to the next. There were cannons from the 1840s to climb on, old fortifications to explore, even an underground dungeon. The dungeon was perpetually flooded, but we probed the inky black with long sticks; carrying the feeble, flickering torches kids had in the 60s (I can hear so clearly that hopeful ‘smack’ a battery torch needed every few minutes), and gingerly poked our way along wobbly planks and fruit boxes into foetid, dripping, airless chambers, scaring ourselves witless. I imagine it’s extremely child proof these days! We caught fish under harbour wharves, sometimes cooking them straight away on small carpet samples that we soaked in methylated spirits.  No matter what type of fish we caught they always tasted, oddly enough, like metho and burned carpet.

And there was the Zoo.  We knew several ways to get in; the preferred one being through the Bison cage which was quite removed from everything else, and was surrounded by thick, round steel posts and rails, and a back wall that we scaled by climbing a tree.  We climbed easily through the rails, and the Bison seemed disinterested in our barely suppressed fear.  (Although I remember this well, it sounds so improbable that I did a search to see if my memory was deceiving me and found a lively exchange in the Sydney Morning Herald: several locals from the 50s and 60s tell exactly the same story!)  Once we caught an echidna that looked a bit sick, so we took it to the zoo. We had to catch it twice and thrice as well, because it was stronger and more cunning than any cage we could make for it. On weekdays the Zoo opened it’s side gate for early, local pedestrians who were heading down to the ferry, and many trips to the city began with the incomparable views, sights and sounds of Taronga Zoo. What a way to grow up!

The Clifton Street Gang, Christmas 1972

Boys, all of us, from one short street. Photographed by my uncle in 1972.

Our home in my teenage years had a panoramic view of Sydney Harbour from South Head to Rose Bay, and on almost to the Opera House. We were keen students of sea craft, not only reading a ship’s name through binoculars but also identifying it’s nationality and other details from its flags.  I swam in the Harbour most days throughout the year, which is a bracing experience, putting it mildly, as the Tasman Sea drops well below 20 deg C in winter. This spartan ritual was imbibed from family culture, in which certain pursuits such as cold water endurance, handling hot plates without oven mitts and drinking strong, black coffee without sugar were highly esteemed. Merit was rewarded with wordless approval from my beloved grandmother and great-aunt; and I yearned for it.

 

And the Ferries! As children we were sometimes taken below decks by the engineer to look at the shining brass and copper that adorned the massive, white cylinder heads of the great steam engines as they thrummed across the harbour. On your birthday you were allowed to steer the ferry!  Even more implausible than the Bison story, I recall this vividly: the Captain would invite the birthday boy (we were all boys, until one single girl cousin arrived) through the sliding timber door into the small wheelhouse with its wooden stool, brass speaking tube, a boxed compass, the shiny brass throttle, and the giant (to us!) timber ship’s wheel.  We were allowed to sit up on the stool, and while we “had the wheel” the captain would stand right beside us, keeping the general public safe on our birthday. Like the dungeon, this is a tale from a different era … nothing remotely like it happens today I’m sure.

So, while entertaining such rich memories, I made my way to the outside deck. One of the crew held the door open for me, saying, “You’ll get wet out there!”, but he didn’t stop my exploit. There is a particular spot at the top the steps to the bow of the ferry where the handrail turns back on itself making a nicely secure, triangular spot to stand.  Or, in my case, to kneel. All it lacked was a good place to stow my foldable sticks: a dubious asset in such conditions. I had to keep looking back to where I had parked Bugger, (the chair) below me, secured only by it’s brakes, hoping to goodness it wouldn’t roll or tip over …… or worse. If it got as wet as I was getting my electronic breathing machine might well object. Not for the first time I deliberated the fine balance between thrill and irresponsibility, and my hankering to take Bugger where we shouldn’t reasonably go.

SouthSteyne_70s_swell

An old, old photo, apparently from deck of the venerable of the South Steyne herself. My view from the bow looked something like this.

 

And the deck hand was quite right, I did get wet out there.  Ridiculously wet.

 

Exceptionally, memorably, wet.

 

Rejoice!

 

 

 

Always keen to hear from a reader! ………….


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